About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

Last but not least, London

My husband and I concluded our UK trip in London, which defied all expectation with sunshine for three days straight! Given this was the last leg of our trip, we lacked the energy to explore many interiors of buildings, but we were both okay with that (this was his first time and my second time in the city).

View of the Thames with the London Eye on the distant right and Houses of Parliament on the left.

We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the neighbourhood of Pimlico, just south of Westminster. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a walk along the River Thames towards the Houses of Parliament or catch the tube or bus to other parts of central London.

Don’t you love these colourful doors?

I like doing walking tours of a city. London is too big to cover in one tour, so we focused on one close to our neighbourhood—Old Westminster by Gaslight offered by London Walks. It was great!

Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower is on the right (more commonly referred to as Big Ben). It was under scaffolding so we couldn’t see much of it.

I learned that the two bridges nearby are contrastingly painted green and red to mimic the colours of the two Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, respectively).

Westminster Bridge (green)
Lambeth Bridge (red)

We walked down a picturesque street featured in the recent Mary Poppins Returns movie (with Emily Blunt) and stood near doors of political intrigue, hobnobbing, and alliances.

As befits its name, gaslight was a big theme of the tour. I forget how many gas lamps there are still in London but this neighbourhood around Parliament has a large concentration of them that are still manually lit.

Another neighbourhood we enjoyed walking around was Bloomsbury. After getting our feet wet in the overwhelmingly massive British Museum, my husband found a bookstore that occupied him for a couple hours and I found a rubber stamp store—Blade Rubber! Turns out they’re the only rubber stamp store in central London. I told the clerks these stores are going by the wayside in Vancouver too, so it was serendipitous to stumble upon one. I naturally bought some rubber stamps to take home for my card-making.

We enjoyed peering at treasures of the written word in The British Library—the first folio of Shakespeare (Henry VI), early editions of the Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Brontë sisters’ tiny cursive to save paper and money, the Magna Carta, The Beatles’ lyrics scribbled on a napkin, and so much more. We were really hoping to catch the Lindisfarne Gospels after our visit to Durham Cathedral but unfortunately, they weren’t on display when we were there.

As art lovers, we did tour the National Gallery one morning and then enjoyed a free lunchtime concert (pianist and violinist) at the adjacent church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, well-known for helping homeless and vulnerable people. This Anglican Church serves a delicious and reasonably priced hot lunch in their crypt!

St. Martin-in-the-Fields is in the thick of the action in Trafalgar Square.
Interior of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Note the unusual cross in the window.
Christ Child sculpture by Michael Chapman at the entrance to the church. From this view, you can see the neoclassical architecture of the National Gallery.

Moving from sacred to secular, my husband and I had watched Paddington before taking this trip and fell in love with this orphaned bear. So we made a pit stop to the tube station whom the bear is named after.

Other transit hubs with notable sculptures include King’s Cross Station where there’s always a line-up to don a scarf and pretend you are off to Hogwarts. We didn’t bother waiting in line although my photograph fools you into thinking you can just go right up to it. You can’t. And they take it away after hours.

Connected to King’s Cross Station is the striking St Pancras railway station with a hotel on one side, seen in the image below.

Here are two famous churches we saw from the outside. On our last night, we decided to keep it simple though and enjoyed a low-key picnic dinner in St James’s Park.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Westminster Abbey

What better way to end our vacation? Green grass, blue skies, and a patch of our own to watch Londoners go by.

Thanks for following with me as I’ve toured you through our trip! If you’ve been to any of these places in England and Scotland, let me know what your impressions were and favourite things you did.

Inverness & Edinburgh

This post wraps up our time in Scotland before spending a few days in London where we caught our flight back to Vancouver.

Inverness

I don’t have too much to say about Inverness. We spent two nights there as a way to break up the road trip from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. I described it as a workaday city in my journal. Our highlight was browsing this charming used bookstore called Leakey’s that used to be a Gaelic church built in the 17th century.

Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness

We also enjoyed walking and crossing the picturesque River Ness on one of the many footbridges and counting all the cathedrals that line the river. The city’s biggest disappointment though is that the prettiest building (the castle at the top of the picture) is actually a courthouse and not worth a visit. But our main focus was driving to the outskirts of the city anyway to do a self-guided whiskey distillery tour (on my husband’s wish list) and to visit the famous Battle of Culloden. You already know what happened after the whiskey distillery tour from my previous post.

View of River Ness with Inverness Castle/courthouse in the distance

Culloden probably holds a lot more significance to Outlander fans as there was paraphernalia of all types in the museum’s gift shop. I’ve never read the books or watched the show, but I still valued learning about this Jacobite uprising in 1745 that resulted in the Highlanders losing a huge part of their population and culture under the English Government (Whigs).

Culloden Battlefield with museum on far right in the distance

The museum is very thorough, worthy of repeat visits. From a curatorial perspective, it was interesting how the layout of the space made you choose a side to follow from beginning to end—either the Jacobites or the Whigs. Naturally, most visitors chose the Jacobites. Is it because we were in Scotland? Or because it’s human nature to vote for the underdog and defy the Man? Who knows. You could easily go a second time and walk through the other person’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a lot to try and read both sides simultaneously. I credit the museum for including both perspectives and trying to be as unbiased as possible. They addressed the complicated nature of this battle and how, for whatever reasons, some Highlanders chose to fight on the Government side and some English fought with the Highlanders. It reminded me how each event in history is riddled with complications and untidy categories.

Jacobite memorial

The battlefield outside the museum, however, is a little less subtle. This big gravestone shown above commemorates the Jacobites who died. The Government men get no such large memorial, just small stones set in the grass.

Memorial for the McDonald clan

Edinburgh

I had the good fortune of visiting Edinburgh ten years ago, and in much better weather than my husband and I had this time around. Edinburgh was one of the only places on our 3-week trip where it rained. Luckily we didn’t have a huge list of sights to see as the purpose of going there was to visit my brother and his family who moved there last year.

The iconic Edinburgh Castle that sits on top of an old volcano
A misty Edinburgh from the top of the castle

After a quick visit to the castle, my husband and I explored the Scottish National Gallery housed in a beautiful neoclassical building. We were impressed with the number of works by Scottish painters, many of whom we had never heard of before.

We wandered the winding city streets. I gravitated to photographing those with colour to liven up the grey day.

Since I missed this spot last time, we made sure to grab a bite to eat at the elephant house, where J.K. Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter novels while staring out a corner window towards Edinburgh Castle (thus inspiring the idea for Hogwarts).

Harry Potter graffiti in the washrooms

The weather cleared up our final day there and so we took a moderately strenuous hike up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the many views from this extinct volcano.

Trail up Arthur’s Seat
You might be able to make out Edinburgh Castle on a hill in the distance, slightly right of centre
The water in the distance is the Firth of Forth

I also stopped by The Writers’ Museum (a favourite place from 10 years ago) and snapped pics of the evocative quotes etched into the pavement.

Artists, Fairies, and the Old Man on Skye

The Isle of Skye is a wonderful corner of the world. My husband and I stayed in an old stone farmhouse for 3 nights on the most scenic part of the island—the Trotternish Peninsula.

A car is a must on Skye. The island is a lot bigger than you may think and due to the abundance of single track roads, a car is a lot more manoeuvrable than a bus (my parents went to Skye several months after we did and unfortunately couldn’t see some places because there was no room to park, even though their bus was on the smaller side).

The Trotternish Peninsula is the northern part of the island and contains a bucket list of tourist sites: Kilt Rock, Lealt Gorge and Falls, the Quiraing mountain range including the distinguished rock formation The Old Man of Storr that we climbed to, along with everyone else. The Old Man of Storr was created from an ancient landslide. The word “Quiraing” is Old Norse for “round fold” and apparently was used to conceal cattle from Viking raiders.

The Quiraing is a popular yet difficult hike. You can see it in the distance on the left.
Hubby going up to the Old Man of Storr, what looks like a jagged finger from a distance.

It was quite the scramble to actually touch the base of this famous rock. One of us could do it; the other was pregnant and got halfway up before she realized her travel insurance probably wouldn’t cover “rock climbing” and so decided to play it safe and snap pictures instead.

Another distinguished rock formation near the Old Man of Storr.
Proving how windy it was up there.

The views along the way overlooking lochs and the islands of Rona and Raasay between Skye and the Highlands of mainland Scotland are stunning. Here’s one of our favourite pics of us with that incredible background.

Even though we didn’t hike the Quiraing, we got to enjoy it every morning and evening from our farmhouse in Flodigarry, the second oldest dwelling in this rural village. I woke up one morning with the sunrise and sat on a grassy nook near sheep and lambs, soaking up the quiet, remote beauty of this place.

Our next door neighbour was the Flodigarry Hotel where we splurged on an anniversary dinner one evening.

The owner and host of our farmhouse was artist Morag Archer who showed us her mixed media collages inspired by this landscape as well as the landscape of memory. She shows her work at the Skyeworks gallery in the main town of Portree, but we bought a small painting off her directly and love looking at it every day from where it hangs in our kitchen.

Mixed media artist Morag Archer with her collage artwork

She talked about how croft houses often appear in her work— those tiny white dwellings especially found in the Highlands. Crofts are units of land (usually about 12 acres) that people share for common grazing, and which were traditionally rented from a landlord. Multiple croft houses exist on this shared land, usually white with thatched roofs like you see in her artwork.

I love how she uses all sorts of ordinary things—including gold foil candy wrappers—to create her collages.

The great thing about staying at a local’s place is learning about hidden gems. Even though we did hit the main sites (see below), we also ventured to Loch Sheanta or “the enchanted loch” because of her. This lake was believed to have holy water that could cure any ill. It was a gentle 15 minute descent to this spot that we had all to ourselves. I’m not going to describe where it is so that it stays hidden and you have to ask a local yourself! (you can probably google search it if you’re really dying to know).

The crystal clear Loch Sheanta
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s the aptly named Kilt Rock whose parking lot is flooded with buses.
Same goes for Lealt Gorge and Waterfall—striking scenery that’s well worth a stop though.

You may have heard about the fairies on Isle of Skye. There are two spots named after them (their role I’m not quite sure of, other than these are places of whimsy and mystery and are thus suited to legends about fairies). According to the Isle of Skye website:

Skye has a long history involving the Fairys, most of which is related to Dunvegan Castle and their ‘Fairy Flag’. The Fairy Glen (much like the Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle) has no real legends or stories involving fairys that can be traced. The simple fact that the location is unusual so it has been given the nickname Fairy Glen.

isleofskye.com

The Fairy Pools are like a musical crescendo of crystal clear blue pools along the River Brittle. You can cross them, swim in them (though they are extremely cold), walk alongside them, hang out by them. There are so many along the path it wasn’t hard to find a private one to enjoy.

We preferred the lush green, magical landscape of The Fairy Glen full of miniature hills, stone circles, and a rocky outcropping you can climb for a spectacular view. I love how it appeared out of nowhere too—very inconspicuous, hidden among farmland. The rings of stones you can see in the photo isn’t the work of fairies, unfortunately, but tourists who have moved the rocks into circles and have been encouraged by tour guides to leave a coin or token. Locals naturally prefer to keep the setting as is.

On that same Isle of Skye website, I learned more about the rock formation below concealing a cave that my husband and I squeezed through to stand at the top of like these people:

One of the hills still has its basalt topping intact which, from a distance, looks like a ruin and has been called (inexplicably) Castle Ewan. It is possible to climb to the top where there is not much room, but does have wonderful views. In the low cliff behind Castle Ewan there is a very small cave where it has been said pressing coins into cracks in the rock will bring Good Luck.

islyeofskye.com
Looking out at the billowing landscape from Castle Ewan. All the creases and folds remind me of a pillow or duvet I want to jump into.

We arrived on Skye by ferry and left by bridge so we could stop off at what Rick Steves describes as the most photogenic castle—Eileen Donan.

We said goodbye to this enchanted landscape and hopped in our car to the more prosaic town of Inverness. I looked up the word “prosaic” to make sure I was using it right and the dictionary came up with “commonplace, unromantic.” I snicker as I recall car adventure #2 that happened there: our 2nd flat tire, on our actual anniversary, an hour away from Inverness next to nothing but a whiskey distillery that wasn’t open (much to my husband’s chagrin) and me going pee behind some trees off the highway every few minutes because my pregnant bladder required frequent emptying and for dinner, eating granola bars and crackers and whatever other snacks we had in the car while waiting three hours for a tow truck to rescue us. Maybe not commonplace, but yup, definitely unromantic. On the glass half full side, an unforgettable anniversary.

Oban, Mull, and Iona

Just as England’s Lake District is full of lakes, so is Scotland. Driving north from Torpenhow to Oban, you pass plenty. After getting through the metropolis of Glasgow, the large Loch Lomond dominates. The cute village of Luss on the western shore makes a great lunch spot.

To our joy, the bluebells continued in Scotland. We pulled off somewhere (sorry, don’t remember the specifics!) to look at some more old stone circles and cairns and came across this delightful oasis.

Oban

Our destination was Oban, a small but bustling ferry and train town with a lovely seaside promenade. We used Oban as a launching point to do a day trip to the islands of Mull and Iona.

Below is one of my favourite pictures I took of our whole trip. I love the golden hour when the sun spotlights the earth before sinking into sleep.

Even in May, we learned that it’s important to reserve ferries ahead of time! I guess it must have been our lucky day because thankfully we reached Oban’s ferry terminal before it closed on the night we got in to see if we could book a trip to Mull and Iona the following day. There was one spot left on the ferry and it left at 7:30am. We’ll take it, we said!

And we’re so glad we did.

Mull

Mull is one of the Hebrides Islands and it was much bigger than we expected. We took our rental car across on the ferry so we could drive east to west at our own pace. Even though Mull is often overlooked as a “passing through” island on to the more well-known Iona, we could have stayed here for several days. It seemed like a beautiful and remote place to camp.

Mull boasts 480 km of coastline dotted with castles. It also has a whiskey distillery in the northern town of Tobermory—the largest settlement on the island with just over 1000 people. We didn’t make it that far north as we were headed west to catch the passenger ferry to Iona. Here are some examples of the rugged beauty we saw along the single-track road, which hugged the cliff a little too close to my liking at certain points.

Iona

On the far side of Mull is the small ferry town of Fionnphort that transports people to Iona, which you can see in the distance below. It’s only about a 10-minute ride and no cars allowed. Interestingly, we did see cars on Iona, so locals must be allowed to get on and off with cars but they thankfully don’t let tourists. It helps preserve the peacefulness of this otherworldly place. I couldn’t get over how vibrant the water looked with so many shades of blue.

The main attraction on Iona is the Abbey, which is still active today and a site for many Christian pilgrims. It’s not hard to see why people love travelling here (on the far right of the above pic).

Iona is famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. In 563, Columba came over from Ireland and established this monastery. He is said to have written on top of this mound that I took the above picture from. The Book of Kells (or Book of Columba, an extravagantly illuminated Gospel manuscript) is believed to have been written by monks on this island. The book is now housed in Ireland.

We had a few hours roaming this island on foot but could have used more! After visiting the Abbey and having a lovely lunch in a garden, we walked to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. How could you not be intrigued with a name like that? It’s called that because the next westward stop is North America. Pretty cool.

Ah, the picture of peace and privacy. So thankful the stars aligned to make this day trip happen because as you can see, we couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day to do it!

Lake District Surprises

England’s Lake District felt like Vancouver—there was a lot of rain, which made the loss of a travel day because of our flat tire a little more bearable.

I wandered the one-street town of Torpenhow, marvelling at the quaintness of the houses, the street signs, and the melancholic beauty of the cemetery and old parish church that is still active today—St. Michael and All Angels.

This is the kind of town where being stuck without a car is rather inconvenient since the closest shop to walk to was a pub half an hour away. Needless to say, we were thankful once the car was fixed and we could get on the road to do some driving and hiking in the nearby Lake District.

Buttermere to Rannerdale Walk

When you only have 1 full day in the Lake District (not recommended), it’s hard to choose which hike to do! We opted for a version of this 2-hour route found on the National Trust website along the mountain ridge from the cute village of Buttermere to Rannerdale Valley.

The wind and rain were relentless. Note my hair whipped straight back from my hood. I’m cradling my stomach here as this was baby’s first hike (then just the size of an avocado). The large swath of purple below me is Rannerdale Valley filled with bluebells.

They don’t call this area the Lake District for no reason! The lake in the foreground is called Crummock Water (meaning “crooked”, referring to the lake’s shape) and Loweswater in the distance.

Sheep are everywhere in England, but this type below, Herdwick sheep, are native to the Lake District. Famous children’s author Beatrix Potter was known for keeping and herding them.

Despite the wind and rain, the hike was a blast, especially when we reached the fabulous bluebells that bloom in spring. May was a perfect time to see them. I found this legend interesting:

Sometimes known as the Secret Valley, this area is said to be the site of a battle at which native Cumbrians and Norsemen ambushed and defeated Norman armies in the century after they came to Britain in 1066. Rannerdale offers a popular bluebell walk in spring, when the woodland floor becomes an indigo carpet. Local folklore suggests that the bluebells have sprung up from the blood of slain Norman warriors.

National Trust website

We probably spent close to half an hour just wandering in and out of the bluebell paths and taking photos. I’ve never seen this concentration of flowers before. It felt a bit like we were in a fairy tale.

We learned that the weather in the Lake District changes all the time, so chances are some sun will poke through even on the dreariest days. (Though the rain adds such a moody, dramatic effect to the landscape that’s worth experiencing too!) We enjoyed some sun driving the scenic roads back to Keswick, the hub of the northern Lake District.

Before reaching Keswick (shown above), we detoured along a popular packhorse bridge called Ashness Bridge. Incredibly narrow, I had to get out of our boat-car to direct my husband through it. Thankfully we made it!

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Another gem in this area is Castlerigg Stone Circle, one of Britain’s earliest stone circles dating back to the Neolithic period (4000-500 years ago). I had been to Stonehenge 10 years ago, and even though that site was impressive, I enjoyed these stones so much more. For one, we had it almost all to ourselves. Number two, the setting is incredible. 38 stones sitting on a low hill, surrounded by mountains in the setting sun. Unbeatable. And three, the stones weren’t roped off like they are at Stonehenge, so you can actually walk right up to them and touch them.

Coming back to Torpenhow for our last night was magical. Sunset was spotlighting Scotland in the distance, across the Irish Sea, as we drove in on the single-track road to the soundtrack of bleating lambs and mooing cows.

We said goodbye to this fabulous view out our farmhouse window the next morning and headed for Scotland.

Hadrian’s Wall and an Unfortunate Event

What’s a road trip in a foreign country without some misadventures?

Continuing on from Durham, we drove along Hadrian’s Wall on our first day with the car or boat as my husband often referred to it (we were given a very large car, not ideal for UK’s narrow roads).

Unfortunately, you can’t see the wall from the road so you have to stop at designated attractions, such as Housesteads Roman Fort. This is the best example of a preserved Roman fort in England though and definitely worth a stop. You can walk among ruins of a hospital, barracks, and even see flushable toilets though we missed those. Hadrian built this wall in 122 CE as the northernmost frontier of his empire to separate the Romans from the “barbarians.”

We got there with less than of hour of the fort closing. After a long day of learning to drive on the other side of the street and all your senses on overdrive (pardon the pun), our priority was running along the wall and taking shots with our bright red umbrella (with some occasional meandering through the fort). We had it all to ourselves and look at those pastoral views!

Our end destination that day was a tiny town (and I mean tiny) called Torpenhow that lay just north of the Lake District. We arrived late at night because we got the first of two flat tires on our 10-day road trip. We think the tires were lemons because what we hit would not normally deflate a car’s tires, but in any case, we managed to make it to a gas station and waited a few hours for roadside assistance to rescue us and patch the tire enough so we could get to our Airbnb 20 minutes away. Apparently UK cars don’t have spare tires like Canadian ones do. Who knew? The next day, we had to bring the car in to Carlisle to get the tire replaced, eating up what precious time we had left in this scenic part of northern England.

All that to say, when we got to this Ivy Cottage in the smallest town I have ever visited, we were very much ready to pack it in for the night after eating our gas station dinner of canned soup and beans.