A new year, a new outlook

Although we are already well into this (not so) new year this is my first blog post for 2011 and quite a lot has happened in the past few weeks and months.

I ended 2010 by living out one of my biggest dreams as our family got to spend about three weeks touring the UK with my mom. We left Cape Town on my son's 13th birthday and after a brief stop over in Johannesburg and a loooooooong flight right through the night, we finally made it to Heathrow early the next morning.

The UK is everything we hoped for and more; there was history and wonder waiting for us around every corner. I felt like a weary wanderer coming out of the desert and stumbling into a pool of clear, sparkling water - I can not get enough of this country or its people and I wanted to drink it all in and store it away safely so I would never forget a single moment.

In London we spend two days on the Big Red Bus having all the best-known sights pointed out to us by our friendly, helpful tour guides and then ended our second day with a Thames River cruise. The great thing about the Big Red Bus is that you can get on or off as many times as you want while your ticket is still valid, so when you see a place you want to investigate, you just jump off and then catch the next Big Red Bus that comes along.

Before going to the UK, London was the place I was least excited to visit. I thought it would be just another big city and they are all pretty much the same. I was so wrong, I don't think I could ever get tired of London; whether it's walking in St James' Park and feeding the cheeky squirrels, enjoying the festive atmosphere at the annual Hyde Park Christmas Market (where we had roasted chestnuts), standing next to the 900-year-old Tower of London or finding a favorite pub where you can warm up over a bowl of hot soup and a generous glass of mulled wine. As Samuel Johnson once said; "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

From London we traveled north to the breathtaking town of York, with its rich Roman and Viking history. We walked along its ancient wall, sipped mulled cider, climbed up to Clifford's Tower and learned more about the Vikings at the Norvic Museum. In the evening we were privileged to celebrate mass at St Wilfrid's, which dates back to 1864 and stands not far from the York Minster cathedral.

My daughter and I could have spent an entire day at the Beatrix Potter gift shop with trinkets and collectables to suit anyone’s budget. However, a visit to York would not be complete without lunch at the famous Golden Fleece, the most haunted pub in York; but we were not there for the ghosts, we wanted to try their legendary Yorkshire Puddings. I have never seen a Yorkie that size before, it was as big as a dinner plate yet as light as a feather. We decided we had to go try these out at home.

Saying goodbye to the magical town of York, we continued North to Edinburgh in Scotland where we finally caught up with the snow. The kids (and us) loved the fluffy, freshly fallen snow and they played outside till we finally lured them in with a cup of hot chocolate.

We stayed in a lovely holiday apartment on the Royal Mile half way between Hollyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle in a street called Old Tollbooth Wynd. The first night we got there we had supper at the Old Tolbooth Tavern just a few slippery steps away from our front door. This was where we had our first taste of the famous Scottich Haggis, and to our surprise we found that we all loved it. We spent the rest of the week eating Haggis at some of the pubs up and down the Royal Mile but in the end we all decided that our favorite was still that served at the Old Tolbooth Tavern.

We shopped along Princess Street, spend a morning exploring the majestic Edinburgh Castle, admired the dark stone buildings and looked for treasures in the interesting little gift shops.

The only thing we did not like was the place where we had planned to have our Christmas lunch. The pub was called The Bank Hotel, they were completely disorganised, rude and unfriendly, however we were not going to let them upset our Christmas so we ended up going to the Bay of Bengal where we had a fantastic lunch and the staff were eager to please. The atmosphere was warm and friendly and we enjoyed the most delicious curries and biryani, a great alternative to our usual traditional Christmas lunch.

After Christmas we were back on the road, this time to explore Shakespeare’s place of birth, Stratford-upon-Avon. We stayed at the New Inn Hotel in a little village just outside of Stratford called Clifford Chambers.

We met some of the villagers one morning as we were heading into Stratford. We were amazed to be told by one very elderly lady with a twinkle in her eye that she only went home after midnight on Christmas eve as she was playing cards with her friends and lost track of time. This pretty much sums up most of the local people we met in Clifford Chambers, friendly, fun and with a mischievous sparkle. We went on long walks around the Village and took some photos of the local Manor House that dates back to the 15th or 16th century and was redesigned by Edwin Lutyens after it was badly damaged in a fire in 1918.

In Stratford we got to see The Holy Trinity Church where William Shakespeare was baptised and later buried. After exploring the church we went for a walk in a beautiful park, it was covered in a light layer of snow and ice and there was a soft mist in the air that added a real storybook feel to it. Walking in that park was one of those moments in life that you want to bottle and keep forever; it was the place of dreams.

We loved our time in Stratford and Cliffords Chamber but all too soon it was time to pack our bags and head back to Heathrow for our flight home.

When we booked in for our flight the friendly ground hostess offered to change our tickets as there were a few open seats available on a direct flight from London to Cape Town, which would cut five hours out of our traveling time.

By the time we landed in Cape Town we were all ready to turn around and go back, the only thing we knew for sure was that we had all left our hearts in England and we can't wait to go back.

England is a magical country and it is clear where authors like Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling get their inspiration. Surrounded by all that history, architecture, parks, museums and cathedrals it was like stepping right into one of their books. Walking around the outer wall of Buckingham Palace, all I could think of was the wall around the Unseen University and I wanted to look for the 'secret' back entrance used by the students who return after curfew.

We have now been back for almost eight weeks but it feels like it's been a life time, as Tiffany says in A Hat Full of Sky; "Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving." (Terry Pratchett) This trip has changed us all and forced us to take a long hard look at our life and where it is going; we know now where we want to be.