A Do-It-Yourself Study Abroad Tour of the Lakes and Snowdonia

This essay provides guidelines for anyone who wants to plan his or her own study-abroad trip the English Lake District, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of not using a professional touring or educational service. The essay includes information on lodging and transportation, and describes visits to Keswick, Grasmere, Ullswater, Barrow-in-Furness, and Mt. Snowdon.

A Do-It-Yourself Study Abroad Tour of the Lakes and Snowdonia

R. Paul Yoder
University of Arkansas – Little Rock

1.         In late May/early June of 2012, my wife and I led nine students on a study-abroad trip to the English Lake District and Wales, with an optional few days in London at the end. The English Department at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock at Little Rock where I teach had not to my knowledge conducted a study-abroad trip before mine. This trip was sponsored by the university, but the administration placed minimal restrictions on what I could plan; they also offered little guidance. I had the option of finding and choosing a package tour, but I decided to plan the trip myself. I have traveled a bit, and my wife is quite well traveled due to her work as an international consultant. We had already explored the Lakes and Snowdon on our own, and we knew the flexibility and great bargains that come with a do-it-yourself approach. For the itinerary and budget, I was to assume ten students; ten people (plus guide) also happens to be the price-break point for group tickets for the lake steamers and other activities. The total budget was then increased by 10% to cover my expenses and then divided by ten to arrive at the fee for the class. Initially, I planned a two- to three- week trip that would include Tintern Abbey, the Salisbury Plain, Bath, the Lake District, and Mt. Snowdon, but the budget was near $5,000 per student. In the end, I decided on eleven days and ten nights for the Lakes and Snowdon. This itinerary came to $1,545 per person, plus tuition, airfare, and food, with a few optional days in London. All in-country fees, lodging, and transportation were included. The trip was quite successful, and the students even got a $200 refund because we came in under budget. In the following pages, I want to offer some practical tips to study-abroad leaders who may decide to be do-it-yourselfers.

2.         The DIY approach does help contain costs. Many of our students are working class and already struggle just to pay tuition, so despite some financial help from the university, reasonable cost was paramount. The students were from quite mixed backgrounds, ranging from teenagers away from home for the first time to ex-military back from Afghanistan, and I wanted everyone to be comfortable. I wanted to be comfortable. For lodging I ruled out hostels and dormitories because they were too variable in my experience, so we found reasonably priced B&B’s that could accommodate eleven people at one time. The choices we made helped the group to bond. For the first week, we stayed in a five-bedroom townhouse with a full kitchen and dining table for twelve in a neighborhood in Keswick about a mile from the town square and the supermarket that serves as the bus station. We would have breakfast at the house, pack our own lunches, and then everyone was on his or her own for dinner if we got back in time. Everyone shared the kitchen work; it helped that some students had restaurant experience. My wife and I put the shared groceries on our credit card and at the end of the week divided the total among the group. To everyone's astonishment, the week's grocery bill came to only about £25 per person. With the house rental divided ten ways, the total for most meals and lodging for the week came to under £100 per student. I also made the decision to use mass transit rather than hiring a driver or renting a mini-bus. The roads in the Lakes are narrow and winding, and the insurance for transporting the students would have been prohibitive. The bus system is fairly inexpensive, easy to use, and generally goes where you want to go.

3.         Included in this special issue is the itinerary, plus prices and contact information for our lodgings in the Lakes and Wales (Appendix E). The rates may have changed a bit, but the contact information is still valid as of June 30, 2015. After six nights in Keswick, we took the bus to Barrow-in-Furness where we stayed at a hotel downtown and took an open boat taxi to Peele Castle. The next day we took the train to Betws-y-Coed, Wales where we spent three nights, taking all six rooms at the Coed-y-Fron Guest House, a B&B behind St. Mary’s Church just up the hill from the town. I have also included the “Rules of Tour” that I drew up based on my personal experience of being on the road with friends for days at a time. Traveling can bring out the best and the worst in people, and I distributed the rules to the students to try to establish an ethic of mutual co-operation and individual responsibility. I think it helped.

4.         There are other good reasons for taking the do-it-yourself approach. What you lose on in-country help, you gain with greater autonomy. Most of the students had just finished a seminar with me on Wordsworth in which we had read the entire 1805 Prelude and the Poems on the Naming of Places, along with the more usual selections (the syllabus is here). We knew each other pretty well. I had designed the seminar as preparation for the trip, so the DIY approach allowed me to select destinations and activities that resonated with the poetry we had read. I felt a connection to the students and a sense of ownership about the trip that made me reluctant to turn it over to a guide. The DIY approach actually helped to extend that sense of ownership of the trip to the students. Every evening for the first week we met around the dining room table to plot the next day’s activities. Armed with guide books, a topographical map, and train and bus schedules, we assessed travel times, routing, and what exactly we wanted to see and do with our limited time, and everybody had a say. Most of the students had never used mass transit like this before, and I’m not sure any of them had been on a train before the trip. I hope that their participation in planning and then realizing our activities helped my students feel confident enough to do it for themselves in the future.

5.         Of course, doing it yourself means that things will go wrong, and there is not much ready support if you have a problem. Most of my students were not well traveled, and even those who had seen some of the world had seen it as part of the military, not as tourists. International travel requires adapting to the new country, new habits, new expectations, and unexpected problems, and my students got plenty of experience with all of it. For example, I did not require that the group all fly to England together. Instead I set a time and date to meet at the Manchester Airport. One couple had gone ahead of the group, and had already been in England for a week before they met the students who arrived with me in Manchester. No problem. But two other students took a different flight from ours and were delayed for several hours. Rather than hold up everyone for who knew how long, my wife took the main group on to Penrith (by train) and then to Keswick (by bus), while I waited for the late arrivals and followed seven hours later. During the week, students lost bus passes, we missed buses, and we figured out things as we went. We talked to people on the bus, and particularly en route to Barrow, we received valuable information from other passengers on the best routes and places to change buses. There were moments of tension and uncertainty, but by the end of the day, everyone got where we were going safe and more or less sound.

6.         The less structured DIY approach also enabled my students to see how Britons live in Wordsworth’s country side today. Ghislaine McDayter emphasizes the importance of having the students experience the open air market, but Arkansas students go to farmer’s markets all the time. In Keswick the market was not an assignment; my students actually had to shop for their meals. For them the supermarket was a surreal version of a place they thought they knew, featuring unheard of fruits from around the world, new and different cheeses and pastries and breads, strange products on the shelf and stranger packages for products they already used. Small as it is, Keswick offers a variety of dining and entertainment options. I took a couple students out for the full-English breakfast, and another student snuck out in the early morning to buy pasties from a shop she had found. The younger folks went out to the pubs in Keswick after our evening discussions and heard local music. One afternoon in Keswick while we had stopped to look at some yew-wood carvings, I turned to see that one of the students had borrowed a guitar and was playing an impromptu set in the echoing underpass of the road.

7.         We used Keswick as our base for day trips to Penrith, Grasmere, Ullswater, and Aira Force. As an introduction to the area, on the first full day we took a boat tour of Derwent Water, and we walked up to the Castlerigg stone circle just outside Keswick. This introduced the students both to the beautiful views of lakes and to the stresses and rewards of hiking in Cumbria. Several of the students found the relatively easy walk to Castlerigg rather taxing, but everyone was awed by the deep sense of history when we reached the stone circle at the top of the hill, sheep grazing among the stones and the fells spread all around us. Over the next few days, we climbed to the Beacon in Penrith and tried to determine the view Wordsworth describes in the "spots of time episode" from Prelude XI (the trees now obscure the view of the valley and the lake). We took the steamer on Ullswater, starting at Pooley Bridge, and recalled the rowboat episode from Prelude I. We hiked up to Aira Force. At the end of a particularly long and trying day, we found ourselves in Penrith waiting for a late bus, so we wandered into the churchyard at St. Andrew's Church and walked among the tombstones that include the tenth-century "Giant's Thumb" (famously the subject of an early drawing by William Blake). That evening climaxed when we were invited to watch the church choir as they prepared for the Queen’s jubilee, including their heartfelt performance of "God Save the Queen."  

8.        We devoted a day to Grasmere and the Wordsworths’ home, Dove Cottage. I had done no pre-planning for this, and I had not met Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust at that time. Nonetheless the day was a success. We were given a tour of the cottage (even without a reservation), and we browsed the museum; we saw Sir George Beaumont’s painting of Peele Castle, which we had discussed in relation to Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas” and the death of his brother John. That connection led us to inquire after John’s Grove, so named in “When, to the Attractions of the Busy World.” In class I had made much of the imaginative and emotional connection between the two poems and the two locales. John’s Grove is now known as “Lady Wood,” but the students’ excitement was palpable as we walked among what we imagined had been saplings in Wordsworth’s day. True or not, we imagined ourselves pacing the path as Wordsworth had in time to his brother’s own steps at sea. We were already planning the visit to Peele Castle, so we discussed these connections while we stood in the grove Wordsworth associated with the soon-to-be-lost brother who had enabled him to “love the fir-grove with a perfect love.”

9.         The excitement of John’s Grove carried over to one of the best moments of our trip—our visit to Peele Castle at Barrow-in-Furness. Today Barrow is actually a good-sized port city. Our hotel hosts called ahead to secure the water taxi for us, but it took a regular taxi roughly thirty minutes to get from downtown to the coast. The water taxi was a small open boat, just enough room for twelve passengers and operated by a relative of the people who own Peele Island. On the island, there is a pub, a large flat grassy area for camping, and the castle. The castle is open to the public, and you can climb into it through various doorways and windows. The towers are closed as unstable, and indeed, the tower so precariously positioned in Beaumont’s painting appears to have fallen to the stony beach below. The students excitedly toured the castle for an hour, exploring rooms and trying to determine the angle used by Beaumont for his painting. Then we had a pint with the “King of Peele Island,” who pulled out a telescope which allowed us to watch the antics of a group of sea lions who come ashore just before sunset. The castle is so far off the typical Romanticism tour path that the locals seem unaware of the connection to Wordsworth. Indeed, I had a spirited discussion with our hotel host trying to convince him that this was in fact the castle we wanted, rather than the “peele castle” on the Isle of Man. (“Peele” is a type of castle, and Wordsworth’s Peele [Piel] Castle is actually spelled differently from the way it appears in the title of “Elegiac Stanzas.”)

10.         The culmination of the trip was our ascent of Mt. Snowdon. Snowdon is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wales, so transportation and lodging are good and information is readily available. There are hostels at or near several of the trailheads and many hotels and B&B’s in the surrounding towns such as Llanberis and Betws-y-Coed. Sherpa buses are plentiful and regularly scheduled, so getting around is fairly easy. There are eight trails up the mountain, plus the train. You can buy train tickets in advance, round trip or one-way, but one-way tickets down from the summit are more difficult and available only when someone rides up and decides to hike down. As for the hike, a quick internet search of “hiking trails Snowdon” yields lots of hits; Visitsnowdonia.info provides a good overview that matches well my own experience.

11.         My wife and I had climbed Snowdon back in 1998 when I was forty-three years old; now that I was in my later fifties, I will admit to some reservations about whether I could make the climb. The trail that Wordsworth uses in the Snowdon episode in The Prelude is now called the “Rhyd Ddu Path,” formerly known as the “Beddgelert Path.” In 1998, for my first Snowdon ascent, I asked at an outdoors shop in Betws-y-Coed about the Beddgelert Path, and the man at the counter just laughed and said that nobody used that path anymore; it was too taxing and less rewarding than some others. Instead he referred us the Pyg Track, which begins behind the Pen y Gwryd Hostel. It is a beautiful trail with some breathtaking views, and on the return, we branched off to descend by way of the Miners’ Track, which runs past ruins of the old copper mines. In 2012, less confident about my ability to manage the climb, we used the Llanberis Path, “The Gentle One,” roughly five miles each way. The train to the top runs along the trail part of the way—the part of our group who took the train reported that they saw us on the trail—and both start in the bustling town of Llanberis. The Llanberis Path features a small shop for snacks about halfway up, but there is no bathroom until you reach the top. I did make it to the summit, taking inspiration from people older than I who would stop and walk, and stop and walk. By the time I got to the top, my knees were killing me, and had it not been for the shop at the summit where I could buy a cane to help me on the way down, I might still be up there. No matter how you get there, it is going to be chilly at the top of Snowdon and students should bring jackets, as well as water and money.

12.         As it happened, the day our group climbed Snowdon, it was especially busy. Not only was it the Queen’s Jubilee, it was also a bank holiday. Moreover, because of bad weather, the mountain had been closed to climbers the day before, so there was a backlog of hikers like us, all eager to take advantage of the clear weather and the holiday. There has been an increase in tourism to Snowdon, which is evident in the differences between the summit shop as it was in 1998 and in 2012. In 1998, the shop was not much more than a shed with bathrooms and a counter where someone sold pints of Guinness and cups of tea; the gift shop consisted of a counter with caps that said, “I climbed Snowdon the hard way.” I remember sitting on the floor to drink my tea. Fourteen years later, in 2012, the shop was considerably larger and modern looking, with lines for buying hot food and snacks and a gift shop with caps, t-shirts, and (lucky for me) canes and walking sticks. Even the path to the peak had been improved with stone steps, although we had to stand in line to stand at the peak. Nevertheless, the crowds could not dampen the enthusiasm of my students, and our ascent of Snowdon served much the same purpose for us that it did for Wordsworth in The Prelude. Particularly for our hiker group, the sense of accomplishment, of standing where Wordsworth stood, contributed significantly to the sublime grandeur of the views. It was the climax of our trip, the culmination of our discussions and experiences, and it all provided the basis for a wonderful conversation on the full group’s final night together.

13.         There were some difficulties, of course. Perhaps the biggest challenge was one we could do the least about: the difference in the physical condition of the students. Some of the group went on the trip expecting the sort of rigorous walking that Wordsworth and Coleridge themselves had done among the fells; these students were fit, and the walking would have been no problem for them. But it was also clear that several members of the group simply were not capable of that sort of exertion. Thus, a good bit of my psychic energy went into planning, explaining, and justifying compromise approaches. The train to the top of Snowdon made the ascent possible, but unless I wanted to split up the group more than we already did, there would be no fell crossings. A related problem was with students who did not take seriously my recommendations about footwear. As her “hiking” boots, one young woman had bought a pair of fashion boots at Goodwill for $5. These literally fell apart halfway up the ascent to Aira Force. She was a good sport about it, but I was pretty nervous about her insistence on continuing barefoot. It is probably no surprise that this is the same student who got sick a couple days later.

14.         As for formal academic work, I required very little. The experience was the lesson. To satisfy the academic requirements of the trip, the students had to have roughly forty educational hours (equivalent to a semester), and the rules made that easy to achieve. If we spent eight hours on an outing to Ullswater, for example, but did not discuss that trip at the end of the day, then nobody got any credit. However, if we discussed the trip in the evening for an hour or two (and how could we not?), then everybody got credit for the outing, plus the discussion time. I imposed no formal assignments except full participation in all events. I encouraged the students to keep a journal of the trip (“If you don’t keep a journal, you’re a fool.”), but I wanted the students to be candid in their own recollections, so I did not ask to see the journals. As for texts, my mistake actually became a benefit: I had not planned to require the students to lug around an anthology, even a Wordsworth anthology, but then I second-guessed myself, and did not bring photocopies of the poems we wanted either. Internet access was unreliable so we could not just pull up the poems we wanted from the web; some students had books, some did not. Thus, part of our evening discussions involved an oral reading of the poems relevant to the next day’s outing, using my own book. The students and I took turns reading aloud, and this led to some of the most emotional moments of the trip. One student whose father had died while he was very young read “Michael,” and there was hardly a dry eye in the house when he finished.

15.         I could not have managed this trip without the help of my wife, Beth Miller, who is actually the world traveler in the family. I did most of the actual planning and searching for lodging, but only after I had watched her do it for years for her own business and personal travel, and she in fact found the house we rented in Keswick. Moreover, her presence on the trip was invaluable and suggests the importance of having a co-leader, as well as the advantages of the co-leaders being a male and female team. Our group consisted of seven women and two men, and one man and woman were a couple. Having my wife present was a great help in addressing the anxieties of the young women, several of whom had never been away from home before. Having a co-leader was also crucial on our final full day in Keswick when one of our group became ill and had to be taken to the doctor. That day we were debating between visiting Carlisle or Cockermouth—one advantage to the DIY approach is that you can change your plans on the fly. The two ex-military members of our group had really been looking forward to visiting Hadrian’s Wall outside Carlisle, so my wife took these two to Carlisle, while I took our ill student to the doctor and the rest of the group rested and explored the bookstores of Keswick.

16.         The DIY approach finally helped to create a sort of intimacy among the members of the group. We had to depend on each other. There was nobody coming to chauffeur us around or tell us where to go or when to get there. Most of the students came from families in which the parents were divorced or one parent was deceased; they were fascinated at how my wife and I worked together. They took pictures of us holding hands, and they quickly learned that the best way to get my attention was not to call for “Doc Yoder,” but to say, “Hey, Pablo,” the nickname my wife uses for me. On the first night together, once we had all gathered in Keswick, my wife tried one of her team-building exercises in which everybody around the table had to say something nice about somebody else. The students were too self-conscious, however. They quickly rebelled and the exercise fell apart, becoming a sort of joke during the coming week. By the last night of the trip we were all on friendlier terms. The hosts at our B&B in Betws-y-Coed allowed us to use the dining room for our last discussion, and the students used the opportunity to turn the tables on my wife, insisting that she go around the group and say something nice about everyone. As she went from student to student, the anecdotes of difficulties overcome, friendships being built, memories of our own spots of time drew the group even more closely together. In the end, the students presented my wife and me with chocolate medallions for “World’s Best Mom,” and “Number 1 Dad.” Maybe too much for some, but for us, it was the best reward.

Works Cited

Snowdonia: Mountains and Coast. Economy and Community Dept., Gwynedd Council, Caermarfon, www.visitsnowdonia.info/snowdon_walks_-_6_routes-95.aspx. Accessed 29 Dec. 2015.

Wordsworth, William. The Major Works Edited by Stephen Gill, Oxford UP, 1984.