Sunday, September 30, 2012

Revelling in nature and an Eye on London

Murali, Sindhu and Elizabeth in the
deer park at New Forest

For the last time I drove in Britain to the sunny shores of Southampton where I gave my car back to the rental company. We were in Southampton to visit our new friends Murali and Sindhu. We met Murali and Sindhu in Cappadocia in Turkey where they celebrated their wedding anniversary with one of those fantastic hot air balloon trips over the Martian landscape. They made their first mistake by asking me to take their photo while we were walking to the outdoor museum of ancient caves. Their second mistake was inviting us to stay at their place if we were ever in Britain, so, as is always the case with us, we took them up on their offer :-)

A bee at work

Southampton has many options for the traveller who needs to relax and get back to nature. It has a history as an important port with an ancient wall you can walk along that was built to protect the town from invaders as well as many old buildings and churches. But I think where it excels is in the scenic attractions that are so easily accessible and close.

Alum Beach
For instance we spent a day out at the Isle of Wight, a short ferry ride away, visiting Alum Beach that has multi coloured sandy cliffs all along it. Walking distance from Alum Beach are The Needles, a collection of white chalk rocks just off the coast that jut out of the ocean like a dragon's spine.
The Needles

We also spent a day at New Forest. This is a huge green belt with trees and lakes as well as a large variey of local flora and fauna including horses walking around wild. They are quite friendly, but if fed (signs say not to) they can become too friendly with several intances (not us) of people being followed by horses that would not go away. The forest also includes a deer sanctuary with a beautiful walking path through the trees with views of deer. There are several thousand now, after nearly being driven to extinction by a culling in olden times. A lovely place to come and explore and have a picnic, which we did.

On our last day there we visited Southampton Common, a large park in the middle of the city, and ate a traditional pub meal at 'The Cowherds'. This busy little pub had a separate gluten free menu so I was in seventh heaven with a chicken and chips meal (melted cheese and bacon on the chicken) and peas. Yum. All in all a terrific and relaxing time with our new friends and lots of home cooked authentic Indian meals. Thanks guys.

After the pub it was a race to the bus station to catch a coach to London. I must say that the hostel I found us in London was the worst we have been in. We were on the 4th floor, all stairs (no lift) and the shared bathroom and toilets were two floors down. Not very convenient at night for a person with a weak bladder. The reception demanded cash only before we could get our key (did not have that much cash on me) and the price was at the upper bounds of our budget. No wifi and paid brekkie that consisted of coffee, some bread and jam. It was chosen for three reasons: location, location and location. Down the end of the street was Hyde Park and this place was walking distance to most of the attractions we wanted to get to.

Buckingham Palace
London Eye
London itself was awesome. After one of those free walking tours we have grown so fond of, we continued walking to get our bearing on the major sites such as the London Eye, the ferry situation and to help plan out our next day.

The second day was an explosion of activities from start to end. We began at Madame Tussaud's. To give you an idea of how realistic these creations are just have a look at the photo of Patrick Stewart with the girl taking his photo. We waited here about five minutes for the girl to finish taking her photo before we realised she was a wax dummy herself (or maybe we are the dummies). Once we realised, I was able to take a photo with my Star Trek hero (points with finger and says 'engage' in a strong British accent). My mate Barack let me help him solve the world's problems and I nearly lost Elizabeth to The Hulk when he got a finger on to her backpack. The ticket included a 4D movie that was amazing with blasts of air, stabs in the back from the chair and 3D so realistic I was ducking.

We then took a ferry ride to Greenwich, home of 0 time and the line between East and West. It has a fantastic park where the astronomical observatory is housed and we saw many friendly squirrels in the grounds. Afterwards we hopped back on the ferry outbound to the end to see the Thames Barrier, one of the city's protection mechanisms from flooding, and stayed on it for the trip back to the London Eye.

Half in the west
hemisphere and
half in the east.

Thames Barrier

The London Eye is taller than it looks and I even felt a little apprehensive as we reached its zenith. The views are amazing. We took it at night as some travellers in Europe recommended. Then the underground back home to get some sleep before a 4:30 am wake up time to catch our flight to the USA and New York, New York.
Parliament from the
London Eye

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Castles *3

After our scenic drive through the Lakes District we arrived in sunny... err wet and cold Scotland to visit Elizabeth's friends Gwen and Ronnie in Ardrossan near Glasgow. Scotland was not all cold and wet; we did have significant dry periods and actually spent most of the following day walking around the surrounding area. Gwen and Ronnie, with obvious pride and enthusiasm, showed us the sights of this charming area while displaying typically generous Scottish hospitality, feeding us large slatherings of gluten free food, including crumpets (GF is well catered for in the supermarkets), and even some salads (even though the Scots consider 'salad' a dirty word).

Portencross Castle
Portencross inside
Ardrossan is right on the beach and was a relaxing and beautiful area to walk around in its own right but we also visited Portencross Castle, a small but superbly renovated castle sitting like a lighthouse on the coast. This was followed by the huge and extravagant Culzean Castle, completely decked out with authentic furniture and fixtures. I particularly liked the working music box that one of the staff opened and played for me and the certificate (called an indulgence) from the pope that pardoned a person's sins and granted fast track access to heaven. The gardens were also huge and magnificent, so extensive that we weren't able to cover the whole grounds in one go. Our time in Scotland was very enjoyable and it's very beautiful, green and crisp this time time of year. Thank you Ronnie and Gwen for showing us around.

Culzean Castle

Where Shakespeare was born
When we left Scotland it was still raining but that just added to its atmosphere as we began our journey back down through the middle of Britain to the eventual destination of Southampton. But we had a few stops, the first one being Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of the most famous of bards, Shakespeare.

Performances outside
the family home
'Alas poor Yorick, I knew
him, Horatio'
The town's whole existence seems to be geared to the life of Shakespeare. There is his family home and birthplace, and I remember after being told that the floor was still the original stone bending down and touching it with a resulting shiver of knowing that Shakespeare himself probably touched this floor as well. The feeling was quite surprising. Outside in the garden professional actors continuously recite famous parts of Shakespeare's plays on demand. Throw them the name of a play and they are able to instantly act out a passage for you.

The little lady's family home
We also visited the cottage Anne Hathaway grew up in (Shakespeare's wife, not the actress) where we were told fascinating stories of life back then and a few too many examples of English sayings and where they come from. The large garden had bushes on which hung laminated Shakespeare sonnets as well as a secluded seat under a small tree where from an audio panel you could choose from a selection of sonnets read by a famous actor. Definitely a romantic getaway that will make any girl swoon. There were many more buildings and references of significance throughout the town but we only had the one full day and just up the road was the famous Warwick Castle.

Shouldn't eavesdrop,
Falconry at Warwick
Now that place is a day out. Currently owned by the Merlin entertainment group (also owns Madame Tussaud's) this place is a continuous medieval festival with shows and activities all year round. The castle contains wax models of previous castle inhabitants and tells a consistent story throughout with taped voices, supposedly from the models, of its glory days. There was a falconry display, a huge catapult firing a flaming ball, horror dungeon displays etc. I also like the fact that you could take as many photos as you liked, anywhere.
Warwick Castle from one of its ramparts

Just a small gripe: I hate it when they don't allow photographs inside buildings, it really takes away a lot of the future enjoyment. I can't browse back through the photographs and flood my mind with the memories of the experience. This occurs all too frequently; if it is a question of the flash affecting artefacts then they should just say so and warn that you will be asked to leave if you use flash. If for other reasons then it is just wrong.

Our last stop on our long journey was Stonehenge. Elizabeth had done a good job of lowering my expectations by saying how small and unimpressive it was when she first saw it, so when it came into view I was both surprised and impressed by its size and atmospheric presence in the English countryside. It was larger than I expected, was as old as the pyramids and would have required similar engineering skill to get the stone down from Wales and bury the pillars a third deep in the ground while interlocking them with the huge stone beams along the top like a jigsaw puzzle. They apparently used tools meant for wood to initially shape the pillars. It just shows what can be done with enough will and enough hard working human beings.

Friday, September 21, 2012

From the white cliffs to the white rabbit

Next stop and another old friend of Elizabeth's in Folkestone. For the first time this year I hired a car and drove; I also bought my own GPS (we call her Emily) because at £11 per day it was cheaper than hiring one. Driving in the UK is a pain for several reasons (though they do drive on the 'right' side of the road). Firstly they have about 2 billion roundabouts, some of them huge with 3 or 4 lanes and 5 to 6 exits, so confusing. Secondly their roads are not big enough for two cars so you have to look ahead all the time and duck out of the way.

Elizabeth and Caroline
White cliffs of Dover
Anyway I successfully negotiated my way to Folkestone where we met up with Elizabeth's friend Caroline. We spent a relaxing few days here catching the sights and catching up with the old days. Folkestone is a charming little town on the south coast that is the quintessential British beach town. From here you can go to see the white cliffs of Dover, stroll along a charming little beach by taking one of the only water and gravity powered funicular railways in the world and visit the pier with its constant hive of activity. On the day we were there they were teaching some dogs to rescue in the water and speedboat races were occurring. A big thank you to Caroline for showing us the beauty of Folkestone and the surrounding Kent countryside.

Ye olde phone booth
Me, gardening and fire
- dangerous combination
Folkestone version
of the Little Mermaid

Harry Potter fans can drool :-)
Oxford town
From here we drove to Oxford, where we spent one night and went for a walk around the city the next morning. The architecture here was amazing, very old, very beautiful and everywhere you looked. We went to see Oxford Castle (built in 1071) and its accompanying St George's Tower, which was still a prison until 1996. The place holds a very torrid history of maltreatment of prisoners with many sadistic practices in the olden days and ghost tours are also conducted here, though we did not see any ghosts. Wandering the streets I could feel my brain cells growing as we came across many universities still in use today in buildings and grounds that look like they did several hundred years ago. One of my favourites was New College where Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was filmed.
Prison cell
Bound for prison cell

Great Orme ancient mine
Off we went again to visit the cute little town of Llandudno in Wales. Their main claim to fame is a small hill they call the Great Orme that's less than 400m high. In the style we have become used to we accepted the challenge and decided to do the walk around it as well as up it on the same day (we were only there for the one full day), so with the local in the hotel asking repeatedly why we don't take the tram we set off on our trek. On the way we came across an old copper mine that dates back to the Bronze Age and apparently rivals the pyramids of Egypt in its age and history. This archaeological site is still being excavated and explains how people would have mined and refined and worked the copper back then.

Off with her head!

On top of all that they have a tenuous connection to the book Alice in Wonderland because Alice Liddell, the girl the book is apparently based on, used to holiday here. Consequently they have many statues representing characters from the book. It was a big day but very satisfying and enjoyable. With a beach on two sides and the Great Orme on a third side and with views to Snowdonia, this is a town I would thoroughly recommend.

We left here to meander slowly through the Lakes District on our way to Scotland. This included a stop of several hours at Lake Windermere for a scenic cruise on this wonderful lake and a walk through the countryside. This year in Britain had been the wettest in 100 years but our luck in getting fine weather has been nearly flawless. I wonder what the weather in Scotland will be like...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Watch out for that tree...

After roughly six and a half months of travelling we finally arrive in a country that speaks Engish. It is really weird going into McDonalds or a shop and people understand you, it will take some getting used to. I found myself still talking slowly and deliberately looking for understanding, and I can finally watch TV :-) (much to Elizabeth's disgust).

Our travels in the UK started at the house of Elizabeth's old friend Nicola in Sussex. The hugely generous, fun and slightly crazy Nicola and her two fabulous teenagers opened up their home to us for a marvellous week of activities. Warning: If Nicola offers to take you for a short bike ride, please be advised this will normally entail several hours or more of mountain bike riding on steep hills, out in the countryside, off the beaten track on rocky and grassy paths or no paths at all, and possibly/probably in the dark. If told to ignore a 'do not enter' sign on a property you may find yourself being chased out by angry security.

As usual our luck was holding and the weather fined up for us as we fortunately arrived on the weekend of the medieval festival at Herstmonceux Castle. I believe it's the biggest medieval festival in England. Now the British may be crazy but they really know how to bring history to life. This was a huge day of activities that included the re-enactment of the siege of the castle with cannons and rifles going off, bows firing actual arrows (soft tipped I presume as I saw no actual blood), a huge catapult being used and hand to hand combat. A really huge and impressive display. They also had a cannon display culminating in the firing of a cannon that was so big we were told to put our hands over our ears and open our mouths with the resulting shock wave making our bodies shake.

There were flying falcons, medieval plays and more but the highlight for me was the jousting competition. Obviously it was a show but it was done so realistically with lances actually hitting and splintering you could imagine you were in the audience in the Middle Ages.

Moments before being
hit by the icy cold

Another day we went to the beach. Hmm beaches in the UK are not like Australia, they don't have nice soft sand that you can walk on with bare feet, you need to wear sandals on the pebbly beach and we even needed to wear them into the water, which, by the way was freezing, needless to say we jumped in anyway.

Nicola's friend singing in the pub
There were also the marathon  life threatening bike rides and the long lovely drives through the wonderfully green and luscious UK scenery. This was the wettest UK summer in 100 years so the scenery had the benefit of plenty of water and sun to put its best foot forward for us. A night was spent in a typical English pub watching karaoke without a karaoke machine, these amateurs actually knew how to sing, knew the words and created their own music. We had a great time in the South Downs area of the UK and the little town of Hurstpierpoint, thank you very much Nicola, Jill and Mark.

Night before the blue moon, same
bike ride
On one of our bike rides