So there I was, dragging a heavy suitcase through rush-hour pedestrian traffic over a bumpy cobbled sidewalk. Somewhere up this busy London street was the station from which my train would be leaving in less than half an hour. Exactly where that station was, I had no idea, but my only choice was to keep trucking along, hoping it eventually would become obvious.
It was exactly the sort of situation I had hoped to avoid. And it stood in contrast to the previous two weeks, in which I had covered hundreds of miles and seen wonderful things without lifting more than my carry-on bag. For the first time in a fairly well-traveled life, I had been on a guided tour—an “old-lady tour” (though in fact it turned out to be more of an old-couple tour). I admit it: I’ve become an old lady, ready to have the estimable Grand Circle Travel plan the trip, make the reservations and haul me and several dozen senior types across Great Britain.
The Pros Far Outweigh the Cons
Having completed the journey I can report that it was pretty good. Oh, there were those early morning departures: bags out the door at 6:30, “coach” departing at eight. It was one of those “if it’s Wednesday it must be Wales” trips, a survey course in British history and geography, with some stops so short it seemed barely worth the trouble.
But we did see a lot. Big things, like St. Paul’s Cathedral and York Minster, Bath, Stonehenge and assorted castles, which any tourist might see. But also off-the-beaten-path surprises like the graves of Winston Churchill and William Wordsworth, the stone circle of Avebury, and a 17th century cottage purchased by Beatrix Potter in her campaign to save the beauteous farmland of the Lake District.
Unlike trains, which pass through the backyards of gritty urban areas, our coach skirted the cities and stayed mostly to country roads, passing through many miles of rural beauty. Our bus driver was Ian, a hunk whose tailored shirts and tight-fitting trousers were much admired by the ladies on board. Our program director, or tour leader, was David, a witty, erudite man who never seemed ruffled and often surprised us with a sample of some specialty of the region, from sugary mints to Scotch whiskey.
Changes in My Native Land
We visited England, Wales and Scotland, but most of our time was spent in England, which has changed a lot since my first trip there at the age of 12 (born in England, I left at age 3 months for Texas). David filled us in on current events as we drove through fields in varying shades of green interspersed with the fluorescent yellow of the unfortunately named “rape” seed, from which canola oil is made.
Huge immigration from the Commonwealth and the European Union has brought great change, burdening the social system and causing native Brits to worry that their culture will be irreparably overwhelmed. Though Great Britain is only fifth among European nations for accepting new immigrants, dark faces fill the streets of this formerly all-Caucasian country, and 300 languages are spoken in London; Polish is the second most common. Even the oldest village has a tandoori restaurant tucked in among the thatched roofs, and sometimes Holiday Inns, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Everywhere, the old and the new coexist.
Rural Beauty Still Dazzles
Rural Britain is still a bastion of quaintness, with its ancient cottages, sheep-dotted meadows and picturesque countryside. Towns really do have names like Poppleton and Giggleswick, and every village has its well-preserved old church. Narrow roads are lined with mile after mile of stone walls, and each area uses the stone native to its hills as a primary building material. Even as the oldest buildings tumble, new ones rise, so there will be stone houses here far into the future.
And while the people who live in these villages are infinitely worldlier than they might have been 50 years ago, old ways as well as old buildings survive for the future. We spent a few days in Wales, which has 3 million people, 11 million sheep and more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Some of those castles were built to fight off the English, who eventually managed to incorporate Wales into the United Kingdom.
But the Welsh clung stubbornly to their language, and it is still the first language children learn at home. English starts only when they go to school. The Welch maintain such traditions as the music-and-poetry festivals known as eisteddfodau, and it was clear even to a short-term tourist that music and culture are a big part of these people’s lives. The medals hanging in the home of the family we visited for a traditional dinner of shepherd’s pie were not for sports, but for their children’s musical achievements. And one night David led us down the road to an arts center where we sat in on the rehearsal of a men’s chorus. Like the stop for Churchill’s grave and the journey to see Hadrian’s Wall, these Welch experiences would never have been on my itinerary if I’d been traveling alone.
As we drove through the Scottish Highlands, we listened to a CD of haunting traditional music that seemed to flow from the green and stony hills around us. Ponies on the hillside stepped in time to the pipe and drums, and the Scottish sky stretched into forever. My old-lady tour would soon be over. From Edinburgh I’d take a train to London (there to search anxiously for that elusive train station), returning to real life and independent travel after my first guided tour. I was already looking forward to the next one.