Tips for the Traveler to GB
No Frills, No Thrills
Traveling to Great Britain means flying. The airlines are hard-pressed these days, what with the cost of jet fuel, so they are offering fewer and worse amenities. I flew US Airways from Indy to Philly, then direct to Glasgow. The transatlantic flight was on a 757, which is the dinkiest plane I've ever crossed the ocean in. We were jammed in like sardines. Not that long-distance flying in coach has ever been comfortable, but this airline made the expected "aerial steerage" crossing into a jet-age "Middle Passage."
Still and all, they got me there and back again. Even with all the security stuff we go through nowadays, the ability to just jump on a plane and wake up the next morning halfway around the world is positively amazing. The airline personnel were all courteous, even when frazzled; the airport security people were, too. Kudos to Orbitz for sending me an e-mail reminder before going, full of important stuff -- and to calling my wife when my plane from Philly back to Indy was going to be delayed.
Shedding Pounds Effortlessly
You've really got to watch your spending over there. Consumer goods are horrifically expensive in Britain. For most items, you could just switch the dollar sign for the pound sign, and the numbers would remain the same. Which doesn't sound bad, until you realize that the pound is worth more than twice what the dollar is, so that £1.50 Diet Coke is three bucks and more. We complain about gasoline over here (now nosing around $4.00 at the pump), but over yonder, it's about £1.15 per litre – which figures out to about nine-fifty per gallon in good old greenbacks.
It's not all pricey gloom and doom, of course. Restaurant meals cost about what you'd expect to pay here, once you convert pounds to dollars in your head. And supermarket wares (food and household items) are actually cheaper than here, so buying fresh food and cooking it in your own little camp is very much the way to go.
I figured I would spend the equivalent of about $100 per day to eat, drive, camp, and tour. I took $1200 in cash for a nine-day trip, just to have extra. When I converted my leftover pounds to dollars on the way back, I discovered I had spent almost exactly $900, or $100/day. If you're into souvenirs or if you expect to stay in B&Bs or something, take more. A lot more.
Dealing with People and Facilities
The people of Great Britain are very friendly and helpful. They are almost always a delight to be with. They take an interest in what you are doing over in their backyard, and politely inquire about America. Indeed, they will cheerfully discuss all manner of things with you.
Just be aware that the only response a Scot wants to hear when discussing Scotland is effusive praise. The Scots are all very proud of their country (as they should be), but just a wee bit defensive on its behalf. The English, on the other hand, love their country, too, but don't feel the need to engage in boosterism all the time. But then, the English are a far more diverse lot, who feel free to love England while confiding dark doubts about many of their fellow Englishmen. Just ask a Cumbrian about the Welsh, or a Northerner about Londoners, etc. (Yeah, I know that the Welsh aren't "English" – but just work with me here, huh?)
Dining customs are rather different from America. In many pubs and restaurants, one is expected to order at the bar. Sometimes, one is expected to pick up one's own food at the bar, too, including drinks. This is very strange to me, since in many places in America, it is/was illegal to move your drink from table to table -- a law intended to keep people in their seats, and cut down on bar fights. In sit-down restaurants with tableside service, said service is likely to be maddenly slow by American standards, though always delivered with cheery apologies.
The one great thing about the UK, which makes it a wonderful place for travelers (especially middle-aged men), is the profusion of public toilets. They are ubiquitous – and clean! Every village and town has at least one public toilet, with a sign on the street to point the way to it. Many businesses (besides petrol stations) also have facilities that are open to the public.
Driving You Mad
It goes without saying that whoever designed the British highway system was more than a little eccentric (and the fellow they let do the Scottish lowlands was positively demented).
I didn't have the same amount of difficulty adjusting to driving on the left this time around. It helped that I rented a smaller car. This is important, because British roads are much narrower than American ones. My perception is that even the lanes on the roads are narrower than we're used to. And there are no shoulders; indeed, in many places the road is overhung by hedgerows or there is a stone wall marching right alongside the pavement. So meeting a truck or a bus on these roads can be an adventure.
The British have an aversion to four-way intersections. They much prefer roundabouts, even tiny ones which only require one to wiggle a bit in order to go straight. At major waymeetings, roundabouts can require one to decipher a sign with as many as six different roads shooting off from a multi-lane, circular path, and unerringly choose the correct lane to be in to swerve off at the appropriate opening for one's route.
If you wonder if you've actually chosen the correct road shooting off the roundabout, be aware that there are NO ROUTE NUMBERS posted on the highways. Each roundabout shows the highway numbers for the connections, but once you're actually on a road, you are committed to following it until you reach another roundabout, which will tell you (by inference) whether you have been on the desired highway or not.
Another peculiarity is that there are speed cameras all over the place, but no posted speed limits, except in areas of road work and in villages. So, you'll see a sign that says SLOW, but doesn't necessarily tell you how slow. At one point, I saw a warning sign, in lights, that said, "Observe Speed Limit," but never told me what that limit actually was. I observed that most drivers on an open road wanted to go about 55-60 mph, with a few in a bigger hurry. I could relate to that, and just kept up with the middle of the herd.
Parking is another problem. There isn't any where'd you'd expect it. There are car parks, of course – almost all of which cost money. The machines don't give change, but then, you tend to accumulate a lot of change in the UK, since there is no pound note, only a pound coin. In the older towns and cities, car parks are difficult to find and get into, like Washington, DC, but worse. Edinburgh was a particular pain to find a place to park in. This is probably related to the fact that most English and Scottish towns had their layouts fixed long before the invention of the motor car, so parking has always been an afterthought.
Finally, remember that your American car insurance doesn't travel with you, so the cost of your rental is only the beginning of what hiring a car will set you back. My daily rate for my little Peugeot was about £13 and some, but insurance was £16 and a bit – so the total was around £30 a day, or about 75 bucks. Ouch.
Packing for the Journey
Figuring out what to take and what to leave behind is a major big deal. After years of packing for one kind of trip or another, I find that there is always something I wished I'd brought but didn't, and always something that I brought and didn't use. You learn to just cope after a while. On this particular trip, I took two pairs of shorts and one pair of long pants, which would have worked out better the other way around.
Weather tends to be cool and rainy all the time. I had mostly fair weather, though with a cold wind the first few days. In fact, they were all marveling at how nice the weather had been (and darkly predicting that it wouldn't last).
I took a backpacking tent, sleeping bag and pad. I took the stove that I bought in Scotland three years ago (sans camp fuel), because I knew I could get the proper fuel for it over there. I took a small coffee pot to cook with, some salt and pepper, and plenty of instant oatmeal, Atkins bars, and some pre-cooked bacon. The trail food enabled me to survive the first day or so until I could go shopping; it also powered me up the mountains. I also packed a cooler, or rather, used a cooler as my second piece of luggage.
Camping is the way to go, in my opinion. I stayed at several Boy Scout camps, which were very inexpensive (when the locals didn't just out-and-out refuse to let me pay). I also stayed in some commercial campgrounds. All were clean and well-equipped, and the other campers (with only one exception) courteous and quiet after hours.
Non Disputandem De Gustibus
I like British food. I avoid McDonald's even over here, and I see no point in ordering Tex-Mex in a Scottish pub. Give me fish and chips or bangers and mash any day. Besides, what's the point of going to new and interesting places if you don't also eat new and interesting things?
Still, some British tastes take a little getting used to. I have so far avoided black pudding, though I find I quite like haggis. They are great seafood eaters, too, of course, but prawns – or prawn flavoring – gets into everything, including potato chips (crisps). For that matter, crisps come in a weird variety of flavors, unlike anything you could ever sell in America: like, steak and potato, oriental ribs, prawns, shrimp cocktail, chili peppers, and (shudder) marmite. I avoided the odder flavored crisps and stuck to my old favorite, salt and vinegar. I also note, with sadness, that in the home of Real Ale, most pubs are selling crap like Foster's and Miller Lite, and it isn't just the tourists who are drinking it.
Well, enough about the preliminaries. On to the adventures!
|Peugeuot is French for Pregnant Roller Skate
All that's missing is the wind-up key
|Motto of the Scots Monarchy, Edinburgh Castle
Nemo me impune lacessit = Latin for "Nobody talks trash about me"