It’s been eight long years since I was last in the United Kingdom. That’s not by choice, but when you’re raising a family, it’s tough to take young children with you, so my wife and I have decided to take trips closer to home in the past. This time, however, I got a chance to travel without my immediate family in tow, and I went with my mother instead. So, it was a golden opportunity to visit my country of birth as well as to travel through the UK.
As timing would have it, the trip was during an international break, so the opportunity to see a Premier League game in person was crossed off the list. What it did allow me though was to experience what a journey through Britain is like when there’s no top-flight football being played.
My journey started after arriving at Heathrow Airport. Not surprisingly, grey clouds and a light rain “welcomed” my arrival. After going through immigration and customs, we made our way towards the Heathrow Express. The train connects passengers via a train (with no stops along the way) to Paddington Station, deep in the heart of London. At Heathrow Airport, we showed our BritRail train passes and hopped on the Heathrow Express train, which was clean, comfortable and offered Wi-Fi. Within 20 minutes, we arrived at Paddington Station and were ready to embark on the next part of our journey — to travel to the south west of England, known as the English Riviera.
From Paddington, we took the train heading towards Devon. As the train emerged slowly from London, it quickly picked up speed pretty as it darted through the beautiful English countryside featuring rolling hills, quaint farms and rows of hedges. The journey through the south of England was a comfortable experience in the train. The seats were comfortable. Toilets were plentiful. There was a café on board that served drinks and food. But the most pleasurable aspect was being able to sit down and relax, as you let all of the “driving” in the hands of the train engineer.
While on the train, I relaxed by reading my copy of The Game pull-out section from The Times newspaper, which is released every Monday and has detailed match reports and stories about English football matches from the weekend. Plus, I was able to pull out my laptop and write part of this article, as there was plenty of room on the table next to my seat.
Our journey to Devon took us through several railway stations. Most of them were kept tidy with flowerbeds, clean platforms and train conductors to help passengers disembarking from the train.
We arrived at Newton Abbot, where we switched trains to head deeper into the heart of Devon. The closer we got to Paignton, we began to ride past picturesque British seaside towns before arriving at our final stop at a nearby holiday park.
Paignton is a traditional British seaside holiday town. The beach has beautiful sands, but it’s populated with pebbles while the water, even in the summer, is ice cold. Most of the people congregate on the seafront where tourists walk along the sea wall, trying to catch a tan and eating their ice creams before walking into the town center to go window-shopping or to sit down for a tea or coffee.
Holidaying in Paignton feels like going back in time. While many Brits fly to the coasts of Spain, Portugal or Greece for their vacations, a lesser number visit the British seaside towns. You can see why. There are fewer activities to do. The weather is more intermittent. And telling your friends and family that you’re going to “Costa Del Sol” instead of “Paignton” sounds a lot more appealing.
But there’s a local charm about Paignton and similar seaside towns that should not be overlooked. The views are wonderful with rolling hills sweeping down to the coast, and ending at cliffs overlooking wide beaches. The natural beauty cannot be denied. Neither can the unique, local travel experiences such as the “Round Robin,” which features a rail-ferry-boat-bus adventure beginning with a train pulled by an steam-powered engine. The train meanders along the British seaside towns and villages, providing a rare and authentic train experience that features a train engine and carriages from the 1920’s.
The train arrives in Kingswear, which overlooks the historic harbor of Dartmouth. As part of your Round Robin ticket, you’re escorted across the water via the Kingswear-Dartmouth ferry to the area near the local shops. You won’t find any Starbucks, McDonalds or American chain stores here; only local shops.
The real jewel of the Round Robin is the river cruise from Dartmouth to Totnes on the River Dart, where a slow pleasure boat takes you up the scenic river past Agatha Christie’s summer house, a historic village that housed Sir Francis Drake as well as river banks flanked with ancient oak trees. If you’re fortunate, you’ll see wildlife along the river journey, including seals swimming downstream.
A highlight of our trip in Devon was a drive through the English countryside to the village of Ashprington. If you could picture a model English village, Ashprington is it. It has a quaint village pub, narrow lanes with stone walls on either side, footpaths through the gardens and fields (where you can pick wild berries from the bushes), as well as a church at the top of the hill. At the center of Ashprington, the village pub (The Durant Arms, established in 1725) serves real ale, cider from local farms and scrumptious food (the ploughman’s lunch is highly recommended).
Leaving the village, you snake down winding roads that are only wide enough for one car at a time even though they’re two-lane roads. Meet an upcoming car, and you have to play a game of chicken — waiting to see who reverses back up the lane to find a spot to pull the vehicle into the hedge, to allow the other one through.
Near Ashprington are the villages of Bow and Tuckenhay, both of which feature idyllic pubs nestled next to tranquil streams and rivers where you can drink a pint of beer outside and enjoy the countryside.
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