Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Land of Roundabouts

York's cathedral

It's difficult to switch mindsets from months of dealing with plans and emails and phone calls to actually lugging an extremely heavy carry-on through real-life, present-day RDU.

Just as it was interesting to consider that the next gate over was the Delta flight to Paris, scheduled to leave four minutes after us. Hm. Do you think anyone would notice if…?

Wondering turned to boredom, though, when one found oneself inside a plane sitting for 2 1/2 hours on the tarmac because wave after wave of thunderstorms were coming through. If we'd just left fifteen minutes earlier…

Ah well. One twisted pretzel of a body later (see the last post on American Airlines' seating arrangements), and we landed at Heathrow! Along with three other major flights. Which meant about 1500 people standing in line at Customs, staring at the large "UK BORDER" signs between us and… the UK. British and EU people got to zip through lanes that had zero people in queue. They kept looking at us quizzically, obviously wondering if they were in the wrong line.

The Hilton Kensington was able to release a room to me, even though it was mid-morning. I hit the sack, not knowing that at least one other person in my tour had to sit downstairs for hours before she got a room. Got up to wander out to try to find dinner/lunch, and wound up at a place that had the last salad I'd see for over a week. It was a WONDERFUL salad. WONDERFUL (hot) tea. Stinky service and so-so entree.

This was a bus tour, which meant bags by the door before we went down to breakfast. Actually, a half-hour before we breakfasted, because on this first day we only had a half hour (theoretically) to get breakfast. Because two other tours were leaving at the same time, this meant that EVERYONE was in line for the dining room at the same time. Names had to be looked up, checked off, and then someone found to escort the person in to a table. Some people weren't on the tours, and so they had to pay up front while the host conferred with others about this anomaly. Upshot: Five minutes for breakfast! Inhale your food!

Riding on the wrong side of the road didn't seem that strange. What WAS strange was that the driver was on the wrong side, and you got on and off the bus on the wrong side. (Side note: I found the pedestrian crossings in London that had been hand-painted with "LOOK LEFT!" and "LOOK RIGHT!" on the street to be extremely helpful. Very likely life-saving. I heard MANY stories of people who weren't used to this wrong-side driving and almost got brained when they automatically looked the "wrong" way.)

But what was strangest of all were all the roundabouts. Everywhere was a roundabout! Big ones, medium-sized ones, little ones that had painted circles instead of a constructed center island. Compound ones. Ziiip! Around you went! On one series, I thought I was getting a tad seasick. Some roundabouts had 3 or 4 lanes, and each lane was labelled with what road you'd be on when you got out. If you got out. Handy.

Drivers seemed to be very polite. If someone was even thinking of entering a roundabout within 100 degrees on your right, you did not enter the circle. Though most streets were two-way, people had a tendency to park along both sides (partially on sidewalks), and there were no parking spaces provided, so the road was effectively a one-way street. Someone up ahead? Both cars pull to the side of the road. Whoever blinks their lights yields to the other.

So civilized. Well, except for London, but even at rush hour, it wasn't that bad. Not too many horns blared.

Shakespeare's birthplace

Our first stop was Stratford-on-Avon. We got off the bus to have a group photo taken across the street from Anne Hathaway's house. That done, our guide, Hillary, told us to enjoy the house -- and then hurried us past it! (Ah, bus tours.) I had time to hold up my camera and shoot some quick shots over the wall before we reboarded the bus.

Then it was deeper downtown, where we disembarked again, this time to hit Shakespeare's birthplace. That's actually fairly interesting, as they have it set up with furniture, household items, fake fires, etc. and the guides know what they're talking about. There are also some nice gardens in back and a great selection of souvenirs.

We were on our own for lunch and I tried a pasty, which is a calzone with a non-runny beef stew as the stuffing instead of pizza fixings. The cafe I went to had no seating, so I asked a couple who were seated at a table a few shops down if I could grab an extra chair and sit off a ways. They insisted I eat with them.

They lived in the area, and said how great it was. They told me the pasty I was eating was not a proper, tasty pasty at all. (It was mostly white-hot with little flavor.) We had a great conversation and then it was time to head back to the bus. Decided to hit the public loo but couldn't figure out what a 20 pence coin looked like in order to get in. A passerby took pity on me and gave me one gratis, whew! I got to the bus with about three minutes to spare.

But we waited. And waited. Robert hadn't returned. He was traveling on his own from Roanoke, VA. Some guys went out to search for 10 minutes, but they returned without him. We then discovered that, according to Trafalgar (the company running the tour) rules, a bus waits 1 hour for people and then takes off. We waited that hour, then Hillary called the town's tourist center, then the police. No sign of Robert. His bag with meds was still in the bus.

About 45 minutes after the hour mark, we took off in a slow circle of downtown with everyone peering out the windows for Robert. Everyone had their own idea of what he looked like. Just as we were finishing up the loop, the cops called Hillary and said he was at the tourist center. No, the tourist center never bothered to call. Yes, the tourist center knew where all the different Trafalgar buses parked, but they'd pointed Robert at another Trafalgar bus in their own lot, which was similarly unhelpful (!) in getting him back to the proper spot.

He'd gone out for toothpaste and such and had been directed to a certain store. There, the people had pointed him toward another store. And another. Until he'd wound up at the tourist center.

We discovered that he'd also gotten lost when he went to Milan.

But by now we all knew what Robert looked like. Everyone tried to keep at least half an eye on him as we traveled, and despite constant warnings, he was almost always off somewhere far away when it was nearing time to return to the bus. (He seemed a little on the slow side, though everyone gave him serious props for being a world traveler on his own. Hey, now I'm one of those, too!) One Australian lady in particular razzed him unmercifully all through the trip, pretending to care about his welfare but really getting a kick out of how embarrassed she could make him in public. Ever see Shirley Valentine? The buck-toothed British lady. That was her to a T.

The Shambles

So we were very late getting to York. All the stores were closed so we couldn't buy souvenirs. (I saw a solar powered, hula-ing Queen Elizabeth that I was mad for. Finally got her in London.) If we thought Stratford had been very Tudor-ish, York was that to the tenth power! After bypassing the drunk outside our hotel (he was waiting for the cops to pick him up and had created quite the entertaining scene), we strolled down "the Shambles," a place that reflects that really old history England has. It's mentioned in the Domesday Book. (It was also voted "Most Picturesque Street in Britain, 2010.") It was a narrow street that is a tourist mecca. It looks SO INCREDIBLY ENGLISH HISTORY!!! with the half-timbered places and such. At the end, the sun finally came out to send a burst of light upon the local cathedral (top of page).

Athena guarded a Shambles bookstore.

L'Ouse River, I think. York definitely.

There was a bridge. We kept passing over it as the sun set, but the guide gave us practically no warning and it came up suddenly. But it was sunset and there were houseboats and… oh man, it was GORGEOUS!!! My camera wouldn't fire quick enough to get a shot. The next morning I got some because I asked Hillary to warn us as she could. Paul the driver slowed down as much as possible so I could get some shots. I'll rig up a sunset scene when I do paintings from these.

We had a ho-hum dinner at a pub (I had tasteless fish and chips. Apparently it's supposed not to have any taste. Imho, England & etc. could use with a few useful condiments in every pub.) and returned to the hotel, where we couldn't deadbolt our rooms for safety reasons. "What if there was an emergency and we had to get in?" I was told. That plus the drunk in the lobby made me feel really safe. At least my room was on the 3rd floor, so crooks would have a difficult (but not impossible) time crawling into the windows I had to keep open because most British hotels have no air conditioning.

Trying to keep this in order. Hm. We drove past Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, and then stopped in Durham. The heck with the cathedral -- I wanted a "Durham, UK" tee shirt I could wear back in Durham, NC! There was a "Durham University" (not Dook!) in the town and a shop that was the official DU paraphernalia store. Unfortunately, graduation had just taken place and they were out of all tees except white ones. As a woman, I don't wear white tees. I also don't wear black ones, as I always wear black pants but am not goth. I settled for having a tee made in a little craft shop on the town square. As I waited, I listened to a lovely singer warbling away to the crowd in front of the local statue. The tee was finished, I found my requisite magnet (for the fridge) and postcard (for Mom in the nursing home), and toddled back to the bus, a cup of tea in hand. Nice town, if a bit touristy for what you saw.

We were riding through Northumberland, which is northeast Britain and was mentioned a lot in that British History for Dummies book I read before the trip (thank goodness). We used country roads whenever possible (otherwise on the, ah, whatever the term is for "interstate" over there the trip would have taken maybe 3 days and been boring as all get-out). The land was rolling farmland. Lots of sheep. (There'd be even more sheep in Scotland.) Farms were broken into parcels by hedges and stone walls, so the landscape looked like a huge game board. Things began to get a bit hillier as we approached Scotland.

The wall that kept the English out of Scotland! The circular
part is a kitchen, I think.

Hillary warned us not to get our hopes up about Hadrian's Wall. At this point, most of the stones have been taken for use by, well, everyone else in the country. The buildings were all made of the same stone. (And looked SO cute! I kept thinking, "I want a stone house!" I took millions of pictures of all the quaintness, and lots of reference pics of the stone walls every house seems to have out front. Wonder if I can get the same look from brick?)

We went to a pub for a fairly prepackaged lunch which was actually probably the tastiest group meal we had, though we had to pay for it. (Why? It was the only place in that village [Heddon-on-the-Wall] to eat. Still, the tour had gotten us an excellent price of 6 pounds per meal not including drink, and you couldn't beat that.) We saw the local church, checked out the local graveyard with two adorable elderly guides, and then walked a block or two to see the wall. Interesting to see its width. There are many other places that show it off better, but this was convenient for the bus tour.


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