Saturday, May 31, 2008

May 31 - London Day 3

Spooky day.

Starting off with the Tower of London. Which isn't a tower at all, but a castle.
But it's where lots of people have been imprisoned and beheaded so it's creepy none the less.
Little bit of history... It used to be the place all the kings and queens lived at, but somewhere along the way they moved to Buckingham. Still not sure why or when, but then it was converted to a prison.
We saw the place where Ann Boleyn got her head cut off. They've replaced the chopping block with this watery art piece, which I think is a shame. I would have liked to see the chopping block instead.
Apparently, she was brought in by a secret passage in the river so no one would know she was there. They called this the 'traitors gate' and you can only get in by boat.
The Tower was cool and creepy, and they had people dressed up reenacting scenes which was awesome. Mostly because we knew their accents weren't fake. :) And we saw the armory where all the armor and weapons of all the kings are kept. Looking at the armor, you can tell what the knights were very keen to protect (if you get my drift)

But by far the coolest part of the Tower are the crown jewels. Again, you can't take pictures in there, and you have to stand on a moving platform to see them (no lingering allowed). But it was awesome. Every king or queen has their own crown and scepter and ring for inauguration and they have them all there going back to like 1200 or something. It's insane.
I saw the hope diamond in washington and it was cool, but this was 100 times better. How awesome would it be to just get to wear one for a minute? My inner little girl princess was squealing with delight.

After the tower everyone but Jesse and I went to Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian. It was a 2 hour boat ride and I guess Jess and I just decided to skip it and instead go shopping.
We went into Harrod's and went to Petticoat Lane (which is a big huge flea market). We also hit up the British War Experience which was not quite as interesting as it sounds. There was one part where you walk through a re-enacted street of WWII London as it is being bombed by the Nazis that was kind of cool.

The lot of us met back up that evening for the Jack the Ripper tour.
It started at the Tower of London (of course - extra creepy factor) and wandered through the streets of London, guided by a resident expert in the subject. I don't have alot of pictures of the tour because most of it is, "Look at these cobblestones. This is where a victim was found dead and de-gutted" and it starts at dusk so by halfway through the tour it was a little too dark for pictures. What's neat about the tour is that alot of the places still exist as is. You can still see the little halfway house where the prostitutes stayed. It's not that any more of course, but it's just as it was in the 1800's. That's pretty cool. And the buildings are real close together and it getting dark and all - it can make for a pretty creepy tour. Our guide was more matter of factual than dramatic though.

Friday, May 30, 2008

May 30th - London Day 2

Jesse felt a little better that morning, but again, we slept very little so we were quite tired.
We started out going to the London Eye which is a giant ferris wheel. I figured it would be good because Jesse could sit and rest a bit.
You get great views of the city in the Eye. We were in there with a British family and though I didn't know it at the time, Jesse was getting quite upset at one of the ladies because she kept hovering over the air conditioner.

Then we went to Westminster Abbey. Where apparently anyone who's anyone in British history or culture is buried. I mean everyone has a memorial there. Chaucer, Austen, Tennyson, Carrol, Isaac Newton, even Darwin - not to mention generations of kings and queens. It's also quite huge. It seemed to go on for ever. The cathedral was huge and had large prayer rooms off the side and burial chambers for the royalty. And then it also had cloisters and gardens you could visit.
They won't let you take pictures in the Abbey itself which is a shame.
So all the pictures I've attached in this blog are taken by a professional, but they are the pictures that I would have taken had they let me.
After the abbey, Jesse was feeling much better and we figured since we had seen Buckingham palace, we would go see the Prime Minister's residence, 10 Downing Street. It was heavily guarded of course, but he doesn't live in a huge palace or anything like our president. In fact, aside from the guards, the only thing that lets you know that he lives there is the black door with the address.
Then we went to the cabinet war rooms which are the underground bunkers for Churchill and his team during the blitz in WWII. It was typical museum fare, but the map room was pretty cool because it had all these old maps of Europe pasted on the wall with pins stuck in them obviously to follow battles and battle plans.
Jenny, Jesse's sister, was a history major (specifically WWII history) so she spent a lot more time in there than we did. While waiting for her to come out, we were hanging out on the side of the street when a big parade came by with lots of horses and carriages. We found out later that they were practicing for the queen's birthday which was going to take place just after we left.
When Jenny and Jay finally emerged, we split. Jesse's parents were going to take his grandparents back to the hotel to rest. Us 'kids' were going to see if we could find the church where Princess Diana was married.
Apparently, us kids are stupid. We went to the wrong church. We took a train halfway across London, only to get out at this little chapel. The cool thing was that there was a wedding going on and the vicar let us watch part of it through the glass doors.

After having spent a day in Liverpool, and now being in London, how could a tourist and a Beatles fan resist Abbey Road?
We did the the typical touristy thing walking across the road and acting like we were on the cover of the album. The thing is, Abbey Road is actually quite a busy street. I'm sure people get injured there all the time because of the traffic and the desire to stop mid-crossing to get a good picture. Very close to the spot where the Beatles got their album cover shot is the actual Abbey Road Studios.
Jesse was in Beatles heaven. He wanted to go in. He almost did, just to pop in and act like he was supposed to be there, but then be escorted out by security. I mean, how many people can say they were kicked out of Abbey Road Studios? But he chickened out.

A short walk from Abbey Road is Paul McCartney's actual home. He wasn't there because he was giving a show in Liverpool (missed him by two days!!). I was impressed by how unimpressive his home was. He doesn't live like a multi-millionaire at all.

We actually spent alot of this day just wandering London with Jesse's parents. We hit up the theater district to try and find cheap seats to Spamalot, but no luck. One of the cool things we saw was in Trafalgar square there was a sidewalk chalk artist just like in Mary Poppins.
I tried to jump in and see if it would transport me to a magical, colorful land with live carousels and dancing penguins, but it didn't :(

Thursday, May 29, 2008

May 29th - London

London. I think I could live here. Honestly. It's foreign enough to be exotic and not like what you find in the US, but they speak English so you can navigate the town fairly easily.
And of course, what's the first thing you do when you get to London! Why, just like the pussy cat - you visit the queen! Our hotel was walking distance from Buckingham palace so we hoofed it over early to get a good spot to see the changing of the guards. On the way we walked through Trafalgar Square. Which, to be honest I don't know why it's famous. I really should have brushed up on my English history before coming over. I'm sure there is some significance to Trafalgar Square historically, but at the time I have no idea. The road leading to Victoria Square and the palace was lined with lamposts and flags (which we later learned from a cabby is topped with ships from Admiral Nelson's fleet - Not sure who he is, but he's on top of the column in the middle of the square).

We got pretty early so we got a really nice spot in front of the palace. It was a little odd after spending time in Ireland to be surrounded by so many different cultures at once. Jesse chatted in Japanese to the people standing next to us.
Also, I saw Prince William. Yes, the future king of England himself. Granted, it was a quick look as he drove out of the gates, but still... I saw him. Beverly (my MIL) saw him too so she can back me up on that. Oddly there was practically no security around him. I'm sure someone was in the car with him, but there wasn't a motorcade or snipers on every roof like there is when the president drives by.
The changing was intriguing; something every visitor must partake of. But I think since we are American, a lot of the symbolism of what they were doing and who was who was lost on us. I expected it to be solemn, like the one at Arlington cemetery, but the band was playing "76 Trombones".
And after the palace, the best place to go is the palace gift shops. I must say I was impressed. I'm not a souvenir buying kind of person. (I'm not into kitschy knick knacks and key rings) But this shop had my attention. You could buy Queen Victoria's china. It is quite possibly the most beautiful china pattern I've ever seen. I wanted a piece, but it was way to expensive. So I got a teacup from Elizabeth II's commemorative china for her 60th wedding anniversary. It's quite lover-ly.
At this point Jesse got very ill. He literally threw up on the side of the palace gates.
Hoping it was just the crush of people and bad air we went to a pub to sit it out for a bit. No doing - he threw up in the pub as well.
I decided to take him back to the hotel while the rest of the family went shopping at Portabello Road.
Jesse was pretty sick. Around 5 o'clock I decided we needed dinner so I went out into the streets of London by myself. I've gotta say it unnerved me a bit. I had looked online for a nearby restaurant and memorized the path there. It wasn't that bad though. Our hotel was just one block from a bunch of delis and restaurants.
Jesse and I spent the rest of the evening indoors. It turns out he only had a 24 hr bug and was doing much better the next day, but we didn't sleep at all that night.
Around 2am he woke up ill and desperate for something to drink. So we looked in the mini-bar. We pulled out everything and found a coke in the back. A $6 coke. But it was worth it for him to feel better.
We later found out that the hotel charges by what was moved in the mini-bar, not by what was actually taken. When we checked out we had like a $200 bar bill but they dropped it. (Which was stupid in the first place because to even get to the coke itself I had to pull out three different items)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

May 28th - Belfast/DownPatrick

We woke up the next morning to a perfect sunny day. You couldn't ask for better weather. Jesse got up extra early to get a few more pictures and talk to Stephen just to hear more of his accent.
It was sad to say goodbye to our hosts, and their lovely little B&B, but unfortunately all things must come to an end. (By the way, doesn't Stephen look like a young Liam Neeson?)

Our first sight seeing stop was this castle in Carrick Fergus. It was very old and built right up against the ocean. Jesse and I wandered around the outer wall taking pictures for a good 15 minutes before we realized that you could go inside it. It was just like every stereotypical castle you would imagine being like. It had towers with battlements and arrow slots. It had a courtyard around the keep. In the keep itself was a banquet hall and armory and living quarters. You had to climb up this narrow spiral stone stairway to get inside the keep.
There were even bathrooms. This particular bathroom was the 'finest' in the castle and when King John came to visit he reportedly used it. So that picture is of King John on the john.
Another interesting part of the castle was the murdering hole. The castle gatehouse had two portcullis (or large metal gates) so that when you visited the castle you would go through the first gate and then they would close it behind you so you were trapped between the two gates. Then you would state your name/business etc and if for some reason they didn't like you, there was a room just above the gate with a small hole in the floor so they could pour boiling oil, or shoot arrows down on whoever was trapped in the gatehouse.
When we were at the top of the keep in the armory there was a boys school there on field trip. They were explaining the history and how a knight would armor himself. They boys got to try on armor and pretend they were knights. I think Jesse wanted to be a little Irish school boy for just a moment so he could join in.

After that we went to DownPatrick which is where the St Patrick's center and grave is located.
We had to go through Belfast to get there. While stopped in traffic I was looking out the window and watching the town. I noticed a lot of graffiti and murals on the sides of buildings. When we left St Ronans, Judith had briefly talked about how there was peace now and more tourists willing to visit Northern Ireland. I had always heard about how they were fighting and car bombs and the IRA, but seeing the murals kind of brought it home. Some were peaceful, some were quite scary. It's just crazy to think that just a few years ago the city was so violent no one in their right mind would travel to Belfast.
That mood continued when we got to the St Patrick's Center. We watched a film about his life. (He didn't rid Ireland of snakes by the way - the climate did that).
The over arching theme to that film was unity. How Patrick wasn't Catholic or Protestant, but a Christian and he can be embraced by all Irish. And how he is embraced and celebrated the world over (but many protestant Irish refuse to celebrate St Patrick's Day because it is considered a Catholic holiday). It's a very touchy subject over there and they are just starting to heal.
After a look at the gift shops, and the necessary purchase of gifts, we stopped for lunch and got some fish and chips. Jesse's fish looked like an oven mitt. It was such a pretty day we decided to eat outside on the lawn beside the Center.
They have these beautiful little white flowers that just cover the grass everywhere you look. At first I thought it was clover, but it seems to be growing next to the clover (which is also all over the ground). I wish I knew what these flowers were because I would love to have them in my yard.
Just down the way from the center is St Patrick's cathedral. To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with the inside. The walls were all white and the place was way to bright. It looked modernized. The coolest thing about it was there were these coat of arms all along the walls. I looked at each one to see if the Magees (Jesse's family name) were anywhere. They weren't.
Jesse did find these neat little candelabras with shamrocks on them.
Outside the church is where St. Patrick is supposedly buried. While we were all outside looking at the graves, Jesse's sister, Jenny, nearly got locked in because she had spent too much time inside the church. But it gave Jess a lot of time to get pictures of the scenery.
Then sadly, we had to head to the airport and leave Ireland. One last look at the emerald isle as our plane headed towards London.

In London we checked in at the swanky Sofitel St James. It's a 5 star hotel that normally costs $600 a/night. (Believe me, we did not pay that!!!)
The whole place was decked out. They had a tea room downstairs all pinks and roses where a harpist played. Even the hallway to our room was cool. The rooms themselves looked more like New York apartments than hotel rooms. It had a huge tub that I took a bubble bath in. When I sat down in it the water came right up to my armpits. The beds were down mattresses with down comforters and down pillows. Once you lay down on one of those beds you don't want to get up for hours. I could get used to living like this.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

May 27th - Northern Ireland

Our bed and breakfast at Island Magee is fabulous. The owners (the Tweeds) are so nice and the cottage is in the middle of a pasture with sheep and cattle next door.
We had an Irish breakfast of sausage and potato bread.
We drove up the northern coast stopping along the way for photo ops. Like the gray shores of Larne.
We stopped in this little town of BallyPatrick. Nearly all the towns here start with 'Bally'. (which I later learned is derived from Gaelic for 'town'). We stopped at a true Irish pub for lunch; O'Conners.
Strangely enough they were playing Justin Timberlake music while we were in there. (I've heard more Justin on this trip than back home)
Carrick-a-rede (Rock in the road) is a place on the coast where fishermen would cross this tiny little rope bridge across a gorge to get to the better fishing off the island on the other side. Our big adventure for the day was going over that same bridge.
It's about 2km off the road and the views where gorgeous. Even though it was drizzling you didn't really feel wet or cold because of the hike. From here you could see Scotland just across the bay (Sunny and warm and mocking us). Also there was this cliff which Jesse dubbed "Profile
" because it looks like a man's face.
Along the hike you had to travel down these precarious stone 'steps' - loosely called so because they were vaguely in the shape of steps, but mostly just rocks in the side of the hill.
To get to the bridge itself you had to climb down this 70 degree metal staircase which was so steep it was practically a ladder. Remember - it's also raining. Beverly took one look at the steps and bowed out. (Of course, none of us knew her ribs were broken at this time - so now I don't blame her)
The bridge was made entirely of rope and although I'm sure it was sturdy and safe, it swayed alot. It didn't help that Jesse was making it bob and bounce on purpose as I tried to cross. I'm not good with heights anyway and all I could think of was that bridge out of Indiana Jones the whole time I crossed. It wasn't as long and only 80ft above a lagoon, but still.
On the other side of the bridge was this island cliff. It was basically a plateau of land smaller than your average back yard just sticking out of the water with sheer 80ft cliffs on all sides. And no guard rails - might I add. Jesse loved getting right up to the edge and looking over. He made me get as close as I could and take my picture.
The bad part was to get back to the mainland you had to go back over that little bridge and up the tiny metal ladder/stair. After being so exposed to heights my legs were very wobbly and I had to sit for a minute. Did I mention I don't like heights?
Next we went to this place called the Giant's Causeway, which is the only place in the world where this certain kind of rock formation takes place. It looks like giant nuts and bolts had been tossed into the ground and were now sticking straight up out of the ground. Jesse, ever the dare devil, decided to climb the structure.
On the way home and off the beaten path we found this road covered in trees. We dubbed them the spooky trees because they looked like something right out of Sleepy Hollow.
By this time it was very late and we were hungry. We drove around for an hour but couldn't find a place open to eat.
Against major protests from me we stopped at a McDonald's to enjoy the 'Great Tastes of America'.

Monday, May 26, 2008

May 26th - Liverpool

We stayed the night in Liverpool. After a cold shower the night before (but I'm having a GREAT time!), we had breakfast at (to my dismay) at McDonald's next door.
I think Jesse ate at the hotel in protest.
I overslept a bit and just had some coffee.
We started the morning out at Albert Docks to go to the Beatles Museum. About 1/3rd ways through the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the building. It wasn't long before they let us back in but I had decided to go to the loo during the break and Jesse and I got stuck behind a group of french teenagers on the way back in. (But we eventually got around them and back inside)
After the museum and touring the Beatles shop we had lunch and a pint at a restuarant on the docks. Then we took the Magical Mystery tour. It took us to all the cool places like where the fab four grew up and met for the first time and places they played at. It was cool to see Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. Jesse is a total Beatles nut and he was eating it all up.
The tour ended at the Cavern Club which seems like a really awesome place to see a band at. I wished we could have stayed to hear some music - any music. It was a great venue. Dark and close and underground.
After the tour we had to go straight to the airport to catch a flight to Belfast. The flight was very short and we traveled between two layers of clouds which was very lovely.
When we touched down and stepped out of the airplane you could tell immediately you were in a different kind of place. The air smelled of agriculture... grass, dampness, sheep. It was heavenly.
I fell in love with Ireland from first sight.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

May 25th - Cotswolds continued

Jesse got up super early and took more pictures of the town. pics, pics and more pics

We had a good English breakfast of eggs on toast, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms and beans... yes beans.
Then we drove up to this place called the Slaughters - which sounds like a terribly bloody place but actually slaughter just means muddy. It definitely rained enough that day to warrant the name.
They had an Old Mill there with a water wheel and just off the main road was a pasture with sheep. I wanted to stay and live there.
Then we went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Ann Hathaway's house (Shakespeare's wife). It has the most beautiful wildflower garden I've seen and a thatched roof, which I had not seen before.
We also went to the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried (and was baptized - they still have the font he was baptized in) This church made the one in Burford look small and run-down. It's hard to imagine how old things can be over here and still be around.
In America, something is old if it dates back to the Civil War. It's really old if it dates to Revolutionary times.
Here... things seem to be 400 years old on average. It's not uncommon to find buildings dating back to the 15th or 12th century.
Jesse's camera ran out of memory on this day so alot of the pictures from the church and house are on his mother's camera. As soon as I get them, I'll post them as well.

"I love my family. But quite a few times on this trip I wondered if we should even make an attempt at civility. We're loud, boisterous, and we take up a lot of space wherever we go. Granted, I'd have it no other way.
When the family decided to leave for Stratford, we all clunked down the tiny stairwell and trampled our way outside. We all piled into the van and dug our feet in. Outside, next to us was another British family, talking to each other while witnessing our American spectacle. While Doran (my stepfather) was steadily maneuvering the 14-passenger tank out of a space meant for a Mini Cooper, I said, in my best UK accent, "Oh, so the Clampett's are leaving, they are." You would've thought my grandfather was having a heart attack. He literally was hurting himself due to his exuberant laughter. Even after the main outpouring of laughter, he chuckled about that for the rest of the van ride. I guess that joke really hit home with him."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

May 24th - Cotswolds

We landed in London at 7am and rented a van/bus to take us through the countryside from London to the Cotswolds.
Doran was driving and he is quite the trooper. First of all, this van is a giant vehicle. Second, it's England and everything is on the opposite side. Third, it was raining pretty hard that first day, and fourth, Beverly isn't great at reading maps "bless her heart!"
I'm sure Doran was pretty frustrated and tense those first few hours, but he never really let it show. We had to turn around no less than four times because we had missed our turn or gone down a road that didn't lead out.
It is terribly hard to turn a 15 passenger van around in a road meant for a horse and buggy.

We stopped for lunch at Burford. It looks like something right out of Disneyland but older and real.
There was this old cathedral in the town. Built in 1170. We wandered around it and the vedger (not vicar) came out and decided to give us a spur of the moment tour and tell us all about the history of the place.
Like nearly all European churches, people are buried into the floors of the church and some had interesting tombstone headings.

"We ate lunch at a tiny little restaurant named 'The Priory'. This was our first official meal in the UK, and my first true taste of culture shock. The restaurant housed no more than five tables, each table only holding up to four people. All of this was snugly placed into an area the size of a living room. This, I imagine, was to be expected from a small eatery in the heart of a quaint village. However, after eating, my mother came to our table (we sat separately) and told us to use the restroom before leaving. Not an odd request, considering the drive awaiting us. But then she told us her reasoning. "You have to pay to use the restroom here." Now, this is something you hear about from other people, scoff at, and forget. Bathrooms are few and far between in the UK, and the ones that exist require payment of some sort. We had patronized the eatery, so toilets were free in this case. But this culture shock hits the hardest when you're scrambling for a spare pound while doing the 'pee-pee dance'. And on a complete side note, the water pressure of the toilets there is tremendous; you could easily flush a friggin' phone book. Seriously - it's almost scary."

By late afternoon we had traveled to Burton on the Water. This is an adorable little town with stone bridges over the 'river' that runs through the center of town. Though the river was only a foot deep. There were shops and pubs all along either side of the river.
We stayed at this pub called the Mouse Trap Inn. Apparently Agatha Cristie had stayed there and written a novel about it, though none of us had ever read it.
Our room was upstairs and down a narrow hallway. (These stairs Beverly would fall down and break two ribs on the next day, but we didn't know they were broken until we got home)

Friday, May 23, 2008

May 23rd - Journeying there

Spent about 4 days on the plane. No really - it was only 8 hours but it felt like forever.
We needed to sleep on the plane since we were flying overnight and losing 6 hours.
I knew Jesse wouldn't sleep but I can usually sleep anywhere. But not on this flight. It was impossible to get comfortable and people kept talking really loudly behind me - at 2am!!

So none of us slept at all.
All in all we figured we went about 30 hours straight without sleep.

"The entire day was travel. Fly, wait, ride, eat, ride, wait, ride. To make matters worse, the 12 passenger van we rented had tough plastic seats. You couldn't even sleep in the van. We all were loony and irritated. We were driving on the wrong side of the road. England didn't sell normal-tasting Coca-Cola. It was a long, long day."

UK Vacation - Introduction

We recently traveled to the United Kingdom with Jesse's family for vacation.
While there I kept a diary of our travels. And since I was unable to access a computer while there I am putting together a series of blogs chronicling our trip.
Most of these blogs are based on the notes I kept while on the trip, interspersed with pictures and comments from Jesse, which will be shown in italics.

Please look here for updates over the next couple of days.