Farewell UK tour

After 19 months of living in London, Alex and I departed on Tuesday to begin a 5 month journey back to Melbourne via Europe, Russia and Asia. I’m currently writing this from Zadar, Croatia, the second stop on our grand tour. :) But before we started gallivanting across the globe (which I will try to keep you updated on as we go) we did a whirlwind farewell tour of the UK during our last two weeks in the country. There were three key aims of the trip:

  1. To say goodbye to Alex’s UK-based family in Bristol and Mid Wales.
  2. To visit Portmeirion. (I’ve recently become a big fan of The Prisoner.)
  3. To see a handful of other new places before leaving the country.

(It turned out Alex had a fourth purpose too, but this was unbeknownst to me until it was revealed halfway through…!)

Our 11 day itinerary ran:

London – Bristol – Mid Wales – Northern Wales – Liverpool – Manchester – The Cotswolds – Bristol – London

We caught a train on both London-Bristol legs and hired a car for the rest. (The rental company were somewhat surprised – shocked? – that we managed to clock up over 700 miles in 8 days.) Following are some (by no means exhaustive) recommendations for enjoyable things to do and see in the stops that made up our trip.

Bristol

I’m a big fan of Bristol. Having said that, I’m hesitant to recommend it as a destination to travellers because while there are certainly things to do, it perhaps doesn’t have as much touristy appeal as some of the more popular spots in England such as Cambridge, York, etc. But maybe that’s why I like it. As a university town it has a very genuine atmosphere and an unique independent streak that you don’t often find in England’s abundance of carbon copy high street cities.

  • Browse vintage shops and relax in lovely cafes on Gloucester Road: it features the largest number of independent traders on any one road in the UK. (There’s lots of cool street art around here too.)
  • Take a stroll along the Harbourside – No. 1 Harbourside is a cool place for lunch.
  • See what the latest exhibition is at the Arnolfini and/or enjoy coffee and a cake in the cafe.
  • Visit the SS Great Britain, lovingly restored to tell the story of one of the world’s greatest ships.
  • Find Cabot Tower or feed the squirrels at Brandon Hill.
  • Admire the view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
  • Wander around Clifton and enjoy the lovely shops and colourful houses.
  • You can also do some great day trips from Bristol, including Bath and Wells. (Although Bath is worth as much time as you can spare it in its own right.)

Bristol

Mid Wales (and Hereford)

You really need a car to explore Mid Wales but be warned that the roads can be extremely narrow, sometimes single-lane paths (borded by thick, thick hedges) but still two-way passages. There aren’t a lot of cars about but if you do meet one (or a tractor, or a truck) coming the other way one of you needs to reverse until there’s fractionally more space to pull into and let the other vehicle pass. It’s worth it though, because the countryside is beautiful.

  • Browse the 30-odd secondhand bookstores in Hay-on-Wye, including Europe’s largest secondhand bookshop which features a 24-hour honesty bookshop amidst castle ruins.  (While you’re in Hay, pop into Oxfam – you might meet someone we know. ;)
  • Mid Wales and its English neighbour Hereford are dotted with many beautiful little villages, often full of fantastic half-timbered houses. Some good spots to stop off are Ludlow, Kington, Pembridge, Eardisland, Leominister, Dilwyn and Weobley.
  • Also in Hereford: experience real cider and buy bottles from the source on the Cider Route.
  • Even if you’re not an avid bird enthusiast, the Red Kites at Rhayader (pronounced ray-dar) are an impressive sight to see.

Pembridge
Northern Wales

I really enjoyed Northern Wales and could happily have spent a whole leisurely week there. As it was we only had three days but we made the most of them.

  • Go to Portmeirion! Even if you’re not a fan of The Prisoner (which was filmed there) it’s a fascinating place to visit. Essentially a manufactured Italian village, pieces of other buildings were imported for its construction and while it’s very pretty there is a certain surreal aspect to it at the same time. You could do it in half a day but we happily spent a whole day there.
  • Explore Snowdonia National Park and climb the highest mountain in Wales. Or, book a train ticket to the summit in advance if the 5 hour return journey on foot is too daunting.
  • Visit cute towns such as Barmouth (by the sea) or Betws-y-Coed (complete with river, waterfalls and trees).
  • There are lots of castles to explore in Northern Wales. Caernarfon is probably the most famous, but there’s also Harlech amongst others.
  • If you’re in Harlech it’s only a short drive to the Rhaeadr Nantcol Waterfalls… Remember the fourth purpose I mentioned above? Well, it wasn’t planned to be this spot, but it ended up being the place that, after six and a half years together, Alex asked me to marry him! :D (I said yes, of course.)

Portmeirion
Liverpool

After Northern Wales we were so close to Liverpool and Manchester we decided to pay them a visit. In the end I think I actually enjoyed Liverpool more, even though I was expecting it to be the other way around.

  • Wander around Albert Dock, part of an UNESCO a World Heritage site.
  • Check out the Museum of Liverpool. Free to visit, this modern museum provides an excellent history of the people and place of Liverpool. It’s not overwhelmingly big and the exhibits are very well put together – a great place to get an overview of what the city is about.
  • After learning about the Superlambanana at the Museum of Liverpool I really wanted to hunt down the original giant yellow one but we didn’t have time. You will no doubt bump into several of the 125 smaller replicas scattered across the city wherever you go.
  • We also didn’t have time to see the public art installation Another Place, just outside of Liverpool at Crosby Beach, but it sounds fascinating. 100 cast-iron, life-sized figures of the artist Antony Gormley spread out at different positions along the foreshore, alternately covered and revealed depending on the tide.
  • Again, we just didn’t have enough time, but we would have liked to have visited Chester, just a bit over half an hour’s drive from Liverpool. Lots more fantastically English half-timbered houses in Chester.

Liverpool waterfront

Manchester

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Manchester and there are some great things to do there, but I don’t think we got as good an impression of its personality as we did with Liverpool. Still, I did enjoy quite a lot of the things we did there:

  • As it was the second highest rated place on TripAdvisor (after some paintballing company…), the John Rylands Library was the first place we visited. And, it is brilliant. Entry is free, the audio guides are free, you can even borrow implements to further enhance your visit such as mirrors to better examine the ornate ceilings with. The building itself is beautiful and it’s filled with interesting exhibitions including ones which showcase rare and ancient books and manuscripts. Highly recommended.
  • Since we enjoyed the Museum of Liverpool so much we popped in to see the Museum of Manchester, but it’s more like a natural history museum than a city museum. It’s still a cool place to visit though – I particularly liked the unexpected live reptile room where we saw a fantastic chameleon. :D
  • Wandering around we randomly stumbled across the Whim Wham cafe. It feels like a Victorian Gin Palace and on top of their wonderful gin-based offerings they have an excellent range of beers and fantastic (and cheap!) locally-sourced food on offer. We enjoyed a lovely lunch there and I would recommend it to anyone that can’t get enough of those rare but brilliant British independents.
  • My favourite part of Manchester was the Northern Quarter. It’s filled with cool design and vintage shops and cute cafes to rest your weary feet, such as the lovely (and cheap again) Nexus Art Cafe.
  • Unfortunately we arrived shortly before closing, but I would have loved more time to explore the shops and studios of the Manchester Craft and Design Centre.

John Rylands Library

The Cotswolds

On the way back to Bristol from Manchester we stopped off at Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Being inundated by tourists and drizzled on by rain couldn’t spoil the charm of the stream running through the middle of the village or its multiple tea houses proffering cream and afternoon teas, one of which we enjoyed at Mulberries. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, and if you have a car easily combined with a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Bourton-on-the-Water

[more photos]