Cardiff, Wales

Goodbye London!

Goodbye London!

After eight days in London it was time to move on. We enjoyed living in the English language world again even if we spoke American and not English (as one Englishman reminded us!) The ease of reading directions and ingredients and the ease of mostly understanding what someone was saying to us was nice. Definitely something we have missed. We had another travel day, train to the bus station then took the Mega Bus to Cardiff then taxi to our hotel. Our original plans had us traveling the UK for a month or so and exploring on our own but with the camper on the boat headed back to the US we were dependent on public transportation and hotels which eats up money very quickly. So we were off for two nights in Cardiff, Wales and then onto Ireland. Why Cardiff? It’s got a lovely waterfront and I could make up other reasons but the truth is we were going to the Doctor Who Experience. Yes, more tv show locations to track down.

The Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff.

The Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff.

We learned that the BBC has a major filming studio in Cardiff because it can look like London and it’s much cheaper to film there. It’s really cool – the main harbor area is really pretty – and the entrance to Torchwood is right smack in the middle of it. Torchwood is another British sci-fi thriller which is quite a bit darker than Doctor Who but stars one of our favorite Doctor Who characters – Captain Jack Harkness! The entrance to Torchwood is located under the Roald Dahl Plass public plaza. It is a big, open space facing the sea lined with illuminated pillars with a beautiful metallic column at the end that is a fountain. All of this is just outside of the Wales Millennium center, a very modern building I believe used for concerts and performances. In the area surrounding this is a modern shopping center, Mermaid Quay and a lovely old building housing the history museum. It’s a great juxtaposition of buildings and landscapes. By the way, Roald Dahl was the much-beloved children’s author who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach as well as writing screenplays and being somewhat of an inventor and advocate.  Interesting man, interesting life.

Noah with his sonic screwdriver standing in front of the Torchwood entrance!

Noah with his sonic screwdriver standing in front of the Torchwood entrance!

In Cardiff we also discovered the Doctor Who Experience. It is an interactive exhibit, museum and store. During the first part of your experience you are invited in to a small movie theater which suddenly thrusts you into an episode of Doctor Who. You become part of the team that needs to rescue the Doctor, he has been locked away in the Pandorica and we need to rescue him. It takes about 1/2 hour to go through that part of the experience. All the while Matt Smith is talking to you on television screens and imploring us for help. You go through sets where you have to drive the Tardis, you escape from Daleks, outrun Weeping Angels and yes, Cyberman. They do a good job with special effects so you get a sense of really being there (yes, I  know it’s a tv show). All-in-all, it was great fun! Of course we succeed in rescuing the Doctor and then we get to go explore the large warehouse of props and costumes and sets which ultimately deposit you in their gift shop. That seems appropriate as Matt Smith kept calling us a sub-species of humans, “Shoppers”!

A fun exhibit of the costumes from every Doctor!

A fun exhibit of the costumes from every Doctor!

We spent an hour or so wandering through the exhibits. They had one Dalek that was open in the back and you could go in and maneuver him which Noah loved. Noah also participated in every opportunity to walk like a cyberman or walk like a scarecrow from one of the episodes. It was all silly fun.

After all that time travel we were starving so we mosied over to the Mermaid Quay to find a place to eat. They had a tacky American diner there and I insisted we eat there even though most of my family protested. Turns out it was the diner they used in the Doctor Who episode, The Impossible Astronaut, and we sat where Matt Smith and the gang hung out. I had been redeemed in my choice of restaurants. After a 1950-American-diner-meal we wandered around the quay a bit more and then headed back to our hotel.

The waterfront in Cardiff has lots of great outdoor art - not just Doctor Who or Torchwood either.

The waterfront in Cardiff has lots of great outdoor art – not just Doctor Who or Torchwood either.

Cardiff has a great castle and some interesting looking museums but there was no convincing anyone of joining me on a visit to them. We chilled at the hotel in the late afternoon and prepared to move on for our next leg. This was just a quick visit to see a different city in the UK and to really, truly, get our fill of Doctor Who.

A partial view of the plaza with the Millennium center in the background.

A partial view of the plaza with the Millennium center in the background.

We were holding on for dear life!

We were holding on for dear life!

There is a fun TARDIS outside hovering over the water.

There is a fun TARDIS outside hovering over the water.

Yes, we drove the TARDIS!

Yes, we drove the TARDIS!

Exploring Greenwich

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

So what else to do in London? Still lots but with one of us sick we did spend some time laying low. That, and London is expensive. We had to prioritize what we still wanted to do and focus on that. We knew we wanted to take some to explore Greenwich, the area where we sere staying. We walked from our flat to Greenwich Park, home to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian Line. Basically, where time begins. It is the oldest Royal Park in London and has been enclosed since 1427. The park is huge, we walked through it admiring the grounds, the flowers, the view and the people. It was a lovely weekend day and people were everywhere having picnics and children playing everywhere. We almost got run over by two kids on scooters building up speed on the hills. Much of the park cascades up and down hills affording sweeping views of the Thames and London.

Just some of the astronomical equipment in the gardens of the astronomy.

Astronomical equipment in the gardens.

At the top of the park is the Royal Observatory. The location has been used as a scientific research facility of some sort since 1674. The Prime Meridian was introduced in 1851 and from then on, time was measured from there. (Don’t quote me on the specifics – I’m not totally clear on how the prime meridian contributes to the measurement of time but people assure me it does). Anyway, the actual line is marked out in the courtyard and you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere, except that they charge you for that luxury. We stood outside the courtyard and saw it which worked for us. We did walk around the grounds and admire the remains of large telescopes and other astronomical equipment scattered around the lovely grounds.

 

 

Noah at the Royal Observatory

Noah at the Royal Observatory

I did find this explanation, “Greenwich Mean Time is so named as it was the average observed solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, and then became the global standard for time around the world, everyone’s time zone measured as to how it departed from Greenwich. It also was given the longitude of zero degrees. It is for all intents and purposes, the center of time and space.”

From there it was an easy walk along the ridge of the hill to the duck ponds, the rose gardens and the deer enclosure. The duck pond was no where near as interesting as the duck pond around Buckingham Palace but it was fun to watch folks feeding all the creatures. Peanuts seem to be a popular treat for the squirrels. In the corner of the park is a large enclosure for a small herd of deer. Deer have been in the park since before it was enclosed.

The deer before he lost his single antler.

The deer before he lost his single antler.

We watched the herd running around, seemingly away from a large stag. The stag only had one antler but clearly was in charge. As we watched we saw the stag kinda antagonizing other male deer and then, all of a sudden, his one remaining antler fell off. This seemed to really confuse this stag. He stumbled about and had an almost quizzical look on his face. It was so interesting to watch.

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich

We also walked down to the Old Royal Naval College located on the Thames. This was a movie filming location for Thor The Dark World. The final battle in the movie happens here and tracking down filming locations was a priority on our London itinerary. Everything about the area is lovely – it’s right on the river, the old buildings are stunning, and the open courtyards are very inviting. We should have actually spent time exploring the college and learning about it but I couldn’t talk the kids into that. The closest we came to learning was walking down on the Thames Barrier and reading about how it is the largest flood barriers in the world. Greenwich looked to have some great shops, museums and the waterfront – lots more to do if you are up to it.

A view of the Thames from the Greenwich shore.

A view of the Thames from the Greenwich shore.

Just one of the gates at The Old Royal Naval College.

Just one of the gates at The Old Royal Naval College.

The Doctor Who Shop!

The Doctor Who Shop in London.

The Doctor Who Shop in London.

 

Anyone need a head?

Anyone need a head?

The kids had waited the entire trip for this and now it was finally time. Time for the Doctor Who Shop! We found it on line and figured out how to get there and made a day of it. It did take us about an hour to get there. First we took the train into London Bridge station then took the underground for a few stops and hopped onto the regional train for a bit of a ride out to the Upton Park Station. From there it was about a ten-minute walk through the neighborhood until we finally arrived.

Noah saw it first – he saw a TARDIS and a blue building. And then we entered. Doctor Who everything. It was very cool. They had a full-sized Dalek, a TARDIS, 6 or 7 Cyberman heads and more merchandise than you can even begin to imagine. Collector’s items, t-shirts, Fez hats, photographs, costumes, cardboard standups, adipose plushy dolls, keychains, tea pots, magnets, and even a sonic screwdriver pizza cutter. We spent way too much time there just browsing and looking. The kids anguished over what to buy and took forever to settle in on a decision but finally did. Everything was grossly overpriced but this was their big spending spree (we did talk Madison out of spending almost 350 pounds on a collector’s item gun prop). After settling the bill we entered their museum.

Noah was handed the keys to the TARDIS!

Noah was handed the keys to the TARDIS!

You enter through the TARDIS (nice touch). It’s a small museum (although bigger on the inside) with a collection of props, costumes and scripts. It was really fun. The collection included items from both classic Who and new Who. We recognized lots of items and oohed and aahed at all the appropriate items. We finally pulled ourselves out of the store and headed back to our flat. By now the Paris-cooties had settled into Madison and all she wanted to do was go back to the flat and go to bed.

I did really like that the store was way out from the center of London. The neighborhood was quite gritty. And it was Saturday so folks were just out and about, running errands, living their lives. We passed markets and food stands and just watched the people doing their thing. On our way back to the train station we passed a garbage can that had been set on fire which made us a little nervous – didn’t know if it was going to explode or not. Certainly not the tourist areas of London. But hey, where else was I going to get my Sonic Screwdriver pizza cutter!

Anything you could want.

Anything you could want.

Noah looks his nemesis directly in the eye.

Noah looks his nemesis directly in the eye.

Props from the show. This is from one of Noah's favorite episodes. Are you my mummy?

Props from the show. This is from one of Noah’s favorite episodes. Are you my mummy?

They sold almost everything Doctor Who.

They sold almost everything Doctor Who.

 

The Guards and The Eye

Buckingham Palace - a view from the park.

Buckingham Palace – a view from the park.

Lots of people mulling about after the changing of the guards. They just wouldn't get out of my way!

Lots of people mulling about after the changing of the guards. They just wouldn’t get out of my way!

The Changing of the Guards is just something every visitor to London is supposed to go and see.  We had seen the changing of the guards in Athens, Greece and we saw guards at the palaces in Monaco and the Vatican so by now we had a high bar set for us. The changing of the guards in Greece was very elaborate with all their high-stepping Monty-Python-esque walking and the hundreds of pleats in those skirts – Britain is going to have to work hard to beat that. It took us longer to get to Buckingham palace than we had planned mostly due to underground stations being closed because of construction work. We did finally make it there but the ceremony had already started. We’re still not in high season yet for tourism but the crowd was one of the biggest crowds we’d run into probably since Christmas time in Rome. Needless to say, we couldn’t get close to the fence so we really couldn’t see much of the ceremony.  We could see that they were not wearing their red coats but rather dark gray coats that I assumed were their winter outfits. We could hear the music and see some of it which was certainly full of pageantry. I have heard endlessly that the Brits are known for their pageantry.  There were lots of police around moving traffic and keeping pedestrians moving. If you went in the wrong spot they were quick to yell at you which provided us with entertainment as we watched all sorts of people get yelled at by the police. All-in-all it was fun and interesting. As the crowd dispersed we could get closer to the gates to get a good view of the guards. We also watched them march out and leave the area, I guess they were the ones relieved of duty.

The Royal Pelicans!

The Royal Pelicans!

London has BEAUTIFUL parks. We liked them more than the parks in Paris. Tons of wildlife here.

London has BEAUTIFUL parks. We liked them more than the parks in Paris. Tons of wildlife here.

Buckingham Palace is certainly in a beautiful area. After we had seen enough of the guards we made our way through the parks. The palace is surrounded by large and peaceful parks. There were tons and tons of waterfowl which kept Noah engaged for over an hour. I am pretty knowledgeable about ducks, geese and waterfowl but there were several fancy birds there that I had never seen. One of the species had a natural plume of short feathers on the top of their head which looked very much like the big hats the guards wear outside the palace. It made us wonder if the birds were trying out for the guard positions or were the guard hats modeled after the ducks? We also saw lots of squirrels and people feeding all of the creatures. We watched a squirrel run up a woman’s leg to get the nut from her hand. Clearly the animals here were VERY used to humans. We enjoyed seeing the royal pelicans! Yup – pelicans here in the center of London. We hung out with a group of six of them for quite some time. Watched them sun themselves and then make their way into the pond and in no time at all were way down the other end of the pond. Really fun to watch.

From here we walked through the London Horse Guards, through Trafalgar Square again, across the Thames and over to the London Eye. The walk was pleasant and we continued to take in new sights. The walk over the Thames was fun just because you can see so much on the banks of the river once you are out a ways on the bridge. London has great bridges for walking over!

The London Eye - they put you in that glass pod-like thing.

The London Eye – they put you in that glass pod-like thing.

Taking a ride on the Eye was on the “must-do”  list for London.  This is where my discount tickets came in very useful again; 2 for 1 tickets for the Eye. At 19.95 British Pounds it is not an inexpensive Ferris Wheel! We bought tickets and waited in line only about 20 minutes. The workers herd you into these pod-like containers on the Ferris Wheel and up you go. It takes about 35 minutes to complete one rotation which is what you get for your price of admission. The entire pod is made of glass or some see through material so you get wonderful views of London. It was rather overcast and smoggy when we were there but we could still get some great views.

This was kinda a low-key day. Just walking around, seeing what we could see, ride the eye and head back to the flat. It is nice to just meander the streets of London. And by taking the train to and from our flat we get to see lots on the way in and out. And when you use public transportation you always get some interesting interactions with – well – the public. Those interactions are often priceless!

A view from the Eye.

A view from the Eye.

Our view of Big Ben from the London Eye. See how smoggy and overcast?

Our view of Big Ben from the London Eye. See how smoggy and overcast?

 

Looking down at one of the many bridges over the Thames.

Looking down at one of the many bridges over the Thames.

London Tower

Just some of the London skyline.

Just some of the London skyline.

The kids mostly just wanted to walk around London and see the buildings, which is something Noah NEVER wants to do.But with this being London, that’s a great thing to do but I couldn’t just let us wander aimlessly. I had discovered a two-for-one pass program run by the London train company which I wanted to take advantage of. If you take the train into London you can get two-for-one entry into over 80 or so attractions. I read that the program was created to encourage locals to get out and visit London but there is no reason why tourists couldn’t take advantage of it. The savings from the tickets outweighed any savings we might see from special transportation deals. The first attraction we were off to see was Tower Bridge. It’s such a defining landmark of London. The two towers connected by a lower bridge and an upper bridge. Lovely!

Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge.

For our tour we walked into the visitors center in the bottom floor of one of the towers, took a lift up to the upper bridge and saw a brief film about the bridge. Seems that London was waaaay overdue for more bridges over the Thames and it took an act of Parliament to get this one built. There was a contest and people submitted some crazy ideas for it (over 50) but finally a design was chosen. This design is one that had never been used before in all of history. This bridge had to allow for tall ship traffic to pass through the river while at the same time pedestrians and vehicles needed to keep moving over top of the river. Viola! A two-tiered bridge that used bascules for the mechanism to open the lower level for tall ships. Bascules and engineering became our school focus for the day!

Looking up at the upper walkways of Tower Bridge.

Looking up at the upper walkways of Tower Bridge.

The support structure of the bridge is built of steel but to make it pretty, it is covered in stonework. After the movie we got to walk across the upper level – which is actually made up of two separate walk ways. Throughout the walkways they have an exhibit showing how the bridge was constructed, highlights of other amazing bridges around the world (of which we had seen 7 or 8 of them), and pictures of iconic people from around London or England (think James Bond, Twiggy, Roger Daltry, the Beatles). Noah loved the exhibit showcasing how it was built while Madison and I really enjoyed the pictures of other bridges and of the people. The tour included more highlights of how it was built and then we got to go down into what used to be the control room for the bridge. The bridge used hydraulics never before used in the world to open and close the drawbridge, and to operate the lifts to carry pedestrians up to the walkways, the signals that controlled the traffic and the jigger crane that unloaded the coal from the barges. Very high tech in those days.  The bridge opens 3 times a day and used to be powered by steam but now it’s all electronic and computerized. I think our favorite thing we found out about the bridge is that in 1952 the driver of London transport bus 78 had to actually jump the opening of the bridge. After that incident they reworked the security around opening the bridge. We figure those passengers had the ride of their life!

Bus 78 jumping the opening. CRAZY!

Bus 78 jumping the opening. CRAZY!

We probably spent 4 hours touring the bridge, and really enjoyed it. And, as every good tourist attraction does, they have a gift shop at the end. We just looked. On both sides of the Thames they have built a great walking system, I think they call it the Thames Path walk and it makes it very easy to walk all along the river for a long ways, which we did. We love seeing the funky buildings. The London City Hall is called the Armadillo. It’s a modern building that really looks like a giant armadillo. From up in the Tower Bridge we had great views of the London Skyline. They have a bullet building that looks identical to the one in Barcelona. And we loved seeing the “soul-eating-wifi-building”, as it’s called in Doctor Who but is actually known as the Shard. Can’t forget Big Ben and the London Eye (the giant Ferris wheel). And all of it set in front or right next to London Tower and the original walled medieval city. It’s the mix of old and new that is just so much fun.

That's the "soul eating wifi" building in the background.

That’s the “soul eating wifi” building in the background.

Our plan for the day included meeting up with Kay for dinner. She now had the “Paris cooties” and stayed home for the day. We had picked a restaurant that was close to the Tower Bridge and headed there to wait for her. But she never showed so our back up plan was for us to eat dinner anyway and then go home. Which we did. But not until getting a little lost after-all this was our second day out and now it was just me figuring out which way to go and it was dark. But fear not, we made it home and crashed into bed. Turns out I had taken both sets of keys to the apartment so Kay couldn’t leave because she couldn’t lock up.

Touring Tower Bridge was probably my favorite thing we did while in London. It was historical, interesting, educational, artistic, afforded great views of London, was just darn cool and reasonably priced. And that ticks off all my boxes for tourist attractions.

Tower Bridge at night.

Tower Bridge at night.

Just one view of the very spiffed up and clean engine rooms.

Just one view of the very spiffed up and clean engine rooms.

The Armadillo - London's city hall.

The Armadillo – London’s city hall.

London Calling

Our first day in London - a typical rainy London day!

Our first day in London – a typical rainy London day!

On this trip we’ve visited the Acropolis, the Vatican, hiked the Swiss Alps, seen the Mona Lisa, visited the ruins of Pompeii, seen the great cathedrals of Europe – did any of this matter to our children? No. What matters is visiting London. You see, they are big fans of Doctor Who, and Sherlock, they love the second Thor movie where the deadly Aether was released in Greenwich, and of course, they’ve seen every Harry Potter movie out. What do all these have in common? London. Yup – we were in London to find movie and tv locations. As we rode the bus into London, Madison’s face broke into the biggest smile we’ve seen on the entire trip. She just kept looking around, pointing out buildings and saying, “I can’t believe we’re in London”. Our bus brought us to Victoria Coach Station which passed us by many of the iconic London buildings, and on our drive to the flat we saw even more.

Trafalgar Square.  Even in the rain the fountains operate.

Trafalgar Square. Even in the rain the fountains operate.

London was our first stop without our camper and we rented a flat for eight days in the Greenwich area of London. It was a strange flat, kitchen, bathroom and then one big room for us. Still – bigger than our camper just a strange layout. But, the bus was just outside our doorstep and the train station was a five-minute walk. We were a five-minute walk to a large grocery store and a ten-minute walk to restaurants. Ideal for us. This was our first day in London and part of that drill includes figuring out public transportation. Kay and I did a quick grocery run in the morning and then all of us headed out about 1 pm and took the train to King’s Cross station. As soon as we left the station we all realized we were starving and found a little pub to pop into for some fish and chips. Our first London meal and it was yummy. The service was terrible but the food made up for it. Besides, as predictable in London, it started to rain while we were eating lunch so we waited it out a bit in the pub. The pub was full of people who we think were teachers. They had been protesting and still had signs against privatizing education. Each day that we were in London we saw protesters of some sort; protesting against privatizing the parole system, privatizing the education system, protesting in support of Syria, in support of Turkey, constant protesters. All of it peaceful though. And with lots of police presence each time. Quite frankly, we have seen protesters throughout this trip in most of the large cities we have visited.

A giant, blue rooster - I don't know why - it just was.

A giant, blue rooster – I don’t know why – it just was.

Just outside the pub was Trafalgar Square and one of the many London museums, and seeing as it was still raining we headed for it. While the kids let out a less-than-subtle-groan we ducked into the National Portrait Gallery to kill some time. We kinda sped through much of it but spent time admiring the Impressionist collection which Noah really enjoyed. The museum was having a special exhibit showcasing two of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. We very much enjoyed the Van Gogh museum when we were in Amsterdam so we were thrilled to see these additional paintings here. Besides, if you know anything about Doctor Who there was an episode featuring Vincent and his work including his sunflowers so this satisfied the kids need to see tv locations and our need for, well, anything else.

Afterwards we walked around Trafalgar square a bit. Can anyone explain the presence of the large blue rooster? By this time it was pouring so we called it quits and headed back to our flat. In spite of the rain it was a good first outing in London. We figured out public transportation, had our first meal of fish and chips, saw a few iconic London buildings, and slipped in a museum and a tv reference all in one shot. We’ve got to pace ourselves – we’ve got a lot of territory to cover!

Family Adventure Podcasts

Family Adventure Podcast is this great resource for anyone thinking about taking their family and going on the adventure of a lifetime. The Hemingway family did just that – with 5 kids + adding one on the way – all in a sailboat. Now that they have settled back onto land the dad has launched a website of podcasts with families who have been touring the world. Home-schooling, world-schooling, amazing family time, slow-traveling, sailing, driving, all sorts of ways – you name it. It is full of inspirational podcasts from families just doing it. And we were recently invited to share our experience with them so you can listen to me tell our story. There are amazing families out there, right now, doing it. If you have an inkling of an idea about your own big trip go check out this website and the podcasts. It may be just the push you need.

http://www.familyadventurepodcast.com/

How Many Different Ways to Travel?

Here's our bus inside our train pod getting ready to cross the chunnel.

Here’s our bus inside our train pod getting ready to cross the chunnel.

When we left Antwerp we headed to London. There is that pesky English Channel in the way so you need to decide how you want to navigate it. You can 1) fly over it, 2) ferry on top of it, or 3) chunnel under it. We chunneled! At first glance it makes sense to take the Eurostar from Brussels to Paris. It’s a 3 hour trip and, I guess if you buy your tickets far enough in advance, it’s not too costly. Well, we tried to buy tickets a few days in advance and it was going to cost us about $550 US dollar to take the Eurostar. Ouch! Plus we would have had to take the regional train from Antwerp to Brussels – additional cost and additional time. I trolled the internet looking for options and discovered MegaBus. Basically a no-frills bus company that drives over much of Europe, the US and Canada. We could go from Antwerp to London for $90 US. Sold. We took a taxi from our hotel to the bus station which wasn’t a station at all. It was a parking lot where buses could park. I could tell from his reaction that our taxi driver thought we were nuts. There was no bus waiting but there was another passenger waiting so we felt a little better. The bus did show up on time and we were off. We made a few stops along the way and then made it to the chunnel boarding area.

Other vehicles queing up to go into the chunnel. You can see a semi-truck in it's holding cell.

Other vehicles queing up to go into the chunnel. You can see a semi-truck in it’s holding cell.

This was our first time we had to go through customs since we ferried over from Greece to Italy. We had almost forgotten the drill. We first had to check out with the French border crossing – everyone off the bus, into the office and talk with the customs agents, then back on the bus. The bus moved forward about 100 meters and we do the drill again; everyone off the bus, into the office and talk with the UK border crossing except there we also had to fill out entry cards. No problems with any of this and we picked up another two stamps for our passports. Back on the bus and we drove to que up for the chunnel crossing.

Yes, we always read the safety posters. The chunnel has a third tube used for maintenance and rescues.

Yes, we always read the safety posters. The chunnel has a third tube used for maintenance and rescues.

When you cross the chunnel you don’t actually drive through it. All vehicles are loaded onto a train and the trains shuttle everyone back and forth. Once you are under way it is only about a 35 minute crossing. We had about 10 minutes to wait and then drove into the tunnel area. You enter, what I called, the train pod. Seriously – you drive onto a train and the entire car closes around you. I suppose each pod could contain several vehicles but we were the only vehicle in our pod. Remember, it’s not high season right now so we had no lengthy waiting time and no crowd. Once you’re loaded on the train you can get off and walk around. There are some windows looking out of the train pod but once you’re underground there is nothing to see. We did think it was a really cool way to travel although I think I still prefer the ferry. It was an uneventful crossing (what you always like), we drove up the ramp and we were now in the UK. No border personnel there as we did everything we needed to on the other side.

From there it was about a two hour drive to central London. The last hour of the drive we were actually in London but there is so much traffic that you just don’t move fast. The bus left us at Victoria Coach Station and from there we had hired a car to take us to the rental flat. It was a long day of travel and we really didn’t think we’d be up to figuring out the London public transportation system at 6 pm that night. Besides this car company works with the flat rental company and he took us to get our keys and get us into the flat.

It's London! Let the fun begin.

It’s London! Let the fun begin.

So just today we were on a taxi, a coach bus, a train, and a hired car. Once we gave up our own means of transportation we became totally dependent on the transportation that is available to us. Not a big deal – just a big change for us. And now we were in London, the number one place the kids wanted to visit. Let the fun begin.

Where and When to Ship Home?

For the past month Kay has been contacting shipping companies to get quotes and dates on shipping our camper back home. Our plan (that 4-letter word that never goes away) was to ferry from Calais, France to Dover, England , spend a few weeks exploring the countryside of Britain, Scotland and Wales, ship the camper home from Southampton, England and spend some time in Ireland while the camper is en route to Baltimore. We contacted the company we used to ship over here and they put us in touch with two shipping agents, one in Southampton and one in La Havre, France. Basically these two ports are just across the English Channel from each other and we could ship from either one. We contacted both and waited for information. The company in the UK got back to us right away and provided great customer service but they were about 25% more than we had budgeted for the return trip. Besides, the closer we got to the UK the more anxious Kay became about driving the camper on, what is to us, the wrong side of the road. So we waited for a quote from the company in La Havre. And waited. And waited. And waited. Not a good sign. They did finally get us a quote which was almost equal to the company from the UK. Both companies came in at around $10,000 to ship to Baltimore. Out of our budget but if we had to, we had to.

On a whim we decided to contact the shipping company we used to enter Belgium. Rita was the agent we worked with and she had an immediate reply for us. She provided us with shipping dates and they got a quote to us within 24 hours. Customer service we liked! And, the quote was for almost the exact amount it cost to bring it over, $7,500. Perfect and our exact budget number. So now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Wow? $15,000 dollars to ship round-trip? Why did they do that.” Believe it or not, even with the shipping costs it was the least expensive way for us to do this trip. Renting an RV in Europe and/or buying one is even more expensive than how we did it. I would guess you could rent a camper van or something smaller for less but with a family of four, including two teenagers, we wanted a bit more space than European campers provide. There are so many ways anyone could choose to do this type of trip – ultimately you have to choose what is the best situation for your family. So that’s what we did.

So to ship we needed to go to Antwerp. That’s where we started. We ended up loving the idea of shipping out of where we started – we lapped Europe! How cool is that? Kay didn’t relish the idea of another day of driving but it turns out it wasn’t that far, about a 6 hour drive, and all major motorways. We were heading to Antwerp but knew we didn’t want to stay at the campground where we started. It worked well for our first few days on the trip but now we knew enough that we looked for someplace else. Looking back at the beginning of our trip we had a terrible time getting propane in Belgium so we left Belgium sooner than we had planned in order to head to Holland in search of propane. Because of that we didn’t get to see Brugge or Ghent, both places I had wanted to go. Now that we were returning to Belgium, we could go there. We found a great campground just outside of Brugge and made ourselves comfortable. Our goal over the next five days was to pack up the camper, get rid of things we acquired along the way that wouldn’t fit on the trip home, and to pack our own stuff up for traveling via hotels for the next few weeks. And I, of course, wanted to sight-see.

What happened was the “Paris cooties” that Noah had – he gave them to me. I ended up in bed for the 5 days we were in Brugge leaving Kay to do all the packing and purging.  The cooties eventually made their way to Kay and onto Madison although no one had it as severely as I did. So much for sight-seeing in Brugge.

On the day we were leaving we emptied our waste water tanks as much as we could, checked out of the campground and headed to the port. I thought we were going to Antwerp where we had picked up the camper when it shipped here, turns out the actual port was in Zeebrugge.  Very close to our campground. It was an easy drive and then Kay went to check in to see what we do next. Basically she had to fill out some paperwork and then drive the camper to a specific parking spot where they measured it and sent her on her way. Simple! We then took a cab to the train station in Brugge (so I did get to see some of it), and took the train to Antwerp where we had our first overnight in a hotel since last July!

The camper will take about 3 1/2 weeks from the time we leave it at the port to the time we can pick it up in Baltimore. During that time our plan is to travel to London, then Cardiff, Wales and then onto Ireland. We made arrangements to stay in a flat in London and an apartment while in Ireland. We have a few nights in a hotel in Cardiff and we’ll be in a hotel in Baltimore for one night. This end of the trip is requiring a whole different set of planning skills. We have grown very used to finding campgrounds and deciding our route as we go – now we have to make solid plans. But, so far, so good. The next few weeks should provide a good contrast to how we have been traveling for the past 9 months. I feel like it’s a great experiment! Can’t wait to learn the outcome.

Pictures – Northern France and Normandy

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