30 June 2010

Literally literary

As far as I can tell, Carlisle is nothing but one way streets in the direction no one wants to go and strange parking rules. Well, it also has a cool cathedral, but who doesn't?! Their cathedral originally dates back to the Normans, built in 1122. I mean, seriously? Then in the 13th century they did a little DIY refurbishment which increased its size and kind of made it not line up properly. It survived the reformation, but during the civil war Oliver Cromwell and his mates decided it would be a good idea to tear down half of the Norman part, leaving the cathedral an unusual shape and quite a bit smaller. But, it is still pretty magnificent, quite a beautiful place and a very interesting history, once we found someone who could explain why the aisle didn't line up properly.
Near Carlisle, is the Birdoswald Roman Fort (that's 'bird-oswald' as opposed to 'birdos-wald' like I was saying), where the longest complete section of Hadrian's Wall is. Back in the day, when Rome was 'in charge' of the UK, Hadrian decided that they weren't going to bother with the north of the island anymore, so he built an enormous wall to keep those rebellious Scots on their own side. This was about 122 so although the wall now is quite easily breached, when it was actually useful, it was 16-20 feet high and 10 feet wide, which was probably excessive at the time, but what else was there to do other than build walls.

From there we headed into the lake district. On the way, we stopped in Cockermouth to visit the birthplace of William Wordsworth. That was nice, but in Cockermouth the disaster management nerd in me came out as I surveyed a city center trying to pick up the pieces after a devastating flood last fall. About half of the businesses are back open, and the smell of sawdust and fresh paint is hanging in the air. The water level is marked on buildings at an impressive height and at the time was not stagnant, but moving at 25 mph down the high street.

We headed deeper into the lake district and stopped a few times to enjoy the view. In Grasmere we continued to follow Wordsworth to Dove cottage where he lived for eight years of 'plain living but high thinking' writing some of the greatest literary works ever. And who wouldn't be inspired there? Well, clearly I haven't thought of anything amazing, but if I lived there in seclusion and only two wagons went by a week, maybe I'd come up with something. We had a great dinner in Windemere's oldest and most charming pub and then contemplated at the lakeside for a while.

In the morning, we got on the shortest ferry I've ever ridden across Windemere lake to move onto children's literature at Beatrix Potter's house. It was raining, but that didn't really detract from the charm of this house and our interest in her character. She came to the lake district much like in that movie, and ended up buying 4000 acres which she put in a trust and saved forever. You rock! In her gallery in Hawkshead we saw some of her original drawings for her books which was really cool.

28 June 2010

'Not even Wensleydale?'

There are a few places when mentioned to some English, causes them to get a wistful, faraway look in their eyes and smile dreamily. The Yorkshire Dales is one of these places. 'Oh, the dales!...' they'll say before composing themselves long enough to tell you that there's no way to see it all in one day. Indeed not! But we tried to see as much as we could. We started in Grassington. What a lovely little town. Oh, the dales are also a place that cause me to overuse the words 'lovely' and 'charming' but seriously, there are no better adjectives for it.

We stopped liberally, which meant pulled over a lot, because there is no shortage of lovely views, but there is a shortage of safe places to pull over and enjoy them. The hills got higher, sheep more cheeky, and the ammount of dry stone walls was incredible. It's like the dry stone wall salesman came to town, for real! We stopped in Hawes to go into the Wendsleydale Creamery. Cheese, Cheese, Cheese! Who cares how it's made when there is a refrigerated tasting room with 20 different cheeses and no shortage of toothpicks.

We drove on, ending up at Aysgarth Falls which gave us a lovely walk in the woods and good views. The roads from here got more narrow, curvy and steep, but was truly beautiful. We made it up to the Tan Hill Inn, Englands highest pub. It's literally in the middle of nowhere and even had sheep the porch. The road from here followed a far more gentle slope down the other side of the mountain. You could see for miles down the ribbon of tarmac which inspired me to get a manual driving lesson on it. It's not that I didn't know how to drive a manual, it's just that I haven't had much practice. And by not much practice, I mean I've driven one about 1000 yards in a cemetery and didn't get above second gear. And that one time when I drove about a mile.
When we picked up the car and I learned we were getting a Ford Fiesta (diesel, no less!) I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get behind the wheel. I was really hoping for an opportunity to storm a beach or outmaneuver baddies in a mall, but a nice straight, traffic free road would do nicely. I mean, what better place to perfect the skills than a foreign country on the wrong side of the road? Dad did point out that most people hone their skills in a parking lot.
The prevailing conclusion from my longest stint of gear shifting is why don't we all drive manuals? I mean, it is fun! I couldn't help myself from shouting 'power!!' a la Clarkson as I went into 5th and gleefully honked at sheep in the road. Admittedly, honking at sheep had nothing to do with manual driving, but it certainly made me laugh maniacally, and is, by the way, the most effective way of getting them out of the road. They scatter like flies!

27 June 2010

A bit of everything

In the morning after exploring the metropolis of Dalton, we drove to Ripon, where their cathedral is home to some of the finest miseracords and other wood carvings I've seen. England's oldest crypt is an exciting stop on the tour, dating to the Normans. Lewis Carroll's father was a canon in this cathedral, and some of the carvings are though to have been inspiration for Alice, including a rabbit escaping down his hole. Well, that and pot.
Yet another great cathedral.

We lunched and headed to Fountains Abbey. We thought Whitby Abbey was a ruin, hell, that ain't no ruin! Fountains is absolutely enormous, and was also home to a monastic order that was dissolved during the reformation. Since then it has, well, sort of fallen down a bit, and is now under the care of the National Trust. It's a very cool place to visit and explore. Photographers have wasted away there looking for that perfect shot. Well, they probably wasted away because they got lost in there and couldn't find a way out. I wish I could report that I got a really heroic picture there, but I don't think I saw anything original.

It was a slightly frustrating evening as we tried to find the hotel that no one had ever heard of, but we eventually found it and the next morning went somewhere truly indulgent. No, we'd already been to the candy factory.
Mom and Dad are big fans of 'Last of the Summer Wine' the worlds longest running live action sitcom (40+ years). It is filmed in the village of Holmfirth, where for the last 40+ years they have tolerated, (ha! made money off of) tourists just like us. To be fair, it really was quite charming, and there was no way I was going to be within an hour of it and not go. So, we found all the landmarks, the museum (believe it) and even old Compo's grave (Bill Owen in real life). It was altogether a very nice morning.
In the afternoon, we let Dad pick (I'm only making fun!) and headed to Haworth, which was where the Bronte family lived while their father was curate of the church. I shamefully admit I have never read Wuthering heights or Jane Eyre. Some literate woman I am! But their town is beautiful. The England game was going on and people were literally sitting camped out of their houses eagerly awaiting something exciting. It was a little sad to see the whole town get depressed at the same time.

25 June 2010

Whitby

I really liked Whitby. The curator at the Captain Cook museum there had an interesting necklace on that was a small picture of Whitby Abbey. We asked her about it and she explained, 'I don't travel very far but my mother always told me that if you can't see the Abbey, then you are lost. So she gave me this so I could travel more.' I really loved this small town sentiment. And how awesome is a town that you'd want to carry a piece of it around with you everywhere? Well, very awesome, it turns out.
Well, maybe it didn't have any more or less than any number of seaside towns in the UK; an old church, beach, lifeboat, water, crappy novelty stores, gambling. But it must have caught me on a good day. I can be bought with sand, sun, and a good fish and chips.
Whitby has charm. Despite all the usual beachy stuff, the town exuded charm. We visited the abbey in the morning, and that is simply beautiful. A bit drafty, but lovely, and old! 13th century buildings are on every corner in this country.
When we had our fill of monastic life, we headed into town and miraculously found a parking spot. We strolled along the harbor taking in the sights and sounds of a fishing community. Our first stop was the RNLI museum which was great for squirrels like me. It had old boats, a cork life vest and tales of rescue adventures on the high seas.
We put our feet in the ocean and immediately knew why only a handful of kids were swimming. It was cold! With seawater soaking our pant cuffs and our feet coated in sand, we headed back into town. I walked along the shore to work out what the small, brightly colored houses were. It seems stupid that I'd never seem before, but how clever to rent out little chalets for the weekend and at a hefty price, I'm sure.
I caught up with Mom and Dad in time to visit the Captain Cook museum. Cook led landmark expeditions to the North pole, Alaska, Australia, Hawaii, and many other places. The coolest thing there (other than loads of old maps) was a drawing of Horatio Nelson beating a polar bear with the butt of his rifle. What a bad ass image.
We even had time to gamble away a few 2 pence pieces, which is never fruitful, but fun. Since the sun pretty much never sets these days we had time to enjoy our drive through the North York Moors on the way to Dalton, our very unlikely place to stay for the evening.

24 June 2010

Golden Ticket not Required

The crushing disappointment at the lack of Viking bones at Stamford bridge did not leave us in despair. We headed to Yorkshire Lavender, which is a lavender farm where one can go and smell lavender, and stock up on lavender products. Yes, I am seeing how many times I can put lavender in a sentence. It was a bit strange, but a lovely place and if you ever need lavender jam or lavender honey or lavender soap or lavender clothes or lavender candles of every shape and size. Five! A new record.
I am happy to report that I have kind of figured out how 'rock' is made, and how they get those tiny letters in the candy sticks. It isn't actually magic or oompa-loompas, or other height deficient people with very small pens, but it is still insane. I can't even describe it to you really, but know that all rock, which ends up being a stick of candy about an inch or less in diameter, starts its life out as a huge, 3' long, 1' wide piece of freshly minted sugar. The letters start out far larger that I had imagined and are extruded though this scary machine until they are teeny-tiny. Talk about something I could nerd out about! Candy factory!
And speaking of plaques, I am pretty sure we earned the record of 'people who stood, slack-jawed in front of the rock making process the longest.' We (and by 'we' I mean I) were seriously glazed over watching them make candy, and all the free samples were not to blame.
Best part about factory tours: seconds. Like any good food factory, they had loads of factory seconds for sale at low prices. You could even buy enormous bags of candy mistakes which were just colorful blobs of diabetes that could entertain the kids for years to come. Everlasting gobstoppers, indeed.
Soon after this, we found the coast and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the view of the chalk cliffs at Flamborough head which also boasts one of the largest wave cut platforms in England (thanks, UK Ellie). What a cool place to be. England's oldest lighthouse, recently restored for tons of money, is also there. What more could you need?
We spent the night in Scarborough and readied ourselves for a day down by the sea.

23 June 2010

The Best Kind of Strange

I expected it to feel strange to have people from home visit me here, and it surely did. I absolutely could not believe what I was seeing when I saw two baggage laden, jet-lagged tourists standing curiously outside of a tube station in central London. They weren't just any tourists, with their heads swivelling around, taking in the sights and scanning the growing crowd. They were the tourists I'd been looking for since April, and there they were, right where they were supposed to be.
There was no one in that city happier than I was.
After Mom got the next picture in the series of me crying in public, we spent an hour at the National Gallery before boarding the train to York. When we were first planning this trip, York was the place that I enjoyed the most of those I'd seen, so, to York we went. Well, and it was convenient to the few things that they had requested to see.
In the afternoon, we wandered the charming streets of York and got to the Minster just in time for evensong, which was great as we kind of took our time leaving and saved on admission! After I got tired of poking them in the ribs to keep them awake, we turned in.
The next day we got another dose of charm and I think just enjoyed each others company. York has a lot of small churches that all have incredible histories and stories. I'm sure bigger nerds have nerded out about them, but we stumbled upon about five without trying. I also found the coolest street art I'd ever seen (pictured somewhere).
We went into the National Railway Museum, which, if you like trains, it's the place for you. Even if you have little more than a passing interest in trains it can entertain for an afternoon. But seriously, that's a lot of trains and train paraphernalia, but with a distinct lack of the Hogwarts Express. I'm just saying.

With tentative pedal pushing, steering, and indicating we retrieved our rental car and headed out of the confines of pedestrianism. After a few wide right turns, roundabouts, and curb checks, Dad became a pro.
Consultation with the map led us to search for any indication of anything exciting ever happening in the village of Stamford Bridge. See, in 1066 a battle occurred here that kind of changed the course of British history. Same 1066, different day. England was successfully defended against the Vikings at Stamford Bridge which effectively ended 'the Viking problem'. But they were so busy doing that, that when the Normans showed up at Hastings, every survivor of Stamford Bridge had been running there from Yorkshire (quite a distance) and were so out of breath that William, well, conquered.

One might assume that this kind of thing would be commemorated with a visitor center, memorial, statue or, at least a damn plaque, but alas, there is no mention of anything happening in Stamford Bridge. I mean, just look at Gettysburg. Another battlefield worthy of commemoration, and there is rightly no shortage of it there. But to feel the moving experience of Stamford Bridge, simply look at a row of houses, or a field of cows. I think I'll start a campaign to mark the significance of this place.
Okay, well I didn't mean to go on and on about a place where we stayed for 10 minutes and saw nothing, I haven't even gotten to the candy factory yet!

21 June 2010

Feels like Home

It was a bit strange playing tour guide in my own town, but I enjoyed it. For the first time since they started charging admission I visited the cathedral and was pleasantly surprised by the changes they've made. There was also a wonderful display of pictures from Afghanistan in the 70's that was touching and frustrating. I'm very happy to report that in my absence, they removed the scaffolding from the ruins, and now they look great. Well, they're still ruins.
And how could I take anyone to Coventry and not go to the transport museum? I constantly underestimate the size of the place, and it too has changed a bit since my last visit. I'm proud at its Coventry-centric displays and they've added some stuff to show how the car industry impacted the city. Still, needs more ambulances.
Then, of course we got real ale and had dinner with some friends before heading back to London. He even got to experience an early morning fire alarm. I know he was both honored and excited about that.

In London we rode the eye. I fully endorse this very touristy thing to do. It's fun and exciting and I quite liked feeling like I was in a tourist machine. They are very clever, filing people through the queue, and into another. We had our picture taken in front of a green screen and then were shuffled into a theatre for our '4-D' experience. This consisted of a 3-D motivational video about how awesome London is and they turned on the smoke machine and blew some bubbles around us which pushed it into the 4th dimension. From there, we had an opportunity to purchase the picture of us in front of a green screen, which was now replaced by a picture of the inside of an Eye car. We hadn't even been on the thing!
But don't worry, there was yet another opportunity to buy an overpriced picture of ourselves. Well, it was probably a picture of our backs or with moronic looks on our faces which they snapped as the car was coming in for a landing. Does anyone pay attention for that picture? I'm sure no one does, but overeager tourists plunk down £15 for it anyway. All cynical feelings aside, riding the eye is fun and terrifying and a great experience. I could do without the theatrics driving up the ticket price, but it's still worth it.

The next day we visited the Natural History museum, learning about dinosaurs and enjoying their display of taxidermied animals. It is impressive. We stopped in the V&A and though I felt I had seen a lot there, we found plenty that I hadn't, including a strange collection of plaster casts (no not from arms and legs). They have plaster casts of many famous things including Trajan's column (which seems much bigger in a room) Gibherti's gates of paradise, and the David. They also have casts of tombs, pulpits, and other random things from European churches. Some of the originals have been lost over the years, so these casts serve quite a purpose.

A visit to Camden market is always a welcome outing for me, so off we went for colorful people, intriguing smells, and delicious international foods. We had a nice afternoon there and even saw some bits of the London Zoo from Regent's canal. I think we were both feeling a little sad as the trip wound down, but we did our best.

19 June 2010

Kayaking with a Shark

Okay, perhaps I should clarify. When I say 'shark' I don't actually mean Bruce, but rather a toothless, plankton eating, basking shark. Still, a shark! With menacing fin and all. It's strange that I was so keen to get closer, as usually if I see a snapping turtle in the water I panic, and that hardly compares to a shark.
We kayaked for the day around Arisaig bay which after nine months of life on dry land almost fulfilled my kayaking needs. We were with a group of eight others and in addition to the shark saw many seals either curiously popping their heads out of the water or lounging in large groups on the surrounding shore.
We added to our collection of great picnic lunching spots as we perched on the top of a hill overlooking the bay, the ocean, and all the way back to Skye. It was great kayaking too, propelled by changing tides in a 17' venture kayak was just about perfect.
The next day we headed through Argyle (didn't get any socks though) and stopped in Oban to taste their fab single malt. One of our samples was so precious that the lady literally doled it out via a medicine dropper, then promptly knocked the bottle over, much to my amusement and her absolute horror. We didn't tell. We finally found a classic castle ruin that proved to be accessible only via a muddy bog, so, we didn't conquer it, but admired from a distance before continuing inland to our overnight spot in Arrochar. Yet another small town with nothing but hills, lochs, and bed and breakfasts. We had a great dinner (probably the best of the trip) in a converted old church that just had good food, great atmosphere and an excellent location.We had a lazy drive the next day back to Edinburgh, clinging to the highland views as long as we could before braving city driving again. What a difference a few hundred miles can make in Scotland, from chasing sheep off the road, to navigating terrifying roundabouts. Dropping the car off was a complete success and an enormous relief. Only about two times after that did I suddenly panic about where the car was parked only to be relieved to know it was not our problem any more.

14 June 2010

Skye

I spent the rest of the trip overestimating the size of towns. We headed northwest to the Isle of Skye. The scenery continued to impress and it was strange to cover almost half of the Great Glen Way in about an hour of driving (which took us over 16 hours to walk). I can now continue to demand the A82 upgrade with a little more experience on the road other than walking on it.
It was pretty rainy by the time we crossed onto Skye, but it seemed the right weather for there. We visited Portree, which is a lovely little harbor town. Little did I think that this would be the largest town we'd see for a couple of days. The roads got curvier, narrower, and more full of livestock. What a joy it was to herd sheep out of the road, truly! We encountered a few camper vans a little close for comfort, and not knowing the single track protocol led us to only a couple of stand-offs with oncoming cars. 'No, you back up, there's a passing place right behind you! Oh, fine, whatever.'
We thought we might get dinner in Uig (oo-ig), but it turned out that town has only one restaurant and it was just as easy at that point to return to Portree. Our accommodation that night was appropriately remote and beautiful. It wouldn't be right to be in Scotland without being bitten by the notorious midges which left happy little spots on me. To be fair, they weren't too bad, but that's as strange as the clear weather.
In the morning we headed toward Dunvegan, fuelled by glorious weather. We forewent the castle there to walk to the coral beaches. These secluded beaches off of the west coast of Skye are made up mostly of bleached red seaweed that looks like tiny pieces of coral. Aside from the frigid water temperature, one might mistake the clear blue water and shimmering white beaches of Scotland for the Caribbean. Beach dwelling cows were a strange sight, but, along with the surrounding green hills and the coco-nutty smell of gorse filling the air- what a fantastic place to be.
More single track roads led us to almost literal run-ins with some highland cows which were happily docile. But the road opened up and we got fab views of the Cuillin Hills (coo-lin) for which Skye is famous. We took the ferry from Armadale to Malliag which was good times, but only half an hour, and headed to Arisaig.

12 June 2010

The Ben

It seems wrong for me to be in Scotland and not be in pain, thanks to my experiences on the Great Glen Way. So we made up for my happy muscles by hiking to the top of the UK on Ben Nevis.
I was warned that at the summit, absent-minded hikers could 'fall off the edge' seemingly at any moment and that hiking it required a map, compass, GPS unit, Sherpa, and oxygen tanks. But, while the summit was in a cloud and there were several opportunities to wander off a cliff (literally) hiking on a Saturday meant that there were tons of other people on the mountain doing charity hikes or three peak challenges. And the path is well worn (and very well kept, I might add). This doesn't mean that one shouldn't be prepared to deal with the unpredictable nature of the Nevis range, but perhaps shouldn't be scared into reconsidering. What should keep people from doing Ben Nevis should be the 'long slough' to the top, the endless demoralizing switchbacks, and the painful, rocky descent.
That said, it is a beautiful hike. I mean absolutely lovely. Every step of the way offers spectacular views of the surrounding area, and even when we entered the cloud on the summit, it was spooky and snowy and generally cool. Oh, speaking of cool, it was frigid on the top and I could barely wait to get back down. Part of the trail is covered in a huge snow patch that I couldn't be bothered trying not to slip on, so I just slid down, which was great fun and saved time.
The novelty of the descent wore off quite quickly and became more of a marathon than getting to the top. In all, with a long lunch and liberal photo stops it took us eight hours to complete the 4,409' and back. For the keen hiker, I would totally recommend it and even though the summit did not make me feel like I was on the top of Great Britain, it was still a great experience. One that I won't soon repeat.

11 June 2010

Neighbor to the North

In the morning we took the train to Edinburgh (let me give East Coast trains a big shout out for cheap prices and free wifi). We arrived in time to explore this beautiful and extraordinarily hilly town. We climbed the 200 foot Scott Memorial which was, well, high! The stairs became more and more narrow and at the very top I felt as though I was being extruded, scraping my shoulders and backpack out of the spiralling staircase. It was well worth it and gave us great views of the city and beyond.
After that we simply wandered around. The weather was cool, the people nice, and the company excellent. We bravely cooked dinner at the hostel as gas stoves and ovens rightly scare us both. I asked how to work the stove and the girl told me that they had a small problem with one, so it's constantly on. Oh no, there's no great way of telling the temperature, just wing it! So we carefully monitored our dinner and managed not to burn the place down. As for dessert; what trip to Edinburgh is complete without a deep fried mars bar?
We visited Edinburgh Castle the next day and as it was Prince Philips b-day there was an unusual amount of fanfare and gun firing in his honor. In the evening we hiked up Arthur's Seat which is an amazing place. Just outside of the city this great cliff juts out of the landscape and behind it is a haven of green space and peace from the city. It's a gentle hike to the top (when you are on the right path) and the views are spectacular. We would have stayed for the sunset, but I don't think that happened until midnight.
The next day I found myself nervously adjusting the mirrors from the drivers seat of a Vauxhall Corsa. I had not driven in nine months and felt utterly terrified to relearn in a rather large city on the cough! -wrong- cough! (excuse me) side of the road. I made the rookie mistake of adjusting the mirrors while sitting calmly. It turned out that once we set off, I was sitting up in panic mode and all of my adjustments were pointless. I talked myself through every roundabout. 'Okay, right lane, indicate right, stay in my lane, go to 3 o'clock, indicate left, move to the left, and...we're out. Oh, thank God!' C and I together drove almost 800 miles and I'd say at least half of that wasn't fraught with panic.
We headed to St. Andrews and spent just a little while here taking in the ruined abbey and lunch on the beach. Maybe it was the setting or the weather but we split a pastry that was the most delicious I'd ever had. I mean, the savoury part of lunch was rendered completely pointless compared to this manna from heaven. The resulting sugar high fuelled us on the rest of the drive to Fort William and through the absolutely enchanting Glencoe region of Scotland. We stopped liberally to take in the beautiful views and at one stop, a piper was filling the air with perfectly haunting melodies.

07 June 2010

Down by the Sea

On Saturday I took my last school trip to Brighton. I was expecting a beach town full of burnt tourists and drunk people. I was partially right, but Brighton also has plenty of culture and non burnt or drunk entertainment. They have a great little museum that has a couch designed by Salvador Dali, and even, randomly, some Egyptian mummies. Are there any left in Egypt? Everyone has one here, you can buy them at antique stores.
They have a great building, the Royal Pavilion, commissioned by George IV in 1803. From the outside it looks like an Hindu temple, which is quite surprising as you head to the English beach.
And, the coast! I hesitate to call it a beach as it is not sandy at all, rather full of tiny, beautiful rocks, that at first glance I decided would be therapeutic on my bare feet. How wrong I was. I gingerly stepped out of my sandals and into the path of the surf. Struck by the freezing water, I attempted to retreat but the now decidedly non-therapeutic rocks were quite painful and with each step I sunk deeper into their grip. I did manage to get back on dry land and replace my sandals. Therapeutic! Ha.
But, it seems that people don't go to Brighton for the swimming. Rather, they go for the sun, and who wouldn't. I feel like the whole South of England was there that day tolerating the rocky beach to get some sun. Half drunk hen parties were around every corner, along with street performers, a ton of cops, and in actuality, lots of burnt tourists. Brighton pier is an scarily enormous structure full of gambling, games, rides, and overpriced essential beach foods. Enticing smells came from all directions, crepes, doughnuts, candy floss, and fish and chips. Not one bit of saltwater taffy, caramel popcorn, or thrashers fries. Strange.
We had a good time wasting 2p coins on games and laughing at the insane rides they had to swing people over the ocean in the most vomit inducing ways possible. Altogether it was a very enjoyable day, even worth the 4 hour drive!