Date of Trip: June 2016
THE BRITISH ISLES with a French Connection by vagabondginger June 2016
As an Independent Traveler I relish putting together my own personal itineraries and the research and planning takes almost as much time as the trip itself. Afterwards I find writing my travel stories makes it so much more memorable than just photos. Over the years I have been to Europe many times so on this trip I chose places I had not visited before. To start off with I was focusing on the Normandy/Brittany area of Northern France, The Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, The Isle of Man, Wales and Cornwall, England.
As a budget traveler I choose to backpack, stay in hostels or cheap hotels within the city centre and use public transport. To start this trip off I flew the no-frills WOW Airlines from Boston to Reykjavik and immediately on to Paris. Summer airfares can be a killer so it got me to Europe very cheaply. I stayed at St Christopher’s Inn Hostel by Gare du Nord and with the free breakfast and discounts at Belushi’s Bar downstairs it was a real money saver for such an expensive city.
Because the French train strike was happening and so few trains were running, being on the RER B rail link from the airport to Gare du Nord was like being on the Tokyo subway in rush hour. All the cars were so crammed without an inch to move. It had been 20 years since I was last in Paris and I enjoyed a whole day walking once again to the major sites of Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur. It all still seemed so familiar. However, I was shocked by the flooding of the Seine River as all the floating restaurants were cut off and no boats were out. The next morning I took the hostel shuttle to Versailles. The line was already formed to buy the ticket and then another line to get in. The inside of the Palace was so crowded I mainly fought my way thru the rooms and once I saw the Hall of Mirrors I exited and enjoyed wandering around the fountains and gardens outside. Several years ago I visited Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg, Russia which was fashioned after the Palace of Versailles and with fewer visitors I enjoyed it so much more. As I was leaving to get the shuttle back to the hostel, the lines were now ridiculously crazy long as tourism is really heavy in the summer months.
So on Day 3 when I arrived at the train station I found that due to the strike my 10am to Bayeux was delayed 2 hours. When I did arrive there I walked to the Premiere Classe Hotel I had booked and then walked around the beautiful town that was dominated by a huge Cathedral. I had been booked to go on an afternoon tour to the Normandy Beaches, but because of the train delay I arrived too late. Bayeux Shuttle gave me a refund and I had them call me a taxi so I could go on my own for only 15 Euros more. My driver did not speak English but he took me to Omaha Beach and allowed me to wander around a couple of hours. I was very moved by the American Cemetery with the white crosses of 9,367 military dead including Teddy Roosevelt’s son. At the World War II Memorial & Museum are the names of another 1,557 who could not be found or identified. D Day June 6, 1944 was the largest naval, air and land operation in history as Allied Troops moved into Nazi occupied France.
The next morning I used Bayeux Shuttle to go to Mont St Michel on the border of Normandy & Brittany. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that I had been wanting to see for years. The 264’ high mound of rock is topped by an impressive stone abbey dating back centuries and stands in the center of of a huge bay appearing like a mirage. Along with Santiago de Compostela in Spain and others, it is a pilgrim’s route going back to when the Kings of England were also Dukes of Normandy. Because crossing the quick sand at low tide was so dangerous and lives were lost, a causeway bridge was built. It is the biggest attraction in France outside Paris and very crowded. Lots & lots of steps to the top, lots of tourist shops at the bottom. There and back we passed thru so many towns that were heavily bombed by the Allies during the war. And seeing the thick hedgerows along the road, it’s a wonder how these troops even made that liberation march to Paris. The town of Bayeux was unscathed during these attacks as there were spies & refugees living there. I was ready for a Liberation beer when I got back. Oui -as the French say “joie de vivre” meaning: Enjoy Life!
The French train strike got me again the next day as my 7:30am to St Malo was cancelled and I could not leave until 2:30pm. So being as I had checked out of the hotel I dropped my backpack at the Bayeux Shuttle office as they did speak English. I set off to visit the famous Tapestry Museum. The colorful detail of this 230 ft long by 20 inch high embroidered piece of art shows 50 scenes of the Battle of Hastings when back in 1066 William the Duke of Normandy conquered England and took the throne. The fact that this piece of work has survived over 900 years is just as amazing. The charming Tapestry Garden Cafe was nearby to relax & read a bit. Finally arriving in St Malo late in the afternoon, I just managed to walk to the Ibis Hotel before it started to rain. I attempted to walk the walled city, but got so wet I turned back and just had dinner and more of the excellent Bordeaux red wine.
In the morning it was still raining so instead of walking to the nearby ferry terminal I took a taxi. I was heading out at 8am to St Helier, Jersey in the English Channel just 19 miles from the coast of France. It was a short trip made even shorter by a 1 hour time difference. I had an exceptionally nice studio apartment room at the Sarum Hotel with a view of the water and walking distance from the marina.
Jersey is 5 miles long and 9 miles wide with a population of about 100,000. Altho it is quite British it also has a distinctive French twist. It is almost 100 miles from England’s coast and is not part of the UK or the EU. Both the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey are known as Crown Dependencies, self governing but defended by the UK government, except of course during World War II when they were cut off from both France and England and were taken over by Nazi Germans. I took the bus to the War Tunnels and spent hours there. It told an exceptional story of that time. After some good fish and chips at Liberation Square I met a few locals at the Cock & Bottle Pub & we raised a glass of beer to the Queen for her birthday celebration. The next days ferry ride 27 miles to Guernsey was an hour long and I walked to the Yacht Inn just across from the Castle and the marina. I was on the top so it was many steep steps up 5 floors, but it had a full English breakfast included and a bar downstairs. This inn dates back to 1854 and was occupied by the Nazi Germans and altho my room was quite sparse, it had a view.
After reading the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” I wanted to come here. Altho I knew it was a piece of fiction based on a real situation, I still almost expected to meet some of these characters. I arranged a taxi tour of the island visiting sites from the book and my driver, Mike, was a true local. We had an enjoyable couple of hours as his parents lived here during the occupation, but he too was born after the war. I particularly liked seeing the Little Chapel, a miniature version of Lourdes dating back to 1914. It is the smallest church in the world and holds about 8 people. It is decorated with seashells, pebbles and broken china in a mosaic pattern. Victor Hugo’s house is open for visitors, but I was satisfied with just the drive-by. I was amazed by the flowers growing right out of all the rock walls. The speed limit all over the island is 25-35 mph as it’s lanes and roads are very narrow with high hedgerows that need to be trimmed regularly. Several cruise ships now stop here, but Mike pointed out that the people of Guernsey did not want a movie made from the book due to so many tourists already coming. The island is just half the size of Jersey. There is a rivalry between Jersey and Guernsey including over their cows & the good ice cream. Mike said their cows are better looking.
St Peter’s Port is a lovely town of hanging flower baskets. I stopped for what’s called a “cream” tea, a pot of tea served with scones & strawberry jam & clotted cream to spread on them. Later was a good dinner of moules & frites at the Crow’s Nest overlooking the marina. The next morning I joined a guided tour of the Castle Coronet ending with the noon-day firing of the cannon. Then I just talked with the owner of my hotel for awhile in the bar while enjoying a local Breda beer and a crab sandwich. Late in the day I took an overnight ferry going to Portsmouth, England where I then took a train to Cardiff, Swansea and on to Pembroke, Wales. I walked to the Connaught Guesthouse and truly was made to feel like a guest by Annemarie & Ed. Again, very top floor but a charming single room with the bath one flight down. They recommended taking the Mill Pond walk to see the swans & their baby cygnets on the way to the Waterman Arms Pub. After the long travel day, I was delighted with the walk & a wonderful meal on the patio in the shadow of the huge Pembroke Castle. I was hoping to do more walking of the Wales Coastal Path while I was here, but there was a shutdown of some of the bus lines and it led to a lot of confusion. So instead of wasting a lot of time I just took the bus directly to the town of St David.
The huge cathedral is nestled into a hollow and walking thru the stone arch, it majestically unfolds below, a breath catching view. St David is the patron saint of Wales and founded his monastery here back in the 6th century and his shrine is within this cathedral dating back to 1176. It is another one of the religious pilgrimage sites. The Euro 2016 Football championships were being televised at the Bishop’s Pub with England playing Wales, so I joined a group to drink beer and cheer like a local.
The following day I took a bus to Tenby, Wales, just the most picturesque pretty as a postcard scenic beach town imaginable with lots of cute colorful shops. The high & low tides in all these places are so dramatic. One of the shop owners explained how to pronounce the Welsh name of Wales which is spelled Cymru but pronounced Cumree. The Three Mariners Pub boasted that Prince William spent time there recently. Back in Pembroke that night I wandered into the closest bar to my room and was welcomed like a local. There was darts, football on TV, but mostly it was socializing with everyone joining in the karaoke. The people of Wales are just so friendly and nice. Annemarie even came to the train station the next morning to see me off. The train brought me into Bristol, England & I got on a bus to the HomeStay Hostel in the city centre where I was spending the night. My daughter’s mum-in-law lives in Bristol so she picked me up to take me to The Pony & Trap out in the English countryside for dinner. The narrow roads and high hedgerows and the green, green color never ceased to amaze me. That is what regular rain can do. Bristol is a really cool college city. The hostel room itself was pretty bleak but it had a nice kitchen with a full breakfast in the morning. I was able to walk from the hostel to the main bus station and got an airport bus from there.
I wasn’t able to work out taking the ferry from Dublin or Liverpool to the Isle of Man, so I was flying Easy Jet and I was spending 5 nights there. An airport bus took me to Silvercraig’s Hotel in Douglas right on the seaside promenade. Again I was on the top floor, it had a lift, no breakfast, & no view from my room but a lovely sitting room downstairs looking out to the sea. Strings of lights all along the 2 mile long promenade and the city streets at night turned it into a fairyland. The promenade was such a pretty walk but there were horse drawn trams clip-clopping down the street too. The IOM is 33 miles long and 13 miles wide & has a total population of 100,000. of which Douglas is 30,000 and located on the east coast. This is where the famous TT Race in late May/early June starts and about 50,000 people descend upon the island during that time. It is the most challenging road race event in the world. Motorcycles racing on public streets & roads around the island up to 200 mph doing 6 laps of almost 38 miles each. Since the beginning in 1907 there have been over 200 killed with 5 more this year earlier in June.
So I got outfitted in leathers, helmut & goggles & climbed on a 3 wheeled motorcycle to do just one lap of 37 & 3/4 miles behind my driver, Roy. Now we did not get up to those kind of speeds but there were times I felt like we were going pretty fast at maybe 60 mph. The highest part of the course is over 1,300 ft on Snaefell Mountain. We could see Scotland from there. It was an exciting experience.
Another famous thing on IOM are the railways. My 3 day Explorer card for 30 pounds gave me use of all trains and buses. One day I took the Victorian Steam Railway to the town of Port Erin in the south just 15 1/2 miles away. It still uses it’s original locomotives and carriages and dates back to 1874. Port Erin is a lovely little town and I was told I had to go to see the Sound while there so I took a bus thru Port St Mary and the end of the line was the Calf of Man. The word calf means a small island near a large island and it is a bird sanctuary just off the mainland. In the visitor centre cafe I had another cream tea.
Another day I took the Manx Electric Railway dating back to 1893, it is the oldest in the world and runs 17 1/2 miles. In Laxey I changed over to the Snaefell Mountain Railway dating back to 1895, it is the islands only mountain and we climbed up over 2,000 feet. It only operates from April – Sept. Snaefell actually means Snow Mountain. From the top one can see 7 Kingdoms: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Heaven, Mann & the Sea. The Isle of Man sits in the middle of the Irish Sea, yet Scotland’s coast (as the seagull flies) is the closest. It is cold and windy and I am grateful for another cream tea in the cafe before heading back down. Laxey has the world’s largest working waterwheel & it’s a can’t miss bright red color in the green countryside. I then continued on the Manx Electric Railway line to the town of Ramsey in the north. The Star of India now anchored in San Diego, CA was built here in 1863. The interesting part of these railways is that they are not just tourist attractions. The locals actually use these trains to go from town to town. Another day I took the bus to Peel, a town on the west side of the island. From the marina there is a causeway to St Patrick’s Isle where I walked around the walls of the Peel Castle, an imposing 11th century fort. Back in Douglas I found a little place on the promenade called Quids Inn Bar. As the name suggests, you have to pay a pound to get in but the beers are very cheap. It was a classic local dive bar to be sure.
This year the Isle of Man became the first entire country to be named as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Isle of Man is also a Crown Dependency like Jersey &Guernsey so they too are not a part of the UK or EU but the island has a real British feel & their passports state they are British citizens. Like Jersey & Guernsey, they use the UK pound as currency but they also have their own pounds with their country names stamped on them and they cannot be used elsewhere. So I made sure I always changed them out for real UK pounds.
Flying back to Bristol once again, I stayed another night at the HomeStay Hostel and was upgraded to a better dorm room with a twin bed. I strolled to Brown’s Restaurant for bar bites & beer. This 1872 building was modeled after the Doge Palace in Venice and was the former City Museum & Library. It was heavily damaged in the WWII Blitz, but the stunning facade survived and the building was completely restored.
The next day I took the bus to the train station and went to Penzance in Cornwall. I had to make my way thru the town during their annual Mazey Day Festival to get to the Backpackers Hostel to drop my bag & then joined up with fellow beer drinkers sitting on the sea wall. But I really had to find a quiet place to eat and I found it tucked away behind the Chapel House. This former historic home was recently renovated into a little boutique hotel and there was a small patio with shared tables where I ordered a local Korev beer and a huge mixed platter and chatted with other visitors in a much quieter setting than out on the streets or in the bars.
Back in the hostel TV room the 2016 Football was England vs Iceland and it was an agonizing defeat. There was a lot of socializing at this hostel, it was well run and I snagged the only twin bed in the dorm room of bunks.
The next day I took the train to St Ives, a delightful seaside town. Because I got there early I was able to wander around just as the shops were opening. It was Sunday, so soon the families and dogs took over the narrow streets and it became quite busy everywhere. I grabbed a Cornish pasty meat pie to eat at the beach. By noon it was misting a bit so I ducked into a cafe to have another cream tea before heading back on the train. The hostel had a nice kitchen so I stopped at the supermarket to pick up dinner and breakfast foods.
The following day I took a bus to Mousehole and again arrived very early. I like walking around even before the shops open and the cottages & gardens overlooking the sea were so pretty. I popped into Hole Foods, a cute little cafe for yet another cream tea. Later, I also discovered the Rock Pool Cafe with an outside terrace overlooking the sea. I got a “rocktail” called Merry Maiden, made up of Eideflower, pomegrante & Prosecco garnished with fruit. A delightful drink in a delightful setting chatting with fellow visitors and watching sea lions frolic in the water below. In a little shop called Cat & Mouse I bought a couple little piskies (Cornish good luck charm pixies). Mousehole is such a charming Cornish town.
When I returned on the bus to Penzance I immediately caught another bus to Marazion to get to St Michael’s Mount at low tide. Like Mont St Michel in France, this was another Benedictine abbey dating back to the 11th century, is also surrounded by water and part of the pilgrimage of St Michael’s Way. However it has been owned by a family since 1650 so serves as a castle home and parish. Also different is that the stone walkway going out to it is only passable at low tide and it is magical to watch the tide recede and the walkway appear out of the water. Again, lots of stone steps to get to the top. When the tide is high, boats go back and forth to the Mount.
I had my final night at the hostel in Penzance and then took the train the next morning back to Bristol and stayed yet another night at the HomeStay Hostel. This time they upgraded me to my own room with a double bed, so each stay got better. I have been to Anne Frank’s House, Auschwitz, Berlin & recently the Imperial War Museum in London so on this trip I grasped even more about World War II. History, cultures, people & food are all a big part of travel for me. I’d been to Scotland, Ireland, London & many other places in England before so this trip to the rest of the British Isles gave me a better understanding of who is who in this British zoo.
What the differences are in these countries, who is really British, who is Great Britain, who is the United Kingdom & who is in the EU. Of course the Brexit vote also happened whilst I was there, so maybe the kingdom is not so united after all. I heard a lot of opinions about this referendum to Leave or Stay, yet I was as gobsmacked at the outcome of their vote to leave the European Union as many others were.
So Cheerio, Ta-Ta, Tally-ho and Toodle-oo. Just as in the onset of World War II, the poster still reads: Keep Calm and Carry On
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