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Old 27th September 2011, 23:32   #1
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Default Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

London is one of my favorite cities, and also one that my work takes me to very often. However, most of my visits to London last just one or two days - the archetypical visit involves taking the night Jet Airways flight out, showering at the Yotel in T4, meeting clients or colleagues, and heading back the same evening. As a rule, this suits me fine - I greatly dislike being away from Bombay and my family. But it was quite irritating that I had been to London perhaps 25 times and had never seen the London Eye or the British Museum or even Buckingham Palace (other than from a cab on the way from a Knightsbidge Hotel to the City). And of course, I had never seen any other part of Britain.

Hence, last summer, when my wife and two and a half year old son told me that they wanted to have a holiday in the UK, I jumped at the chance. Deciding what we should cover was a challenge - London of course would take 4 or 5 days (between the Museums, the Parks, the Tower, Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Hamleys, Legoland, the Eye et al). And Stonehenge was a must see. As was visiting my wife's cousin in Bristol. But what about the Cotswalds? Stratford on Avon? Oxford? Cambridge? The Lake Districts? Scotland? Choosing what to do was a problem. But ultimately we decided to stick to London, Bristol, to visit Oxford, Stratford on Avon and Stonehenge out of London, and to spend some time in the Scottish Highlands.

But how should we commute from place to place? Traveling in London was a breeze - the Oyster and the Tube would get us wherever we wanted to go. But what about everywhere else? Tourist Buses seemed too inflexible, especially with an Indian two and half year old in tow. Trains and Planes the same.

What about driving? In a foreign country? You need an IDP for that, don't you? How do you get one? Isn't it a painful process? What, you need the same address on your passport and driver's license? Man, that's not going to work. These were some of the issues that I was pondering over while planning our visit. Fortunately, I happened to discuss them with a friend, who had lived in the UK for 3 years, and been there for a holiday the previous autumn. I knew that he had driven around Scotland during that visit, but presumed that he had a UK drivers license. However, he swiftly disabused me of that notion. I learnt that he had rented a car and driven in the UK using his Indian driver's license, which is valid for use by tourists in the UK (as long as it is in the Roman script). Driving in England and Scotland? Classic Top Gear countryside. On an Indian drivers license. Wow, that's fantastic!

So I set about planning a driving holiday in the UK. The next steps were fairly simple. Air tickets - time to use all those Jet Airways miles (even if they ultimately gave me only 2 tickets out of the 3 I wanted). Book an apartment or a hotel in London using a corporate discount. Ditto for Edinburgh. But what about in the Highlands? Despite my best efforts, I failed to find any place where I could benefit from a suitable discount. So, I turned to the internet. Someone suggested that I should try and book a room in a Castle in Scotland. I searched for Scottish Castle hotels. And came across Bunchrew House, a 17th century Scottish mansion, near Inverness, overlooking the Beauly Firth. A few phone calls, a credit card payment online, and I was done. All that remained to be done was hiring a car.

But for that, I had to plan my driving itinerary. After doing some research, I decided that there would be two driving legs of our holiday. We would initially drive from London to Bristol, via Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath. And then drive from Edinburgh to Inverness, keep the car with us during our stay in the Highlands, and return the car in Edinburgh on our way back to London. The combination of the need for an open jaw drive from London to Bristol, with a drop off as close to my wife's cousin's place as possible, and the need for a pick up close to our London hotel led us to Europcar - who let us book a Standard Automatic saloon (a la a VW Passat or Honda Accord), with child seat, GPS and zero loss insurance on an INR rate.

Thus we were set - ready for our first holiday in the UK and for me, a first experience in driving outside India.

Last edited by Hayek : 28th September 2011 at 20:36. Reason: Minor modifications
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Old 28th September 2011, 21:11   #2
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A few short weeks later, we were all set to start our journey - a first foreign holiday for my son. The journey to London was smooth - the drive to our hotel was not quite so, as the mini cab driver had failed to bring a child seat despite my having specifically requested it. Fortunately, we were not interrupted by a Bobby, and there were no mishaps on the way either.

Our hotel in London (a Citadines studio apartment) was not great - the room was smaller than I had expected, and the building itself was in need of renovation. But we did not intend to spend too much time in the room anyway, and we managed to cover all the essentials without much ado.

I will not spend too much time describing London - I presume that would have been covered at least a few times before this.

We started at Trafalgar Square, walked down to the South Bank of the Thames to visit the London Eye.

Nelson's Column
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The London Eye
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Westminster - From the London Eye
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On day 2, we visited Regents' Park, where we saw a very interesting drinking water fountain donated to the people of England by Sir Cowasjee Jehangir of Bombay, and also caught the London Zoo (not really worth it for anyone who has seen quality, modern zoos like the one in Singapore - but a must do if you want to subject a two year old to the British museum).

Fountain at Regents' Park
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Day 3 was a bus tour to Stratford on Avon and Oxford. It was nice to see Shakespeare's birthplace (even if my son slept through the visit), and the dining hall at Christchurch College that serves as the model for the Hogwarts' dining hall - my kid was thrilled to see Harry Porter's dining table.

Shakespeare's Birthplace
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Dining Hall at Christchurch College
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A Bridge in Oxford - modeled on the Rialto (from Venice)
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Day 4 was reserved for Buckingham Palace, a cruise down the Thames, and the Tower, with Day 5 for the British Museum (rather briefly - two hours tested the limit of our son's forbearance) , Hamleys and the Aquarium (really worth seeing).

The Tower Bridge - Often erroneously called "London Bridge"
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Before we knew it, we were done with the London leg of our holiday, and it was time for us to begin the driving leg of our vacation.

Last edited by Hayek : 28th September 2011 at 21:31.
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Old 29th September 2011, 10:56   #3
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Thread moved from the Assembly Line to the Travelogues forum. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 29th September 2011, 12:07   #4
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Very nice start Hayek.
Eagerly waiting for scotland snaps

Loved your narration.Please do have more write up's.
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Old 30th September 2011, 22:54   #5
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@nimbleguru, thanks for reading. Loads of photos to come.


Given that it was our first experience driving outside India, and our desire to cover Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath before going to Bristol, we planned to make a relatively early start - viz. 8 am, not the 4 am starts that some of the BHPians make for their drives. I visited a Sainsbury's near our hotel and stocked up adequate food (bread, cheese, tomatoes, fruits et al) for our journey the previous evening. But despite our best intentions, it was almost 9 am by the time we checked out of our hotel and started for the Europcar rental office near King's Cross.

As mentioned earlier, we had made a booking for a Standard Automatic car - viz. something defined as VW Passat or equivalent. The reason for this was straightforward - for our first holiday abroad with our child, we had packed everything other than the kitchen sink, and had 2 medium sized suitcases, a couple of cabin bags and a couple of backpacks with us. In Bombay, this had struggled to fit into the back of a Star Taxi (Toyota Innova). But when we reached the Europcar counter, we were blandly told that they did not have an Standard Automatic cars available, and that they would "upgrade" us to a Mercedes B Class.

"What did you say? A "B" Class? Isn't that a small hatchback? Our luggage won't fit in it. Don't you have anything else?", I asked. "Well we have offered you an equivalent or higher category car. I think your luggage will fit, by the way. The other option is a manual Skoda Octavia (aka Laura for Indians)", came the reply. We debated what we should do. I had been very keen to use an automatic in the UK, since I wanted to minimize any distractions while driving in a foreign land. Finally, we took a call. "Show us the Mercedes, and if our luggage fits in it, we will take it.", we said.

On looking at the boot of the B Class, I was pleasantly surprised. It certainly did seem to have a lot of space. We dragged our luggage across to the car, and found that both big suitcases fitted quite comfortably next to each other, and the rest of our luggage could be packed on top. The rest of the interior too was extremely spacious, with adequate leg room even behind my seat. (I am 5'11" and a bit of a daddy long-legs)

"Yes, we'll take this", we said. By the time we completed the paper-work and were issued the car (plus child seat and a Tomtom GPS receiver), it was 945 am. Interestingly, while Europcar provided us with a child seat, they did not provide any assistance in fitting it. "I am sorry, but company policy does not allow me to touch the child seat. You see, we can't afford any lawsuits", said the helpful assistant. While we use a child seat even at home, this was a different model, and it took some time to figure it out. By the time we got the car loaded, the child seat fitted and our kid into the seat, another 45 minutes had elapsed. I set about programming the GPS device (another first for me), and asked it to take me to Windsor Castle. And so, we were off.

The Mercedes B Class
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Plain Jane Interiors - no ACC but steering mounted audio controls
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We had not even covered 500 meters when I realized that I had committed a cardinal error. While I programmed the GPS to take us to Windsor, I had not adjusted the volume, which was on mute. Following the instructions on the screen, while staying in the right lane to avoid London's congestion charge was not easy. Fortunately, there were a number of traffic signals in fairly short order, and I managed to get the speaker working. The crawl through Central London took almost an hour for the first 10 odd miles, but once we were on the M4 (the expressway leading west from London), progress was smooth. On the expressway, the weakness of the B Class clearly came to fore - it was underpowered to say the least, not just compared to my Superb, but perhaps even compared to the manual NHC I used to drive before buying my Superb. Getting up to the limit of 70 mph took an eternity.

But I was not on a time trial, and I soon started enjoying the drive. I had always been concerned that 20 years of driving in Bombay had probably left me ill-equipped to drive anywhere else in the world. It was a relief to find that this was not the case - adjusting to the more relaxed and polite style of driving in England was quite easy. Soon, we left the M4, and turned off down narrow country roads towards Windsor. We went into Windsor town, and parked at a private parking lot. (Incidentally, some of the web-sites we had referred to had warned against parking at this lot, since they clamped vehicles for even minor infractions and charged a hefty sum to release them.) After paying for 3 hours (more than enough time, or so we thought), we headed for the Castle.

The Castle Ramparts
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Walking up to the Castle
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The Main Section, with the Queen's Chambers
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Windsor Castle is extremely beautiful. There is a lot to see there but given the paucity of time at our disposal, we focused on the major items - viz Queen Mary's Doll house, and the State Apartments. The doll house was a gift to a young Queen Mary from her grandmother on one of her birthdays. It is a miniature palace with proper plumbing and electrical connections. There were stairs connecting various parts of the house, miniature furniture adorning the various rooms, miniature paintings by real masters put up on the walls. It was truly an amazing sight.

Our son was thrilled to see the realistic looking vintage cars parked in the garage of the doll house, and was caught between wanting to play with the toy vintage cars, and wanting to see real ones - the Queen's cars as he put it.

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After a quick run through the staterooms, we headed out of the castle, tugging along our son, who was disappointed that he had not seen a real vintage car. Stepping out of the castle, we managed to appease him by showing him the "Queen's" Land Rovers. (though I doubt if Her Majesty would ever deign to travel in a Freelander.)

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Old 1st October 2011, 12:10   #6
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By the time we were done with Windsor Castle, and a quick lunch, three hours had passed, and we made it back to the parking lot with minutes to go before our time on the meter expired. Next, we were on our way to Stonehenge. The route to Stonehenge from Windsor runs east along the M4 (viz. towards London) for a few miles, then south along the M25 (which is effectively an outer ring road for London) till the junction with the M3 towards Southampton. There was heavy traffic on the M4 and the M25, but once we hit the M3, progress was smooth, and I was able to trundle along with the traffic at 75 mph. (Speed limits on motor way sections in the UK are 70 mph, and I was told that the cops give you a 5 kmph leeway). After 32 miles on the M3, we exited onto the A 303 towards Andover and Salisbury. Once we hit the A303, we were passing through beautiful English countryside, with meadows and sheep - the bucolic sights which inspired many an English poet. Progress was of course slower on these roads.

Countryside by the M3
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Undulating landscape
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More countryside
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And suddenly, we crested a hill and saw the amazing sight of Stonehenge in the distance.

The first glimpse of Stonehenge
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Some more Stonehenge snaps
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We parked at the Stonehenge parking lot, grabbed an audio tour, and set out exploring Stonehenge. Stonehenge is truly magnificent - our pictures (taken on a plain Jane Ixus) fail to do justice to the beauty of the place, especially on a beautiful, bright English summer's evening.

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The audio tour took us through a variety of theories on who built, why, when and how the stones (which are not found nearby) were brought there. The most widely held theory is that these were used to determine the date of the Spring equinox. It is indeed a mystery as to how these heavy stones were transported and further raised to position them upright. From the perspective of an Indian, the impeccable manner in which the monument is maintained, and the quality of services provided to tourists in the middle of nowhere were impressive - I wish we had similar facilities in the many beautiful but decrepit monuments that abound across our country. We spent some time relaxing on the grass, in fantastic weather, and looking at the beautiful undulating landscape around, and did not really notice the time pass. Before we knew it, it was 6:30 PM, and we realized that we need to say goodbye to Stonehenge, and head for my wife's cousin's place at Bristol.

Our original plan had been to go to Bath before visiting Bristol, but given the late hour, we decided to skip that, and go directly to Bristol. The road to Bristol was exceptionally beautiful, winding through scenic English villages similar to those we had seen in the Cotswalds during our Stratford on Avon tour.

A beautiful English country home, between Stonehenge and Marlborough

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We passed the historic town of Marlborough, and then joined the M4. Once again, on the motorway section, the lack of power of the B Class became evident. Finally, around 9 PM, we entered Bristol, and the Tom-tom guided us flawlessly to our destination.

We had covered a total of 170 miles - 27 miles from King's Cross to Windsor, 75 miles from Windsor to Stonehenge, and a further 70 miles from Stonehenge to Bristol. I was relieved, somewhat tired but mainly delighted by the drive. I was also amazed by the clever packaging of the B Class - it was spacious, comfortable on a long drive, and had tons of luggage room, bundled in a package that is just 4270 mm long. The only lacuna (a big one for BHPians) was that it was not great fun to drive.
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Old 4th October 2011, 16:41   #7
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Nice travelogue. Having fed on a diet of English fairy tales and then English Literature, for me the English and Scottish Countryside remains the ultimate in beauty. Looking forward to seeing it through your eyes
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Old 6th November 2011, 19:53   #8
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@mallumowgli, thanks for reading and sorry for the delay in updating this thread.

Our relatively slow progress through Windsor Castle and Stonehenge meant that we had skipped Bath. "Never mind", we thought, "Bath is close to Bristol and we can do it as a day trip from Bristol. After all, our objective was to spend time with C, L and their kids (my wife's cousin and her husband), and we might as well do that at Bath instead of at their house."

But over dinner, we realized that C & L had planned a more exciting day out for us. They pointed out that Bath just had old Roman ruins, which would be nothing new for the two of us, since we had done Rome and Italy previously. They instead suggested that we head out to Wales, and visit the Dan yr Ogof Caves. The opportunity to visit the third region of Britain seemed too good to pass, and we jumped at the idea.

The next morning, we got into C & L's Honda F-RV and Toyota Yaris, and set off for the caves. The Honda F-RV is a very interesting car. Its built on the old C-RV platform, with the gear shift on the dashboard. It has a center armrest in the front seat, which can be folded down to turn the front seat into an Ambassador style bench, which accommodates three people in a fair degree of comfort - and thus acts as a 6 seater with a good degree of luggage room. I wonder why Honda never thought of launching it in India - it seemed the perfect vehicle for trips down to Alibag or Mahabaleshwar.

The drive to the caves was longer than I had anticipated, about 80 miles, and also took longer than we had planned due to an accident ahead of us on the motorway. (Its amazing how despite the quality of infrastructure in Britain, roads get backed up if there is a small accident at an exit). On the way, we crossed the beautiful Severn bridge (which has two main cable stayed spans, each longer than the main span of the Worli Bandra sea link). But before long, we were at the Dan yr Ogof Caves.

The Dan yr Ogof caves in Wales, are a massive set of limestone caves, carved by flowing water out of the Welsh Hills. We had to put on safety helmets before entering the cave, and despite it being a warm day, were warned to get our sweaters on. This turned out to be very good advice, as the caves were extremely cold. They were full of beautiful natural formations - mainly stalactites (limestone formations hanging from the ceiling, as my nephew helpfully pointed out), and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites were in very interesting shapes, including one that looked like a bunch of nuns as you can see below.

A stalactite formation
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Stalactites and Stalagmites - almost touching each other
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A Bunch of Nuns??
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There were also a number of underground streams and waterfalls. One of the caves has a functioning Cathedral at its end, where marriage ceremonies can be conducted. Another one, where bones had been found, has an exhibit reconstructing various facets of its history including how early humans lived in it. Overall it was a fun time.

Outside the caves, there is a dinosaur theme park, with life-size models of a wide variety of Dinosaurs.

Our two and half year old had a great time with his cousins, trying to act as if he was their peer (they were 8 then), and the older kids being nice enough to indulge him. He quickly realized that these were "toy" dinos, and wanted to know where the real ones were and why they were not around.

A Diplodocus (I think)

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At about 530, we left the caves and then stopped on the way near a farm which had emus etc in it.

The Emu Farm
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After a great day out, it was time to head back to Bristol, where we spent a good deal of time plotting our itinerary for the Scottish leg of our vacation. The next day was largely a day of rest, punctuated by some sight seeing in Bristol

The Bristol River
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An Old Suspension Bridge
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Before long, it was time for us to head to the airport, and take an Easyjet flight across to Edinburgh, where we were booked to stay at the Caledonian Hilton Hotel, just across the road from the Edinburgh Castle.

Last edited by Hayek : 6th November 2011 at 19:56.
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Old 9th November 2011, 11:54   #9
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Dear Hayek,

A free flowing T'Log punctuated with expressive pictures both making a great read! I am going to closely follow you as I have started all preparations to spend my 30th Wedding Anniversary in Europe with a large chunk in the UK? Please do give details of cost of hiring and stay-being an Ex army Officer budget will be tight!!
Awaiting your T'Log's continuation.
Regards,

Col Jude Mayne
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Old 11th November 2011, 01:10   #10
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This is an excellent travelogue and very useful since I too intend to do a drive trip of the UK sometime in the not too distant future!

Are baby seats mandatory in UK taxicabs? I lived for a couple of years in Singapore and they are not mandatory there.

Please keep posting- eagerly awaiting the Scotland part of your trip!
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Old 11th November 2011, 07:42   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by noopster
This is an excellent travelogue and very useful since I too intend to do a drive trip of the UK sometime in the not too distant future!

Are baby seats mandatory in UK taxicabs? I lived for a couple of years in Singapore and they are not mandatory there.

Please keep posting- eagerly awaiting the Scotland part of your trip!
Thanks. Posting will take a while due to family and work constraints.

Baby seats are not mandatory in the Black Cabs but are mandatory in mini cabs ( viz pre booked hired cars), AFAIK. But I tend to be paranoid about the need to use them in any case (I once got a local car hire agency to change the Innova I hired for a Shirdi trip since the seat belt was not working, and could not hold the child seat.)
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Old 11th November 2011, 16:47   #12
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Great travelogue and pictures. Rekindled some old memories.

BTW am surprised that you booked Europcar as they are on the higher side. I have found Avis to be good and customer centric but nothing beats Enterprise in rates. Also a little disappointed to see that you didn't drive through the M1/A1 to Edinburgh

Cheers

P.S: Hope you had a nice sporty car in Scotland as its the land of Blue Subaru Impreza's and Colin McRae wannabe's amongst many other things.

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Old 11th November 2011, 20:07   #13
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@Milecruncher, Europcar was chosen as it had the most convenient drop off location at Bristol. And having got my business once, I did not bother to comparison shop for the Scotland leg. (Yeah, I waste a lot of money on my holidays, but sometimes that pays off, as you will see.) Enterprise did not seem to have city locations at all, if I remember correctly.

After 4 bright and beautiful days, our last day in Bristol was partly cloudy. When we landed in Edinburgh, we found that it was raining and bitterly cold. Since we flew Easyjet, we did not have access to an aerobridge and had to walk in the light drizzle to reach the terminal.

The Caledonian Hilton Hotel, is a heritage property, located in the centre of Edinburgh city, very close to the Edinburgh castle. The building is beautiful though our room was just moderate sized. After a mediocre room service dinner, we stepped out to stock up (our standard bread, butter, cheese, jam, chips, fruits) for our long journey to Inverness.

The next morning, despite our pious desire to make an early start, we woke late - and it was 10 am by the time we left the hotel. Our kid had been very excited to travel in the Mercedes B Class (is it my fault that he has become brand conscious so soon, I wonder) and we were dreading a tantrum if he found that he had been downgraded to a Ford or VW. On reaching the Europcar centre, we found that we had been upgraded again - this time to a Mercedes C class. "This is wonderful", we thought. "We're really lucky."

But our joy was short lived. The agent, who had taken my license and started to fill details in the form, suddenly indicated that he had an issue.

"Your license is only valid within the territory of India", he said. "I can't rent you this car." "That's obvious. India cannot issue licenses valid world wide.", I said. "UK law allows us to drive here on our Indian licenses, and does not require an IDP."

"The law may allow you to drive, but it does not force me to rent to you", he said. "But I had filled my license details on your web-site, and your own company rented to me three days ago, with a pick-up in London, and a drop off in Bristol. And we have no other way to get to Inverness, and no hotels here. This will ruin our entire vacation.", I said.

After a brief discussion, the agent relented. "I will use the customer ID created in London.", he said. That certainly was a relief. To this day, I don't know if Europcar has a different policy, or if the agent simply did not want to trust an almost brand new C Class with a guy with a third world drivers license. To @Milecruncher's point, I was glad I rented from Europcar in both locations.

When the car arrived, we realized that it was a black C Class estate. As we started loading our stuff in the boot, we got a shock. Our luggage had expanded a bit at Bristol, and the C Estate could barely accommodate it. I was rather shocked to find that the boot of the C Estate was not much bigger than the boot of the B Class.

When we got in, and started fitting the child seat, we got our next shock. The leg room in the C Class was significantly less than that in the B Class - and we had to keep the child seat behind me to ensure that my wife would have reasonable room in any stints at the back with our kid. After remembering to program the GPS correctly, and to check that its volume setting was right, we were off - by this time, it was almost 12 noon.

A couple of pics of the C Estate, albeit somewhere on the road to Inverness.

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Old 11th November 2011, 20:24   #14
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Awesome write-up sir. It feels nice to see UK through eyes or rather lenses . I must admit that you have a nice, flowing narrative style.
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Old 11th November 2011, 23:13   #15
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Default Re: Hayek's Road Trips : England, Wales and Scotland

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hayek View Post
After a brief discussion, the agent relented. "I will use the customer ID created in London.", he said. That certainly was a relief. To this day, I don't know if Europcar has a different policy, or if the agent simply did not want to trust an almost brand new C Class with a guy with a third world drivers license. To @Milecruncher's point, I was glad I rented from Europcar in both locations.
I agree that he is not duty bound to rent you a car just because you have booked and been accepted. Its the similar concept like credit which is not a right but a privilege.

Furthermore, the car is KV10 reg which means its registered anywhere in between March 2010 and Sep 2010 so at the youngest its 1 year old.

Could you share a bit more info of the car please?

Cheers
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