A Right Royal Time
Words Mark Samuel, pics Mark Samuel, Gallo/gettyimages, istockphoto
The UK?’, I must’ve been asked a few times, ‘Why travel to the UK? What’s there to see, and isn’t it expensive?’
I’m nearing the end of my fourth decade on planet Earth, and unlike many South Africans my age, hadn’t ever set foot on the land of my fore-fore-fore-fathers. Make no mistake – I’m African, but it’s only natural to wonder about where you come from. And in my case, my ancestors were an eclectic mix from Europe, and a significant branch were common working folk in England and Wales. But do we really ever need a reason to travel and explore?
Efficient commuter train systems tend to get the better of me; I’m more used to the laidback ‘will-they-come-on-time-or-at-all’ feel of Cape Town’s MetroRail. So after touching down at Heathrow, I’m a bit baffled figuring out where to go, which Tube ticket to buy, and then which of the plethora of tunnels under London to womble down into in the hope of resurfacing in the right place. But soon it makes a semblance of sense – a rule of thumb: don’t ever stop abruptly in any of the Underground walkways, or you’ll have a crowd of ten bumping into you in no time. Also, mind the gap. Bunking down with some friends in London for two nights lets me recharge, and then I’m more than ready to set off for some touring and exploring.
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
First it’s via an overground train to Stratford-upon-Avon, historically quite significant mainly because of William Shakespeare, the most famous English poet, playwright and actor of them all. The Brits seem to love their hedges; blurring by outside the train windows, kilometre upon kilometre of hedges divide up the deep green countryside. And something else I’m not used to has also just happened – a friendly, smiling conductor (they exist!) has just clipped my ticket with his old ticket-clipping device, and for a moment I wonder when we’ll be arriving at Hogwarts.
In Stratford, using Google Maps to navigate, I opt to walk and wheel my suitcase through the ancient streets to The Arden Hotel. As a South African, it is mind-blowing to be looking up at buildings lining the roadside that are centuries older than my entire country.
A walking tour the next day reveals the attractions of this picture-book-perfect town. First, my guide Roger Bailey and I stroll through the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatres, and enjoy the view of the town from the top of the tower. Shakespeare’s a particularly big deal at the moment, as 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death, so even more activity than usual is on the go in town.
Perched right on the River Avon, the theatre was beautifully refurbished in 1932 for some £19 million, but signs of the original stage have been deliberately left behind. A pleasant amble down the river and we’re standing inside the 806-year-old Holy Trinity Church. Roger seems well amused that I consider 800 years very old, but living in the UK has skewed his perspective a little, I think.
Later, I really get into the swing of the local festivities, getting dressed up in traditional schoolmaster’s garb from the 1500s at the very grammar school Shakespeare attended – a school that’s still operating to this day.
Anne Hathaway’s family home has been beautifully restored.
Anne Hathaway’s cottage, restored to its original condition, is my last stop before departing Stratford. Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, and local gossip has it that she was 26 (and pregnant!), and William 18, when they decided to tie the knot way back in 1582.
Visiting the house where Shakespeare was born, walking through the streets of the village and then exploring the Hathaway family home offers a brief but informative window into the lives of this influential couple.
Lewis Stallard meets me at my hotel the following morning. Lewis is a proud Welshman, co-owner of Present PR and my guide for the next couple of days, an all-round great guy and, very soon, a friend too. Perhaps it’s because I have a healthy dose of Welsh blood running through my veins that we get on so well?
The drive to Wales and on through Snowdonia National Park is, in a word, spectacular. We pass by towering hills covered with lush green grass and vast stretches of heavily wooded fields and valleys – ancient forests where fierce battles were fought in the Middle Ages. As we near the coast, the hills become taller – mountains, even – and then the rain starts to pelt the roof of the car as though it’s trying to strip off the paint. For the Welsh, I think this isn’t out of the ordinary – it’s midsummer and Lewis doesn’t even raise an eyebrow – and as quickly as it starts, it stops, leaving the hills glistening in the soft sunlight.
2016 is the ‘Year of Adventure’ in Wales, which means that pulse-racing activities galore are in store for me. But we’re not going to neglect the area’s rich history … and that means castles! Big, magnificent, centuries-old castles! As it turns out, I’m a little bit obsessed with them, but that is probably as a direct result of recently binge-watching Game of Thrones.
Snowdonia National Park in Wales: a place of raw beauty and tons of adventure activities.
Harlech Castle, dramatically perched on the coast, is first up, and wow, what a specimen! Harlech was constructed by Edward I between 1282 and 1289, and was an integral part of a number of significant wars fought in the centuries that followed. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site. I spend easily two hours strolling the grounds, climbing the ramparts, and imagining how tough it must have been to live and survive in the Middle Ages.
We overnight at Hotel Portmeirion (a strange and wonderful place – see sidebar), and then the next day is when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Zip World Velocity at Penrhyn Slate Quarry, near Bethesda on the periphery of the national park in North Wales, is the fastest zip line in the world. Kitted up in goggles, overalls and harnesses, first we tackle the Little Zipper to find our ‘air legs’. At 420m in length, and at a maximum speed of just 65 km/h, my heart rate is only slightly elevated by the bottom of the run.
Up next, though, is the main event: the Big Zipper. This run clocks in at 1 560m long, and you hurtle down at 165 km/h, head first, with a total drop in altitude of 219m! At the bottom, having soared over the entire quarry lake, both my legs are jelly, my ears are freezing, and I have a smile I can’t wipe off my face. Lewis is ex-Royal military, so ‘action’ is his middle name (think Bear Grylls, but cooler), but even he looks exhilarated.
Transforming slate mines into places of fun seems to be the in thing here in Wales. It makes for quite a contrast – places where people toiled away their entire lives, eking out a living wage, are now where families head to have fun together. I like the juxtaposition – formerly scarred spaces are now being repurposed, primarily with enjoyment, job creation and enticing tourists as the motivation.
The Welsh Highland Railway takes you into Snowdonia National Park.
With that in mind, our next stop is Bounce Below, a former underground slate mine that has been rigged up with multiple levels of netting, and each level linked by industrial tube slides. All of that may sound a little odd, because it is, but it’s also a blast. I bounce around for more than an hour in the bracing air of this surreal subterranean setting, surrounded by adults and kids alike, all of us smiling, laughing and squealing in delight.
All the hype leaves me aching, rather literally, to sit back and relax for a bit, and we get to do just that on the little Welsh Highland Rail stream train on the ride up through Snowdonia National Park to Beddgelert. Again with the rain lashing down, we pull into the station of what is possibly the most archetypal medieval town I’ve ever seen. Beautiful stone buildings line the streets, and the ancient two-arch stone bridge stands sturdily against the fast-flowing waters of the river. After our stroll about in the pouring rain, it takes the postmaster a few minutes to figure out the rate for me to mail a postcard back to South Africa, and then we board the stream train for the journey back.
Later, on our way to Chateau Rhianfa for the night, we pull over in the town with arguably the longest place name in the world. Lewis easily pronounces Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrn-drobwllllantysiliogogogoch, before I hop out for an obligatory photo.
Conwy Castle and its walled town need to be on the itinerary of every visitor to Wales. Built by Edward I between 1283 and 1289, at a cost of £15 000 – an exorbitant amount at that time – the castle has also been instrumental in numerous conflicts over the centuries. Now, though, it’s awe-inspiring to wander around in its spectacular setting on a coastal ridge overlooking the River Conwy.
Wales has many ancient castles, of which Conwy is one of the most impressive.
The last stop on the Wales leg of my journey is also possibly the most bizarre. As I drop into my first wave at Surf Snowdonia, it can’t believe I’m riding a perfectly formed two-metre-high wave, in a 300m-long artificial lake, where as recently at 2007 an aluminium factory once stood. It’s truly a remarkable place, and is making surfing so much more accessible. There is also a crash-and-splash lagoon, where your mates can launch you high up into the air from, well, a floating ‘blob’, as well as a new restaurant that serves delicious pizza and craft beer – and a surf shop.
Then, changing it up from the hotels we had been staying in, we overnight in centrally heated camping pods, with double-glazed windows, right up next to the big wave pool. These Welsh folk certainly know how to improvise.
Hours after saying cheers to Lewis and leaving Wales by train, I’m strolling through the scholarly streets of Oxford, back in England. Everything about this city is centred around the university which, dating all the way back to 1096, is the oldest in the English-speaking world. The grand old buildings make it a striking place, tucked in and around the wide River Thames. It appears to be graduation weekend, because I’m dodging a million young people and their parents milling about in their formal clothes, all headed to different function venues. My somewhat less austere shorts-and-T-shirt vibe makes me feel decidedly out of place.
Certainly for most South Africans, holidaying in the UK is costly, but if you can save, plan carefully, and stick to a budget, it’s a very rewarding country to travel through and explore. The long history alone makes it intriguing, which in the major centres contrasts sharply with crisp modernity. The cosmopolitan mix of people in the country, pretty much everywhere, keeps things extra interesting. But it all seems to work; there’s something for everyone, from rich culture to quaint pubs, castles to adventure activities … and more hedges than you’ll ever need.
GOOD TO KNOW
Where to stay
The Arden Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon, www.theardenhotelstratford.com
Directly across the road from the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatres, this 45-room boutique hotel is elegantly styled, yet still homely and welcoming. It’s also wonderfully central for walking through the town, or along the River Avon.
Portmeirion, North Wales, www.portmeirion-village.com
At Portmeirion, we stayed at Castell Deudraeth Hotel, a neo-Gothic mansion added to the range of accommodation in 2001. The castell fuses contemporary style with original period details. The eccentric little village of Portmeirion stands on the hills above Dwyryd estuary. It was the brainchild of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who acquired the land in 1925, and who only completed his dream project in 1975, when he was already in his nineties. It was loosely modelled on an Italian fishing village, and really needs to be seen to be believed.
Chateau Rhianfa, Isle of Anglesey, North Wales, www.chateaurhianfa.com
Built in the 1840s, this character-filled boutique hotel offers its guests spectacular views from the Isle of Anglesey across the Menai Strait to the mainland.
Holiday Inn, Oxford, www.holidayinn.com
At just under five kilometres from the city, and a simple bus ride, Holiday Inn Oxford is well positioned to make your stay in this university town as enjoyable and convenient as possible.
Plan your trip
Several organisations assisted me in the planning of my trip. To ease the stress of arranging a holiday in the UK, make a point of visiting these websites for helpful suggestions, solid advice, recommended activities, routes to travel and places to stay.
South African passport holders require a visa when travelling to the United Kingdom. Depending on the exchange rate, and the type of visa you require, expect to fork out around R1 800.
Source: AA Traveller