We’ve been in the Outer Hebrides for two weeks now, and I’m going to write a separate post on the Isle of Lewis (where we’re staying this month), but today I wanted to highlight our road trip up here, because it was amazing.
When you’re planning a road trip in another country, it’s hard to imagine all the variables you might encounter–especially as Brits, who listened aghast to our plans to drive from southern England to the Isle of Lewis (the northwestern-most point in Europe), kept warning us that “our roads aren’t like American roads!” Well, I’m here to tell you that I’m loving the British roads, the drive was as smooth as it could’ve been in America, and it went off just as planned (phew!). I spent innumerable hours researching, so I had a good idea of what to expect and felt like we ended up with an overall really doable and successful itinerary. But we did learn some things along the way.
So I’ll share with you what we did, what worked well for a family of six with a baby and a toddler, what didn’t work well, and our favorite things.
Adventure To the Car Rental
We took the train from London Euston to Coventry, where we rented our car. (Well, we actually bought our car at a rental price and will sell it back to the dealer. This is for insurance purposes, as the driver is insured in the UK, not the vehicle. Providentially, we have USAA military insurance because both my parents served in the US Marines, so that greatly simplified our car insurance for a longer-term stay here.) While we’re glad we didn’t have to drive in London, this was by far the most difficult leg of our trip.
We packed light…for six people and five months (2 suitcases and 2 carry-ons total, plus a personal item each and our travel stroller), but we also borrowed 2 car seats and a pack n’ play/travel cot from a friend when we arrived in the UK. We were quite the menagerie toting all this stuff (and a baby and toddler) through Euston station, onto the train, and off the train. It was no joke. First of all, we traveled “super off peak,” so, mercifully, some of our suitcases could ride in empty seats–because there was no place to store our multiple large items. If it’d been rush hour, we would’ve been cooked. Then, somewhere along the way we realized that we’d have about two minutes flat to get all our stuff and people off the train before it chugged away. As we approached Coventry, we waited by the doors like horses at the gate, with a giant pile by the door. We literally charged onto the platform, Kate held the baby and a toddler hand, and Scott and Caleb and I were pretty much throwing luggage off the train in a crazed frenzy. But we got everything off in time! Then we had to take both an XL Uber and a taxi to fit everything and everyone from the train station to the car rental place.
Do you think we’re crazy yet? I promise it gets much less stressful from here!
1) If you have to take public transport in the UK, buy online first (or you will pay out the nose at the station) and look for times marked “super off peak.” It only cost us 21 pounds total to get from London to Coventry this way. Then pay attention to travel times. One train may get you there in almost half the time because it makes fewer stops. (This doesn’t really seem to affect the price either.)
2) If you have multiple items of large luggage and little kids, either get your car at the airport and brave London traffic or have your rental car delivered to you (pay extra!) or figure out a way to just send one adult sans luggage to the rental car place. We basically knew what we were getting into, but don’t be crazy like us.
The Peak District
After the hour train ride to Coventry, I didn’t know how long it would take to do the car paperwork and call the insurance company in the US. Plus, Scott would be driving a manual vehicle (for the first time in 19 years) on the opposite side of the road. So I planned only about an hour’s drive north on that first day. But I did want to make it “count,” so I booked a cute guest house in the sleepy hilltop village of Elton in England’s Peak District. On the way to Elton we drove past the gorgeous Dovedale Gorge. (In summer, I’m told, this is a great place to stop and go wading/paddling with the kids.)
Where to Stay in the Peak District with Four Kids
The Elton Guest House was ideal. Run by an older couple who live there, we had our own wing of the house–a private hallway (with a door and lock) comprised of two bedrooms and a bathroom. Bedroom one had a queen poster bed, two single beds, and a sitting area. Bedroom two had two single beds and a sink. The bathroom was really large. We were the only guests, so they even offered us a second bathroom. Full English breakfast was included in the really low price, made fresh in the kitchen by our hostess.
Elton is a quaint stone village with a lone cozy pub up the road, where we ate a scrumptious dinner by the fire and our kids played with the pub owners’ kids. The little girl came up to our table twisting her braids and said to our kids, “Would you like to come play wif me and my bruhvuh?”
Drive Day 1: A Perfect Drive Through the Peak District
The next day we wound our way through the hills and valleys of the Peak District National Park. Travel Tip: Put specific scenic stops into a custom Google MyMaps ahead of time so that you can load those into Google Maps and download the map. Phone/GPS/SatNav signal is spotty at best, so the download step is crucial.
First stop, Bakewell, only about 15 minutes from Elton. It’s a charming small market town with a river and a good variety of shops. There’s a good sized paid public parking lot in town. Travel Tip: Make sure you have pound coins to pay for parking all over the UK. Most of the meters don’t take card or phone app pay, like in the States. (Pound coins will also allow you to get a grocery cart at some supermarkets and are also necessary for luggage trolleys at the train station.)
Of course, our main goal in Bakewell was to sample Bakewell Pudding at The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. We ate our puddings and walked down by the river with the friendly swans and the love lock bridge.
Next stop, just 5 minutes down the road, Haddon Hall. It was closed for the season, but since we’d studied the architecture of Haddon in Young People’s Story of Architecture, Caleb, Kate, and I ran down the long driveway to get a peek at the hall and grounds.
Just a few more minutes away lies Chatsworth House (aka Pemberley). Chatsworth is generally believed to be the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, and it was used in the 2005 movie with Kiera Knightley. You have to pay to get into the house, which we didn’t have time to do, but many people have told me that it’s worth it to tour the house and grounds with kids. There’s apparently a great area to go wading/paddling in the summer months as well. (But don’t worry that we didn’t go in; I have a different Pemberley stop coming up at the end of April…)
After Bakewell and vicinity, we headed for Eyam, which is famous for its villagers sealing themselves off to prevent spread of the plague. There’s a museum there, but with only time for a drive through and tummies growling, we set off for picturesque Hathersage, where we stopped at a pub for lunch. If we’d had more time, we could’ve taken a walk in Hathersage following the Jane Eyre Trail (which also includes locations from Pride and Prejudice and Little John’s grave from Robin Hood), but we wanted to make it to Glasgow before the kids’ bedtime.
One more village completed our tour through the Peaks, and this one stunned for scenery. The village of Castleton is known for its show caves and caverns, but what impressed us was this magnificent pass, which we drove right through. It was like something in the American West, rising up in sheer peaks on both sides of our car as we wound through on the single track road, except incredibly green.
After Castleton we left the Peaks for, unfortunately, the motorway to gain some speed after our slow and scenic morning. We ate dinner in historic Carlisle on the border and spent the night an hour further north at an Airbnb in Glasgow.
Drive Day 2: A Perfect Drive Through the Scottish Highlands
From Glasgow we set off toward Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We stopped in Luss for some pictures by the water, but the town itself was nothing to see in March. (I’ve heard it’s quite charming in summer though!) While Loch Lomond was certainly beautiful, and I’m glad we stopped on “yon bonnie banks,” I did have to agree with Dorothy Wordsworth. I could almost believe myself in…North America.
North of Luss we stopped at the Real Food Cafe for a fish and chips lunch and then a quick trip into The Green Welly Stop for a few provisions before we headed deep into the rugged Highlands.
At this point Caleb registered a 102 fever and felt miserable, so I took advantage of the light rainfall to wet a washcloth from my suitcase for his forehead and dug out some Children’s Motrin. Travel Tip: Bring a couple of washcloths with you to the UK (inside a ziplock bag, so you can transport them wet if need be). As far as I can tell, they’re nonexistent here!
The Highlands were even more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. It was impossible to capture the grandeur in pictures. You just have to experience it in person.
My two favorite stretches of the drive were from Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe and from Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh. Here were the stops I downloaded into Google Maps, which were all right along the route. (Most had little parking pull offs that, if you know to look for them, allow you to get off the skinny mountain road to take pictures.) This really helped us not to miss the very best viewpoints. It was absolutely breathtaking!
Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe Pullover Places
- Loch Tulla Viewpoint
- Rannoch Moor Viewpoint
- Three Sisters Car Park (this was our favorite spot!)
- Loch Achtriochtan
- An Torr
I didn’t pin any scenic stops for the rest of the drive except for the Loch Linnhe Viewpoint, but the scenery was astoundingly beautiful nonetheless even without getting out of the car. (I don’t think there were as many pullover viewpoints on the second stretch. Also, when I say pullover places, don’t expect an American parking lot. These ranged from gravel lots to muddy ditches to a couple of parking places on the side of the road.
Travel Tip: If you need provisions, get them in Fort William. It’s all wilderness from there. There’s a good grocery store, pharmacy/chemist, and gas/petrol stations. (Fill up.)
Because we weren’t really paying attention to the map by the end of our day’s journey (too busy looking out the window!), just before we reached the bridge to Skye, we rounded a bend and Kate said, “What’s that glowing house up there?” Turns out we’d stumbled on my last pinned destination, Eilean Donan Castle, all lit up at dusk!
We crossed the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge just as dark was settling in and drove the hour to our Airbnb in Uig (OO-ig) on the northwest coast of Skye. I’ve wanted to visit Skye for years and years, and it didn’t disappoint (we also learned some lessons about walking Skye with little ones and got stranded on the island!), so I’ll be back with our adventures and misadventures on the Isle of Skye.