I find that title slightly daunting considering the large-scale logistical nightmare that is happening in the United Kingdom right now due to Brexit. (Too soon?) Luckily, this post has a much narrower focus, as I relay my personal experiences of navigating across the British Isles. What follows is probably more anecdotal than useful, but perhaps you can learn something from my mistakes.
Navigating the Public Transit System – London
London, despite being an enormous modern metropolis, hardly has any cars in it’s center during the day. Rush hour was pleasantly quiet and car-free, with mostly just buses and bicycles passing us by in Westminster. This is thanks to the London congestion charge. In the central zone, any car that’s not previously exempt for being a bus or extremely eco-friendly is charged £11.50. This rule has certainly proved effective for reducing car traffic in the city center, but all of those commuters have to get around somehow – public transportation.
The two terms that spring to mind when thinking of the London public transportation system are “Mind the Gap” and the “Tube”. The Tube, a colloquialism for the London Underground, is the London equivalent of the DC Metro, New York Subway, etc., and is exactly that. A tube. The DC metro stations seemed cavernous in comparison to the winding tunnels and tiny platforms of the London Tube. Each platform was also shockingly crowded, adding to the feeling that the platform was three times smaller than it should be. Instead of “mind the gap”, maybe the more useful term should be “mind your neighbor”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The metro system for London consists of both the London Underground and Overground. For all these trains, you can use an Oyster Card. You add money to it, scan it to get through the turnstiles and ride the rails, then scan it again to be charged for the ride you took. I was completely baffled as to how it worked, thinking it a mysterious system that I would never understand. How much should you put on it? How would you know when funds ran out? What sorcery was this? It then hit me like a ton of bricks that it was literally the exact same system as the DC metro that I have been riding for years. Not everything overseas has to be different and complicated. I was just making it so.
If you’re going further afield to the outskirts of London, you need train tickets since you’ll be connecting to larger train lines. I’m going to take a moment to be completely honest with you. We could never figure it out completely. In theory, you have your fee for the journey you took on the London Under/Overground, then you buy the ticket for the rest of your journey out into the suburbs. However, some train stations took tickets in turnstiles, others did not. Some trains had ticket collectors walking up and down during the journey, others did not. Sometimes we started at a station that required paper tickets but then needed to exit a station using our Oyster Card. One day we bought round trip tickets that were never actually checked, anywhere. It left me wondering what the point of buying the ticket was anyways. Clearly there was something we were missing.
In any case, once you’re on the platform, it’s hard to go wrong. Some trains that aren’t stopping at your station whip past, and signs warn people to step back and hold onto ‘prams’, aka strollers. After seeing a warning sign and before experiencing a train speeding past, I have to admit I imagined the worst, with strollers flying in the air followed by hats, sunglasses, and all sense of reality. It’s nowhere near that bad when they speed past – just windy.
Riding the Tube can be cramped, and above all, loud. Several times we were in cars with open windows that positively shrieked during the high speed journey through the tunnels. Conversely, riding above ground can be quite pleasant, with views of quaint London suburbs alongside jarring, colorful graffiti. Sadly, all of this above ground pleasantness disappeared once the Piccadilly Line Strike began.
Clayton and I were attempting to get back to his cousin’s house one evening from Central London. We squeezed onto an outgoing train, and despite the DC Metro trying valiantly for the past twenty years, this was in fact the most squished I have ever been on a public transit system. All sides of my body were completely pressed up against no less than three other bodies at a time. I could count the freckles on my neighbors chin while trying not to sneeze due to someone else’s hair in my nose. We had a fair number of stops to go, and I passed the time by trying to figure out why no one ever wants to move to the center of a train car even though there is more room for everyone. (This philosophical question would remain unanswered, and became a common theme in the UK). The one positive thing about being so packed was that everyone was fairly upbeat. We all were in the same situation and miserable about it, so why not commiserate. Two commuters behind me were particularly jovial, chatting and laughing about the situation like old friends. It wasn’t until one got off that we all learned they had just met thirty minutes before. Close quarters makes for fast relationships. When it was finally our stop, Clayton and I were stuck on the the other side of the train car from the open doors, and no one moved a muscle to let us off. Finally, a particularly beefy gentleman noticed our plight and proceeded to gently shove others while proclaiming “you can just get right back on, and you know what, there will be more room if you let them off!” Unable to argue with that logic, the crowd reluctantly spat us out on the platform.
The trains aren’t the only way to get around London. Buses run everywhere and are extremely convenient. They’re a flat fee, and our CityMapper app told us exactly which one to take. It can get confusing trying to find the correct bus stop in the large traffic circles that are transport hubs, so we carefully checked the timetables as well as the bus numbers before boarding. Of course, the famous buses associated with London are the double decker buses, and we jumped at the chance to ride one. We sat on the top level in the front row, and it’s a bizarre feeling. You feel way closer to what’s in front of you than you actually are, and it’s a surprisingly fun ride. I suppose the novelty can wear off, but it never did for us. Even better, thanks to the extra story, there was quite a lot of room on the bus – it made me wonder why every city doesn’t have double decker buses, low bridges be damned.
Navigating the Public Transit System – Everywhere Else
Clayton and I proceeded to traverse the UK by train, from London to Edinburgh to Glasgow to Belfast. Viewed from an American perspective, the trains are a marvel. It’s such a shame there isn’t a more extensive and utilized rail network in the United States. Trains regularly run just about everywhere across the British Isles, and are relatively affordable compared to US trains. We booked all of our tickets in advance online, and were able to collect our purchased tickets at the station from kiosks before departing. The trains themselves are quite comfy, with tray tables, room for luggage, and even outlets on occasion. The best feature are the large windows where you can watch the countryside go by. We especially enjoyed our journey from London to Edinburgh, with views of the chilly North Sea as we neared the Scottish border. We weren’t even upset to have a delay, though it was sizable. By submitting a claim, we were able to get rail vouchers due to the delay that we can use on a future trip. Delays are not uncommon, sadly, but as travelers that don’t actually need to be anywhere at a specific time, we found we didn’t mind an extra hour of reading, napping, or sightseeing.
Our most enjoyable trip all around was getting from Glasgow to Belfast. Though technically a train ticket, the journey took us from train, to bus, to ferry. Each leg had a memorable moment. On the train from Glasgow Central to Ayr, we met David and Yardley. David was an older gentlemen who boarded the train and sat across the aisle from us with his yellow lab, Yardley. Yardley was as friendly and well-behaved as can be, and after seeing our adoring side glances at his dog, David offered us some pieces of cake to feed to Yardley so we “could become friends”. In a cheerfully iconic Scottish brogue, David explained to us that Yardley was originally supposed to be a service dog, but failed his first exams. Instead, David registered him as a therapy dog and in his prime would take him to hospitals to cheer up patients and families. David suspects the only reason Yardley passed the ‘sudden noise’ test of the therapy exam was because the examiner had a treat in her pocket, and Yardley knew it. The morning we met, David was taking Yardley to the beach for a nice day out. It was clear that David adored Yardley, and vice versa. Even when discussing places to travel to in the UK, he used the language “ah yes, Yardley has been there!” even if David and his wife went as well. As we conversed, David would often hand us more pieces of cake to slip to Yardley, without missing a beat.
Our next leg of the journey was by bus, since for some reason there were no trains running between Ayr and the Cairnryan port. The Ayr train station was quite small, but large enough for us to ask for directions to the bus station. The station employee pointed across the station, then said, “never mind, I’ll show you!” and hoisted one of our heaviest bags up on his shoulder and cheerfully set off before we could insist he didn’t have to. We then waited several minutes for our bus, during which Clayton proceeded to have a conversation with a Northern Irishman in which Clayton only understood the words “tourist” and “bus”. That’s a dialect for you.
Upon boarding the bus, the driver informed us that the typical hour and a half journey would in fact take just over three due to a large detour caused by something or other. We never quite figured out the reason for it, but we weren’t mad over a longer tour of the Scottish countryside. By the end of the three hour journey, however, our stomachs begged to differ. The views were stunning – green hillsides, flocks of sheep, craggy cliff faces, and bucolic hamlets. Unfortunately, all of this means tiny, twisting roads, and our bus driver seemed set on fitting our three hour detour into the original 1.5 hour timetable. He didn’t, but his attempt was admirable. In Cairnryan, we transferred over to a ferry for the final leg. This was smaller, yet similar to the ferry we took crossing from Calais to Dover several weeks earlier. Despite the chill, we climbed to the upper deck to watch the slow approach of Northern Ireland.
In all, using the train (or bus and ferry) to get around the United Kingdom is extremely easily, and above all, friendly. The farther away from London we got, the friendlier strangers were. We were delighted by the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland as we lugged our bags across their land. We can’t speak to what it’s like driving in the majority of the United Kingdom, but I do have some choice words about driving in Cornwall in my post Mysterious and Magical Moors.
The final note I’ll jot down is on regional passes. We were in Northern Ireland for over three weeks, and given our weekend travel plans, we figured it’d be more cost effective to get some sort of transit pass rather than constantly buy individual tickets. This would also save us having to desperately count out foreign change while a line queued up behind us to board a bus. I saw multiple signs explaining the pass system at the train stations and bus stops outside Belfast, and each time I saw one, I got more confused. There were certain prices for certain days, after certain times, if you were a student, if you were old, if you were an infant… Unfortunately, there weren’t any for “confused tourists”. After copious amounts of online research, I figured out that Northern Ireland is broken up into zones, and you can buy day or week passes for travel in any of the specific zones. Clayton and I were planning a trip up to the North Coast (Zone 4), but I still wasn’t sure how exactly that pass would work. Ultimately, we just went to the station’s ticket booth before departing to ask how the pass worked and purchase it. The Zone 4 pass was perfect for us, as it would cover the train up to the North Coast as well as the buses that drove all along the sites up there. We renewed it for each of the two days we were traveling up North and it was definitely worth it.
Honestly, that’s my ultimate advice – ask someone, especially if you speak the same language. Public transport in cities is amazingly confusing. The different combinations of zones, discounts, and ticket options can create an entirely new branch of mathematics. It’s been the same in Paris, London, Glasgow, Belfast, etc. It helps to do some research and to know your options and what you think is best, but just telling a station employee what you want to do is far easier in the long run.
Navigating the Gastronomic Sphere
There aren’t a ton of surprises when it comes to dining in the United Kingdom. As I’ve mentioned before, the food is good. Stereotypes of bad British food are outdated and in poor taste. We ate roasts that melted in our mouths and the creamiest Cornish cream ice cream. We did find that there were some slight differences, however. On numerous occasions we had trouble getting the bill at restaurants when we were ready to go. I surmised that it was like France, and you had to subtly signal the waiter for the bill when ready. One evening, while staying at Huntley near Belfast, we learned that the method for indicating you are finished with a meal with cutlery is different in the UK. The knife and fork are left face up and parallel, both in the “twenty past four” position. Perhaps that was why we could never get the waiter to bring our bill. Finally, unlike in continental Europe, tipping about 10% is expected.
It was really easy for me to take it for granted that I spoke the same language as the country I was visiting, and I shouldn’t have. There were still a lot of logistics to figure out, and some we never did quite get a solid handle on, such as the London Underground. After all the places we have been so far, it’s ironic that the one place I was the least comfortable navigating was the one place I spoke the language. But as the saying goes, the English and Americans are really two people divided by a common language. It just goes to show.