Long ago, Pat and I started talking about how to use sabbaticals effectively. We both agreed that we should use them to broaden our horizons. I speak German, so I always voted for Germany; Pat was more biased towards places where she could understand what the locals were saying. (Of course that meant not going to New Jersey or Alabama, but neither of us saw that as a drawback.) Since Pat also has relatives in the United Kingdom, that was her first choice.
As you know, I eventually won the, um,
we compromised by making an extended trip to Britain and Wales
as soon as we could.
As an engineer, I was of course excited about the idea of traveling via one of the greatest marvels of our time, the Chunnel. So we took a ferry. I don't know where the people who set Chunnel prices live, but it's definitely not on this planet.
But driving to the ferry on the Autobahn (better known as
freeway where going 100 makes you think you've left the car in
reverse) was wonderful for this ex-Montanan. I just wish
they'd provided earplugs to shut out Pat's screams of terror.
You can get from Karlsruhe to the French coast in a day (heck,
on the Autobahn you can get to the Moon in a day), but
we wanted to enjoy ourselves, so we drove until we started to
wear out and then picked a random freeway exit in Belgium.
After meandering a bit, we found a quaint little
hotel with plenty of space. There, we re-learned the hard
Always ask to see the room first. We
didn't, and wound up with an attic bed that sagged more than
most hammocks. So Pat tried the folding bed, which promptly
collapsed and trapped her. Laughing too hard to get up, she
called to me for help. I briefly debated leaving her there
until I could find my camera, but chivalry (and a reluctance
to hire a Belgian divorce lawyer) won out.
Catching the ferry to Dover brought the first of many surprises. Britain is in the European Community, so I hadn't expected border controls. Wrong. They wanted to see our passports (which Pat had cleverly brought) and proof (which I'd left behind) that we weren't going to stay in Britain for the rest of our lives and live off government handouts. I explained that we'd considered welfare as an option, but the Queen seemed to have a lock on that lifestyle, and they let us aboard.
Once in England, we explored some nearby beaches and then
started looking for a hotel for the night. Pat quickly
located a B&B with space, but they wanted £55/night.
That's 100 bucks! I exclaimed.
We can definitely do
better than that.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And in case I haven't mentioned it, wrong.
The mildly embarrassing news is that £55 was the least we paid for a room anywhere. UK prices are apparently set by the same people who built the Chunnel. (I eventually learned to deal with sticker shock by pretending that the prices were in dollars, thus postponing the pain until the credit-card bill arrived a month later.)
The really embarrassing news is that Pat had
found the only free room in all of southern England.
Apparently the entire national population travels to Surrey in
August, booking their rooms approximately three centuries in
advance. We drove from town to town, looking for
Vacancy signs, occasionally stopping to ask for
suggestions. Eventually somebody told us that we'd have to go
to the London ring road, a good hour north, to find a room.
Wrong again. The ring road has rest stops to end all rest
stops: mini-malls that have gas, restaurants, shopping,
playgrounds, groceries, Internet connections, and even
hotels—hotels with no room.
Our branch at Heathrow
has space, they told us. Only Heathrow was another hour
around the ring. It was midnight before we finally collapsed
into a bed.
That experience established the theme for our UK visit: driving in circles. One of our guidebooks suggests that if you can't figure out which exit to take from a roundabout, you should just go around again. We applied that principle to our entire trip, not just in roundabouts, but in entire cities and counties. Lost outside London? Drive around the ring; it only takes five or six hours. Lost in Britain? Drive around the island; it only takes a few days.
So on we went (after reserving a chain-hotel room!) to Avebury, site of some cool prehistoric ruins, and thence to Stonehenge. Stonehenge is really easy to find—if you're coming from London. If you're coming from nearby Avebury, they're doing construction on every road between you and your destination. Even the detours have detours. But Stonehenge is worth it, even though the sheep have the best view.
After taking a (financial) bath in Bath, we stopped by the much-promoted Horse World, an equine rescue society turned tourist attraction. Xandie's second biggest smiles came on the giant near-vertical slide that ended in a pool of plastic balls, but the highlight of the day was her first ride on a full-sized horse. Watching that made all the prior tribulations worthwhile.
On we went to Usk.
Usk? you ask,
Is that a
Sort of. Usk is where Pat's ancestors hail from. It's a lovely
little town in Wales with the obligatory castle and only about
800 people. Xandie was delighted to learn that she had
(third) cousins her own age. Pat, on the other hand, was
determined to see the pub that her
grandfather Wise had visited semi-religiously.
It's right across
the street, explained her cousin Dora. Off we went for a
Only the place seemed awfully brightly lit, not at all the
typical Victorian pub that we'd heard about. When we left,
Pat spotted another pub on the opposite corner. That must be
the culprit. In we went for a second pint. By the time we
finished, it certainly seemed like the right place.
But when we got back to Dora's, we learned just how wrong one can go in Usk. There are 13 pubs in Usk, and three of them are at that intersection. So off we went again the next night, third time lucky (by process of elimination). We even walked in circles in the UK, but damn did we have a good time!
Our next stop was Lincoln, home of some family friends. Bob Markham, a retired history teacher, took us on a tour of Lincoln Cathedral (immense) and Lincoln Castle, once a prison. Xandie loved the castle, since she is fascinated by the idea of imprisoned princesses (she is always tying her dolls up). One of the lowlights of our visit was the prisoners' chapel, where each inmate had a separate booth that didn't allow sitting and could be checked by the preacher to be sure nobody had fallen asleep. I just had to try the complex door system, where each inmate's presence caused the next to be locked in. Unfortunately, the rather elderly locks malfunctioned, and when it was time to leave they wouldn't open. Pat had become quite unhappy by the time Bob used a classic engineer's technique (brute force) to set us free.
With our time growing short, we headed back. After a pleasant night in a French hotel, we stopped to refuel (UK gas prices are very high, so we'd postponed tanking up).
Once again, oops. It was Sunday, and the gas station wasn't
staffed. The pumps took credit cards, but not our kind.
Desperate, I approached a woman who was filling her own car.
I had intended to ask where I could find another station, but
my French failed under the pressure. All I could come up with
was a helpless look and
I don't have a card.
The lady pondered for a long minute, started to give me
directions, and then stopped herself.
Suivez-moi, she said, and then, seeing my
Away we went onto the freeway. Off again at the next exit,
and down the road towards a refinery.
Oh, that's why she
led us, said Pat.
It's cheap because it's by the
refinery, but it's away from the freeway. But the woman drove
all the way around a roundabout and headed back the way we'd
come. Had we missed spotting the station? She must be
heading home now, wondering why the heck these idiot tourists
were still tailing her. Sure enough, she got onto the freeway
in the opposite direction. Man, were we stupid! Here we were
wasting our last drops of diesel, going in circles because we
couldn't spot a gas station.
But there was method to her madness. Without ever
merging, she led us to an on-the-freeway gas station. It was
the only way to get there. Sure
enough, they took cash. We never even got a chance to thank
her. But I'll always remember that
delivered with exactly the same accent and solemnity that
Jacques the crab uses in
Our final stop was in Koblenz, Germany, where we walked along the Rhine, climbed a huge monument, and celebrated a successful vacation. Then we got back on the Autobahn and missed the exit for Karlsruhe because it was on a fold of the map. (How is it that map designers always manage to put the critical information on a fold? They must take special evil-origami courses.) But it was OK, because we stumbled onto another route that might have even been faster.
And we didn't even have to go in a circle.