Sunday, April 17, 2011

Off With Her Head!

Tom was quite insistent on the title of this post, since we visited the Tower of London today where more than one woman and significantly more men were parted from their heads.

I didn't post yesterday, as I find London quite overwhelming and I was overloaded and ready for bed.  We got into the city, found our hotel and then visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural Science Museum, and Harrods - a small city cum department store.

The Victoria and Albert had an astonishing array of art in the form of sculpture, jewelry, furniture ... basically art that is not on a canvas.  I enjoyed it, particularly the sculptures and the large collection of Indian artwork.

The Natural Science Museum was significantly more crowded.  Tom wasn't feeling so well, so we took a break in the picnic room, then took the lift to the top of the museum with the intent of working our way down.  In the end, we only really saw one room, but it was huge and filled with specimens of every different kind of rock.  SO MANY ROCKS!  Apparently we both enjoy rocks and were able to spend a good deal of time working our way through.  We skipped the rest of the museum, because it was overrun with people and we were tired and it was dinnertime.

Harrods for dinner.  This is the only store I have been to where they hand out maps when you go in.  People everywhere.  Bling.  At least three rooms of handbags.  The food halls, which I was lost in, and that was only one section of one floor.  We ate in a cafe, which was a little above and set off from the hubbub, which helped then beat a hasty retreat (on my part, at least) back to the room.

Today, we started with the Tower of London, which is in truth a castle complex, and also a royal palace, although no longer a residence.  I enjoyed the tour provided by a Yeoman Warder (Beefeater).  The London Marathon was going on today, and a helicopter circling overhead could not out-noise this man.  I was impressed.

Also at the Tower are the crown jewels, and a collection of historical armor, including a number of pieces of Henry VIII, which definitely show that he was a larger man.  Another suit of armor is there that was built for someone 6'8", the tallest suit of armor known.

For a bit of an adventure, I dragged Tom to Whitechapel to try to track down the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which has been in business for centuries, made many large, famous bells (including the Liberty Bell, I think, although I'm not certain), as well as the medieval bells that we use at Camlann.

After getting off the tube, we found that Whitechapel is almost like hopping off the street in India or Pakistan.  White people are the definite minority, sari shops and ethic food of many varieties everywhere, and the only neon sign I ever expect to see advertising "pizza kabab".  Given that I had no idea where in Whitechapel the foundry was, I popped into a cafe and asked directions.  One of the ladies at the register had no idea what I was talking about, but the other gave me directions to "walk down the street to the mosque and it's just past it on the right".  The mosque in question is the East London Mosque.  Huge numbers of muslims in the area.  A little disconcerting to find the little building across the street labeled "Church Bell Foundry".  It was closed, this being a Sunday, but I got my picture taken with the sign.

Then it was back to Westminster (fighting marathon crowds again, as at the Tower of London) and onto a river cruise boat on the Thames, down to Greenwich and back).

Another long day, and only one left.  The plan for tomorrow includes the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the British Museum and possibly going to see The Lion King.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Slower Day

I started off today by getting up, having breakfast, and taking a nap. Several nights of not sleeping exceptionally well finally caught up and I enjoyed my extra hour of shut-eye.

We were not on a tight schedule today as the only thing on the list was Stratford-upon-Avon, which is the next large town over from Warwick. After getting into town, we just missed the city tour bus and after discovering it was only running every hour, we started walking down the Avon, then discovered a little river boat offering half hour cruises. It was slow and pleasant. Swans are everywhere on the Avon in Straford and we took a some pictures.

Finally caught the tour bus, planning to hop out at Mary Alden's Farm, which is where Shakespeare's mother grew up. It's presented as a working farm set in the 1500s, I believe, with costumed interpreters, some charming pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, cows and a horse, as well as falcons and owls for the falconry demonstration (which we missed).

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. After passing Anne Hathaway's cottage, where Shakespeare's wife grew up, the tour bus decided it was done. We spent the next half hour waiting for the replacement bus and chatted with three elderly ladies from California who were on a long trip to France, Ireland, Scotland and now into England.

One way or another, we did eventually get to the farm, and back to town, after eating a nice farm board meal (pork pie - I got all of Tom's, cheddar and brie - Tom got all of mine, bread, salad and balsamic baby onions), we got back into town.

On our way to take photos of Shakespeare's birthplace, we came across this fascinating place that was a "museum of wizardry". Largely a take-off on Harry Potter, with a good deal of hanuted house thrown into the mix, it was lots of fun. We solved the potion riddle and got our diplomas!

Back on the bus to Warwick, then we picked up food at the local shop and brought it home to the B&B, and it's time for a slow evening before the hustle and bustle of London.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Welcome to the Middle Ages ... and Renaissance ... and Victorian ... and Merlin ...

Warwick Castle. This is a grand building and would be impressive on its own. What has happened here, however, is a grand conglomeration of medieval village, historical waxworks, multi-media fantasy, Disney-esque mishmash.

I liked it.

Got exercise climbing the towers (530 steps) and the mound, where the oldest part of the castle stands. The grounds are done by "Capability" Brown, who as far as I can tell did the grounds of everything in England. That is, of course, an exaggeration, but he did Blenheim, Warwick and I'm sure he's in many other places.

One highlight is the Flight of the Eagle falconry shows. No actual falcons were used, however, only eagles, owls and a vulture, because falcons would just go and kill the ever-present peacocks. Tom got lots of good shots of the birds as well as venturing into the video capabilities of the camera. Getting buzzed by an eagle is a blast.

Another big one is the "mighty" trebuchet. And big it is, indeed. Volunteers sign up to walk in the giant human-size hamster wheels in the middle to pull back the arm and raise the 6-ton counterweight. A narrator gives us the story of how it works with great enthusiasm, and then, after five to ten minutes of preparation work (didn't actually count, but it does take a while), the trebuchet is fired down the river island. This happens twice a day and the second time they launch a fireball!

There is canned music piped around everywhere. I heard monks in one place, a fantsy-themed soundtrack, some martial period-type music and a bit of electric guitar.

Having just come in from the archery (I got a bullseye!) we entered another exhibit wing, where I was greeted by a costumed actor who asked me where we came from. Trying to play along as best I could, I said "The colonies." Imagine my horror when I discovered we were now in the 1850s and we were announced to the room as "My lord and lady from the Colonies!" Time-whiplash is a bugger.

The Peacock Garden is a quieter pleasure. It's a manicured hedge-maze type of garden with no less than a dozen peacocks wandering here and there, between hedges, on hedges, popping their heads up like jack-in-the-boxes from behind hedges. Delightful.

Oh! Lest I forget, their Henry VIII was perfect. Large, round, bearded and with a professional glower in place at all times, even while mingling easily with all and sundry. The other character who made a strong impression was an old man whose function I'm still not quite sure what it was, except to be colorful, who carried around the skin of a ferret, introducing him as "Fred - he's dead." From there, it occasionally went into, "Fred - he's dead. I've got my finger in his head!" as he used the pelt for a puppet.

That's all for today.

Stratford-Upon-Avon tomorrow.

I Had an Inkling

Oxford day did not start well. We discovered that Tom's BritRail pass had gone MIA. That's bad news because he'll have to buy tickets for each leg of the journey now. We did get out and to the train station early as planned, and made all of our connections.
On arriving in Oxford, we stopped by our B&B early to see if we could leave our luggage. There we discovered that our room had been made unusable by a burst water pipe, so they put us in a standard twin room instead of ensuite double meaning, we have to share bathrooms with other people, but we don't have to share a bed with each other. Possibly a chance to catch up on much-needed sleep by not fighting over the covers.
We left town direction to visit Blenheim Palace - the ancestral home of Winston Churchill. This is a serious palace. Gilt and marble everywhere, vast, beautifully landscaped gardens and full of history.
We enjoyed the palace and, while given more time and my own inclination I would have explored the grounds, we headed back to town, after discovering that our return bus ticket, which had been in Tom's pocket (where the aforementioned BritRail pass had also been) was missing.
It has been decided that I'll be carrying tickets and such in my coat's pockets, which have zippers.
Back into town after paying another fare, and it's time for Oxford itself. I really didn't know much about the University or the Colleges or how they worked. After the city bus tour and the walking tour of several colleges (including two Harry Potter filming sites - the Great Hall, and where Malfoy was turned into a ferret by Barty Crouch polyjuiced into Mad-Eye Moody), I felt much better informed.
For dinner we went to The Eagle & Child, a pub. Why a pub? Because this pub was the favorite of a little group called the Inklings, which included among its members J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I ate in the same place they gathered to drink, eat and read bits and pieces of their writing together! The road does indeed go ever on and on, and sometimes it come back to the door where it began.
Tom is now snoring in the bed next to me, so I'll take that as a sign I should be sleeping as well.
Warwick Castle tomorrow.

Speaking of Up ...

Today was a day spent in motion. We took the bus from Bath to Wells, then on to Glastonbury. It was a very pleasant bus ride over rolling hills, through quaint villages, hedgerows, cows and sheep. It was also long, nearly 1.5 hours each way. A colorful lot of people hopped on and off the bus, and I was certainly happier when the more pungent Brits popped off - booze and cigarettes smell just as strong here as they do back home.
Glasonbury we went to because I wanted to go. Tom had little interest. I managed to drag him into Glastonbury Abbey because it is in ruins. Very peaceful and quiet and I very much enojoyed the herb garden. There were interpretive signs for every plant (which I photographed) telling how they were used by the monks. The kitchen was the only part of the Abbey still standing. It's a octagonal (or round, can't quite remember) building with a high decorative roof. Fireplaces in three corners led up through the roof and a drain went out the fourth.
I wanted to climb the Glastonbury Tor, Tom did not. We both were interested in seeing the Rural Life Museum. A quick little tour bus drops folks at both places, so I hopped out at the base of the Tor, a steep hill, cone-shaped, with no trees and a chapel on top, and started up the path. A steady flow of people made their way up. I climbed behind a rainbow-child hippie sort wearing pink and crystals and multi-colored pastel toenails, which I saw because she was climbing barefoot. Ouch!
There was nothing to block the wind and my goodness did it blow. I was only wearing a T-shirt and jeans and spent very little time on top of the Tor because it was FREEZING and I didn't want to make Tom wait too long. There are two paths up the Tor, one on the far side from town, and the other going the other way down towards town. That one came out near the Rural Life Museum and, although it's a bit steeper, I took that one down. The wind blew straight up the Tor, bitingly cold and straight up my nose. I was happy to get down.
The museum had interesting info on peat-cutting, cider making and milling, and also had the Abbey's tithe barn. I had never heard of a tithe barn, but it's exactly what it sounds like - where the monks kept the tithe that was paid to them by the local farming community.
Next it was on to Wells for Tom's portion of the day. For most, the draw of Wells is its gothic cathedral. For Tom, it's that parts of the movie "Hot Fuzz" were filmed there. After we located the tourist information and got Tom a printout of movie locations, we decided to split and I visited the Cathedral and he went on his merry way.
The highlight of the Cathedral for me was the bizarre clock. It has three rings on the face - one for the hour, one for the minute and one for the lunar month. Best of all, however, is that on every quarter hour, two knights run around like a giant cuckoo clock on top of the face, and, as it said on the sign, the same knight has been getting knocked down for 600 years ... wow.
Back home to Bath to try to catch up on sleep before an early departure to Oxford.

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Top of the World, or Bath, at Least

Today was a full day in Bath. It started off with a large breakfast with several other B&B guests, then we went out into the chilly morning for a brisk walk up the hill to the Jane Austen Center. It was a lively, entertaining and educational stay, rife with lovely images of Colin Firth.

Next, on to the Fashion Musem and the Assembly Rooms. The Fashion Museum currently is running a special exhibition on wedding dresses in honor of the upcoming royal wedding. It was fun for me - probably not quite so much for Tom. The Assembly Rooms are grand and quite startlingly tall.

We then continued even farther up the hill to the Museum of Bath at Work. It's a full recreation of a shop that did brass and iron working, engineering and made mineral water. There are scads of period tools and a truly amazing place where you can push a button and make the entire workshop go, by means of a large number of pulleys. Mind-boggling and Quinn would have loved it if he were here. It would have appealed to his little engineering mind.

Down the hill, next, to pick up lunch at the local supermarket and picnic in the Parade Gardens right next to the Avon. On the way down, rain had been threatening, and even spitting a bit, but it got over it and we had pleasant weather (or at least not wet) for our lunch.

After that it was time for me take the Tower Tour at the Bath Abbey. This was an activity just for me, as Tom is not fond of churches or heights. It was fabulous! We went up and up in a tight spiral of stone stairs - 212 in all. We saw the ringing room, the inside of the clock, stood above the fan vaulting and met all 10 bells. Then, up to the very top. I was on top of Bath! The wind was tremendous, as were the views.

Then, because my husband loves me very much and spoils me rotten, he convinced me to go to the Thermae Spa. It's the only spa left in Bath, using the thermal waters. It is quite swanky, including aroma-therapy saunas, and both an indoor pool and one on third floor roof. In England, their third floor equals our fourth floor, so again I was up, up, up! It was glorious and I enjoyed every moment, except the brief period that I hopped into the frankincense sauna not knowing what was coming. I hate frankincense and left that one quickly. The mint, eucalyptus and lavender were all lovely, although too hot for my preference and I didn't stay in for very long.

I am feeling much refreshed and ready for Glastonbury and Wells tomorrow.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Today was definitely a mish-mash kind of day. We went on a van tour that included Castle Combe, Avebury, Lacock and Stonehenge. There was a good deal of time spent in this van/bus thing, and sadly, it was not the most comfortable thing ever. I barely fit width-wise in the seat and, while I'm certainly not a slim little thing, I'm not that large. Poor Tom had a heck of a time. Also, whoever was in the aisle seat had the seat belt, which was fixed, not mobile at all, sticking into their heinie. There was a period where we were able to sit in separate seats, but in the end, he ended up in the back of the van, which was four seats in a row with no butt-biting seatbelts, and I ended up sitting with a gentleman from New Zealand, sadly not thin enough to keep my bottom off the torture device.

Castle Combe was the quitessential cotswolds village. Limestone houses, a quaint little church, a stream, and an ancient graveyard around the church. I noticed one of the flagstones (quite old) just outside the entry had an engraving on it that said, "Deep Well Under Here." I guess that would be good to know in an emergency?

Avebury is stone circle/henge site that is on a much larger scale than Stonehenge (geographically). The stones themselves are not as large, but are certainly of a respectable size. Another big difference is that the stones were set as-is, with no modification. The tour guide had some dowsing rods, and I used one and OH MY GOODNESS!!! That thing was alive, I swear.

At Avebury, you're allowed to walk anywhere you want and touch anything and it feels very free. There are sheep grazing all around, so you have to watch your step. There were many lambs, and I enjoyed watching them.

Lacock is another cotswolds town, this one larger and a bit less uniform than Castle Combe. I had my first pub meal there - roast beef, potatoes and veggies with gravy. Quite hearty and tasty.

The biggest claim to fame that Lacock has is that it has been used in numerous productions. It served as the town of Merriton in the BBC Pride & Prjudice, Cranston in ... well, Cranston, and the Abbey there is part of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! We didn't have quite enough time in Lacock, but it was very picturesque and enjoyable.

On to Stonehenge. I'd been warned to be prepared to be underwhelmed by Stonehenge. The good news is that I was so prepared to be underwhelmed that I was actually pleasantly surprised. The stones are roped off so you can't go in among them, but there was a nice audio guide and lots of good photo opportunities and, although it was very crowded, it wasn't as bad as I was fearing. I didn't even have a queue for the toilet! (And look, I can say it in the proper English way!)

Overall, I'd say that Avebury was my favorite. I loved the dowsing rods, the clear breeze, the relative emptiness, the sheep and climbing down the henge and back up to see an Alice in Wonderland rabbit-hole tree.

Tomorrow will be in Bath and a good deal more low-key. I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Discovering My Zen-Self

Today was a travel day - from Caterbury to Bath. This was complicated by having to make a stop in London to try to fix our Cash Passports, which apparently were never activated when we bought them (the fault of the vendor, not us). This adventure ended with Tom in a London pay-phone booth encrusted with photos of half-naked women offering "relaxing massages" and other, less child-friendly options. I got to stand outside the booth guarding the luggage and occasionally opening the booth door to pick up assorted things he dropped, because he couldn't reach them himself. Big man - small booth.

The good news is that our money is now accessible.

There was a good amount of train and tube transfering, which gave me an opportunity to work on discovering my zen-self. My zen-self is the state of "we'll get there when we get there and stressing out over it will not help anything, so I'm just going to smile and be mellow.

Tom and I spent some time discussing whether this was blase (pretend there's an accent on that 'e' - I can't find it in WordPad) or zen. In my way of thinking, blase is "something is happening and I'm so over it" while zen is "something is happening, and that's okay!"

I needed that state when we got to Bath. It was extremely crowded, and there had been significant construction since when Tom was here last, four years ago. The crowds, combined with the very poor map that we had, and the fact that our detour in London had made us late all added up to a bit of a stressed-out husband. I kept my zen-hat on and we made our way - with the aid of a friendly taxi driver, who pointed us in the right direction - to our B&B.

It is unseasonably hot and hiking up the the hill was tiring. We did hit the Royal Crescent, the Georgian House museum, the Roman Baths and the Pump Room for tea.

I almost lost my zen along the way, because after I refilled our water bottles in the room, I forgot to put them back into the backpack. Lack of hydration = lack of zen. Tea solved that problem, however, and we spent some time walking along the Avon.

Back to the room now to rest up for a long day tomorrow - Stonehenge, Avebury and the Cotswolds.


Friday, April 8, 2011

A Pilgrimage of My Own

Busy day today here in Canterbury. After my first introduction to a "Full English Breakfast" including a fried egg (not a fan of fried eggs), bacon (think Canadian bacon with extra meat & fat attached), two large sausages, fried mushrooms and a fried tomato (we passed on the beans), we walked into the old town.

We caught a guided walking tour with a charming older gentleman guide and an older couple and a lady, all from England. Learned good things about the history and architecture of the city with a side dish of leather. The male half of the other couple was a furniture salesman from Scotland who let us all know about the wonders of Swiss cows and their three-layers-of-leather-thick skin.

We then got off our feet with a short river tour in a rowboat on the very slow, very shallow Stour River. Almost more shallow, if that is possible, was the clearance between the boat and the bottoms of the bridges. There was a good deal of ducking involved, even for me - and I'm short.

Have you ever noticed that in old towns the buildings are often wider on the top than they are at the bottom? Apparently that's due to tax. You were taxed on the ground you built on, so go small, then build out like an upside-down wedding cake and you have have your space and pay less for it, too!

After a brief stop at the Roman Museum, Tom and I went in separate directions. He went off to see the small castle and a local park with a mound, along with the city walls, and I went to the Cathedral.

This is what drew me to Canterbury in the first place. I have read Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" and studied about Thomas Becket and felt a strong draw to follow in the footsteps, so to speak of those many souls who made their pilgrimage to the site of Becket's martyrdom.

The cathedral itself is massive, made from stone that was imported from France (seeing as there is no local stone). The nave with it's soaring pillars draws you in, pulling you towards the quire, separated by an ornately carved stone panel.

To the left of the nave, near the base of the quire is a small stairway that drops down towards a chapel. It was there that Thomas Becket was killed by four knights, who answered with actions King Henry II's questions, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

The spot is marked by a flagstone which reads, simply, "Thomas", and a modern sculpture on the wall that looks like a cross made of swords, with the horizontal line pierced with two swords. The light hits it sculpture so that the shadows of the swords are prominent, all together representing the four swords that killed the Archbishop.

Becket was originally buried in the crypt, then later moved upstairs into a shrine at the east end of the cathedral in the year 1220. The shrine was encrusted with gold and jewels, many gifts from royal pilgrims. When King Henry XIII established the Church of England, he took most of the wealth from the catholics, including the shrine of Becket. Currently, the space where the shrine used to be is marked simply by a long candle burning. I found this to be a more moving remembrance than any golden shrine might be.
After exploring the Cathedral, I stayed on to attend an Evensong service. It was lovely music by the 10-man choir and I enjoyed the atmosphere very much.

Having now trod in the steps of the pilgrims, I found Canterbury to be fascinating, educational and eye-opening. I look forward to using what I've learned in a tale of my own.

Tomorrow, on to Bath!

Graffiti Is Universal, Architecture Is Not

After a long flight from SeaTac to London, Heathrow, in which I nabbed a center aisle of four seats that were unoccupied and stretched out across them to try sleeping, we landed and dropped straight into the world of the underground. The Heathrow Express to Paddington Station for a tube ride, then another tube ride, and finally another leg of train out to Canterbury.
Having missed most of London, due to being underneath it, I didn't get much of a feel for it at all. On the tube and the trains, I learned that anywhere a bridge crosses over railway tracks, there will be graffiti. This is true at home and it is true in England as well. That much was so familiar as to feel as if I'd never left.
Once we got out into the country, however, what struck me most was the architecture of the housing. Row upon row of brick townhomes, their white-washed back windows looking out at tracks like staggered eyes. Every building had at least one chimney, with an apparent minimum of four separate stovepipes opening out the top.
This, indeed, was different. I really am in another country. That and I don't throw out garbage, it's rubbish, thank you.
We are both tired, but have put up a strong effort to remain awake until our new, British, bedtime. Canterbury is a mix of new things, grocery stores and the like, and very old. In the old town, the buildings are nearly universally storefronts on the bottom, a brick mid-level, with a tudor-style third floor - dark wood beams a white daub. Everything mingles together, from a book binder to a Starbucks, to leather goods to the Indian restaurant where we ate dinner.
The people are just as eclectic. We passed groups of juvenile french students, heard people speaking in both German and Spanish, and also walked past many a Brit, including at least one who hurled an egg at us from a passing car. Good news for them, they had very bad aim.
Welcome to England!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Art of Packing, or That Which I May Never Master

Now that we are within a week of departure, I'm having to face the daunting task of packing. I'm only going to be gone for two weeks, so you wouldn't think that would be difficult, but we are traveling carry-on only. Suddenly, the stakes are raised. Every inch of luggage space is at a premium.

I decided early that even though I have small feet, I'm taking only one pair of shoes. They're Sketchers Shape-Ups sneakers in a black Mary Jane style. They are, arguably, the most comfortable pair of shoes I have ever owned. Wearing them for two weeks is not a trial. But what if we go to, say, a nice dinner? Or the theater? (or would that be theatre, since we'll be across the pond)?

The temptation is strong to bring along one pair of nice shoes, but that would lead to a skirt, nylons, maybe a fancy dress ... a slippery slope. So, I will stick to my guns and hope that my sneakers are stealthy enough in all their black to let me feel remotely acceptable in a pair of black slacks - the closest thing to nice clothes I'll be bringing.

As I think about it, I'm realizing that my biggest stumbling block is that I would actually like to be remotely attractive on this trip. Darn that feminine vanity! I'm working on convincing myself that basic T-shirts, turtlenecks and my new (Value Village) fleece vest with my rain jacket will be perfectly fine. Pants are easy. I only ever wear jeans most days anyways, so that won't be any major shift.

So I'll allow myself one nice shirt to go with the nice pants and accept that I'll be presenting a humdrum appearance. At least I'll have room for my prescriptions, freezer-bag of liquids and gels to make TSA happy, and my netbook, which my son dubbed "Cutie."

At least when I get there and discover what I forgot, there are plenty of stores where I can rectify my mistake. I'm taking bets on what critical item will be left behind!