For the few days leading up to a planned trip to England, Wales and Ireland, my wife and I had been paying really close attention to the Weather Channel. After all, the last time we took such a trip to Europe two years ago, a rogue thunderstorm over Dallas airspace cost us a day in Paris. We did not want history to repeat itself.
As it turned out, despite an itinerary that routed us this time through Chicago, weather nearly ruined our first day once again.
As we arrived at our friendly Mid-Continent airport in Wichita more than 90 minutes ahead of our scheduled boarding time, a member of our group who had arrived extra early emerged from the terminal building to inform us our flight had been pushed back a whopping five hours.
Apparently, bad weather in Chicago the day before and that morning had caused a logjam at O’Hare International Airport in the Windy City. That was the bad news. The good news was that he had managed to rebook all of us on an earlier flight. All we had to do was check in, check our bags and, as it turned out, check our blood pressure.
All of us had arrived except one former Hillsboro High School student from Topeka. I had called his mother earlier and told her we had plenty of time, and the family should grab some lunch before coming to the airport. But, as we were making final arrangements at the United Airlines desk, the crew suddenly decided it was time for us to board the plane.
We were moments away from missing our flight, and there was still no sign of our last passenger. I made a phone call and discovered he was on his way, but none of us could be sure he would make it on time.
I watched for him from just beyond the security barrier and was relieved to see him sprinting our way. We all boarded and took a collective deep breath. Then, we waited.
We sat on the tarmac for about 30 minutes, wondering why we were not taking off. As it turned out, Chicago was not ready for us. As many as 25,000 planes a day use O’Hare, and our jet needed to be assigned a slot in the rotation.
The pilot informed us her crew had been on duty since 4:10 a.m. that day and by law could not work past a certain time.
Later, we discovered our flight was a mere 15 minutes from being canceled. It would have been tragic, as no more planes were heading for Chicago in time for us to make our connecting flight to London.
Luckily, we were “wheels up,” as they say, just in time, and we were on our way. We were ecstatic.
We made our late-evening flight to London and settled in for our eight-hour journey across the Atlantic. Day 1 ended somewhere over Iceland. The volcano there slept, and so did most of us.
Our first day in London, technically Day 2 of the trip, started with more delays. We cleared customs and were met by a representative of EF, our tour company. Since we had been delayed about 30 minutes out of Chicago, we arrived late at Heathrow Airport outside London. That meant the bus designated to pick us up had to be sent away, so we were greeted with another hour-long wait for the next one.
Quite frankly, we were just happy to be in England, so we grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby airport coffee shop and made the best of the situation.
Eventually, the bus arrived, and we were transported to our hotel. We were told not to lie down in our rooms and were given only a short time to put our belongings away and muster in the lobby.
On these types of overseas trips, a traveler does not want to take a nap. The idea is to hit the ground running, then hit the hay that night. The method, in theory, will help the body adjust to the six-hour time differential. For the most part, I believe the system works.
We took a train into the city and met David, our tour director, in whose charge we would be for the rest of our stay. He took us on a walking tour of some of the highlights of the city, including Big Ben, the parliament building and Downing Street, home of the prime minister.
We saw lots of those cute little London cabs, but we never had occasion to use one, as all our transportation on the trip was prearranged.
After a dinner of fish and chips, we headed back via light rail to the hotel and our waiting beds. We had to pull the curtains to keep out the light as night falls at around 11 p.m. in June. The sun sets about 9, but the twilight can last for several hours at latitudes more in line with Montreal, Canada, than our region.
Day 3 featured the usual 7:30 a.m. breakfast call. The group was offered a continental breakfast, and we were off on a sightseeing tour of the city by bus.
London is a metropolis of between 8 and 9 million residents. There is apparently a bit of an immigration problem, so officials do not know for sure how many illegals inhabit the city.
The town of London was only one square mile in size when it was founded by the Romans. The gates of the original city are still guarded by statues of dragons, the symbols of the city. We were given several hours of afternoon free time to wander the streets and/or ride the Tube, the subway system that functions much more efficiently than traveling the streets, which are constantly clogged with traffic.
Toward evening, half our group attended a musical production of “Wicked,” ironically a story based on the “Wizard of Oz,” the setting of which is good old Kansas.
The rest of us made our way to the London Eye, a giant Ferris-Wheel-type structure on the banks of the Thames River. The wheel turns continually as groups of riders step on and off the “cars.” The 45-minute flight, as the locals call the circular trip, was breathtaking.
The fourth day saw us packing up and heading toward North Wales. Along the way, we stopped at Oxford, a town built around the famous university of the same name.
The university is actually a cluster of colleges. Guide David informed us that most of the British are not all that impressed with an Oxford degree. He said it was a place for rich kids to go and act important for one another.
Like any other college town, Oxford offered many lunch options, from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Pizza Hut. We chose to dine at a pastry shop. The traditional English fast-food staple is kind of a cross between a Hot Pocket and a chicken pot pie, and it comes in a variety of combinations. I chose lamb and mint. I liked the lamb, but I was not so sure about the mint.
We also traveled through Stratford, birthplace, boyhood home and final resting place of William Shakespeare. As one would expect, it was a tourist trap, but as a literature teacher, I had to make the pilgrimage to his grave, which can be found inside a small, quaint church. We also visited his boyhood home and the farm of Anne Hathaway, his eventual wife.
When we arrived that evening in Llangollen, pronounced roughly “Flangoffin.” I say “roughly” because apparently Welsh can only be properly spoken by the Welsh, who have a way of gurgling their alphabet in their throats, with little or no resemblance to English letter sounds.
David took us on an arduous hike of several miles up to a local landmark, the ruins of a castle from ancient times. To say the view was spectacular would be an understatement. We watched the sun set for about 45 minutes. It refused to go down, as we were even farther north than we were in London. I am not exaggerating when I say that we still had daylight enough to take a photo outside our hotel at 11:15 p.m.
Day 5 took us across the Welsh countryside via Snowdonia National Park en route to Holyhead, where a ferry crossing of the Irish Sea awaited us.
Before we arrived at the docks, however, we stopped at another castle, then had lunch in a town whose name was longer than its main street. A clever local man named the village Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in order to lay claim to the longest town name in the world.
It is also, according to Wikipedia.com, the longest single, unbroken or hyphenated Web address in the world when .com is added.
The name means: St Mary’’s Church (Llanfair) in a hollow (pwll) of white hazel (gwyngyll) near (goger) the swirling whirlpool (y chwyrndrobwll) of the church of “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tysilio”St Tysilio (llantysilio) with a red cave ([a]g ogo goch).
Continuing with the theme of “world’s biggest,” we boarded the “Ulysses,” the largest passenger ferry in the world. This monster is 11 stories tall and is outfitted like a cruise ship. On board are restaurants, clubs, casinos, a movie theater, game rooms and shops.
If we did not look out the windows during the 31?2-hour trip, we would not have known we were crossing the Irish Sea.
On this leg of the journey, we had a bit of rain, the only significant moisture we encountered the entire trip. The locals everywhere told us a week without any rain on the British Isles was virtually unheard of.
We arrived in Dublin early in the evening and were bused to our hotel in the working class suburbs. The Irish economy has been slow to recover, so our first impression of Dublin was not that…well…impressive. But, I have to say, the city grew on us. It is a fun place, especially at night.
On Day 6, we were afforded an afternoon to roam on our own. We witnessed a portion of the world championships of street performing and managed to find a pub or two with live, semi-traditional music. We also discovered that the stereotypical image of the Irish as fun-loving people who like their Guinness beer is quite accurate.
They also love Americans, which really made us feel welcome. I sampled the Irish stew for lunch, and we dined at a “traditional” Chinese buffet for dinner.
Day 7 included a drive from Dublin on the east coast to Killarny in the southwest corner of the island nation. We passed through Cork and made a stop at Blarney Castle. And, yes, we were given an opportunity to kiss the famous stone.
Unfortunately, I developed a classic case of the stomach flu after performing the ritual, so anybody in the long line behind me may have been my unwitting victim later on. I spent a long 21?2 hours being jounced around on the bus before I could crawl into bed and sleep off my illness. By late evening, I had begun to recover.
Day 8 was our finest and our last full day on the Emerald Isle. We began with a traditional buggy ride through the Killarny National Park. Again, words cannot adequately describe the beauty.
We then boarded the bus for a drive around the Ring of Kerry. Along the way, we witnessed a historic peat bog village, a sheep herding demonstration, amazing ocean views, panoramas of green hills straight off of calendars and jigsaw puzzles and some of the narrowest roads that could be imagined.
The whole day couldn’t have been more Irish; from the Celtic moors to the tiny village of Sneem, we were on visual overload. Then, to top off the day, we listened to some live music in a local pub.
Our final day began at 3:30 a.m. as we boarded the bus for a two-hour drive to the airport in Shannon. Believe it or not, the sky began to grow light at 4 a.m. Of course, the price to pay in that part of the world comes in the form of 4 p.m. sunsets and late sunrises during the long, harsh winters.
We headed home in stages. First, there was the hour-long flight to London, then the nine-hour trip to Denver. We finished things off with a one-hour hop back to Wichita. Our day that started at 3:30 a.m. in Ireland wrapped up at 1 a.m. in Hillsboro. I can’t even begin to do the math to figure out how long we were traveling. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know, as I plan to return to Europe in 2012.
This journal, of course, is only a small sampling of all the interesting sights, sounds and smells we encountered on the trip.
I am sure there are those readers who think spending a couple thousand dollars on an excursion such as this is a waste of money. But, I believe encountering other cultures is an experience that will last a lifetime and will open participants to a whole new world of possibilities.
I trust those who journeyed with me on this adventure would agree.