UK Roadtrip Week 2

Day 7 & 8: Cotswolds & Gloucester

Our adventures through the Cotswolds began with rain and occasional pockets of fog permeating the forest floor. The drive was continuously harrowing as one lane roads at time looked like walking paths. Walls of grey stacked stones paralleled the narrow roads as we careened down them at 50 or 60 mph. Based on similar roads in the United States, the speed limits in the UK were much more generous.

Painswick was the first stop. Rain pelted us off and on as we wound our way through clumps of yew trees peppering the church’s yard. Hilly, tight streets wound around decades old homes and businesses with thatched roofs. We drove through Chedworth, another small town that held an ancient Roman villa.

Gloucester cathedral was interesting, free, and full of exhibits and information. It was also a filming spot for Harry Potter!!

During our visit, Gloucester Cathedral was playing host to a choir festival. There was a large semi-professional choir and symphony rehearsing as we toured the cathedral. The harmonies reverberated down the cloisters and into the balconies. Those same hallways were once host to Ron, Harry, Hermione, and the troll in the dungeon. The ambiance was immersive as my memory recalled the different scenes from the movies.

The next stop was the Venice of England, as Hannah coined it. Bourton-on-the-Water was a small, popular town in the Cotswolds with a large canal running through the center. Bricked bridges crossed the water bringing crowds to local candleshops, pubs, and an antique auto museum. Families picnicked beside the waterfront with their dogs. Children splashed in the water “fishing” with nets to keep busy while their parents chatted. The water was not very deep, as there were a few children wading in.

Our next stop was another based on a TV show. Hannah introduced me to BBC’s Father Brown several years ago. The main character, Father Brown, is played by Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley in Harry Potter). The premise of the show is a small-town priest in the Cotswolds who happens to have quite a knack for solving crimes. With his trusty secretary and the local aristocrat making an unlikely trio, they get into all sorts of antics. Father Brown proves to be a far less rigid religious authority figure, but a figure with a depth of understanding about humanity and people. My initial thoughts were “here we go again”, but I quickly dropped my skepticism and fell in love with the show. Blockley is the real-life town holding Sts. Peter and Paul Church, which is St. Mary’s Church in Kembleford, the fictional town in the show. True to form, the church and graveyard were just as they appeared, and the town had its own small charm. It even had a small tribute to the cast and crew and behind the scenes film shots, but none of Mrs M’s world-renowned scones from the show.

The Cotswolds were beautiful and each small township had its own personality and look. One could spend countless days hiking through the green fields and along the short, grey walls to haunt the local pubs or stop off in the different inns. Unfortunately, we only had so much time.

Day 9: Forest of Bowland

The Forest of Bowland is one of three major forested areas surrounding Kendal, our home base for the night. We chose this spot strategically as it was along our route. We tramped through towering fields of pine along cobbled stone paths. With a smile, Hannah sighed, saying, “It takes me right back to Renn-fest!” Renn-fest is short for the Renaissance Festival, an annual medieval festival in Houston, Texas and the location of our first date. While we were not eating pierogis or sharing a turkey leg, the familiar smell of pine took us back to one of our favorite events of each year.

Our Hungry hands clenched sad, soggy wrapped Subway sandwiches as we crested the lookout. It was a sub-par lunch for above par views. The countryside squares of England expanded along rolling hills when not blocked by the tall dense pine forests. The noise of a few overly excited kids punctuated the still afternoon quiet. Cold winds brought a handful of rain drops before we departed.

Our Airbnb hosts in Kendal, Pam and Steven, were wonderful. They had undertaken several longterm cycling trips, with the most recent being across India. Steven also wrote a book titled “Under the Sun: By Bike from Cheshire to Cape Town” chronicling his cycling journey from England to Africa. We enjoyed our talks very much and wish we could have stayed longer but the road beckoned.

Day 10: Lake District

The Lake District is a natural area in the western central side of England. The winding roads had become a common occurrence during the road trip, but nevertheless, they were still stressful. Lakes and green hills rolled by as music played through the radio. We pulled our massive (by UK standards) rental car into a tight parking spot to go take in some nature. As we did, a gentleman on his way out waved me down to hand me his parking voucher that still held 3 hours of parking time. This year abroad continually showed us the generosity of others in the smallest and largest of gestures.

One of the most memorable moments of our Lake District day was Aira Force Waterfall. We joined a steady stream of visitors in a quick 20 minute hike up the waterfall. An old stone bridge crossed the peak.We posted up on a wooden bench along a stretch of empty trail and read our books, mine about the fall of the Ottoman Empire and hers about English nurses during WWII. This was regularly a fun way to spend time. Once we had to hop back in the car, we could share our learnings and realizations with each other from the subjects we were reading.

Day 11: Northern Scotland

The drive from the Lake District to the area around Inverness was quite stressful, if not described better as perilous. One lane roads led to blind curves or topped hills with no apparent way to determine oncoming traffic. After a tense day in the car and a finish at an Airbnb with wonderful accommodations, we slept in.

A quick note on Airbnb, again. This stay was significant and interesting because it involved staying with a family. Normally, we might be in a spare bedroom of a couple renting a room out or a single person, but never a family. The husband, wife, and kids came and went on their daily routine unhindered by strangers moving about. They were interactive, pleasant, and well adjusted. We got along quite well with our hosts and wish we had stayed longer. They were easy to chat with and seemed to enjoy our company, as well.

One of the benefits of Airbnb was the local knowledge that comes with the booking. Our host suggested we take a trip to Findhorn Beach, a point along the northern coast of Scotland. We packed our beach blankets, books, and a snack for the day. After finding a spot on the white, soft sand dunes, the wind quickly reminded me it was not a Gulf Coast beach. I was huddled with a blanket around my shoulders for warmth. I began to notice that the water seemed conspicuously closer to us than it had been previously. Within another 10 minutes, it was up to where we were sitting, signaling a break for lunch.

We ate at the Kimberly Inn, a small scenic pub adjacent to the bay of Findhorn and another suggestion of our host. The fish and chips were delicious as was the Strongbow cider. Feeling full and relaxed, we took in some history next. Findhorn was once a major exporter of Atlantic Salmon to various parts of the world. We learned this after a visit to the local Heritage Center and icehouse where they collected and preserved ice that had run down from the mountains each winter. The narrative stories told of a simpler time.

I stopped to ask the man running the center about a curious sight that I had come across in the city center: railroad tracks leading into the water. He explained it was not for transport but actually served as a training ground for the army engineers to create pontoon bridges for troop transport across large bodies of water. I was surprised and equally excited to hear more, as the book I had been reading about WWI mentioned British pontoon bridges across the Jordan River. The area also bore historical significance because a few miles further down on the coast, the beaches were used as practice landing for Normandy D-Day in WWII. While we could not get to that section of the beach due to rain and time, our host explained that old watchtowers, bunkers, and equipment could still easily be found in the area.

Since many days had been static in a car, we made the healthy choice to go on a run together. Our Airbnb was situated next to Brodie Castle, an aristocratic estate. Our dirty, worn tennis shoes crunched along the white gravel and our heads distractedly turned toward the estate as we slowly made our way down a path. Bright green algae bloom covered the oval pond as 2 grown swans and a cygnet (baby swan) glided along its surface. The trees created the illusion of darkness until we finally emerged into the sunlight on the opposite side of the circuit. How many times in life can you say you jogged on the grounds of a “castle”?

Our final day was spent hiking through Culbin Forest. Tall spindly pine trees walled us in from both sides, but deafening silence among unadulterated nature had a way of freeing one like nothing else could. The forest funneled us out into a sand dune, which opened to a beautiful and empty beach.

As we ambled down the soft sands, the looming threat of heavy rain began to make itself known. Cold drops splattered our heads and arms, but we continued on with the hope that our goal would be met. Further down the beach, a series of what looked like logs all sat out of place among the crashing waves. We had found our objective: wild seals. With my ever careful, constant companion fussing to be safe and not get too close, I crept forward with my camera drawn. One seal in particular sat still and stared at me the entire 30 minutes that we watched them. It was as if he was debating the course of summoning enough energy to shuffle toward the sea or continue pursuing his agenda of lazily basking on the beach. He elected the latter and I was able to photograph him and his colony for a bit before the tide came in and the rain began to intensify. Two and a half miles of hiking later, we jumped soggily into the car.

Day 12:

Loch Ness

The actual beauty of Loch Ness was stunning. It was essentially a long, narrow lake that runs onward for some time. Small stop offs frequented the roadway for visitors to stretch their legs and take the stairs down to the water’s edge. Among all the beautiful lakes and valleys in Scotland, this one gets more attention simply because of the monster that once lived here, but there was nothing remaining of the famous beast, not even a staple or sliver of cardboard.

Day 13: Fort William

I took a long, steep run along the gravel covered cow trails of the Highlands in Fort William. A steady fog rolled across the mountain peaks and mist began to cover my body, which was a lucky cool-down since the hills were so strenuous. With my calves and thighs burning, I finished at our Airbnb, out of breath. After a shower, I greeted a large Great Dane, named Dougal, who was still a puppy and easily stood taller than me when on his back legs. He was definitely the king of the home. Fort William was very hilly, though the downtown was quite accessible and full of restaurants and shops. A large loch stood adjacent to the city, while green mountains rose from almost every side.

One other stop while in Ft. William was the nearby Glenfinnan Viaduct. Some may recognize this as the sight of the Hogwart’s Express journey. There is a real steam train that takes the journey twice per day. We climbed the wet trails leading to the viewpoint about 30 minutes before the train passed. A decent crowd had gotten into position with cameras and cell phones out to capture the magic, and hopefully a flying blue Ford Anglia. With the characteristic steam whistle and smoke billowing behind it, the train quickly chugged past as we were temporarily transported back to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for a few moments.


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