I have just returned from England, where I took two planes, a bus, and lots of trains across the country to see it. What makes this trip different from the others? I did this one by myself. And gosh am I glad that I did. We spend a lot of time surrounded by people, especially when you are a university student. You have roommates, friends, family, teachers, and acquaintances. Rarely do I find myself alone, especially when wandering around the city. Travelling by myself removed me from that protective bubble of familiarity; it put me in a spot where I could just be me, unapologetically. I called the shots on where I went, what I did, and when I did anything; complete and utter independence. And it was refreshing. Sometimes I and I imagine others spend so much time thinking about everyone else, that we don’t ask what we ourselves think. So where did all my travels take me? From one side of England to the other.
I walked off the plane into one of the smallest airports I have ever been to. It was also conveniently the bus station. So I caught a bus going to Harrogate, where I wandered around until stumbling on a book that was about the 100 year history of Betty’s Cafe. Looking at the back I discovered that this famous location was just down the street from where I was standing. I wandered in and got seated at a table by myself with my oversized backpack staring back at me. The waiter brought me a tray of tea, but it had two pots! After much experimentation, I discovered that this extra pot was full of hot lemon water, which mixed quite well with their traditional tea. Sitting by yourself at a restaurant gives much room for imagination as you look around at the other patrons and the whimsical collection of teapots that they had on display. Around this time an older lady came to be seated at the table across from me and we struck up a conversation. She gave me half of her pastry, which was like an aerated pancake to eat. And then we just sat talking for maybe an hour as she imparted her wisdom on me and told me how confident I must be to be travelling by myself. At the end of our interaction, she surprised me by paying for my tea saying I deserved it for listening to her chatter; little did she know that she made my day.
From there I caught the train to York, where I spent the rest of the day wandering this medieval city. I wandered through the Christmas markets that illuminated the main square, explored the local shops, and tried my first Yorkshire pudding. Walking across the city, I managed to reach York Minster just as the sun was setting and watch the sun set behind it from a nearby park. In the hostel, I met a women from Boston who was a “libarian” (librarian) and thought I was going to die from laughter. 🙂 The next morning I headed out early to see the city by light. I walked along the city walls, which had been built upon those placed by the Romans and Vikings by the English in medieval times. They gave the best view of the city; much better than Clifford’s Tower. Clifford’s Tower is a circular stone building that stands on a man-made hill at the edge of the city, which I do believe may have been used as an armory at one point in the city’s history. I also walked down the street that is called the Shambles, which if anyone walked down they may recognize from the Harry Potter films. It is the street that inspired J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley and had at least four Harry Potter stores to prove this fact. My last stop in York brought me to the National Railway Museum where I got to walk through a Japanese Bullet Train and see the Mallard, which is the world’s fastest steam train (126 mph).
The next train came and swooped me off to Leeds, the city of owls. Leeds is a strange city because it is very old, but has been very modernized. It is the city of the millennial, with plenty of bars, places to play e-sports, and a questionable identity. Nevertheless, it is still a cool city to visit, a very artsy vibe. I checked out the Corn Exchange, which is a historic circular building that has been re-purposed into an area for local businesses and coffee shops. From there I wandered through the city seeing Leeds Minster, Leeds Cathedral, and Town Hall as I went; the historic scattered around the modern, a stark contrast to the stones of York. I visited the public gallery, which was a hidden treasure. The rest of the night found me wandering the Arcades (like malls) that the city has in bounty. I even found a great deal for half-off burgers at a local restaurant called Giraffe! The next morning I hoped a train to Manchester to see if it held any more promises of adventure than Leeds.
Manchester is much bigger than Leeds and proved to be full of adventures. Walking out of the train station I was already able to hit a few of the sites on my list. I saw the Chetham Library and Manchester Cathedral, which made me question the differences between the Church of England and Catholicism. I spent the afternoon wandering around the Northern Quarter, a neighborhood similar to the eclectic Short North of Columbus, Ohio. I found comic book stores, clothing stores, vintage-record shops, art galleries, and local cafes. I sat down for tea and a scone at one called Teacup Kitchen and had a wonderful pot of rose earl grey tea. That evening I headed to the complete opposite side of the city where I saw Old Trafford where Manchester United play. From there I made my way across a body of water to the Lowry, which unfortunately was closing the galleries just as I arrived. However there was a public art display happening in the surrounding MediaCityUK district that provided awe and wonder. The displays used light and electricity to wonder, amaze, and draw out the human imagination. At one display, if you put on glasses you would see different shapes as you stared down a light tube. At another you could produce your own lights by going up and down on a teeter totter. It was very exciting way to end the night. I grabbed dinner at a trendy l Italian restaurant where I enjoyed artisan pizza-bread with a glass of wine because why not treat myself?
My last day of the trip proved a good time to explore one last museum. But first I wandered the city in search of the perfect English breakfast, which I found two and a half miles later. Four pieces of toast, two sausages, a fried egg, tomato, mushrooms, two pieces of ham, a hash potato, and the rest of the plate full of beans; enough food to fill one up for the entire day. After my hearty breakfast, I headed to the Museum of Science and Industry where I got to learn about the industrial revolution of England that had Manchester at its heart. The best thing I got to see at the museum was surely the nineteenth century cotton mill machinery in action, enough moving parts to take the breathe of any mechanical engineer. After a very wet train ride I managed to get to the airport and found myself back in Dublin, ready for a hot cup of tea and the next adventures that are to come.
I can surely say now that the journey is much more important than the destination. I never had any true destinations on my trip through England; just the hostel where I was to sleep that night. The time was of my own. I went from the 21st century back to the medieval ages and returned back all over the course of four days. I ventured history and culture, meeting people that I wouldn’t have met had I stayed in Dublin. Being alone gave me the chance to control my time and determine the best way to spend the hours between waking and dropping back into the dream-filled darkness of sleep. We fear being alone because time stretches out before us, but I believe we’re not so much afraid of being alone as we are of not knowing what to do. But when one is alone they dream and think and yearn for knowledge to fill their heads where pleasantries once did. Travelling allowed me to step back think and see the world, the buildings around me, the faces passing by, and the sun arcing across the sky.