UK Trip: Day 6, West Highlands Lochs & Castles Tour
On Sunday we went on the last tour of our trip. Rabbie's Trail Burners offers many different tours, and we chose the West Highlands Lochs & Castles Tour (mainly for the castles!), which did not disappoint. We found this tour to be a lot more reasonably priced than the tour we took in England, and we got to visit many different sites along the way. However, we had to pay our own entry fees to two of the castles and pay for our own lunch. Among the places we visited were Doune Castle, Loch Lubnaig, Kilchurn Castle, Inveraray, the Rest & Be Thankful pass, Luss, and a quick stop to view Stirling Castle from a distance. Unlike our last tour of 5 people, this tour had a larger number, about 13 total.
Our first stop was Doune Castle, where films and TV shows like Outlander, Game of Thrones, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were filmed. The castle was originally built in the 13th century, but was badly damaged and rebuilt in its present form during the late 14th century by the Duke of Albany. Though the castle has been ruined since 1800, it was a lot of fun to explore inside. On our way up to where Mary Queen of Scots stayed several times, Luke dropped and cracked his phone in the huge stone spiral staircase. I think I was more upset than he was, but at least he broke it in such an amazing, ancient place! Mary's rooms were simple, though she did have a toilet that sat above the courtyard - allowing all that went in to fall straight down into the courtyard, likely on top of passersby - gross! In her room was the most beautiful window with bubbled glass, I'm curious to know when it dates from (pictured below on the left). When we were visiting, a wedding was being set up for later in the day which I thought was lovely. What a fun place to get married! The next stop was Loch Lubnaig. Just a quick stop, we were only out there for about 10 minutes admiring the view. It was the first Loch we spotted on our tour, but certainly not the last. Across the road from the loch was the most picturesque dense, moss covered forest. It looked like it came straight out of a movie, though I'm not sure if anyone else noticed it.
Loch Awe & Kilchurn Castle
Continuing on our tour, after a quick stop for one of our fellow tour members to get sick, we stopped at Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe. There was a long, winding path along a loch side surrounded by mountains that we had to take to get to Kilchurn Castle, it took about 10 minutes dodging sheep poo all along the way. Once the castle was in view, it was simply amazing. I mean look at that picture! How gorgeous is that? I still can't believe I was able to see it in person. Kilchurn Castle was built during the 15th and 17th centuries, and it was abandoned in 1760 when it was badly damaged by a severe lightning storm. During certain times of the year, the path floods and the castle becomes an island. We weren't able to explore the inside of the castle because it was closed, but just seeing the beauty all around was enough for me.
Since we were visiting so many places, we were really limited on time at each place. We were given the choice of either visiting the town of Inveraray or visiting the castle, and of course we chose the castle! You guys - the outside of this castle was the most beautiful damn thing I've ever seen. It looks like it's straight out of a fairytale, and even an episode of Downtown Abbey was filmed here in 2012. Work on the current castle began in 1743, replacing an earlier 15th century castle. The Duke and his family still live here today (can you imagine living in a place like this?!). When we arrived we were hungry so we grabbed a quick lunch in the castle's tea room, which was covered with stills from the Downton Abbey episode. After lunch we headed straight inside the main building to start exploring. While the inside was nice, it was nowhere near as impressive as it is from the outside. The first three rooms were my favorite - the State Dining Room (left photo - top row), Tapestry Drawing Room (bottom row photos), and the China Turret (right photo - top row. paper-mache ceiling designed in 1773).
Upstairs in the MacArthur Room there is a 17th century bed (pictured below on the left) that is said to be haunted by a young Irish harpist who was murdered in the bed in 1644. The bed belonged to the MacArthur's of Loch Awe, and it was moved to Inveraray Castle where the boy's ghost is said to still be seen today. Among other tales, a harp is said to be heard coming from this room when a member of the current family is about to die. I spotted a photo of the most beautiful woman in this room (pictured below on the right), I wanted to take it home with me.
After we finished touring the inside of the castle, we went out and explored some of the 16 acre garden. There's an old millstone outside that is said to be cursed that my mom decided to take a picture of. I pleaded with her not to take the photo just to be on the safe side, but what does she go and do? She takes a picture of the cursed stone, which she'll be sorry for later (I'll talk about that whole ordeal in the next - and final - post). The gardens were filled with trees covered in an interesting moss that I've never seen before, and there were many 17th century statues scattered throughout the grounds. We took a few pictures (though the sun was killing our eyes) before heading back to the bus to continue on to our next destination, Rest & Be Thankful pass (pictured in the bottom row - those little dots towards the bottom are cars!). Our final stops of the day were Luss, a small cozy village on the side of a loch, and Stirling Castle which we viewed from the road below the castle.
After a long (but wonderful) 10 hour tour, we finally made our way back to our flat in Edinburgh before setting off to our next destination in the morning.
UK Trip Posts
* All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.
UK Trip: Day 1 and 2, Arriving In London & Bath, Cotswolds, Stonehenge Tour
We chose to fly out of JFK airport in New York because the price of our flights to London and back were unbeatable, about $600 per person round trip (compared to my last two travels to the UK when the cost was around $1200 per person). I'm absolutely terrified of flying. I'm not sure when or why exactly it happened, but within the past few years I've developed major anxiety before and during flights, and it gets so bad that sometimes I even end up crying while we're on board. This time was different, and I think it had to do with the fact that we chose an overnight flight that I was able to sleep on, and the ride was so smooth and easy.
We landed in London on Tuesday morning and took the tube to Shoreditch where we met our Airbnb host. The flat we stayed in was on Brick Lane in East London. It's a trendy area with a lot of nice places to eat, vintage stores, street art, and food carts. It was quite a bit away from the places we visited in London, but the Underground makes it easy to get to where you need to be that it didn't bother me. This was our very first Airbnb experience and it wasn't bad! Our host, Lorena, was so sweet and she had a helpful booklet explaining the area and even had restaurant recommendations. The flat itself was nice, though due to it's location, a bit noisy. The kitchen was well equipped with everything that we needed for our short stay, and the whole place was very spacious for a flat in London. We spent the rest of the day relaxing, and while we were out later on picking up some food for the flat, we stopped at Las Iguanas for dinner. I chose the halloumi skewers which were amazing! I love halloumi, and it's VERY pricey and hard to find at home, so when I'm over in the UK I tend to eat it as often as I can. Luke got a smoky chipotle butternut squash enchilada which he enjoyed. If you're vegetarian or gluten free, Las Iguanas has a great selection to choose from! Back at the flat we had a few of our favorite Kopparberg ciders (strawberry & lime flavor!) which we can't get in the US, and headed to bed.
On Wednesday we took a City Wonders tour to Bath, the Cotswolds, and Stonehenge. The tour was a bit pricey at around $500 for the three of us (included travel, lunch, and Stonehenge admission), but we got to see some places we otherwise wouldn't have been able to see. Early in the morning we met with our tour guide, driver, and our tour group which included a Canadian couple and the three of us, so it was a very intimate tour which I liked a lot (I think we were lucky in this sense because it was the middle of the week, if it were a weekend or in the summer I'm sure it would be a much larger group). The ride to Bath from London was a couple of hours, so we chatted with the other couple while the driver set off to Bath at an alarmingly high rate of speed (seriously, he was crazy), and our tour guide slept. We kept getting the same question over and over again while in the UK: "So, what about that Donald Trump?" It's weird to know that the whole world is watching what's going on over here regarding the US election, and I'm just as afraid as the rest of the world.
Our first stop was Bath, where we had some free time to explore on our own. Bath is a beautiful city, and most of the buildings are made from the same golden-colored Bath Stone in Georgian style architecture, giving it a uniformed look. Many sidewalks in Bath were made to be very wide so women in the 18th century could leisurely walk together with their wide, Gerogian style dresses. During our trip to the UK I noticed that a lot of windows were boarded or bricked up, and our tour guide explained that in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a window tax, and you were taxed on how many windows you had. To avoid paying more than they were willing, many people boarded up some of their windows, this was common all over England and Scotland and you can see many examples of this to this day. We passed by the building where Sally Lunn, a famous bread maker from france, lived and baked in 1680 (though the building was built in 1482!). Jane Austen also lived in Bath, though she wasn't a fan and wasn't afraid to express it in her writings.
During our free time we visited the Roman Baths, which sit below street level. We paid admission to enter the Roman Bath museum, which sits above ground and allows you to go underground and explore where the Romans relaxed and bathed. You can see the water steaming, though you're not allowed to touch it. There's a little fountain that you can drink from, and Luke was the only one brave enough to try it. He said it tasted chalky but otherwise wasn't bad! The museum allowed you to easily picture what it looked like in the place that you were standing over 1000 years ago, and if you're ever in Bath, it's a must see. We didn't get a chance to explore the inside of Bath Abbey (pictured below), but the building itself is stunning. It was founded in the 7th century, but rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries. In the photo on the bottom right you can see the "stairway to heaven", which I thought was lovely.
Castle Combe, England
Our next stop was Castle Combe, an old small weaving village in the Cotswolds. Castle Combe is named after a 12th century castle that once overlooked the village, and it is often called the prettiest, most picturesque place in all of England. A 14th century market cross still stands in the town, this is where the people of the village would go to sell their goods and livestock. The buildings are all well preserved, with no additions or things like satellite dishes allowed to be added even though people still make these ancient buildings their homes today. We spotted a bakery stand that works on a trust system, take a goodie and leave money in it's place. This would NOT fly here in New Jersey, but I thought it was so sweet! Our guide told us that many wealthy, retired people stay here during the summer and it's common to see expensive cars looking out of place in this tiny town. Castle Combe has starred in a few movies and TV shows, among a few are Doctor Dolittle (1967), War Horse (2011), Stardust (2007), and an episode of Downton Abbey.
We stopped by St Andrew's Church in the village, a portion of it was built in the 1200s, but the rest of the building was built in the 1400s. Inside there is a monument and burial place of Sir Walter de Dunstanville, who died in battle in 1270. He is thought to have fought in two crusades due to the fact that his legs are crossed in his memorial. We didn't get the chance to explore the graveyard, but many of the tombstones looked so worn down that I doubt we'd learn much from them. Lunch was included with our tour price, and we ate at the White Hart, a 14th century pub with very short doorways. Since two of us are vegetarian and one is gluten free, I figured we wouldn't be able to eat anything because it was a meal set up by our tour, but our server was understanding and immediately offered us jacket potatoes which were absolutely huge! They were without a doubt the biggest potatoes I've ever seen in my life, and they came with a nice side salad. My mom ended up trying jacket potatoes at many of the places we ate at along our travels, and she said none compared to the one we had in Castle Combe.
Our next stop was the 13th century town of Lacock. Pictured above is St Cyriac Church, built in the 1300s. I much preferred Castle Combe over Lacock, but it was still a lovely place to visit nonetheless. Many Harry Potter scenes were filmed in this town, including the home of James and Lily Potter, where they were murdered by Voldemort when Harry was a baby (pictured below, on the right). Snape and Quirrell's classrooms were filmed inside of Lacock Abbey (which we didn't visit but saw from afar), as was the Mirror of Erised, some Hogwarts corridors, and some Hogwarts courtyard scenes. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Slughorn resided in Budleigh Babberton, those scenes were also filmed in Lacock. We explored inside of an old 14th century barn (pictured below, on the left) and even had the chance to go into a small lockup from the 1700s where drunk, unruly people were sent to spend the night. There was only enough space for a wooden bed and an 18th century toilet. We stopped at the local tea room for some water and ice cream (let me tell you - English & Scottish people LOVE their ice cream - you can find ice cream stands all over). Luke overheard some old women gossiping Mean Girls style about a friend of theirs who sat at another table with someone they didn't like, all while they drank tea from their silver tea sets outside. I can't imagine living in a place so small that everyone knows everyone else's business!
The last stop on our long 12 hour tour was Stonehenge. Now, I've never been too interested in Stonehenge, and to be honest I wasn't excited that it was on our tour. However, I really enjoyed it once we got there (aside from the constant wind). Stonehenge itself seems like it's in the middle of nowhere - surrounded by fields, hills, and sheep all over, and I think that's what gives it this strange energy that I was feeling. In the distance you can see ancient burial mounds, assumably belonging to the people who once inhabited this area. No one knows exactly why or how these rocks were placed here 5,000 years ago, but it was interesting listening to theories from our tour guide. Apparently you're not allowed up close to the stones because of a rare type of lichen growing on them (the green moss-like forms on the stones), though after doing some research it looks like the lichen are very stubborn and not likely to be damaged! So in the end, I'm not exactly sure why tourists aren't allowed up close anymore.
After finishing up at stonehenge, we headed back to London and ended our tour. By this time we were so exhausted we just went back to the flat, ordered some food, and went straight to sleep!
UK Trip Posts
* All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.