It was my first time overseas. The only other time I'd even been out of the country was to visit Vancouver, but let's face it, Canada is more like Diet USA. If you have never had the opportunity to go to England, I recommend it, but there are a few things you may not be aware of.
When we arrived, I wasn't expecting everything to be so... small. From the toilets (loo, water closet, restroom, bathroom, privies... I'm not sure what to call them any longer), to the reasonable serving sizes, to the hotel rooms, everything was smaller. I figure that they have less space, so they are just forced to become more efficient with it, even if that means placing a urinal 7 inches from the only small sink in the bathroom. They also do not seem to be great believers in paper towels, preferring instead to use small blow driers that take about a fortnight to warm up.
British money is different as well. When I got mine exchanged, I received change, which I later found out to be about $20 in just a few coins. They use coins much more frequently, and in fact cash is much more common than credit cards. Although I believe US dollars are better-looking, I prefer the British coinage (the 2-pounder is quite the looker). By using coins, I think it is psychologically easier to pay for things. It's not 5 pounds; it's just a bit of change.
We did a lot of walking in our time in England. Since everything is smaller, everything is also closer. London is set up with "The Tubes" to make it easier to walk around the city, I'm convinced, while American cities really have subways because you're likely to kill yourself if you have to deal with the traffic. We walked so much, my feet developed blisters and I wore through my "new" shoes. But because everything is closer, it's easier for you to find what you want. I didn't have to "go downtown" to find entertainment, a pub, live music, a park. It was already within walking distance, no matter where I stood.
The first thing we did, however, was go to Stratford-Upon-Avon, by train, upon which I was told quite kindly by a little old lady to not put my feet on the train seat because other people sit there. I, of course, nodded and said, "Oh yes, of course," as if this was a revelation to me. I was a foreigner, after all. Here in America, we don't sit on our train seats, we use them as tables and porta-potties. The English countryside is... very English. Lots of sheep, big rolling hills separated by hedges and lines of trees, and more sheep. Lamb is actually affordable in England and well worth it. Beef, however, is not. I'm fairly certain my hamburger was never actually alive. Our "Bed & Breakfast" was very nice, but hardly what I was expecting (a large hotel with attached pub and restaurant that is part of a chain. It was only later that I discovered the OTHER B&Bs there, which I will have to look into when we return). We wandered around the town, found Shakespeare's birthplace, discovered his church and burial place, and went to see one of his plays (All's Well That Ends Well) as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The play was very awesome and very well done, though it did leave me wondering... What the HELL does Helena see in that guy?!
After our lovely visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we trained back to London (and along the way learned the the British are never allowed to complain about how the French spell things. The French may have silent letters, but the British have silent suffices!) and stormed the town. We got the London Pass so we could see a bunch of stuff, but soon realized that the London Pass is only worth the money if you either do not spend a lot of time at any one thing, or you plan out your day meticulously to make sure you do not miss a second of revelry. We got to see Westminster Palace, Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben is the bell that is inside the tower, not the tower itself), Westminster Abbey, The London Eye, St. Paul's Cathedral, The Millennium Bridge, The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Trafalgar Square, Queen's Walk, Shakespeare's Globe*, The Tower*, The Tower Bridge*, a Canoe Race, and a bunch of graffiti. And there's still so much more to see!!! (*only seen from the outside)
Here I would like to talk about the hotel rooms for a moment. In England there are a few things they do that we in America might not be used to. Of course, there are the plugs. England uses 220V, three-pronged outlets that are quite large. You probably knew that. But what you might not know is that every single outlet I ever saw while in the UK had a switch as part of it. Plugging in the vacuum? Bend over and turn on the outlet. Clock? Turn on the outlet. TV? Turn on the outlet. Even the automatic hand driers were just plugged in to these outlets.
And if you are bringing an electric shaver, all the hotel bathrooms had outlets just for them (which accommodate both US and British shavers, for both voltages).
The hotel rooms also all had a little key-card holder, but it's not really a holder. You need to put your keycard in these little things to have the power on in your room! It was unusual at first, but now I think it is ingenious - a great way to make sure the power isn't left on when no one is there.
Can't find a place that serves tea at 4? Well, chances are your hotel room has it. Each one I was in had a small tray that included an electric kettle, a selection of teas, two mugs, sugar, shelf-stable milk, and a biscuit of some kind. I thought it was rather nice, except for the one at the Hilton, which never cleaned out the kettle.
Also, apparently air conditioning is not as ubiquitous in England as it is here. Make sure your hotel room has it... and that it works (Room 503 at the Hilton did not have it functional even after the repairman came by to fix it).
Oh, and soap is rare. They do provide bar soap for your hands, but all the showers were equipped with body wash instead. It's the little things that you remember.
The only caveat I have about London is thieves. I was shaken a bit to see signs posted all over telling you that pickpockets were on the loose. I was nervous and kept tapping my pockets to make sure nothing had been taken from them (I always put my wallet in my front pocket, because if a hand goes in THERE I'm much more likely to feel it). We used a day-hike backpack that had straps to tighten the pack against my back. Those straps conveniently fit over the zippers, so it would be nigh-impossible for anyone to unzip the thing without me knowing it right away. But I was still very aware of the space around me. Thankfully (or perhaps because of our precautions?) we were not picked.
After London, we headed down to Brighton for my wife's conference. We were there for a while, and I spent most of the days similarly. I got to hang out with a bunch of guys my age and hit the over 300 pubs that dot the city. That's right, 300 in about 5 square miles. They have lanes in Brighton called "twittens" that are extremely narrow (two people could not pass each other on them without involving acrobatics), but they are definitely not "alleys." You wouldn't find apartments, shops, and restaurants down some alley, but you will find them down twittens. The Lanes is a maze of twittens that are a bit wider and include very high-end shopping. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Because the days ran together a bit, I'll just lump all of Brighton into a stream-of-consciousness.
Brighton was quite lovely, but I wouldn't really go for the beach (even though that's what it is known for). The beach at Brighton is, quite literally, pebbles. And not small ones that you can pretend are sand. They range from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a fist. There is NO SAND (Brighton Rock is not just a candy), and walking on these rocks is difficult and tiring. But listening to them wash against each other is very relaxing. There is also no surf. Waves are about 2 inches large when they "break" and only go about 6 inches before they retreat back into the Channel. I wonder how the surf shop stays in business.
Apparently the beach is quite different in a storm, however. There used to be three piers in Brighton. One got knocked out by a storm in the early 1900s. Another got damaged heavily by one hurricane in the 1970s and another in 2002, then burned down in 2003 (arson is suspected, perhaps the last remaining pier didn't like the competition?). Here's hoping the last one stays up!
The city is a great place to go shopping, to go bar hopping, to go to a club, to see some history, and to listen to great live music. I haven't been there during the big summer season, but I can't imagine there's a lot more to do there at that time, as the beach, to me, was not terribly tempting.
A friend and I walked the city several times and even took a walking tour (again, my poor shoes). I learned about The Cricketers, where one of the prime suspects for Jack the Ripper claimed to have dined after returning from a London killing. It is also the oldest continually operating pub in Brighton (1547). I learned about the street art scene. I heard AMAZING buskers (which are quite common) and live musicians. I learned about the only police chief to be murdered in the UK. And I even took a tour of the Royal Pavilion.
The Pavilion was the home of George IV, Prince Regent. He was a womanizer and indulger of ind wines and food. But he also loved illusions and surprises. The outside of the Pavilion looks like something vaguely from India... the first few rooms are vaguely Chinese and somewhat drab. But open the door to the banquet hall and you are treated to a 12-foot long silver dragon spewing flame from the ceiling above you, gripping a 1 metric tonne chandelier of some 1500 crystals in its talons. Around it are wall paintings reaching the ceiling 20 or so feet up, depicting chinese scenes. Gold and silver and jade and gas lights and mirrors and copper surround you. It was pure extravagance and a very good example of royal decadence. If you have the chance to go, I HIGHLY recommend touring the inside.
One night, while bar hopping with my new friends, we discovered the Seven Stars pub, which quickly became our favorite. It is the oldest established pub in Brighton (1535), but lost its distinction to the Cricketers when it burned down and was rebuilt. This pub always had something going on, from great live music (jazz, swing, etc) to movie nights to open mic. The people were very friendly, very welcoming, and very fun. And they had my new favorite beer on tap, London Meantime Yakima Red.
A note about beers. Yes, beer in England tends to be room temperature or a bit cooler (not "warm" as you are told). This is not a bad thing. More flavor comes out as things get warmer, so English beer has to be high quality so that it is not only palatable, but delicious at room temperature. It might take you a few drinks to get used to your beer not being ice cold, but trust me, it's worth getting used to. Also, you CAN find cold beer in England (which they usually advertise as cold). Lagers tend to be cold as well, since they are brewed at colder temperatures. In my opinion, beer in the UK is not as strong as it* is in the states, nor is it as hoppy or bitter (in general). I've also come to the conclusion that the closer you get to St. James's Gate, the better Guinness becomes. Cider is big in the UK (Strongbow is a popular name). There, it doesn't have the same stigma that it still holds here, the stigma that if I drink a hard cider, I'm not as much of a man. Cider in the UK is delicious. If cider is your secret garden of delight, rest assured that you can partake of it freely in the British Isles. (*"it" refers to good beer, craft beer, not the pig swill that Anheuser-Bush InBev and MillerCoors produce)
A few more tips about England. Candy. I was on the hunt during my entire trip. I love Cadbury, but I heard that it is quite different in England than here in the States, because Hershey's makes it here. My favorite chocolate bar of all time is Cadbury Royal Dark, which is astounding even here in the states. But, unfortunately, no one I talked to had ever heard of it. However, I did rediscover some old favorites (which I had only been able to get from import shops here), things like Double Deckers, Flake (which they really DO put on ice cream, even ice cream cones they sell you), Maltesers, and Cadbury Fruit and Nut. There are candy shops everywhere, and their selections are excellent. If you want a humbug, go with the golden humbugs (cost more, but worth it). And if you want a decent price for candy bars, get away from the tourist areas and find where the locals shop, like a grocery store. I got my candy at 1/4 the price I would pay elsewhere (one pound for 4)!!
Food in Brighton is quite good, and there are over 500 restaurants to chose from! Hard to believe until you see how they squeeze them into every corner and cranny. It used to be that England was known for high tea and crappy food, but not any longer. It has evolved into one of the best places to eat in the world. And the world is just what you can find. We ate Indian, Irish, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Nordic, Japanese, Greek, British, American... and there were shops for Ethiopian, Pakistani, Turkish, Spanish... We were not for want of excellent cuisine.
Another brief comment on money. I found that prices are about equivalent for items in pounds as they are in dollars. That is to say, if I want a good gourmet burger, I'll pay about 9 to 10 dollars for it in the states and about 9 to 10 pounds across the pond. I think this might be because almost everything has to be imported, plus there is the 20% VAT. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is on everything you buy, but some larger stores will offer a VAT rebate program where you can get the money back if you bring a voucher to customs at the airport.
If you are traveling via rail, purchase your tickets well in advance. We were able to get tickets to and from Brighton for about 5 pounds each, while if we had waited the price would have gone up to well over 25 or even 45 pounds each (depending on how sold out the trains got). Do yourself a favor, save your money, and order them in advance (even if you need to pay long distance for a brief phone call).
My wife and I spent many days together in Brighton, though she admittedly spent most of the days in her conference. And yet, there was still more to see and do. A castle should be next on our list. Brighton is the kind of place where you could just lose yourself and never want to leave. On the last day, we bought souvenirs of our trip in England - hats. My wife is quite cute in hers, and I daresay I look rather capital in my new bowler. I have a feeling we will return to England someday.
So, I hope this random, haphazard accounting of the events of our travels helps you with your travels to England. And if not, then I hope it was at least entertaining. Cheers!