Here we are. One week in and I've just about finished up with my time in the British Isles. (at least until I come back to Ireland before my flight out)
My first impressions of London were awe and appreciation. Nothing changed that and I'm damn sure it's one of the greatest cities the world has ever known.
But damn expensive! Plan on paying twice the reasonable cost for everything. Also, you'll fall in love with something, I guarantee it. Whether it's postcards, souvenirs, photographs or (in my case) the 99 flake ice cream cone. Accept it, budget for it and embrace it.
And keeping with the notion of advice; Pack light. Pack light, pack light pack light. Oh, and if you can manage: Pack Light!
Listen to gobackpacking.com, listen to all the guidebooks in the world and listen to me. Buy sturdy underwear, use a smaller backpack, don't bring everything you'll need, just pack light. Every single aspect of your trip will be easier, happier and swifter because of it.
Even more, don't condescend to the locals. It's far better to overestimate a man than to be caught off-guard and foolish. But I think you'll find you never really can overestimate someone completely.
Trust your instincts. When in doubt, walk. It's far easier to correct a mistaken hour's long march than a costly cab ride. It's also better for you and important to build yourself up for the ordeal to come.
Keep in mind what the traffic pattern is and if you have time, walk about in the city you're touring. It helps. A lot.
Someone in London was gracious enough to paint helpful signs pointing which way pedestrians must look before crossing. Don't rely on it though, as it doesn't extend outside the city. A person of modest intelligence should suss out a way to avoid oncoming cabs and buses.
Speaking of which, don't doubt what a bus driver will do. Those damn things are maneuverable as all hell and some of the drivers are certifiable.
I count myself very lucky, the museums I've visited are all spectacular, un-crowded and easily navigated. A little more advice, bring a student ID. If you aren't a student, beg, borrow or steal one. Have a fake one made, you'll more than recoup the cost. Seriously, major savings.
In London I hit all the biggies: The British Museum, Portrait Gallery, National Gallery (which was hosting a Vermeer exhibit) and the Imperial War Museum. I spend a good time wandering the streets and becoming accustomed to them. This is a ridiculously beautiful and clean city, if hopelessly confusing.
But trust the Tube. It's your best friend and most dear companion. Learn it and it will never do you wrong, in spite of security alerts. Just Mind the Gap.
Nightlife is equally wild and wooly. It seems the whole city likes to go out, quite possibly it does. Just know to enter a club you'll need dress shoes, your beloved sneakers won't cut it. If you keep your eyes and ears open on your opening foray into the city you'll be able to pick out events and parties that might interest you.
Saturday night I went to a rave at Brixton Academy in the South of London. Called “Pendragon” it was extraordinary. The promoters are 10 years old and have co-opted a showmanship that a certain Spanish isle has made notorious. Excellent DJ's and Live PA's. A very good time.
Don't be afraid to talk to people. I've yet to meet a surly glower or unhappy face. Also- avoid the tourist traps. In short order you'll learn to spot them, Loch Ness, Edinburgh's “Dynamic Earth” center, you know what they're like. They're the same places you've stopped with Ma and Pa on those endless road trips as a child.
Edinburgh is striking. Just arriving at the train station you're surrounded by historic and impressive buildings with the Castle lording overhead. I took an overnight train from London, arriving less than refreshed but the refreshing Scottish air soon cleared out the kinks.
Taking my initial walk, I wound up leaving the city proper and climbing one of the 7 surrounding hills. Not as high as Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Crags offered a gorgeous panoramic and a hearty climb.
After chatting with a Canadian on my way down, I hopped a whistle-stop tour bus around the city and say both the Edinburgh Castle and the afore mentioned tourist trap.
The next morning, after a stay at a modestly priced hostel, I traveled ahead to Inverness where I again spend a pleasant day aboard a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. To my disappointment, Inverness Castle (of Shakespeare's Macbeth) was detonated by the Jacobites in the 17th century and the one standing today (an serving as a sheriff station) had little historic value.
After a quaint evening in the Bazpacker's hostel, whose common room combines the quiet B&B environment with a college dorm's community feeling, I hopped a tour bus to Loch Ness.
Again, a tourist trap, but a diverting one. One surprise is that the Nessie Information Center has a walk through presentation that seems to utterly disprove the Monster's existence. This, unfortunately, precedes the boat cruise. Needless to say, our enthusiasm was ailing while on the boat.
All through out this I've found England and Scotland to be delightful places peopled with delightful personalities. And clean. Though I challenge you to find a rubbish bin within a city block of you. I swear, in Philadelphia there would be four on a corner, all empty with trash at their feet. Truly amazing.
Anyway, this is costing me a bloody fortune as it is so I'll be on my way. But I'll just add one thing. The United Kingdom is the perfect place to launch you backpacking adventure. It reduces the concerns of a first-time traveler to security and scheduling. Allowing you to become accustomed to timetables, navigation and sightseeing without the added pains of culture shock and language barriers.
But the bleemin' exchange rate is rot… and there is the tiny threat of going native.
Cheerio, I'm off to tea.
His Lordship, Jonathan Brereton Lee
PS Apparently, Jonathan is Hebrew for God's Gift. Well, duh.