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.