Last July I graduated with my PhD from Brunel University, and my family decided to pair the event with a trip to Scotland and England. I love planning trips, and I probably went a little over board by printing out 5-page customized itineraries for everyone prior to our departure, but I was so excited to show my family around two of my favorite countries, one of which I had called home for the past few years.
Our first three days were based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I had been to Edinburgh twice before, so I was able to plan out the three days for my family to be able to see the best of the city and some of the surrounding countryside. We chose to stay at the Hotel Missoni [1 George IV Bridge], which was located just off the Royal Mile and had a chic and colorful décor. We grabbed a quick lunch before deciding to take a walking tour of the vaults. These underground vaults sit beneath the South Bridge and tell the story of how people lived in 18th century Edinburgh. The vaults are definitely worth checking out, but beware this tour does take you underground to small spaces with minimal lighting and uneven surfaces. That evening I found a fabulous restaurant for us to try, The Grain Store [30 Victoria Street]. This was an intimate, yet up-scale Scottish restaurant that uses only locally sourced ingredients.
On day 2 we took a trip with Viator called ‘Highland Lochs, Glens and Whiskey’. I wanted my family to experience the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands, and this day trip seemed like the perfect way for us to do that. We began the day with a visit to the Hermitage, a National Trust for Scotland protected site, located in the Craigvinean Forest (this is the forest mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as ‘Birnam Wood’). Here we took a leisurely forest walk along the River Braan and saw Ossain’s Hall of Mirrors, which has stunning views of the river’s waterfalls. We then stopped for lunch in Pitlochry where we chose to eat in a traditional Scottish pub. After lunch we visited the Blair Athol Distillery where we toured the facility and had a whiskey tasting. We continued our tour to Killiecrankie and the Queen’s View, where we could see from Loch Tummel to Schiehallion and beyond to the hills of Glencoe. We then made our way along Loch Tay to our final stop in Killin to view the beautiful falls of Dochart in the heart of the town.
On day 3, our last full day in Edinburgh, we started with a visit to Edinburgh Castle which sits on top of ‘Castle Rock’, an extinct volcano, and has been occupied since 1,000 BC in the Bronze Age. The castle’s buildings were constructed between the 12th and 20th centuries and reflect its role as a fortress, royal palace, military garrison, and state prison. We then walked down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish residence. After a tour of the palace, we made our way to the New Town for lunch and a walk up Calton Hill. Calton Hill has extraordinary 360° views of the city, an observatory, the Nelson monument and Parthenon. It is definitely worth the physical effort to climb up Calton hill to take in this view! We then did some shopping along Princess Street before having dinner at Centotre [103 George Street], an Italian restaurant in a beautiful old bank building.
Day 4 was our travel day between Edinburgh and London. I recommend booking train travel as early as possible in Europe because this usually guarantees the best rates, and it means you can choose your seats. The journey took about 5 hours, but gave us some time to relax and plan what we wanted to do in London. Once we arrived at King’s Cross Station, we made our way across town to our hotel, the Hotel Indigo London-Paddington [16 London Street, Paddington]. What I haven’t mentioned yet was that this was the week the Olympics started in London. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to hold graduation this week, but when booking a hotel I had a hard time finding some place central with availability. Luckily I stumbled across the Hotel Indigo; it was centrally located just a few blocks from Paddington Station and had that chic, boutique feel that I love. It really was a great find! That evening we made our way over to Angel to have dinner at Le Mercury [140a Upper Street], a charming and affordable French restaurant.
On Day 5 we explored the east side of London starting with St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s masterpiece built in 1675, and the Tower of London, a 900-year-old prison with highlights that include the White Tower, Jewel House, Chapel of St. John and Traitor’s Gate. I was a little nervous about the potential crowds at some of the sights because of the influx of people for the Olympics, but my fears were squashed when we approached the Tower of London; it was practically empty! It seems that most people were focused on the Olympic events, and not as much on traditional sightseeing. After touring the Tower of London, we had lunch at St. Katherine’s Dock, which has an array of restaurants to choose from. We then walked across Tower Bridge, which was adorned with the Olympic Rings, and over to the South Bank. After crossing the bridge we walked along the River Thames taking in the HMS Belfast, Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern. After a full day of walking we indulged in the ‘Summer Not Afternoon Tea’ at the OXO Tower [Barge House Street, South Bank]. This non-traditional afternoon tea consisted of four themed dessert choices, paired with summer cocktails. Afternoon tea is served on the top floor of the OXO tower so you can enjoy the delicious, sweet meal while relishing exquisite views across the Thames. We ended our sightseeing day with a ride on the London Eye, taking in yet more stunning views of London.
On day 6 I wanted to take my family to Oxford, my favorite place in the UK, maybe in the whole world. I had studied for two years at St. Edmund Hall here, and always love going back for a visit. While in Oxford we visited my college, toured Christ Church College, and visited the Bodleian Library and Radcliff Camera. We were also able to go inside of the Sheldonian Theatre, where I graduated from Oxford a couple of years ago, and were able to walk to the top where we had wonderful views of the ‘city of dreaming spires’. This was actually something new for me, as I had never been able to climb to the top of the Sheldonian Theatre before. After lunch, I took my family punting down the Isis. Punting is a type of boating using flat-bottomed boats that are propelled and steered with a long metal pole. Punting is one of those activities that looks easier than it actually is, but is a quintessentially Oxford pastime that I just had to let my family experience. Afterwards we explored the Botanic Gardens before heading back to London. That evening I took my brother and sister-in-law out to Camino [3 Varnishers Yard, the Regents Quarter, Kings Cross] for Spanish Tapas and wine.
Day 7 included visits to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard (the palace has been the official residence of the British Monarchy since 1837), the Houses of Parliament (the seat of the House of Lords and House of Commons since 1512), Westminster Abbey (famous as the resting place for Britain’s Monarchs, the setting for the coronations and other pageants such as the recent royal wedding), and Trafalgar Square. That evening we had dinner at Below Zero [31-33 Heddon Street] which is connected to the Ice Bar, a bar made entirely out of ice. Afterwards we were able to explore the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
Day 8 was graduation day, the finale to four years of hard work and a 300-page dissertation. We started by meeting my supervisors at the Sport & Education Department reception, where I got to put on my very colorful PhD gown. After the reception, I had to head to registration and then directly into the ceremony where my entire family was able to watch as I received my PhD diploma. After the ceremony we stopped for dinner in Uxbridge before heading back to the hotel to watch the start of the Olympics. We made it back just in time to catch the beginning of the Opening Ceremony, and while it would have been nice to watch the ceremony in a public space with local Londoners, we just didn’t have time with my graduation being held on the same day.
Our last full day was spent exploring Portobello Road (which holds over 1,000 stalls featuring fashion, antiques and food) and Hyde Park, where we split up so some members of my family could explore on foot while other chose to rent bicycles. Here my parents were able to watch part of the Olympic cycling road race, while the younger members of the family were able to watch some of the Olympic events on large screens in the park. I am a sports person, in fact my PhD was in sports sociology, so I would have loved to attend an Olympic event while in town. Unfortunately, securing tickets was simply not possible. While I was initially nervous about being in London with my family during this huge international event, it actually added to the vibrancy of an already incredible city. Being in town for the start of the Olympics made this visit to London a truly unique experience, because we were able to be a part of that Olympic spirit.
London is a second home to me, and I loved showing it to my family. I also enjoyed the process of planning our visit so that they were able to see all of the most popular tourist sights, and some of my personal favorite spots in the city. I hope that in the future I am able to work in England as a Tour Director because I want to show more people all the things that made me fall in love with the UK. In the meantime, I will just have to look forward to planning my next trip back!