Look Mom, Big Ben... Parliament...
January 18, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan my mom's first trip to the UK/Ireland.

My mom (Ohio born and raised) has never been anywhere other than North America and has always wanted to visit the UK/Ireland. I've finally convinced her to take the trip this summer (before the Olympics,) but she has no idea at all where she wants to go/what she wants to see or do, and has left it up to me to plan our itinerary.

In high school I went on a trip that originated in London, went through Wales, over to Southern Ireland and up the coast to Dublin, then back over to Glasgow and back down to London. I feel like that's the perfect idea for her, perhaps minus Wales (because it doesn't seem to interest her much) but I feel like she'll quite like Scotland.

We've got 2 weeks and a few rules:

1) Trip must include London (to visit my sister-in-law and her family) as well as a few days in the Plymouth/Penzance area (to visit my aunt and uncle whom I've never met.)

2) She's not super into tourist-y things like seeing the changing of the guards, Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge or the Blarney Stone. She'd much rather meander through the countryside, stopping in small towns and experiencing local flavor. I am a history/literature nerd, so I dig seeing where James Joyce lived, etc. We like to eat and drink well, so any nice restaurant recommendations would be great.

So, if anyone has done the circuit, let me know what route you took, what not to miss, towns and cities that may be nice to see, and places to stay if you know of any (the higher-end the better - this isn't a budget expedition.) Thanks!
posted by buzzkillington to Travel & Transportation around Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
*pulls up chair and sits down*

For Ireland: there is a town called Kinsale in the south that is small enough that you won't feel overwhelmed and touristy, has historic import (it was the "last stand" for a bunch of Irish nobility in the 1600's before England took over the island), scenic like crazy, and is also one of the Foodie Capitals of Ireland now. From Kinsale, you're also really close to a drive through parts of Kerry and West Cork, and that's gorgeous country.

In Dublin: a great place to stay is a B&B called Number 31. It's really well-located -- I stayed there last time I was in Dublin and ended up being able to walk everywhere -- and it's a really funky vibe. It's actually split in two buildings -- a Georgian townhouse, and its former stables. The owner fixed up the townhouse in period style, and then converted all the stables into rooms, in a funky modernist style. I stayed in one of the stable rooms, and while the shape of the room made me blink a bit (really long, and really skinny), it was still comfortable, spacious, and I even had my own yard.

In London: a really nice place for a stroll is Regent's Park, especially in summer when the rose garden is in bloom.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 AM on January 18, 2012

The little corner of England that I know best is Oxford and Oxfordshire. The Randolph Hotel is a nice, elegant downtown hotel. Good places to eat in Oxford include Branca and the Cherwell Boathouse; for a decent gastropub, try the Anchor in northern Jericho. Rousham Gardens, north of Oxford, is a lovely and underappreciated place to stroll, relax, picnic, and generally enjoy yourself. There are things like the Roman villa in North Leigh that are interesting but get very few tourists. That said, Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, gets a lot of tourists but its worth visiting nonetheless.

If you (or someone in your party) is comfortable driving on the left, I strongly recommend that you hire a car and do part of your trip that way. You can get to many more small towns and villages than you could via train and bus. Around Oxford, for example, there's a pub that has a Michelin star (the Nut Tree Inn in Murcott) that you'd need a car (or taxi) to visit.

For two weeks, I'd suggest picking four or five places to stay, traveling between them by train (or plane if you're going to Ireland), and then doing circuit tours from there.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:35 AM on January 18, 2012

Greetings from Ireland! London > Cork (also Butter Museum, Fota, beautiful 20 minute train ride to Titanic Museum) plus the suggested Kinsale harbour visit > Kerry (Ring of) > Dublin (Joyce Walk) > Edinburgh > London is the route I would take. (You can reverse the Irish legs of this route, but Cork > Edinburgh is a propeller plane and... just, no.) Two weeks would be sufficient for this at a moderate pace.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:47 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your mom is physically up to it, I believe your sister-in-law's family can ask their MP about a tour of the big ben clock tower. It's pretty cool.

As a USAian, from a cultural standpoint, I found hanging out at Speaker's Corner while people were doing their assorted speeches and rants pretty interesting.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2012

I'm told the Isle of Skye gets really touristy in the summer, but if you can spend any time on the islands, I'd really, really, really recommend it. They're beautiful places; the Isle of Lewis, in particular, has unspoiled golden sand beaches combined with Highland scenery. I believe the Harris Tweed (!) outlet shop is also on the Isle of Lewis, and if you or your mother enjoy really lovely fabric, it's sort of a must-stop.

Also, if you do go to the Isle of Skye because it's the most accessible, Glenview on the Isle of Skye serves is a beautiful, beautiful B&B and serves astonishingly good food. Like. It's absurd. I have never eaten a more delicious breakfast in my life than in their tiny and beautifully appointed dining room.

Warning, though, for midges in the Scottish countryside.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:50 AM on January 18, 2012

. . . that exclamation mark was supposed to go after the Lewis because, you know, Isle of Harris, Harris Tweed, etc.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:51 AM on January 18, 2012

If you're around Penzance I recommend a walk around Mousehole, a lovely little harbour village a few miles to the south. Dylan Thomas celebrated his wedding at the pub there and was a regular there for a year so ticks a box for you too. If you have more time in Cornwall then St Ives is nice, there's a Tate gallery there, the Hepworth sculptures are worth a look and there are nice runs of streets to wander around.
posted by biffa at 11:55 AM on January 18, 2012

This is obvious answer, but since you haven't mentioned it in the question: Have you gotten a guidebook? All the good ones have introductory sections with sample itineraries and list of highlights. For example, Lonely Planet's Great Britain has a "Planning your trip" chapter that includes "tailor-made itineraries, arranged by region, themes and events, list of highlights and best experiences, and detailed information on outdoor activities."

Before you spend thousands of dollars on the trip, spend $50 on a few guidebooks. I'd start with Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, but most of the major guides will be helpful. (Note that although those guides used to cater heavily to backpackers, they are now very general and will list four-star hotels along with hostels.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:10 PM on January 18, 2012

seconding kinsale! also enjoyed doolin, for the irish music and proximity to the cliffs of moher. dingle is supposed to be great in summertime, but was a bit dead when i was there in the fall. don't miss the ring of kerry, either.
posted by sabh at 12:14 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're stopping in Edinburgh, I would have an extended wander around the High Street, Haymarket, Grassmarket (with a nice view of the castle), down to Holyrood Park and a hike up Arthur's Seat for a great view of the city. A literary walking tour (there are many) would also be a good start, and give you an idea of where you'd like to meander afterward. Tourist areas are unavoidable, but there are a lot of unique stores and historical points of interest in this part of the city.

In the middle of your wander, stop by Chocolate Soup or the Baked Potato Shop for a quick bite.

Also, I'd reccomend the Filmhouse Cinema and its low key cafe/bar if you want to catch a film.

I lived in Edinburgh on the cheap, so I can't give you many hotel or restaurant recommendations. We would go to Zest when we were feeling fancy (note: it's not that fancy).
posted by stompadour at 12:15 PM on January 18, 2012

She MUST go to Cornwall! If wandering around interesting landscapes are her thing, then she's in for a treat-- cliffs, misty moors, farms, the sea-- there's a reason people say it's one of the most mystical regions on earth. We visited Tintagel and felt in our bones that it was a magical sort of place-- it;s the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, critical place in the story of Tristan and Isolde, etc. St. Michael's Mount is another beautiful place to visit in Cornwall.

You really need a car to visit Cornwall properly, which is easy and inexpensive although the one-lane country roads filled with sheep take some getting used to...

And Penzance isn't so far away, either.
posted by devymetal at 12:21 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Between Scotland and London I'd highly recommend a stop in or around the Yorkshire Dales. Beautiful countryside with lovely villages, and on the edge of it is Haworth, which gives you literary content from the Brontes. (Museum)
posted by valleys at 12:22 PM on January 18, 2012

Well, if you end up with some time in and around Dublin and want to do some countrified things, I'd recommend Glendalough and possibly Newgrange. Former's a former monastic site now basically a nature preserve with some truly lovely scenery, second's a prehistoric/Celtic/druid-y site with some cool solstice structures. Either can be done as an easy day trip outing from Dublin (though not both, as one's north of the city and one's south.) if you want Lit cred, Beckett was born in Foxrock and liked to wander round the Wicklow mountains near Glendalough.

Also, for an even more low key Dublin day, you could go out to Howth and Ireland's eye (which are quite lovely, though tiny) and walk along the quays and get a nice seafood dinner at a restaurant on the docks.
posted by Diablevert at 12:33 PM on January 18, 2012

Any rural area will have small towns, villages, churches, and literary or historic significance.

If you are set on travelling by train, then the Cotswolds (taking the train from Oxford towards Worcester) are a good bet. They are beautiful and fairly easy to navigate by public transport.

Cornwall is a long way from anywhere else by British standards. If you're heading down there with a car you could easily get your fix of English countryside in Devon and Cornwall. It's very beautiful and the food is good. It's not particularly convenient for a round trip tour by public transport as it's a peninsula with one train line in and out. On the way, you could stop in Bath and get a Jane Austen fix.

I second Yorkshire and the Bronte connection if you want to stop in the North of England. Or alternatively the Lake District, if Wordsworth is more your thing.

Wales has the bilingual angle, but I wouldn't bother unless it's actually on the way somewhere as your mother isn't interested.
posted by plonkee at 12:37 PM on January 18, 2012

Others have made great suggestions, to which I would add that if you're going to visit Dublin, the one thing I recommend to everyone who goes is to take a trip to Kilmainham Gaol out in Dublin 8 (this isn't very far from city center -- it's walkable -- though your lack of a budget implies you'll probably want to just hire a cab or something). It's a Victorian-era panopticon prison (pretty interesting just for that) that also was where a lot of political prisoners were incarcerated. A typical visit consists of a guided tour of the jail and some time spent looking over the museum-y exhibition wing. You don't say when your two weeks are going to be spent, but if it's in the winter, I'd bundle up.
posted by axiom at 12:49 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

My same answer to many different travel questions--stay a bit longer in fewer places than you hoped to see. As one who has spent considerable time in the UK and Ireland--while there are many many places to visit take the time to experience some time on the country side. I will leave to others to make specific recommendations--However, I do choose to live 4-5 months a year across the bay from the Ring of Kerry in Kenmare Ireland. I can make no stronger recommendation
posted by rmhsinc at 12:56 PM on January 18, 2012

Include the Yorkshire Dales.

If she does a loop from London to the West Country to Ireland to Scotland and then down through Yorkshire she will get a pretty interesting and enjoyable flavour of the UK/Ireland.

Glenview on the Isle of Skye serves is a beautiful, beautiful B&B and serves astonishingly good food.

I have been to this place too, and I heartily second the review. That said, Skye is not my favourite Western Isle. I would recommend the north western Scottish mainland for preference. Driving slowly (of necessity) over those winding single-track roads is a wonderful experience.
posted by Decani at 1:23 PM on January 18, 2012

Seconding Yorkshire in general there are some great little places Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a really nice day/half day (and their canteen do great food) and there's the Hepworth round there too. Hebden Bridge is a nice little town for poking around nosying at nic-nacs.

And don't hold this against me if you go and hate it, but I love Hull. Hmm, how to sell it? Philip Larkin was from there! There are a few quite nice museums - a naval museum, the 'street life' museum and one about William Wilberforce. Nearby there is the really beautiful and odd Spurn Point and Beverley is a cute little town with at least one rickety old pub with nooks and crannies in it and lots of tea rooms etc.

I live in Nottingham at the moment and there's quite a lot of tourism because of the whole robin hood thing. To be honest I don't really know what they come here for.

Hadrian's wall and Northumbria in general. (I don't know much about them but you mention the north east.)

You're right about stonehenge, its not really somewhere where you can amble as its ringed by roads... but, it is on the way south towards corwall from london and not too out of the way. And Salisbury which is quite near there is a pretty, historical city.

Have you seen the trip or the film version that was released in the US? You might pick up some good ideas for high end restaurants/places to stay from there (plus its really funny.)
posted by pmcp at 2:35 PM on January 18, 2012

You really need a car to visit Cornwall properly, which is easy and inexpensive although the one-lane country roads filled with sheep take some getting used to...

I have lived in Cornwall for 7 years and I have never in that time been blocked by sheep. Chumps in landies, weekenders in 4x4 beemers, and once a buzzard but never livestock.

I always forget when making recommendations in Cornwall, Falmouth is good for a visit, ok shops, lots of cafes, a tudor castle, a harbour, boat trips, beaches, fishing trips, boat trip over to St Mawes and the Roseland (with another tudor castle, plus a couple of miles away from St Just Church and Graveyard - Betjeman called it 'the most beautiful on earth’).
posted by biffa at 4:57 PM on January 18, 2012

Response by poster: These are all great - we'll most definitely rent a car, so we'll not be at the mercy of public transportation. Also, I heard there were some Michelin-starred restaurants in the south of England? I'll look them up, but if anyone has any actual experience I'd love to hear about it. Keep them coming!

(And, yes, I spent $100 on guidebooks for my mother for Christmas, which she has in her possession and refuses to open due to the sheer overwhelming-ness of information. So I am going to have to shell out for more which is a tad annoying...but yes, that's coming.)
posted by buzzkillington at 5:51 PM on January 18, 2012

The Cotswolds is my territory.

If you're heading from London down south to Cornwall, I suggest going as follows:
1) West to Oxford where you visit the Bodleian Library, The Ashmolean and walk around the pretty colleges.

2) Keep going past Oxford.
Past Oxford, if you want a Cotswold fix, I'd recommend the Michelin starred Lords of the Manor. The hotel is set in a tiny, perfect Cotswold village. You could also stop at the Swan Inn, owned by the last surviving Mitford sister (the Mitford estate is nearby) and set in a pretty location.

3) Head South through Cirencester and onto Bath Spa. This will be a pretty drive as well.
Bath is a beautiful town - not to be missed- and then there's the Jane Austen connection and the well preserved Roman baths. I'd recommend staying at the Bath Priory. Alternatively, there's also the scenic Wheatsheaf in nearby Combe Hay.

4) Continue your journey down South.
posted by vacapinta at 1:38 AM on January 19, 2012

Do you have dates in mind? You might try to schedule it to co-incide with Bloomsday if she likes Joyce.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 4:56 AM on January 19, 2012

If your mother has current guidebooks that you can take on your trip, you borrow copies from your public library for consulting before you go.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:34 AM on January 19, 2012

Also, I know you may be loaded with guidebooks already but for looking for quality places to eat in the UK, I'd recommend the Good Food Guide over Michelin.
posted by vacapinta at 10:36 AM on January 19, 2012

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