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Giants, Clouds, and Tartan Togas {Haggis Tour, Day Three}

Note: This is the extremely belated post about the third day on the Five Day Haggis Adventures tour that I went on in July of 2012. It is being published a year later, though written last July, because I ran out of time while travelling to both travel and enjoy and madly format and load photos. I apologize for the delay.

After our (slightly uncomfortable) night at Saucy Mary’s Lodge, we set out to explore the Isle of Skye, much immortalised in song, poetry, and film.

We stopped first at a waterfall, one of many that Chris seemed to think we’d find fascinating, on our way to Dun Beag Broch, a prehistoric stone roundhouse. The multi-level broch was built between 2300 and 1900 years ago and artifacts found in and around the broch strongly suggest that they would have been used for human and animal habitation as well as for defense. We climbed up a hill to get to the broch, passing a gorgeous patch of heather, before picking our way around sheep droppings to get to the broch.

Heather by the side of the road.

Heather by the side of the road.

One of many sheep.

One of many sheep.

Here’s an interesting bit of information completely unrelated to prehistoric buildings: the sheep around the broch were sheared, but many of the sheep we’d been seeing and would see during the rest of the tour had all their wool. Chris explained this by saying that  the price of wool was plummeting, making it more expensive for farmers to hire labourers for the shearing and pay for transportation of the wool than it is worth. Many farmers are leaving their sheep unsheared. It rather defeats the point of having sheep, I should think.

Anyway, we climbed up to the broch, read the information signs, then began climbing all over the prehistoric building as though it were a jungle gym. Oh, yes, I did it too, but hindsight is 20-20.

I said "Smile!" and they began waving their arms like air traffic controllers... :D

I said “Smile!” and they began waving their arms like air traffic controllers… I love my Aussies! :D

And here’s a photo down towards our wee yellow bus,

A view from the Dun Beag Broch towards the road.

A view from the Dun Beag Broch towards the road. And our yellow Haggis bus.

From the broch we set out for Portree, the largest town on Skye. Our stop meant as a bathroom break as well as time to pick up food for our lunch, which Chris was planning to have picnic-style later on. He recommended (as I now do, too), MacKenzie’s Bakery in Somerled Square. Most of us purchased items from MacKenzie’s and we weren’t disappointed! Not only was it very tasty, but the prices were amazing! I’m pretty sure that two small chicken buns, a dessert item, and a bottled drink were under £5. And it was so good. Seriously, if you happen to be on the Isle of Skye, go to MacKenzie’s Bakery in Portree!

We travelled up from Portree to the Quiraing, a landslip on Trotternish Ridge. We drove up and up and up, eventually passing into the clouds. When Chris stopped the bus, it was to find ourselves above the clouds! Windy, cold, and utterly breathtaking.

The Quiraing on Trotternish Ridge.

A view of the land disappearing into the clouds, from the Quiraing on Trotternish Ridge.

For those of you familiar with the 2007 film Stardust, this was a filming location for two scenes. The first is where Lamia casts her runes and the second scene was where Tristan and Yvaine (and then Septimus later on) see the stone milestone marking the distance to Wall.

The drop was very long from our viewpoint, but we went close to the edge…

Jumping near a cliff- definitely a good idea.

Jumping near a cliff- definitely a good idea.

From Trotternich Ridge, we drove to Kilt Rock. When we pulled into the parking lot, Chris groaned and pointed towards two girls in their mid-teens, one with a bagpipe, the other with a snare drum, setting up to play for the three bus loads of tourists.

“Everywhere you go- you cannae ever escape ’em- if they play Scotland the Brave, don’t tell me, I dunno if I could handle it.”

On our way between the Quiraing and Kilt Rock, Chris told us the story behind Kilt Rock’s name.

Legend has it two ways. The Irish way and the Scottish way. Chris prefaced his story by saying that the Irish are great neighbours, fun drinking buddies and the sort of people you want on your side in a fight- but they are liars. According to Chris, you can’t trust them to ever tell a story straight. With this in mind, the story of Fingal and Fionn McCool goes a little like this…

There was once a giant and his wife who lived on the coast of Scotland, and their names were Fingal and Fiona. They lived quite happily until one day while Fingal was out, Fiona had an unexpected visitor drop by. Fionn McCool, an Irish giant, was travelling through Scotland to meet some relatives when he spotted Fingal and Fiona’s house. He stopped to ask for something to eat and drink. When he saw Fiona, Fionn became transfixed with her beauty, but Fiona refused his advances and asked him to leave. Fionn left, but declared that once his business was finished, he would be back to fight for her.

Upon her husband’s return, Fiona told Fingal all about her visitor, but warned him that the Irish giant was much bigger and a fearsome warrior. Though insulted at the idea that he didn’t have a chance against Fionn, Fingal agreed to the plan that Fiona had come up with. During the next week, Fiona instructed her husband to built a giant cradle and she began to knit a large blanket and a large baby bonnet.

A little over a week later, Fiona was sitting outside hanging her laundry out to dry when she saw Fionn McCool coming towards their home.

“Fingal, quick! Strip down to your underwear and wrap yourself in this blanket!” Baffled, Fingal did as she asked.

“Now get into the cradle!” Aghast what Fiona was asking of him, Fingal protested and began to leave but as he passed a window, he caught a glimpse of Fionn coming towards their home. Far taller than Fingal and clearly a toughened warrior, the sight of Fionn scared Fingal witless. Fiona was adjusting the knitted baby’s bonnet on her husband’s head just as Fionn burst in.

“Fiona, I’m here to take you away! Where’s that husband of yours? I’ll win you fair and square!” Fiona offered Fionn tea and calmly set about preparing some refreshments, telling Fionn that her husband was out but would be back quite soon. As the water boiled for the tea, Fiona excused herself to bring the washing in.

She came in and began to fold a large table cloth. Once folded, Fiona placed it on the table near Fionn, saying it was her husband’s kilt.

“His kilt?” asked Fionn, alarmed at the neatly folded mass of cloth next to him.

Fingal, hiding in the cradle peeked out at Fionn, making the cradle creak.

“What’s that?” asked Fionn.

“My wee baby boy- you can hold him, if you’d like.” Fionn walked over to the cradle and stared at the massive, ugly baby sleeping inside.

“How old he?” Fionn asked, panic rising in him- if the baby was this big, the father must be massive.

“Och! My wee boy is just a year old, and still growing,” Fiona added with a small smile. Fionn nodded and excused himself. Fiona watched from her window as Fionn McCool ran from the house and back towards Ireland, destroying the bridge connecting Scotland and Ireland as he went to prevent a jealous husband of undetermined size from coming after him.

Kilt rock, with it’s unusual basalt columns, is said to resemble a kilt’s folds, specifically the kilt that Fiona used to scare Fionn.

Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye.

Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye.

Do you see how it could be a kilt? No? Whoever named it had been enjoying a few drams of the water of life? Yeah, I agree ; )

We left Kilt Rock and the offending young piper behind for Leallt Falls, where we ate our lunch before admiring more views, the water falls, and the steep drop below us. We also saw the ruins of a building. I don’t know what it was originally built to be, but the ruins had a mysterious quality, especially as they were too far away to explore.

The ruins below Leallt Falls

The ruins below Leallt Falls

We drove away from the coast of the island, enjoying a playlist from Chris’ iPod and the lush green of the Isle of Skye.

One of the delightful things about this tour is that Chris frequently told stories. History and myths all had a place on our wee yellow bus; Here’s another:

There once were two clans who had been at war with each other for generations. Finally, it happened that the leader of the MacLeods had a daughter only a few years younger than the son of the head of the MacDonalds. The wives of the two leaders  put their heads together and agreed that their son and daughter would marry, ending the feud between their clans and accomplishing the peace that had eluded their husbands and the previous clan leaders.

When the time came for them to marry, the daughter was sent off to the MacDonalds with a manservant and his dog. While crossing the Sligachan River, the donkey the bride was riding slipped on a loose rock, and she fell into the river. The manservant quickly pulled her out, but she had landed badly, with one arm broken and her face badly injured, one eye hanging from it’s socket. He wrapped her his coat and tried to comfort the distraught girl.

With both clans depending on the marriage to keep the peace, she decided to continue to the wedding.

The ceremony went forward but when he lifted her veil and saw the condition of his bride-to-be, the groom flew into a rage at her ugliness. Thinking that the MacLeods had disfigured her to humiliate him, he used his dirk to gouge her other eye out, as well as an eye from her manservant, her donkey, and one from the dog as well. The groom swore revenge on the clan, as the MacLeod bride, her manservant, the donkey and the dog fled from the ruined wedding.

They reached the banks of the Sligachan River, where the trouble had started, and collapsed beside the water. A passing man noticed their horrific appearance and stopped to ask what  had happened. The blinded girl, with help from her faithful manservant, explained the events of the day.

The old man, who was a fairy in disguise, felt badly for the girl, so he placed an enchantment on the river and told her to dunk her arm into the river for seven seconds. Not seeing the point, but also not seeing a reason not to, the girl had be manservant help her to the edge of the river, where she did as the fairy told her. To her surprise, when she drew her arm from the river, it was healed completely. Smiling, the fairy instructed her to dunk her face for seven seconds as well. She did so, and emerged, both eyes in their sockets and more beautiful than she had been before the accident!

Elated, she helped her manservant dunk his face, who also regained his eye and grew handsome than before. The donkey and the dog both dunked their faces, whereupon they also regained their previously gouged eyes.

The girl, her manservant, as well as the donkey and dog returned to the MacLeods, where they explained what had happened to the astonished clan before announcing they the girl and the manservant were going to marry.

Chris told us this story as we stood on the bank of the Sligachan, and had someone dunk their face into the river each time the girl, the servant, the donkey, and the dog did. After four of our tour-mates had been good sports about being volunteered for a face wash, he told us that the passing fairy was also very forgetful, and hadn’t lifted the enchantment from the Sligachan… and that he expected all of us to dunk our faces into the river for seven seconds to achieve eternal beauty.

Awkward silence.

The saying “When in Rome”, applies, I suppose, to travel outside of Italy, too. So I tied my hair back, handed my camera and bag to a friend and dunked my face in a cold Scottish river for seven seconds. Actually, except for two, we all did it! Hurray for embracing the whimsy and spontaneity of travel!

Although, if you look at it from another perspective, fourteen adults chose to stick their faces in a cold Scottish river because someone we’d known for two and a half days told us to.

But let’s not talk about that.

The bank of the Sligachan River.

This is where I dunked by face in a cold Scottish river. Because some guy told me to. Clever, eh?

And here’s a view of the bridge we crossed over the Sligachan. More people slipped, I guess ; )

The Sligachan River.

The Sligachan River.

We emerged from the river dripping with shockingly cold river water, refreshed, and laughing. It was fun- I’m glad I did it.

We crossed over the Skye Bridge and back to the mainland, stopping again at Eilean Donan Castle for photos from a different angle, before heading North.

Our beds for the night were located in Fort Augustus, which is on the banks of the most famous loch in Scotland… you guessed it, Loch Ness!

As Chris drove us towards Fort Augustus, he told us some facts about the loch, such as how it is the second longest loch in Scotland, the second deepest loch in Scotland, and ties with lochs Maree and Sheil as being the narrowest for their length.

When we arrived in Loch Ness, the very first thing we did was attend the Clansman Show at the Clansman Centre. A Mr. Robinson gave a presentation on traditional Highland dress, and how they would have used the plaids both for warmth and as clothing. He demonstrated how to properly fold a plaid (pleats and all!) before dressing two audience members in a close representation of traditional Highland Scots garb (the Indian man from our tour was chosen as was a girl from a Belgian group sitting behind us). Mr. Robertson also vividly demonstrated the uses of various weapons including a dirk, a spike, and a Claymore- we all kept very still!

That night was spent at Morag’s Lodge. We had the option of adding dinner to the cost of accommodation, which I did. The food was good, and the pub was attached to the hostel!

We came down after dinner to find a woman and man playing a fiddle and a bodhrán. They continued for a little over an hour before we were told that it was Tartan Toga time!

Our guide was very clear that those who did not wear the tartan togas would not be welcome on the bus the next day. Now, we didn’t take that threat too seriously. More important, however, was that more people from OUR Haggis bus wear the tartan togas than the people from the other Haggis bus…

So basically, we won Tartan Toga Night. Ah, sweet victory. ; )

Tartan togas were provided by Morag's Lodge... so we wore them!

Tartan togas were provided by Morag’s Lodge… so we wore them!

I had loads of fun that night- tartan togas, Aussie friends, attractive bartenders, and new drinks… specifically the Rusty Nail… tasty and effective!

Morag’s Lodge: http://www.moragslodge.com/

The Clansman Centre: http://www.scottish-swords.com/

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Postcards and Bagpipes: Notes On a Friend’s Travels

We travel not to escape life, but so that life does not escape us.

via Hostelworld.com

A friend just came back from a month in the UK. She went as part of her college practicum and then took advantage of her location to  visit a friend and also to tourist it up. She stopped by this evening to hand-deliver a postcard that she had written and addressed, but never mailed. Instead, the postcard stayed tucked in a book that stayed with her in Wales (where it was written), Paris, London, Aberdeen until she arrived back in British Columbia, Canada, where we call home.

We stood at the door and talked for the better part of an hour. She only meant to drop by for a brief “Here I am! Here’s your postcard- have some whisky fudge” before heading home to get her jet-legged self to bed. She is happy to be home and tired from travel, but as soon as our conversation hit on something about her travels that excited her, she would light up. She mentioned the musical she had seen (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the food she had eaten, the castles she visited (including Dunnotter Castle from Pixar’s Brave), the play she attended.

Sometimes my friend was calmly pleased with what she described. Other times, her eyes sparkled and her grin was enormous. There were times that she stood on my doorstep with her hands clasped in front of her as she swayed slightly- the picture of a childish, wholehearted glee. Her joy in the opportunities provided by travelling is inspiring and magical. Her joy is the essence of what travel is and how constant displacement can infuse a person with perspective and wonder.

She described her visit to St. Andrews in Scotland: She and a friend visited a graveyard next to an old church. As they walked among tilted, weathered gravestones, a bagpiper began to play, just over the stone wall. For my friend, this was the Scotland that she had envisioned. She felt giddy and tremendously happy.

This is travel done right- with excitement and thrills.

My friend’s travels were not without difficulties- her companions were not ideal (being satisfied in letting my friend plan their day-to-day routes to the point where they couldn’t navigate the London Tube), hostels are not my friend’s ideal accommodation, and the beds in both the dorms in Wales during her practicum and in the hostels caused her to long for her own bed (which is the point of hostel beds, isn’t it?).

But difficulties allow cherished experiences to shine. Will she ever forget the awe she experienced while immersed in the play in Edinburgh? Will the memory of the perfect quintessentially Scottish moment in the graveyard be lost? I doubt it. Our memories shift and while the giddiness may fade at each remembrance, memories like these are ours forever.

D’you know what? I’m glad she never sent the postcard- the postcard acquired something in its travels, too. And it is all the better for it.

***

**

*

Of course, hearing about my friend’s time in Scotland has only caused my own wanderlust to resurface. This time last year, I was in London, only a few days from leaving for Oxford. The intervening year has been challenging to my traveller’s heart- I realized that it’ll be a good four years before I am able to travel again and to me, that is terrible. I follow Hostelworld.com on facebook, and they recently posted this picture which sums the desire of this traveller’s heart:

via Hostelworld.com

via Hostelworld.com

Feuds, Castles, and Fairies {Haggis Tour, Day Two}

Known by some for being a film location used in Monty Python, picturesque Castle Stalker was our first photo stop of the second day.

The castle is exactly what I imagine a Scottish castle should look like- on a loch, built of grey stone, isolated. Black, gaping windows and lichen on the stones lent an abandoned feel to the castle. There is, however, a man who lives in Castle Stalker. According to Chris, he’s a bit of a grouch. Fancy being a grouch while living in a castle! The inhabitant clearly has no imagination- after all, James IV visited several times, the castle was exchanged for an eight-oar wherry (a row boat) in a drunken wager to the Campbell family, regained nearly seventy years later, withstood canon fire during the 1745 Rising in support of Bonny Prince Charlie, and was eventually reclaimed by the Stewarts in 1908!

Castle Stalker on Loch Laich.

Castle Stalker on Loch Laich.

Castle Stalker is on Loch Laich, and is classified as a towerhouse. The MacDougalls built a castle on the site in the fourteenth century, but the castle, along with the title of Laird or Lorn, was eventually given over to the Stewarts. The current Castle Stalker was built in the fifteen century and has lasted fairly well since it’s rebuilding. The castle is still owned by the Stewart family.

After our brief photo stop, we made our way towards Glencoe- winding our way through mountains, flashed of purple occasionally appearing on the hills on either side. The heather wasn’t quite in, Chris explained, not in these parts yet.

We parked the bus and followed our nimble guide Chris down a hill, over a stream and up again. It was a brisk but short climb and well worth the effort. While the others trailed a little behind, I challenged myself to keep pace- or at least not far too far behind- Chris. I succeeded and was rewarded with a view still clear of other people. The mountains stretched up and into the clouds- their peaks hidden.

When the others arrived, Chris began to tell the harrowing story of the MacDonalds and Campbells.

Glencoe

Glencoe

After the unsuccessful Jacobite Rising of 1689, King William of Orange purchased many Scottish clans’ loyalty, but in return demanded that the clans swear allegiance to him. This oath was to be sworn my January 1, 1692. Those clans who supported James, now living in France, asked his permission to swear the oath to prevent retribution from King William and when James’ support came in December of 1691, the chiefs had enough time to sign their allegiance to William. They all signed, with the exception of Alisadar MacDonald, chief of the small MacDonald clan living in Glencoe. The winter of 1691 was particularly ferocious, and when Alisdair set out to Fort William to swear his oath, it was in the middle of a blizzard. But when MacDonald arrived at Fort William, the official whose presence was necessary to witness the oath was in Inveraray, days away from Fort William. By the time MacDonald arrived in Inveraray, the deadline had passed, it was January 2nd, and the official wasn’t even in Inveraray anymore. MacDonald waiting until the official’s return on January 7th, when he signed the oath, knowing that it was late, and that it would not be accepted.

Glencoe

Glencoe. You can see our wee Haggis bus!

King William’s Secretary of State in Scotland, John Dalrymple, was merciless. Despite assurances of Crown employees in both Fort William and Inverary of Alisdair MacDonald’s arrival at both locations, Dalrymple chose to use the situation as an opportunity to show the Highlanders the force that the government was capable of using.

Dalrymple chose Robert Campbell to carry out the punishment for the MacDonalds’ late signing. In February of 1692, a group of Campbells came to the valley of Glencoe requesting shelter. In line with Highland hospitality, the MacDonalds received the Campbells into their homes, feeding and sheltering them for several days, despite the feud that existed between the two clans. The clans lived beside each other for several days, neither clan knowing of the orders that Robert Campbell expected to receive. On February 12, 1692, Robert Campbell received orders from King William to slaughter every man, woman, and child of the MacDonald clan.

Thirty-eight MacDonalds were slaughtered by their visitors. Two of Alisdair MacDonald’s sons raised the alarm, giving many the chance to flee. But it was February during a harsh winter, and the MacDonalds were taken by surprise. They fled into the cold night, and by morning, not only were thirty-eight dead by Campbell weapons, but an additional forty were dead from exposure.

Glencoe

Glencoe

By attacking their hosts, the Campbells broke the very basic of Highland rules- an unforgivable offence. The Scottish have a long memory- as a sign above a guesthouse in Glencoe shows. “No Dogs. No Campbells”, it reads.

Every year, the head of the MacDonald clan comes to Glencoe and plants thirty-eight trees, one for every MacDonald slaughtered, and declares that the MacDonalds would remember the betrayal of the Campbells until there were no trees left in Glencoe.

My attention was fixed on Chris as he told his story, but once he finished, the atmosphere had changed. So much history, so much violence and suffering, topped with an equally unhealthy portion of bitterness. Glencoe, beautiful and mysterious, is changed once you know it’s history. The peaks disappearing into the clouds feel sinister, and the mist creeping down the sides of the mountains is a little too much like the snow and cold that claimed the lives of the fleeing MacDonalds.

~

The first mistake that visitors to Scotland make is to wish for sun. Scotland isn’t Jamaica or Mexico, where the country’s best activities are most enjoyable in steady sunshine. Rain is an essential part of the UK, and Scotland is no exception. Rain isn’t the best weather for travellers, I know, but perpetual sunshine isn’t Scottish at all. The real Scotland is in a slightly chilly afternoon, with hints of sun between ever-moving clouds. Scotland is rough but worn, rough because of glaciers that scraped it’s mountainsides, worn by the same glaciers and by time.

The evidence of this rough wear on the land is all around, especially in the Highlands.

Evidence of glaciers in the Scottish Highlands.

Evidence of glaciers in the Scottish Highlands.

We stopped in the Glen Nevis Estate for a quick overview of some film locations from the 1995 film, Braveheart. Chris pointed out some areas, then led us to a small hill just through a gate.

“It’s a Fairy Mound. The wee folk have their home in it.” He paused for a moment to make sure that his audience of sixteen were still on board. Then he went on to explain that if we wanted to enter the Fairy Realm, you must walk seven times counter-clockwise around the mound, blindfolded, before requesting entry. And maybe, maybe, you’d be admitted.

I didn’t try to enter the Fairy Mound, but I did climb to the top with the others. Here is a photo of me on a Fairy Mound-

Standing on a Fairy Mound in the Glen Nevis Estate.

Standing on a Fairy Mound in the Glen Nevis Estate.

Onwards and upwards we went- to the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a far more recognisable film location than the Glen Nevis Estate. We were instructed which path to climb to for the best view of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and so up we went to see it. Yes. There it is- the viaduct that the train from the Harry Potter films goes over! Not being a fan of the films, it wasn’t really a big deal for me, but the views the other way, onto Loch Shiel behind the Glenfinnan Monument are gorgeous.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct... imagine a scarlet train rumbling over the tracks...

The Glenfinnan Viaduct… imagine a scarlet train rumbling over the tracks…

The monument was built to commemorate the 1745 raising of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s standard and the Highlanders who gave their lives for the Jacobite cause.

My favourite part was the sign outside the visitors centre across the road from the monument, which gave a brief explanation of the memorial as well as its location, saying “…the site at the head of Loch Shiel was chosen for dramatic effect” before going on to explain that there are various locations that people claim are the actual site of the raising of the standard. I like that they owned up to the fact that the location was purely aesthetic.

The Glenfinnan Memorial with Loch Shiel behind.

The Glenfinnan Memorial with Loch Shiel behind.

Off we went into the Nevis Range to the Commando Memorial. Built in 1952 and officially unveiled in September 1952 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the memorial is to commemorate all those who lost their lives in the Commando units during World War II. The base for the Commando training was in the Lochaber area of Scotland, prompting the memorial’s magnificent location which provides gorgeous views of the Nevis Range, including the peak of Ben Nevis, on a clear day.

The Nevis Range.

The Nevis Range.

Our day was not so clear, but the mountain range was a beautiful site nonetheless, especially for me, deprived as I had been feeling, of the sight of REAL mountains.

The Commando Memorial.

The Commando Memorial.

We had a final photo stop for the day at the much-photographed Eilean Donan Castle, on Loch Duich.

Eilean Donan has as an interesting history. The Gaelic name means “island of Donnán”, named after a seventh century saint. The site’s original building was built in the thirteenth century, then destroyed in (yet another) incident involving the Jacobites and their supporters in the eighteenth century.

The building that is currently on Eilean Donan was built in between 1919 and 1932. As Chris would have it, Lieutenant Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap had a dream of his family’s ruined castle as it was in the thirteenth century. He woke and began to commit to paper as much detail of the building as he could remember. From there, he set out to rebuild his family’s ancestral home. Some time after the castle was rebuilt, documents were found with the floor plans of the original castle. With only a few minor differences, the current Eilean Donan castle is an almost exact replica of the original castle.

Eilean Donan Castle- an me!

Eilean Donan Castle- and me!

I wasn’t sure if I believed Chris- he told too many amazing stories for them all to be true. But I liked the story, so I’ll go along with it. But here’s a funny tidbit- when John MacRae-Gilstrap was rebuilding the castle they finished, after thirteen years, by building the bridge from the mainland to the little island. Yes, for thirteen years, they brought supplies over by boat. Good grief.

Our beds for the evening were booked at Saucy Mary’s Lodge in tiny Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. As our wee yellow bus crossed over the Skye Bridge, Chris amused us with the story of the bridge, which you can research on your own- this post is already far too long. Suffice to say that goats were regularly stolen and then returned to evade tolls.

After paying a rather high rate, we settled into our rooms in Saucy Mary’s Lodge (called so because of an enterprising woman who began charging ships a fee for passing through the narrow straight that the Skye Bridge now spans. They say that when ships began taking the longer route to avoid her tolls, Mary added a wee bonus for ships passing her way… which I’ll leave you to discover on your own).

We went down to the attached restaurant for supper, eventually finding everyone else at a table in the back. I had fish and chips- it was so very bad but oh, so tasty!

After dinner, the other Aussies in my room, one of the Canadians and the Swiss man (how, exactly, is the correct form of that? Swissman? “Man from Switzerland” sounds awkward) walked around the streets of Kyleakin, looking at the sweet little houses with their wild gardens, and envied their owners. We tried to reach some ruins that had been pointed out to us, but as it as high tide, we couldn’t reach them. We ended up on the beach for a while, staring over the strait to the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Castles, Coos and a Ceilidh {Haggis Tour, Day One}

I returned to Edinburgh after a long bus ride from Nottingham and even though it was late and I was tired, I felt a sense of relief being back. The relief stemmed from more than  just being in a city that I could navigate without difficulty. Edinburgh has become familiar and friendly to me, cobblestone streets and all.

I returned to the High Street Hostel, where I stayed between ending the Field School and going to London. I arrived Sunday evening and was ready to begin my Five Day tour with Haggis Adventures the next morning at 8:30 am. I chose the High Street Hostel for many reasons, but especially for this night because of it’s proximity to the Haggis Adventures office, which is 60 meters, or less than a minute (even with my monster backpack) from the hostel. Planning WIN!

After all the check-in, waiting, loading, and seat-choosing was finished, we sat on the bright yellow bus waiting for our tour to begin. After a minute or so, our guide and driver popped on and introduced himself (after first noting that this was the five day tour and if you were only planning for three days, you’re on the wrong bus…so get off). Our guide’s name was Chris and as he made sure we were all accounted for, he gave us a run-down of the rules (be prompt or we have license to mock you, don’t drink on the bus unless you’re willing to share with the driver, etc.) and we began to get an idea of how the next five days would go.

A Haggis Adventures tour bus.

A Haggis Adventures tour bus (Not mine, but I neglected to take a photo of it! Thank goodness for Google).

For most of the time it took to get out of Edinburgh, Chris talked about the city’s history, what they used to be known for (Education, Culture, Jacobites) compared a little to what they are known for now (highest teenage pregnancy in Europe, poor diet, bagpipes), and comments on some of the places we were passing as we left Edinburgh.

Much of the pieces of history and tidbits about the city weren’t new to me, as I had been in the city for three weeks previously and our instructors for the Field School had made sure to give us some background of the city. But it was nice to hear it again and listening to the stories and fact of a city from someone born and raised there will always be an added bonus.

Our tour group was made mainly of Australians (five), with Canadians (three), Spanish (two), Austrians(two), Malaysians (two), an Indian, and a man from Switzerland. The two other Canadians were from New Brunswick and spoke French as well as English. I found listening to their French very interesting as New Brunswick French sounds different from both French French and Quebecois French. It is choppier and has a whole lot of words in English thrown in.

After leaving Edinburgh behind us, Chris told a few stories (including one featuring The Stone of Destiny*) before letting us be for a while. Our first stop was a little over an hour away, the longest stretch of driving that we’d be doing for most of the tour.

As we got closer to the Wallace Monument, Chris began to tell the story of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This took place in 1297 and featured William Wallace and his canny Highlanders! Basically, by drawing King Edward’s Andrew Moray and his forces over the bridge, the Highlanders were able to control how many opponents they faced at a time. Moray chose to use the bridge to cross the River Forth, instead of fording en masse a manageable distance further downstream. The majority of the Highland forces were concealed in the trees beyond the flatland that the English forces were crossing on to. Once enough horseman had crossed, the Highlanders began a charge, rushing downwards towards their opponents and destroying them.

Anyway, it was a battle won by the Highland forces, and is remembered happily by many Scots.

The Wallace Monument

The Wallace Monument

The point is, we had the opportunity to climb up the hill to the Wallace Monument. Chris recommended the short hike for the view, but not to pay the admission costs for entering and climbing the actual monument as we wouldn’t have time. We passed the welcome centre/gift shop and began our inclined walk up to the monument. As we walked we skirted muddy bits of the path and I noticed how similar the woods that we were walking through were to those at home.

Stirling Castle on the left overlooking the surrounding area.

Stirling Castle on the left overlooking the surrounding area, as seen from the Wallace Monument.

The views from the hill that the Wallace Monument is built on are beautiful. I may have said it in previous posts, but there is something elusive about Scotland- you can’t capture it in photos. Even though you may be able to say, “Oh, look at the way the distant hills are smudged by the low clouds- so lovely” you don’t really understand; you haven’t really felt the pull of a Scottish landscape.

In any case, I was delighted to have a lovely view of Stirling, having visited the city with the Field School and seeing the Wallace Monument from the walls of Stirling Castle, it was fun to be in the reverse position.

Stirling Castle from the Wallace Monument

Stirling Castle from the Wallace Monument

On our walk back down to the bus, some of the Aussies, the other Canadians and I began talking. The two Aussies are from Victoria and one is a psychologist, the other an elementary school teacher currently living in London. The women from New Brunswick were from Moncton, one was an RN and the other a Political Science student.

Our next stop was Doune Castle, built in the fourteenth century and known by many people for being a location for one of the Monty Python films. Some of our group were very excited about it.

Also a fun fact about the small town of Doune- I supposedly supplied approximately 90% of the guns used in World War I. I believe this was due to the manufacturing of the Doune pistol (but don’t hold me to it, my memory can be a wild place).

Doune Castle

Doune Castle

After Doune Castle, we passed the Lake of Menteith, known for being the only lake in Scotland. Other bodies of water that we would call lakes are all “lochs” in Scotland, with the infamous exception of the Lake of Menteith. Wikipedia has an uninteresting explanation for the exception for the name of the Lake of Menteith and I’m sure that’s all well and good, but that is not what our guide, Chris said. The reason we heard for calling the body of water “Lake of Menteith” instead of “Loch Menteith”, was that the baron of Menteith, Sir John Menteith of Ruskie betrayed one of Scotland’s famous sons, William Wallace to the English. Wallace’s downfall was a direct consequence of Sir John’s betrayal, so the loch was renamed to signal the baron’s loyalty to England and disloyalty to Scotland. As Chris said, “We Scottish have long memories”.

Next on our journey, we set off to see a friend of Chris’, Hamish the Highland Coo. According to Chris, there are no cows in Scotland, only “coos”. Here’s Hamish,

Hamish the Highland Coo.

Hamish the Highland Coo.

He’s quite large and is apparently a very popular tourist stop. Seriously. They had both tea cosies and mini Highland coos for sale in the gift shop.

Bertie next to a Highland Coo.

Bertie’s new chum, a Highland Coo.

We drove for a little while, Chris telling stories as he drove, and eventually made it the path that would lead us to Kilchurn Castle on the bank of Loch Awe. We set out for a nice walk under a set of train tracks, through a gate and down a long gravel and dirt path littered with sheep droppings that approached the front of Kilchurn Castle.

Built in both the fifteenth and then again in the seventeenth centuries, Kilchurn (pronounced Kill-curn) Castle is exactly what you would want the ruins of a Scottish Castle to be. Situated on a gorgeous loch surrounding by hills, the castle has no roof, leaving the sky open above as you can climb up to the ruined second and third levels.

The initial excitement that the ruined castle caused slowly died down and if you stood alone, the silence was expansive and clear, seeming to reach for the edges of your senses for just that little bit of sound that the stones hadn’t quite absorbed.

And here is the front of the castle.

The ruins of Kilchurn Castle.

The ruins of Kilchurn Castle.

Throughout the day Chris stopped at several waterfalls… a loose estimate would be about twenty waterfalls. I’m exaggerating, but there were a lot! Some were tiny trickles down rock faces, minor because of the drought in Scotland. When Chris was telling us that we were in a drought area he noted our disbelief triggered by the still briskly-flowing rivers and healthy green vegetation and was quick to explain that although it looked lush enough to us, he’d been doing this for a few years and was familiar enough to see the difference, pointing out several places that should have been overgrown with lush grasses and rivers that should have been gushing, but were so low that part of the riverbed was exposed.

The Falls of Dochart

The Falls of Dochart. The gorgeous dark colour of the water is from the minerals in the earth (I thought it looked like Guinness).

Me on the bridge over the Falls of Dochart.

Me on the bridge over the Falls of Dochart.

Another river...waterfall...rushing water...

Another river…waterfall…rushing water… Chris kept stopping so we could see these waterfalls. Sort of unimpressive for me, being from BC, but I can still appreciate the beauty of it.

We drove along the banks of Loch Awe for a little while until we stopped at St. Conan’s Kirk. Surrounded by tall trees, the kirk (what a church is called in Scotland) is sheltered from the road and in shadows. The kirk itself was built in the late nineteenth century, as as new (for Scotland) as that is, the kirk has nestled itself perfectly into it’s surroundings. There is a small open courtyard as you enter from the side, with beautiful trees peeking over the roof on your right before you enter. After your eyes adjust, the stone walls’ uniformity stretches around you. The kirk has many windows, allowing gorgeous views of the loch. I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be to have grown up attending church in a setting so closely linked with nature.

Loch Awe from Saint Conan's Kirk.

Loch Awe from Saint Conan’s Kirk.

We drove into Oban, the small coastal town where we were to spend the night, around 5pm. Our accommodation for the night was at Oban Backpackers Plus, where the rooms were large and the dorm beds had names like “Portuguese Man of War”. We checked in (sixteen people in a group makes this a long process) and then went up to our dorms, where I gratefully set my backpack down.

Before we’d parked the bus, Chris drove us around the small core of Oban (Oh-bin). He pointed out some decent restaurants, a grocery store, some really good restaurants, and the Skipinnish Ceilidh House. He told us that tonight we would have the opportunity to experience traditional Scottish music and dancing- a ceilidh (kay-lee). His description was very enthusiastic, telling us that if we went we’d have a good time and that it was the best way to start off a tour, and on and on. There was a general agreement to have dinner before we went to the ceilidh house.

We spent some time getting ready to go out to dinner before setting off to find a suitable place for fourteen. We passed fish and chip shops, expensive-looking restaurants, shady looking soup and sandwich shops, before finding ourselves in Oban Bay. The ceilidh began at 8 o’clock, so we eventually decided on an Italian restaurant with windows looking out on the bay. We had the staff scramble a little, with fourteen people all wanting to sit together, but in the end we ordered and had a very tasty meal. I had a spinach and ricotta tortellini in a white sauce, which was probably the most Italian pasta that I’ve had since being in Italy. I highly recommend the restaurant, called Piazza, which was decently priced and, as I said, very tasty.

I felt a little bad that I didn’t order a dish with seafood, which Oban, being a coastal town serves very well, but my meal was just so delicious that I didn’t feel bad for very long.

We walked a little ways from the restaurant to the Ceilidh house, which is on the main street of Oban, paid our entrance fee of £5 and climbed the stairs. Our meal had taken longer than we’d expected, so we were about ten to fifteen minutes late. The performance part of the evening had already begun, and the low-ceilinged room was filled with music. A fiddler, a guitarist, a piper, a tin whistler and a girl at a keyboard delighted us with Scottish traditional folk music for over an hour before taking a break. They performed traditional airs and both of the girls sang in both English and Scottish Gaelic (Gah-lick).

I wish had photos for you, but I was too busy enjoying myself to stop and take photos. If you want to see it, go to the Skipinnish Ceilidh House for yourself. The night will not disappoint…

Especially when they begin the dancing!

To preface this next bit, just know that I’m a horrible dancer. At school dances… I didn’t. Going out dancing is something… I don’t do. I dance, yes, absolutely, when I’m at home baking in my kitchen. There, I’m a fantastic dancer. But I am well aware that my public dancing skills aren’t really skills so much as a conspicuous inability to move my body in a coordinated way to music. But I really wanted to dance a traditional Scottish dance.

So, with the kind partnering by Lucy, a friendly Aussie, I danced. I’ve never had so much fun. Ever. The music was great, the dancing was confusing and exhausting and exhilarating and just so much fun!

Our group danced so much! With the exception of a rather …stoic… Austrian couple, who sat and looked both disgusted and bored the whole dancing part of the evening, everyone in our group who had come to the ceilidh danced at least a couple times. I’ll admit, I screwed up loads, but it didn’t matter too much (poor Lucy, though!).

Now, the floors were sticky, the lighting was dim, and I’m not in the best dancing shape, but the music and the dancing overshadowed any negatives.

Seriously, GO TO THE SKIPINNISH CEILIDH HOUSE.

Traditional Scottish music at the Skipinnish Ceilidh House, Oban.

Traditional Scottish music at the Skipinnish Ceilidh House. This was the best of the few photos I have. It’s pretty bad, I know, I know.

We stayed until maybe midnight or so before a group of us started back to our hostel. I’m pretty sure we could’ve kept doing, but we needed to be ready to leave by 8:30 the next morning, so we called it a night. And what a night!

*Chris claims that one of his school mates was Ian Hamilton’s son. I’m a little sceptical, especially given the story he told us about the Stone.

Also, here is a map of the places we visited on this first day, just as a reference.

Edinburgh to Oban, Day 1 of the Haggis Tour

Edinburgh to Oban, Day 1 of the Haggis Tour

http://www.piazzaoban.com/index.html

http://www.skipinnishceilidhhouse.com/

Nottingham

I’ve forgotten to introduce you all to a major element in my travels in the UK this summer, National Express, a company providing affordable (read: cheap… ish) bus travel between cities within the UK.

Now I don’t do very well on buses. There is something about it that does not agree with me- probably the combination of often uncomfortably high heat, lack of personal space, and smells of other people or their foodstuffs. This glorious combination means that I can really only eat soda crackers and drink water when travelling for more than a couple hours by bus.

Given how badly I take bus travel, you may be asking why exactly I booked all my transportation between cities by bus instead of by train. Money, money, money. I don’t have much. And so I am now a member of National Express’ Discount Card program. I am so special.

So, you can imagine that my seven hour bus ride from Bath to Nottingham was unpleasant.

But in the end, I got to Nottingham in one piece (although a little ragged upon arrival) and ended up having a delightful conversation the woman who was in the seat beside me for part of my journey. She was born in Ireland, very close to Westport, where I visited on my travels through Ireland in 2009. We chatted for a bit and she told me that she’d lived in Canada for several years- never in BC, however, and that one of her daughters and her family were in Alberta. Small world. This lady had also lived in Australia and had yet another daughter living in the Land Down Under!

My hostel in Nottingham is conveniently located just a block from Victoria Bus Station. However, National Express drops off it’s passengers at the Broadmarch Bus Station, on the other side of town! Fortunately, there is a free shuttle between the two stations, which was a relief.

My home for the next few nights was Igloo Hostel and, having stayed in several hostels before, I can confidently say that this was a very well run hostel. The price is a little higher than I like to pay per night, but it included internet access, linens, and a guest kitchen. What really made the price worth it were the spectacular staff at the hostel. They were friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. Genuinely interested in your experiences in the city, my visit was definitely better for having stayed at this particular hostel.

My stay in Nottingham was longer than both Oxford and Bath because I intended to relax while in Notthingham, take it easy on the attractions and tourist stuff. Also, I was sick with a cold… which I’m pretty sure the others in my dorm also caught because of me! So sorry, ladies!

Well I certainly didn’t do very many attractions or activities but this was due to an unfortunately discovery of the financial variety- quite simply I was out of money!

So I cut back. I did Nottingham Castle, though, because it was in the city limits (read: no transportation costs).

Now, I knew that Nottingham Castle of today was not the Nottingham Castle that most people would imagine- not medieval or renaissance. The current Nottingham Castle was built in the nineteenth century and is what is known as a ‘ducal mansion’, or a big house. And yes, the anticlimactic tone with which you (hopefully) read ‘a big house’ was quite intentional… for that is all it is. It’s official name is actually Nottingham Castle Museum. The gatehouse through which you enter and where you pay admission is just what you’d expect… but once you officially enter the grounds there is a small sign that reads “So Where’s the Castle?” and that is exactly what you’re thinking. Because, although you are greeted, upon entering, by lovely gardens and paths wherever you look, there seems to be a very… not so Robin-Hood-y type building in front of you. The helpful (but slightly teasing) sign explains about the site being the location of many ‘Nottingham Castles’. The current building is from 1831. Admittedly, that is prior to Queen Victoria’s reign, but not by much.

Nottingham Castle Museum

Nottingham Castle Museum

So… I did know it wasn’t the Nottingham Castle, but I wasn’t expecting nineteenth century. But the gardens were pretty and well-kept. That is all.

Alright, not all, but when you pay admission for a castle… a-hem.

The entrance to the gallery in Nottingham Castle.

The entrance to the gallery in Nottingham Castle. You get a better idea of what the rest of the building looks like.

The Museum was nice, but I had, at this point seen quite a few museums and galleries and it was all beginning to wear a bit thin. I did find a few portraits that I liked, but nothing really got me until I discovered the small space in the basement of the fake castle.

Tucked in the basement of the castle is exactly what most visitors to Nottingham are really looking for- Robin Hood. There is a small area, clearly for children, dedicated to the legend that draws visitors to the city. There are costumes (for kids), activities (for kids), a brief history and timeline of the legend (for kids)… and not a thing for adults. I suppose what their really saying is that adults shouldn’t be interested in the legend of Robin Hood- that we should be choosing our travel destinations based on culture and deeper interests than what enthralled us as children. How insulting.

But you needn’t worry. I didn’t succumb to their implied loftiness of mind. The little girl in me who thought that Disney’s Robin Hood was just about as dashing and handsome as an animated fox could possibly be was happy to have found the little compromise of the castle’s organisers.

Robin Hood looks hunky in green tights.

Yep.

Someone managed to get this little sign past whoever is trying to stop the city from going Robin Hood- crazy. Overall, Nottingham Castle was a waste of money- the gallery was nice enough, but more often than not, visitors to the castle will be disappointed. The gate-house entrance is deceptive and the gallery not quite what most people were coming to Nottingham to see.

In 2009 I took a train from Paris to Versailles. I was helped by an English couple who happened to come from Nottingham. On the train we chatted a little and they told me of their city council’s attempt at changing Nottingham’s image by down-playing Robin Hood and trying to uphold other draws of the city. The couple disapproved of the attempt and were pleased to report a resurgence of the Man in Green’s presence in the city.

Having now been to Nottingham myself, I am inclined to think that the city went a little too far in toning down the city’s reliance on the Robin Hood legend to draw visitors. Instead of providing alternatives, the city has withdrawn much of the attraction of their city. By building on the pull of the famous outlaw’s story, the city’s tourism board could have expanded in so many ways (archery lessons, anyone? What about local theatre groups putting on short One Act plays based on the classic stories?). Instead, the city is… just a city with an interesting history and good shopping. Here is something to consider: I found a much better Robin Hood-style hat in Oregon than I did anywhere in Nottingham. Something is rotten in the County of Nottinghamshire…

So, after my sad experience at Nottingham Castle, I weighed my options by consulting the ‘experience Nottinghamshire’ visitor’s guide. Ninety-nine pages thick and Robin Hood is mentioned on… prepare yourselves… two pages. Pages eight and nine have some Robin Hood-themed experiences, but most of the information isn’t Hood-related at all.

I had wanted to go to Sherwood Forest while in Nottingham, however I also wanted to do a walking tour of the city, which I have found to be interesting in other cities (given adequate research before choosing a tour). I didn’t know exactly what I would do or how it would work to take the bus the visitor’s guide advised (would I need another bus to get me to the entrance to the Forest? What else was there to do? Can you just walk through the Forest on your own?), so I chose to do the city walking tour. I still wanted a Robin Hood-theme, so upon the recommendation of one of the staff at the hostel, I took the Robin Hood Tour of Nottingham Town. The brochure said,

Explore Nottingham town with its most famous son, Robin Hood, as your guide! visit the places associated with Robin Hood and learn how simple ballads over 700 years old grew into one of the greatest stories ever told.

On the Saturday morning, I walked down to the Cross Keys pub, where the tour was meant to meet at 11. After a short hesitation at the door, I walked in, hoping to find the guide or a ‘pre-guide’, who gathers the people before the guide arrives and deals with admission. I entered the pub and, my eyes adjusting to the dimmer light, I looked around and made eye contact with a man leaning on the bar, who was sipping a coffee.

“Can I help you?”

“I was looking for the Robin Hood walking tour, but I think I definitely have the right place.” And I did, because he was… well he was Robin Hood. I mean, look at the photo…

Standing next to Robin Hood in front of the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham. Just sayin'.

Standing next to Robin Hood in front of the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham. Just sayin’. ;)

See what I mean?

The tour was set for two hours, from 11 until 1pm. The group was small, about eight people, and he asked at the beginning if we had any objections to extending the tour by about a half hour. We all agreed and he seemed pleased, adding that with a little more time, there could be a couple more stops, more photos and more information. He introduced himself as Robin Hood and explained that the tour was meant to show how the legends evolved over the centuries into the story that we know today.

His explanation began in the Lace Market area of Nottingham (originally Snottingaham, an Anglo-Saxon place name) and we slowly moved through the areas of the city.

Our guide “Robin Hood” was clearly well researched on the city- so much so that he could easily have been running three different tours judging by the amount of information that he was sharing. I’m fairly certain that he was holding back, trying to keep within a reasonable time. Well, despite saying he would only be about a half hour over, by the time we had made our way through the city (learning more than my poor head could every absorb), it was just after 2pm. And that was when we were ordering a drink to sip while he wrapped everything up. We’d made it to one of the three pubs that claims to be the oldest pub in Nottingham, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem,  (supposedly established in 1189) and by the time we’d had our drinks and the discussion had finally died down enough for me to leave without being rude, it was just after 3pm.

The information was fascinating- the pieces that the current story had picked up over the centuries reminded me of a glacier picking up different rocks as it moves, eventually depositing them in a heap and left to be understood by those who come after (good grief. I just reread that. Oh well- that’s as good as it’s going to get at this point).

I enjoyed his storytelling style (though I feel he needs to rehearse more to minimize those points where he would lose where he was in the narrative), and he was quite charming. But for pity’s sake- FOUR HOURS? ARE YOU KIDDING? I mean, REALLY!

I happened to check the reviews on this tour a few weeks ago and I noticed someone who was on the same tour had left a review. It was fairly positive but he did mention the length (and he didn’t even stay the whole time because he was with his kid!). The guide had replied, basically reminding the reviewer that he (the guide, Robin Hood), had checked in at regular intervals to make sure we were all good to keep going. Silly Robin. Everyone knows that past a certain point in a group setting, especially with such a small group, there comes a point where you cannot really leave or say that its getting a bit long. There’d be that awkward pause where everyone would wait for the reason why you’re trying to leave and unless it is important… you’re stuck. And asking how much long it would be didn’t really work. Bah.

It was such a good tour- but he need to be kept in check!

Sadly, because of the tour’s length, all the information that really was enthralling to hear is gone- there is a point where no more information can be held on to… my main memory of the tour was that there was so much information and that it was four hours. Sad.

After making my escape, I grabbed lunch (£2.50 at Tesco!) and ate in the Old Market Square, recently made over to include benches, a performance area, and a combination water display and water park for kids. Our guide had walked us through the area, mentioning that the renovations to the pedestrianized area had contributed to the revitalisation of the city- bringing the community together from young to old, especially as the Square is surrounded by shops and dominated by the Council House, a tourist centring point. The Council house is flanked on either side by two large stone lions, named Menelaus and Agamemnon.

The City Council in Nottingham in the Old Market Square.

The City Council in Nottingham in the Old Market Square. You can’t see the lions. Too many people.  Point of interest, however, the bell in the dome of the Council House is called, wait for it… Little John! Take that, Nottingham City Council!

I spent a full three days in Nottingham, and though I’m not usually a fan of the over-the-top-let’s-capitalize-on-a-tourism-gimmick idea, I found very few Robin Hood things. Here’s what I found,

Tuckers

Tuckers- a small snack shop/cafe, inspired by Friar Tuck!

Stained glass above the entrance to a pub across from Nottingham 'Castle' Museum.

Stained glass above the entrance to a pub across from Nottingham ‘Castle’ Museum.

Robin Hood's Jacket Potatoes.

Robin Hood’s Jacket Potatoes. Yup. Classy… but sort of nice to see amidst the “hush-hush” attitude the rest of the city has towards it’s most famous personality.

I liked Nottingham, but because of my finances, I didn’t get to do what I wanted most, which was to go to Sherwood Forest and see the Major Oak. This just means that when I return to England, I’ll have a reason to visit Nottingham!

The next posts will be of my return to Scotland on the Haggis Adventure Five Day Highland Fling tour! Get ready- it was pretty fantastic! Here’s a teaser photo…

Loch Awe and the ruins of Kilchurn Castle.

Loch Awe and the ruins of Kilchurn Castle. Go on, tell me this doesn’t make you yearn to visit Scotland. (:

You can click on the photos to see it in a larger size- do it for this last one- its worth it, I promise!

NOTE: Since publication, this post has been mentioned in a blog that make it sound as though I hated Nottingham… which isn’t true at all.

Let me be clear: I want desperately for Nottingham to embrace it’s history and use it to gain more interest from visitors. Specifically, that the city would invest in the Robin Hood legend as a way to draw visitors to Nottingham, where visitors could learn more about the city’s Lace Market success and the architecture firms that were established in the city.

I feel that the city of Nottingham is impractically choosing to ignore the investment possibilities that are staring them in the face.

Also, whoever is in charge of Marketing on the city council should have their CV examined.

 

One last thing… LONG LIVE ROBIN HOOD!

Bath- Buns, Bonnets and Bells

The last time I was in the UK, I spent a glorious half day in Bath, which is in Somerset, in the South-West of England. I spent such a short amount of time in the city because I was on my way to meet someone in Bristol, which is a short train ride from Bath.

This time around, I spent three nights in Bath and arrived by bus. The hostel is conveniently located just down the street from the bus and train stations. I made a quick job of depositing my monster backpack at the hostel. The employee at reception explained the rules (different in every hostel, of course) and he helped me carry my bags up to the room, explained the code at the dorm door and deposited the bag beside the bed of my choice, which was more than most hostels will do. Very sweet and quite unexpected.

I did a basic wander around the city and noticed a sign advirtising a walking tour for the city called “Bizarre Bath”, a comedy walk in the evening, £5 for students. As I was getting ready to head out for the tour, two others in the dorm and I began to talk. They are from New Zealand, which means their accents were both fun to listen to and hard to understand. Both in their twenties, Maree and Jodie are travelling for several months, which is standard for both Aussies and New Zealanders travelling in Europe and the UK. Flying time for NZs and Aussies is often around twenty-four hours- so they stay longer to make it worth-while! As we talked, they were getting ready too, and it turns out they were headed for the same tour.

The tour was fun- not exactly factual, but there were loads of laughs and it was, overall, a good tour. Definitely a comedy tour, not a historical or literary tour! After the tour, the three of us went to a pub where I tried Hobgoblin Ale! It was good, but I really only tried it for the name.

The first full day, I decided to go to the Holburne Museum, which is a little outside of the city centre.

The museum was small but interesting and I enjoyed my morning. The Sydney Gardens, which Jane Austen mentioned in letters she wrote while in Bath, are behind the Museum, so I walked around a little. There was hardly anyone else around, which made my wanderings quite pleasant and peaceful.

I had agreed to meet to Jodie and Maree at the Jane Austen Centre, located at 40 Gay Street, just down from the Circus. Jane Austen, author of six completed novels, lived for several years (cumulatively) in Bath and for some of that time, her family lived just up the street from the Jane Austen Centre, at 25 Gay Street, closer to the Circus. Two of Austen’s novels are set partially in Bath, Northanger Abbey and my personal favourite, Persuasion.

I made my way through Bath, enjoying the combination of buildings that is uniquely Bath until I reached Gay Street, where I tortured myself in the gift shop until the other two arrived. We paid for our tickets into the exhibit, took our seats and waited for our introductory talk to begin.

The ticket includes an introductory talk on Jane and the Austen family, a walk through an informative exhibit which includes a short film hosted by Amanda Root on the character of Anne Elliott. The information, both in the brief talk and in the exhibit was interesting- I knew the basics of Jane Austen’s upbringing and her family but it was good to hear the information again. The exhibit included such facts as how to interpret the annual income that characters in Austen’s novels are constantly being valued at and how that would affect their household. For instance, at £400 per year, a cook and a housemaid could be employed and possibly a boy for chores. £700 per year, it was just possible to have and maintain a carriage, while above £4000 would allow men such as Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy all the comforts of a house in London for the season as well as a comfortable estate elsewhere, with all the added bonuses, depending on exactly how rich you were!

At the end of the exhibit, there are two hat racks with Regency style bonnets and hats as well as a basket of parasols and fans which visitors are encouraged to try on… so we did!

Wearing a bonnet and holding a parasol at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath.

Wearing a bonnet and holding a parasol at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath.

After our tour, we went up to the Jane Austen Centre Regency Tea Rooms- located in the upper floors of 40 Gay Street. We enjoyed the lovely setting and the absolutely scrumptious treats- a scone and sandwiches for me and cake and sandwiches for the other two- with our tea.

A portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.

A portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy adorns the wall. Perhaps Mr. Tilney or Captain Wentworth would have been more fitting?

A table near the window in the Regency Tea Rooms waiting to be filled.

A table near the window in the Regency Tea Rooms waiting to be filled.

Our lovely tea at the Jane Austen Regency Tea Rooms!
Our lovely tea at the Jane Austen Regency Tea Rooms!

The tea was a nice blend (though had clearly been brewing before it arrived) and the scone and the Devonshire cream was exactly right. It was ridiculously satisfying to be enjoying a light afternoon tea in Bath. I was, I readily admit, grinning idiotically most of the time we were there.

One of the smaller attractions in Bath is the Bath Postal Museum. I found the museum tucked behind the main post office in Bath and down a set of slightly creepy stairs. When I entered, the man at the reception desk explained that the gift shop (the shelves in the entrance area) was free to look around, but other than that, the rest of the museum had an entrance fee. I paid the modest entrance fee of £1.50 and began wandering around the museum. The city of Bath played an integral part in the development of the British postal service. The city was chosen as the secondary sorting hub for mail not headed for London, and a local resident introduced the idea of mail coaches and express mail to the system. Bath is also the site that the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued from, three days early on May 2nd, 1840. The issue of adhesive postage stamps introduced the system of pre-paying for postage- before it was the addressee who paid for the postage!

When I had almost finished looking round the museum, the man at the front poked his head around a display case and eagerly asked if I had noted a certain item. The noncommittal, confused sound I made must not have been noncommittal or confused enough sounding, because he evidently took the noise to mean “Why, yes, I did notice it- and how extraordinarily interesting!”

The man at the front desk of the museum eagerly explained the importance of this particular piece of… er… rock. From there, he began to explain his theories on a new dating method based on Sumerian texts and the pyramids and the Great Flood referenced in the Bible and Plato’s account of Atlantis. I wanted to be polite. I must have been polite. Too polite. He talked for a while. A long while. Forty minutes after I first noted the time, I had my hand on the doorknob. So close. My phone had buzzed with a text. I was supposed to be meeting my NZs. I apologized and checked the phone, relieved that I now had a solid exit! I made my excuses- “I’m meeting some people, I’m already a little late-” but that was fine, he just wanted to point out some excerpts from the introduction to his book. My head was already swimming and I’m fairly sure that I had I was glassy-eyed but he kept talking. When I finally stepped back into the sunlight, weak and precarious though it was, I felt a thrill of freedom! My ears were my own again! Huzzah!

…Moreover, representing contemporaneous and ancient realisations of the size and shape of the Earth, the semi-circular forms of the South and North Barrows, and inner and outer arrangements of bluestones, have similar architectural function s to the four parts of the two ‘B’ shaped markers of the pyramid temples of Zoser. More remarkably, the ‘bluestone henge’ appears to mark developments associated with the ancient posts. And, based on the solstitial orientation of the Avenue, and the respective rectangular arrangement of Station Stones, a datum configuration can be identified to relate representational interfaces of the two Barros…

I met my NZ friends outside of Sally Lunn’s, whose placard announced that it is the oldest house in Bath, built in 1482. Sally Lunn’s in known for the Sally Lunn Bun, which is their own version of the Bath Bun, a sweet bread that is served throughout the city and can be savoury and sweet, depending on your toppings. We were shown to the second floor and into a crowded by charming room and seated at a corner table. I hadn’t realised it until the menu was in front of me, but I was hungry. After some debate (it all looked so tempting), I ordered a Brie and Cranberry Toastie Bath Bun. When it arrived, along with tea as dark as coffee, I was so pleased. Brie and cranberry and toasted bread… so good.

Bath is dominated by Bath Abbey, a gorgeous building. The site that the abbey is built on is that site where, as early as the sixth century, an abbey or Christian building is supposed to have stood. The abbey has been destroyed, ruined, damaged and repair several times.

Admission to the Abbey is free, but the tour isn’t too pricey, so we (the NZs and I) decided to do it. We had initially wanted to do the 11am tour, be we had a little delay, which resulted in our tour being booked for noon. Until then, we did a little bit of shopping and then indulged in a hot chocolate from a little Alice In Wonderland-themed cafe just behind the Abbey.

We paid for our hot chocolates- a whopping £3.00- and sat outside on the Wonderland-themed chairs at the Wonderland-themed tables, awaiting our hot chocolates. They arrived, and true to the theme of their little shop, they were a little different…

My giant cup (bowl) of hot chocolate at The Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Bath.

The giant cup (bowl) of hot chocolate at The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Bath.

By “a little different”, I mean that they were HUGE!!! The photo doesn’t really give you a good idea of it, but I’m pretty sure that I could easily have stuck my face into the “mug” without difficulty. No, I didn’t try it.

Our hot chocolate was nice and our tower tour of the Abbey was even nicer. The climb up to the bell tower and finally to the roof of the Abbey is two hundred and twelve steps- which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t. The amount of stairs isn’t what gets you- it’s the uneven steps and the spiral staircase that make the climb daunting. Fortunately, the Abbey wisely limits the spots on the tour, so the tour group is a good size and fits  in the tiny spaces the tour takes us (up narrow staircases and in the tiny space behind the Abbey’s clock face!). My favourite part of the tour was the part where they brought us to where the bells live. Our guide pointed out the smallest and the largest and if I’d been daring enough, I could have reached out and touched one of the bells, bigger than me, certainly and some of them older than me by centuries.

The views from the Abbey’s roof are lovely, and the sun decided to break through the normal drift of clouds, giving us some really lovely views of Bath.

A view of the city from Bath Abbey.

A rare sunny moment in Bath provides a lovely view of the city from Bath Abbey.

The city of Bath was lovely to spend time in, but it is expensive! This post is being written from home, over four weeks after I actually spent time there. This is because of the jaw-dropping costs of internet in Bath. In the hostel, it was so expensive that not only did I resolve not to pay for it, but I also said as much with a staff member within hearing distance (as in, sitting right behind me). Foot in mouth! As awkward as it was, I meant it! Only later, when I was searching for more reasonably-priced internet did I realise that it simply didn’t exist in Bath. I ended up paying £3 for an hour. Bah. But the cost is the cause of the (barely forgiveable) delay in posts.

So as not to leave you on a sour note regarding Bath, here’s something I’d forgotten:

On Monday night, the NZs and I were in our dorm room. I don’t quite remember what we were doing, but being occupied in our own tasks, we noticed it at different times. The open window was admitting the beautiful sound of church bells. The music lasted for over an hour, and we speculated intermittently if it was an evening wedding, bell-ringer practise or something other event. The fading light touched the buildings on the opposite side of the street and the bells rang out- and I felt perfectly happy to be in Bath, a city that had seen so much, from Romans, to the Norman conquest, to Jane Austen herself.

Oxford: The Land of Tolkien and Lewis

After London, I was excited to spend some time in smaller towns. I caught my bus to Oxford, arriving around 11am. After wandering around for a while, I found my hostel with the help of a few kind pedestrians.

The hostel let me leave my bags, gave me a very basic map of the city, and I set off to explore. It was raining (not very shocking considering the last few weeks) but I still found myself enjoying the streets, store fronts and hanging baskets despite the drizzle. One of the first places I found was the Bodleian Library, and I found that there was a cost to enter the library. I filed that away and stepped out of the little gatehouse with the information, happily finding Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs just across the street. The bridge connects the two buildings of Hertford College… which has it’s own cat, Simpkins, who roams at will. Sadly, I didn’t see Simpkins.

Oxford's Bridge of Sighs, connecting Hertford College.

Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs, connecting Hertford College.

It’s as though I was made for this city.

I continued wandering, stepping into cute shops and passing pretty little cafes, eateries, and bakeries with determination. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats.

An example of the tasty treats I resisted. I feel I deserve applause...

An example of the tasty treats I resisted. I feel I deserve applause…

I stopped and took a few photos of an interesting side street just behind the Radcliffe Camera, continued wandering, soon finding the Covered Market. With over fifty retailers, the covered market is a little like Granville Island, just more crowded. I wandered through the covered market, passing a florist, butchers, little cafes, bakeries, trinket shops, shoe shops (no, I didn’t buy any more) and, to my delight, Pieminister! I heard about this chain of savoury pie shops first from a friend who sampled their products during his recent time in England. I chose a Heidi pie, which had goat cheese, spinach and sweet potatoes. It was piping hot and so delicious!

Covered Market, Oxford.

The Covered Market in Oxford, a lovely shelter on a rainy day.

After my tasty lunch I joined a free walking tour of Oxford which I had seen offered in my initial search for my hostel. The rain, which had been steady, was now pelting down furiously and I stood with the guide for several minutes as he tried to call out through the rain for others to join the tour. Eventually, the group swelled to five, which was enough to run. Our guide’s name was Lawrence, a long-time resident of the city. He took us through various parts of the city for the next two hours, and we listened, often straining to hear him over the rain, traffic and other groups.

One of the places that we stopped was a little side-street just behind the Radcliffe Camera, a street I’d walked past earlier and had taken photos of. I had liked the look of it, even in the gloom of the rain, but it is far more special than just an intriguing ally.

The side street has in it a door which our guide has never seen open. Into the door has been carved an intricate lion’s head, with leaves intertwining with it’s mane. The door itself is flanked with two carved fauns, one holding a flute and the other a small harp. If you look down the cobbled street from the main road, with the door on the left towards the Radcliffe Camera, you see the door with the lion’s head, the carved fauns and a lamppost. C.S. Lewis was known to have regularly walked down that little side-street between Magdalen College and the Bodleian Library. Yes… what I’m saying is that that little side street is considered locally to possibly be the inspiration for Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

!!!

Oh yes.

A carved lion's head on the door with two friendly fauns flanking him and a lamp post just down the lane...

Possible inspiration for elements of Lewis’ Narnia?

Our guide went on to say that the he has passed that door hundreds of times but he’s never seen it open, never seen anyone coming in or going out…

The tour was full of information, and unfortunately, this post is sooo late that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to remember… here are a few snippits of what’s left…

There is a pub with a wall of neckties called The Bear. A previous owner of the pub, upon seeing a patron with an especially nice tie, would lean over the counter and snip it off to add to his collection! The tie-less patron would receive a free pint in recompense (but I doubt it that quite made up for it).!

In the 14th century, there was a two-day riot between the Town and Gowns (the “town” refers to the residents and “gowns” refers to the students, who traditionally wear long black gowns when they matriculate). The St. Scholastica Day riot left over ninety people dead, and four hundred and seventy years of penance in the form of a bareheaded (out of respect) march of the mayor of Oxford and town councillors through the town as well as a fine of a penny for every scholar killed.

The River Thames flows through Oxford, just out of the centre of the city. It is not, however, called the River Thames. Instead, residents of Oxford have re-christened it the River Isis. …Because they can.

On my second day, I booked a tour of the Bodleian Library. The tour was short but, again, brimming with information. The Bodleian Library was renovated and really, built by Sir Thomas Bodley, who made a deal with the Royal Printers that made it a copyright library, which means that it receives a complementary copy of every book printed in the UK. It now has over 11 million books.

The Bodleian Library was also a location for the Harry Potter films- they shot the infirmary in the Divinity School.

I won’t detail everything about the Library that I found interesting or note-worthy- there is too much to tell and not enough time. Suffice to say that by the time the tour was finished, I was half-way ready to rob a bank and apply to one of Oxford’s colleges and study for ever and ever, soaking in the history and brilliance of the city and the university.

Outside of the Dickens exhibit in the Bodleian Library.

Outside of the Dickens exhibit in the Bodleian Library.

There was a free exhibit on Charles Dickens- again, so much information, but I think I will attempt to read one of his novels when I get home. I felt woefully ignorant as I toured the little exhibit- rather like an impostor. Solution: read Dickens!

I had unwittingly booked myself into Oxford the weekend of two events. First, and more widely advertised, was Alice Day, a celebration of Lewis Carrols’ stories of Alice and her adventures. This meant that I frequently passed people of all ages (literally toddlers and infants to young adults to not so young adults to seniors) dressed as Alice or the Cheshire cat or the Mad Hatter or the Queen of Hearts. A little surreal.

The bizarre sight of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum strolling down the street clashed dramatically with the three Quidditch teams staying in my hostel. The second event was the International Quidditch Championships. The Canadian, Australian and American teams were staying in the same hostel that I was in. They have sponsors and team jerseys and strategy. I was both impressed and a little bemused. They had two photographers travelling with them. They have their own website*. I was encouraged to watch the match, which was happening, unfortunately, the day I was leaving Oxford. Sad, as that is just the sort of even that I would have been intensely pleased to attend. It would have been hilarious.

Just one more thing to add to this atrociously abbreviated post (whose lack of length is completely disproportionate to my enjoyment of the city):

On my last evening in Oxford, I made my way to the Eagle and Child Pub. I ordered Sausage and Mash and a pint of Oxford Gold. I settled into a little nook and read The Hobbit.

The Hobbit and a pint of Oxford Gold in the Eagle and Child.

The Hobbit and a pint of Oxford Gold in the Eagle and Child.

If you don’t understand the significance of the above paragraph, I have nothing more to say to you.

For those who do understand, I invite you to share in my thrilled glee. I was just so very pleased. The food was delicious, the pint was decent, and I was reading The Hobbit in the meeting place of the Inklings. I couldn’t have been happier.

In the Eagle and Child- supremely happy.

In the Eagle and Child- supremely happy.

***

The next city I visited was Bath, which I enjoyed very much, except! The whole city is wildly expensive! So I didn’t spent the incredible £3 per hour online to write a blog post.. and that is where my posts hit a bump. And until now, I hadn’t managed to get over the bump, and even though I’ve finally managed to post this entry, I’m home in two days! So… I will try to finish, but I realise that the blog of a person no longer travelling have much less of a pull than that of someone is is currently in the city they are writing about. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go!

*International Quidditch Association site: http://www.internationalquidditch.org/worldcup/

Totem Poles, Macarons, Palaces and Tea: Last Days in London

My last days in London came very quickly but very slowly. Quickly because there is so much to see and experience in London, but slowly, because most of what I want to see and experience costs money that I don’t have!

But there were some free things that I hadn’t done yet, such as the British Museum, which is just around the corner from my hostel.

I’m getting a little museum-ed out, but there are some pretty important and interesting things in the British Museum, so I made an effort to get there. Thank you, thank you, hold the applause ’til the end, please. There a couple things that I’ll share with you from the British Museum.

The Rosetta Stone, which was key to interpretting Egyptian hieroglyphics sits in a glass case and was surrounded by a swarm (I’m not exaggerating) of people, little school kids clutching papers with assignments on them, young and middle-aged tourists with iPhones and fancy cameras leaning this way and that, their elbows all over the place, older people who feel entitled to stepping directly in front of other people and shifting to block other visitors’ views. Oh yes, the Rosetta Stone gave me that magical feeling of being in the presence of a great historical object. What’s that dripping on your shoulder? Oh, did I drench that last comment in sarcasm? You bet. Rosetta Stone- it’s important to Egyptologists. That’s about it.

But! I did enjoy seeing the four medals for the London 2012 Olympic Games- seeing them made me smile.

Medals for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Medals for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Nice, right? But the medals from 2010 were much nicer. Better designed… more contemporary without being too pretentious. I’m biased, but I’m right.

I also enjoyed seeing the moai statue from from Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as it’s apparently also called). It’s BIG. I’m not sure exactly why I liked it, but it, too, made me smile, so it gets a win.

It’s strange. I went to the Canada Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, mingled with other Canadians, watched street hockey, noted people at home’s Canada Day updates on facebook, and just sort of enjoyed it and that was all. I was in the British Museum a few days later and what caught me by surprise and made me say “Oh!” out loud was seeing two B.C. totem poles on display.

When I travel, I rarely feel homesick. I miss specific people or places or things (my clothes, sushi, baking, hockey news [good-bye Sami] bubble tea, my bed…) but I don’t think I have experience homesickness in the way that others do. But I caught sight of the first totem pole and my throat twinged slightly and my heart drooped a little as I stared at it. It was a piece of home. Standing in front of me, looking utterly out of place in that museum. Oh.

One totem was a gift and the other had been purchased from different Haida bands and I couldn’t help but wish everyone out of the area so I could have a moment with the poles carved of red cedar that are just as West Coast as I am.

The final thing from the British Museum that I’ll share is this… they have the rest of the Lewis Chessmen! The fiends!

But, to Scotland’s credit, the ones in Edinburgh are certainly of better quality! So there! Again, I’m not sure exactly where I caught the Scottish bug of one-upping England, but in the matter of ownership of the Lewis Chessmen, my sympathies lie entirely with Scotland’s claim.

I’ll finish with the British Museum with this photo:

The Lewis Chessman pose.

My Lewis Chessman pose at the British Museum.

And yes, I posed like that while a stranger took the photo. Courage, folks, it’s called courage.

In the dorm in my hostel I met a woman who, quite unexpectedly, turned out to be pretty fantastic. She and I talked for almost an hour the first night and she offered to show me Covent Garden, which I readily agreed to.

Covent Garden is an area of London that has lots of cute shops and windy streets with cool cafes, street performers and a covered market/strip mall- all unknown to me until my new friend from Manchester let me in on it! Now some readers may be shaking their heads at my ignorence, but, hush! I know now!

And it was fun! The shops are fun and… and they have a tea shop. The tea shop is the reason that Convent Garden was introduced to our conversation. The particular shop, Tea Palace, is a favourite of hers, and after finding out that I quite like tea, she wanted me to see the shop… which I loved! It’s quite a nice place, so I didn’t take photos, but the decor is elegant but the staff are friendly enough to make it less intimidating that other shops I’ve intruded into.

Tea, tea, glorious tea!

Good times.

In any case, we ended up spending some time there before splitting off to do our own things. After dinner (mmmm, microwave rice. Score!), we met up again in the kitchen and split two large macarons, mango with passionfruit filling and double chocolate, that she had purchased for us. The dessert was tasty, but what made the day fun was the company. Travelling solo has many good points, but there are times when finding someone to spend a little time with is such a comfort.

My last day in London, I visited Buckingham Palace… for £16.50. Converted to Canadian, that’s $26. I mean, really. But it was a very interesting place and the art that decorates the walls and nooks are very impressive. The rooms and the colour schemes are splendid- I felt very small and plain in comparison! I spent two hours at the Palace and had a fun time. The current special exhibit was on the Queen’s diamonds (Jubilee and all). It was pretty stunning… and a little, ridiculous, considering the worth of some of the pieces displayed. Gorgeous, don’t misunderstand, but oh so extravagant!

Me in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace

Me in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace

But I’m still an unashamed monarchist and was thrilled with the sparkliness of the pieces and the history attached to each item!

That day I also visited Fortnum and Mason and Twinings- two of my very favourite shops in London! Fortnum and Mason is a glorious shop- stepping into the shop is like nothing else. So elegant and beautiful. SO much to see and marvel over! I have expensive tastes- this isn’t news to me or to most people who know me. But really, even I acknowledge that it’s a bit excessive to want jars of honey costing over £7 (nearly $12CDN) or tea over £5 per 100 grams.  But it’s just so lovely! And pretty. So much pretty.

As I mentioned, I also visited the original Twinings shop on the Strand. Sadly, it was not an enjoyable visit- the amount of people crammed into that tiny, narrow shop! Two different tour groups and several families filled the space, leaving it nearly impossible to be helped by the employees. I managed to snag one, only to be told that the blend I was in search of was no longer available. A sad blow! I managed to find the blends I had come searching for, but in caddies, which are great items in themselves, but not so wonderful to backpack with. I left a little frazzled and, to be quite honest, ready to leave London.

The sign of the Twining shop.

The sign of the Twining shop.

But! Before I left, I had only last stop. Near my hostel, in the area of Bloomsbury, there is a small square called Red Lion Square. It is the address of a set of characters in an amazing series by Brock and Bodie Theone and I just had to see it! And I did! Ah, the delight of seeing places and experiencing things that favourite characters have done. Getting to see Red Lion Square had me leave London with a smile, which is exactly how it ought to be.

Red Lion Square.

Red Lion Square.

Next up: Oxford!

Note: Thank you to Josh, who asked the question “Macarons or macaroons?”, which made me check my facts! The tasty treats provided by my friend from Manchester were macarons and the spelling has been changed accordingly. :)

A Library, Platform 9 3/4, and a West End Show

The following day I sped off to the British Museum, where an exhibition called Writing Britain was being shown. I had intended to go to the Library anyway, but seeing this poster

The poster for the "Writing Britian" exhibit in an underground station.

The poster for the “Writing Britian” exhibit in an underground station.

only made a visit more certain. I’m a sucker, you see, for books. And once you pair a library that I already know houses fantastic manuscripts with an exhibit on how British authors have used the landscape of Britain in literature, and you’ve got me hooked.

I took the Tube to King’s Cross Station…

Speaking of books, has anyone heard of a seven-novel series featuring a boy with messy hair and an pale, evil guy after him? I hear murmurs of recognition. Good, good. Well King’s Cross Station happens to play a small part in the transition from his dull, somewhat oppressed life to one of adventure and well, life! Guess what they have in one of the walls? I’ll show you…

About to enter Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station!

About to enter Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station!

Yeah I did! But did I get through? Ah, that you’ll never know. Ministry of Magical Concealment Act and all that.

But! Off I went to the British Museum, where I spent just over three hours between the permanent viewing room and the Writing Britain exhibit.

The Writing Britain exhibit is very well put together aesthetically. The walls are black, the flooring both darkly carpeted and hard flooring. Areas of the exhibit are separated by large white and black cartography maps on slightly translucent material. The exhibit begins with authors who noted the change that the Industrial Revolution caused on the landscape and who used their writing to advocate the importance of stewardship of the land. To be honest, I remember two items from the exhibit most. First was the hand painted illustration of the Hill in the Shire by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. I stared at it, completely awed and moved. There is an intangible feeling that comes over me at certain times- times like this, standing over the glass case holding a product of Tolkien’s hands and imagination. A similar, but less potent feels came over me when I examined the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling’s handwriting is somewhat legible and she didn’t use the whole page of the notepaper the story is written on. I love books.

In the permanent display, I browsed through amazing texts. Some items of note include a copy of the Magna Carta, working notes of Leonardo Da Vinci, the St Cuthbert Gospel (written in Latin, and dated to 698), which is the earliest intact European books with the original binding. Also, St Cuthbert is one of England’s most beloved or popular saints. Illuminated manuscripts from India, Europe and Asia, a group of new and very old books featuring the British mythological being, the Green Man, an early copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and a scrap of paper with lyrics from one of the Beatles’ songs. In honour of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, the British Library has a display of documents from coronations dating from Henry I in 1100 through Anne Boleyn’s coronation seating plan to Elizabeth I’s processional parade up until Sir Lawrence Olivier’s copy of Queen Elizabeth II’s order of service of her coronation.

I ate my lunch outside of the Library before heading off to the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Shop. The line to enter the museum was quite long- easily over thirty people where queuing so the decision to save the £6 admission fee was easily made. I had enjoyed the museum the last time I was in London, but as with most tourist sites, I don’t think they need to be seen more than once every five to ten years. Thats part of the reason that I didn’t do a lot of the larger attractions this visit. And of course, I’m on a tight budget! But I could still go into the shop and browse and maybe, maybe buy something, so in I went!

I felt a little disappointed with the Sherlock Holmes shop, which is attached to the museum. It could just be me, being overly critical, but it felt more commercialised since my last visit. The shift to tackier, less genuine items could possibly be to do with the latest adaptation, which has brought the world of Sherlock Holmes back into popular culture, which, as we know likes to distort fandoms. I am a bit stuffy when it comes to these sorts of things, so I often find that my opinion results in rolled eyes and gentle pats on the head. Still… I didn’t like it.

But to make up for it, I found the statue of Sherlock Holmes outside of the Baker Street Undergound station, which I had completely missed last time. Hurray!

I was walking down Regent Street later in the day and saw a big hullabaloo with balloons and a non-creepy clown. It was Hamley’s, a multi-level toy shop. I went in, having seen a sign directing me to the fourth floor, where merchandise from the Harry Potter films are located. Up I went, past all sorts of toys and displays, including, would you believe, life-size Lego figures of Prince Charles, Prince Harry, and Will and Kate. In Lego.

Life-size Lego replicas of Prince Charles, Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Hamley's.

Life-size Lego replicas of Prince Charles, Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Hamley’s.

I actually think that the one of Harry is pretty good!

In the Harry Potter section they had all sorts of items for sale, including replica wands, the Marauders’ Map, Time-Turners, Harry’s glasses… there was a lot of things that I could easily have bought, but I resisted, on the grounds that I have no room for the stuff I already have. Still… the Marauders’ Map! But it was £35, so I left it, sitting in the glass case… even though it was clearly just waiting for me.

I was determined to see a show in the West End- despite my financial limitations. I managed it, but only barely! I had to skip a meal and a pint at the Cheshire Cheese Pub (sorry, Elizabeth!), but I think the experience was worth it. I wanted to see Jersey Boys, having heard rave reviews from a friend, but it wasn’t playing that evening, so I purchased a ticket to “The 39 Steps”, playing at the Criterion Theatre.

I went back to the hostel for dinner, pulled out a dress from the depths of the monster bag, added some lipstick and set off for the theatre!

Me in front of the Criterion Theatre, about to see The 39 Steps!

Me in front of the Criterion Theatre, about to see The 39 Steps!

The dress is badly wrinkled but that couldn’t be helped and for some reason my hair is doing funny things (I blame the water), so it’s up instead of down, but! The point is that I saw “The 39 Steps” and had a fantastic time! The play is based on a novel by John Buchan (Scottish!) and was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow. The play has only four actors, three who play three or more parts- and do a marvelous job of it! The lead was also pretty fantastic- he played Hannay with a sort of Carey Elwes as Westley in The Princess Bride-feel. The actors were amazing and so talented. The theatre is older and so the seats are small, which isn’t a problem in itself, but it means that my neighbours sort of encroach on my space a little… which is always a treat. The theatre was decorated in a theme of pink, red, gold and white- which was a treat to look at. All in all, I enjoyed the show very much.

Solo Travels Beginning in London

Off to London!

I set off from my hostel in Edinburgh to catch my 9:45 bus to London. My monster backpack had begun to gain weight (I can’t imagine how that happened) and I felt the brunt of it on my walk to the bus station. The bus was late, but I found a young woman as a seat-mate, which is nice. As a young woman travelling alone, finding a decent person to sit next to, especially for long periods of time, is important.

The bus ride was… long. In total, travel time (excluding time at the rest stop) was ten hours. TEN HOURS.

I must’ve been crazy to think that the discomfort of a bus was worth the savings from the train. The first four hours with the first driver were a bit hard to handle because he kept the temperature a tad too high. Fortunately, the second driver hopped on the bus and immediately muttered,

” A bit stuffy in here,” and adjusted the air conditioning. VICTORY! I could breathe! I could breathe! I… you get the idea.

For the most part, the ride was fine. It was a bus, it was a long time, but nothing horrible happened, there were no incidents and I got to London safely. The only (small) hitch was the traffic once we entered the city. That night there had been a football (soccer) match that had ended just as we were entering, which meant people everywhere and traffic moving slower than a cat basking in the sun.

The hostel that I had booked was the same one that I had stayed the last time I was in London, so I didn’t need to figure out which line to use to get there. Sadly, I’ve misplaced the Oyster card that I had brought with me, which meant spending an unforeseen £5.00 to purchase another one! But life goes on. I arrived at the hostel, only to be told that I was expected to check out again in the morning and move to another room.

Robyn: No.

Hostel Employee with fun Australian accent: You see we just have a lot of people staying here at the moment, a very busy weekend-

Robyn: No.

Hostel Employee with fun Australian accent: You can still keep your luggage here but I’m afraid that you’ll still have to check out.

Robyn: Ten hours on a bus. I’m tired. I’m not checking out.

We had a brief discussion that ended with me not moving rooms but still keeping an decent terms with the hostel employee. The unfortunate part of the situation is that I am in the annex house of the hostel, which does not have adequate facilities at all. There are two toilets for approximately 30 people (at full capacity), no soap in the sink in the room, no functioning outlet in the room, no paper towel in the toilets, no fan in one of the showers, which means that by the end of a shower, your clothes are damp. Also, there are small signs by each tap that warn you not to drink the water! In the entire building, there is no drinking water! Good grief (Charlie Brown).

Nonetheless, there is a bed and though the first two nights I was on a top bunk (which is awkward because this hostel had no shelves for the top bunk which means that your sleep is restricted because you must keep all necessities such as an alarm clock/phone, lotion, water, keys, etc. with you on the bed), I was able to switch beds to a lower bed- another victory! But still, no drinking water.

My first full day was a Saturday, which meant that I was on my way to Portobello Road Market!

Portobello Road on a Saturday.

Portobello Road on a Saturday.

I’ve been once before and I enjoyed it so much. The day was a little overcast but it was great fun. The colours, the scents, the sounds of the market are invigorating, so lively! Buskers and hawkers provide the soundtrack as stall after stall winds along the narrow street. The food began with crepes, then moved along to jambalaya, fresh fruit and veg, baked goods, cold meats, olives, cheese, breads… it was glorious.

There were all sorts of items just waiting for me to pick them up and say, “I’ll take it!” But practicality tugged me away from all these fantastic items. I gave Practicality the slip for a moment and purchased a little key, apparently from the Victorian era (don’t worry, I didn’t believe him, I just really like it), before obediently passing all sorts of very pretty dresses that I knew I had no room in my backpack for, and above all, no money for.

I had a fun time at the market, to be topped off with the purchase of a small basket of strawberries- Kaylee strawberries, if there ever were any. I snacked on them as I browsed and then purchased a lemon frozen yogurt cup and enjoyed the strawberries and frozen yogurt together. Tasty goodness.

Bert with Kaylee Strawberries from Portobello Road.

Bertie with Kaylee Strawberries from Portobello Road.

The next morning I hopped onto the Tube to the Columbia Road Flower Market, which was a little uncomfortable to get to. I remember noting that the route to the market was shady and I can confirm it after a second visit. The area is clearly low-income and it shows in the buildings, the smell on the streets, and the expressions on some of the residents’ faces. But the friendliness and quirkiness of the market itself more than makes up for the neighbourhood that it in located in. I had a fantastic time in the market, the flowers were bright and the vendors were just as hilarious as I remembered.

A stall at the Columbia Road Flower Market.

A stall at the Columbia Road Flower Market.

“Three bunches a fiver!”

“Never find a be’her deal- look at these dahlias!”

“Don’ look at ‘is dahlias- shrimps compared to these!”

The buskers added a great background to the colours everywhere, from the flowers to the storefronts. Beautiful shops with pretty things that I want so very much. But the life of a backpacker is one of sacrifice! Poor me. Poor, travelling me. I can feel the death glares from those stuck at home, there’s no need to comment, ;).

(as an aside, as I write this in the tv lounge in the hostel, there is a film playing and a Danish guy with the funniest little laugh behind me…who just “Ooooooo”ed for a shirtless Tom Cruise…oh, the people you meet!)

On my way back to the Tube station, I stumbled upon another market, quite unintentionally, the Brick Lane Sunday Market, which had many of the same sort of items as the stalls at Portobello Road, but without quite the same charm. I wandered around for a while (very responsibly not buying an owl shirt that would’ve looked great with… never mind). As I was on my way out I saw a stall selling empanadas and alphahores… which reminded me of a family we’re close to at home… which meant that I bought an empanada-spicy chicken- for lunch. And it was good.

I made my way to Trafalger Square where the Canada Day celebrations were in full swing. I spent the next few hours reveling in street hockey matches (between teams mostly sponsored by major Canadian banks) and enjoying playing “spot the Canucks fans”, wearing jerseys and tees with beautiful names such as Kesler, Luongo, Sedin, Sedin, and occasionally Burrows and oh! Happiness! I spotted a Bieksa jersey! Ah! There is still sense and good taste in the world!

Street hockey in Trafalgar Square!

Street hockey in Trafalgar Square!

It was fun to be around other Canadians- and hockey was plenty of fun to watch! I met a woman from Chilliwack who’d been living in England for twenty years. Nice lady. Very chatty. It was a fun way to spend Canada Day, but it gave me a small sample of what spending a longer period outside of Canada would be like. I suppose it would be alright, but I’d need a pretty good reason to do it.

Me on Canada Day in Trafalgar Square!

Me on Canada Day in Trafalgar Square!

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