A = Edinburgh
B = Aberlemno
C = Mid Calder/Livingston
D = Dunadd
E = Oban
F = Mull/Staffa/Iona
G = Housesteads Roman Fort
H = Jarrow/South Shields
I = Roman Road
J = Manchester
K = Glastonbury/Wells
L = Bath
M = Stonehenge
N = Hounslow/Heathrow Airport
O = London
Total distance driven = 1353 miles
* * *
We started planning and preparing for this trip early in 2009. After our trip at Easter 2008, Anne and I were wanting to go back to England and Scotland, of course, myself mainly to make the trip to the island of Iona, the main place I had aimed for in 2008 but decided that it was just logistically too uncertain depending on ferries in the western isles that early in the season to build a tight schedule around. Anne had been really disappointed not to have a chance to visit the great Harrod’s department store in London. And Tristan had expressed more interest in going – especially if we could take him to Old Trafford Stadium, the home of the world’s most popular soccer team, Manchester United. He also wanted to go to London. With him headed toward high school then college, and other uncertainties looming with regard to the overall economy and the deteriorating financial situation at NSU, I had a strong feeling that this was the time to make such a trip or it may not happen at all.
Most of the actual reservations – flights, car, and accommodations – were made in January 2010. Then in April it looked like things may all be spinning apart. First, there was the massive disruption in air travel in and to Europe caused by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano and its resultant ash cloud, and the prospect of an even larger eruption to come from a neighboring volcano that historically always erupts with the first. Second was the announcement of a Cabin Crew strike against British Airways – to include the dates of our travel to the UK, though thankfully not our travel home. A lot of flights were cancelled from mid May to early June as a result of this “industrial action.” The general pattern over several weeks was that our flight from Houston to Heathrow would be okay, but our flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh was cancelled, and of about eleven Heathrow to Edinburgh flights during a normal day there would be only two, late afternoon and evening. I had made a second booking for a car to pick up at Heathrow and drive to Edinburgh if that were necessary (about a seven hour drive), but on Tuesday 1 June when BA finalized their flight schedule for Monday and Tuesday 7-8 June (along exactly the lines I had figured), it turned out that the consolidator through whom we had purchased our tickets, Fareline.com, was ahead of the curve and pretty quickly sent me an email that they had rebooked us for the flight to Edinburgh with another airline only an hour later. So I cancelled that second car and proceeded with my final preparations.
Sunday 6 June
Our trip really began the day before we flew. We got up at home in Natchitoches and went to 9 am Mass at Immaculate Conception, per usual. By soon after noon we had left Natchitoches, arriving in Houston about 5 pm. Anne’s sister Jude, with whom we stayed that night, had an excellent supper of Shrimp Scampi waiting on us. I went to the Barnes and Noble near their house for a while, mainly to pick up a new little Moleskine pocket notebook so I could keep my notes along the way. Around about 9 pm I went online to the British Airways website to do the online check-in. Everything went pretty smoothly except that I found we were scattered from one end of the airplane to the other. Anne said she would try to get at least herself and Tristan reseated together when we got to the gate. Jude and Paul’s upstairs air conditioner chose this weekend to go out as well, so Anne, Tristan, and I ended up sleeping in the living room downstairs.
Monday-Tuesday 7-8 June
I’m writing these days as one because for all intents and purposes these were one very long day for us, given the direction we were flying and the change in time zones.
Anne got up and went with Jude to her Pilates class. Jude also had some kind of meeting in the afternoon, so her husband Paul drove us to the airport, where we arrived about 1:30 pm, the suggested three hours before an international flight. We went through security pretty easily, then began the long wait … although for some reason it didn’t seem as long as it did two years ago when Anne and I went to the UK. (Maybe then we actually arrived earlier than three hours before.) Anne did consult with the gate attendants as soon as they arrived at their desk, and we did all end up together, in fact upgraded from “World Traveller” to “World Traveller Plus” status – slightly bigger seats, more legroom, and so forth. It was a marked difference from the flight back from the UK last time, where I remember being so cramped.
Our flight left maybe a few minutes late and was about eight hours in duration. Unlike 2008, this plane was filled completely – I guess with the customary evening flight being cancelled a lot of those passengers ended up with us. We had a variety of movies to watch (Anne and I both watched Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), I read some (I had downloaded some digital comics to my iPod Touch; now and through the trip I also read several of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the Touch), and also got at least some sleep, although not very much. All in all we noticed no diminishment of services due to the strike.
We landed at Heathrow pretty much on time, about 7:30 am Tuesday morning, thinking it would be a pretty smooth layover to catch a British Midlands flight to Edinburgh. That ended up not being the case. We had to transfer from one terminal to another, then a long walk, then had to go through security again, then a line that was forever – and the British Midlands desk handling that line was quite understaffed. I think they were overwhelmed with last-minute bookings such as us, but they could have handled it better. It took us almost an hour to get through that line for a boarding pass. Then, the gate itself, where they had directed us, apparently was not actually where the plane was loading – because after quite a bit of time, suddenly at the far end of the concourse a guy was shouting (not over a PA or anything, literally shouting) a last call for boarding our flight! We and a crowd of other passengers had to dash the length of that concourse and get on the plane very quickly. This plane was also full, and in fact we could find no place to stow Anne’s suitcase – a flight attendant took it somewhere to the back of the plane. Our seats were separated on that flight, but it was not a big deal because London to Edinburgh is a short hop of a little over an hour. We left late and landed in cold rain in Edinburgh about a half hour later than our already late arrival (already late compared to our initial booking). But we were there, arriving shortly after noon.
By the way, contrary to what I had been told (and perhaps this is because we ended up changing airlines and indeed terminals at Heathrow), we had to go through passport control at Heathrow rather than Edinburgh.
Anyway, we were hungry by that time (Anne and myself at least), so we immediately stopped in the airport for a sandwich. Then we found the Avis Rental Centre, which meant a walk out of the airport under a covered walkway for some distance (it was cool and raining), and picked up our car. It was a grey Nissan (“NISS-in”) Note – about the same size, the same class of car as the Vauxhall Astra that Anne and I had rented two years ago. I made sure to take a series of pictures of the car from all angles to document any preexisting damages, just in case, although I doubt the pictures would be of any use since it was raining as I was taking them. I pulled out the “Sat Nav” (British for “GPS”), it almost immediately found a signal, and away we went. It only took me a few minutes to get reacclimated to driving on the left side of the road from the “passenger seat.” Of course I was also having to contend with rain, but it worked out all right.
Since it was raining, we had no desire to try to spend a few hours in Edinburgh, which was one of the things I had considered to occupy the afternoon. Our bed and breakfast would not, of course, be expecting us until late afternoon or early evening. So we took the opportunity to visit a site I had wanted to visit in 2008 but had been thwarted by timing.
We headed north from the Edinburgh Airport, across the Forth Bridge, up a couple hours driving into Fife, the area north of the Firth of Forth, to a little village named Aberlemno. A “firth,” by the way is a large inlet from the sea such as characterizes the entire coastline of Scotland. The word itself is cognate with the Scandinavian word fjord. Edinburgh is on the southern coast of the Firth of Forth. As we drove, we saw the typical Scottish/British sights, including sheep, mountains, and so forth – and eventually something else we would get used to driving in Scotland: a small, winding mountain road with only one lane! – but we got there. I had to stop and ask an old farmer for directions at one point, which was pretty humorous because his pony there at the fence where we were talking (and I was trying to decipher the old man’s Scottish brogue) decided he would come and chew on my sleeve. I found and took pictures of the sculptured stones that are the main reason Aberlemno is known to the wider world – a couple right beside the road in the village, one big sculptured cross-stone in the Aberlemno churchyard.
The stones at Aberlemno are just a few of many scattered all across Scotland. Most of them date from between the sixth and the ninth centuries. They are typically carved with intricate markings left by a people called the “Picts,” who were the native people of Scotland as far back as when the Romans ruled over the southern part of the island of Britain almost two thousand years ago. Their name is in fact from what the Romans called them, from the Latin Picti, “painted people,” owing to either warpaint or tattoos. While some of the stones have Christian motifs or depict battle scenes (sometimes both on the same stone as in the Aberlemno churchyard) others have more abstract markings the meaning of which has been lost to time. I had wanted to visit Aberlemno in 2008 but discovered only days before we started the trip that these particular stones are covered with boxes to protect them from the elements between October and April – and we were going to be there in late March.
That mission accomplished, we headed back toward Edinburgh, pulling off for supper at a McDonald’s in Forfar mainly because it would be quick. We were all three very tired at this point – in fact Tristan had already been napping in the car and I know Anne was having trouble staying awake as I was driving as well. When we got back in the general area west of Edinburgh, near the town of Livingston, we did have trouble finding our bed and breakfast. When I decide to buy a new sat nav I will have to be sure that it is one that can be programmed simply by putting in British postal codes. Jenny Campbell, the lady of the house with whom we stayed, was astonished that ours did not work that way. Tristan and I did later find ways to get around that, using Google Maps through the internet on the iPods to nail down a precise location which we could then find and “drop a pin” on the sat nav, but it was way more cumbersome. But on the positive side, our sat nav did not “lose its destination” like it did so many times during our previous trip. Generally speaking, it performed very well for us once again. And, by the way, even though it took a call to Jenny as well as some blind luck, we did eventually find our B&B.
Although Redcraig Bed and Breakfast advertised free wifi for their guests, it was a very weak signal that wouldn’t reach up to our room. Jenny allowed me to use her computer for a few minutes to send an email out that we had arrived safely. Our room was very nice – which was the general rule – and the en suite bathroom was nice as well, although the UK shower misadventures commenced immediately. In this case, I don’t remember it being hard to figure out how to operate, but there was only a shower door about half the length of the tub in which the shower was – there was no way to shower without getting water on the floor and spraying in the back half of the bathroom. Oh well.
I was writing my notes for this long "day" at 9:33 pm local time, about 3:33 pm home time – we had been up about 32 or so hours. And the sun was just headed toward setting. That was one thing that we had not really anticipated, how much the longer days would affect our bodies and keep us dragged down to a degree. Being so far north the sun set very late – sometime after 10 pm when we were even further north in Scotland, at Oban – and rose very early. That first night I woke up about 3:30 am (local, of course, from here on out) – I could see out the window to the east that the horizon was starting to turn pink already. Our bodies just didn’t know when to start slowing down in the evening with the sun still well up in the sky.
On the other hand, the temperatures were simply lovely! They tended to be in the 50s in Scotland and in the 70s in southern England – a far cry from the mid to upper 90s that were currently afflicting Louisiana.
Wednesday, 9 June
The weather today was typically British/Scottish – very cool. I think it may have misted or even drizzled a little, but there were periods of sunshine as well.
We got up around 7 am, and had the full “cooked” (not “English” – this is Scotland) breakfast about 8 am. It was very good. Tristan hit it off well with the man of the house, John, a former amateur soccer player. They ended up with a friendly adversarial relationship over which football club(s) to support. Apparently the general principle is that they take pride in not supporting the big clubs but rather their local clubs – but in Scotland at least there was unity in their disdain for the English National Team that was going to be playing in the World Cup later this week. Generally they are “Anybody But England”; they assured us they would be rooting for the US team on Saturday … by which time unfortunately we would be in England …. Manchester United appears to be maybe a little bit of an exception to their disdain for big clubs. For one thing, the youngest of the Campbell children, Harry, whom I met briefly, when he found out we were going to tour the Man U stadium, let Tristan borrow a book he had on the team. John also informed us that the “AIG” on the Man U “kit” (their word for jerseys) does not stand for the team-sponsoring investment firm of (now) ill-repute, but rather “Alex Is God” – the coach Sir Alex Ferguson. (I’m not sure how that will change with the change in sponsor to Aon!)
About 9:30 we drove to the Hermiston Park and Ride that Anne and I had used two years ago, only about ten miles east of our B&B. We caught the 9:50 bus to the Edinburgh city center, about a half-hour ride. We hopped off a little early when I saw a bank where I could exchange some of the US dollars I was carrying in the money belt for some Scottish pounds, and I set aside enough to cover the cost of the B&B to pay out tomorrow morning. I realized I wasn’t exactly sure how far from the city center we had jumped off the bus – it is sometimes very difficult to find good street signs in British cities – but we just set off walking in the general direction it had been going and fairly soon found the western end of Princes Street. By that point I think we could see Edinburgh Castle, which looms over the western end of the “Old Town,” which Princes Street borders to the north.
Very soon in our stroll down Princes Street toward where I knew we could arrange a bus tour of the city, Tristan spied a JJB Sports Shop, which appears to be a Scottish chain. He bought the aforementioned Celtics jacket, which he wore a good bit on this trip, some red Nike soccer shoe laces for some kind of AIDS in Africa benefit; I found a Manchester United golf-style shirt very cheap and grabbed it for the game we’ll be going to later in July … although they will be playing against the US MLS All-Stars. (As Anne mentioned several times during the trip, there’s a bit of irony in that we came “halfway” around the world to tour the Man U stadium next Monday – but will be watching the team play in Houston at the end of next month.) A bit further up the street we found the big souvenir shop Anne and I had found in 2008, “The Works,” and started picking up various souvenirs. Anne got a tee-shirt and I found a UK road atlas for £1. It came in handy a few times even with the sat nav, especially in helping nail down some of those destinations without benefit of the postal code method or a clear street address. Next door to that was a bit more upscale shop where Anne bought Jane a little stuffed lamb.
We finally made our way to the Tourist Information Center, where we got our tickets for the live narrated bus “Mac Tour” of Edinburgh. We then went down into the Princes Street Mall to use the bathroom (20 pence, please!) then out to the bus tour. We took advantage of a deal to buy the Edinburgh Castle tickets from the bus operators to get Fast Track tickets for later in the day.
We rode the Mac Tour all the way around its circuit, which was slightly altered due to some kind of construction going on (I think they were installing or updating a trolley-car system), then took a second circuit around again to hop off at Edinburgh Castle. (I took a short nap during the second partial circuit.) One of the bad things about these bus tours is that whereas you can cover a lot of ground quickly and see all or most of the major sights, you do so very quickly. The pictures you take will inevitably be on the fly, not necessarily from good angles – and later although you know you knew at the time what you were taking, by the time you get home you can’t for the life of you remember what they were. It all becomes a big blur. I guess it does make a good first exposure to a city like Edinburgh or London, but I’m not sure I will ever do it again. I think walking the streets with a good guidebook (preferably outlining a walking tour step-by-step) would be a better way to really get to know the city. You might not see as much, but at least you will see it.
At the Castle, inevitably it seemed like the first thing we hit was the gift shop, where I picked up one of the guide books. We went into the Castle itself and took advantage of a 3:15 pm tour by an engaging young lady named Laura, then we went in and saw the Scottish Crown Jewels (no pictures allowed), the prison (for much of its modern history Edinburgh Castle has served as a prison, and there are displays of graffiti by US sailors captured and held during the War of 1812, for instance), and St. Margaret’s Chapel.
It was interesting, but although the Castle sits atop a big volcanic plug called “Castle Rock” which has hosted fortifications and settlements since the early Middle Ages, the Castle as we see it today is a product of the later Middle Ages and later. It’s still an active military administrative center.
We then left the Castle and walked back generally down the Royal Mile, which stretches to the east to Holyrood Palace. We did not walk the entire distance. We went about halfway, popping in and out of stores searching for the one where Anne had bought her sweater two years ago. We think we found it and she bought another sweater. We made our way back across to the Princes Street Mall and availed ourselves of the bathrooms again, then started walking back up Princes Street toward where we could catch our bus back out to the Hermiston Park and Ride. Along the way Anne spent a good bit of time in a store called Lush, where she bought some skin care items including a facial soap. We went back into The Works – and I think it was this time that Anne found one of the Alexander McCall Smith books that she did not have for a discount price. McCall Smith is in fact a native Edinburgh author of several series that she is reading, most famously the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that she was introduced to by our hosts in Glastonbury during our last trip. Tristan wanted to go into JJB again, but we were just too late – it was 6:15 and it had closed at 6 pm.
Soon after that we took the bus back out to the Park and Ride, picked up our car, and drove back to the B&B, popping in for just a moment to get directions to a local pub for a meal. It was at this time that I briefly met the Campbells’ oldest, Michael, who is just back from a year as an exchange student in Atlanta. He will be taking history at one of the Scottish universities, if I’m not mistaken. I also glimpsed their daughter, whose name I didn’t catch, who appeared to be of an age between the lads.
We had a very good pub meal at the Black Bull Inn (established 1747) in Mid Calder. Anne and myself each had steak pies with chunky chips and seasoned vegetables; although we expected the “pie” to be what we think of as such, it was really more a stew with a flaky roll of some kind on top. Tristan had his first of several fish and chips during the trip. But before all that I ordered a “starter” of Haggis Fritters – haggis in some kind of fried coating. The haggis inside was not bad at all although it is a much reviled food; it reminded us somewhat of Anne’s mother’s kibbes. Really, I’d say that this my first (really only, because I never took another chance to try haggis) was very positive! And they had sticky toffee pudding for dessert – one of Anne’s unfulfilled dreams from two years ago was fulfilled.
Again, with a little bit of luck and having to stop and ask directions, we managed to find the ASDA/Wal-Mart in Livingston and spent a good bit of time in there. This one was the most reminiscent of what we are used to as a Wal-Mart back home. The next morning Jenny told us that it’s actually the only “Wal-Mart” in Britain, and is used as a training store for all the ASDAs across the UK. It was interesting just walking around. We picked up drinks, snacks for the road – and a bed sheet because once again the norm was just a fluffy quilt over a fitted sheet. (That was the case at all but our very last accommodation.) Tristan also picked up a couple of soccer newspapers. It was very late, we were very tired when we made it back to our B&B after 10 pm and the sun was just set. That was unreal.
Thursday 10 June
This was a long day. The weather overall was quite nice – sunny, even a bit warm in the car where we had to run the air conditioner.
We got up and down to an 8 am breakfast. There was another couple there as well this morning, whom it seemed may be regulars at Redcraig B&B. There was some discussion as to whether a train wreck that happened Sunday (I believe) between Glasgow and Oban would impact our journey to Oban today. The consensus seemed to be not … which turned out not to be the case. Breakfast was good as usual.
We were on the road by 9 am, but our first jaunt was not very far. Tristan (oh wonders of the internet!) had found a JJB in the Livingston mall connecting to the ASDA where we were last night, so we took him there. He bought a rugby ball (why? I don’t know exactly) and had it deflated for packing; I also found a place to exchange some more currency while we were there. We were finally really on the road by about 10 am, maybe a little later after filling up with petrol at a Shell station.
One of the great things about driving yourself is that if you see something that strikes your fancy you can stop. Such as something called the Trossachs or Kilmahog Woolen Mill at Callander, where we stopped for a bit and saw Hamish the Hairy Highland “Coo” (Cow) as well as went through another little touristy shop.
Just a few miles further there was also a pullover at Loch Lubnaig (“LUB-ny”), which had several other people picnicking, enjoying a little beach right there along the road.
Occasionally along the route I would see signs for a “diversion” due to a closed road ahead, but then would drive for long distances without seeing any such thing, so I didn’t know what to make of it. But it turned out that the train wreck on Sunday, which was at the northern end of Loch Awe, did adversely affect our journey, because suddenly there was the “diversion” – to the south and quite frankly not very well marked. One quick boon, within a mile of our cut-off, was the sight of a castle off to the left.
We pulled into a layby and crossed a field to where others, again, were enjoying the sight of Kilchurn Castle across Loch Awe. Some people seemed to be picknicking, others just lazing about; one guy was fishing while his big black lab played around. The fisherman confirmed to me that it was indeed the train wreck that closed the main road to Oban there. We took pictures, of course, then headed on our way.
This time I wasn’t quite sure what to do – the sat nav kept trying to get us to turn around. When one of the few diversion signs sent us off onto what was obviously not a very good road – if I recall correctly it was essentially gravel – I stopped and pulled out the £1 road atlas. First I realized how long Loch Awe was and just how long this “diversion” was going to be. So much for getting to Oban in time to tour the whiskey distillery there. I decided to take a different route with better road, that would take us way down the peninsula of Argyll (“AR-gile” with a hard “g”) to Lochgilphead (“lock-GILL-ped”) – but which I also realized would take me right by something that I had initially wanted to see, but had given up in order to get to Oban earlier in the day – Dunadd Fort (“DUNN-add”), the first “capital” of the first kingdom of the Scots, Dalriada (“dal REE-uh-duh”). So we continued on to the south.
We stopped for about a half hour at Inverary on Loch Fyne, which is, as some “lochs” are, not so much a lake as a very long, narrow inlet from the sea – more or less a firth by another name. We found facilities, stretched our legs, picked up a light lunch and ate it on a bench while throwing bread to seagulls, then continued on.
Tristan fell asleep along the way as we drove along Loch Fyne, turning back north at Lochgilphead. A few miles north of Lochgilphead we came upon Dunadd and pulled off. We parked at a small car park at the base of the big rock, about a quarter- or half-mile off the main road. Tristan snoozed in the car as Anne and I climbed.
It wasn’t that easy, but not too difficult. Nor was it busy, although a few people were congregated at a car in the car park when we arrived, and a Scottish History worker arrived just a minute or so ahead of us and preceded us in the climb.
At the top I got to see the famous carved footprint in the stone, as well as the “basin”; I never identified the supposedly Pictish carving of a boar that is on the same stone as the footprint. I did chat with the Scottish History guy for a few minutes (didn’t think to ask him about the boar carving) and he told me a “funny” story when I asked about the historical marker that was supposed to be at the summit of the rock. Turns out the woman at the museum down the way took it. Apparently there’s some kind of jurisdictional dispute going on between Scottish History and the Kilmartin Museum.
He also pointed out that Dunadd Fort overlooking “Kilmartin Glen” is a misnomer – a glen is really a narrower mountain valley while we were looking out over a broader river valley through which meanders the Add River, what he said should be called a “strath” (as in “Strathclyde; he seemed to pronounce it without that first “t” though, like “ssrath”). Kilmartin Glen is the accepted name, however. “Dunadd,” by the way, literally means “Hill on the Add.” Mr. Scottish History preceded us back down the rock as well, and was sitting in his truck as we left, having directed us to that “rival” museum at Kilmartin anyway. He said with my historical interests I would find it interesting.
The town of Kilmartin was only a few miles further up the road. Kilmartin church and yard were listed as having sculptured stones, which I was hoping were Pictish. Turns out they weren’t, being rather of much later medieval provenance. And when I tried to buy admission for a tour of the museum, I was told that the last tour had started and that only a little while remained before the museum would be locked up for the evening at 5 pm. But the lady let me go on in anyway and make a quick sweep through it without paying. It was fairly interesting. Not sure it would have been worth the admission, though, so it worked out well.
We drove on from there along some really narrow, winding roads that I really didn’t care so much for, finally reaching our destination in Oban, the Dunheanish Guest House, about 6:30 more or less. Here we found some really nice accommodations, this time with a separate room for Tristan.
Anne’s and my room looked directly out to the west across the bay toward the island of Kerrera (CARE-er-uh) and Mull beyond;
Tristan had a good view of a famous local fiasco of sorts, McCaig’s Tower looming up above – a turn of the century attempt to build a coliseum overlooking Oban! We got checked in, then walked down to the Oban waterfront, our first task being to set my mind at ease by making our way to the Caledonian-MacBrayne ferry terminal and paying for our Three-Isles Excursion set for tomorrow – the islands of Mull, Staffa, and Iona (I’d called last week from home, and Jonathan took my name but said I need not pay then; he was actually there and remembered the call and took my money now). We then walked back around to one of the restaurants listed on the material in our room, the “Ee-usk,” which is an Anglicization of the pronunciation of the Gaelic word for “fish,” iasg – in addition to being the “Gateway to the Western Isles,” Oban is the seafood capital of Scotland. We had to set reservations for about 45 minutes out, for 8:15. We just sat on a bench there on the waterfront and waited. The food was very good. Anne and Tristan had Haddock and Ee-usk Chips (i.e., fish and chips); Anne and I shared her order and also my order of a Fish Pie containing haddock, prawns, cod, monkfish, and scallops, in a potato soup like mixture, kind of like a Shepherd’s Pie. It was very good, but a bit pricy. Then we walked back uphill to Dunheanish – a somewhat difficult climb, in fact, Anne and I huffing and puffing but munching ice cream cones along the way.
Once again the unnaturally long days wore us down – sundown was not until a few minutes after 10 pm and it was probably midnight before we were wound down and in bed. I think Tristan actually stayed up a bit later than that watching TV in his own room – the World Cup opening ceremonies were earlier in the evening.
Friday 11 June
It was cool, and, despite a more favorable forecast, misty/rainy all day with only occasional periods of sunshine. But this is Scotland after all.
We got up a little later than our standard 7 am for 8 am breakfast, having scheduled breakfast instead for 8:30 since we only needed to be at the Caledonian-MacBrayne ferry terminal for 9:30. For some reason I didn’t order a full Scottish breakfast this time, but only scrambled eggs and smoked salmon – Tristan went the full deal, though. Anne had ordered porridge but it was overlooked; she did just fine with the other items always laid out on the board, however – fruits, yogurts, cereals, and the like.
We walked down from Dunheanish at about 9;15 to be at the Cal-Mac ferry at “half-nine” – I had confirmed last night that that indeed meant “9:30.” We stood in line and took the 9:50 ferry to Craignure (“KRAY-ga-nyoor”) on Mull, a crossing of a bit less than an hour. There we boarded a bus to be taken the length of the island, almost thirty miles, to Fionnphort (“FINN-a-fort”) just across a narrow sound from Iona.
The driver was the very same driver who appears on the Rick Steves episode about the western highlands and islands – Anne recognized him immediately. His name was Steve, and he gave an entertaining commentary the whole way while dealing with basically a single-lane road with occasional “passing places.”
Later in the day, on the return drive, I overheard someone saying that he was really an out-of-work philosophy professor who had moved to Mull and taken the job as a bus driver. I don’t know if that is indeed the case, but it would fit his loquacious personality as well as some of his vocabulary. During the bit-more-than-an-hour drive, we passed through some very interesting landscapes and learned a good bit of local lore.
At Fionnphort, we did not immediately board the larger ferry to Iona, visible less than a mile to the west, but rather took a much smaller boat north toward the Isle of Staffa, about seven or eight miles.
This tiny island is famous mainly for some picturesque basalt columns that crystallized in hexagonal forms, as well as a couple of caves. Just before we pulled up to the larger, Fingal’s Cave, we saw some kind of shark skimming along the surface. After pulling us right up for a good view of Fingal’s Cave, the boat pulled about a quarter of the way around the islet to the east where there was a little jetty, where we were put off for an hour, time for us to take a path along the cliff face back around and into Fingal’s Cave.
It was awesome. We could even hear the moaning echo of the surf in the recesses of the cave that inspired Felix Mendelsohn to write his Hebrides Overture. We then went back around and up a long stair to the top of the islet, where we sat and had a picnic of a bag lunch we bought on the Oban-Craignure ferry. Some of the party from the boat crossed the island to where they could supposedly see puffins, but I don’t think they actually did.
A seagull came and kept us company while we ate. But as we departed from the island there was a flock of puffins bobbing in the water a score or so yards off.
At 2:15 the boat pulled back up to the jetty and we loaded back in, bound for Iona itself, a journey that took us until about 2:50.
We then had until 5:15 when we were to catch the ferry back to Fionnphort. It was not nearly enough time to take in this famous and historically very significant island, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland ca. AD 560. For one thing, it turned out we were hampered in seeing the abbey by a harp concert that went from 3 to 4 pm.
We only discovered that when we got to the abbey, having walked up through Iona’s only village, Baile Mor (“BALL-y more”), stopping to inspect the ruins of a twelfth-century Augustine nunnery along the way. Frankly, I was more taken with the unrestored ruins of the nunnery than I was with the abbey itself.
Iona Abbey, which is on the site of St. Columba’s original monastery of the sixth century, is really a twelfth-century structure very heavily restored in the twentieth century, currently under the care of an interdenominational group with what seem to me to be rather “new-agey” tendencies, “The Iona Community.” Oh well. I can say, however, that I have been to Iona and stood on the site of St. Columba’s monastery. But there is so much more to Iona than just these two sights and I would have liked to have the luxury to stroll all around it, from St. Columba’s Bay in the south, facing Ireland from whence he came, to Martyrs Bay where in 806 the Vikings all but wiped out his community. Most of all I would have liked to be able to soak in the sense of place. Someday I’ll get back there.
After some time in the abbey gift shop, Anne and Tristan went to find a beach on which to walk. I did hang around for the 4:15 tour once the harp concert was over, but it focused more on later history, the tour guide being basically an Iona Community functionary. I broke off a couple times to take my own pictures, then hurried back to meet Anne and Tristan back by the ferry dock a few minutes before 5:15. They had found some snacks and a local friend in the form of a cat as they sat by the beach. We boarded the ferry then basically retraced our steps across the sound and across Mull, with our driver Steve continuing his spirited commentary to a rather drowsy audience on the bus ride back to Craignure. We ultimately arrived back at Oban via the big Cal-Mac ferry about 7:55 – a very long day.
We had been looking forward to having some Oban shellfish in a little kiosk by the dock, but despite the fact that the sun was still well up in the sky (I actually think it was visible this late in the day – it came and went behind the cloud cover), the kiosk was closed. We tried a pub we’d seen, but it turned out it was one of the rare pubs that we encountered that did not serve meals. We ended up at the Caledonian Hotel restaurant, where Tristan was delighted to see that a big screen TV was showing the World Cup match of Uruguay vs. France. Anne and I had haddock and chips, Tristan had Scottish smoked salmon, and we all got sticky toffee pudding for dessert – another pricy meal, which I just need to stop commenting on, especially since we ended up coming in under my budget on meals anyway! Then we took a bit more leisurely walk back uphill, pausing for a bit to chat with a couple who commented on Tristan’s green Celtics jacket. He actually got a lot of comments on it … well, he’d intentionally not let John Campbell at Redcraig B&B even see it, knowing he would at least turn his nose up at it – both of the young men running the Staffa boat had things to say: one told Tristan, “I don’ like your football top, mate”; the other said it was going to give him a skin rash. As I said, it seems to be something of a point of pride here in Scotland to revile the big soccer clubs. This couple, however, were pro-Celtic.
Back at Dunheanish, we paid out and requested of William a “cold box” breakfast for early in the morning so we could get out and on the road.
Saturday 12 June
Our plan today was to get up and out early so we could get to our destination down in northern England in time for Tristan to be able to see the World Cup match between England and the USA. He was praying there would be a TV in our room there because he said there was no way we could go watch it in a pub – we’d have to keep our mouths shut! I kind of pooh-poohed the idea that there would be any trouble, but it worked out okay…. If I recall, the weather was beautiful all day – clear and sunny, the kind of weather that would have really made yesterday fantastic. Well, better than it was, at any rate, because it was pretty awesome just being where we were. But this is Britain, the weather is quite changeable.
We did get up early. A “cold box” breakfast was waiting – basically yogurt, milk, etc. in an icebox, with the various cereals and fruits laid by as well. It was a good start to the morning. We were out of Oban shortly after 7:30, well ahead of the schedule I had originally laid out.
Rather than take that winding, narrow route we followed on Thursday down to Lochgilphead then back up and around to avoid the road still closed by the train wreck, we took the route northward to Ballachulish (“BALL-a-HOO-lish”) where we turned southward through Glencoe and basically followed the same route Anne and I drove two years ago on our last day in Scotland. It had the advantage of taking us through some very majestic countryside, an area that Rick Steves opines offers everything you need to really experience the Scottish Highlands without going any further north. Not that I don’t want to see the more northerly areas someday! It looked quite different this time, much greener, with only a couple places where we could see snow lingering up on the mountain ridges. At the end of March 2008 the snowline was much lower and below that it was mainly grey and brown, desolate.
It was a smart choice. The road was better and we actually did all right for time even though we made several stops – petrol at Glencoe, a couple of bathroom and snacks stops in Tyndrum (first at Brodie’s Store, but he had no public loo, so we had to go up the road a bit to “The Real Food Café.” Had we not already had breakfast ….) We passed along Loch Lomond, through Glasgow, and continued on southward ultimately to pass out of Scotland just north of Carlisle, where we turned eastward. We were basically paralleling Hadrian’s Wall, seeing a number of signs for it and various Roman forts along its length as we drove.
We made it to our first destination, Housesteads Fort, about 2 pm or so. We spent a bit more than an hour there. Anne and I had, of course, spent several hours there two years ago, but I wanted Tristan to see the Wall; I also wanted to inspect a smaller site nearby. Once again, Anne managed to get up close to some sheep – the quarter-mile or so path from the car park to the fort itself passes through a sheep pasture.
I struck out to the west along the Wall for five hundred paces (I counted), to a smaller Roman fort at “Milecastle 37.” Soon after I returned from that excursion, we were pulling out of the Housesteads Car Park about 3:30. This time I came away from it with a tee-shirt, which I’d always regretted passing up last time, saying “Walk the Edge of the Empire.” The great fortification of Hadrian’s Wall, 87 miles from sea to sea across northern England, was built about AD 120 to mark the northern border of Roman rule in its most distant province of Britannia. “Housesteads Fort,” the Roman Vercovicium, was just one of a series of forts along its length.
We drove only a short distance – maybe eight miles – further east, to Heavenfield, the site of the AD 635 battle that I had stumbled upon two years ago and spent only a few minutes at the memorial right there along the road.
This time I (alone) walked across the field to the north to the little copse of trees surrounding St. Oswald’s Church for a few minutes. St. Oswald of Northumbria was the northern English prince who, having spent his youth in exile in Scotland – likely at Dunadd and Iona – had converted to Christianity and returned to win his kingdom through battle, but only after erecting a wooden cross and praying with his men there in the shadow of the Roman Wall. (The Wall itself is completely obliterated at that point, probably laying under the modern roadway. Through the centuries its stones were carried off to be put to other uses.)
We continued our drive to the Ainsley Guest House in South Shields, right on the coast of the North Sea. We had basically crossed the island of Britain from west to east as well as driven southward a quarter of the length of the island in one day.
We checked in. The room itself was nice enough, but here we had a bit of a shock at the bathroom. It was the size of a closet – literally. It seems that in recent years, to cater to us Americans who really like the “en suite” private bathroom arrangement, European beds-and-breakfasts have taken to converting closets into bathrooms, with tiny showers and not really enough room to do anything in them with the door closed! Really, to brush our teeth and bend over to spit into the sink, the mechanics of the human body demanded that the door be open so our rear ends could stick out into the bedroom!
The proprietor Peter was very nice, however. When Anne and I asked where we might find a laundry to wash some of our clothes, he offered to take them and wash them for us. Anne and I then left Tristan there in the room, which did indeed have a television (as did all our rooms, in fact, usually pretty nice ones), waiting for the soccer match to start. We walked a way up Ocean Avenue, on which our Bed and Breakfast was located, to a Halifax Bank cash machine, where for the first time I used the debit card to draw cash. That ended up being so smooth and convenient that I never changed any more of the cash that I’d brought with me. Each trip we’ve gained a little more experience and confidence with these kinds of things.
We then walked back the length of Ocean Avenue to the shore, where there was a big beach and bay, a big amusement park, all in all a very quaint little seaside town. Ocean Avenue was also lined with innumerable guest houses and restaurants, including too many Indian restaurants to count! Although Anne initially was reluctant to get Indian food, having never really liked it in the past, we decided to try a restaurant recommended by Peter, Tandoori International, and it turned out to be pretty good. I had actually wanted to try Indian food in Britain, feeling that it may not be anything like what we have here in the states (we sure found out Chinese in Shrewsbury was not like our “American” Chinese food last time!), and recalling that India was part of the British Empire for so long that it is, if I’m correct, the most popular “foreign food” in Britain. Sure looked like it from the number of restaurants we saw. Anyway, we had starters of Tandoori King Prawn and Garlic Mushroom Puri, sharing courses of Tandoori Mixed Grill and Balti Mixed. We really enjoyed it, although we never tried Indian food again during our trip. (We brought Peter back one of the Garlic Mushroom Puri starters as thanks for doing our laundry.)
Anne and I arrived back at Ainsley during the game. A funny story from the restaurant: We asked the waiter how the game was going. “One-nil,” he answered – then seemed astonished when we asked who had the point! How could it be anyone but England? his expression asked. Well, by the time we got back to our guest house, having picked up some fish and chips for Tristan from “Chippy’s” directly across the road, the Americans had evened things up, which is how the game ended – in a tie – heartbreaking for the English apparently! Over the next few days the UK news was filled with dismay and recriminations.
I mentioned earlier the tiny bathroom which was our first impression of our room. Overall I think this was the most disappointing of all the accommodations we had. Peter was extremely nice, congenial, even as I said washing a batch of clothes for us, but the room itself was not what we were used to overall. The mattresses were uncomfortably springy. The wardrobe in the room was rickety and made noise even when I turned over in the bed! (I cushioned it by wedging some clothing in the door.) Ocean Avenue turned out to be loud even at 3:30 am, when it sounded for all the world like a street party was going on. Maybe they were drunk after drowning their sorrows over being tied by the “cousins”!
Sunday 13 June
We continued a pattern of alternating “good” and “bad” weather – at least “sunny” and “cloudy/rainy.” Today was the latter, of course.
Whatever other shortcomings there were with this guest house, breakfast was not one of them. It was very good. And thankfully they didn’t ask “How did you sleep?” But we left out about 8:30 am and didn’t look back.
We made our way only a few miles to the 9 am Mass at St. Bede’s Catholic Church in Jarrow, named of course for the eighth-century monk whose legacy is the whole reason we came to Jarrow. We were a bit disappointed that Mass was celebrated in a non-descript parish hall because the church’s roof is under repair this summer. The Mass itself was very nice. Afterward, the priest had somehow discerned that we were “foreigners,” because he immediately asked me if we were “on holiday” before I even had a chance to open my mouth! We had a short chat, but as I feared the church itself was completely closed off so I could not get in to take any pictures. I had to content myself with a couple from outside.
We had some time to kill after Mass. Across the street there was a Morrison’s supermarket anchoring a open-air mall of sorts, the “Viking Shopping Centre.” In Morrison’s, Anne found some cold medicine, having started to feel cold or sinus symptoms. We walked around the little shopping center – Anne was right at home when she found a “Pound World” – that is, a “Dollar Tree”! We also got some petrol at a station attached to Morrison’s.
Then we drove to Bede’s World, only a short distance from the church we’d attended, although they are in no way connected except that the church has as its patron saint the famous monk who provides the theme for Bede’s World. We arrived a half hour before Bede’s World would open at noon, ate some sandwiches we’d picked up at Morrison’s, then snoozed. (We had to take a lot of such “cat-naps” during this trip, an effect of the long hours of daylight. Often they would be grabbed at laybys and the like. But a ten minute snooze would recharge us for another few hours.)
Bede’s World was a pleasant surprise for me in that it was nothing like I had feared. Based on certain aspects of the website I thought it might be more a children’s theme park than a serious museum. It is not. We went through a generally well laid out and presented museum of early medieval Northumbria, the Jarrow monastery, the life of “The Venerable Bede,” and so forth.
It conveyed very well his immeasurable significance, giving due notice not just to the Ecclesiastical History of the English People for which he is most famous as our best, in fact almost our only, literary source for early Anglo-Saxon history, but as a Biblical scholar and scientist of the early Middle Ages. Bede was the first to work out and record a set of tidal tables incorporating intricate mathematical calculations of the phases of the moon and their relationship to the sun.
Behind the museum itself was a “demonstration farm” where many plants, animals, and buildings are presented as they would have been in the Age of Bede, the seventh and eighth centuries. We talked to a woman who had sheared the sheep there in the traditional manner, by hand.
We then walked back through the museum and a short distance across a park to be at St. Paul’s Church when it opened at 2:30.
This Anglican church is on the actual site of Bede’s monastery, and in fact the chancel (or choir) was the original church of the monastery itself, with a dedication stone surviving in place above its entrance and dating to AD 685! I think it is easily the oldest standing building I have every stepped foot into.
We were a little late getting on the road, and drove through rain pretty much the whole way to just north of Manchester, where we pulled into the car park of the White House Pub just after 6 pm. Neither Anne nor Tristan had any interest in trudging up across a moor to see any old Roman Road, so they stayed in the car while I went in and got directions (I had emailed the proprietor regarding my plans a couple months back), and then set out across the highway and up a hiking path. It was a fifteen or twenty minute walk, generally uphill, in a light rain, but I found it.
To be honest, there is a dispute as to whether this odd pavement headed straight across Rishworth Moor is authentically a Roman Road, but who knows? If you look at a map of Roman Britain’s network of roads, it is in the right place. It rained on me a bit harder as I walked back down to the car, but I had my umbrella and remained mostly dry. Anne had gotten a bit worried about me by the time I got back, about 45 minutes after I set off.
We had a very good meal in the White House Pub. Tristan had some kind of lamb, Anne a dish of chicken with mushrooms and white wine sauce, I had Cumbrian sausage and fried egg. We all enjoyed our food. We were sitting across from a big world map marked “Visitors” with pushpins all over it. I asked the waiter if I could stick a pin in Louisiana, whereupon an older man who had been sitting with another couple at the table behind me struck up a conversation with us. Turns out he is the owner, father of the guy I had communicated with by email (whom he had “back there in the kitchen working”).
We drove about a half hour or so further into Manchester to the Ivy Mount Guest House. The host Paul was very nice – none of our hosts were lacking in that department – but although the beds were more comfortable (albeit a bit crowded – he’d obviously stuck an extra bed into a double room to make it a triple), the not en suite bathroom was just as small as the last! Luckily this time there was a lavatory in our room itself for brushing teeth, Anne’s makeup, and so forth. I also found this room a bit warm, while opening the windows let in quite a bit of road noise. That died out, however, and we all slept pretty well.
Monday 14 June
I think it was cloudy and cool all day, but I don’t remember any rain. It may have gotten sunny as we drove southward.
We had an 8 am full English breakfast – Paul’s a good cook, too. There were several other guests there as well. A gentleman was just finishing up his breakfast as we arrived, then a pair of couples came in to fill the table he vacated quickly in succession. One was from elsewhere in England, up for a wedding in Manchester, I believe, but headed home; the other was an Australian couple on basically a six month tour of Europe (or was it the world?). We were out a bit after 9 am.
We drove a few miles further into Manchester to Old Trafford Stadium, the home of the Manchester United Football Club. This was Tristan’s main trip objective.
We had arranged a tour for 10 am. It was very interesting and we learned a lot about the history of Man U.
Tristan got to sit in the spot reserved for star player Wayne Rooney (#10) in the Players’ Changing Room, beneath Rooney’s jersey. We all got to march out of the players’ tunnel. The tour ended in the gift shop, of course, and we bought some souvenirs there – including Tristan bought me a Man U tie for Father’s Day (coming up next Sunday). We had all quickly browsed through the Man U museum while waiting for the tour to start; Anne and I rested in the stadium snack/coffee shop while we let Tristan take his time in there.
Then Tristan wanted to go across town to Man U’s cross-town rivals, Manchester City – to at least see the outside of their stadium and go through its store. But the real find was the Manchester City clearance shop, where he found some really good deals.
On the drive from Old Trafford to Manchester City, Anne had spied a Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chips restaurant, so we made our way back there and had a really good lunch.
It was 3 pm or so when we headed out for Glastonbury. A couple of breaks along the way at “Service Areas” for petrol and power naps put us arriving at Pippin Bed and Breakfast getting toward 8 pm. We enjoyed seeing Daphne and Tony again, our hosts from two years ago. He is still getting around, albeit more stooped and a bit slower, having just turned 95! Daphne showed us to our rooms – having set Tristan up on a “camp bed” in the little sitting room as the other bedroom from “ours” (the same we had in 2008) was occupied “by a Dutch woman.” Tristan had a TV as she’d promised in the initial email, knowing his love for soccer and that the World Cup would be going on during our stay. We left Tristan there watching a match as we went out briefly to Glastonbury’s High Street and lucked out to find a grocer still open where we could get sandwiches and crisps for supper, which we brought back and ate in his room. One luxury we appreciated was to have a decently sized, and in fact renovated since we were here last, bathroom, although it was not en suite.
Tuesday, 15 June
It was another sunny day, very pleasant. Yesterday, however, I started to feel a cold or sinus or something coming on. Anne’s passed pretty quickly, and I started zinc lozenges hoping to head it off, but it seemed to be worsening today. I had the “hot” feeling in the back of my throat and was a bit out of sorts. But the trip must go on!
We had breakfast at about 8:30 or so and were out by about 9:30. Tristan was complaining of a headache and wanted to stay back and watch the World Cup matches today. We initially made him come with us. We stopped and dropped some clothes off at a laundry Anne had spied on the corner of High Street, then we drove to Wells.
It turned out that the car park I had found on the Internet was for the market square with a thirty-minute limit, so we had to park further away than I intended, in fact I believe it was in the same one Anne and I had used two years ago. We walked to the great Wells Cathedral.
This time Anne and I were able to see the inside as well as the outside, making a circuit inside, viewing such things as the famous scissors-arches
and the world’s second-oldest working mechanical clock. It was overall very impressive, even though I liked Durham Cathedral better on the last trip. Part of it is that Durham preserves more of its twelfth-century character whereas Wells is more typically thirteenth-fourteenth-century. But watching the knights joust around the top of that fourteenth-century clock on the quarter hour as they have for over six hundred years was pretty amazing.
Anne got me to agree to drive Tristan back to the bed and breakfast (Wells is only about six miles from Glastonbury), and she and I would go to Bath alone, leaving him to rest and watch the World Cup. We picked up a light lunch along the way – I had a Cornish pastie (much like a meat pie).
Anne and I then drove to Bath (most of an hour’s drive), parked in the Charlotte Street Car Park near the town center, then walked north through a park to the Royal Crescent, across to the Circus, then down to the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, the main attractions of Bath (pronounced “BAHTH,” by the way!). The Royal Crescent is a magnificent row of houses and the like, laid out in the late 18th century and little changed on the exterior since then. The nearby Circus is of the same period, in fact built by the same designer – also primarily residential but specifically inspired by the Roman coliseum.
The Roman Baths were the reason this site was settled in the first place – natural hot springs that fed a Roman spa as early as the late 1st century and for all the four hundred years of Roman rule in Britain, revived as a resort during the Elizabethan period (the late 16th century), frequented at first mainly by the aristocracy but now kind of England’s Hot Springs. Such things as hot springs were naturally holy and mystical places in the ancient world, so it was natural that a major Christian center arose there with the advent of Christianity, and Bath Abbey was a major religious center through the Middle Ages.
It was in fact here, in 973, that the monarch who arguably was the first undisputed ruler of a united England was crowned, King Edgar the Peaceable. Like Wells Cathedral, however, the current structure (mainly just the cathedral church associated with the abbey) is a product of the later Middle Ages.
We made our way to the Tourist Information Centre first, to make sure of the logistics of getting out to Prior Park (which has no parking but there is a bus from the Abbey out there and back), where Anne was wanting to see the Palladian Bridge that was featured on Samantha Brown’s Bath episode. She was quite disappointed that “Prior Park is closed on Tuesdays.” (This picture is from the Internet.) We went into the Roman Baths museum, which was interesting but in my opinion grossly overpriced. A walk through Bath Abbey didn’t take very long. We then trekked back to our car and drove back to Glastonbury, arriving about 6 pm.
We picked Tristan up at Pippin and then managed to find the Riflemans Arms Pub, where Anne and I had eaten on Easter Sunday evening two years ago as recommended by the girl at the Chalice Gardens. Tristan had a mozzarella cheese pizza, Anne and I shared vegetable and beef lasagnas; I had a “Traditional Butcombe Bitter” ale from the cask (on tap). Afterward, we went back to Pippin for the evening. Anne and Tristan watched the evening World Cup match. I browsed in the books filling the wall of Daphne’s sitting room. I actually snoozed a bit as well. Basically, we all just rested. A week of go go go compounded with the “unnaturally” long days caught up with us, I think. My cold or whatever had me dragged down as well.
Wednesday, 16 June
Another sunny day.
We had a pleasant breakfast with Daphne, Tony, and the Dutch woman Rita (who was also leaving today). My cold was better, but I somehow broke a tooth during breakfast. I don’t remember biting down on anything, just suddenly had fragments in my mouth. It was rather annoying, but luckily didn’t expose a nerve or anything, so there was no pain.
We headed out about 10 am, picked up our laundry, and parked on High Street. This being my and Anne’s second visit to Glastonbury, and Tristan expressing no interest in such things as climbing the Tor or seeing the Chalice Well firsthand, we did something then that we rarely have taken any time to do on these trips, unfortunately – just strolled about in a little English country town, going in shops as they struck our fancy.
I found a couple of book shops and bought some books on Glastonbury and the Glastonbury Legend, the gist of which is that St. Joseph of Arimathea was the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a trader in tin and other metals. He brought Jesus along with him on one of his trading trips to southwestern England, a major source of tin in the ancient world, where they built a place of worship on the site of what would one day become Glastonbury Abbey. Later, after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, St. Joseph brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, where it became the source of the healing waters that flow from near the base of Glastonbury Tor – the Chalice Well. It’s a charming legend that gave birth to such things as William Blake’s famous hymn, Jerusalem (“And did those feet, in ancient time, / walk upon England’s mountains green? ….”). Unfortunately, the books do not lay out any kind of convincing historical argument that this is anything more than pious legend. Nonetheless it is an ancient legend, and even skeptics generally grant that Glastonbury is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of all the Christian sites in Britain.
We went into the Glastonbury Abbey gift shop, then I went by myself into the Abbey grounds themselves. It was nice wandering among the ruins again, but not as peaceful as last time I was here. There were groups of school children running about, tables and pavilions set up, I guess to accommodate them, and also scaffolding set up along the big wall that is the main surviving structure of the abbey church choir, for some ongoing preservation work, I guess. It was very different from when it was just Anne, myself, and a few others walking the grounds on Easter Sunday 2008. I may have spent a half an hour in there, paid my respects at the reputed tomb of King Arthur, made a circuit of the grounds and got some pictures, although that was limited by the aforementioned intrusions into the natural beauty of the ruins and grounds.
Once I came out, we walked around a bit more, basically making our way back to our car, stopping along the way at Burns the Bread Bakery for some food for the road. We departed about 12:30 and Glastonbury Tor receded in our rear-view mirror.
About an hour later, we were pulling in at the car park across the road from Stonehenge. We bought entry (also overpriced, but everything like this is, and it is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing, oh well), and slowly walked the circuit around the prehistoric standing stones, listening to a pretty good audio commentary along the way.
It was funny just how close we were to the highway upon which Anne and I were driving, after dark, two years ago coming from London to Glastonbury and never knowing we were passing right by Stonehenge! After the requisite pass through the gift shop, we drove on another hour or more to our final driving destination, Harmondsworth Hall in the village of Hounsley just to the north of Heathrow Airport. We arrived there about 5:30 in the evening.
This was perhaps the finest accommodation that we stayed in the whole trip, although Dunheanish Guest House in Oban rivals it and maybe wins out as smaller and more intimate because Harmondsworth Hall is really a hotel run as a bed and breakfast. Here are about a dozen rooms, I believe. On the other hand, it is reportedly a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century building which has been a guest house for much of that time. It was definitely the most expensive place we stayed. But our room was fantastic.
En suite, with a good size bathroom (the shower strangeness continued in that there was no shower door or curtain at all); a spacious room with a big queen size bed, a twin for Tristan, and a sofa and coffee table in front of a good size television. We unloaded the car, getting ready to turn it back in to Avis in the morning. Tristan settled in to watch South Africa vs. Uruguay at the World Cup. We ended up ordering out for pizza, which was pretty good albeit having an unusual twang to its spices (Anne noticed from the menu that was part of the nice packet left in our room that the same place offers Indian food as well which probably explains it). I had trouble getting on the free wifi from our room, but it worked okay downstairs. The computer, Internet, and printer offered for the guests in the sitting room was old and slow. Tonight it was so slow as to be unusable.
Thursday 17 June
Another sunny day.
Tristan passed on breakfast today so it was just Anne and myself, as well as several other guests at several tables scattered around the dining room. We had breakfast at 8 am. We left out by 9 am and drove the short distance (only a couple miles) to return our car at the Avis Rental Centre on the north side of Heathrow Airport. We tanked up along the way and noted the mileage (I had already taken a series of pictures of the car from all angles yesterday afternoon in case there end up being any disputes about damage. I don’t think there will be, as there’s no damage, but you never know who you might be dealing with). We put a total of 1353 miles on that little car, surprisingly slightly less than Anne and I drove two years ago.
After we checked the car in, a courtesy bus took us to the Hatton Cross Underground station (the next one in from Heathrow where I had thought we would be taken). We purchased one-day Travelcards which allow unlimited use of the underground and busses for the day, then boarded the Tube for a 45 minute or so journey to Piccadilly Circus, which is one of the centers where we could get the preprinted internet receipt for our Original Tour London bus tour tickets validated.
Immediately upon emerging at street level, Tristan saw what I think was his favorite place in London – Lillywhite’s, a several-storey sports shop. While he and Anne went in there, I walked a couple streets down and found the Original Tour place and validated our tickets. I walked back and found them in Lillywhite’s, then we retraced my steps back up the street. Along the way we went into a very large souvenir shop, Cool Britannia, and filled most of our family and friends list, I think. Right by where the Original Tour busses stopped and we could start our tour there was a McDonalds, so we ducked in for a lunch (essentially Tristan’s breakfast).
This time we were sure to get on the “Yellow Tour” because it has the live guide as opposed to recorded narration that appears on the other routes. It’s another hop-on/hop-off arrangement, so after a while we hopped off at Westminster Abbey, one of the places we wanted to be sure to see. It was quite crowded. We took a self-guided audio tour, but pictures are not allowed.
We did manage to find the “Louisiana Window” in the Lady Chapel (Tristan actually spied it; this picture is of course from the Internet.) This window was donated by a daughter of James A. Noe, native of Monroe and governor of Louisiana. Exactly how that ended up happening I have been unable to discover. I asked one of the many attendants a question about some very old-looking murals in one part of the abbey, struck up a conversation with him, and when he found out that I teach medieval English history, he let me into an area that in normally closed off to the open tours, St. Faith’s chapel, one of the oldest surviving parts of the church, with similar murals. I think we spent a couple hours there in the Abbey, including the church itself, the cloisters, some crypts and the like. Then we made our way back to the bus stop.
We must have just missed a bus, because it seemed a long time before another one came by, but eventually we hopped back on the Original Tour, Yellow Line with a different guide. He was a bit hyper, and Anne said she didn’t care for him as much as the first, but his mannerisms and speech patterns were hauntingly like my old drunken mentor’s and I found it interesting just watching him perform. We continued on around, south of the Thames, back up around the Tower of London (where Anne and I had hopped off and seen on Good Friday 2008), back along the Embankment, then hopped off again near the Sherlock Holmes Pub for supper.
Frankly, it was a fairly good pub atmosphere (although we overlooked the fact that there was an actual restaurant associated with it upstairs), and the food was good – but being able to say I’ve been there once is really enough for me. We all three had traditional fish and chips, plus onion rings and garlic bread; I had an Abbey Ale from the cask. I discovered the restaurant when I went upstairs to see the main attraction, a recreation of Holmes and Watson’s quarters at 221B Baker Street. That was actually a bit schlocky as it turned out. There were plenty of other Holmesian memorabilia lining the walls (as well as the most recent movie, with Robert Downey Jr., playing in black and white on a TV in the corner), but I really didn’t walk around and look at it all because this was a working pub filling up with what looked like London yuppies and professionals getting off work, so we vacated our table as soon as we finished eating.
From there we walked up and around to Trafalgar Square, then down Whitehall to the Westminster Bridge. We passed such things as No. 10, Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence – gated off, of course) and Scotland Yard along the way. (Again, the difference between the tour busses and just walking became apparent. In 2008 and 2010 we passed up or down Whitehall at least a couple times, but the fact is we weren’t really seeing it.)
Before we walked across the bridge we were right below Big Ben, so Anne tried to call and let Jude hear the bell as it tolled 7 pm, but she was out and Paul heard instead.
We crossed the bridge then walked along the river front to the London Eye. Although our internet tickets said 8 pm and it was actually more like 7:30, they apparently were taking anyone who walked up in whatever order, so we got on the Eye a bit early. That was a neat experience, being in a big mostly clear capsule “pod” on a huge ferris wheel that rotated all the way around in about a half hour and topped out a couple hundred feet in the air.
After disembarking from the Eye (through the gift shop, of course), we walked up to the next bridge, which I had thought was only a railway bridge but turns out to have a pedestrian bridge alongside it (which I could see from the Eye), and crossed the river back again, passing once more by the Sherlock Holmes Pub (which was even more crowded as we passed, including a number of people outside) on our way to the Charing Cross Underground station. We tubed our way back to Heathrow’s central underground and bus station, where we caught a local bus that took us to Harmondsworth Lane. We were a bit disoriented at that point as to which direction to go, but a couple of friendly cyclists set us straight and we made our way back to our quarters.
Friday 18 June
I think it was cloudy all day giving way to rain in the evening, and a bit cooler than it had been.
We didn’t get off to quite so early a start this morning. Anne and I took breakfast about 8:30. We were probably leaving out between 9:30 and 10 am. We tried to get our one-day travel cards at the local post office as directed by Harmondsworth’s proprietress Elaine, but the postmaster was out of child’s cards, and rather than charge us for three adults he suggested we just walk up to the end of the Lane, which would take us to within the “free” zone surrounding Heathrow, within which anyone can ride for free! We could then catch a bus to the Heathrow central station where we were last night. We did so. It wasn’t too bad a walk.
In the station we bought the travel cards then took the underground back to Piccadilly Circus – Tristan was wanting to go to Lillywhite’s again. We let him have a half hour in there, then tubed back to Knightsbridge Station, emerging right beside Harrod’s department store. We all wandered around in there for a while, Tristan mainly in the sports area, I believe; I made my way to the book shop as well as walked through the antiques section and saw the “Egyptian Escalator” (Egyptian-themed décor, is all). I’m not sure where Anne was, although after Tristan and I met up an hour later we encountered her in what was Harrods’ version of a souvenir shop, I think. We left Anne there, arranging to meet back up at South Kensington Station at 4:45.
Anne spent a while longer in Harrod’s. At one point, she wanted to see the Denby stoneware, which most of the B&Bs tended to use. She thought she had found home furnishings, but when she got off the elevator she was faced with the very expensive crystal such as Lalique – and several salespersons standing about waiting for a customer to appear. Somewhat intimidated, she turned around and made her exit before they could try to sell her something. Everything in Harrod’s was very expensive. For instance, Tristan and I had strolled through the antiques section where we saw a chair priced £11,000 – just shy of $18,000 at current exchange rates! Anne mainly came away with souvenirs, a tee-shirt, and a shopping bag. She then walked up Brompton Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum where she had a ticket for 2:30 pm to see an exhibition of British quilts from 1700 to the present. She really enjoyed it.
Tristan and I rode the tubes a good bit from then on. First we went to Oxford Circus, where was the London Nike Store. He spent a fair amount of time in there, finally getting a white English National Team shirt, with the bonus of paying just a pound more for “Vs. USA” to be put on it. We then tubed again to Tottenham Court to go to the British Museum. It was a couple blocks walk from the underground station, and as we walked along the street I was astonished to see a Bat-Signal up ahead. Tristan tried to tell me I wasn’t seeing any such thing, but it was there and marked Gosh!, a comic book shop right across the street from the British Museum of all places! I went in of course, and managed to find a UK edition of the Marvel graphic novel Captain Britain and MI13 that will make an interesting and appropriate keepsake.
We went into the British Museum and basically rushed through. But we saw the Rosetta Stone front and center, went through the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek galleries, and passed through areas devoted to later ages, where
I managed to see a display of such things as the Sutton Hoo burial treasures (Anglo-Saxon, seventh century) and the
Lewis chessmen (carved of walrus ivory in the twelfth century, found on the Isle of Lewis off western Scotland – also the model for the chess set in play at the climax the first Harry Potter movie). But we were rushed because I had one more goal before setting out to rejoin Anne.
Tristan was hungry as we left the museum, so we grabbed hotdogs from a street vendor, then made our way back to the underground and our next destination – Kings Cross/St. Pancras station, which is very near the British Library. I didn’t realize that the British Library is housed in a brand new, very modern building. After all the old things we’ve seen, it seemed really out of character after all the really old, classical buildings we’d seen thus far in London. We were really pressed for time by now, however, so I didn’t get to look around much. After a couple seconds’ fruitless searching on my own, I sought out an attendant and asked him where I might find the Beowulf manuscript. He led me basically just around a corner, saying “It’s usually here … sometimes they move it” – but it was there all right, and I got to see the eleventh-century manuscript of the first monument of English literature for myself, open to the first page but very dimly lit in a glass case.
I had thought to save some time getting back to the underground when I saw a sign simply for St. Pancras Station, but all it did was put us underground for a very long walk before we ever found the tube itself. Then we tubed back to South Kensington Station, arriving a few minutes late. We went out and quickly found that our rendezvous plans had a serious flaw in them. The tube stations have multiple entrances and exits, sometimes blocks away from each other, maybe even blocks away from each other on the same street. We could find Anne nowhere. We finally made contact by phone, which only confused me more because it sounded like she was saying she was standing right where I was – but I couldn’t find her. After a good bit of confusion, she finally suggested Tristan and I make our way to the single entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum itself, to which she would go back, and we finally made our rendezvous.
We had used up a good bit of time by that point, so we looked for something to eat before making our way to the Victoria Apollo Theatre where we had tickets for the 7:30 performance of the musical Wicked. We spied a restaurant and went in. Brompton Quarter Brasserie was the most expensive meal of the whole trip, but good. Tristan had spaghetti, Anne had wild mushroom and cream sauce pasta, and I had seafood linguini and red wine. Our waiter there told us which bus at the next bus stop would take us right to the theatre, but by the time we got there we had missed it and the next one would be too late for me to feel comfortable getting to the theatre in time, so we ended up taking a black London taxi instead and got there with about a half hour to spare.
We had pretty good seats and the show itself was entertaining. It’s based on the book of the same title, telling the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz from her perspective. With an intermission, the show let out at 10:30 pm. Our seats were fairly good, and binoculars were provided. (The photo is from before the show started, showing a map of Oz that took up about the middle forty percent of the stage area; the actual stage included the blue areas to the sides.)
Then we had a mad dash back through the tubes (Victoria Station, with one interchange, to Heathrow Central) because I knew that the last busses run shortly after midnight. We made it in time and caught one of the last busses out to Harmondsworth Lane for our short walk back to Harmondsworth Hall, arriving about 12:20 am.
Saturday 19 June
We slept in just a little this morning, but then were up and at ‘em. I ran down before breakfast and managed to do the online check-in for our flight, although the printer was out of ink and Elaine had to print out the boarding passes I emailed to her. After breakfast we packed, barely managing to get it all in. We checked our main suitcases this time, but each of us carried two bags with various things we would not want to get lost – including all our purchases and souvenirs and such. We called a taxi for 11:30 am and were taken directly to Heathrow Terminal 5. We made our way through security – once again it was more thorough than Houston, which is worrisome, although thankfully it wasn’t the multiple screenings and searches I experienced at Glasgow and Heathrow two years ago. Then we had a couple hours to wait for our flight. We did a little last minute shopping – Anne bought a purse; I bought a book on the history of MI5 (UK State Security, the domestic counterpart to the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6) and a mug for my colleague John Price.
Our flight was scheduled for 2:35; I think it was nearer 3 pm when we left. Although we never were told such, I think we were upgraded again – our seats were of the same quality as on the previous flight. And this was a newer, more modern plane. Instead of being limited to movies that were showing at set times and simply being able to select a channel, this time it was basically video on demand from a fairly substantial library that included classics as well as new releases. I watched an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, Dial M for Murder, and an episode of a BBC TV series I’d read good things about, Kenneth Branagh as Wallander, but I found it weird and depressing. I also read some in the MI5 book I bought, as well as worked on the customs declaration form we were given. Best I could estimate (and what I declared) was that we were bringing back somewhere around $1410 worth of merchandise – tee-shirts and other apparel, books and guidebooks, and a host of souvenirs. The in-flight meal shortly after take-off was Chicken Tikka (I guess I did get more Indian food) – which was good enough when I was eating it, but gave me a bad case of indigestion. Most of twelve hours later I was still burping that taste up and will never have it again.
We landed in Houston on-time at 6:30 pm. We went through passport control, baggage claim, and customs, then Jude picked us up and we returned to her house. The Hares’ UK 2010 Holiday was over.
Little did I know what was coming next ….