England: Three Weeks in May 2015


England Three Week Itinerary

DayDaytimeSleep
1Arrive London from USLondon
2LondonLondon
3LondonLondon
4LondonLondon
5Train to BathBath
6BathBath
7Day trip - Cotswolds tourBath
8Day trip - BristolBath
9Train to London, then train to CambridgeCambridge
10CambridgeCambridge
11CambridgeCambridge
12Day trip - ElyCambridge
13Train to YorkYork
14Day trip - North York Moors tourYork
15YorkYork
16YorkYork
17Train to WindermereWindermere
18Lake DistrictWindermere
19Lake DistrictWindermere
20Train to LondonLondon
21LondonLondon
22Day trip - BrightonLondon
23LondonLondon
24LondonLondon
25Fly out of U.K.

England Highlights

Timing

May is a great time to visit England, with fewer crowds than summer. The countryside is green and lush, with carpets of bluebells and wild garlic and baby birds paddling in the streams.

Transportation

Airport Info: In the U.K., gouging tourists starts at the airport ATMs. I skipped getting cash from an ATM at Heathrow due to the exorbitant fees and poor exchange rates and waited until I got into town. Luckily, you can pay for an Oyster card with a credit card so having cash right away is not essential.

Getting Around: I purchased an Oyster card at Heathrow with my U.S. credit card and added £50 in credit. The machine did not accept my non-chip-and-PIN card, but I was able to use it to pay without an issue at the ticket window. When I left the country, I retrieved a refund of the entire amount left on the Oyster card using the machine.

I used trains to get around England and booked all my tickets in advance. This proved to be complicated since the U.K. is covered by a patchwork of private rail networks. Each reservation required creating a login to a different site and mastering its quirks regarding booking and payment. Note that you generally get the best deals by booking as far in advance as possible, usually 12 weeks out. Once in the U.K. I picked the tickets up at a machine at London Victoria using the confirmation codes and the credit card used to pay for them.

Accommodation

Airbnb in York. Like staying with a favorite relative.

Airbnb in York. Like staying with a favorite relative.

I stayed in private rooms using Airbnb for the entire trip, for an average cost of £25 per night. This was much better value than I would’ve gotten in a hostel, and had the side benefit of allowing me to meet the friendly locals who were my hosts. As you might expect, you get much more bang for the pound outside London, with private baths and breakfast sometimes included.

SIM card and apps

Upon arrival in Brixton, the location for my London Airbnb, I withdrew pounds from a bank ATM. Note that bank ATMs in the U.K. don’t charge fees. Next, I went to Carphone Warehouse, a ubiquitous discount mobile phone store, and purchased an O2 SIM with a month’s worth of voice, text, and data for £15. I topped up another £10 a couple of weeks later when the data ran out; this also gave me enough credit to continue using the phone after the month ended.

After I moved on to the continent from the U.K., I continued using the same SIM; I just turned off data roaming on my phone as it’s very expensive, and used it for voice and text only.

Apps I found invaluable:

  • Citymapper London. Takes all the stress out of navigating around London. Even makes bus travel easy as it tracks the bus’s progress and notifies you when it’s time to get off. Includes information on planned closures and reroutes you automatically.
  • National Rail Enquiries. Look up real-time train timetables and platform info. Get alerts on your planned journeys.

London

Millennium Bridge from Tate Gallery, London

Millennium Bridge from Tate Gallery, London

Highlights of my London visit included checking out the city’s newer additions like the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, and the Olympic Park at Stratford. I also spent a beautiful day visiting Kew Gardens and walking the Thames Path from Kew to Richmond, a picturesque stroll of about an hour.
Thames Path to Richmond from Kew

Thames Path to Richmond from Kew

Bath

View of Bath from Prior Park Landscape Garden

View of Bath from Prior Park Landscape Garden

I visited Bath mid-week, which was good timing since it gets very crowded on weekends.

My favorite activity in Bath was visiting Prior Park Landscape Garden, designed in the 18th century by the poet Alexander Pope. The tourist information office advised me to take the bus there since it’s a steep walk uphill. I took bus #1 from the bus station (£2.20 paid directly to the driver; about a 10 minute ride). On a sunny Tuesday afternoon I virtually had the place to myself. The garden is lush and beautiful, with multiple stunning vistas. The woman at the ticket office explained to me where the alternative exit was to walk back to Bath. It’s an easy walk downhill through Widcombe, a pretty village.
Prior Park Landscape Garden

Prior Park Landscape Garden

Cygnets, Prior Park Landscape Garden

Cygnets, Prior Park Landscape Garden

From Bath I also took a day tour to the Cotswolds, since they are difficult to reach with public transport. It was interesting to get an impression of the area but the tour of necessity felt a little superficial, since the Cotswolds are quite spread out and we covered a lot of ground. Most of the tour consisted of stops in picturesque villages straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting, where our group would pile out of the van for 15 minutes, take the obligatory snapshots, and then pile back in to the next stop and repeat.

I also took the train to Bristol for a day from Bath. It was absolutely pouring so I spent most of the day in museums. Due to the weather I didn’t get to explore Bristol as much as I would’ve liked and had to skip interesting sights like the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Cambridge

St John's College, Cambridge

St John’s College, Cambridge

From Bath I caught the train back to London Paddington, jumped on the Tube to King’s Cross, and caught another train to Cambridge. My Tube fare was included in the price of the train ticket since it was considered a transfer.

My first afternoon in Cambridge I took advantage of the lovely weather and signed up for a chauffeured punting tour. Punting is the best way to see the legendary views of the colleges’ backs, and the tour turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Punting chaos in Cambridge

Punting chaos in Cambridge

My last day I did a day trip to Ely, which features a magnificent cathedral and seems like a charming little town. Unfortunately, it was pouring yet again and so my ability to explore outdoors was limited.

York

View from the Roman walls, York

View from the Roman walls, York

From Cambridge I took three different trains to get to York in about two and a half hours. York has enough sights to easily fill two or three days. A highlight for me was wandering the old Roman walls that surround the city.

View of the Minster from the Roman walls, York

View of the Minster from the Roman walls, York

I also took an excellent tour of the North York Moors with BOB Holidays. The pace was relaxed with plenty of time to explore on our own. Our group was small and friendly and it was a great opportunity to explore the villages and landscapes of North Yorkshire with a local guide.
North York Moors

North York Moors

Windermere

From York it was another three trains for a total journey of about four hours to reach Windermere in the Lake District. I chose to stay in Windermere since it’s one of the few towns in the Lake District accessible by rail. Windermere itself is not that exciting but makes a good base. The tourist office by the train station has local walking route descriptions for sale.

School Knott Tarn walk, Windermere

School Knott Tarn walk, Windermere

To explore the rest of the Lake District, I recommend the bus/boat combination ticket. I did several short walks in the countryside in Ambleside and Grasmere that I found described on the Internet. The area around Grasmere was particularly lovely. I got lucky during my three days in the notoriously rainy Lake District as only one day was drizzly.

Walk near Grasmere

Walk near Grasmere

London

From Windermere it took a couple of trains and about three and a half hours to get back to London. Luckily, a planned rail strike was called off that would have forced me to take the bus, taking more than twice as long.

From London I did a day trip to Brighton. If you book in advance at certain off-peak times you can get one-way fares for only £5. Brighton makes a perfect outing but is very popular and crowded.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Royal Pavilion, Brighton


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