Veneration for Sherlock Holmes, obsession with Harry Potter, a genetic appreciation for cricket, a coincidental liking for Beatles, academic infatuation with Oxbridge, or merely the fiscal benefits of devalued sterling, I can not single out one attraction that brought us to the UK. Perhaps, all and even more. Given our distinct preferences in tea, cakes and scones, I believe that if offered a choice, each of us in the family would have sketched out separate, incoherent itineraries for this vacation. However, for obvious logistical benefits we agreed to settle for a common one that involved a road-trip around the English land. And although the linearity of our itinerary took us to London, Corduff, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham, and Cambridge, in that order, the vacation in itself unfolded as a series of isolated experiences, some localised in the geography of towns, and others cemented in the grey tarmac of highways.
We had reserved just one day for London, which by any yardstick is insufficient for a wholesome experience. However, driven by our need-to-see instincts and an unflinching reliance on the Google-delivered route decisions on our mobile screens, we mapped out most of central London with an efficient combination of feet, bus and the Tube. In a short span of eight hours, we managed to tick off – Tower Bridge, Thames, Big Ben, Parliament, Trafalgar Square, St Abbey Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, King’s cross station, 221-B Baker St, Abbey Road Studios and Lord’s cricket ground. Of course, we didn’t spend any more time than what was required for the necessary snaps at every location. But this was precisely what we had bargained for, for London. Our excitement and enthusiasm for the vacation primarily laid with the road-trip that was about to follow.
- Sim-card: Internet may not have the answer to life, universe and everything, (which in hindsight it claims to answer), but it does hold answers to most matters of practical concerns. So unless your travel goals align with an who is set to stray away from the internet, media, and other worldly affairs, which by the way is completely understandable, get a sim-card. It’s available in wending-machines at airports, and costs about 10-20£. Also, no identification required which is kind of fishy.
- Foreign currency Travel Card: Many banks like SBI, support a pre-paid travel-card facility. Easy to buy and recharge, this card for most practical purposes serves as a debit card. But lack of name can work to its disadvantage as it is not accepted for certain specific transactions like car-rentals.
- Oyster card: London is one the easiest cities to move around. With a small investment of 5£, oyster card is worth every penny. It’s value lies in the convenience to travel across all public transports, without having to buy individual tickets. Ask Delhi Metro card users, they know.
They drive on the same side.
Technically left and rightfully right, left-lane driving is common to both India and Britain. But unfortunately, this is both, the beginning and the end of what’s common to Indian and British driving. Driving was admittedly the only part I was passionately looking forward to during this vacation. We, in the family, have always been fervent critics of Indian road conditions and traffic, and coming from the city of Indore, I must mention that we had been privy to some of the most bizarre adaptations of road-signals, hand-gestures, lewd language, and skillful maneuvering as accepted substitutes for defined rules. Thus, our excitement was justified and we were thrilled at the novelty of driving freely in a safe-ish rule-based setup. However, owing to our years of experience with Indian traffic, we had developed certain natural instincts like, a proclivity for expressing discomfort by honking horns, carefree lane changing without any indication and a half-cooked knowledge of road-signs which by and large are absent or blatantly ignored on Indian roads. So we bought ourselves a highway-driving book and read to each other the details of signs and signals as we stoked a black Renault Clio on the A1s and M3s of England. Contrary to our initial belief, we were quick to unlearn most of our natural instincts and develop new ones suited for driving in the UK. In our verbal retelling of this vacation, we often summarise our experience by a count of horn-sounds. During the ten days we spent in Britain, we were honked-at on two occasions and we honked at another car just once, a total of three sounds. Contrastingly, in the first two minutes after having deboarded our aircraft at Mumbai, our ears rejoiced to a welcoming music of horns, not outside but inside the airport, and not one but at least ten sounds, as two intra-terminal carts swerved beside our moving platforms. Home!!, we had joyfully exclaimed.
Car rentals are easy, convenient and affordable choice for travelling in Europe. But during season time, most counters will be packed with tourists. Thus it is not a remote possibility that as keys and cars are being dispatched in a quick succession, in the brief window that you get for sealing a deal, while you are explained about the benefits of insurance, risks involved, a circle-of-damage metric, you end up spending money on security deposit, full-cover insurance, drop-charge etc, totalling to an amount that is twice or three times of what you had signed up for online. In my experience, following points are necessary and sufficient for car rental booking
- There are websites which compare prices for different booking agencies. So, estimate the miles you plan to drive, decide on a choice of manual vs auto-transmission and make an online booking. There is seasonal pricing and advance booking is generally advantageous.
- Accepted mode of payment is credit card. And the name on card must match the name of the driver. Exchange rate can applies to security deposit, so you would effectively end up spending some bucks on a deposit that in theory you earn back. Nameless travel-cards and other debit-cards are not accepted. The only other requirement is Driver’s licence which must be in English.
- Insurance and GPS prices are usually hidden on websites, but it is encouraged that you include them in a deal. GPS in particular is a necessity, for venturing into foreign territories.
- Plan your itinerary such that the pickup and drop for your car are at the same location.
- Know your parking spots before you begin the journey. There are private, public, free-on-weekend parking spaces available and simple Google-ing could help you plan your parking spot in advance.
All you need is
love fuel and GPS
AirBnB all the way
Last week, while savouring a traditional Irish breakfast with a friend, we happen to discuss the usual topics of art, philosophy, religion and all the pressing concerns which I am sure we successfully resolved in those two hours. My friend had been on a recent journey to Japan and Indonesia and one of the most fulfilling experiences he had had there was in what he called, the minimalism in representation of void and vacuum in Japanese art. He contrasted it with the European art where he believes, artists are obligated to fill every corner, every spot and every space in their creation, as mandated display of their artistic prowess. I immediately contrasted this with my AirBnB experience at UK. One place in particular, as my friend had reflected all its corners filled-up with, for the lack of a proper word – stuff. Walls, whose colour was concealed behind an array of posters, framed as well as unframed. Curtains, bed covers, duvet, every linen and every cloth in the house shouted of their allegiances to different football clubs. Ceilings had no mercy. A remarkable collection of cricket, rugby and football jerseys was carefully pinned across the width and breadth of ceiling. Shelves were stocked with merchandised products, and bobble-heads from fantasy fandoms of Lord of Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Star Wars. On the other side of spectrum, was our house in Birmingham. With pastel white walls, and beech carpet floor, the living room was naked except for a piano, a couch, a stool and a table. The self-effacing demeanour of the place evidenced that only objects of requirement made their way into this house. A characteristic, my friend now fancies.
We had stayed at a total of six different AirBnBs. While some were professionally operated apartments, others had a warmth and personal touch that a traditional AirBnB experience promised. At one place, we were graciously served home-baked bread and home-made jam for breakfast. But then there were places, where we didn’t have the privilege of meeting our host in person. On one occasion, we had to treasure-hunt our way-in as we were virtually informed of a numeric key to a lock box hidden in the backyard of the house that contained the actual physical keys to our rooms.
- AirBnB is an extremely convenient option and in its current form, works on trust. Reviews are reliable, as are the pictures on the website. The system however is contentiously unsafe as no identification is required at the time of booking. For now, read the reviews, ratings and details of listing, and book in advance. It’s worth it.
Beatles and Liverpool
Historically, the twin cities of Liverpool and Manchester had been the epicentres of Industrial Revolution. And despite their questionable gentrification, they continue to be the powerhouses of football fanaticism and pop culture. Apart from a geographical convenience of a layover en route to Scotland, we made pilgrimage to Liverpool for its significance in the life of the Beatles. Fortuitously enough, a Beatles music-festival was scheduled for the following week and we had adjusted our plans to get a fleeting glimpse of the upcoming concerts in the miniaturised pre-concert events at the Cavern Pub. As a line-up of local bands performed on-stage, we shook a leg and sang with the chorus of some classic numbers like She Loves You and It’s a hard day’s night.
The hill station of Edinburgh
When I think Hill Stations, I often picture a mall-road. A conglomeration of shops, tea stalls and restaurants stretched on one side of a narrow street overlooking a green park or valley. Widen the streets, modernise the shops and scale everything up by a factor of three, that was Edinburgh’s Princess street. Not just this street, the low lying clouds, market, and types of tourist attractions, all put together the air in Edinburgh was reminiscent of a hill station, matching the template I had formed from my travels in India. Again, our timing synced the onset of a festival, Fringe!. So we skinned into spectator roles for the evening and enjoyed some stand-up and street performances.
Birmingham, Leeds and the failed attempts at Cricket stadiums
Frankly, our shortsighted perspectives about Leeds and Birmingham were limited to their cricket stadiums. But cricket stadiums were the unsolved mysteries of our vacation as all our futile attempts for a view of a pitch, failed, and regretfully so. I must clarify that the previous mention of Lords stadium in passing, was incomplete in the sense that we never made it to the inside. While some were closed for public because of ongoing games, others were busy preparing the pitch for scheduled ODIs.
A few trails off the beaten path
A car key, as it turned out, had other uses than unlocking a door. With a car at our disposal, we had the flexibility of moving at will. We exploited this freedom. The scenic beauty of highlands was overwhelming and consequently, so was the drive. We grabbed most opportunities to meandered to narrow trails to drink coffee, or hike or merely enjoy a coastal drive. Some towns called for longer stops, like the birthplace of Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Cadbury’s very own town, Bournville.
Harry Potter. Yes, the conspicuous presence of the wizarding world in shops and bookstores, makes it a hard miss. For instance, the platform 9 ¾ on King’s cross, where muggles queue up for a shot at pushing a cart through the brick wall. Two persons are professionally employed for entertaining these muggles. As one lifts a Gryffindor scarf into air, other times a photograph, creating an illusion that the cart-pusher is in fact running into the platform when the snap was clicked. It is magical. Harry Potter had been in the back of our minds, and we were keen for some tangible association with potter world, while at Britain. Again, the car key proved useful. With the gift of time, we submitted ourselves to some last-minute planning and traveled to Durham and Alnwick Castle which had served as Hogwarts during the filming of Harry Potter movies.
Cambridge & Oxford
Having studied in Cambridge for over an year, I didn’t just have a list of tourist attractions or things-to-do, I had opinions about this place. But with a pompous disregard of the involved risks, I rattled incessantly as we charted the cobblestoned pathways of this university town. I spoke at length about Cambridge quirks and eccentricities, its garden parties and formal dinners, the varsity games, may balls and bops, pimms and may bumps, and Latin ceremonies, and Newton’s notes, Galileo’s star maps and on and on and on. Of the many things that I was so eager to share and explain, I was specifically interested in punting on river Cam. To our delight the weather was perfect and thanks to a dear friend’s membership in Darwin Punt society, we had to our luxury a black-and-red five seater punt, Isabelle. We zigzagged forward, backward, and at every imaginable angle, until eventually we succeeded in punting along the backside of Cambridge collegiate, beneath Queen’s Mathematical bridge, behind King’s and Trinity’ lawns and further down to the bridge of sighs of St. John’s.
Oxford was a hastened visit. Not because of any unmitigated, unbridled and misplaced aversion I felt towards the place, but the mere redundancy of seeing more green courtyards and the practicality of time. During the brief three hours, we had spared for Oxford, we could only manage a cursory glance at its buildings.
The overall highlight I believe was how remarkably car rental coupled with AirBnB, as all we ever did was feed post-codes into the GPS. Every A-to-B planning and its accompanied hassle of national bus, rail and taxi bookings collapsed to one tap on a touch screen.