United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - England

Posts and related media in this series (note that links will be added when the associated posts are published):

  1. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Background and Overview

  2. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - England

  3. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Scotland

  4. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Ireland

  5. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Wrap-Up and Miscellaneous Thoughts

  6. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Photo Gallery

  7. Aviator Jeans Travel Story (External Link)

Monday, August 26th and Tuesday, August 27th

Our journey began in the afternoon on Monday, August 26th with a flight from Birmingham to Atlanta and a scheduled connection to Heathrow that would depart Atlanta a little later than 7PM Eastern. Unfortunately, our flight from Birmingham to Atlanta was significantly delayed, resulting in not arriving in Atlanta early enough to reach our gate before it was closed (though the plane was still on the ground, which begs the question of why airlines do not offer better customer service when issues arise, especially when the flight and connection are operated and booked by the same airline, but that is an entirely separate topic). Luckily, there was another flight roughly two hours later, and we were moved to that flight with minimal friction. This meant we would arrive in London roughly two hours later than expected, but since we intentionally kept plans light for the first day it had no significant impact.

Once we arrived in London and made our way through the airport, which was around 11:30AM or so local time if I remember correctly, we identified the correct train to head toward our hotel. We’ll revisit this topic later, but it is worth noting that I initially found everything about determining which train line I needed, where to stop to change trains, and how to determine where I even needed to go a bit overwhelming and confusing at first. Since this was not Emily’s first trip to London I had no need to try to figure it out and simply followed her directions. In retrospect, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the transit system faster than I did (I didn’t really take the time to learn anything about it until our return leg), because once you understand the transit system, everything else about the city makes more sense and is more enjoyable.

Our accommodations for the first night were at the Bankside Hotel (one of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of hotels). We chose the hotel for three primary reasons: proximity to what we wanted to explore and see on the first day, hotel accommodations mean there was a place to drop off luggage even if the room wasn’t ready for us upon our arrival, and we wanted to use points to stay in a really nice hotel for one of our nights anyway.

Entrance to the Bankside Hotel.

After getting settled and taking quick showers, we made our way out of the hotel, walking along the bank of the River Thames, on a meandering path toward Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. Our plan at this point was pretty simple: find coffee, make our way to Tower Bridge, and just explore the area until our allotted time to go to the top of The Shard that evening. After being in an airplane and dealing with travel in general for a fairly long stretch, it was nice just to roam around and not have any set agenda.

I am not entirely certain why Tower Bridge became my favorite landmark in London, or why it captivated me as much as it did as a whole, but as we explored the area I continued to move to glimpse the iconic bridge over and over. Before heading up to the top of The Shard to watch the sun set, we enjoyed a couple of drinks from a couple of different places during our meandering, and ended the day with dinner at The Anchor after we left The Shard (I definitely recommend their fish and chips!).

Looking out from The Shard toward Tower Bridge.

Wednesday, August 28th

We started the day with a trip to Borough Market to try Monmouth Coffee (definitely worth a visit!), and had breakfast at a little place in Southwark called The Table Cafe (also highly recommend!). I do not remember whether we had a specific time for our train to Bristol or if it was just whichever one we hopped on, but we were not rushed to pack and make it to the station. However, we knew we wanted to explore Thornbury Castle a bit once we arrived and we were going to be back in London toward the end of our trip, so it made sense that we did not spend a lot of excess time in London that morning and made our way to Thornbury with plenty of time to explore the castle.

First, a little backstory on Thornbury Castle. From their website:

Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, built the castle during the reign of Henry VIII, though he wasn’t able to enjoy it for long. After being betrayed to the king by a disgruntled servant, Stafford was arrested for high treason and executed on Tower Hill. Henry claimed the castle for himself, spending ten days here while on his honeymoon tour with Anne Boleyn. It remained royal property until the death of his daughter Mary I, when it was returned to the Duke’s descendants.

For two centuries, the castle was unoccupied, falling into ruin. In the 1850s, it was saved and turned into a family home. Its more recent occupants have included the Howards, the Clifford family, Kenneth Bell MBE and the Baron and Baroness of Portlethen.

Nestled in the small town of Thornbury, arriving at the castle felt much like traversing a portal to another world. Although obviously updated in many areas, the look and feel of the estate was exactly what we had in mind when looking for accommodations that did not feel like a hotel within a shell of a historic location. The doors to each chamber still used skeleton keys, the stone walls were exposed everywhere, ivy grew along the exterior walls in many places, and an oddly satisfying touch involved the repurposing of the old bell cords used to summon servants or staff into light switches within the rooms. The only possible knock against the experience would be the rather lackluster supply of hot water, which was entirely expected when considering the feel of the rooms as classic bedchambers was retained while remodeling to include such a modern amenity as indoor plumbing.

We rounded out the evening with dinner and drinks at a local pub (Royal George), which was excellent. I highly recommend their crate of beer food, which included bacon-wrapped sausages and fried macaroni bites.

Thursday, August 29th

After breakfast at the castle Thursday morning, which was absolutely phenomenal, we made our way back to Bristol Temple Meads Station to head to Liverpool and our tour of Anfield before making our way by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. The one aspect of the trip I kind of feel like we missed out on was having more time to explore the city of Liverpool, as the little bit of time we spent roaming around yielded a very friendly and interesting city. Regardless, visiting Anfield was a phenomenal experience that could only be topped by being able to be there on a match day.

We’ll pick back up on Thursday’s events with the next post in the series, starting with our travel from Liverpool Lime Street Station to Edinburgh Waverley Station. For now, we’ll fast forward to landing at Gatwick Airport on Monday, September 2nd, for the return leg of our exploration of London and our return to the United States.

Monday, September 2nd

Our return flight from Dublin to Gatwick was uneventful, and upon arriving back in London (albeit rather late) we made our way to our accommodations for the next two nights: a nice, quiet flat we found on Airbnb (link to the listing). By the time we arrived and unpacked it was late enough to just go on to bed, leading us to our final day of exploration in London.

Tuesday, September 3rd

With one day left to roam, we chose to visit all of the highlights one might expect any tourist to have on their list: Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben (Big Ben was, unfortunately, undergoing major renovations, therefore the clock face itself was the only portion truly visible), meandering along the river to see The London Eye and Whitehall Gardens, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, exploring the British Museum, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, and then returning to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London before making our way to the Victoria Palace Theatre for a showing of Hamilton. Interspersed throughout, of course, were random stops for food and drink, though I would like to specifically call out the Whittard of Chelsea Tea Bar and Pancs Cafe in Covent Garden as two phenomenal places to go that are well worth a visit, especially if you are looking for excellent tea or hot chocolate (Whittard) or something just different enough to eat (Pancs) to truly provide a rememberable experience.

Side note for my friends and former colleagues from Apple: yes, we stopped in the Apple Store at Covent Garden!

While it may seem that I am glossing over the aforementioned exploration as a checklist of sorts, I assure you each and every moment was enjoyable and well worth seeing. In general, there just is not a lot to really say about each location. The experience of being there, of seeing such wonderful architecture and being immersed in the history of the city, is something that provides a very personal and objective experience for each individual. I fully believe it would be an injustice to try to encapsulate those feelings into a post here.

Going back to the topic of the transit system briefly: this was the day I finally took the time to learn what the different train lines were, how to glance at the maps and figure out where I needed to fo, and how the lines related to the city. Once I understood the trains, everything about London suddenly became easier to understand, more enjoyable, and I actually started to get why the city could provide a draw for people to live there. It wasn’t until we were getting to the end of our trip that I actually appreciated what London had to offer. Don’t make my mistake. Understand the transit system and the different zones of the city on the first day of your visit.

Hamilton

Emily chose everything about seeing a show in London, but it really comes as no surprise that the show she very much wanted to see was Hamilton. The Victoria Palace Theatre was the venue for the show, and given my lack of experience with theatres other than the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia, I’ll let others decide how it compares for themselves. I will say I found everything about the experience enjoyable, including the layout of the theatre and ease of getting in and out of the building, and I felt the seats were comfortable enough.

Where the experience truly shines, however, is in the performance itself. I cannot begin to say enough good things about the cast and their performances, or how truly magnificent I found everything about Hamilton to be from the perspective of just watching a show (never mind the excellent writing, choreography, stage design, and mesmerizing range of styles). I have a really hard time deciding whether I think the opening number (Alexander Hamilton)) or My Shot was more captivating, and Right Hand Man is very close on my list.

One thing that I imagine being significantly different between seeing Hamilton in London versus seeing it in a theatre in the United States, though this is merely an assumption, is the raucous, hysterical laughter of the British audience for each of the parts of King George III. To me, the audience involvement, simply by way of reaction, to those portions of the show made them drastically more enjoyable, and something I will definitely always remember.

Whether it is the nature of Hamilton itself, simply the difference between actors on stage versus the screen, or simply having a tie to the story via the shared history of our nation, many portions of the show were highly tempestuous. From a strong sense of motivation to become someone better to the longing of wanting to leave behind a better world for my son, the underlying story of Alexander Hamilton is as apt now as it was during his time.

Wednesday, September 4th

Finally, it was time for us to once again don the trappings of responsibility and begin our trek home. With an early enough flight and rather persistent threats of rain, we didn’t really have time to explore anything else and simply took our time packing and making our way to Heathrow. As soon as we made it to the airport I was ready to be home, though I would have definitely “forgotten” to get on the plane if Jacob had been with us instead of being at home with Emily’s parents.

United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Background and Overview

Normally I am not one to care about celebrating birthdays. I’m good with the “happy birthday” messages and well-wishes and calling it a day. I turned forty this year, though, and Emily decided that meant it was a milestone that should be celebrated in style. I knew she had something planned, but I never imagined the surprise in store for me. Before we delve into the trip itself, I want to provide a little bit of backstory on what made this trip such a huge thing for me, provide a little bit of information on some things I learned preparing for the trip, and provide the high level plan for the trip we mapped out. Part two of the series will start to go through the trip itself (and depending on how long that post gets it may be continued in further posts).

This is what I received in a gift bag for my birthday!

Let’s start with what makes this such a big deal for me: I have always felt a strong desire to relocate to the British Isles without having ever visited. It was, and remains, a dream. There is no rational reason for this desire, or why I have always felt as though the region seems to be calling me home (especially given that I was born and raised in the southeastern United States, so it is a completely manufactured feeling), and yet it is a feeling that has only grown stronger with time. When I pulled the little plane out of the gift bag I was expecting something like Boston, Chicago, or New York… one of the cities Emily and I have talked about wanting to explore together. I immediately teared up when I saw London on the slip of paper. This was it. I was finally getting my chance to see if the region I felt so strongly about would be able to meet the expectations I had manufactured in my imagination and dreams.

Even my wildest expectations were blown away.

Immediately I became anxious. I was anxious about being able to fit in the highlights I felt I needed to see if I only ever managed to get this one trip to the region. I was anxious about being separated from Jacob for so long and by such a distance. I was anxious about everything that needed to be considered and handled prior to the trip in case there were any issues or problems. And yet, I was ridiculously excited.

Over the next couple of weeks we formed a list of “must-see” or “must-do” items, as well as a list of “like to see” or “like to do” items. It became apparent quickly that we would need to travel light to accommodate our list, as we would need to do a lot of travel in the British Isles. We made the decision that we would travel without any checked baggage, taking only what could be carried onto a plane. There are a few items that were purchased that made this significantly easier for me to manage, given that I was going to lose a significant amount of space by carrying my camera equipment (two camera bodies and three lenses, which roughly equated to all of the available space in my “personal item” bag, limiting everything else I would need to take to be able to be packed in a single carry-on that could be stowed in the compartments above the seats on any airplane). I won’t go through all of the items in detail that made this easy to accomplish, but below are links and brief highlights for the things that really made a huge difference in making such light packing for disparate weather conditions, terrain, and needs possible:

  • Allbirds Merino Wool Shoes (link)

  • Aviator Jeans (link)

  • Icebreaker Merino Wool Clothing (link)

  • Xero Hana Canvas Shoes (link)

I elected to invest in a small selection of merino wool clothing items for three reasons: thermal-regulating properties, anti-microbial properties, and weight. This proved to be an invaluable decision, as I was able to rotate three shirts, combined with a couple of different lightweight outer layers, throughout the entire trip without issue. Allowing the shirts to simply air out overnight on a hanger was all that was required to eliminate any odors picked up over the course of the day, and the shirts never felt as though they were unclean. The Allbirds wool runners allowed me to comfortably forego socks when wearing them, meaning I could pack two pairs of wool socks for use with the Xero shoes and perform a similar “airing out” of the pair that was worn when wearing the other pair.

Two pairs of shoes was a necessity simply so that I would not find myself forced to wear shoes that had been soaked through and not had time to dry, given the likelihood of encountering rain during our travels (though this ended up not really being an issue, I did not want to risk ruining my enjoyment of the trip if it had been). As already mentioned, the Allbirds shoes were comfortable without socks, but even more important was the fact that my feet stayed comfortable whether it was hot or cold outside, meaning I knew I could count on them regardless of what the weather conditions were like each day. Similarly, using wool socks with the Xero shoes felt the same, and both pairs of shoes could be flattened pretty easily (and were very lightweight), making it much easier to pack everything into a single carry-on.

Finally, I elected to try a pair of so-called “travel” jeans for this trip, and while these were not necessary I am quite glad that I purchased them (I was looking to replace a pair of worn-out jeans regardless, so these weren’t really driven by the same thoughts as the other items above). The Aviator jeans proved to be extremely comfortable regardless of weather conditions, dried quickly if they did get wet, and and offered some extra flexibility that I was glad to have during the trip (specifically having the hidden pockets allowed me to keep Euros and British Pounds separate easily, and allowed me to keep my wallet and phone more secure when I felt the need). The jeans are so comfortable, in fact, that they have become my preferred pair for everyday wear.

Jesse at Thornbury Castle.

Planning the trip itself actually ended up being fairly simple, though figuring out the logistics of travel and accommodations took a little bit of time. Going into planning, there were a handful of absolutes that formed the basic framework of the trip: explore London, explore Edinburgh, explore some of Ireland’s natural beauty, see Anfield, and see Hamilton. We just had to figure out what it meant to us to “explore” those areas. To get started, we did what any rational traveler might do: we googled things like “London in a day,” “Edinburgh in a day,” and “must-see Scotland, Ireland.” In fairness, Emily had been to London and Dublin before, so there was also some level of experience in what might make for an enjoyable trip. The basic framework became: stay in a castle that feels like a castle, see iconic London locations, explore the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, plan a road trip in Ireland and spend a day exploring the Wild Atlantic Way, see Anfield, and watch Hamilton in London. Although it seemed like a pretty tall order for a nine day trip (might as well be seven when you count the travel on both ends), we managed to hit all of the highlights on our list while also squeezing in a few little extras. Outlined below is the general itinerary of the trip, and in the next post I’ll start with more details of each day’s adventures:

  • Monday, August 26th - Travel

  • Tuesday, August 27th - Arrive in London, explore, stay in the Bankside Hotel (Marriott Autograph Collection)

  • Wednesday, August 28th - Train to Bristol, exploration of and stay at Thornbury Castle

  • Thursday, August 29th - Train to Liverpool, tour Anfield, train to Edinburgh, stay in an apartment with a view of the castle (Airbnb)

  • Friday, August 30th - Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, hike Arthur’s Seat

  • Saturday, August 31st - Fly to Dublin and pick up rental car, Ireland road trip, stay at Connoles Cottage (Airbnb) in County Clare

  • Sunday, September 1st - The Cliffs of Moher and the Wild Atlantic Way

  • Monday, September 2nd - Drive back to Dublin, Guinness Storehouse and general Dublin exploration, fly back to London, stay in a London flat (Airbnb)

  • Tuesday, September 3rd - Explore more of London, watch Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre

  • Wednesday, September 4th - Travel

Posts and related media in this series (note that links will be added when the associated posts are published):

  1. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Background and Overview

  2. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - England

  3. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Scotland

  4. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Ireland

  5. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Wrap-Up and Miscellaneous Thoughts

  6. United Kingdom and Ireland Trip - Photo Gallery

  7. Aviator Jeans Travel Story (External Link)