First, a big thank you to the men and women of Great Britain for Brexit. You made my trip to the UK 20% cheaper. However, even with Brexit, Britain was still expensive. Euro too was terribly high. So google had to play a part. If an IT forensic expert were to examine my laptop, he will find it inundated with “cheap”, “discounts”, “deals”, “bargains”. It was all worth it. We ended up spending just over RM18,000 for 2 people for an excellent 16 day holiday. Yes, that includes flights, accommodation, entrance fees, car rental and food. The exchange rates were an average of RM5.35 and RM4.55 to the £ and € respectively.
After a lapse of 10 years, we had decided to visit Britain again. And, to complete our invasion of the British Isles, we threw Ireland into the mix as well. My plan was to travel to London, then westwards towards Bath and Cardiff before flying to Dublin to begin my self-drive holiday around Ireland. Then back to London for the return flight home. We had considered revisiting the Lake Districts but eventually ruled that out because the travel arrangements were a bit inconvenient and beautiful scenery was secondary after our holidays in New Zealand and Tasmania.
I chose October as the time to go because it was off-peak and I had been arrogant in the belief that Britain and Ireland were the exact opposite of New Zealand weather-wise (April weather), a comfortable 18 degrees. After paying for the flights, I finally decided to check the weather. Little umbrellas and raindrops popped up in each column for every day of our great holiday period. Temperature? High of 12 and low of 5?! Into the luggage go thermals and raincoats.
London – 1 night
Bath – 2 nights
Cardiff – 2 nights
Dublin – 2nights
Oughterard -1 night
Lahinch – 1 night
Killarney – 2 nights
Kilkenny – 1 night
London – 4 nights (with 1 day trip to the Cotswolds)
We arrived at London Heathrow airport late afternoon and took the tube to Earl’s Court station. At £3.10, the tube is a much cheaper option than Heathrow Express or the taxi. I had taken care to book a hotel that is along the tube’s Piccadilly Line. And since the train originates from Heathrow, there is no general commuter traffic to clog up room luggage.
Rushmore Hotel is less than 200 meters away from the tube station so getting there was easy. Unlike where I come from, there are no potholes on the pavement awaiting your unsuspecting luggage wheels. Rushmore at £72 pounds was good value – clean and comfortable with breakfast – but if you are bigger than me, you may get stuck in the shower. The shower stall is certainly not built for lathering movements.
Next was a hunt for food. I had read great reviews on Star Kebab which turned out to be true. Our takeaway of kebab and curry on rice was tasty, generous and reasonably priced. The man who served us, presumably the owner, must have worked before at border control. Although there were plenty of Asians in his shop, he could spot us as tourists by thanking us in Malay. Perhaps we dressed funny.
We were heading to Bath the next morning by National Express bus leaving from Victoria Coach Station. The tickets bought online had cost £5 each.
Bath is normally thrown in as a filler for day trips from London. Like a smorgasbord, you can choose a combination of Stonehenge, Oxford, Stratford, Cotswolds or Windsor Castle. Unfortunately, quantity will inevitably reduce the time you have to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site to a mere one and half hours.
This time round, we were going to stay 2 nights in Bath. Except for the picturesque Chippenham, the bus ride through the countryside to Bath was pretty unremarkable. A few cows here and there. You will know that you have reached Jane Austen territory when uniform blocks of golden-hued Georgian buildings loom in rows along undulating plains. This same sight must have greeted the traveller more than two hundred years ago. You could almost hear horse drawn carriages clip-clopping along the cobble stones.
Bath is best experienced by just wandering around. Follow the lead of Jane Austen’s heroines and walk to the Roman Baths or take your constitutional along the Parade gardens to best be seen. Except in 21st century Bath, you won’t be noticed at all amongst the throngs of tourists. Expect to queue to hand over £15 to get into the Roman Baths.
All the main sights – Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, the Circus, the Royal Crescent, the Assembly Rooms, Holburne Museum, Pulteney Bridge and the Jane Austen Centre are within walking distance of one another. There is no need for the hop-on-hop-off bus.
Speaking of walks, I highly recommend the 2 hour walking tour which is available on Saturdays and Sundays. It starts from the Roman Baths in the Bath Abbey Churchyard and is conducted by The Mayor of Bath’s Corp of Honorary Guides who will regale you with loads of tales. Did I mention that it is free?
Bath was to be our maiden Airbnb experience. It was quite easy to pick Maria’s from other AirBnB postings. “Flat walk from the city centre” did the trick. (Young grasshoppers, don’t be puzzled, you will appreciate how important this is when you reach my age). In her advert, Maria had also written that her home was near where Jane Austen used to stay. Having enjoyed all Jane Austen’s books, I thought great, I’ll drag the other half along to have a look. Dear Jane turned out to be closer than I could have imagined. From 1801 to 1805, Jane Austen stayed at no. 4 Sydney Place. 211 years later, yours truly stayed next door at no. 5.
Maria’s Airbnb turned out to be the perfect choice. An Italian, she was a most generous host, even giving us a lift to and from the station. Our room with a fireplace (not in use) was spacious and comfortable. When we opened our door in the morning, a breakfast tray with homemade bread would be waiting for us outside.
There are plenty of places to eat in Bath. You can have afternoon tea at the Pump Room next to the Roman Baths. Through the long glass windows, one can peak into the posh interior where diners crook their little pinkies as they raise dainty cups of Darjeeling and Earl Grey to their lips. We did not go to the Pump Room unfortunately, nor try the Sally Lunn bun. But what we did have was a very good early bird dinner at the French restaurant, Le Bistrot Pierre. A two course dinner was £14.90.
Next stop, Cardiff by rail. Price, £5.90.
We had been advised that Cardiff was not terribly interesting. Internet searches too seemed to imply that too when a stadium visit is the second top Cardiff attraction. But we wanted to have a taste of Wales. Besides, Cardiff has an airport to fly out to Dublin.
Since we had travelled to Cardiff by train, it entitled us to buy the Plusbus (£3.40) for cheap whole day bus travel. We stayed at Sleeperz Hotel which is almost next door to the train station in the city centre. Sleeperz is in a great location and the price was good at slightly less than 100 pounds for 2 nights.
St Fagan’s National History Museum is listed as the number one attraction in Cardiff. It is an open air museum for you to experience life as it was in Wales with cottages, farm and craft buildings re-erected from various parts of Wales. Entrance is free.
Cardiff Castle is also one of the top rated sights in Cardiff. To go or not to go, that is the question. Except for the opulent apartments, it seemed a waste of £12 to see a few broken down medieval walls. But the gothic fantasy of the decor was interesting. Solution – Castell Coch, which was owned and designed by the same 2 men – the immensely rich Lord Bute and William Burgess.
To visit Castell Coch, we bought the 8 pound Network Dayrider which allows unlimited bus travel for the day. There is an uphill climb from the bus stop to Castell Coch but it was worth it. The whimsical design somehow reminded me of Gaudi’s creations in Barcelona. At £6, its entrance fee is half that of Cardiff Castle. From Castell Coch, it was a short bus ride to Caerphilly Castle to have a look at its leaning tower and moat.
Cardiff city has many beautiful old buildings which reveal quaint shopping arcades once you step into them. But you may not see them if you just walk along he main St Mary Street. Go behind St Mary Street and all will be revealed. Start from the modern Central Library and walk up the bustling street. Modern malls sit sit by side with old arcades. You will also come across the Cardiff Market. It has stalls selling food, fresh produce, meat, vinyl records, jewellery and household wares. But don’t expect a big market. We bought cheap fruits (e.g. 500g grapes were only £1) and good Chelsea buns.
Cardiff Bay was a pleasant, albeit unexpectedly short stop. I had originally thought of spending the afternoon ending with dinner there but we quickly finished our visit to the Millennium Centre, Pierhead, Senedd and the Norwegian Church. The atmosphere was strangely subdued but perhaps it was because it was autumn. Without the benefit of having the BBC in my childhood, the Dr Who Experience did not hold any interest for me. But Roald Dahl does. Up and down the Mermaid Quay we trudged looking for the Roald Dahl plass before realising that the concrete open area with columns was it! Hmmm.
I have to admit the advice regarding Cardiff was right. It does not have Bath’s character or London’s vibrancy. On the plus side, Cardiff is easy on the wallet and there are not the masses of people. You can always take a day trip out of Cardiff to see the scenery of West Wales or to Blaenafon World Heritage Site (the main attraction being Big Pit where you go into the Earth for a real coal mine experience). Having said that, I still enjoyed my stay at Cardiff.
On Welsh food, the cawl and rarebit are their traditional dishes. For that, we went to Madame Fromage. The lamb cawl, a broth served with pieces of chunky bread was flavourful. But we left the rarebit (essentially cheese on toast) alone. We also went to the New York Deli and ordered the White House Special, a hoagie so crammed with slabs of meat and cheese that you will get a lock jaw if you eat it like a normal sandwich. Delicious!
Next stop, Dublin, Ireland.
The T9 airport bus offers regular bus services to the airport at £5 a trip. To plan your bus journeys around Cardiff city and surrounds, use the Traveline Cymru website / app.