Trip Diaries: England (2014)

I have never been one to like trips, let alone trips overseas, but four years ago a sense of wanderlust gripped me. Then – 2014 – was my first calendar year working full time. Doing so must change people, at least temporarily, because I was certainly not myself. I was also double hoofing it, completing a graduate school program at the same time. The idea of a physical escape to a faraway land was appealing to me in a way it hadn’t been when I had been burying myself in Skyrim as an undergrad.

So possessed I was with a fancy for travel that I straight up asked my dad if he could take me on a trip to England. Now, just a few years’ prior, I had to resist my parents’ pleas to take part in the University of Dallas’ Rome semester. That study abroad program is one of the highlights of my alma mater, but I didn’t appreciate much in the way of “study” or “abroad” when I was a student there. I was more concerned with homesickness and gaming. How roles had changed now that it was I who begged; thankfully, my dad did not resist my request. This was crucial, because on my own support I may have got as far as London, Kentucky, before having to turn back.

-Day 1: Departure, London, and the Excitement of Arrival

So it was on the night of October 9 that my dad and I boarded a plane for Heathrow Airport. I had been on a long flight before – to Tokyo, lasting around 13 hours – so I was ready. This one lasted 9 hours. I don’t remember much about the flight save that at the start I felt claustrophobic and thought briefly that I couldn’t do it. This passed, however, and soon enough I was settled into a long-flight mindset, not to be bothered again. I thought to have my glasses on, so was able to nap some. I remember looking out the window at the stars, and specifically thinking of all the wonder that must be out there, and flashing back to moments when I would look at the stars out the windows of System Shock 2. A thrill passed through me as I realized I was not in the midst of another work week, but rather on a plane headed to England. I had wrought this trip myself, and felt a sense of achievement.

When we landed, I remember going through security and making a ridiculous mistake. I handed the security person my driver’s license – in which I was wearing contacts and wore a beard – when currently I was clean-shaven and wearing glasses. I should have thought to at least take off my glasses. However, as it was, he looked from the card to my face several times, and asked, “Can you remove your glasses?” I felt pretty stupid. I was also afraid they thought I was using a fake ID!

The first part of our trip was spent in London, the second in Dartmoor, and the third and final back in London. I had known from the start that what I really wanted to see in England was the countryside and the moors. When traveling to anyplace, I most want to see the rural and suburban areas. I want to walk around them and soak in the atmosphere. I’m never hyped for the standard tourist attractions. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just not what I get excited about. My dad insisted on a solid, brief experience of London, though, so we didn’t just dart off to the moors.

We checked into our hotel at Regents Park, then headed out. The first attraction we saw was the Sherlock Holmes museum. There’s actually a 221b Baker Street that they’ve refitted into this museum. It was a small, cozy place that had recreations of each room, notably Holmes’ sitting room. There were wax recreations of several scenes from the stories. There was also a trophy of a giant hound. Holmes never hunted the thing, did he?!

Sherlock Holmes statue, Baker Street

Sherlock Holmes statue.

Hound of the Baskervilles trophy.

Hound of the Baskervilles trophy.

Sherlock Holmes museum - sitting room.

Me in sitting room.

At the Baker Street station there was also a large statue of Holmes. I remember being captivated by the little speaker voice saying “Baker Street” as we arrived in the tube. I also remember constantly seeing unsettling posters for some horror movie throughout the tube walkways and stations. Each time I saw it, I remember how happy I had been to forget it. Why do they put such posters in public places? I also remember seeing posters with “The United States of ____” with the blank being a name, like Dan, advertising travel to the U.S. I also remember scanning the heck out of my Oyster card to get in and out.

After the Sherlock Holmes museum, we went to a bookstore named Hatchard’s: a standard book store but with an old-fashioned looking interior. Next we went to the toy store called Hamley’s, a big place filled with craziness. One worker was skating around while holding all these spinning toys and stuff. It was a madhouse! Our visits to these two stores involved lots of walking around London, including through Piccadilly Square.

England trip - Piccadilly Square

Exactly what I want to see in England.

After this and a brief evening stroll, we retired to the hotel. I remember there was some cottage right near our hotel, that I saw every time we returned, but I can’t remember what it was named. White Cottage?

-Day 2: Tourist Spots Part One, and a Pressing Homesickness

The first night in London was a restless one for me. This contrasts sharply with my Tokyo trip, which I will write about here later. On that trip, I crashed the first night, and just about each night after. I slept deeply and darkly. But on the England trip, an unfortunate trend of insomnia began. I tried to squelch it each time by reading, which hardly works for me when I’m struggling to fall asleep. I also occasionally thought of that unsettling movie poster. I remember on several trips some unsettling movie poster or DVD cover bothering me late into the night.

I finally fell asleep, and the next morning woke up with a new and deep sense of homesickness. At this time of my life, the part about being away from home that always got me was having to sleep and wake someplace else. I remember when I lived on campus my first semester of college that during the day I was okay. It was when I had to face a dark night or woke up first thing in the morning when longing for home hit the hardest.

Sleeplessness and homesickness regardless, I joined my dad for another day in London. This first full day there, we saw some of the standard tourist hot spots.

First, we visited Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful and impressive, a huge building with several memorable sights. I remember especially the tombs for various public figures, like Laurence Olivier.

Westminster Abbey, inner grounds

This is the only picture I found of Westminster that I took, but trust me that I will look for more.

After Westminster, we walked to Buckingham palace and the surrounding grounds. It was all a very beautiful area. I liked walking around the parks and seeing the ducks in the lakes, especially.

In front of Buckingham Palace

Standing sleepily near Buckingham Palace.

Swans in the park areas near Buckingham

Swans in the park areas near Buckingham.

Picture of a tree in park areas near Buckingham

A picture of a tree I took in the same area.

Big Ben

Me and Big Ben.

Next, we visited the Churchill War Museum. This is setup in an underground bunker that had been used by Churchill and other military and government leaders during World War II. There were several interesting stories about the war and about Churchill. One was that he would feign deafness when someone, like one of the generals, would start challenging one of his points; a form of “what’s that, I can’t hear you!” Some of the audio bits had you pick up a phone to hear them – an interesting touch. We ate lunch there. The eatery was within the underground bunker too.

Churchill statue

Statue of Winston Churchill.

Entrance to Churchill War Museum

The entrance into the Churchill War Museum.

After the museum, we walked around the parks again, then returned to the hotel. (What was the name of that cottage place? I saw it every time we walked back to the hotel! Come on.)

That night we walked to Primrose Hill for a satisfying view of the London skyline. Several locals were there. I remember hearing one young English lady exclaiming “It’s perfect!” but I hadn’t got the words before it or after it. Since, I have always wondered what she was talking about. The weather?

Primrose Hill

The view from Primrose Hill.

Next we went to Harrod’s department store. This place was huge! And it had some of the best interior decorations for a shopping place I’ve ever seen: one of the escalator sections was all fixed up like an Egyptian tomb. There were tons of stores, and downstairs there were several eatery places. After buying some sweets, we returned to the hotel for the night. (That stupid cottage place! Augh, what was it called?)

-Day 3: Tower and Thames

The second night saw more sleep for me, but still not enough. I woke feeling fatigued, and depressed that such an interesting trip was juxtaposed with insomnia and homesickness. Nonetheless, I walked out of the hotel into the fresh morning air determined to blot all that darkness out of my mind and enjoy another day in London.

The major tour we did this day was to the Tower of London. This is one of those “must see” tourist places if you visit London, and was more interesting than I thought it’d be. It’s like a nice little castle area, with a long history. At the time they had recently finished a “Field of Poppies” memorial honoring the World War I dead. It was an impressive display.

The tour guide we had was a very likeable and funny fellow. The Tower of London Guard all seem like they love their job. They’ve each had to work really hard to get there, too; our guide referenced, I believe, joining the military and getting to that position through promotions. “Any Americans here?” he asked at one point. “If you had been willing to pay your taxes this could be your history too.” Hah! It was all said in good fun. Note that the whole experience was not a tour, as you could break away and explore on your own after a brief guide of the grounds.

(My brother, when visiting England during his Rome semester – that he actually went on – skipped the Tower of London because he thought it looked boring or scary or something.)

I also learned that any suggestions towards the reigning monarch’s death was considered treason. So you couldn’t even speculate what the next monarch will be like, lest you want to commit treason. We walked freely about after finishing the guided section, and saw several exhibits, all topped off by a view of the royal treasury. It’s a lot of stuff made of gold. We then ate in a café there, and sat with an older English lady who laughed and said “Oh my” when I said I wanted to visit Scotland.

After leaving the Tower of London, we walked up and down the Thames, crossed Millennium Bridge, and passed by the Globe Theater. We then returned to our hotel for dinner and the night. (It will come to me…just think…cottage…now; what cottage? Williard’s Cottage? White Cottage? Winifred’s Cottage? Was it even a “W”?)

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge.

(Note: I intend to look for some good pics of the Tower of London. I’m sure we took some, but I can only find one that isn’t very good.)

-Day 4: The British Museum, and Granola Bars

The first task we did today was go to Paddington Station to pick up our train tickets for our approaching trip to Exeter. We also saw the Paddington bear statue.

Paddington Bear statue

The statue of Paddington Bear. I wish I had sat next to it or posed with it or something.

We spent the rest of the day at the British Museum. What can I say? Would I be criminal for not writing much about it here? My journal entry notes no details and I couldn’t find any pictures except a few blurry ones. I will try to update this section in the future. We also ate there, and I remember worrying what it would be like if I never slept again.

Next, we got granola bars. Why am I writing this? Well, because I journaled it! This is what I wrote: “Got Granola [sic] bars at Waitros retail store; these were for breakfast at Bovey Castle.” Really? Why, that’s very interesting! For some reason, I thought this an important detail to journal. So, in all, this day we went to the British Museum and got granola bars.

After, we returned to our hotel, for the last night in London before heading out to the country. (Pleasant Cottage? Peacock Cottage? Pretzel Cottage? Rose Cottage?)

-Day 5: Darting Off to Dartmoor

We woke to leave our little hotel room in Regents Park, saying goodbye to it and the nameless cottage one last time. We went to Paddington station and began a scenic three-hour train ride to the Exeter-St. David station.

Looking out the train window at the rural landscape was fascinating. I remember seeing one small church with an England flag outside of it. An England flag, not United Kingdom flag. I don’t think I saw one of those flying anywhere else. It made me think that that little church was a little corner of fundamentalism, equivalent to small churches in Texas that fly the Texas flag and have signs that read “God Bless the Republic of Texas.”

London had been great, and I’d love to go back. But I was itching to get out to the countryside. As the train whisked us away to the land that inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles, I thought cheesily that I might be undergoing the same train ride that Sherlock Holmes took.

Now, I wouldn’t be heading to Baskerville Hall, but upon arriving at the station my dad and I rode a cab to Bovey Castle, a very nice hotel. It was a fairly long drive, and the hotel had a long driveway itself, from which you could see a great view of the building and grounds as you gradually approached them.

Bovey Castle is a very nice place to stay. It was quiet – that was the first aspect I noticed. Outside on the grounds or inside, the atmosphere is one of silence. The hallways and public sitting rooms are lavish areas and what one would think of as part of a British mansion. The elevator – or, lift – used to get to our room was a small, quaint contraption that required manual operation, and that I was afraid of (I have a terrible fear of elevators). The room had a nice view over the grounds. If I lightly used clichés and indulged in fanciful, stereotypical descriptions, and wasn’t self-conscious about sounding too American, I’d say that the whole place felt like something out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. But I’m not like that, so I won’t. It was a nice getaway.

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We walked for about an hour around the grounds and surrounding farmland and rural area. There was a little path you could follow, and we eventually came out onto a road. We also came upon and walked through a quaint and Thief-y church.

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That night we returned to Bovey Castle and had dinner there. We also walked some out of the front entrance, down the driveway. At night, this place was pitch black, and even more dead silent. I remember looking around, thinking of the vast farmlands and moors around, sitting in the total darkness and silence, and how detached this place seemed. No wonder it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle! I imagined what horrors might be creeping about. Getting to sleep was a struggle here, as well. It was a little too quiet. I also heard a dog howling at one point – just for a little while, but I heard it. I swear.

-Day 6: Touring the Moors

The next morning, we met with a tour guide, Richard Ware, to show us around Dartmoor. He was a very pleasant, enjoyable guide, and though I had felt some qualms about a guided tour, this day hardly felt like a guided tour at all. It was more like if a family member or some close friend showed you around their home town.

First, we stopped at and saw an old bridge (we were driven around in the guide’s car to different places). I can’t remember the significance of it, and my journal does not detail it, but it was the first stop and a nice little river area with lots of rocks.

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The tour guide, Richard, and me.

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Next, we stopped at the side of one road and walked to the place that inspired Merripit House. This was a very memorable walk. At the time, the weather was very wet and foggy, and at this particular point the fog was at its thickest. As we sloshed along in the mud, rain and fog about us, I realized that this is what it must have been like for poor Baskerville.

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Next we stopped at Tor Royal, according to our guide the place that inspired Baskerville Hall. I was a little disappointed, as it certainly wasn’t the size of what you’d think Baskerville Hall would be. The fellow living there was very nice, though. He welcomed us in and talked about the place a bit. There were also dogs there. They liked me, but at one point I stepped in doo doo. Richard our guide wasn’t too concerned; he said to just wipe it off in the wet grass. Considering how growing up stepping in dog doo was like the worst thing in the world and was met with disaster-response levels of panic, I was surprised by this nonchalant attitude towards the ordeal, and embarked briefly on an existential journey. Was I wrong for always thinking that stepping in dog doo was such a terror? Why couldn’t I ever have just let my hair down, broken out of my shell, and been cool about stepping in poo? I was always a stuck up, tightly wad, closed in, OCD-laden prick. I rejected everything about who I ever was.

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Next we stopped at the Princetown visitor center. There were some pleasant guest shops, one of which had a small historical museum on the area. There was an exhibit on The Hound of the Baskervilles there, as well. Here there were restrooms that charged you to use them. I remember our guide saying “Can you believe it? Five p. to take a wee.” Indeed!

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We next stopped at a pub. I had pizza and coke. (When I go abroad, I don’t mess around.) Afterwards we visited a church. There was some connection to the War of 1812, but there was also a part that was donated by the sisters of America or something (?). Unfortunately my journal has no details. It was another beautiful church. In it, as well as in the one prior, I imagined what it would be like to attend such a place regularly, it being just where you went.

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We next walked around what had been a Bronze Age village. This was a breathtaking part of the trip, and perhaps its highlight for me. The weather had turned just right for us: whereas earlier that day we had seen the moors under the heavy fog atmosphere, now the sky had cleared and the sun shone bright and the skies were blue, perfect for the scenery. There were several high points and rock formations, and I felt as if in another world.

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This was the last stop on our tour, and I was sad to see it end. Richard had been a friendly guide, and the sights we saw, and the long drives in between, were beautiful and have lasted in memory. Not having enough of the country air and views, my dad and I went for another hour plus long walk around the area about Bovey Castle once we had returned.

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That night we had dinner in Bovey Castle again. Nowhere else in my journal did I note what I had eaten, but this night I had “fish-n-chips and delicious chocolate ice cream!” I guess it was especially delicious for me to write it?

We explored some of the lavish sitting rooms before retiring for the night.

-Day 7: London Once More

We woke for one last morning in beautiful Bovey Castle. After walking the interior and grounds for a bit more, we said our goodbye and were driven back, by a very lively and entertaining taxi driver, to the Exeter-St. David’s station. From there, we rode the train back to Paddington Station, and I enjoyed the rural scenery one last time.

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We checked in at a much smaller hotel in the Paddington Station area, then walked around the streets a little while. We had dinner at an Italian café, then turned in for the night. (There was no cottage near this hotel, thank goodness.)

-Day 8: Returning Home

After waking up the next morning, we took the tube to the Heathrow Airport. After getting through security, and waiting in a sitting area for a while, we boarded a plane for DFW. Then it was back off to home sweet home.

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Ready to go home!

Though I enjoyed the trip, and remember it fondly, throughout a moderate homesickness overhung everything. I remember during one video call home I wished that I could leap through the screen and be there. But this was not a mood against where I was – I enjoyed it – rather, it was simply homesickness qua homesickness. This longing contrasts with my wanderlust when I actually *was* home. How deceptive our feelings can be! I wanted to travel somewhere while home, but then longed for home while traveling. I remember at one point as we walked London, we stopped in a small retail store, and I specifically wished I could be back in the good old retail store at home. Often at restaurants, especially with drink refills, I longed to be back in a restaurant I knew.

Overall, though, this trip has remained one of my top memorable life experiences. I’d love to go back someday, and would recommend this trip to anyone.