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Trip Report - Best of England late June 2018

by C of David & C.
I am still protesting RS's decision to use the fluffy new evaluation form instead of the older more informative form and send them only the italicized comments + a link to this post.

Part I

1) most impt factors in choosing tour
David wanted to "do" England before Brexit made life more difficult. I went along for the ride. Other tour buddies cited interest in history as chief reason and I think that might be the best reason to go. This would also be the tour for someone who likes expansive gardens or has an interest in architecture. There was less interaction with "locals" than on some of our other RS trips, which is a key reason for my traveling with RS.

2) favorite "wow" moment

  • David - Bodnant gardens (on tour) and (off-tour), new Westminster Abbey Queen's Diamnond Jubilee galleries which opened shortly before the tour.
  • C - On tour - Welsh sheep farm, Wells Cathedral. On own, hike to Castlehead near sunset (not Castlerigg stone circle) in Keswick and Westminster Abbey Queen's Diamond Jubilee galleries. Admission to Diamond Jubilee galleries is timed and limited - tickets available online beginning in August 2018 per the abbey website. If that's the case, would reserve in advance - ask your guide when the RS tour of Westminster is likely to end. When we went, tickets were available only in conjunction with visit to abbey (our tour visit counted) and cost £5 - staff said they were trying to determine demand before setting final price. The large print brochures on the walls were very helpful. There are not-too-obvious drawers concealing artifacts that I knew about only because the large print brochure made it obvious that I was missing something. Both our guide, visiting on his own for the first time, and David missed the drawers. Recommend that RS guide scout out the exhibition and point out must-sees to those interested.

3) hotels/meals/experiences - any especially good/bad

  • 3a) all hotels fine - usual RS sort of basic, small but adequate rooms - not counting especially luxurious London hotel (we did get one of the bigger rooms). All but one had hot pots ("electric kettles") - yes! I've adopted our guide's strategy for dealing with hotel coffee (outside of Italy ;) ). Make your own coffee with the help of the hot pot and have tea at the hotel breakfast. (Our guide goes so far as to pack his own French press; I bring packets of Starbucks Via Instant). Only the luxury hotel in (Kensington) London had a working lift. In retrospect, rather than having one really heavy bag (for David) and one fairly light (for C), we should have distributed our stuff while on tour to make one that C could just lift with the balance going into the other bag. Only one or two hotels provided kleenex - seems to be a trend in European hotels these days. All had reasonably good wi-fi and we were able to get our VPN to work at all.

  • 3b) meals on tour decent to good but not fabulous (cutting all restaurants slack for having to serve 25). Try an English beef dish once, but only once. Off-tour, we did what we usually do - look at TripAdvisor in the language of the country we're in (so, not, in this case) and had very good to superb results. Some off-tour restaurants were even mentioned in RS book. Eat off-tour Welsh lamb at your own risk - you will never again be able to eat lamb from anywhere else and the export agreement covering Welsh lamb is now tied up in Trump's stupid trade war. Other things to try: Grasmere Gingerbread (you have only a few minutes to pick it up on the way back from Wordsworth's grave), cheese from a real cheese shop (not the supermarket) and pasties (our guide said try to find the old-fashioned ones made with more rutabaga than meat), but he said the only way to find out if you're getting an "old-fashioned one" is to ask.

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Part II

  • 3c) In addition to #2 above: Especially good - on tour - cricket, folk music. Off-tour - try to attend evensong or other service. Acoustics at York Minster were excellent. At St. Paul's organ drowned out choir. Also off-tour - look at the schedule for concerts at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. We've been to a concert every time we've been in London and have never been disappointed. The acoustics are magical. I saw some negative comments about the timing of the Tower of London part of the visit in other parts of the forum and I think those comments are probably valid for first-time visitors. As this was not our first visit to the Tower, we skipped the Crown Jewels and had a shortened Beef Eater tour (they shortened because of the excessive heat), so we didn't have problems with the itinerary. Having Westminster when we did made it possible for us to linger in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which were a London highlight for us.

4) pace? Any way to make use of your time more efficient? Of the six RS tours we have done, this had the most civilized start time, for the most part 7:30 breakfast with 8:30 or a little later departure time. The extra half hour (leaving at 8:30-8:45 instead of 8:00) makes a huge difference, although we understand why the other tours need to leave earlier. Pace was fine. In some ways, this was the most physically demanding of our six tours - not so much during sightseeing, but because only one hotel had a working lift, so it was necessary to haul bags up as many as four flights of stairs.

5) could front ofc have done anything better?
We always want to know where laundry can be done. In our case: Bath, a couple quick-dry pieces in Conwy hotel sink (but be sure to test dry your clothing at home first - if we had not found the working towel-heater control, even our quick dry stuff might not have dried in time in the cool weather), Keswick, and in London (Kensington). We had a disaster in London because the laundry's dryers were unusually hot and completely destroyed all our clothes (Bobo's Bubbles, the closest self-serve laundromat to the tour hotel). The synthetics completely melted, and the melted synthetics also destroyed all the non-synthetics. The hotel concierge directed us to a local TK Maxx (equivalent to TJ Maxx) where we picked up replacements, but doing so wasn't easy given the uncertain selection and differences between European and US sizes. We were very fortunate that the disaster happened early enough for us to get replacement clothing before the scheduled farewell dinner and that the flimsy replacements were serviceable for the few days we had left in Europe.

6) did our advertising mislead u in any way? No, but to get a better idea of what to expect, look at vids and tour scrapbooks. Of the tours we've been on, this is the one I didn't have a feel for after reading the advertising alone.

7 - 8) rate ur guide: accessible, fair, engaged; clear orientation at ea stop; leadership; speaking and teaching; knowledge of history and art; grasp of contemporary issues. Our guide was from the Bath area and had extensive knowledge of art, history, plant life, architecture, linguistics, food and more, which he shared enthusiastically and with humor. He did a great job all around. One of his especially good hints was to try to imagine what a place would have been like at a particular point in time, even if it's a ruin now.

9) comment on local guides - we had local guides at all the cathedrals (including Westminster Abbey), Stanway Manor, Caernarfon Castle (Conwy), Blenheim and Vindolanda. Our guide warned us that the Blenheim tour had the potential to be fairly dry and that we could take off if we preferred to wander the grounds some more, but the staff member kept things reasonably short and informative. I would have liked more time with the Vindolanda archaeologist. The local guides were otherwise excellent.

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Part III

10) comment on driver - our guide told us completely correctly that we were lucky to have the driver we did, as the backgrounds of the two were quite different and our driver would be able to add his perspective to our guide's. We learned a lot from the driver and as usual for RS drivers, he was also very friendly, helpful and skilled at navigating in and out of tight spots.

Other comments. Would u recommend tour to others? In no particular order:

  • If you are going to London on your own before the trip, don't overload your Oyster card before leaving London. You will get a 15-pound pre-loaded Oyster card from the tour for use on your last days in London. At least in 2018, the Oyster cards have £6.80 daily caps, meaning that the maximum you will be charged on the Underground and buses combined is £6.80 per day. You can't get a refund on the tour Oyster cards, but they can be reloaded. Before leaving London for good, we got refunds for our non-tour Oyster cards and kept the tour Oyster cards which had tiny balances for reuse.
  • If it's been awhile since you've been to the UK, be aware that the UK instituted new currency in the past few years. We got a bit of a shock when merchants wouldn't accept our old currency, but were easily able to exchange the old notes and coins for new at a local bank.
  • Tour earpieces fit audioguide "wands" for Roman baths and Stokesay Castle - especially useful for freeing hands to take pictures while listening. You will need to crank up the volume (or use your own sound-isolating earbuds), however.
  • Off tour: Imperial War Museum in London's WWI exhibit was extensively redone in 2014 - excellent multi-media presentation with especially good info on impact of the war on subsequent geopolitics
  • Do research at home if you are considering any hikes in the Lake District, especially if you've got balance or mobility issues or are considering Catbells. The tour hotel did not have trail maps to loan, so it would help to print something before you go. Taking pictures, resting and getting a bit lost can easily increase the "official" estimated hiking time by 50%. A collapsible walking stick is potentially helpful for some of these walks - and at Hadrian's wall - if you have balance/mobility issues. At Catbells, a stick helps even if you don't have balance or mobility issues and makes the walk doable even if you aren't in the world's best shape. David and other buddies did Catbells. David, who hikes regularly with a walking group of fit seniors thinks it's manageable with a stick even if you're not in the best physical shape. OTOH one of the fit young buddies who wasn't carrying a stick tripped and fell. I do not walk regularly and did Latrigg on my own. The hardest part of that walk was finding the trailhead from town. A stick wasn't strictly necessary but made getting back faster. Castlehead (not Castlerigg) at sunset was a "wow" moment, but a stick is mandatory if you have balance or mobility issues.
  • I strongly recommend packing over-the-counter remedies for common conditions (colds, traveler's diarrhea, mosquito bites, motion sickness and the like). Despite liberal use of hand sanitizer, we again got colds (at least four of us have nasty, prolonged sequelae more than a week after the tour's end) - "everyone" on the bus will have a cold once one buddy gets one. This will make at least four of six tours adversely affected by infectious disease. It isn't necessarily easy to find what you need in a foreign pharmacy (even in the UK, where acetaminophen = paracetamol) and some items which are OTC in the US require prescriptions in foreign countries; however, if you know the generic name of what you want, a pharmacist can usually help you out. On our last tour our guide asked us to let her know if we were experiencing symptoms, as she planned to put out extra hand sanitizer on the bus, and I think that would be a good RS policy.
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Other comments (continued)

  • Wi-fi on the bus was spottier than on our Village Italy trip. Of greater concern was that while attempting to connect to Google, I would get a site that purported to be Google using http instead of https (genuine Google always uses https) and get security warnings from my Chrome browser when that happened. Our driver explained that the bus picks up a server using an antenna and of course, your online security is only as good as that of the server you're connecting to. I wouldn't use public hotspots for anything even a little sensitive unless you can get your VPN to work - and our VPN didn't work reliably on the bus. If your device starts relaying sensitive info before your VPN connects, I would also be very judicious about using public hotspots.
  • Several buddies had figured out that even without a data plan, Google Maps can track most modern smart phones using the phone's built-in GPS function. You can use Google Maps with your device in airplane mode, just keep location turned on. It's like having a paper map with a dot that shows where you are on the map. What you may not know is that if you download maps for "offline use," you can find Points of Interest using Google Maps (again even without a data plan). So if you need to find your way to a restaurant or back to your hotel, you can find the site by name if you've downloaded an offline map. If you haven't, you probably need to know the actual address. What we do is download the offline areas we're going to be in (best to do this when your wi-fi connection is reliable and fast) and to save space on our devices, delete the areas we don't need as we progress through our trips.
Posted by
2439 posts

Thanks for such an interesting trip report. I especially enjoyed the "off-tour" suggestions. We loved the Imperial War Museum in 2001 - sounds like we need to go back!

Posted by
3245 posts

Trayla, if you haven't been to the York Castle Museum, they have a really good WWI exhibit.

C, we don't take RS tours(I want to save my knees for stairs during sightseeing not stairs in hotels), but if we did, we would find your report using the old review format very helpful.

Posted by
3245 posts

Trayla, I did credit C-just hard to see such a short name!

Posted by
64 posts

Excellent report. You were fortunate on this tour to have your departures as late as they were! On our BoE tour we often had 7:00 breakfast (even if it meant only cereal was available). Whew!

You mention how great the coach driver was. Everyone seems to have liked their driver, whomever it was. Ours was James and he could not have been better. Added a great deal to the enjoyment of the tour. He showed great humor when reminding us that it was a "coach" and not a "bus".