Summer and Winter in Britain

Britain has a special place in my heart. Born and raised in Sheffield, I spent 21 years of my life in England before moving to Canada. Every family holiday up until that point had been a journey of its own, but it is only since leaving Britain on a permanent basis that returning their feels like a new adventure. It is with that perspective that I managed to explore more of Britain in the Summer of 2011 and in Winter 2011/12.

Another strange feeling is that of nostalgia upon returning to a place that you remember from your childhood. My summer trip took me to the east coast of England where some of my earliest childhood memories were made. Scarborough is the highlight of those destinations and, to me, the home of donkey rides on the beach.

Scarborough has two bays: north and south; and while the south bay is busy and bustling with arcades, gift and “rock” shops, ice cream vendors and fish n’ chip shops, the north bay in contrast is respectively calmer and tranquil. The coastal road has the north sea to one side and steep cliffs to the other, the majority of which are dotted with old terraced hotels.

At the top of the cliffs, the two bays are separated by Scarborough Castle, a medieval royal castle dating from the mid tenth century and dominates the Scarborough skyline. It is largely in ruins, but maintained by English Heritage and a must visit for any tourist in Scarborough. In close proximity is the beautiful St. Mary’s Church. Buried there is Anne Bronte, author, and sister of Charlotte Bronte.

Below Scarborough Castle on the coastal road separating the north and south bays is the Scarborough Harbour and a theme park. Scarborough, like so many other east-coast towns is a fishing town. The harbour makes for a great evening stroll when the weather is warm, though beware of the occasional north sea “breeze”.

Lying less than one hour north of Scarborough is another fishing town: Whitby. Part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was set in Whitby and a trip to Whitby is not complete without visiting The Dracula Experience. Beyond that, a must see is Whitby Abbey, a monastery founded in 657 AD.

The ruins of Whitby Abbey are quite incredible, and hard to miss as they feature as prominently on the cliffs of Whitby as the Castle does on the cliffs of Scarborough. Fish n’ Chips are a must from Quayside – once the best Fish n’ Chip shop in Yorkshire, and small gift shops along narrow cobbled streets set Whitby apart from Scarborough which is much more commercially developed.

Another of my favourite seaside destinations is Newquay, on the Atlantic Ocean in southern England. Newquay is Britain’s premier surfing spot and it is not uncommon to see hundreds of surfers learning their trade in Fistral Beach. And, while Fistral Beach is the most famed of the Newquay beaches, my personal favourite is Lusty Glaze (lustlyglaze.co.uk).

When the tide is in, Lusty Glaze is only accessible two ways: the first, by sea; the second, by walking down some 133 steps (that are being slowly adorned with commemorative plaques to pay for the upkeep of the steps). I could spend all day standing at the top, looking at the view, and traveling down to the beach to sit and listen to the ocean.

During the summer months the weather is warm or hot, the sunsets are beautiful, and the scenery in and around Cornwall and Devon is stunning. Any trip to Cornwall is not complete, of course, without tasting a traditional Cornish Pasty. For this I recommend Pengenna Pasties (pengennapasties.co.uk) in Tintagel. My mouth waters just thinking about them!

Britain is not the place to visit for a beach vacation in winter: unless you pack your winter woolies, a rain coat, and an umbrella. Instead, it is a great time to check out museums, monuments, churches, history and restaurants.

Sylvia and I travelled to Edinburgh, Newcastle, York, Sheffield and London over Christmas 2011 and New Year’s 2011/12.

Edinburgh is a history-laden city. We stayed a stones-throw away from the central train station at the Old Waverley Hotel, with views of the Edinburgh Castle and the old town. When in Edinburgh, I would recommend at least four days and trips to the Scotch Whisky Experience, The Edinburgh Castle, a walk along the Royal Mile (which I understand is not actually one mile in length), the Palace of Holyrood House, a climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat (an extinct volcano), a wander around Grassmarket and perhaps a Hearts or Hibs game for those of you into the beautiful game. Hearts (officially Heart of Midlothian), the football club, gets its name in part from a council area of Scotland: Midlothian. Along the Royal Mile you will actually find the ‘Heart’ of Midlothian which, as I understand it, Hibs supporters are known to spit on as they walk by.

The Grassmarket is a historic market square in Edinburgh’s Old Town and still marks the spot where the Edinburgh Gallows were. The Last Drop and Maggie Dickson’s Pub are two of the many local pubs that we visited to sample some local brews. Also known as Half Hangit’ Maggie, she was hung on September 2, 1724, for concealing her own pregnancy. When her body was taken by horse-drawn cart to Musselburgh (ten minutes outside of Edinburgh) allegedly the bumps and shakes restarted her heart and she was heard banging on the inside of her wooden coffin. She went on to live for another forty years. God’s will beat the operation of the law.

History and stories such as this can be found all over Edinburgh. The same goes for York and London.

For me, the highlight of York is York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals of it’s kind in Northern Europe.

This history of the Minster is a story in and of itself, but what I will say is that it is built on the ruins of a Roman place of worship, which ruins can still be seen when venturing down to the crypt. The remains of St. William are also located in the crypt.

York is olde-tyme England at its finest. It’s city walls are still largely intact and and it has more intact miles of city wall than any other English city. A visit to York isn’t complete without a ghost walk, a walk along The Shambles (an accent street of the Butchers of York), and the Jorvik Viking Centre, to explore York’s viking past.

London is the place to be for a new years eve celebration. Hundreds of thousands of people line the streets and the banks of the River Thames (wine bottles and plastic cups in hand) to get a glimpse of the spectacular firework display. There is history wherever you look. You cannot avoid history here. The list of things to see and do is endless, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. James’ Park, the London Eye, Tower Bridge, any number of free museums, art galleries, Covent Garden, Camden Town, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the changing of the guards, cruise the River Thames: the list goes on.

For cuisine, a MUST is Punjab (punjab.co.uk), the oldest North Indian restaurant in the United Kingdom. According to their blog (blog.punjab.co.uk), the owner (the grandson of the original owner) was told by his grandfather: “Son, it’s 70% food, 15% location, and 15% your smiley face.” This really does sum up Punjab. It is in an excellent location (Convent Garden – Neal Street), the staff are extremely friendly – and chatty if you get chatting to them, and the food is the best Indian cuisine I have ever let pass my lips. I would certainly be a regular there if I lived a little closer. Their blog is also worth checking out as it has a few of their recipes for those interested in trying Punjab recipes at home.

London, unlike Lusty Glaze, is not serene and peaceful. It is busy, lively, and a hell of a lot of fun. Even within the city, however, it is possible to escape the noise of the crowded streets to take in the changing of the guard…

…or take a stroll around the surprisingly wildlife-rich St. James’ Park…

I hope that this have given you just a taster of the diversity of Britain, the history to explore, and the tranquility of its shores. Of course, feel free to contact me for any advice or tips, or to comment and critique this blog. I am slowly learning (and trying to learn) what works and what doesn’t so any of your advice, tips or comments are greatly appreciated.  Thanks for reading.

– James.

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