Tuesday September 6, London
I’m always a bit frantic on the last day of a vacation. Did I see everything? Did I do everything? Did I get everyone a souvenir? Do I need to?
I had it in my head to go to a real English hardware store. There, I’d find some amazing only-in-England thing. I didn’t know what. Maybe a keep off the grass sign, or some interesting nails. Or seeds for a flower I’d never heard of.
I found a well-rated one not too far from the hotel and headed north across Blackfriar’s bridge. I had fresh eyes after all the mud and was really appreciating London. I found a tiny, charming pedestrian alley and zig-zagged my way to my goal.
Unfortunately the hardware store was lame. Barely even a hardware store. They sold small appliances, a few pots and pans, what you’d find in the hardware section of a supermarket.
Not to worry–my next destination was a real British toy store. “More a museum” the Internet said. Well…it was in Camden Market and was about 10 feet square.
The London Transportation Museum was right across the square so I decided to go to that…and discovered it was overrun with children! While it wasn’t specifically geared towards kids they were allowed in for free and there were lots of full-size buses and trolleys and tube cars they could play on and in. No disrespect for the kids, just the atmosphere was more playground than museum.
There was a special design exhibit about signage etc. for the tube, and it was the most badly-presented thing I’d ever seen. Every sign…explained by more signs…everything on top of each other. Crazy!!
I was near the British museum so I decided to visit the Egyptian exhibits. Always great! I don’t know if this cool ceiling was there when I last visited but it is really nice.
It was getting late so I took the tube to St. Peter’s, which the nearest stop to the hotel I could get to without making a big circle and changing a bunch of times. Our hotel isn’t well-located as far as tube stops go. I peeked in the church but they were getting ready for mass so I didn’t stay long.
My cell phone was having trouble with the map (lots of high rises?). I asked for directions from some construction guys–who pointed me in the wrong direction. I walked many blocks before realizing.
That night we had a fun event. A friend of R’s is opening a vinyl-centric, audiophile bar and cafe in King’s Cross, and was having the soft opening Monday and Tuesday nights. We were really excited to be in town for this. The area is very interesting. A nearby canal, and old grain silos (?) and other buildings being redeveloped.
We got to the cafe to find that it was under construction. Nowhere near being done. Boxes everywhere, sawing and hammering, workmen screwing tabletops onto bases. No party. : (
While I wish he’d have let us know, I didn’t regret going to that area. We got dinner around the corner at a great place called Grain Store. We were seated near the open kitchen and it was like watching a reality show, the French chef yelling at the sous chefs who were frantically cooking and plating food. They did everything with their bare hands, serving and arranging the hot food. They must be permanently burned!
I went to bed tired but still worried I had more to do.
Monday, September 5, Port Meirion to London
I may have fond memories of Festival no. 6 but it won’t be for awhile. I woke to the sound of gentle rain and the squelching of boots through the mud. All I could think was, get me out of here, now. I didn’t care if I had to sit on the train platform for 5 hours.
We lugged our suitcases a quarter mile to the bus stop, carrying them over the mud, dragging them along gravel. All the while the rain fell. We lucked out that a bus for Bangor was right there, with a kind bus driver who stopped for anyone on the road with a bag to see if they needed a ride. Our friends D. and J., who were going by car to Edinburgh, had to get towed by a tractor out of the flooded parking area. (Them and hundreds of others) A man on the train next to us said the festival people told him he wouldn’t be able to get his car until Wednesday, so he headed back to Manchester and will go back to get it later.
Unfortunately, our friend’s car wouldn’t go over 50 mph without beginning to shake, so they had to take it in to a garage to get the undercarriage cleaned out (mud everywhere) and the wheels realigned, and after that, get it pressure washed to get even more mud out, and there still seems to be a problem with the brakes.
Numerous people told us this was the worst weather ever at this festival. Last year it was so nice people went to the beach and swam.
We lucked out and there was an express train to London on the platform in Bangor, and the agent said we could use our tickets even though it was 11:30 and our tickets were for the 3:45 train.
OMG the train was a huge mess as you might imagine. Everyone filthy with filthy packs and too much luggage and not enough seats. I’m not sure why they let so many people on. We had to pile bags in the vestibule which was fine for the first couple stops but then the doors opened on the other side and I heard people outside the train gasp and exclaim as they were confronted with the wall of luggage. No one could get on our car. Which was full anyway. R had to keep running back to check to make sure our bags didn’t fall out.
Finally back in London, finally in a dry hotel, finally a real shower. R found what turned out to be a really good Turkish restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel, picturesquely situated under the brick arch of a train bridge, and we over ate there and then had drinks next door.
Sunday, September 4, Festival No. 6 Port Meirion
I drank too much in the red tent last night. It wasn’t really my fault. There wasn’t anything else to do. We met up with our friends…waited for the rain to stop…and it didn’t for more than a few minutes at a time, so we stayed.
I woke late and since it was raining again, stayed in bed. Thank god for the tent and the bed. Eventually I roused myself and went to the showers since I absolutely stank. They weren’t bad. A trailer with four white plastic cubes inside and a partition that didn’t quite protect clothes from getting wet.
However–the 100 feet from our tent to the bathrooms was nothing but mud and puddles. Deep mud. Scary, shoe-sucking mud (there were actual shoes in it). The grass, which covered the ground when we arrived, had been decimated, remaining only in the spaces between the tents protected by the tent poles and ropes.
We walked through the main arena area and it was awful. Ankle deep mud and slippery (though the band played on). We made it to the village and found D. and J. in the wifi area (you can on get it if you are no more than 20 feet from the point). Even they looked discouraged which was a bad sign. They are two of the most optimistic, make-do people I know. D. wanted a shower and J. wanted a nap.
R. and I walked down to the water and got grilled cheese sandwiches and a pint. The people watching was good but my heart wasn’t in it. It was a slog just to get there. Even the paved road in the village to the waterfront was slippery. I wanted to take another walk in the beautiful woods but J. told me they, too, were pure mud. I admired the people who managed to drink and dance and yell woo in these conditions. Apparently many English festivals are like this. I just couldn’t. I like rain but all the mud made me sad.
We made our way back to the tent, stopping to watch an organized dance in the town plaza. We got a text from our friends when we stopped at the wifi point saying they’d be at the beer tent at 8pm, but I was safe and warm in bed by then. We heard later that the “gin” tent near us collapsed from the weight of water on the roof and people had to crawl out, so the leak in our floor didn’t seem quite so bad.
Saturday, September 3 – Portmeirion
The rain was supposed to start at midnight but it didn’t start until dawn. Without any cell service I was ignorant as to how long it would last. It started gently but by 10am was pouring. I enjoyed laying in the tent and listening to it (we don’t get any rain in the summer in San Francisco), but when they started the sound check at the huge stage behind us–playing 30 seconds of a random techno song–and the tent began to vibrate, I had to get out of there.
Few people were out and about. Those in the village with the same idea I had–to hide out in a cafe. The indoor cafe was packed, as was the covered champagne bar. I ended up under a big umbrella at a pizza place and got a crappy pizza and worked on this blog. The rain got harder and the steps near me turned into miniature waterfalls. At this point the festival officially closed The Woods, shutting down three venues and cancelling all the musicians that were supposed to play out there.
Fortunately, sitting under a giant umbrella at a table with dry seats meant I got to meet many people. The first of my new friends was a 40-something couple from south of London. Him with a dry sense of humor and her friendly and literal. They were camping and their air mattress had a leak. They spent the night on the ground. He said there was a “mild hurricane” warning and I couldn’t figure out if he was joking. He referenced a famously disgraced U.K. weatherman who’d said not to pay attention to the hurricane warnings, then a hurricane happened and several historical gardens were destroyed. Next, a young couple from 20 miles north of Portmeirion joined me. He said the weather is always like this and it was actually good because it wasn’t windy. (Cue the wind in an hour).
Finally, a family from Manchester sat down, all blonde and wind blown and happy to chat. Everyone said something to the effect of “Where you from, then?” The young daughters showed me the flowery hippy headdresses they’d made in a workshop there (which I couldn’t get into thanks to a long line).
Eventually it got so rainy the water was blowing in under the umbrella and I had to put away my iPad – not that I was getting any writing done with all my chatting.
When the rain lessened I made my way back to the tent, stopping on the way to get R some macaroni since I was quite sure he hadn’t been out. He hadn’t. I crawled into bed for a moment to warm up. I’d planned for weather in the high 50’s at worst but not the damp and chill wind. After I’d warmed and dried we both went out.
As did everyone else. In droves. I forgot to mention this. While the festival advertised itself as “intimate,” the place (when it wasn’t raining) was jammed. On Friday I watched endless streams of campers dragging piles of gear up the hill. I watched bus after bus deliver…people with day passes maybe? I couldn’t figure that out, other than we weren’t allowed to walk on the only clean, paved and safe surface because the huge buses filled the roads width and ran continuously.
The ground was saturated. Our tent was on a slope (as were most of the campsites) but a small pond managed to form outside the front door. A leak somewhere in the floor of the otherwise waterproof structure soaked the mat by the front, however the water didn’t travel beyond that thankfully.
The paths were soggy and slippery and extremely muddy in some places but still passable if you stuck to the edges, where the last of the grass still lived. Some of the bare-floored venues (under tents) had been transformed into covered lakes and were unusable. A worker futilely tried to sweep 6-inch deep water from the music tent near the beer tent with a push broom.
I ran into D. and J. and went to check out their campsite. That path was an oozing river of mud inches deep. I can’t imagine how they got up there in the dark.
The camping area was extremely crowded, tents only a couple feet apart. D. and J. were kept up the night before by a “party tent” next to them that went all night and mysteriously disappeared in morning, leaving only a suspicious pile of trash.
The rain started again so we hid out in the red beer tent with D. and J. and their friends and managed to get a barrel and chairs and consequently, too many drinks (because we didn’t want to leave). There was almost nowhere to sit in the whole damn festival. Even when it was not raining, the ground was too damp to sit on without a waterproof blanket, there were almost no chairs or tables in the food truck areas, none in the stage areas, and very limited seating in the village. I’m not saying this is unusual for festivals but this one went for days…and it sucks trying to eat a meal with a crappy, biodegradable spork while standing, and having to stand in the middle of a windy field to watch a band has zero appeal. I realize this is an over-40 type of complaint and I’ll own that. However, I wasn’t the only one yearning to relax given every single damn chair and low wall in the whole place was permanently occupied.
I made friends with a globe-trotting piano player and his animal-loving fiancée and chatted with a woman I met in Welsh class, but I was still a little bummed. I’d come too far and spent too much to end up in a bar. D. went out to see a band playing in the biggest tent and came back an hour later proclaiming a river ran through the center of it.
The rain did not let up. Once I was “warm” (cough) I was willing to go out there and see what was happening but R’s shoes didn’t have much of a tread and he literally could not stand in one place (nothing was level) without slowly slipping down the hill. I helped him back to our tent then went back out to find everyone and everyone was gone! For the best it turns out…
Friday September 2, Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion.
We slept well in our fancy tent, though it came complete with spiders in webs. I wondered how long ago they set them up (ha ha – the tents not the spiderwebs). We got breakfast from a food truck (good stuff – eggs on potato cakes) and tried to get our bearings. The festival was in four main areas. A huge grass area with big stages and covered stages (near our tent) and food trucks, a middle “food court” with one covered music venue, the village (which has no permanent residents, the whole thing is a spread-out hotel), which had indoor and outdoor areas, and “the woods” – stages tucked away in a gorgeous forest.
The Village (as featured in The Prisoner) was great but not in the way I expected. Not empty and pristine like it was in the show, instead full of people and pop up booths and temporary restaurants. So, despite not being what I imagined, I really liked it.
I’d downloaded the festival app while I still had internet (thank god) and had a full slate of cultural and artistic events planned.
The first was Welsh lessons. I’m terrible at languages but I did my best, and made a couple friends in the process. Next I planned to learn to make Welsh sourdough but this event, like all events in Town Hall, was too popular and had a huge line. I never did make it to any event in there!
Fortunately I ran into R. and we went down to the waterfront and had Fabulous Fish Fingers – recommended by the drunk ladies behind us on the bus. The sandwiches were pretty good but the first of many unhealthy meals. I ate little that wasn’t fried or made of bread and cheese.
Afterwards I trekked into the woods and found the floating dance floor. It was an idyllic setting but floating dance floor? As in, swaying and bouncing? I didn’t get the appeal.
I continued on…feeling very adventurous creeping around on unknown trails. I could hear music but had no idea where I was going. I came upon a DJ in an owl-looking booth, tent over him, a handful of dancers around him, kids climbing trees.
I continued on, stumbling across the dog cemetery (with full-sized grave stones) D. and J. told me about.
The sun broke through the clouds and I really wanted to get a view of the ocean that I knew was out there. When I finally got to a vista point I was astonished to discover how many people made it there carrying a pint or a glass of champagne.
It was low tide and as far as I could see was bare sand interspersed with shallow rivers, green hills beyond–a restful kind of beauty.
I wanted to get to the beach. I’d been warned it was all quicksand at low tide, but that certainly didn’t seem to be the case since there were dozens of people down there. I followed a path that headed down and ended up on top of a small ravine. The path ended with a cliff and a knotted rope tied to a tree. Hmmmm. I wasn’t totally confident of my rappelling abilities but the alternative was going back up the hill and I absolutely did not want to do that.
I made it. The sand was odd, more like snow, my feet sinking down six inches every time I took a step. It was tiring and I was already tired. I found an easier way up on the far end of the beach.
The woods were more like a botanical garden. Super lush with some clearly non-native (but thriving) plants.
Back in the village I collapsed into a chair and listened to a very good spoken word poet while I recovered. I’d been strenuously hiking for longer than I intended.
Thank god I ran into D. and J. soon after that because I’d forgotten we’d pre-booked dinner at a long table for that night. I thought it was Saturday night. I slogged all the way back to the tent (it must be at least half a mile from the village to the tent) to clean up and slogged back. Hills everywhere!
The good part of the dinner was meeting people. To the left–genuine Welsh people from just down the road who told us about a place where you can jump on trampolines underground in an old slate quarry. !!!! To the right–a woman of (presumably) Indian descent, born and raised in London, who complained that her parents moved to the country with nothing, bought a house in London, raised two kids, and she will never be able to afford to do that. London seems to be having a housing crisis in the same way San Francisco is. I heard this from many people. Several cabbies in particular. Hope I’m not repeating myself…the cabbies were both in favor of Brexit. One complaining that people from poorer countries, Poland in particular, move to London, cram many people into small apartments (which presumably makes the rental market tighter) work for a few years and save money, don’t put any money into the British economy, then move back home and buy a home there. The other complained that new housing was bought by Russians and Arabs as investment properties and left vacant until prices rise enough, and then sold. He claimed that all the units in an under-construction building we passed would never be put on the market. They’d all be pre-sold to investors, and that entire buildings sit vacant in London. Whether or not this is true I don’t know, and I’m not sure how Brexit would fix that.
By this point it had become clear that WE were exotic and foreign and actually slightly interesting because of it! I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where being an American tourist was interesting to the locals. The festival was a very UK-centric event.
The bad part of the dinner was that it was a total rip off! It was supposed to be some multi-course fabulous experience by chef so in so. I assumed we’d be eating crappy food most of the time and this would be a nice break. The dinner consisted of a beet-flavored welcome cocktail (blech), a small beet salad (fine tasting but again, small), and then, confusingly, a complete leg of lamb put down between every six or so guests (people that didn’t know each other) with a knife and no instructions or assistance. Not to be helpless, but I personally don’t cook lamb and have no idea how to carve it or what the good or bad parts are. We all politely took small amounts. Accompanying the lamb was a bowl of raw peas. We thought they’d gone cold but found out later the chef thought they were so amazing they didn’t need to be cooked. Plus some good small potatoes that instantly disappeared.
Dessert was a kind of fruit cobbler (?) – cooked apples and berries with a cinnamon topping. The woman across from me laughed and said her kids make this at home.
Also, they blasted awful loud music. Like, Bon Jovi. Weird stuff with no theme and didn’t match the mood of the pretty tent. There were speakers every 10 feet. We begged them to turn it down or turn off our speaker but they didn’t.
I left hungry. Argh. I have to find a place to really review this because I don’t want anyone else to make this mistake in the future.
I dragged everyone out and down a trail to the vista point to see sunset, but we just missed it. Still, it was pretty, with the tide in and twilight. They were just shutting down the floating dance floor and we passed, and we headed to the village to see the “famous” torchlight parade. In the promo pictures, torches carried by people in costume and pretty goddess girls, in real life, the first 100 people to grab one, most of them in jeans and hiking boots.
We wandered around after that, none of the bands captivating us. I for one was dead tired, having been on my feet nearly all day and running up and down hills for most of it as well, and was happy to go to bed early (around midnight). We were directly behind the largest stage but mix of sounds that reached us (smaller stages, crowd sounds, etc.) blended into a very loud white noise that, with enough cocktails, allowed me to sleep.
or, The Virgin train of confusion
Thursday September 1, London to Portmeirion
We packed up and hit the rails, heading to Wales and Festival no. 6.
Festival no. 6 takes place in Port Meirion, Wales, and was one of the main reasons we planned this trip. To quote from the official website:
“Spend the weekend discovering an award-winning eclectic mix of screenings, readings, performance art, installations, intimate talks and conversations and so much more.”
“an intimate boutique music and arts festival”
“we wanted to create a more bespoke offering, carefully curated for those who are looking for a more refined weekend”
“the coolest, most surrealist, funkiest, freakiest, best festival in the world”
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? (Spoiler alert: you know it’s all going to go to hell, right?)
We got to Euston station early because we hadn’t picked up our special Festival No. 6 train tickets yet. Thankfully, our friend J. spent half the day yesterday tracking them down because the Festival is hugely disorganized. They said they’d mail the tickets, and didn’t. They said they’d email them, and didn’t. Blah dee blah. We were getting worried. J. finally found the tickets at the First Class Virgin lounge at the station. The agents there thought the big, wrapped up stack of tickets was for a tour group. J. got her to open them and low and behold, our tickets!
We got a good breakfast in front of the station and I picked up some supplies–cookies and booze–and then got in the long line for the train once the platform was announced.
Argh…total confusion. The reserved seat info didn’t get uploaded so the screens all said “available” even though all the tickets had seat numbers, so all the festival people had to ask the people already in our seats to move. Most people on the train had huge packs (camping gear) and went back and forth banging tents and pads and sleeping bags into everyone as they tried to find a place to stow them. The small luggage racks were already full and our suitcases didn’t fit in the racks above. I moved a case of Strongbow and crammed my suitcase into the rack but poor R. had to leave his in the vestibule and jump up at every stop to make sure it hadn’t rolled out the door.
The cute young things began to put on their festival make up – glitter and bindis. Festival style here, at least at this festival, is a kind of hippy raver look, leaning more towards hippy.
The car was quite raucous and the Virgin train staff gave up even trying to service us for the 3 hour trip. They’d hired a two-woman band to entertain us, but not given them any space, so they stood in the aisle, trying to play as people pushed past.
I’m not sure when we crossed the “border” into Wales, but the landscape began to look very different as we got closer to Bangor. Tall, jagged mountain/hills, vibrant green hillsides, chest-high stone walls surrounding sheep pastures, sheep.
I felt the “otherness” vibe I hoped to feel when we crossed into Scotland (but didn’t).
The Festival people were supposed to give us our wrist bands (to get into the festival) while we were on the train, but didn’t get to our car until we were five minutes from Bangor. We managed to get ours but J. and D. didn’t; regardless, we didn’t get our bus passes and would have queue up for those once we got off.
A friendly station security guard struck up a conversation with us as we waited, asking where we were from. We told him, then I asked where he was from, and he laughed and said just over the hill. Our first Welshman! He proudly told us that this was the only county in Wales to have Welsh speaking schools. All the kids learn Welsh. He said they’ve got Syrian refugees and their kids are learning Welsh. He said it’s a sight to see, all the little Syrian kids speaking Welsh. : )
In another moment of unexpected luck, in addition to the two booths we were waiting to get to, the festival people started handing out wristbands and bus passes starting at the end of the line. And we were at the very end. What the heck!! When does that happen?
We hopped right on the bus and soon after were on the road to the festival. The hour trip was mesmerizing. Not only because of the great scenery but also thanks two loud English women in their late 40’s behind me.
Sunday night? No idea. Everything was fine until I started doing shots. I was walking down the lane, Tommy picked me up when I fell and then I was in bed. He ran out in his knickers. I don’t do drugs anymore. Can’t. Did ya know I was in the army? I wanted to fight but they didn’t let girls do that when I joined. I tried to join the American marines…
on and on.
We got close to the festival and I saw a narrow gauge steam train! I’d love to ride it but I don’t think there is time.
The bus pulled into the festival and it was total confusion again. The bus driver gave no instruction. He stopped, everyone got off, staff pulled our luggage out from under the bus and threw it onto the ground, and D. and J. went to find general camping. R. and I tried to find someone who knew what was going on but everyone appeared to have just gotten on shift and had no clue.
Eventually we figured out we had to get back on the bus to be driven to Boutique Village–the pre-set up tents we’d booked. Other people had to get off the bus because it wasn’t the bus to the parking lot.
We waited in line, again, to get our camping wristbands and it started to rain.
Our tent, one of many in identical rows, is pretty cool. My first Glamping experience. We’ve got a real mattress, a table, two chairs, a weakly-inflated and unusable couch, and two side tables. We can stand up! I’m a-ok with this although it is horribly overpriced. Oh and we’ve got private “fancy” toilets and showers!
We stowed our gear and tried to text D. and J. to make plans for dinner and found…the internet doesn’t work. Cell doesn’t work. We had 3 bars of 3G but nothing happened. We had no idea where they were.
This was a big problem. I expected to be able to go off on my own and meet friends from time to time, and assumed we’d be able to keep each other updated on cool stuff that was happening. (Future self note: it never got better. My texts never went through. I only met my friends by accident. It was a huge pain and really took away from my enjoyment of the festival.)
By sheer chance we met D. in line at a food booth in a lawn area between the big arena and the village. We joined he and J. and their friends from Edinburgh in what I called the red tent – a Moretti beer tent with red lights. We had a nice night! A. and S., J.’s friends from college in Edinburgh were fun and we had drinks and good conversation.
Wednesday August 31, Cambridge – London
My cousin took a special training class so she could take us up on the roof of King’s College Chapel.
Woo! She signed us in, got a walkie talkie and some flashlights, and unlocked the secret door in the back. We climbed 157 well-worn stone steps (the chapel was finished in the early 1500’s) of a dim spiral stairway and admired graffiti carved in the wall from throughout the ages.
The roof was great! My favorite part was climbing a ladder to the very tip top and just sitting there. I could have stayed for hours. I doubt I’ll ever have an experience like that again…sitting on the peak of a roof of a 600-year old church.
Also cool, we got to walk between the stone roof (that you see from the interior) and the wooden roof above it (the one with the lead that I sat on).
This isn’t a great photo, but it is above that ornate ceiling you see in the photo below
There are holes in the stone roof so you can peer down into the chapel. I felt, irrationally, that the roof was going to collapse under my weight!
The interior of the chapel is beautiful. We haven’t gone in too many churches on this trip so I wasn’t burned out on them and could appreciate it.
I don’t know why but I love these guys
After lunch we caught the train back to London and checked into the hotel – Citizen M. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a great concept. Super tiny rooms, almost like being in an RV, but with big beds and really nice common areas. The upstairs bar has great view of the Thames, couches, and you can hang out there all day and night.
We walked over Tower bridge (nicer than I remembered) and waved to our friends D. and J. who were just returning from somewhere by boat.
They are the ones that told us about Festival no. 6, one of the reasons for this trip. We met up with them at the hotel and had drinks at the bar, then took the tube to a great Chinese restaurant down an awesome seedy alley with shops selling poppers.
Tuesday August 30, Cambridge
My cousin was very sweet and understanding when we told her we were going to move to a hotel. Fortunately there was a Holiday Inn express five minutes from her house, along a pedestrian-only path that ran past an idyllic lake and field of bunnies. And, oddly, a military training course with a barbed wire fence–and bunnies.
My cousin is, I believe, a fellow (?) at Cambridge. I’m not sure if that is the right term. She does research and teaches. She’s got an office and a lab. And because of that we got extra special access to everything!
My cousin could eat three meals a day for free in this insane Hogwart’s style dining hall!
I’ll probably explain this all wrong, but from what I understand Cambridge is made up of separate colleges. Students apply to a certain college, regardless of major. Sounds almost like getting into a sorority. You live at the college and get lots of support from it, but your major is made up of people from all different colleges. My cousin belongs to King’s College.
All the colleges (that I saw) are collections of pretty, gothic-looking buildings, very ornate. King’s College is particularly attractive. Tourists aren’t allowed in so we felt very special. Also, only staff can walk across the lawn! She took us across but it felt wrong. It was so perfectly groomed.
The river Cam runs behind the buildings–fenced off to keep out “geese” according to the guard, aka the riffraff punting on the river. I’d have liked to take a boat out–the college has its own boats–but my cousin said she was not good at it.
My cousin’s office, where she does her teaching, has an amazing view and a fireplace. Her lab is in a modern building adjacent to the botanical gardens.
Downtown Cambridge is a mix of old and new–the new not particularly interesting (e.g. the mall) but the place feels vibrant and not trapped in the past.
R wasn’t feeling well so I had a good dinner at a pub with my cousin and her girlfriend, then made the long trek back to the hotel.
Monday August 29 – London to Cambridge
We checked out of the hotel and wandered around Shoreditch, trying to find the Nomadic Community Garden I spotted from the above ground train. A guy in a shop pointed us in the right direction but alas, it was closed on Mondays. We could still see a lot through the fence. It looks to be part garden, part burning man camp.
There’s a lot of nice graffiti art in Shoreditch. I think some of my problem with the paintings at the Tate is that they meant something viscerally to the people of the time, whereas we have to read the little plaque on the wall and even then it can’t resonate with us the way even graffiti can.
We thought we’d get lunch at a fancy food hall at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and we did, but it wasn’t that good.
The store was packed thanks to the bank holiday. I had the dumb idea to try to do some shopping but it was too expensive and I didn’t want to lug things around even if I could have afforded them.
I was curious to see all the different types of Muslim outfits the women in London wear. I know only one woman in a headscarf in San Francisco (she goes to my gym and lives in my neighborhood and we chat). She is pretty westernized with just the scarf and otherwise “regular” clothes. I saw about 100 women in various forms of dress in Selfridges alone. Everything from the full black outfit that covers everything but the eyes, to a loosely-worn headscarf with regular clothes (granted with long sleeves). And all varieties in between. I need to read up on this because I could tell the women were from many different countries and I don’t know how much of the dress is cultural vs. religious. I don’t want to be ignorant about such a current issue.
(BTW: it would be easy for me to look stuff up after the fact and act like I knew all about it when I write this, but that isn’t the point. I’m trying to capture what I experienced and thought at the moment and in real life travel the only thing I google on the spot is train and bus schedules, locations of museums, etc.)
The men with these women are almost always dressed like extras in a soap opera based in Los Angeles. Western, brand-conscious casual sportswear. Jeans, expensive shoes, fancy shirt. Absolutely no indication of their religion or country of origin. ???
I wandered into Hyde park where truly insane people were ranting. Public speaking in the park is a tradition but these guys were garden variety lunatics. I found a quiet place to deal with my credit card being turned off, despite the fact I’d let them know I’d be away. Buying a $6 bowl of soup was considered mighty suspicious!
Late that afternoon we caught the train to Cambridge.
I was thrown off by the development around the train station. Most of the towns we passed through have the “old town” near the station but the station in Cambridge was surrounded by boring, haphazardly-placed, newly-built, 10-story apartment buildings. Not charming, and no where I’d like to live. My cousin told me (later) that Cambridge is becoming a commuter town for London, since there is a fast 45-minute direct train there, rents are cheaper, and schools are excellent. Unfortunately that means people that work in Cambridge are getting driven out.
My cousin lives in a short and skinny house with a long and skinny yard. She is on the end of the row of houses so she gets extra windows. It is a decent size for one or two people but I can’t imagine trying to raise a kid in a house that small. And no closets!
Nearly all the houses in town are more or less identical, following three main floor plans.
The majority seem to be row houses and are horribly monotonous (to me) especially given the lack of vegetation. What a cruel architect. Why not build in some variety? It is so dehumanizing. My house is..that one…I think. I see this kind of construction all over the U.S. as well, so I’m not singling out the UK. I don’t like it anywhere.
We walked from her house into the city center for dinner. The “old” town felt real and living, not geared towards tourists, which was nice. I’m amazed how nice the waiters have been everywhere, especially given that people don’t really tip. I think San Francisco might have the least friendly wait-staff of any city I’ve ever visited.
The guest bed in my cousin’s house, true to theme, was skinny…and we are not! The mattress was comfortable but we spent the night elbowing each other and trying not to fall off.
Sunday August 28th, London
I wracked my brain to come up with a good pun having to do with the prime meridian, longitude, mean time…I know I had some good ones…Help!
I thought going to Greenwich to see the prime meridian and the start of time was not something any other tourist would consider doing. WRONG! I also thought we’d pop over there for a few hours and then do other things but it ended up eating up the whole day.
Firstly, it always takes way longer to get places than you expect on the tube because the map isn’t to scale. R. read an interesting article about how people make bad decisions on which route to take based on that map. I made that mistake myself, choosing a line that looked like it was only one stop from our hotel, but turned out to be a mile.
So it was probably an hour before we were even standing on London Bridge dock. The woman in charge usually worked at another dock and was quite flummoxed, not sure which boat was going where. When our boat finally arrived they tried to say they were full but she fought for us, yelling at the man, telling him, look, 10 people got off, you can take these people. She triumphed!
Greenwich was jammed! A huge attraction apparently. The town is very cute. The last of the tea clippers, the Cutty Sark, is on display.
Everyone and their grandmother was clomping up the hill to the Royal observatory to straddle the prime meridian, even though we likely crossed it a dozen times walking from the dock.
I didn’t realize that sailors had latitude figured out, but longitude was the problem – for navigation. One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum was about the development of a clock by John Harrison (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison) that would work on a ship, given the changes in temperate and humidity and the motion.
His first three designs were beautiful (and large) and the fourth, an amazing apple-sized work of art that really worked! An enthusiastic American guy saw me admiring it and recommended a book called Longitude as a good read.
I also saw a very old telescope used to discover Uranus (?) and a camera obscura.
We got a snack and took an above ground train back instead of a boat, and saw the dock lands redevelopment (I tried to piece together what we saw and what a cabbie was telling us about Canary wharf being a place you’d never go 20 years ago and now his mate’s place is worth 1.5 million). Ultra modern enclaves surrounding quays. I got that I “could be anywhere feeling” when we passed through.
I hoped to do a little shopping but we arrived on Oxford Street at 6pm and everything was closing, so we got back on the tube and went home.
Lazy, at the hotel, we decided to get dinner across the street at a place called Dishoom. We’d been watching people line up for it for days. It was tasty Indian food but clearly benefiting from hype.
Tomorrow we head to Cambridge!
Saturday August 28, London
This hotel, the Boundary, has a really great store/cafe on the ground floor and where we get to eat our included breakfast. I wasn’t sure how it worked, but worst case, we pay for it.
It’s a bright happy space and I was content to be there. It was all the best of London and I didn’t have to move. Accents, a nice view, food. I asked for tea, and so did R, and the waitress said, “Tea for two?” OMG I’ve never heard that asked seriously.
I decided to walk to the Tate modern. It’s less than two miles from here. We are in a cute neighborhood with interesting shops, including a thing called Box Park that is a bunch of shipping containers side by side and on top of each other–with shops or restaurants in each.
Some impressive high rises are being built in Shoreditch (and everywhere. This town is exploding). My phone took me on a weird path through them. Felt like downtown San Francisco on the weekend. Scary and deserted. Still, I like that London is a living and changing city. A skyscraper next to an old pub, that kind of thing happens all over.
Right next to Millenium bridge, the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Thames and drops everyone at the Tate, was a steep stairway down to the muddy bank of the River. It was one of those “never in the U.S.” stairways, nearly vertical tiny mossy steps with no handrail. Still, there were people down there rock hunting so I crept down.
The bank/beach was interesting and horrifying. I sat on a damp rock to examine a few square feet and immediately found a bone that might have been a vertebrae. Also, lots of shards of cups and plates, who knows from when. I saved a piece, hoping it was from the 1800’s. Much terra cotta and/or bits of bricks. Rocks. Very few shells.
If you zoom in on the picture, you’ll see most tan things are bones
I thought my bone was unique, then I saw a two-year-old blonde Russian toddler bobbing her way back to her mother, holding a femur. There are bones EVERYWHERE. WTF? I’ll assume they are animal bones…
A sweet pre-teen came up and asked me if I’d found any treasures. I showed her my way too light (as in not heavy enough given their size) black rocks and she speculated they might be coal. Hmmm!
The Tate couldn’t hold my interest, not after the mysterious bank of the Thames. A giant building, tourists dutifully shuffling through, exhausted…Sometimes museums feel more like zoos, the art held captive.
To be fair, I really liked this pile of radios. Many were playing. There was nothing else like this though.
I’m a big fan of natural light and the Tate had little of it. I wish there was a way to display one masterpiece on every street corner. Would people even take notice? If we take these paintings out of the museum, are they no longer great works?
I’m pretty sure I’ve hit the wall that I usually hit much sooner. My brain is shutting off. When I’m wandering around the Tate thinking the art sucks that is a pretty good sign. I need a day in a white room!
I made it home on the Overground (I hadn’t heard of that until this trip!)
We did a little bar hopping in the area, but it is all 20-somethings trying to mate.
Nice alteration of a do not enter sign
Good people watching for sure and the weather was great, but in boring but real life, my tooth was hurting. I’m supposed to get a root canal but every time I’m about to make an appointment it gets better and stays good for half a year, so I put it off. It began to hurt in the morning and by night was really nagging.
I went back to the hotel and downed ibuprofen and R. brought back really good tacos and we ate in the room.
Friday August 27th – Edinburgh to London
Today was a travel day and I’m going to keep this short because I’m behind.
We said goodbye to Edinburgh with a crappy train station meal and beautiful clouds.
The train initially headed east and I got to see the sea again. It is a different sea than I am used to. Kind of sluggish, with barely any waves, and few sandy beaches. The land turned to mud and just lay there.
The people across from us had the good view
Too soon we were back in England. Edinburgh must be just north of the unofficial border. Many nice towns on the way south, but I can’t say I’d want to live in any of them.
We arrived in King’s Cross station and though I didn’t realize I’d been missing urban energy it hit me the moment I got off the train. People, busy people, lots of them, going places, animated. A part of me I didn’t know had been tense relaxed. This, all this. The long taxi line. The woman trying to corral three children. The drunk Englishman meeting a friend. The fancy older woman in expensive shoes getting into a cab with a man in a patterned scarf. Us, getting in our own cab with a chatty young cabbie who wanted to know where we were from and telling us about his trip to Orlando with his children to Disneyland, and that he didn’t need to go back.
I’d thought of Edinburgh as a big city until just this moment.
Our hotel is just what I needed. No view per se on the third floor, but we have SIX windows. We had only a small one in Edinburgh. And they actually open, fully. Unlike Las Vegas, London is pretty sure we aren’t going to try to kill ourselves during our stay.
We went up to the roof bar for drinks and sunset, and to count cranes. London is under construction. I counted 22 without doing a full 360. The weather here is very good. Mid-70’s I’d guess. Way better than San Francisco, where my friend just instragrammed a photo of herself in a wool coat.
We sat next to a real London asshole. A guy with a wedding ring who asked where the cougar bars were in San Francisco because he is heading there at the end of the month. He had two pink rum drinks in front of him that he proudly proclaimed had FIVE kinds of rum. His button-down shirt strained as it tried to hold in his belly.
We left to go for a walk since we’d been sitting all day. Shoreditch has a fun Williamsburg-esque vibe. We ate at a packed food court/food truck thingy called Pump. Had a drink at some other place with a too-loud DJ.
I reluctantly rolled down all six shades and went to bed.
Thursday August 25th – Edinburgh
Yesterday I caught a cab home from Hollyrood park, and asked the driver about the walking path that runs along the Leith river. It looked pretty on the Internet. He said it was and got very enthusiastic, telling me to go to Dean Village and Stockbridge – where he was born and raised. Stockbridge was voted best place to live…in some publication. All the little villages around Edinburgh used to be separate but have been swallowed up.
When I asked how to get to Dean Village he made it sound like it was really far away. I’d have to take a cab or a bus but he didn’t know which bus because he hadn’t ridden one in years.
Well when R. and I set out to walk there today it turned out to be less than a mile away! The area around the little river was extremely charming, however, the path was closed in the direction I wanted to go (to the museum of Modern Art). I looked online later and discovered it’s been closed since 2012, and the council has been “evaluating” and “monitoring” the situation and repairs will be undertaken soon. Heh.
I’m embarrassed my taste is so predictable. I spotted a Dwell magazine-styled restaurant from a block away, Foundry 39. Old-timey lightbulbs hanging from an elaborate pulley system, interesting objects on shelves made from pipes, a big piece of beaten copper on the back wall (for no reason.) Ahhhhhh…yes. Hey I did pubs. I needed a taste of modern!
In more strange good luck, we sat down and the waiter informed us it was national hamburger day and all burgers were free. Free? Yes, free. So we had burgers, and they were good.
In this area, just steps from the tourist area and absolutely tourist-free (as the cab driver promised) I began to feel that maybe the bubble wasn’t as impermeable as I feared.
I returned to the book festival, which was coincidentally just two blocks away, to meet with Noel Chidwick, creator and editor of Shorelines of Infinity magazine, where my short story was published. I felt like a spy, going to meet a stranger in a cafe.
He spotted me, waved, then popped up to get me a cup of tea. We had a nice chat about the magazine and all his creative pursuits (author, musician, play write, editor) and he gave me a super secret preview of the next cover. I asked why Edinburgh seems so obsessed with murder and ghosts. I saw many ads for tours with these themes.
He laughed and said I hadn’t been here in the winter. He said the Royal Mile was completely deserted, as were all the closes, and that it was very foggy and windy and dark from about 4pm until around 9am. In short, very scary!!
After our meeting I went back to the river, heading in the other direction towards Stockbridge. The path was pretty, peaceful, and relatively busy. Dog walkers, kids heading home from school, teens making out on the bank.
From there I headed back to the shopping area, thinking vaguely of getting some souvenirs, then rejecting the idea of getting anything nice because we are going to be camping at Festival No. 6, and not to be overly paranoid, but I don’t know how safe our stuff will be and I’ve got to be okay with anything left in the tent possibly being stolen. I doubt anyone will steal my crappy clothes and I wouldn’t care too much if they did, but I’m not going to buy a nice new something and have that taken.
When I got out of the store, the fog was rolling in! I was happy to see it as I feel like I got to experience all the weathers…except the wind which is fine.
I met R at a pub near the hotel and we had a pint and planned the evening. We had tickets to an organ concert and absolutely were not going to put ourselves through that again. Noel Chidwick recommended going on the Mary King’s Close tour. He said he’d been on an unofficial tour before it was done up for tourists and it was a way to see how people lived in the 1600’s.
Well…his unofficial tour was probably much better than the real one. It was way overpriced and covered almost no ground, relying instead on the guide to tell stories of the Black Death and such.
Still, it piqued my interest in sewer systems of the past (I initially got interested when I Iearned how Chicago reversed the flow of the river and sent their sewage downstream instead of into the lake). In Edinburgh’s case, there wasn’t one. Everyone dumped their waste in the streets in old town, where it gradually made its way downhill to a lake of crap. OMG!!
I can’t wrap my head around this. I thought as a species we evolved to know that good smell = good and bad smell = bad. I seriously want to read more about this so if anyone has any book recommendations…
After the tour we had delicious Indian food. MMMmmmmm! We decided not to do any Fringe events and call it an early night at 11pm, though we didn’t get in bed until 1am. It’s hard to wind down after such stimulating days.
Wednesday August 24th – Edinburgh
I’ve got no idea how this city functions or any insight into to the real personality of the place. What people think or do for a living. If I had to speculate based on personal observation I’d erroneously assume everyone works in a restaurant, drives a cab, or is an architect (I’ve seen several offices in old town).
I’m in two huge bubbles, first, being in Old Town in the tourist area and second, having Fringe Festival happening around me. I’m seeing zero reality. The extra weird thing is that I’m having a good time. Old town is gorgeous and mysterious. Tonight we got off the bus after dinner and found ourselves on top of a big arch/bridge that we’d been under the night before and had to figure out how to get back down.
R saw what looked like a passage on the phone, and there we found an ordinary door propped open, revealing a steep spiral staircase–old brick with tiny, scary stairs. We walked gingerly down, worried we were going to end up in someone’s apartment, but we exited into an alley. The bottom door self-locked behind us and when shut, looked like any other apartment door. The alley had walls of fat cut stones that towered up on either side of us.
All the closes and secret passages are being used so the city feels very real, very alive, despite the tourism. Plus, the tourists around me are for the most part European – so still foreign and interesting! And the attractions are historical, not faked up like fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco.
Though Fringe Festival is also a bubble of sorts, it has gotten me out and about and into venues I’d never have seen if I was here during a normal time. I should put venues in quotes. Some of the places seem to be storage rooms.
Anyway…it turned out to be an unexpectedly sunny day today, and me of course in a long-sleeved shirt sweating profusely. R and I got irritated with each other in the hot sun. Everything is good as long as we wander aimlessly but when someone wants to go to a specific place then phones must be consulted, bus tickets must be acquired, routes argued over. We agreed to both do our own thing for a few hours.
I wanted to see the ocean. It wasn’t far. I took a bus to Ocean Terminal…which turned out to be a mall–and also the location of the royal yacht Britannia. (Which I did not tour). The mall was bland, and the view of the ocean somewhat obscured, but I did get to see the Dazzle Ship – which I really wanted to see! It is part of the International Festival and I’d seen ads for it. It was a cute modern take on the old war dazzle ships.
I asked a woman working at the mall falafel counter which bus to take to get to Hollyrood park, or I as put it, “the big volcanic hill over there.” She was decked out in a full chador (Islamic full body cloak worn by Iranian women when going out – thanks Internet) and I expected a middle eastern accent but she replied in full Scottish brogue. Surprise! There are many Muslim women here. Who knows how many men because they don’t have to cover their hair. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? I won’t start.
A woman on the bus told me where to get off for the park. You’ve got to love any directions that include, “walk along the wall behind the palace.” Ah Europe!
I saw two ways up the hill. One steep and one gentle, each heading in a different direction. I wanted to get to the tip top and assumed the steep path would be faster. Hmpf. I got 9/10 of the way there and the path began to descend and I saw it went almost all the way to the base then zig zagged back up. No freaking way! It was already 5pm and my legs were tired so I turned back.
The view from the nearly top felt so familiar…I could swear I was looking at the San Francisco Bay. They even have an island that looks like Alcatraz, and the hills beyond could be the east bay. The rolling hills could be many places in California.
When I got back we immediately went out for a pint at a pub. I don’t like beer much but it felt absolutely obligatory. I really liked the beer I picked randomly (Belhave Black Scottish Stout) and the servers at “the oldest pub in Edinburgh” were friendly as were the patrons, the guy next to me advising me which whiskey to try.
We then went to an excruciating organ concert in a pretty cathedral. The music was all gloom and doom and gut shaking bass. I figured it was rude to leave so I spent the time trying to decipher the flags hanging above me, one of which was belonged to the civil defense messengers from one of the world wars.
After that we hopped on a bus to Leith walk to a restaurant I’d found – which stopped serving food at 9pm!!! We got Italian instead. Do restaurants close early here?
We bused back and got off in our neighborhood, not sure what to do next, when a woman handed us a flyer for The Secret Circus, and asked if we wanted to see tits. “These tits! My tits! Her tits!”
What is cool about Fringe Festival is all the free shows, and that the performers stand outside the venue recruiting people, then run in and do the show.
I assumed from the “tits” reference that the show might be burlesque, so we went in. It turned out to be a great variety show! A couple burlesque acts, a comedian, musicians, a magician. Super well done. Better than many shows I’ve paid for. I got pulled up on stage after I ignorantly agreed to hold a piece of paper. A bit embarrassing but interesting to realize you can’t see a damn thing when you are on stage with those lights in your eyes! So fortunately the performers didn’t realize there were only 20 people in the audience!
It was another very good day.
Tuesday, August 23rd – Edinburgh
I can’t believe we only arrived on Sunday. I’m still a little stunned every time I walk outside and realize, oh wow, we’re here–and I’ve already seen so much!
We got off to a late start. I slept well but woke groggy. I’m embarrassed to say that late breakfast was at Pizza Pronto. At some point it is better to eat what is in front of you than to trudge on angry and hungry trying to find the perfect most unique restaurant.
We walked to the eastern end of the royal mile. I keep wanting to call it the miracle mile (as in Chicago) and can’t get that out of my head. Most of the street is taken up with Fringe Fest (promotional activities) and is crowded and crazy. From there we headed up Carlton hill, which is supposed to have a great view from the top, but we didn’t go all the way up since the vista seemed just fine from where we were in the middle.
From there I hightailed it down the hill, hoping to hear an author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The book festival was physically smaller than I expected, taking place in a fenced-off block that is normally a park. Temporally and event-wise it is big, running over several weeks with back to back events every day and a 1/2 inch thick program. The space (which must be totally empty normally), is nicely furnished with tents and raised walkways as well as two cafes and a full-size tent bookstore.
I got a ticket (kind of pricey for a one hour event) to see/hear Mark Haddon (author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which I read and am pretty sure I liked.) It was a great talk. To paraphrase – he said he is a white guy with a middle class upbringing who wants to write about the things he knows, but is bored of books about things like that. But introduce a sawed off shotgun…and then you can write about Christmas and all the knick knacks…as long as a stranger comes to the door.
He also said it takes him many drafts to get a story to a point where it isn’t awful. Thank god. I’m sick if hearing from writers who pop out a first draft in a week and finish a story soon after. He also said writers “start from zero every day” and if you don’t worry you are never going to be able to write again then you aren’t a writer. Writers have to balance “grotesque egotism with surgical self doubt.”
I waited out a heavy rain in a clear tent/cafe area with a cup of tea, then walked down Rose Street, a fun, cafe-filled street I’d like to go back to in better weather. I keep thinking, this place must be nice in the summer, forgetting this is the summer! : )
We are staying on the south side of the big ridge that has the castle on it (everything on that hill is old town), so to get anywhere we have to walk up and over or around.
The book festival was in new town to the north, so it was a hike to get back to the hotel, and the moment I got back we had to head out again to a Fringe Festival event…as our cab driver pointed out, “Why’d you come all the way to Scotland to hear an American band?”
Well, we don’t live in New Orleans so a New Orleans Jazz band is still pretty cool to us! Super small venue, cute crowd of older Scots who were made to dance by the singers. One of the singers came around at the end of the show and hugged and/or kissed every single audience member. I teared up a little at that. I mean, how freaking kind.
We got a great dinner afterwards at Rollo. The food in Edinburgh has been very good. About 90 percent of restaurant workers seem to be not Scottish, so if this brexit thing goes through – the restaurants are going to all be in big trouble!
We had tickets to a comedy event later that night: How to save the world without really trying. We arrived at the address (at ground level) walked down a flight of stairs, were directed to another flight of stairs, over and over again, until we arrived five stories down on a completely different street! The steepness here is mind boggling.
R picked this act totally randomly because they had a science fiction theme…and it was the absolute best thing we’ve seen here (future me concurs). London-based Bourgeois & Maurice – go to their site and watch a video. They are really funny. Comedy and songs, political and social satire.
Many of the venues during Fringe are probably not usually used as such. The room used for this show had a good sound system but was damp and hot and smelled of mildew.
On our way back to the hotel a comedian handed us a flyer to his own free show, which was happening right at the bar we were walking past and the theme was Drunk but Not Wasted, four drunk comedians, so of course we had to go. It wasn’t actually in the tiki theme bar, but up a flight a stairs, then another flight, then another flight, and we finally ended up at a dark dead end. On our way back down we noticed a piece of paper on the dirty wall with an arrow pointing to a closed door. Right then the comedian who’d given us the flyer ran up and opened that door and told us this was the way, but it wasn’t starting for 10 minutes. So we were obviously way too early!
We walked through a couple of mostly empty rooms to end up in a room full of chairs with blacked out windows–where we were clearly going to be killed and eaten!
Though we survived, poor R was the chosen victim of the night and was teased by all the comics…I guess that is a comic thing…to find a theme and stick with it. He didn’t mind. After all there were probably only 10 people there and no one was recording the event.
Finally – BED! Soooo tired…
August 22, London to Edinburgh
I woke at 3:30am, starving, but forced myself to stay in bed until I fell asleep again a bit before 5am. There are worse things than dozing in a king bed in clean white sheets waiting for the sun to rise in London…I kept telling myself.
The included hotel breakfast was good–fresh breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt, meat and cheese and tea! I’m so happy to be in tea country. When you ask for tea no one says “Mint, Green, herbal…etc.” they bring you black tea that is really nearly black and a pitcher of milk. Mmmmmm.
I had two hours in London before catching the train to Glasgow and managed to get to Hatchard’s, London’s oldest book store, and some of the other oldest shops in town including Fortnum and Mason, Floris (Perfume), and Paxton and Whitfield (Cheese).
Sadly none looked particularly old inside. Ironically, I ended up on a street full of men’s stores, while R ended up on a street of bookshops! None open yet though. I also ran through the National Gallery, heading right to the “modern” section (19th and 20th century) and saw some nice Monets and Turners.
We caught a cab to Euston station, which was crammed with people watching the departure board…all of whom ran to our train to Glasgow when the platform was announced.
It was a perfect day to ride the train. We were still jet lagged and confused so it was a relief to sit back and watch the scenery and not make any decisions for 4 hours.
We paralleled a canal for the first hour or so and I saw locks and the skinny barge/houseboats. I couldn’t really take any good photos from the train because we were going 120mph and there was glare on the windows.
The scenery, rolling green hills, farms, sheep, small towns, was bucolic. Literally bucolic:
2. of, relating to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life.
I get to use the word literally so seldom I had to look up bucolic to make sure I had it right.
I was a little disappointed in the lack of change of scenery when we got to Scotland. I don’t know what I expected but I’ve been imagining the place for so long. I thought maybe towns would thin out…there’d be about 20 miles with no people, then we’d come over a rise and there would be a landscape of rolling hills, no trees, and a big lake. Maybe a heath, whatever that looks like. And in the distance a smudge and that would be Glasgow. I heard it was industrial so it would have some smokestacks. Then we’d get on another train to Edinburgh and pass through empty countryside again, and then Edinburgh would rise up, a jewel-like city on hills.
In truth I never saw much of Glasgow because all we did was change trains there. (We’d gotten a ticket to Glasgow before we decided to stay the whole time in Edinburgh so we had to use that ticket). We got on a slow commuter train that stopped everywhere and gradually emptied. I didn’t mind that though the landscape remained too bucolic. Too English looking. I wanted my imaginary Scotland!
I wish I’d been air-dropped into Edinburgh because it is the dramatic city I imagined. Castles! Cliffs! Ravines! Spires without churches under them (probably also known as monuments). We got a cab to our pleasingly decorated “Euro” hotel. Clean and tasteful with blonde wood–I could be in Finland.
We went out right away because we were starving. The front desk gave us some bullsh*t recommendations on where to eat but we found our way down a close to a great place. What is a close you ask? We wondered the same thing. An amazing tunnel/alley thing between very high buildings! They are really cool. We had a great dinner on Advocate Close at Devil’s Advocate. Where we noticed that no one around us was Scottish.
Oh yeah and the Fringe Festival. It’s a huge deal! Kind of like South by Southwest but it goes on for weeks and weeks. The streets were closed, people sang and played guitars on stages or in alcoves…and that was just random people not official events. We didn’t try to go to anything yet.
On our way home we stumbled upon the infrastructure associated with an event called “Tattoo.” We had no idea what this was. Firstly, we saw a Cinderella carriage guarded by police. We waited, expecting someone to get in, but no one did. I asked a guard and she said it was the Queen’s carriage and it was there because of the celebration of her 90th birthday. Okay??
The carriage drove away.
We walked on and came to a street full of bus after bus. Then we came to the horse bus – with horses. And guys that looked like they’d stepped off the set of Lawrence of Arabia. And then men and women in kilts with instruments. Then we heard bagpipes from the castle, which was right above us. Then gunfire, then fireworks.
What is a tattoo? We had to look it up:
“The Tattoo is an iconic Edinburgh institution, and a sellout year after year after year. Music, dance and precision display with the Massed Pipes and Drums, the Massed Military Bands, cultural troupes, singers and the poignant refrain of the Lone Piper against the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.”
It runs for about three weeks every August and people were scalping tickets on the street for 120 pounds!!! Bizarre!
We got a quick drink in our hotel bar and a crashed hard and slept all night! Yay alcohol cures jet lag!
U.K. Invasion 2016
We are headed off on a back and forth trip across the UK. London Glasgow Edinburgh London Cambridge London Port Merion London home. It’s going to take me a few days to get into blog writing mode. I’m always stiff at first. It’s hard to write what I’m really noticing instead of the standard laundry list of what we saw, so bear with me.
We took a Virgin Atlantic 787-900 from SFO to Heathrow. The plane was pretty good for a plane; comfortable seats, big screens, best food I’ve had on plane yet, and very quiet – quieter than Bart (we measured the decibels). The flight attendants were one version of cliche “English” that I have in my imagination – cute, blonde, elaborate hairstyles, big teeth, big smiles, bright red lipstick and all of them in uniforms two sizes too small–which I assume is Virgin’s fault not theirs.
Getting through customs was oddly easy. No one went through our bags–we just walked out. We took a speedy and expensive train to Paddington station, and from there a cab to the hotel.
LONDON!!! I haven’t been in over 10 years. We ditched our bags and went right out, though we were beginning to feel tired. London is so stately and serious. So grown up. Our hotel was in the theater district, right near the National Gallery, and Big Ben was just down the street. Total immersion!
Traveling is more fun now that I’m owning the fact that I’m a tourist and not slinking around trying to fit in. Yeah, technically not on a tour but I’m going to carry my camera and stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk and gawk. I think I have some credits due me since San Francisco is such a big tourist destination. I can’t apologize for thinking London is interesting and wanting to take pictures.
Funny – I haven’t been on vacation in a place where people speak English in quite a while. It really takes the stress out of everything. It’s also interesting to realize how many people have foreign accents, whereas if I was in France I’d assume that anyone speaking French was a native.
I loved that the cab driver asked if we were staying a fortnight. Ha! I had to look it up.
We heard Big Ben chime 6pm, looked at the London Eye from across the muddy river, then began to crash. We made it to a great gyoza restaurant just as it started to rain.
R. went up to the room and fell asleep early. I tried to stay up until 10pm by hanging out in the lobby. The hotel, at least formerly, was “hip” but it wasn’t very hip on a Sunday night–families with kids, everyone in sneakers.
I made it until 9:45pm…a good effort! We had a great first day.
We took a quick trip to downtown Los Angeles to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I didn’t have my computer with me because trips with friends don’t offer much time for contemplation and writing, so I didn’t blog on the spot but I’ll attempt to recreate our weekend now.
We flew from SFO to LAX and took a Lyft to the downtown Standard. We’ve stayed there numerous times in the past and I think this was one time too many. It’s got a very distinct style that they haven’t updated in the past decade. So even though it is still great and if you wiped my memory I’d ooo and ahh, it felt like same old same old.
Gauging from the crowd at the rooftop bar on a Friday evening, it is no longer the hip place to be, which was a disappointment because LA people watching is so fun.
We walked to dinner at Redbird. Downtown LA is definitely NOT gentrified. The denizens are similar to those in San Francisco’s tenderloin district, but the vibe is totally different. Bigger, emptier, more haunting. Many shuttered buildings. No crowds on the sidewalks, just the occasional idiot tourists (us!) and raving homeless person. I didn’t feel in any kind of immediate danger but we all agreed to cab it back.
Redbird is in an old rectory and photographs much more majestically then it presents in real life. I can barely remember the food because of all the other odd things that happened. We arrived on time and the host apologized that the party at “our” table was having desert and would be done soon. I was mystified that we were assigned a particular table and not the next 4-top that opened up. We didn’t mind. We were happy to have drinks and gawk. Good people watching there for sure! After half an hour we were getting hungry, and the host again apologized. We moved from the bar to a bar table when one opened up–which earned us the ire of the bartender! We’d already had a round, but when we went to the bar to get another he haughtily refused to make us a drink. We were at a TABLE now and the nonexistent SERVER would get our drinks. We sat there drinkless and confused. At some point the host, who was really very nice, told us the table was almost ready and offered to buy us drinks. We were happy to accept and explained that we had tried to get our own and been refused, so he did some magic handwaving and a few minutes later the server appeared with drinks for us.
When we were finally seated it was at the most awkward table ever. The back of my chair was a foot from a chest of drawers thing – which the waiters actually needed to access to get silverware and other supplies. So the whole meal waiters were squeezing behind me and rustling around. !!!!
R. had a headache and felt bad from the flight, so after we ordered he left to go back to the hotel, which meant we ended with way too much food.
Highlight! Actress Riki Lindhome from Garfunkel and Oates (one of my favorite shows) sat down at a table right across from us midway through dinner. She was on a date and I was trying hard to be cool and not stare at her. Meaning, I totally stared at her. And felt sorry for her that people like me stared at her when she was just trying to have a nice night out. Oh well!! : ) Overall it was a good night and they comped us a lot of our food so I had no complaints.
Saturday morning we headed straight to The Last Bookstore.
What a great place! In case you haven’t heard, all the big bookstores in San Francisco are gone. The chains left, and the little indy places are flourishing, but we don’t have any grand spaces dedicated to books. No clean, well-lighted places, just small narrow spaces filled with eau du old paper.
The Last Bookstore is a temple! A cathedral! A maze! Amazing! Built in an old bank it is what a bookstore should be.
In addition to books, the mezzanine level hosts art galleries. I actually bought some art. My house is very small and I’ve got limited wall space so I was really happy to find some very small original art.
We spent the afternoon at the Standard’s rooftop bar/pool area, which was a very strange experience. Years ago I laid on the exact same couch and had an amazing time drinking and frolicking. Since then, my tastes have changed. I was older than the 20-somethings that surrounded me and therefore invisible to them, which was amazing. A group shared our corner and spoke freely about stupid ass shit. I don’t want to be mean. I was 20, I was an idiot, I admit it. But to see it now played out in front of me…god…the posturing…the insecurity…guys literally comparing their abs…the women tottering around on high heels taking selfies…I so do not want to be young again. I wanted to tell them all they were beautiful and to relax.
To cap it all off, when we left Sunday, I saw that Iron Maiden has their own plane. What!!??? All in all a great weekend.
April 14, 2015
I’ve been keeping my eyes open for exotic birds and haven’t seen any, but today we were greeted by hundreds of screaming seagulls.
We decided to walk around town and then take a cab to a beach hotel that sold day passes. No more trying to crash fancy resorts.
We didn’t last long in town. We made it though the taxi gauntlet fairly unscathed, but the town itself was hot and dingy with three-foot high curbs that threw R.’s mom for a loop. Plus it was all local shops, not the fancy boutiques she likes. After a few blocks we gave up and got in the next cab that offered a ride.
The Halcyon Beach Hotel was what I’d call a C+ grade all-inclusive hotel. It was clean and the staff was nice and they checked all the boxes, just barely. It is the dry season, I get that, so they didn’t waste water irrigating the lawn, but that made the hotel look sad and shut down, since there were lawns everywhere. All the rooms had patios or balconies, and though it seems statistically impossible, none of the outdoor furniture matched. It was like a hurricane hit a Walmart one island over and all this stuff ended up on their shore and they kept it.
The plastic lounge chairs on the beach had a fatal flaw. When you sat in them the plastic netting pulled the back up so it hit you and you’d have to wrestle it down. Lunch was decent but very basic. I’ve never stayed at an all-inclusive so it was exactly how I expected the food might be. Nothing you’d ever want the recipe for.
The beach was beautiful though! Really pretty. Powdery white sand, 50 shades of blue. Crappy snorkeling but I didn’t mind. The whole setting was so wow. One of my favorite things was a cliff that showed the geology of this part of the island, which is apparently made of shells and petrified sea creatures!
I think we were all ready to go mid-afternoon but we had the usual arrangement with the cab driver; he’d come back to get us and we’d pay him then for the roundtrip. We’d asked him for a card but he didn’t have one so we were stuck there until the appointed time.
A great boat came to pick up the pilot when we left the harbor. Lovely rust bucket! I keep getting flashes of “Heart of Darkness” on this trip. I joked that this trip is a mash up of that and “A Room with a View.” Me and the aunties and the dark impenetrable jungle. Man, released from all restraints, gives in to the excesses of the 24-hour buffet.