I had wanted to visit England for years.
I’m not totally sure when my fascination with England began. It might have been when I first started learning about European history and thought how amazing it would be to see the places where the battles and events I was reading about had taken place.
Or it might have been when I first watched “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” when my local PBS station would show it on Sunday nights back when I was growing up. For some reason the English sense of humor and style of comedy suited me, even at a young age.
Around 20 years ago I became addicted to soccer, or football as the English and most of the rest of civilized world calls it. I started coaching it, tried to play it, but most importantly I began watching it — I was instantly hooked.
At that time the most readily accessible league was the English Premier League. I loved the passion of the fans and the way the announcers described the action — American sports announcers could take a few lessons from their English counterparts. I still don’t remember how or why, but Liverpool Football Club became my team. I began to dream about visiting England, seeing the sights and sitting in the stands at Anfield, the stadium of my favorite team.
Then on occasion, I began running into people from England and I would share my desire to visit their country. They would always ask if I had ever visited. Unfortunately not, I would have to tell them. “When you do…” would be their response. They offered a plethora of suggestions of things to see and do and places to stay.
From that point my desire to travel to England grew even stronger, but I still wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen. My work schedule at the time wasn’t very conducive to long trips. I thought it might be a long time before I could ever make a trip across the pond a reality.
Finally in 2014 things came together while I was still in Colorado. My son was getting out of the Army after putting in his four years and we decided to celebrate with a two-week trip to see some soccer and do some sightseeing. I decided to cut down on my coaching duties at the high school I was coaching at and I had rolled up plenty of vacation time at the newspaper I was working for. Little did I know that this first trip would lead to three more in the following three years.
On each subsequent trip I have always tried to see something I have missed on previous visits. And each trip has come at a different time of the year, so I have now experienced England in fall, winter, spring and summer.
There’s a perception out there that it rains in England all the time. Maybe I was just lucky with the weather on my trips, but I feel there was more sun than rain.
Nevertheless, a rain jacket and umbrella are two necessities — it can really rain at any time, but while you might see a shower in the morning, the weather can often break and it become sunny for the afternoon.
There are must-see sights everywhere you turn. Historic sites, churches, landmarks, museums, parks, buildings, attractions, the list goes on and on.
What really helped me in the planning process was having friends, family or acquaintances who had visited or lived there. They offered plenty of suggestions on what to do. The resources available through web sites and social media gave me a whole other set of information. I spent a lot of time on Trip Advisor and Google. There’s something to be said for being able to type in “top ten things to do in London” and get a host of comprehensive lists.
And as a photographer, I found YouTube to be a valuable resource in finding places to photograph. It’s amazing what is available online that will give you insight.
But what it really came down to for me was what my priorities were. There is so much to see, you really have to decide for yourself what is important to you to experience. If you try to see it all, you will get frustrated and wear yourself out, so set reasonable expectations for each day. For me it was taking in some soccer, sights connected to The Beatles and seeing some historic sites.
There is so much to see in London, it’s hard to know where to start. There is history everywhere you turn.
Among the highlights for me was Westminster Abbey. Words cannot do justice to the size and beauty of this. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the abbey, which really frustrated me, because I saw photo opportunities everywhere. It is where nearly every English and British monarch has been coronated and many of the noted royal weddings have taken place there as well. Many famous people are buried there including several kings and queens, statesmen, authors and scientists.
The Tower of London was another must-see for me. The former fortress oozes history from its nearly 1,000-year old walls along the banks of the River Thames. It has served many purposes over the ages such as castle, royal residence, prison, mint, armory. You can also see the famous Crown Jewels of England.
I would never had thought it would be worth paying nearly $35 to go up in The Shard to see the view of London from the tallest building in Great Britain and Western Europe. But I am so glad I did. I was able to watch the sun set over the city and see the lights come on across the sprawling city. You have to buy a ticket to go up the elevator at a specified time, but you can stay as long as you like.
All three of these I would do again in a heartbeat. I went to the London Eye on one trip, but once was enough. I found the experience at The Shard much more memorable.
As a Beatles fan I also made the trek to see Abbey Road Studios and the famous crosswalk from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.
Besides getting to watch my beloved Liverpool play, my other top interest in the city was to see where The Beatles got their start. There are several companies offering some form of a Beatles’ tour. My son and I settled on a Fab Four Taxi Tour. Our driver and guide, Gareth, picked us up from our hotel and drove us around in his taxi, aptly named “Michelle,” to numerous significant sites in the history of the group during the three-hour tour. We saw each of the boyhood homes of John, Paul, George and Ringo, along with stops at the church where John and Paul first met, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and Eleanor Rigby’s grave.
Down on the Albert Dock along the River Mersey, you will find The Beatles Story. An audio tour through the exhibition and memorabilia gives you a glimpse into the early history of the group and their formative years in Liverpool. You can learn about the music scene in Liverpool and how the group came to be. There is even a replica of the Cavern Club.
While it looks fairly old, the Liverpool Cathedral was only completed in 1978 after 74 years of construction. It is the longest cathedral in the world and the view from the bell tower is well worth the climb up the steps.
On my most recent trip, I decided to include a day trip to York — a historic city founded by the Romans in the northeast of England — to see the beautiful York Minster, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral, and the amazing City Walls that once helped to defend the city in medieval times. It didn't disappoint. Another city filled with history at every turn.
Given the size of England, getting around is made easy by trains and in London on the the Underground — or the subway more popularly known as the Tube. The Tube makes exploring England’s capitol city easy.
The best piece of advice I received for using the Tube and all of London’s public transportation for that matter? Buy an Oyster Card. It is basically a debit card for utilizing all of London’s public transportation. You actually get cheaper fares by using the card. You just hold the card up to the reader as you enter and again when you leave the Underground. Pay attention to the screen as you scan your card, it will show you how much money you have left on the card. It is possible to purchase cards ahead of time, preloaded with any amount you choose.
On my first trip, our plans required us to make multiple trips between London and Liverpool during our stay. The first time we had regular second class tickets for the two-and-a-half hour journey. For subsequent trips between the two cities, I splurged for first class tickets and it was well worth the extra cost — more room, quieter and a light meal was included.
You can show up five minutes before the train leaves — there’s no need to arrive two hours ahead of time like with plane travel. Most of the train stations are centrally located, which really helps maximize your time in a particular city.
What I found most interesting about train travel was watching other passengers patiently watching the departure boards to see which platform their train would be departing from. As soon as the platform number was posted and announced a mass of people would move to the respective platform. It became quite an entertaining ritual every few minutes.
And don’t miss taking a ride in one of the famous black taxi cabs. Whether in London, Liverpool or any city for that matter, it’s always entertaining getting the driver’s take on politics in the U.K., the European Union and the U.S. I haven’t found one yet who doesn’t have an opinion on the state of the English government or other world matters.