A UK Road Trip

Victoria Roberts

After living stateside for four decades, London-born Shirley Lord returns to the old country for a 1,000-mile journey to rediscover the land she once called home.

It doesn’t surprise me that Queen Elizabeth loves Scotland so much; summer holidays at her Scottish castle, Balmoral, most of all.

Forty years ago, as a journalist in London, I spent summer holidays at my second home in Donaghadee, on the coast of Northern Ireland. At night I’d often cross the Irish Sea in a super-sleek speedboat to go for a nip of Black Velvet (Guinness and Champagne) in Portpatrick, 20 miles away on the opposite Scottish coast. In that part of the world, it doesn’t get dark in the summer until after ten or eleven o’clock because of the light that’s married to the latitude. It’s the reason Scotland is said to have five seasons. The extra one, called “hairst,” or harvest, is the time between summer and fall when that light prevails until the dark of winter descends.

In the late 1960s, with incredible luck—and hard work—I had an opportunity to move to New York with a new kind of visa, an L-1, which defined me as an “expert” transferee (in my case, a beauty editor), moving from British Harper’s Bazaar to American Bazaar across the Atlantic.

I settled happily in the United States, eventually taking big jobs at the cosmetics company Helena Rubinstein and later Vogue, but I often felt the pull of the old country. I knew the south of England so well, and the west and east, that I particularly wanted to explore Great Britain from north to south on a journey of rediscovery—or in many cases, discovery. Other than those summer glimpses of Portpatrick, I didn’t know Scotland at all.

I shared my dream with my close companion, the artist Peter Heywood, who knows the region well. We decided to travel in April of last year and plotted a route that would take a week to drive the 1,000 miles from the queen’s castle Balmoral, in northern Scotland, to Buckingham Palace, her London home.

We flew to Scotland’s Glasgow Airport, where we picked up a Ford Escort before stopping at Firebird (1321 Argyle St.; 44-141/334-0594; firebirdglasglow.com), the city’s top-rated bistro and bar, for some healthy victuals (all local and organic) from the woodburning oven and a wee dram. Then we headed out on the “high road” for the 135-mile, three-hour drive to Ballater, the village next door to Balmoral Castle (Ballater; 44-13397/42-534; balmoralcastle.com).

Ballater has more royal warrants (designations identifying purveyors of goods to the royal family) above shop fronts—be they butchers, bakers or candlestick makers—than any other village in the world. We had booked two nights at the Glen Lui Hotel (rooms, from $180; Invercauld Rd.; 44-13397/55-402; glen-lui-hotel.co.uk), a family-run hostelry with 19 rooms overlooking the Ballater Golf Club (greens fee, from $50; Victoria Rd.; ballatergolfclub.co.uk). Murray Bell, son of hotel owners Gordon and Susan, was at the door in his kilt to greet us, with muscles that looked as if they were used to toss the caber at the ro­yal Braemar games down the road. Inside, the dark-paneled bar was packed with ruddy Norwegian anglers toasting “slàinte” (“to your health” in Scottish), waiting for the River Dee to subside so they could do what they had paid handsomely to do: catch huge quantities of Scottish salmon. The fish was on the menu, en croûte, poached or grilled, delicious, with homemade bread (and bread and butter pudding), and outside, a rare sight, the endangered red squirrel running among the ancient Caledonian pines. After dinner the stairs were steep, but it was worth the climb to reach the four-poster bed.

The next day the long lochs, peaty waterfalls and deep glens on the short 15-minute drive to Balmoral Castle emphasized the beauty of Royal Deeside—and why Prince Albert and Queen Victoria built the castle there in the first place. To explore the huge grounds, I used a complimentary “battericar” (an electric cart), which the Queen Mother used to get around. Remember Helen Mirren in The Queen coming eye to eye with a stag in her heather-covered, 50,000-acre “garden” I learned during my visit that you can book your own stag or, more precisely, arrange a day stalking deer on royal land, accompanied by an experienced highland pony, just as you can reserve the three best “beats” to fish on the River Dee (also within royal property) or even one of the estate’s holiday cottages (from $700 a night) at the foot of the majestic Lochnagar Mountain.

Not much is open to the public inside the castle, but the ballroom is worth a visit, if only for the family movies, which show the royals letting their hair down, gossiping and dancing Scottish reels with abandon. Royalists like myself will love the gift shop, where literally hundreds of centuries-old family trees are available, printed on parchment with heraldic signs.

From Ballater we drove south on the “low road” across and down, down, down the very steep Grampian Mountains, experiencing all kinds of weather: sleet, rain, fog, sunshine. To keep to a week’s schedule sadly required bypassing Dundee, Perth and Edinburgh to get to our next destination, Matfen, in Northumberland, Scotland’s neighbor and England’s most northerly county. It was a five-hour, 250-mile marathon. On the A68, the ancient Roman road, we stopped the car to walk across the border between Scotland and England, marked with high stone pillars in the Cheviot Hills. It was chilling to think that after so much history there is even talk that Scotland might secede from the UK.

Matfen is so tiny, it was hard to find and not marked on any signpost. But then, in typical English fashion, suddenly in the middle of nowhere this magnificent estate, Matfen Hall (rooms, from $150; Matfen Village; 44-1661/886-500; matfenhall.com), came into sight. It is a country house–turned–resort with a spa, a golf course, a glittering pool beneath a glass roof, stables and immaculate bedrooms. Dinner was served in the library, conservatory or print room by butlers and maids straight out of Downton Abbey. Twenty miles from Matfen is Newcastle upon Tyne, a seriously underrated town with broad avenues and handsome buildings. The pièce de résistance is a stunning railway station opened by Queen Victoria in 1850.

Family and friends played a part in my itinerary, specifically my godchildren: Bear Grylls, chief scout of the Scout Association (a Boy Scout equivalent) and a creator of survival TV (Man vs. Wild in the United States), and his sister, Lara Grylls, the British PR wizard who is married to James Fawcett, of the celebrated ancient Fawcett malt family (the malt everybody likes in their beer). They e-mailed us instructions for how to get to Aberford, in Yorkshire, for Sunday lunch: “Coming from Scotland, dead easy.” In other words, just head south!

Roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding and we were on our way, following the River Wharfe to Grassington, an idyllic village in the Yorkshire Dales. There we checked in to the pint-sized Georgian Grassington House Hotel (rooms, from $180; 5 the Square, Grassington; 44-1756/752-406; grassingtonhousehotel.co.uk), where three-time National Chef of the Year winner John Rudden resides in the kitchen of No.5 Restaurant.

I wanted to move west, not south, because I couldn’t miss the Lake District. From Grassington we zigzagged up to Ullswater, where we checked in to Sharrow Bay (rooms, from $280; Lake Ulls­water, Penrith; 44-1768/486-301; sharrowbay.co.uk). The hotel is so close to Lake Ullswater that my deeply comfortable bedroom seemed to hover above the water’s silver surface. There are 180 malt whiskeys in house and a great array of fine wines to choose from, plus a kitchen that serves the best lamb I’d tasted in years. So you had to sit by the drafty front door to get Internet service—who cared?

With the clock ticking, nearing the home stretch, it was “Go south, young woman” (poetic license) to Stratford-upon-Avon, another first for me. Two hundred and twenty miles later we arrived at the Mercure Stratford upon Avon Shakespeare Hotel (rooms, from $155; Chapel St.; 44-2477/092-802; accorhotels.com), a black-and-white Tudor-style building built in 1637. It was time to let someone else do the driving; lucky for us, the hop-on, hop-off tour bus (City Sightseeing; city-sightseeing.com)—a perfect way to explore any city—stopped just five minutes by foot from the hotel. That evening, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (Waterside; rsc.org.uk) to see Hamlet, a young man in evening dress whom I thought was the stage manager about to announce a cast change turned out to be...Hamlet himself. The production was stunning.

Along another Roman road, the Fosse Way (dating to a.d. 43), we drove through Cirencester and then—it had to happen—onto the M4, clogged and slow most of the way toward the London I know so well.

Finally, we drove past Buckingham Palace and into the lovely neighborhood of Mayfair, where we checked in to Claridge’s (rooms, from $695; Brook St.; 44-20/7629-8860; claridges.co.uk), as glamorous as ever with a new restaurant by chef Simon Rogan (owner of the Michelin two-starred restaurant L’Enclume in the Lake District) and a series of spectacular rooms designed by David Linley, the son of the Earl of Snowdon. I’ve known the earl since he was photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones, back in the ’60s, when he made history by marrying the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. It’s hard to believe now, but back then Katharine Hepburn—a Claridge’s regular—had to be reminded that the hotel’s dress code forbade women to wear trousers in any public room. She acknowledged the rule but simply arrived and left by the staff entrance!

Since Claridge’s was first opened by Mr. and Mrs. William Claridge in 1854, the hotel has continuously hosted movie stars and royalty, even becoming a haven during World War II for the monarchs of Greece, Norway, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. Crown Prince Alexander II was born in room 212 with a clod of Yugoslavian earth under the bed to ensure he was born on his own country’s soil.

Thanks to an attentive staff with amazing memories, like Martin Ballard (perhaps the most celebrated hall porter in history and now the head concierge) and Pat More (the beloved personal assistant to many general managers over the years), a non-royal like me feels as welcome as the real McCoy. Rooms 429 and 430 (from $2,140) are favorites—with glass walls, a fireplace, wall lights and a deep, plush chaise longue—but I have never stayed in a room I didn’t like.

Always my go-to London hotel (my first book was a premature autobiography called Small Beer at Claridge’s), it marked the perfect finale to my 1,000-mile journey, Balmoral to Buckingham Palace.