We have a friend that lives in Southampton, England. That friend had a week off of work and asked if we’d like to come stay with him and his family for a couple days. The drive to Southampton from our house online says it’s 6 hours and 57 minutes, so the last time we went down we flew. We flew on Flybe (one of the losses of the pandemic, RIP) for far less than we would have spent in petrol (gas) and time. This time we figured it would be safer to drive and for the dates we were going, cheaper. However, that leaves us with a 7 hour drive.
We had been talking about doing a road-trip up around the north of Scotland. Then, this came up and so we figured if we were going on a trip we might as well 2. We’d go visit the friends down in Southampton for a few days, and maybe stay at a cute inn on the way down, enjoy some of the lovely scenery… and, then the trip turned into “who do we know in England that happens to live somewhere near where our drive is taking us.” And, thus, our 2020 English Staycation to See Friends trip was born.
We drove from home (near Falkirk, UK) to Blackpool. Online it says it’s a 3 hour 13 minute drive. In reality it was probably about 3 and a half hours, but not bad. The friend (from ships) we were visiting lives in Fleetwood (not far from there) but the hotels there were nearly double the price, so alas, we went for the less expensive option. We stayed at the Valdene Hotel, which was lovely. The main things we were looking for in our search was: an en-suite bathroom, good ratings and reviews – including recent ones noting cleanliness and COVID protocols, and, the bonus for this one – included full English breakfast for just a couple pounds each.
When we arrived at the hotel the owners were lovely. They reviewed their COVID protocols such as wearing a mask in the hallway as you might pass someone else and showed us where hand sanitizer stations had been set up around the hotel. They advised us to close our window before we went to sleep as there were some seagulls that had taken up residence near by and were quite vocal in the morning. They took our order for breakfast the next morning (served at 9:00am), and even offered to carry our bags to our room for us. The bed, room, and en-suite were all clean and nice. The room was a bit smaller than what you might find at a chain hotel, but perfectly matched what was shown in the pictures online and was what we expected for a hotel in an older building. We were in the first room (room 4) on the landing on the 1st floor (for my US readers, that actually means the second floor, but they call the first floor the ground floor and the second floor the first floor). As we were that first room we heard a bit of noise from the hallway with people coming and going. The breakfast in the morning was superb (hold the black pudding for me), and they were even nice enough to store some haggis that we’d brought down for another friend in their refrigerator for a couple days.
Our first night our friend came to get us and we went to his town of Fleetwood and to a local pub called Strawberry Gardens. We ended up having dinner there the next night as well and both the food and the drink was quite good and reasonably priced. Stuart and I opted for the “Two main meals for £12.95 all day everyday, or £11.95 with a loyalty card!” option, and as our friend had a loyalty card I felt like we got a very decent helping of food (I had lasagne, it was delicious) for a very reasonable price.
The next day we started out in Blackpool, figuring we’d get a late lunch/early dinner. What we found was that it was insanely busy and no one was wearing masks pretty much anywhere except public transport. I was definitely shocked by this but later in the week I’m going to have a post dedicated to differences in COVID protocols so I won’t get into it right now. I was also shocked because I had done no research on Blackpool and had no idea it was this weekend holiday place with a boardwalk and everything. Anyways, the business of it all made us realize that we didn’t want to be in that busy of area. So, we took the tram back to Fleetwood and ended up at the same pub as the night before (and had the aforementioned delicious lasagne).
Alas, our time in Blackpool/Fleetwood was at an end. We grabbed the haggis that the Valdene has so kindly stored for us and set off to our next destination – about 20 minutes down the road to drop the haggis off and have a cup of tea. Another friend from ships, and just happens to be the Environmental Officer that let me shadow him and that was stuck onboard with us for the shutdown. Quick cup of tea and we were on our way to our next destination: Southampton.
This drive was slated to take 4 and a half hours and took us about 5, but that includes a stop partway to stretch our legs and use the bathroom.
The next three nights we stayed with our friends and their lovely family (two kiddos and a doggie). We went to the Wetherspoons in town for lunch (and absolutely enjoyed the Eat Out to Help Out campaign offered by the British government to get up to half off meals with the restaurant reimbursed by the government) and walked back to the house, spent an afternoon at the Royal Victoria Country Park, which is complete with a playground, swings, slides, etc. and overlooks the ocean, our hosts cooked us an insanely good steak dinner, and we played with the kids and the dog and it was a super lovely few days with our friends.
We left Southampton to head to Bromsgrove – a town south of Birmingham – to stop to see one of my friends from the very beginning of my cruise ship days. On this drive I saw the sign for Highclere Castle (where Downton Abbey was filmed) and have now put it on the list of things to stop to see on our next journey down to Southampton. We stayed at the Bromsgrove Central Premier Inn. Premier Inn is a very popular hotel chain in the UK. Stuart and I have stayed in them many times before and always found them to be clean, comfortable, convenient, and typically very affordable. This stay was much the same. Clean, comfortable, very convenient to where my friend lives, and for this particular stay it was only £34.50 for the night. We did not opt to include breakfast (at £8.95 each) as Stuart was going to sleep in (he was doing all the driving), and I was going to head out and get a cup of tea with my friend first thing in the morning. Their reception desk was well protected with plexiglass, they had good signage for mask wearing and social distancing, and had hand sanitizing stations set up throughout the hotel. Our room was spotless and our stay quite comfortable.
In the morning I went to get a cup of tea (me), coffee (her) and let Stuart sleep in. We caught up for a bit and then went back to the hotel to check out and off we went for lunch. We went to The Tardebigge where I had an incredible BBQ pulled pork grilled cheese sandwich. It was fantastic. And, while the food was great, the decorations are some combination that you would never think would work but somehow do. If you are in the area I would recommend it.
After a lovely visit with that friend it was time to get on the road again, this time from Bromsgrove to Hull to see yet another ship friend. What was meant to be just a two and a half hour drive turned into a bit more due to traffic (and bad directions at one point by me where we ended up on the wrong motorway). Alas, we made it to town and checked in to yet another Premier Inn, this time the Hull City Centre Premier Inn. The only downside of this hotel was reception was on the 7th floor, our room was on the 12th, and only one elevator (lift) was working. When you have to follow social distancing of not having anyone but your party in the elevator with you this can create some long lines (queues). There was a stairwell that we used to go down, but no way was I feeling energetic enough to walk up 12 floors. Aside from that the stay was perfect. Clean room, comfortable, and super convenient. Also, probably wouldn’t notice this if we hadn’t stayed in a different Premier Inn the night before, but the sheets at the Hull location were a bit softer.
For that night we ended up having dinner in what is known as the old part of town and I was blown away by both how close it was to the hotel and also how beautiful it was. There is a walking bridge right behind the hotel so the walk to the restaurant we ate at was only .3 miles away! We ate and had some drinks at The Lion & Key It was delicious, reasonably priced, and had a great atmosphere. This town that I had never heard of completely endeared itself to me within the course of just a couple hours.
Back to the hotel we go, and the next morning we head out on our longest trek, from Hull to home. While it was the longest it was still beautiful. I love driving through the countryside in the UK, whether it be England or Scotland, there are sheep and cows, and some random camels, and truly beautiful countryside. The two service stops (rest areas) that we tried to stop at were crazy busy so we kept driving and ended up stopping at Cross Lanes Organic Farm which has a cafe and… ready for it, carrot cake without nuts. If you know me at all you know I love carrot cake and you also know that I have a nut and peanut allergy which keeps me from being able to buy it at a restaurant or a cafe or pretty much anywhere. To say this made the 5 hour drive so much better would be an understatement. Seriously. If you happen to be on the A66 stop in and get yourself some nut free carrot cake.
That’s pretty much our journey to England. One thing that has been nice about this trip is knowing that we will be back. So, when we drove by the sign for Highclere Castle but didn’t have time to stop (plus it was after it had closed for the day) it’s easy to say we can do it next time, because there can relatively easily be a next time. Plus, something like that my mother would love to go see and to be completely honest, Stuart would go to but not be that excited about. In general I’ve always traveled with the mindset that you don’t have to fit everything in to one trip. If you want to you can always go back and for the UK in particular that is so true.
- It’s easy to forget how huge the US is geographically. A week long journey around the UK can certainly put that in perspective.
- Driving around and seeing random castles is incredible and I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it.
- Roundabouts are great for efficiency but giving directions around them can be challenging. Like when you say “it’s the 3rd exit” but your phone didn’t include that one tiny road off the side and then you both get confused as to how many exits there have been and you go the wrong way into a huge traffic jam…
- The normal speed on a UK motorway is 70mph. I like that better than the VT 65mph.
- Pancakes are great, but a full English or Scottish (but hold the black pudding for me, thanks) is pretty darn good.
- Agriculture seems to be more mixed into society. There are pastures of sheep relatively close to quite a few urban centers. Small farms (whether that be cows or sheep) seem to exist here more so than at home. It makes me very sad for the declining small (or at least not massive) agriculture industry in the US and in Vermont. It reminds me of the importance of supporting those small farms, both in what you purchase but also legislation and who you vote for.
- The signs that say “The North” and “The South” will always make me think of Game of Thrones.