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.