England

Travelling in the 90s: last days in London

And now for more Travelling in the 90s — tripping back in time to 1994 and my last few days in the UK…

[Saturday 29 January, 1994] Yesterday we headed back to London via Oxford. We wandered around for a while — saw the canal, saw the castle, saw some shops — before picking up a walking tour at 2pm. Our guide was French, and we were taken through Corpus Christi College, Merton, Aureole, Jesus — all of them consisting of courtyards surrounded by student accommodation.

I am so envious of Oxford Students! To live in such gorgeous buildings as these. But they have to wear academic gowns to dinner every night, and all through exams. Pain in the neck!

Oxford is a university city all through, with thirty-six colleges and around 100,000 bicycles. We also saw the Bodleian Library which has over six million books.

When we got back to London, we had to give the car back. 😦

windsor castle

Windsor Castle

[Sunday 30 January, 1994] Today we were up really early to see Windsor Castle — that other Royal Residence. It took over two hours to get there by train, and cost 6.50 pounds. We certainly rued the loss of our car. Nevertheless we were in by 11:00, and rampant.

Well, Windsor Castle is certainly very large; however, we didn’t go into that much of it really. The main attraction is the Royal apartments — these consist of ornate ceilings, paintings by master artists (Rubens, Van Dyke…), and swords, guns and armour!!! This Windsor family has far too many of these than is fair — they line every wall in intricate arrangements and patterns. If only I could have one — just one!!

Queen Mary’s Doll’s House was a replica of just about everything, including armour, electricity, plumbing etc, and we also saw the Queen’s presents and carriages (we pretended to be under 17 so it was cheaper — how depressing that they believed us).

Amazingly, there was no food (but 5 souvenir shops) to be found within the castle, so we had to leave out the St Georges Chapel which did not open until 2:00pm on Sundays. After lunch, we had “cream tea” in the Windsor Chocolate House, which was delish. The train back home was just as tedious.

horse guards

Horse Guards

[Tuesday 1 February, 1994] Only one more day in England to go! Yesterday, we traipsed all around London again — but we STILL haven’t seen the changing of the guards. We are doomed to miss it I fear — oh well, something for next time. It was a bitty day. We checked out planetarium times, bought tickets for Les Miserables, took photos of Trafalgar Square (we hadn’t until then), and went to St Catherine’s House, where H was to search for some death certificates in order to assist her mother’s family tree compilation. While she was thus occupied, I amused myself by looking up the birth records of Dad and Grandad.

rosetta stone

Rosetta Stone

After lunch we went finally to the British Museum. We burned around a bit, searching for famous artifacts: Rosetta Stone, Egyptian Mummies etc, but… DISTRESS! The caryatid stolen from the Acropolis was in a box somewhere while its display was renovated. After all this we were exhausted. However, we had to hang around because we went to see Les Mis, which was brilliant!

Today we went to Bodiam Castle, and then down to Battle — scene of the Battle of Hastings 1066. Bodiam is beautiful — straight out of a fairy tale with four towers and a moat (although it’s a ruin). In fact, it’s on the front covers of both my castle books. Unfortunately the weather was lousy — excessive wind and then rain. (Great atmosphere though — the dark, brooding shell of an abandoned castle.)

bodiam castle

Bodiam Castle

We lunched in a pub before going on to Battle. It was quite fantastic to visit such a famous site. The battle-ground is now lush and green with trees. At the site stands the ruins of the abbey which William built to atone for all the bloodshed — he placed the altar on the site of Harold’s death. History is so powerful, and although it’s so often bloody, I was moved just to be there.

[Thursday 3 February, 1994] This morning, we were up early (7:00) because we were leaving at 7:50 to catch the 8:08 train to Victoria, to catch the 9:25 boat train to France.

But there was drama. First we were told that the weather was forcing us to catch the ferry from Dover to Calais, instead of the Hoverspeed Sea Cat from Folkestone to Bouloigne — so we were shunted off to Dover on the train. At Dover it transpired that we were catching the Sea Cat, and there would only be a 15 minute delay — oh goody. Once on the Sea Cat we were informed that all the furor was due to rampaging Normanby fishermen which had closed the Bouloigne sea port. In Calais we had to wait an hour to be bused to the Calais ferry-train-station, where we had to wait another half an hour for the train to depart.

The result of all this stuffing about is that we will be in Paris more than two hours later than the 4:15 we were expecting. We’re on the train on the moment, so we’ll just have to see…


Well, the Eurostar train certainly makes it MUCH easier to get to Paris these days… And Paris is where you’ll find us in the next installment of travelling in the 90s! This is approximately the 2/3 mark of our 12 week holiday.

PS – To this day, despite revisiting London several times, I have STILL never seen the changing of the guards… And I really need to go back to the British Museum.

Travelling in the 90s – Hadrian’s Wall and a few days in Scotland

Welcome to Travelling in the 90s — the tale of my adventures in Europe, drawn from my original travel journal from 1993-1994…

Our fresh-faced 20-something selves have just been road-tripping through Wales and are now heading north in our trusty Rover towards Scotland for a few days.

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[Thursday 13 January, 1994] Yesterday we drove up to Durham, and today we checked out the cathedral… Apparently the two most worth-seeing cathedrals in England are Durham and Salisbury — done em!!

map_wall

Then we “did” Hadrian’s Wall. We saw our first segment at Heddon on the Wall (just outside Newcastle). Then, as the weather steadily deteriorated, we took a little “B” road which followed the wall. Our next stop was beside a little temple to the Roman god Mystras (below) — unfortunately it was a soggy green field away from the road, and I slipped over to cover myself with English mud.

mythric temple

Following this, we went to Housesteads Roman Fort (below), which was ace! — but I’m told that expression is outdated, so I will say wicked, awesome, well excellent etc. Hadrian’s Wall formed one of the fort’s four walls, and contained the ruins of latrines, barracks, grainaries etc.

Housesteads

But best of all was the fact that we got to walk along the Wall (below)! The ground on the “Scottish” side fell away very sharply, and the wall was built along the ridge, taking advantage of the natural geography. Spectacular. We walked along the wall for a while and it was wonderful.

Hadrians Wall

After a while, I was outvoted by my companions who were finding the cold and windy weather a trifle excessive. So we went in search of coffee, which we found at The Gunn Inn. It was a lovely pub, and we were offered a bottomless cup of coffee… The bar was covered with old imperial pennies, and there was a yummy warm fire.

The drive to Edinburgh was interesting, as it was dark and the roads were winding, and at one stage a steady barrage of hammering rain attacked the windscreen perpendicularly. It was all made particularly spectacular by the play of the headlights on the rain drops. But we got there eventually, and despite my two navigators taking me through the centre of the city instead of around the ring road, even safely.

map_edinburgh

[Friday 14 January, 1994] Time to check out Edinburgh. The castle was great — fully intact and containing exhibitions of the Honours of Scotland (sword, sceptre, crown etc) and various military regalia. Neither of us were too interested in the latter — we’re a bit overcrammed with history. Other aspects included the vaults which housed a large canon (not the one that’s fired at 1:00pm) and a rather spectacular view.

From the castle, we wandered in the pouring rain down the Royal Mile (which felt considerably further than that) to Holyrood Palace. We took a guided tour — the palace is full of 17th century tapestries and five-year-old rugs, side by side! We also saw the older part, where Mary Queen of Scots lived before moving to the castle. She was sixteen when she married the fourteen year old King of France, and was eighteen when he died. She next married Lord Darnley who sounds like a nasty character. When we left, it was still raining — I am getting very sick of rain!

[Monday 17 January, 1994] On Saturday we went to Stirling Castle (below), about an hour by motorway from Edinburgh. Stirling is said to be the most impressive castle in Scotland, but when we saw it, it was covered with scaffolding — parts inaccessible — and contained yet another military museum. Nevertheless the bailey out the back was quite stunning, with a stone fortified wall and a pocket of lovely green grass. The rest of the castle was very similar to that in Edinburgh.stirling castle

On the way via back roads to Linlithgow Palace, I had a grump attack. This was brought on by the fact that I really wanted to go to Loch Lomond — said to be the most attractive loch of them all – but, although it was close by, the weather turned against us. Add to that the frustration of short, cold, rainy days… Scotland is a place I shall definitely have to revisit at a nicer time of year!

Linlithgo Palace

So of course the “scenic” tourist route we followed to Linlithgow was rather ordinary and infuriatingly slow. However, Linlithgow Palace (above) was marvellous — a rather impressive ruin with stairs and rooms forming a labyrinth. I felt like a kid as I more-or-less ran from room to room, listening to the echoes.

Well, Linlithgow Palace almost resurrected my day, but then the saga of the camera reached a climax. I had actually dropped it again at Stirling Castle and the film rewound, but this time when I dropped it…

I was walking rapturously towards a spectacular sunset photo when I slipped on an asphalt path covered with black ice, landing elbow-first on my rear end. Through the haze of funny-bone pain I was aware of the film rewinding — swore quite a few times — and ended up with a wet backside. The camera, alas, did not survive. The casing is severely cracked, although hopefully the film was not exposed. Maybe it’s fixable…?

On Sunday we headed to Belton, near Lincoln. We’re staying on a little farm at the end of a lane, warm and comfy, full of animals!

***

And that was Scotland. I did return some years later at a much nicer time of year. Might do a post on that someday, although I don’t think I kept a journal.

Unfortunately none of the Edinburgh and few of the Stirling photos are worth sharing… And those that I’ve included are still very dodgy! I must say the advent of digital photography has done wonders for me.

Next installment will see us traipsing around the north of England, based on the little farm in Belton.

Travelling in the 90s – Of Stratford peregrines and Welsh cockerels

I’m continuing with my Travelling in the 90s series today… Excerpts from my travel journal kept during my 1993-1994 grand adventure in Europe and the UK.

We pick things up in the Midlands, where H and I have been staying with family friends and touring the region with a hire car. But two is about to become three, as we head to Stratford upon Avon to join up with another of our friends from university…

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[Sunday 9 January, 1994] Yesterday we went back to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we met up with another of our friends, M. We went to Anne Hathaway’s house first – it’s set in a lovely garden complete with orchard. There was also a recently planted tree-garden containing trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

I loved AH’s house, but the pick for me was Mary Arden’s house — primarily because of the falconry display. They fly birds of prey all day (weather permitting, and thank God it did) and the minute we got there I bolted down to see. Lucky I did too, because a man was flying Henry the peregrine falcon. I nearly died (or wept with joy). He was using a lure to tempt Henry, and the poor bird flew around quite a few times before he finally grabbed it. I could get really close for a photo too.

Peregrine falcon at Mary Arden's House

Peregrine falcon at Mary Arden’s House

We watched Henry tear ruthlessly into a baby chicken (dead of course) while we talked to the guy who flew him. He said they flew all the birds each day, and that two were out hunting that day. (They actually take people out falconing for 40 pounds a day!) Apparently peregrines are not the easiest birds to hunt with, as they require large open spaces (expensive to hire) and sometimes take their prey a long way so it’s hard to catch them. The idea is to ride with the bird, so you can steal its prey before it’s eaten. You also need pointers to find the birds (grouse for example) and flush them out. Also, peregrines don’t always come back! Hawks are far more reliable.

After this ever so interesting chat, we watched a woman fly an eastern eagle owl for a while, before deciding our toes were too cold and we needed warmth. Mary Arden’s home itself was also interesting. The tour included all sorts of anecdotes such as the origin of “turning the tables” which derives from the fact that a table top was reversible — the rough side was used for eating, then was flipped so that all the mice and rats could clean up the remains. Also “upper crust” because the most important people got the top of the loaf of bread.

[Monday 10 January, 1994] Sunday, we three headed to Wales. We spent the afternoon in Chepstow, seeing the castle which was rather large and impressive with 5 separate defensible sections. It also featured an interesting video on the use of siege engines and an exhibition dealing with the Civil War in England started by Oliver Cromwell. We arrived at our destination – a dairy farm in St Fagans (near Cardiff) belonging to family friends – in time for dinner.

Chepstow Castle - trying on Civil War helmets

Chepstow Castle – trying on Civil War helmets

Today a promising beginning (early morning farm stroll) turned a little sour when I was attacked by the farm cockerel, Ceiliog. I was saying hello to the horse when Ceiliog (who happens to be a game cockerel) decided to launch himself at my shins, tearing my pants and drawing blood! Pain! I wasn’t too impressed (need I say) and everyone else just laughed. (I wasn’t too impressed with that either!) Anyway, it’s now covered in elastoplast and doesn’t hurt unless I knock it. We then heard the story of Ceiliog who has recently lost(?) his mate and second generation children, and has been deposed by his first generation children who’ve given him the cold shoulder. Now I feel sorry for the poor bird.

Ceiliog

Ceiliog and the barn

We went into Cardiff and wandered around for a while — seeing the highly decorative public buildings and civic centre — before going to see Cardiff Castle, which was very interesting. It has a Roman wall and a Norman keep and a Victorian (?) palace built by a man who was then one of the richest men in the world. We didn’t see the inside but apparently it’s very elaborate. There was also a Welsh army regiment exhibition which was mildly interesting for H and I, but exceedingly so for M, who is keenly interested in all things military.

Cardiff Castle keep

Cardiff Castle keep

The Welsh Folk Museum (where we went next) was excellent. The inside exhibition occupies a modern building and shows historical articles of daily life (laundry, house cleaning, education, sport, music etc). However, outside is an extensive village — full of reconstructed farmhouses, shops, craftsmen’s workshops, and even a “castle” or old manor house. They even had a toll gate and toll house. I wish we’d had more time to spend there.

[Thursday 13 January, 1994]  Tuesday morning we set off for the national mark of the Brecon Beacons. Our route took us from Merthyr Tydful through a green valley of reservoirs towards Brecon. We detoured up to the mountain lodge — a sort of tourist centre for the region. It was drizzling slightly, but we went for a short walk anyway, with rain coats, scarves and gloves on. Our destination was a Roman road, but we also just wanted to get out and walk around some of Wales.

Well, the drizzle worsened dramatically into a vicious downpour and gale-force winds — FREEZING! In all, it was rather a memorable experience; however, we got soaked, and I mean really wet! I’m still not really sure what exactly the Brecon Beacons are, but we did find the ruins of a Roman road.

We surged back into the car — rosy cheeks and chattering teeth — and set course for the nearest pub. Our selection criteria were steak pie (as close to an Aussie meat pie as you can get in the UK) and open fire. We were successful in neither of these (!), but found a pub called “The Wheat Sheaf” where we ate lasagna and chips and coffee. By the time we came out (1.5 hours later) it had stopped raining.

We drove then towards Hay on Wye, passing a fair dinkum toll gate (Whitney on Wye). Thrilling!!! For 50p we had the gate opened for us by a man sitting in his little toll house. It totally made my day.

So did Hay on Wye. It’s a town of a million second-hand bookshops. (Well more than twenty-five anyway.) Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for our backpacks) we only spent an hour, managing to find a shop that specialised in Sci-Fi Fantasy. Even an old cinema has been converted into a bookshop. An hour was definitely not long enough.

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Thus ends a nice little jaunt into Wales. The next installment will see us heading northwards. Oooh, Hadrian’s Wall… Edinburgh! Can’t wait!

As a side note, The Cranberries’ song, Linger, was massive around this time. We heard it on the radio constantly during our UK road trip, and for me the two experiences will be inextricably linked. (I love that song, by the way.) Here it is for your viewing and listening pleasure…

Travelling in the 90s – Stratford, Bath, Stonehenge…

More Travelling in the 90s today… and we’ve arrived at one of the most thrilling weeks of the entire UK road trip. Warwick Castle… Stratford-upon-Avon… Bath… Salisbury… Stonehenge. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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[Monday 3 January, 1994] Yesterday we went to Warwick Castle, which is supposed to be the “finest castle in England”. It certainly is rather impressive, and I’m extremely grateful to it for being open at this time of year.

warwick castle

Warwick Castle

It consists of a large square keep, one side of which is a manor house, set in the midst of vast green grounds on the banks of the River Avon. It is very geared to tourists, and we certainly saw enough of them. Part of the living areas have been made into an exhibition by Mme Tussauds, entitled a “Royal Weekend Party”. As the name suggests, it consisted of wax figures who might have visited the Earl of Warwick in 1898. It was extremely well done.

The other part of the “living” areas consisted of all the state rooms — great hall plus official drawing rooms, dining rooms etc, and even a room which is supposedly haunted by the first man to revive the ruins of the castle back in the seventeenth century.

There was also a rather impressive armoury. In fact some man on duty had a sword and some helmets that we could pick up, and indicated me towards a sheet that lists all the different types of swords which I have copied down. I just wish that samples accompanied. Someday I will enjoy my antique sword collection! The grounds of the castle were also very attractive.

stratford

Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare’s birthplace

Today we went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare properties. We saw Shakespeare’s birthplace, Nash’s house incorporating the site of New Place, and Hall’s Croft. All were lovely Tudor cottages with smooth stone or polished wooden floorboards, and high V-shaped ceilings. I could live in one of these houses!

They were all furnished similarly, but each had a little exhibition to accompany the house: John Shakespeare’s life and times, William’s writing, a history of Stratford from Neolithic times, and medical practice in the time of doctor John Hall (who was the husband of Will’s daughter Elizabeth). Still to go are Ann Hatheway’s cottage, and Mary Arden’s house. We will probably go there on Saturday. Tonight we had our first traditional British Fish and Chips — YUM.

[Wednesday 5 January, 1994] Yesterday was fairly dreary and hardly worth commenting on, save for two things: the first is the Corinium museum — Corinium being the 4th largest city in Roman Britain. The museum was full of Roman mosaics and artifacts and was rather interesting. We were originally going to Goodrich Castle, but as it was raining (and Goodrich is a ruin) we found something indoors. It was ironic that by the time we reached Cirencester (Corinium) the sun was out! We also went to see the Roman ampitheatre in Cirencester, but this was only large grass-covered mounds where wooden seating had previously been.

The second thing worth mentioning was the RSC production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, which was brilliant, even if slightly long and melodramatic. I do love Shakespeare, and this was a classic. We had really good seats too. King Lear is a rather depressing play though — everyone ends up mad or dead or both!

Today, in contrast, has been wonderful. We went to Bath. We decided to make it a two day trip, planning to stay in the Bath youth hostel, so duly packed our belongings for one night and drove down the motorway. We put the car in a big shed for the day, and then went to explore on foot (the ONLY way to see Bath).

The main attraction is of course the Roman remains of the baths, but these are more complex than I had expected, and include the ruins of a temple to Sulis-Minerva. The whole setup is as follows: The natural hot spring (46.5C) wells up, heated geothermally. In Roman times the spring was considered sacred and served to heat the main “swimming pool” bath. Then a series of east and west baths developed, at first heated by water from the main bath, and later by a Roman hypercaust system (central heating by hot air).

When the baths and the temple fell into disuse, the ceilings etc fell in, until only the original hot spring remained in use by monks as a swimming pool. As time passed, buildings rose up around and on top of the old Roman baths.

The Pump Room, which drew water out of the hot spring, was built around 1790. During the Georgian era Bath became very fashionable as a health resort, so that most of the “city” is of Georgian style. However, Society was in complete ignorance of the Roman ruins, which were not re-discovered until around 1890! They were then excavated and added to, so that what we see now of the baths is partly Victorian. WOW!

We went to the Pump Room and tasted the waters for 35p. Very warm and very hard and very sulphurous — yuck yuck yuck!

We then sauntered off on a walking tour of the town, seeing Laura Place (as one does) before it started to rain and we took ourselves off to see the assembly rooms. These are wonderful! A big ball room, card room, tea room — the perfect setting for Georgette Heyer’s books! It was worth coming to England just to see these. The same building houses the Museum of Costume. This was fascinating, particularly learning how the change in fashion represents the changing thoughts and needs of women of the time. Magnificent!

We were originally planning to stay in Bath, but the hostel was full when we got there, so we went on to Salisbury (booking ahead first). It took us 45 minutes driving around the stupid city before I got a map from the train station — and even then the hostel was tricky to find.

[Thursday 6 January, 1994] Today has been great, even if freezing, and completed an excellent double day adventure. I am now exhausted.

Following breakfast at the hostel, we went to see Stonehenge. I was expecting to be disappointed, since everyone says it’s small and a let down because you can’t walk amongst the stones. This is all true, but it still possesses a mysterious, eerie quality which has to do with great age, and its position on the windswept Salisbury plain. We saw it in the mist of early morning, looking quite ethereal, and I can’t say that I was disappointed.

We had a tricky time finding angles for photography that avoided the ladder, tripod and two men amidst the stones (surveyors?), and all the other tourists. We joined English Heritage (EH) here, as at least we can be sure they’ll be open during winter!

After Stonehenge we set off to find the White Horse carved into the side of the hillside nearby. Just nearing it, we drove into a dense mist, and then the plain was covered in snow. Oh well. We then went to Old Sarum (EH) which is an old Royal fort and cathedral. It was an extremely cold day, and Old Sarum is on the top of a hill, so we FROZE. It mainly consisted of old walls which had been covered by slate and mortar for protection in ~1910 when found.

We then went into Salisbury again for lunch and to see the cathedral, the largest in England. It is certainly rather impressive — high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and an old medieval clock (the oldest still working in England).

We set off back to home base via Avebury, jumping out in the dark to see the standing stones by torchlight! An enormous ring runs right through the village — we actually touched these ones. With a bit of moon they would have looked spectacular — as it was they were barely visible. But, nevertheless!!

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Hope you enjoyed this glimpse of some of England’s most iconic sites through my youthful eyes. I certainly look back upon those days with great pleasure.

The Travelling in the 90s series features lightly edited excerpts from my 1993-1994 travel journal. (Once again, please excuse the dodgy photos!)

Travelling in the 90s – road trip UK

Welcome to the next installment of Travelling in the 90s, which comprises extracts of my 1993-1994 first ever overseas travel journal. Many things have changed since then. Many things have not.

It’s Christmas Eve and we’re heading to St Paul’s cathedral…

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[Sunday 26 December, 1993] Friday was a cold, windy day, and we were freezing and very upset to find the British Museum closed, being Christmas Eve. We then decided to check out St Paul’s Cathedral. It too was closed. However, things began to look brighter when we learned it was to reopen in an hour for a carol service at 4:00 pm.

We went back and ended up with pretty good seats. What would Christmas be without a carol service? It was a really lovely service — we sang every possible carol except for Silent Night, and heard all possible Christmas readings. The choir was lovely and sang some modern Christmas carols.

But the cathedral! It’s fairly magnificent. There are beautiful paintings on the domed ceilings, and the whole building has a majestic aura. To partake of a carol service at St Paul’s was something wonderful. What better place to spend Christmas Eve?

Today we went to Leeds Castle. This originates from Norman times with bits being added over the years. Henry VIII owned it at one time (I think Catherine Parr lived there after his death). We went all around the castle, and learned interesting things — such as that in Tudor times, the Queen received people on a huge bed which was never slept in, but used as a status symbol.

Leeds Castle, Kent

Leeds Castle, Kent

The parks and grounds were gorgeous, and we had a nice day for England — it didn’t rain, and we even saw the sun! There was a hedge maze (which we got lost in) and also a rather impressive aviary with many Australian and South American birds. It was a thoroughly wonderful day, topped off by scones and coffee in a barn-like hall.

[Thursday 30 December, 1993] Well. ENGLAND PHASE TWO begins now, as we arrived in Badsey (staying with family friends) in our snazzy car. We picked it up yesterday as planned — a brand new “diamond white” ROVER. It has power steering, sun roof, electronic windows, side window de-misters, 5 gears, central locking… and indicators on the wrong side of the steering wheel column.

This last made driving home from Croydon rather interesting. I drove — with the only mishap being a full circumnavigation of an enormous double round-about! We then took this glorious car out for a spin down in the direction of Hever castle — which was closed — but the scenery around this part of Kent is beautiful.

However, it is becoming a bit of a drag to find everything we want to see closed. The freezing weather I had anticipated, but not the winter hibernation of half the historical buildings in the UK.

A-Z_15

A-Z Road Atlas: Christmas present from our hosts!

This morning we left Kent and hit the road for Badsey (near Evesham), intending to stop and do something on the way. I was driving, and found the motorways quite enjoyable (some might disagree). We stopped at Woodstock, which is just out of Oxford, for lunch — hoping that Blenheim Palace was open (no). This was one of the first lunches we had not packed, and we were quite surprised at how expensive things were. We found a little cafe and had toasted sandwiches and a danish pastry with coffee.

Unfortunately the local tourist office was also in hibernation, so we went straight to Badsey. That night we became acclimatised and made plans. We are all going walking in the Malvern Hills on New Years Day.

I can’t wait to see the English countryside: hills, lakes, rivers, and all the little villages in between. There is so much to see — including a town with THIRTY second-hand bookshops. We think a day would do for there! The next four weeks are going to be really hectic, but out little car should make it fun.

[Saturday 1 January, 1994] Well, 1994 — What will it bring? The stars say lots of money — Good! Yesterday we went into Evesham to do some shopping and visit the tourist office — which was of course closed. It will supposedly be reopening next week — hmmm. We then took our lovely car down to Wynchcombe. Sudeley castle was ALSO closed, but we walked down a public footpath which gave us a fairly good view — lovely — and it was a glorious day.

We then took our packed lunch to Belas Knap long barrow (which took a few U-turns and traversing private property to find) at the top of a lovely green grassy hill. We climbed it out of necessity to find the barrow and a fantastic view. It was a very nice barrow — a hump really. However, despite the sunshine, it was still very cold.

Hales Barrow

Top – Belas Knap Long Barrow; Bottom – Hales Abbey

Following the barrow we went to Hales Abbey, now very much a ruin, but we were guided around by a resident lay-brother who died of the plague, and then the senior choirmaster (via a tape recording). We were told all the history, and I could actually imagine what the abbey was like, and how the monks etc lived.

The abbey was previously a popular destination for pilgrims, as they supposedly had some of the blood from Christ’s body. At the end of our tour we were very cold and had very muddy boots.

New Year’s Eve we were taken to three pubs: The Vauxhall, the Norton Grange, and then the Queen’s Head. After wine with dinner, cider at the pub, and then Baileys both H and I were very merry by the end of the evening! But we weren’t driving. And despite the fact that we didn’t really know anybody, missed the countdown, and missed hearing Big Ben chime in the New Year, it was one of the best New Years I’ve had.

Today we slept in (surprise), but eventually the five of us packed up a lunch and went to the Malvern Hills for a walk. I totally overexerted myself on the way up, but once there it was lovely — devoid of trees entirely, with soft, spongy grass. We wandered about for a while, (among the crowds of overkeen walkers for the day after New Years Eve) before reluctantly descending (driven down by the biting wind) to a carpark lunch.

Apparently you HAVE to drink the Malvern Waters, so we drove around looking for, and eventually found, Holy Well, before heading home for a quiet evening.

***

Hiring a car and taking a road trip around the UK remains the best way to see this place. It was bold for us back then, given our budget, but this marked the beginning of a fabulous month of road touring. Even though so many sites were closed…

Has anyone else tried to tour the UK in the dead of winter?

Ancient monuments and a lighthouse on the Penwith Peninsula

One of the essential areas of Cornwall to visit is the Penwith Peninsula — essentially the glob of land at the very south west of England… You know, Penzance, Lands End etc. So of course we did a day tour down there in our trusty little red car.

Our first stop was St Michael’s Mount, that distinctive island connected by a causeway to the village of Marazion. We didn’t pay to tour the whole site (chapel and house I think), but we did wander across the causeway and ramble about the quay in the sunlight taking photos. An added bonus was the cafe/kiosk where coffee could be acquired.

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That’s St Michael’s Mount above… When we arrived the tide was out and we happily strode across the causeway — way cool. But we stayed there so long, the tide came in! We had a narrow window of opportunity when we could have taken off our shoes and socks to wade back over… But we missed it due to indecision, and had to pay £2 each to the boat man to convey us back. Oh well.

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We lunched in Marazion — fabulous fish and chips from the King’s Arms hotel — and then forged our way around the coast, squeezing through the quayside area of Penzance, towards the Merry Maidens — an ancient stone circle beside the road. Beautiful.

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Despite the tackometer warnings, we headed then to Land’s End. Just because. It’s tourist city, although I confess not as bad as I expected (though for some of my companions it was worse). We grabbed a coffee and took some photos of the sign. Enough said.

It was mid to late afternoon by now and we decided to make one last stop before heading back to base. On the way we tried to find the impressive Lanyon Quoit… Actually we did find it, but there didn’t appear to be anywhere to stop, or in fact reach it through the blackberry hedge, so after a couple of drive-bys we abandoned our intention to check it out and photograph it. Disappointing.

We headed then to St Ives, but changed our mind at the last minute to go check out Godrevy Lighthouse nearby. It was supposedly the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I’m sure St Ives would have been lovely at a different time of day, but the lighthouse was perfect in the setting sun.

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We had a delightful hour or so rambling all over the grassy Godrevy Point, taking many photos of that lighthouse and all the birds.

It was a fabulous day, although I would have liked more time to find more ancient monuments and visit St Ives. But as one of my companions said: must save things for next time!

South West Coast Path: Westward Ho! to Clovelly

Many walkers might have sat in the pub for an extra day instead of braving the SW Coast Path in the rain… Or caught the bus instead. But they would have missed out on a unique experience (that might have put my travelling companion off hiking for ever…).

Having delayed our plans for a day already, we were keen to walk the SW Coast Path from Westward Ho! to Clovelly, even though it was raining. We knew we would get wet and bedraggled and possibly miserable; but it wasn’t too cold (~16 deg C) and we were feeling energetic and adventurous. Also, I figured it would be good research for us, both fantasy writers, to experience the whole ‘trek in the rain’ thing.

So off we went. The first half of this 18km trek took us over the cliff tops — and up and down them as well. It was strenuous as expected, but beautiful too. I loved it.

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But we did get very wet. And muddy. This is me about an hour in…

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The path is very well marked with signs bearing the SW Coast Path acorn symbol, or else a simple acorn and accompanying arrow attached to a post.

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After a couple of hours of up and down (into a fierce headwind of rain — rain in the face is so much fun… and our glasses fogged up), the track moves into woodland, which spoilt the view, but did provide a measure of protection from the weather.

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Eventually, slightly more than halfway I think, we arrived at the ‘village’ of Bucks Mills. Though cute, Bucks Mills was very disappointing from an amenities point of view. No refreshments at this time of year, not even a pub/inn. We were really hoping for somewhere out of the weather, where we could sit down and have a hot cup of something (hot toddy?). There was not even a toilet. Pft!

Following Bucks Mills the track got easier through more woodland, still up and down, and less slippery and steep. We still had a few hours to go, though. We skirted meadow and woodland (chasing flocks of pheasants — beautiful birds), until we came out to Hobby Drive, the old coach road, which wound around the last few spurs, eventually (after about 45 mins of weary trudging) bringing us to the top of Clovelly village.

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We still had a 15min trek to our B&B in Higher Clovelly [Tip: Stay in the village if you can — there are only about three options though], and by the time we reached it we were beat. We hadn’t sat down all day. But there is nowhere to eat in Higher Clovelly, so our kind hosts at Fuchia Cottage drove us down again to the top of the village, a little later on.

After that effort, we decided not to trek further along the Coast Path, so instead spent today relaxing in the picturesque village of Clovelly. It has been privately owned for centuries (weird) and is very geared towards tourists. It’s quiet this time of year, which is nice. We made friends with several of the local cats, who are very friendly and like to pose for photographs. This is ‘Beau’, who followed us around for a while.

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Down at the water’s edge, we watched some local fishermen (who I’m convinced are hired as a tourist attraction, because they spent a lot of time explaining what they’re doing and posing for photos) gut ‘fish’ (sharks for the Spanish market), and gained a gorgeous view of the village from the old stone quay.

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It’s been a relaxing day after two days of walking. I think we both needed it! The weather has once again been rather grey and rainy, but we did glimpse the sun a few times. I think perhaps autumn is starting to set in…

South West Coast Path: Instow to Westward Ho!

The South West Coast Path is a 630 mile walk around the coast of SW England, from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset. As soon as I heard about it, when planning my current trip, I resolved to hike a couple of legs. Today the plan was to hike from Westward Ho! in north Devon to the picturesque village of Clovelly. However, we left it too late to arrange our luggage transfer, so we had to delay that a day, leaving a day up our sleeve.

[Tip: In the off season, contact the luggage transfer people before 6:30pm on the day before you want the service, even if it says you have until 7pm…]

With our extra day, we decided this morning to catch a local bus to Instow, the start of the previous leg according to some guidebooks, and walk the 18km back to Westward Ho! in the interests of ‘training’. It is described as an easy leg, and we might as well have been walking as not.

The walk mostly follows the estuary of the River Torridge, down and back, so we had views of our destination for most of the day. We began in the hamlet (not even a village) of Instow — where there is nonetheless coffee — and a pretty view of Appledore.

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The walk from here follows an old rail trail, shared with cyclists — which I dislike intensely. It was long and straight and flat, and I thought there was much to be said for the high-tide ferry between Instow and Appledore.

But then we would have missed Bideford, which is a pretty little port town with all the amenities, including banks. Little was open on a Sunday, but I can recommend historical Cleverdons Restaurant and Tea Rooms for a range of meals, both light and more substantial. We both had soup (choice of several) for just 3.25.

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Bideford marks the turnaround point, and we headed back downriver towards the sea and Appledore. The track here got much more interesting, but I still think the ferry a good option if it’s high tide. Low tide is very interesting, though, as the river estuary is essentially a massive mud flat with beached boats. This is the view back to Instow from near Appledore.

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The village of Appledore was the highlight of this leg. It’s largely 16thC: narrow twisty laneways, old houses with interesting name plates, gorgeousness plus. We had promised ourselves a cream tea, and found the perfect spot in Susie’s Tea Rooms.

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We had been walking for about 2.25h up until this point (1h Instow to Bideford, 1.25h Bideford to Appledore), and judged we had about 1.5h to go from Appledore the long/coastal way to Westward Ho!. As the crow flies, they are quite close, but the coast path takes you out around Northam Burrows Country Park, which feels a little, er, pointless at times. Nonetheless, we ploughed on around the point, and battled a ridiculous headwind on the approach to Westward Ho! along the beach. It took a little longer than expected. We did, however, enjoy this stunning view of Appledore in the late afternoon sun.

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Westward Ho! itself is a new village, filled with holiday accommodation and surfers. Our B&B — Brockenhurst B&B — is very nice and centrally located, right opposite The Village Inn Hotel, where I am currently enjoying a quiet one while I use their WiFi. It’s fine and comfortable, but not in any way historic, which I have come to expect from England. We are staying here a second night, and tomorrow it’s on to Clovelly!

Tintagel – craggy castle on the Cornish coast

Next stop on our Cornish adventure was Tintagel castle – possibly the birthplace of King Arthur, definitely a really cool place to visit. Its vast sprawl atop a rocky promontory, surrounded by stunning views of the wild and rugged coast, way surpassed my expectations.

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One approaches Tintagel down a valley, then around a headland to cross a narrow bridge onto the promontory (which is connected by a causeway). One then climbs up to the remains of the Great Hall and associated buildings, which cling to the edge of the cliff. The ruined stonework is still very impressive and I easily could imagine the Earl holding court here.

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Beyond this stonework, the remains of the castle sprawl across the top of the grassy promontory. The wind is strong, the jackdaws wheel in flight, the waves seethe and crash against the rocks below. I scrambled over just about every inch of the craggy promontory, explored the ‘dark ages’ ruins, stood at what felt like the edge of the world, letting the wind toss my hair all around…

I spent a deal of time stalking a kestrel (identified later), which hovered perfectly still in the roaring wind — amazing. I took a few bad photos of it, before capturing this one, just before leaving the main promontory. In the background is the wild coast, and the south-west coast path…

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We had amazing weather for our visit to Tintagel, including a sudden squall, which rolled in off the sea with rapid ferocity, only to roll on by to leave this rainbow in its wake…

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The above was taken from some ruins on the opposite side of the bridge to the main promontory. I think the garrison was once stationed there.

We spent a fair few hours at Tintagel, and lunched afterwards at a local pub. On our way home we visited the little town of Port Isaac, which was closing down for the day, but was still lovely to wander through.

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Cornwall has certainly proved something of a challenge from an internet connectivity point of view… and we haven’t had wifi in our cottage this week. But I am hoping to post more frequently over the next couple of weeks as I find accommodation with wifi, especially since I have a few days backed up now! The next posts will cover the Penwith Peninsula and our wonderful day on Dartmoor in Devon.

Exploring Bodmin Moor

It’s been a whirlwind few days since arriving in the UK. This week I’m staying in Cornwall with a group of friends from home and we’re having a blast. As all of us are writers bound for the World Fantasy Convention, our interests are very compatible: striking scenery, quaint villages, ancient monuments and ruins, castles, local cuisine…

After a road trip down from London on Saturday — ducking into the Stonehenge carpark for a free view of the monument along the way — we arrived in the town of Bodmin in time for dinner. We decided to take A roads rather than motorway, convinced it would be more scenic, and we certainly enjoyed the drive immensely. England is so very green compared with Australia, and the south-west has stunning landscapes.

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On Sunday (yesterday) we explored the nearby Bodmin Moor. This involved squeezing our little red Toyota Yaris (nicknamed the Thai Bullet for its chile colour) down narrow roads barely the width of a car, our route twisting and turning up and down across the landscape. We are navigating largely via Google Maps on a smart phone, which is proving both effective and challenging, because 3G coverage in this region is negligible. Yet somehow we manage to make it work.

Our first stop on the moor was Colliford Lakes, then Bolventor Church, by which time we conceived a desire for coffee. Turns out Sunday mornings in this part of the world are not ideal for coffee stops (of the kind we had in mind). We drove around for a while and started to get frustrated before we stumbled across the little town of Upton Cross and its Apple Fair. This is one of the many things I love about travelling. The Apple Fair was a local event. They served instant coffee and home made apple cake in the church hall for 50p each — and we fell upon these with gusto. It was lovely to chat to locals and experience such an authentic celebration of local industry.

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But the highlight of the day was to be found near the small town of Minions (where we finally found food, and I enjoyed my first Cornish pasty for this trip). Minions is home to two celebrated sites: the Hurlers, two prehistoric stone circles; and the Cheesewring, a natural pillar of stones carved into an odd shape by erosion.

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The Hurlers (above) are not too far from the town, set into the grass. We trekked across the spongy peat to reach them, beautiful in the sunshine. (We are having fabulous weather so far — a mix of sun and cloud, but not too much rain.)

But then we kept on walking, along with the locals out with their dogs, past the placid cattle, into the depths of the moor and up a rocky crag of granite to view the Cheesewring.

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The view from the top of the hill was spectacular.

Our final stop involved much crafty navigation, but eventually we found Trevethy Quoit, one of Cornwall’s most striking Neolithic burial chambers (says the Lonely Planet Guide). Alas, my camera battery had run out by this time and I don’t have a photo. But it was very cool.

I’m using my iPhone camera on this trip, and although I hadn’t anticipated the battery issue, I’m quite happy with the photos. Nor had I anticipated the lack of 3G coverage, which is why I’m posting a little later than I had planned. (Yes, OK, it might also have something to do with the socialising in the evening… But it’s so nice to travel with friends for a change!)

Today (Monday) we visited Tintagel castle — but that’s for another post…