TABLE OF CONTENTS
ummer 2017 was quite the vacation. Two of my good friends and I planned to take a trip to Europe starting in Iceland and Norway. Being teachers, they had the summer off and planned to travel from country to country afterour Scandinavian adventure. I on the other hand was allotted three weeks of total travel time, so I committed to two weeks with them, and then a week solo in England.
Little did I know, the last leg of my vacation would not be spent alone, but instead I would be joined by a new love interest of mine [spoiler... I was lucky enough to marry this love interest 1.5 years later!]. Ash and I had been dating for a couple months, and when they heard that I would be breaking from the group at the end of week two, they proposed the idea of flying out to meet me in London. I will never forget this moment of complete joy as we walked from our house in South Minneapolis over to Tiny Diner for breakfast. I was ecstatic at the thought that Ash wanted to leave the country to spend time with me overseas- especially for their first time across the pond. We excitedly chatted about initial plans through breakfast, and as we finished our meal, my brain went from beginning stage planning mode to all out nothing-can-stop me arranging.
*Now to break slightly from the story, if anyone knows me they will agree with the following statements: I am organized; I am detailed, and I am extremely stubborn. When I write that I fell into the "nothing-can-stop me arranging" mode, I really mean it. When I plan for a trip, I start by breaking down the country into regions or counties. I research and create google documents that list each county, along with 10-20 different things you can do there, and support it with photographs and links. I then decide which things sound most appealing and plot them onto a map. Using the map as a visual, I began to create a trip itinerary (keeping in mind the length of time I have in that country). Lastly, I create an incredibly detailed itinerary that includes everything from where we will be staying, what we could do
each day, and roughly how much money we will end up spending. I will work on a document like this every night until I feel it has fully captured what we want to do. Some people look at my process and think, "What fun is it if you plan everything ahead of time?" This way of planning isn't for everyone, and I understand that. But I like to know my options before going to a country to have an understanding of what exactly I CAN do. I would hate to miss something that I didn't learn about until after the vacation had ended, and I still leave some days open for options to choose from.*
My two friends and I left Minnesota for Iceland on July 16, 2017 and spent a fun four days there exploring Reykjavik, walking under waterfalls, and snorkeling the tectonic divide. When we left Iceland for Norway, I began to feel off, and by the time we landed in Oslo I had a full blown illness. For the next few days, and few cities, I was either on medication or bed-ridden. Luckily Norway has strong over-the-counter medicine and very helpful pharmacists, so by the time I left Bergen to fly to London I was just about healed.
On July 27, 2017 Ash's plane arrived at the Heathrow airport, and mine closely followed. Ash spotted me first, and to this day still mentions that I looked queerer than ever in my hiking boots and flannel shirt. It was so good to see their face and wrap my arms around them- 10 days is quite a while to be without your hunny. We grabbed two coffees and headed out to the train that would take us to London.
By the time we arrived at our AirBnb, a small studio located near Hyde Park, we were exhausted so we grabbed a bite to eat and called it a night. We saved our sight-seeing for the following day when we took the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour of London. The bus picked us up near our AirBnb, and would drop us at different spots all around the city. It was incredible to experience London as we walked among millions of different people. The architecture was a mix of new business district and old world stone: Shops and invited us in with their appealing store fronts; cozy interiors showed through the windows of every pub we walked by; small alleyways opened into hidden markets; and now matter where we drifted to, we were always able to re-orient ourselves using the River Thames. We were able to see so much of the city in one day, but knew that we would have another day to explore on the final leg of our trip, so we went back to the AirBnb, cleaned up, and headed to the Soho district where we ate a fantastic meal and went dancing til the wee hours at local queer bar in the heart of the district. (Click #1 on the interactive map to hear about our London adventures in greater detail! [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
Train to London
The train is easy to take- buy your ticket at the airport and you will be in London in no time!
Hop-on Hop-off Tour
You can find a Hop-on Hop-off tour in almost any major city. I highly recommend it as a way to orient yourself with each new place.
July 29th was a real test commitment for one another. Driving a stick shift in city center London can make or break a relationship... I think this was the moment of our vacation that we learned we were together for the long haul. It is surprising that you don't need an international drivers license in England, but they must have thought we were capable because they handed over the car keys right away and pointed us to the little red Fiat located in the back lot. Ash went round to the passenger's side on the left, and I jumped into the drivers seat on the right. With the wheel in my right hand, and the shifter in my left, we took off for Southern England. Slowly.
Our first stop was in Canterbury. If you are looking for a medium-sized, quaint city, this is the place for you. It wasn't quite Midsomer Murders (we did not make it to the Cotswolds- that is a future adventure), but it was amazing. We spent a few hours walking around the city, popping in and out of phone booths and little shops, ate a small pub lunch, and then jumped back in the car towards our little hayloft AirBnb in North Elham. (Visit these towns by clicking #2 on the interactive map!).
We woke up early on July 30th and left our little hayloft AirBnb heading southwest from North Elham towards Bodiam Castle in Robertsbridge. Bodiam was the first castle Ash had ever seen in person, and I was so grateful to share that experience with them. Surrounded by a small moat, Bodiam sits on a beautiful rolling landscape filled with pastures dotted with lush trees. A long, wooden bridge guided us over the water and into the castle where we were able to climb through walls, explore old rooms, and take the stone stairway to the top of the castle. We enjoyed the miles of scenery we could see from this vantage point, and when we had had enough, we headed back downstairs to prepare for our car ride to Hastings.
Hastings is a beach town on the southern coast of England, about 12 miles directly below Robertsbridge. Tight, winding roads led our Fiat to the top of Castle Hill Road where we parked before making our way by foot to Hastings Castle. The weather was warm and the sun shone brightly onto the grassy knolls that overlooked the ocean. We watched families flying kites as we headed to the castle entrance located near the edge of the cliff. Hastings was vastly different than Bodium, looking like ancient ruins compared to the fortified walls we experienced earlier. The interior of the castle was filled with grass, and guest maps showed us where specific rooms used to be. The exterior consisted of rocky mounds that we climbed on to get, like, the most amazing pictures OMG. (Click on #3 and #4 in the interactive map to see more).
After a calming Castle Hill Road walk back up to our car, we jumped into the Fiat and drove just over an hour towards the outskirts of Brighton.
Ash and I were staying at an AirBnb, hosted by a nice queer couple, in the small town of Saltdean. The neighborhood was extremely suburban, not really our style, but did sit directly west of a field of sheep which we gladly walked through, trying to get as close as possible without freaking them (or ourselves) out. Brighton's city center was less than a 10 minute drive from our place, so on our first full day we hopped into our car and headed down the road.
We had been told that Brighton was a queer-friendly place, so we were not at all surprised to see a multitude of rainbow flags flying outside the local gay bars when we first headed into the city, (we were bummed, however, to hear that we were a week early for their annual Pride celebration). We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the first queer bar we saw and then we explored the inner city. There were things we didn't expect to see, like the Royal Pavilion surrounded by lush gardens, and within close proximity the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, both beautifully designed in an Indian and Chinese style. We walked around for a while grabbing the occasional beer, and then took a short walk to the beach located on the south edge of the city.
Southern England is known for its amazing chalky-white cliffs that hover over the English Chanel. All along the coast of Saltdean and Brighton you can see these enormous walls of rock, sporadically breaking to allow space for beaches and piers. Ash and I made our way to the Brighton Palace Pier which was home to different rides, attractions, and food. We walked up and down the planks, like good tourists do, visited a few vendor stalls, took a ton of pictures, and chased a seagull or two. After hanging out with the birds we called it a day, and spent our last night in Saltdean cuddled in our AirBnb watching Midsomer Murders- because when in England. (Click #5 on the interactive map to hear more about Brighton).
It was officially August when Ash and I left Saltdean. With the Fiat packed, we drove 45 minutes west to the third castle on our list: Arundel. The town of Arundel that housed the castle was very quaint, and had we known about its charm during the planning stages of our trip, we probably would have tried to stay there for a night. Arundel Castle was by far the biggest castle we saw on our mini road trip of Southern England, and definitely the most popular with the tourists. Giant wooden doors, like something you would see in Game of Thrones, served as entrances to the castle grounds. Small events and interactive stalls for youth were strategically placed along the sidewalks that led up to the front door. Once inside, we were able to freely tour the different rooms and walk up the stairs to the keep which overlooked the castle grounds and surrounding town. (Click #6 on the interactive map to read more about our visit to Arundel Castle).
Because we were on a tight schedule, and the Fiat had to be returned to its city center home in London by early evening, we jumped in the car and drove to our final (and most spectacular) stop: Stonehenge.
Before heading into Stonehenge, stop in the visitor's center for a snack. Although they have nothing on my Grandma's, the pasties at the center were fantastic and we enjoyed them with a couple of large beers. With our bodies fueled, we made our way to the ancient stone circle. Now there are two ways that you can go about getting there from the center: by foot, or by tram. People opt to go by foot to experience the same walk that the ancient people of England did to get to the site, but due to our time crunch, Ash and I took the tram which brought us straight up to the site in less than 10 minutes.
I was told that just a handful of years ago, you could actually walk up to the stones and touch them, but in hopes of preserving the ancient site, the stones have been roped off. The photos give you an idea of how close we were able to get to them, but even with a distance of 50 feet between us and the structure, you could definitely take in the magic of Stonehenge. Ash definitely had the feels, and described the experience as surreal- picturing those that inhabited the space thousands of years ago really blew their mind. We spent a good amount of time at the site, and then walked towards the tram to be taken back to the visitor's center. (Click #7 on the interactive map to learn more about what this heritage site has to offer).
As all good tourists do, we stopped at the visitor's center gift shop to pick up a few small trinkets, including a small stuffed sheep (we named Sheepy) in lieu of missing our four fur babies back home. Sheepy continues to travel on all of our adventures with us- but you can see this for yourself on our other travel stories.
We drove to the city center of London in about 2 hours, and then spent another terrifying hour in the car trying to weave our way through London traffic in order to return the car. This is something I don't recommend... to anyone... ever. Small roads, incredibly busy round-a-bouts, drivers of race-car status, and a slow GPS mixed together is never a good thing. Almost in tears, we finally made it to our stop where we said goodbye to our little red Fiat and hailed a taxi to do the driving for us. The taxi driver (a very friendly Irish man who helped turn our spirits around) took us to our final AirBnb near Hyde Park, and we prepared for our final days in England.
Our last full day in London, England was bitter sweet. Ash and I had had the most incredible time abroad, but they had been away from home for 8 days, and I had been gone for almost three weeks. We missed our dogs and cat and were excited to come home to them. We made the most of our day by immersing ourselves in some of the places we didn't get to the first part of our journey. We took the underground all over the city, visited Platform 9 & 3/4 to get a one-of-a-kind wand, watched the guards at Buckingham Palace, and walked down the Serpentine that runs through Hyde Park. We ended our night at a pub near our AirBnb, at our last dinner in London, and went to bed.
Ash and I weren't able to get the same flight home since we had flown different dates into London, but we rode the train together to the airport on the morning of August 3rd. Saddened to leave, but excited to be home with our babies, we sat quietly on the train holding one another. For us, this trip was more than a vacation. It solidified our commitment to one another. It was this moment in time that we decided we were ready to take the next step in our relationship and move in together. I think in the back of our minds it was also the time when we knew that we were going to be together for a while; A long, long while. And this made us happy and content as we rode to the airport. Ash and I said our goodbyes as the first one of us boarded our plane, planning to meet in the Minneapolis airport and taxi back to Ash's place when we got home.
There are a few take-aways from this trip that may be useful for anyone planning to stay in or around London. First, rent a car. It is completely worth it to drive and plan your own itinerary. If you do rent a car, try to pick it up from the airport- not city center London. It will help your anxiety immensely. Second, take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour. We got oriented our first day in London and it really helped us explore the city further when we came back at the end of our trip. It is easy, doesn't cost much, and your can find this tour on any major travel site. Third, get out of London! There are so many amazing towns and villages in England that are just as important to visit. I regret that Ash and I didn't have more time, and we really want to go back to other regions of the country to experience more of what England has to offer. You would be missing out on a lot if you only spent your time in the big city. Lastly, understand the money you are working with. Remember that coins are worth a lot out there. Even if you have been to the Isles before, re-orient yourself with the currency, otherwise you will end up tipping your bartender 300% thinking you are only dropping in a buck or two. A nice gesture, but not one that can sustain your finances the entire trip.
I hope you have enjoyed experiencing our Southern England trip with us- please check out our other adventures and continue to check in as we add more each year!