Visiting Britain Review - Beware the British Bank Holiday

The hazards of bank holiday week

Beware of the British Bank Holiday. It’s something you may not find mentioned in the travel guides, but it should be. British bank holidays can be dangerous to your health.

The United Kingdom (UK)calendar lists eight holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s Day and banks are closed on normal holidays just as they are in the USA.  The  term Bank Holiday embraces the Early May, Spring and Summer bank holidays which are also on that calendar. And those are the ones that send Brits and school childen vacationing and create crowds that can disrupt the travel plan of unknowing tourists.

Salisbury cathedral

But, oh my, though we have visited London many times, we had never encountered a bank holiday as we did in late Spring a few months ago. If I had known of the problems a bank holiday foments, I would have changed my dates. We ran into room shortages, crowded trains and overbooked restaurants, as well as hordes of munchkins (aka school kids) in every museum.

Hotel, Photo: Courtesy of Red Carnation Hotels

 

We, fortunately, had booked well ahead for our favorite London hotel, the Montague on the Gardens. We’ve stayed at the Montague in the past and it’s nice to return to a small, comfortable inn where everyone knows your name. The hotel has an advantageous location. It is just across the street from the British museum, is serviced by several bus lines and is just a five-minute walk from a major subway station at Russell Square. There’s a serenity about the place, with none of the hustle and bustle of normal tourist hostelries.

Rollie and I are fans of high tea. The Montague has a tea program, which we have yet to sample. We’ve tried the program at several major London hotels and on this trip, with Lana and Hillary, we wanted to see how it was done at the Langham, a posh hotel near the BBC offices.

High Tea

 

It was disappointing.  Too much noise, for one thing.    While competing with overbearing and unwanted music, as well as the chirping and chattering of a largely female crowd, we were forced to shout to each other. Delicacies were served in single portions, rather than on a tiered plateau, which I have always associated with high tea. The sandwiches were cumbersome and overstuffed, rather than on thinly sliced bread, and delicate.

 

Desserts were fine, but the presentation was off-putting, just too precious, I should have tried the tea at the Montague. Though it may not have been as lavish as that served by the Langham, I am sure it would have given me greater pleasure.

British Library, Photo: British Tourism

 

As a veteran traveler to London, there were few new sights for Rollie and me, other than the dramatically changed New Tate and the British Library. The original Tate with its treasure trove of Turners and Constables is always a delight while the new Tate, ever evolving in a huge former power plant on the opposite banks of the Thames, is a thrilling showcase for new artists and changing directions.

 

The London Library, less than two years old and within walking distance of the Montague, was a new delight. It had an extraordinary Shakespeare exhibit which I was unable to give the time it deserved. That show has to travel to the United States. The library also showed one of the few copies of the Gutenberg bible, which was the first book set in type, as well as the Tyndale bible, the first collection of religious texts to be published in English, described in loving detail by a knowledgeable guide. I need another day at the library.

 

 

British Museum, Photo:British Tourism

National Gallery, Photo: British Tourism

 

I delighted in showing my nieces Lana and Hillary the places we’ve enjoyed: St. Paul’s Cathedral, though the admission price of 18 pounds sterling(roughly $25) was exorbitant, the Tower of London, a smattering of pubs, and the two great galleries off Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery.  Visiting each of them was like a trip through art and history, and time with the great personalities of the past few centuries. Everywhere we went, enjoying those double decker busses, from the galleries to the library, we had to compete for space with flocks of children, some eagerly devouring knowledge, others bored and occasionally out of control.

 

We almost did not make the other half of our planned itinerary, a trip to St. Ives in the coastal area of Cornwall. We tried by phone to book seats and were told there was nothing available. The concierge at the Montagu suggested a personal contact might help, so we jumped into a cab to prospect on our own, and we struck gold.  We lucked onto a chatty, friendly attendant who not only found us wonderful seats, but also spent a good deal of time advising us on the ins and outs of that touristic region. So, we rode in comfort, savoring the English countryside as our train raced down the coast. All about us, people were standing or perched precariously on upended suitcases.

fishing/gathering in St. Ives

Lobster pots, St. Ives

Beach

Our base in Cornwall, for only three nights because everything was booked, was the Vicarage, a former church converted into a pleasant bed and breakfast. It could not have been nicer, decent room, good bed, and the freshest, most wholesome breakfasts we were to have for the whole trip, convenient to town and beach, serviced by cabs and nearby bus stop. We enjoyed walking the beaches and Hillary and Lana, both potters, enjoyed the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden

 

Hepworth sculpture garden - St ives

 

Lane in St. Ives

St. Ives was jammed with British holiday goers. We were turned away from several restaurants we had chosen, but still dined well on fresh seafood at other spots. There are a multitude of dining options in Cornwall, including takeout to enjoy at the beach and along the boardwalk. We wolfed down more than our share of Cornish pasties, those apple-turnover-like rolls stuffed with pork or chicken or seafood or veggies.

Stonehenge

 

When our stay was up, we wanted to be near Stonehenge, but found only meager accommodation in Amesbury, a bare-bones hotel with no phone, no storage space for clothes, a paucity of amenities.  It was, fortunately, near Stonehenge, which we toured along with hordes of school children and throngs of tourists from many nations.  When we first visited years ago, you could practically walk unhindered among the historic and mysterious stones. Now there is a major exhibit hall, food service and store selling Stonehenge books and souvenirs.  The historic grounds are fenced in and well protected.

 

We were also fairly close, a long cab ride, to Salisbury, site of  a historic cathedral, one highlight of our visit.  The other was an open air market where we picked up some shrimp, mushrooms, and crabmeat, bread  and cheese and lunched in the sun at a table in the square.

Salisbury farmers market

 

Our time had dwindled down to two days and we moved onto far superior accommodations at Windsor, within striking distance of London . We stayed at a  hotel just across the street from Windsor Castle, and wended our through more throngs of tourists lined up on the sidewalk. The nieces toured the castle, Rollie and I opted for a hop-on—hop- off bus through the town, through lovely parklands  and past the playing fields of Eton.

 

Windsor Castle

 

And then to home, via a regional, but totally crowded  international airport at Luton. Our lessons learned, we vowed never again to travel during bank holidays, or school breaks.

 

Photos: Hillary Loring unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

 

 

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