Monday morning, July 14th, my travel group met, ready for our two weeks of England adventure! Our group of five was made up of two of my friends from choir, Kendra and Sarah (sisters), and their friend Kim and cousin Steph (who had just flown from the States). We had been planning this trip for months.
Okay, let’s be honest, Kendra and I had done most of the planning. I, of course, had a lot of opinions about where we should go. Kendra also loves literature and history, so she agreed mostly, and the other girls were pretty much like “Yay, England!” so it was a win-win. (Spoiler: I was dragged to 221 Baker Street even though I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan. And, believe it or not, I balked at going along to Stonehenge. I KNOW IT’S A BIG DEAL. But, I paid a lot of money just to stare at some rocks that historians are still scratching their heads about. But I got the selfie, and that’s all that matters, right?)
Those of us from Oasis were pretty excited about heading to the coast for some rest and relaxation!
Our first matter of business was getting from the hotel to the ferry port, which proved to be a 40 euro taxi ride. Yes, it’s quite expensive traveling in Europe! Our ferry was quite late getting in, due to rough seas, which led to a late departure. We had a very specific time to pick up our rental car at the Holyhead port, and I was worried we wouldn’t make it on time. Our crossing was quite rough. We had booked the fast ferry which meant we were on a smaller boat, which only increased the roughness. We arrived one hour late, but thankfully before the rental car agency closed. We picked up our keys for our brand spankin’ new Toyota Avensis which had plenty of room for us 5 and our luggage. I cautiously invaded the driver’s seat.
“WHAT IS THAT CAR THINKING!” I yelled.
“Um, you’re in their lane,” Kendra says.
We were delighted to find a built-in GPS in our car. Navigation would have been impossible without one. The “carriageways” are well-marked in round-a-bouts (using place names for direction, rather than “east” or “west”), but roadways were otherwise poorly marked. Many times we simply punched in the town name for lack of a street name and house number. Many of our destinations were fairly famous landmarks, so we relied on other signage once we reached the general town location.
Driving on the left side of the road was very disconcerting at first! Quite disorienting. It’s like having a driver’s permit all over again! The most dangerous thing for me was forgetting to look right when turning right.
We began traveling toward our house in Wales which we had booked via airbnb and found ourselves traversing quite narrow roads! We checked the GPS to find where we were: “Unnamed Road.” Steep inclines, narrow passageways between old stone walls, and no turnarounds in sight! The GPS leading us ever upward, I gripped the steering wheel, terrified of meeting another car. What would I do with this Avensis boat? WHAT IF I WRECK THIS SILVER WHALE IN WALES?! We continued climbing higher and higher. The girls were ooing and ahhing as we wound higher in the Snowdonia mountains, past sheep farms, and misty mountain landscapes. Inevitably, I MET A BUS. Now, there’s barely room for my car on this road, much less passing another car. I had no idea what to do. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of the girls hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. There goes my bank account. Landing roadside on a little mountain in Wales. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. Praise the Lord!)
We finally reached the town of Bryn Pistyll, and we hadn’t found the house. There were cars everywhere in the narrow town, but no people. Weird. We finally stopped at the only open place of business: a bar. The barkeeper: “Ooo, Sally’s.” We found our little abode nestled in the tiny town of Tinydom. It was a great space and Sally pointed us to food two towns over in Llanchid. Not very near to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. ?? Welsh, did you swallow some dry feathers? Sally did her best to explain the Welsh double consonant.
We picked up some fast food and raided a gas station for breakfast goodies. (We picked up some nice yogurt and fruit, actually.) Back in our bright little house, we brewed coffee, giggling with terrified excitement about our hair-raising drive, and cranked up the supplied tunes (we had never heard of Bananarama), and wrapped up in blankets to beat the damp, cool weather. The mountains looked very Lord of the Rings-ish.
The next morning I had the most beautiful drive of my entire life. Leaving Snowdonia National Park, driving along the Welsh shore, sun beaming on sparking sand, water and wet green mountains, blue skies and white clouds. One Republic on Welsh radio.
Our first stop was the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. Excellent museum because photography is not allowed. This causes one to pause and experience through the sense the life Charlotte and her family would have known. The historians maintaining the house leave no leaf unturned. Special paints, dyes, and wallpapers are specifically manufactured so that the house appears exactly as it would have in the 1840s. I was left to memorize the perfectly recreated blues and grays… the specially-ordered wallpaper… the facts (that Charlotte had 9 months of happy marriage… that she and her siblings were writers since their preteen years, creating tiny books and newspapers). It was an excellent museum with wonderful accompanying walks in an outdoor natural space. You can even visit the Bronte church and walk further down into the adorable town of Haworth. Wonderful place to visit! I wished we could have stayed longer.
After overnighting in the Great Horse Lodge, we moved on to Thirsk, of James Herriot fame. I decided to skip this museum to save money. I was content to sit in the town market and journal. British locals came and went all morning, walking their dogs, parking their bikes, chatting with villagers, sitting down casually. It was here that a young mother handed Kim a tract and said, “God bless you. Jesus loves you.” First person who tried to witness to me in England! Interestingly, the tract gave several options: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelical Christianity, before finally landing on Christianity as the only way to God (through Jesus Christ). Once again, another layer.
Since we were heading north to the coast for several days, we picked up groceries, fresh produce, and baked goods from the farmer’s market and nearby bakeries. We could keep these in the refrigerator at our hostel.
After boarding the Avensis, soon there were squeals of delight driving up over the hills into Whitby, with the Abbey looming in the distance. We would be staying at YHA Whitby, in a rambling old estate very near to ancient cathedral ruins, right on the cliffs. We lugged our suitcases up countless flights of stairs to find several people already in our dorm-style rooms. Well, let’s make friends, I guess.
We walked 199 steps down into town. The tiny, narrow cobblestone streets were for walking only. The gulls honked endlessly, and the smell of fish and sea air puffed our noses. We ate our first helping of fish and chips. That evening we walked the pier and watched fishermen in the rain, before finally returning to the hostel and drinking bottomless pots of tea and raiding our personal snack bag in the smelly, self-catering kitchen. The day ended with a dark, spooky walk to the car park to move our car because we forgot that our parking meter expired early in the morning. The Abbey loomed spookily in the darkness.
Thursday dawned bright and clear. I woke up around 9 in my bed, staring out the window to a clear sky and the birds calling. Our YHA accommodations got us into the stone-walled Abbey ruins for free. Very interesting. Beautiful, but also sad. So this is what the church has come to? Closed down in the 1500s because of a greedy king who wanted an heir and needed a divorce to get one?
I spent time reading by the wall with the colossal ruins in the background. Later, I spent time reading in the gardens.
For dinner, we went to the famous Magpie Café, which serves the best fish and chips in England! I whole-heartedly agree! Delicious HOT fish with amazing house-made tartar.
Sometime during our Whitby days I was determined to be on the beach at sunrise. On Friday morning I work up at 4:45 and noticed it was light already! I booked it down the flights of steps for walking and exploring. The light on the Abbey was incredible. I walked further and further, nearer and nearer the cliffs. The sun was pouring over the watery horizon, beaming its warmth onto the chilly shore. I hopped the safety fence and found a spot in the wet grass on the cliff’s edge. I pulled out my Bible and read John’s gospel, chapters 14-17, where Jesus speaks to the disciples. In this passage, I was so struck by the words of Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The simplicity of this message moved me.
As I stood by the cliffs, by the sparkling water, the smooth sea, the beaming sun, thick wheat, and with the ruins at my back, the words of the song “Build Us Back” ran through my mind.
“Though the mountains be shaken
The hills be removed
Your unfailing love remains…
After all that’s been taken
Your promise still, still sacred
You build us back with precious stones.”
After this unforgettable morning and more rest, I joined my friends at Sherlock’s in Whitby for our very first cream tea experience. “Cream tea” in England refers to a certain setting of tea and scones. It includes a serving a tea and a fresh scone with a side of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Clotted cream is a whitish-yellow buttery substance, which you spread lavishly on your scone, along with jam. We enjoyed it immensely and looked to order it increasingly everywhere in England afterwards.
Our last day in Whitby included souvenir shopping and reading in the parlor at the hostel. Confession: we were craving American food that night, and we scoured the town, before finally scoring two large American-style pizzas.
Saturday morning we left Whitby for sizzling London! Cities and Stonehenge to come!