Country Counter: 19, 20
Cities Visited: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Windermere
Timeframe: December 2016
My first trip abroad was to London in 2005. I don’t know why my dad specifically wanted to visit the UK first – maybe it was some colonial attachment he felt. I was always rooting for the USA, but it’d have to wait for another 4 years. So, a bit grudgingly, I agreed to visit England. I don’t remember minute details of the trip though, as it took place more than 10 years ago and a lot has happened since then.
Buckingham Palace (2005)
However, there are some things I can recall clearly. For example, we had our first brush with racism on the Tube, moments after we landed in Heathrow. Being too young at that time, the incident left a lasting impression on me as I asked why were we subjected to that. We had just arrived in the country (which had colonised ours for 150 years) and hadn’t done or said anything to anyone. I strongly believe that incident would’ve played out differently if I was the person I am today.
Not to dwell too much on the past and the negative, I remember some of our firsts as well. We tried KFC for the first time in London. I’m not sure, but I think the brand hadn’t reached the Indian shores by then, or hadn’t really taken off. We stayed at the Grange Wellington Hotel, a brief walk from Victoria Terminus and the Big Ben. There was a cricket ground right in front of us, which was a bit in-your-face. Our room had the most ideal location in the hotel, with an extended balcony large enough for two to sit and enjoy a warm cup of coffee as it rained. We visited Windsor Castle on a day trip and took our time outside the Buckingham Palace. We saw the change of guards, Regent’s Park, Hyde Park and Madame Tussauds.
Windsor Castle (2005)
Fast forward ten years. My sister had just finished her Masters in Reading and she invited the family over for graduation. It had been a while since I had seen my family so I got a visa for the UK. My parents had already been to London and Reading thrice after my (pampered) sister arrived, so they said they wanted to visit Scotland.
We flew Ryanair to Glasgow and booked SACO Glasgow right at the city centre. It was very well suited for a family of four. Being in the centre meant we had easy access to everything, and the Christmas Market had popped up right next door. Everything in Glasgow is accessible by foot, if you are up for a small walk.
Glasgow Cathedral seen from Glasgow Necropolis
Notable places to see are Glasgow Cathedral and the Glasgow Necropolis next to it (climb to the top for amazing views), George Square (where our apartment was located), the Gallery of Modern Art, the Lighthouse and Provand’s Lordship (a medieval period house still intact). We also took the one-day tour to Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands. This is a MUST DO. The drive to and from the Highlands is just mystifying. We passed through Loch Lomond, where we stopped for some amazing photos. Even in December, when the sun doesn’t shine so much, the entire place looked magical. Our driver kept us entertained with history lessons and some of the best Scottish music I’ve ever heard. At Loch Ness, we stopped at Fort Augustus for even greater views of the Loch. I distinctly remember us driving back around 3 or 4 pm, and it was pitch black outside. We could only see the outline of the huge mountains looming around us. Coupled with addictive, foot-tapping music, it was one of the best bus rides of my life. I remember I was sitting behind this gorgeous young lady (bonnie wee lassie as they say) who was traveling alone, and who had been alongside me the entire time. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to say hi. She must have thought I was utterly useless. If you’re reading this, pretty lady from the tour of 10th Dec’16, you’re absolutely right.
Dad at Loch Ness
When we were heading out from Glasgow, a Santa run was being organised. At least two to three thousand people dressed up as Santa Claus took part in the run, and the entire street had the Christmas air to it. We took a train to our next stop – the Lake District. My sister said all her friends had mentioned that she should definitely visit the Lake District before she leaves the UK. Not knowing much about it, we headed out and booked the really cosy and comfortable Orrest Cottage in Windermere. Clean, warm and breakfast included, the place is ideally located just 5 minutes from Windermere station, the supermarket, and is at the start of the climb to the Orrest Head viewpoint. It’ll probably take 15 to 30 minutes to reach the summit, but it is totally worth it. You can see the entire lake and the valley behind.
We took the one-day Ten Lakes Spectacular Tour. Luckily, we were the only customers of the day so we had the entire minivan to ourselves. The tour operator was knowledgeable enough and drove leisurely to ensure we could take our time at the various stops. He even included some spots from other tours which were originally not included, as we were too few and had too much time on our hands. Notable points worth mentioning are Thirlmere, Kirkstone Pass, the rocky and picturesque Honister Pass, Keswick (where we had lunch) and the village of Grasmere, where the gingerbread was invented. We had the chance to dig into some delicious gingerbread from the original store. And in case you missed the Stonehenge like we did, not to worry. The tour includes a stop at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a mini version of the Stonehenge, but equally beautiful, nestled in the lap of valleys.
After two days in Glasgow, we took a train to Edinburgh and stayed at the Safestay hostel. It was pretty neat for the four of us – bunk beds with private bathroom and toilets. Although I choose to walk all around in Edinburgh as well, it isn’t advisable for someone short on time.
View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill
One of our first stops was the Calton Hill. A small hill in the middle of the city provides excellent views, and is featured in almost every picture of Edinburgh. There is a brief climb though. My sister, who’s been there before, suggested we climb up an hour or two before sunset to get the best views, and she was right. The flat hill provides 360-degree views and tons of photo opportunities – Nelson Monument, National Monument of Scotland, Holyrood Palace etc. You can even see Arthur’s Seat at a distance, and it looks majestic.
National Monument of Scotland
View of Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill
The next day, we started off on foot towards Edinburgh Castle. Perched on yet another hilltop with a vast viewing area, the castle shines just after sunrise. We were really lucky to have excellent weather, at least for the month of December in the UK. The stretch up to the castle passes by a lot of other attractions – St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Scotch Whiskey Experience, the Hub – which looks like an ornate church from the outside but is more of a meeting and event center. Keeping the castle in front of you, look on your left and you’ll see the castle which inspired Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. Look south-west, and you’ll again get an amazing view of Arthur’s Seat.
No points for guessing that the Scotch Whiskey Experience was my favourite stop. The largest collection of whiskey in the world, untampered by interference. Only two bottles were affected by the elements and had dried up. The tour included a sampling, a barrel ride and quite the lesson on why Scotland is still the king of producing fine spirits.
Next, we headed up to Holyrood Palace. A half an hour walk led us to the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Tip: walk along the walls of the palace from the outside to reach the foot of Arthur’s Seat. The open landscape is one of the best you’ll ever see, and another fantastic photo spot. Although I wanted to hike up to the summit, my parents wouldn’t have been able to make it to the very top, so I left it for another time. The starting point of the hike upwards is, nonetheless, worth visiting.
The stay in Edinburgh was pretty short and I had really fallen in love with Scotland. That is why when it was time to head back, I was feeling pretty low. The country is full of open landscapes and an overall feel-good vibe, making anyone who visits instantly connect with the environment.
A short flight back, and we were in England again. My family stayed over for a couple of days to help my sister pack up her things and bring her back to India. Visa rules do not allow even the brightest students from top universities who graduate top of their class (case in point – my sister) to stay back, even if they do find work. I, on the other hand, had to be on my way back to France. A chance Facebook post made me realise that one of my friends from school, who I hadn’t seen for 10 years, was residing in London. We decided to meet before I returned, and hence I spent my last day in the capital.
Before meeting up with him, I decided to walk along the Thames from Westminster to the Tower Bridge. I hadn’t been here since 2005 as I mentioned before, and hence decided to see if and how things had changed since my last visit. Armed with a new camera now, I was able to capture a few, world-renowned attractions – some new, like the Shard, and some historic, like Big Ben.
On my way to Victoria Terminal for my ride home, a group of people, orchestrating on the street, were trying to talk to people about Christianity, or their version of it. Completing my MBA amongst a truly multicultural cohort comprising of 24 nationalities has taught me to be more accommodating and appreciative towards differences. Not that I was any different before, but living amongst a diverse group for a year shines a new light on things. So when one of the group approached me and asked if I had five minutes to spare, I politely said yes with a smile. Christmas was around the corner and I didn’t feel like shrugging him off like most of the people passing by.
He was very passionate when he spoke to me, and I patiently listened to him. For well over 15 minutes, I actively engaged and interacted with this man, whose first question to me was “What is your religion?” All said and done, we shook hands and he went back to his group. A minute later, a Hindu group passed by, chanting our religious slogans. To my utter annoyance, this group of African-Christians started hurling abuses towards the Hindu group, while I stood 10 feet away. I thought to myself I just told this guy I’m a Hindu. Then listened to him explaining why Christianity is the only way and why only Jesus can save me (his words not mine). I listened to him because more often than not people are misunderstood and just need someone to listen to them. When people don’t listen, it creates problems. After all that, he now starts insulting my religion, in front of me. He didn’t even wait for me to leave the area. I’m not an ardent follower of religion of course, but I firmly believe that no one should insult another’s faith. The incident once again reminded me of why England doesn’t hold a special space in my heart. From the incident that happened in 2005 to this now, it seems that every time we visit our ‘colonial masters’, things don’t seem to change, no matter what the country tries to portray otherwise. No place, faith or group of people is perfect, but in difficult times like these, one could do with a little bit of compassion towards your fellow human being. Wouldn’t you agree?