Tuesday, October 14, 2014

London Part the Third, Salisbury, and Stonehenge

For Cody's half of the UK trip he wanted to go to London and Stonehenge. We were priced out of London's hotels and after a bit of panic as everthing else was already booked, remembered the gloriousness of Airbnb and found a little flat in charming Pimlico for hundreds less. Hundreds! It's crazy how much dates matter when booking. Late in the high season is still the high season. But, we did the best we could with the time we had.

For our full day in London we started out at Westminster Abbey. It's a sort of shorthand for English history and literary achievements and it's absolutely required. It's so easy to spend a couple hours looking around and I'm glad I got to drag Cody there.

Rest in peace, Cody's new hat. Curses to whoever picked it up and didn't return it to lost and found.

From there we walked over to Trafalgar Square for some takeaway Mexican goodness.

After our no big deal, just eating lunch on a staircase in London like its something we do everyday break, we headed over to the Diana Memorial Playground. It was so breezy and sunny, and everyone was barefoot and free, even the grownups. I love it. Its Peter Pan theme is so magical.

With time running short we dashed over to the British Museum so Cody could see the Egyptian exhibit. Almost like I planned it that way, Emily fell asleep just before we arrived. Cody for no reason at all (I was asking annoying questions and he wanted to really absorb everything) was all "hey, how about we meet back here in an hour?" *shrug* I'm not really into antiquities the same way Cody is, and considering the museum is free, I was content to nosh on a scone and zone out a while.

Reading about the Rosetta Stone.

When we met up near closing time, he took me back to see a really cool false doorway from an Egyptian tomb.

From there we walked through the crazy-packed crowds along Oxford toward Regent Street and down to Carnaby. It was getting to be about dinner time by that point and the tantrum countdown had started, but with a cold realization we understood: nothing near Carnaby is fit to take a 3 year old to. Much like the Royal Mile and it's endless whisky bars, all that surrounded us were trendy gastropubs with tiny tables, and nothing cheap down the road at Piccadilly Circus. We called it a night and raced over to Pimlico, unsure of what to do but hoping for a place that served something other than booze. After some frantic walking and whining, we spotted an awesome pizzeria with a dedicated kids menu and activities. Hurray for Pizza Express, you saved our evening from cranky ruin! I never knew how much I would depend on the availability of easy short order restaurants before I had a kid.

So that wraps up our big day in London. I hope Cody got a feel for the city, but I think he was shortchanged in that he didn't get to see all the things and that we spent too much time just getting from one point to another. In hindsight I think rearranging our day based on opening hours and location-you know the logical thing-would have made our time flow better and feel less rushed.


There are a half dozen ways to get to Stonehenge from London, and none of those ways make sense when looking at them on my computer. Stonehenge is in Amesbury, some 9 miles from the nearest train station. You can rent a car and drive directly to the site. You can take a train to Salisbury, transfer to a bus, then walk 2 miles to Stonehenge, which is what I was prepared for. You can pay for an all inclusive tour bus to take you there, buy your tickets, give you a guided tour, then visit Bath for a full day trip. All the info I saw made it seem like you just get to Amesbury and follow a trail for an hour and there you are, and it wasn't until a few days out I even found a site that clarifies that there is fact a new modern visitor's center with educational exhibits and a shuttle to the actual site from the the entrance. I assumed, which is always dangerous, that because Victoria Station is a big hub, that we could buy tickets to Salisbury. The ticket agent told us we would have to take a bus to Waterloo Station, where we could purchase our train and bus tickets to Amesbury. I didn't ask anymore questions and went to look for a bus ticket kiosk to get to Waterloo. Hmm. Maybe I can buy them from the driver like everywhere else? We got on the bus and the man said we had to buy them inside. I asked a security guard inside where the kiosk was. He said there weren't any, but to go back outside to the info counter, maybe they would know. I asked the info clerk where to get them.

"Here." *scowl*

"Two single fares, please?"

"We don't sell single fare tickets. You have to purchase a combined all day ticket. 9 pounds each."

"Nine?! Are you kidding? I just need to get across town! Once! Maybe twice, but it shouldn't cost more than lunch."

"18 pounds for both."

"Fine." *grumble rip off grumble*

We arrived at Waterloo and purchased our next set of tickets. A train was just about to leave, with Salisbury as a stop off. After consulting the ticket collector, he determined that we could get to Salisbury on his train, but we would have to transfer at *thick regional accent.* Where? *at thick regional accent* Or he could just upgrade us for another two pounds. That'll work.

On arrival at Salisbury, a very small city, there weren't any buses to be found. The ticket agent informed us we had been sold a city bus pass that doesn't go to Amesbury at all, and tersely informed us the sensible thing to do would be to buy another ticket for the local tourist hop on hop off bus directly to Stonehenge, and that he would yell at the Waterloo agent on our behalf. By that point, I didn't give a crap. Whatever. Whatever the easiest, least confusing mode of transportation is, we'd do it. Something like 12 GBP later, we were seated on a double decker with a tour of Salisbury, and a half hour after that, finally, we made it to the visitors center. It doesn't need to be this complicated. If you want to visit, please learn from my mistakes. It was a total hassle. To review: Take the train Waterloo, to Salisbury. Tourist bus to Stonehenge. Stonehenge bus run every hour. Pay on the bus.

So here's Stonehenge.

Emily, unimpressed.

The ditch in the background is a circle surrounding the henge, and the original site of older monumental stones. Over time things were moved and revamped into what you see today. Stonehenge is said to be about 4000 years old.

Also on the Stonehenge site are several ancient burial mounds. It says something about our human instinct to strive for immortality and it's ultimate impossibility that there are people so prominent in their own time, at least two full civilizations ago, that they deserved to be remembered for eternity. Yet here they lie and we have no idea who they were or what they did.


Emily fell asleep the moment the tour bus took off, so our planned dinner and exploration in town wasn't to be. Too bad, because it looked so English and a copy of the Magna Carta is there and blah blah blah. So we saw it from the bus:

Another adventure complete.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Glasgow, Greenock, and Edinburgh

I finally went to Scotland! I'd been waiting forever for a chance to see where my Grandparents were from, and finally had a good opportunity to go a couple weeks ago. I got a feel for the cities and river I've heard about my whole life. But even better than just seeing the "old country" was seeing it with the guidance of my wonderful cousin Eileen and her husband John, both of whom were great company. Eileen has lots of knowledge of family history and I learned a lot on this trip.


I chose to start here as a good midpoint for traveling. Glasgow has lots to do but not for the premium prices of Edinburgh. It's walkable, well connected with train stops, and feels less touristy.

We started out early on a bright and beautiful fall morning. We walked all through the downtown area, around the square, then over to Glasgow Cathedral. The church yard, covered in crunchy orange leaves and headstones shaded by wide trees looked was so peaceful and pretty.

Following our walk we met Eileen and John and they took us through a great street market where Cody bought an authentic Harris Tweed cap and Eileen bought me my very first clootie pudding. (Very yummy!)

Our next stop was lunch at the famous Willow Tea Rooms. It was created on commission by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1904. His innovative designs, something between art nouveaux and arts and crafts, came to be called the Glasgow Style. 100 years later his work feels completely modern and aesthetically pleasing. The food wasn't too bad either! Cody had a haggis, as is the long tradition of tourists, and quite liked it.

We said goodbye after lunch for Emily's nap, then headed out later in the afternoon, walked and shopped, ate street food, and headed back for Irn-Bru and shows on the Yesterday channel.

Haggis chips are vegetarian, and taste absolutely vile.


The following morning we hopped on the train west toward Greenock. Eileen and John met us at the station and took us on a tour. Greenock is my late Grandmother's hometown. It's quiet today, but it used to be a busy shipbuilding port. It was bombed during WWII, and over the course of time companies moved to larger cities. Sometime in the early '50s when Grandad as away at sea, he developed a kidney stone and was sent back to shore to wait for treatment. Wouldn't you know it, no sooner did he settle into a boarding house than he suddenly felt great. He raced out the door with the landlady calling out behind him "Jimmy! Jimmy, you shouldn't be going out!" He found his way to a local dance hall where he saw, surely Maria and Tony-style, the be-freckled and gorgeous Margaret and asked her for a dance. A few years later they were married at the Mid Kirk and shortly thereafter left Scotland for a life together that took them first to India, then all over the world.

The 18th century Mid Kirk. The church is based off St Martin's in Trafalgar Square. The horse shoe is where the first green oak of Greenock stood.

From there we drove over to the old oak tree-lined cemetery to visit the grave of my great-great grandparents. While there, Eileen gave us a bit of background. Markers are very expensive, so it wasn't until years later that one other than the cemetery's cheap standard issue one was erected. Also interesting was that plots typically become family graves over time to cut costs. Here also lies Gran's brother, who died in childhood.

We laid some oak leaves, and Emily set down some feathers she found nearby and off we went for our next destination.

I wanted to see the Esplanade, a riverside walking trail along the River Clyde. We stopped for basically the best ice cream in the city and possibly anywhere at Cafe Esplanade and took it down to the trail for the lovely river views.

The final stop for the day was a lookout point at Lyle Hill.

We had a great day and are so grateful for Eileen and John for going out of their way to spend time with us, tell us stories, and for arranging our wee tour of the kirk. It made our time in Scotland so fun and special.


For our final day in Scotland, we set out for Edinburgh to see the castle and Royal Mile. If Glasgow is more "regular Scotland," Edinburgh is the atmospheric tourist magnet-and for good reason. The old gray stone bricked buildings leading up to the centuries old castle convey all the stereotypical ruggedness of the Scots to endure the rough winters in the tightly packed old section of the capital city. Monarchs traveling up from England didn't like spending time at Edinburgh castle, with fog so thick you couldn't see your hands and generally dreary cold conditions. Luckily we happened on a fairly nice day and despite how tired and cranky and out of clothes we all were, we had a good time, learning about the castle's history, dodging ghost tour pamphlets, passing shop after shop of tartan clothing.

The 12th century St Margaret's Chapel.

Fireplace in the Great Hall.

Apartment room of James the VI/I.

We saw the crown jewels and the military exhibits, then headed down the hill toward the train. I wish we had more time in Edinburgh, as there was so much to take in. A half day is not even close to enough time to see even a little bit of what the city has to offer, but with a 3 year old, a run-through will have to do.

Stay tuned for part 2 of (this) UK trip: London and Stonehenge.