The last leg of the trip was a bit of a trip down memory lane, for two different reasons. Cardiff was a place I stayed as a child while my Father was attending the University of Wales, and Costwalds was the quaint little English village I had always fantasised about as a child, as I read books from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.
Wales. Aside from the fact that it valued its Welsh heritage (you can see Welsh translations for every road sign), it is a beautiful region in the South West of Britain. In particular, we spent most of our time in Cardiff, to reminisce some wonderful childhood memories growing up. The city centre around Queen Street is where it is most alive, and tucked at the corner of the street is the large stone walls that hid the Cardiff Castle. Cardiff Castle had stunned me as a child, and still does to this day. The grounds made you imagine English warriors in heavy steel suits, and the old castle high above the ground makes you fantasise about being a princess in a tower and rescued by a knight in a shining armour. And that’s how you begin to have absurd expectations for real life, kids.
When night falls and it’s time to be adults again, Cardiff Bay is pretty nice place for a quiet hang-out. There are varieties of restaurants by the sea, and a particular good night would be to have a sunset dinner in one of the better restaurants, and have a stroll afterwards with some gelato in one hand. The wind smells of the salty sea, and the loud drunks are pretty fun to watch.
Once upon a time, there was a small village with grey solid stone houses lining the small paved streets. All of the houses had chimneys, and as you walked past the little tea shops and antique boutiques, you swore you could smell the heavy scent of fresh baked cookies in the air. You walked towards the bakery, and along the way you passed a small creek with ducks swimming around in organised chaos, with a puppy barking enthusiastically at them.
That’s probably what you will find written in an Enid Blyton book, but it is most definitely something you will see in Costwalds. Costwalds is the perfect place to go and do nothing. The little village fed every single childhood fantasy I have ever had when I read books of faraway English lands. I have been on a silent quest to seek possible retirement places when I grow old and cranky and smoke cigars, and this place is the first one on the list. It is a place where you wouldn’t mind having cups of tea all day, and stare at the clear creek waters while sitting on a bench all evening.
Ahh the English countryside. Play some Tom Odell in your head, and drive down the dark grey road with an even greyer overcast sky. You’ll see beautiful hillsides, primed and green. They are the kind of hillsides you’ll want to run around with a long skirt on, like Anne of the Green Gables. You’ll see herds of sheep. You’ll see vintage, brick houses that you’d like to invite yourself into for a cuppa. There are sights, towns and small cities between these long, winding roads that are worth visiting. Here are some highlights I thought was worth visiting along the London-Wales route.
A beautiful, Romanesque town with extensive, historical remains of the Roman Empire. The buildings are square with tall, long square windows. The central has gorgeous old churches and old roman baths to visit (for £12/person), interesting eateries and high-end shops. Walking around town on foot is the best mode of exploration. As the day turns darker you should drive up the hill around the local houses to engross yourself in the top-of-the-hill view of the entire town – breathtaking.
Well of course I had to come and see this. General observation: you’re better off not buying the ticket and taking a walk through the woods and fields to see the Stonehenge from outside the barbed-wire gates. It is a wonderful walk across the cattle field on a windy sunny day, and as you walk through the small woods you would see the little gems that are the blackberries growing in the bushes, and wild flowers. The Stonehenge itself was quite impressive, and if you have a wild imagination like me, you would start picturing the ancient Neolithic community doing all kinds of worships here.
Once, when I was younger, my parents took us to visit the Bristol Zoo. It was a wonderful experience, but coming back as a full-grown adult to this city seemed like a whole other affair. We stayed at a backpacker’s lodge, a youth hostel called YHA Bristol. It was located next to the river with rows of waterfront cafes, and the place was unbelievably clean and efficient. I remember having a massive headache when we arrived, and was glad that the place was not at all rowdy and loud as I have imagined it to be.
Where to Eat: If you’re in Bath, it might be worthwhile to have a meal at Jamie’s Italian (of the renowned Jamie Oliver). The ambience is great, and the pasta is even better. In general I would say the Cornish pasties are a delight, eaten warm out of their paper bags while you’re walking down the street. Roadtrip snacks? Fresh sandwiches from the gas stations, and Walkers chips.
Everybody has a certain idea about London. A specific idea that I have about London is how to enjoy it without spending too much money. When it comes to traveling, my key belief is this; spend money where it’s worth it and skimp the costs everywhere else. You want to enjoy your travels and try many new things, but you don’t want to come back home and eat instant noodles for the rest of the month either. So, whatever matters the most to you – be it dining, buying mementos, signing up for local activities – spend money on that, and for everything else, go low-key and stick to a minimalist’s budget.
Here are some things I thought was worth doing around London. Some of them cost a bit more, some of them cost nothing at all, but they are mainly things I look for when I travel.
1. Free Orange Umbrella Tour around London – This is a tour that is free of charge, and very, very enjoyable. You can google about them, or their fliers are everywhere around London. This is how you do it; 1. Look up the schedule of tours. They have many kinds of tours, like the history tour, Jack the Ripper tour etc etc. 2. With the schedule, they will tell you where to meet (usually at a subway station). When you are there, find a guy with an orange umbrella. This is your tour guide. 3. Follow the guy everywhere. You will have a lot of fun, know a lot of new things about London, visit hidden gems, meet other people and burn a hell of a lot of calories 4. Upon dismissal, you may tip the guy (you will feel obliged, because they will be that good).
2. Eat lobsters at Burgers & Lobsters – I always, always associate good travels with good food. At Burgers & Lobsters, you pay 20 quids for a whole lobster, steamed or grilled. Or even better, a lobster sandwich! 20 quids is a pret-ty good deal for a lobster, if you ask me. The restaurant has a nice ambience about it, perfect for a long dinner with friends after that free tour.
3. Walk around the Big Ben area with a water bottle and Walkers chips – a small bag of Walkers chips costs 50p. But the enjoyment of snacking while walking around the old historical buildings and sitting around staring at people is priceless.
4. Shop at Primark for cheap, fabulous clothes – The clothes are cheap, much trendier than the ones back home, and did I mention the clothes are cheap?
5. Eat Peking Duck at Oodle Noodle – Oh, sure. You’re in London and you’re eating Chinese food. But Peking duck at Oodle Noodle restaurant is worth the dinner queue. You’ll find the place swarmed with Malaysians, and for good reason, I say. Nothing like crispy-skin Peking duck served with thin wraps, a simple side salad and hoisin sauce.
6. Rent an apartment – Websites like AirBnB.com, TripAdvisor, & HomeAway.com provides excellent options for cheap apartments. Apartments have facilities like a kitchen, washing machine and microwave. This means you can save on laundry money, make your own breakfast and preheat leftovers, all of which could save you a lot of money.
7. Go into the smaller streets – take a trip down the beaten path and you’ll be surprised at the amount of hidden interests you’ll be able to see. For example, the small pub called The Cheshire Cheese, which originated way back in the 1850s. It has seen many famous literary figures such as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as its regulars. You can even get a meal here for a reasonable price.
Renting a car and driving cross country is a great way to see places, especially if there’s more than one of you. If you maximize the car capacity, chances are the costs are the same or even less than taking the public transport. We embarked on a week-long drive from London to Wales, taking our time to make stops whenever we wanted and exploring smaller towns and countryside. Here are some of our main stops and what to look forward to in these places.
The first stop was Oxford. Why Oxford? Because Lewis Carrol was inspired to write Alice’s mystical quirky Wonderland here. Because Harry Potter was filmed at the college library. Because I just wanted to know how it feels to be super smart. We stayed at a bed and breakfast, small but with a lot of character, and travelled on foot around the main part of the university town. It seemed like it was a town within a university, instead of the other way around. People moved around with bicycles, and at night the students hang out at the small delis and cafes along the street. There were small little shops selling all sorts of thing – antiques, graduation robes and Italian delicacies.
The old centre was like something pulled out of a medieval history handbook. You can spend hours just wandering around this part of the university, visiting its old library, churches that are turned into lecture halls, and small cafes overlooking the college compound. The library is worth a visit, not just to see where Harry Potter was filmed, but also to marvel at the thousands of old books chained to the wall, and listen to the history of the library itself. After that, you may reward yourself a coffee or a small parfait in one of the cafes. One that I would recommend is the café right next to the library within a church chamber. There are even seats next to a grave of some famous Whatshisname.
If you’re into outdoorsy things, a popular activity here is punting. It basically means boating along the small river across Oxford. You can also visit the beautiful parks around campus, armed with a sandwich or a bag as pillow for naps under the tree.
Where to Eat: University means globalisation. Globalisation means you can get almost all types of food from around the world along a single main street. Food is not at all a problem around here, and best of all they are mostly catered to a student’s budget. Follow the crowd to see the where the best hangout spots are at night, and the main town is generally safe to walk around at all times.