Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Brilliant Parade to London

We were back in England! Gretna Green was behind us so it was time for the Cotswolds and Lake District, both of which had marvelous scenery epitomizing what people think of when they think of England.
A large carpark surrounded by a charming town.
Stow-on-the-Wold had a huge parking lot in the middle of the town, but around that were picturesque shops and churches, and some lovely people to talk with. I found the most stereotypically cute tea room EVER and sat down to have the delicious omelet I'd been longing for all day (ESP at work?), while my dining companion had quiche. The tea was to die for. The perky young waitress said she loved my accent. Squee!

The sun played hide-and-seek, only coming out when I didn't have my camera ready. Still, I got in some great shots that I think will make eye-catching paintings. Give 'em the ol' Thomas Kinkade look, right? And of course I had an adventure in a public loo. This one seemed like a cave (its walls were stone), and it had giant push buttons inside to lock and unlock doors -- giant pushbuttons that were quite easy to overlook. Well, they were. And as for washing up afterward… Well, a little fumbling around and there was a niche in the wall where water gushed on if you stuck your hand in far enough. All this adventure for only 20p or so.

After that was… Wait! I missed Blair Castle back in Scotland. Well, you got the crazy farm tea in England noted in the Scottish section, so we'll just backtrack here.
Renovations and picture straightening ongoing at Blair Castle.
Blair Castle. I'd been admiring the UK's housing as we rode around. It all looked so very British, every bit of it. There weren't any trailers like back… Wait a mo. There's a trailer park, out in the middle of nowhere. Then we turned onto a private lane and went past a Boy Scout/Guides/whatever international jamboree, and there were more trailers (manufactured housing, as the guy who sold me my double-wide kept insisting), interspersed with RVs and tents.

Turned out all the permanent stuff was for short-term rental. There are lots of tourists who come through to hike, ride horses, and attend Boy Scout stuff on the grounds of Blair Castle. They can live on the grounds. The house/castle's facade is rather recent, though the insides are quite the mansion. Hillary took us into the lobby to begin the official tour and told us to be back at the bus by whatever o'clock was coming up.

The tour was fairly interesting, demonstrating do-dads and thingamabobs and portraits and restorations and new plaster decor over the centuries-old furnishings. But our guide was Asian, and she had a difficult time with quite a few places in her script.

I see where some UK folks could be worried about being "taken over" by furriners, and thus vote for Brexit. The vast majority of customer service people I ran into over there were not British and spoke with very thick, sometimes unintelligible accents. (I'm talking to YOU, Hass. Kidding!) To go out into what you deem your familiar world and be surrounded by strange languages can be frightening. Imho, service personnel should be able to speak understandably and understand me so they can, you know, be of service. (I think all employers should be required to own various Rosetta Stone programs, or belong to a co-op [perhaps a library?] where they can find the correct origin language and have their employees learn English. Keep the new employee in a non-service area until they're ready. Win-win!)

This lady had a SCRIPT she followed to conduct her tour. She knew what words were coming up. She should have had coaches to help her over the rough patches during training. I can see her being stymied by the odd question, but she should have been able to roll off her scripted speech like a charm. Instead there were many areas where she stumbled for words, and things like "mans" instead of "men" were spoken. Sometimes she couldn't get her paragraph out for the life of her and she had to skip ahead.

Give the lady more rehearsal and tutoring before she's set before the public, please.

But we got the gist of it. I kept looking at my watch, because whatever o'clock was fast approaching. Finally! The tour ended and I ran through the estate's bathrooms, skipping the souvenir room and the grounds and gardens were were supposed to have time to tour/appreciate, and sped up to the bus. One minute late.

"Forevermore, why are you running?" Hillary had the NERVE to ask me. I was the first back. Surely she should have known how long the tour lasted and arranged for us to be there longer so we could have a more leisurely walkabout? Ah, but this was Trafalgar.
So anyway, back in England… Ah! Lake District! We went through a couple of towns located on lakes, but stopped for a few minutes in Windermere with just enough time to jump off the bus, go down to the shore and take some pictures. Lovely. There were swans and kids. And lots and lots of people.
Oh, just before that we were in Grasmere, home of William Wordsworth, whose work I don't think I've ever read beyond a couple lines here and there. But I saw his house as well as his grave, and his town is a lovely, lovely collection of white-walled cottages, tea rooms, and tiny galleries, with a stream burbling through its middle. Ahh!

Now we were on major highways, and we entered Manchester. The neighborhoods kept declining in quality. Closed businesses lined the streets. We circled one block and sure enough: our hotel. It was a nice enough hotel even if the service in the restaurant stank to high heaven. (The food wasn't great, either.) Few ventured out, though Hillary assured us that a splendid shopping center was just a few blocks down. Two women reported back the next morning that it was just run-of-the-mill, and that they'd encountered more than a few drunks and addicts along the way, while stepping over broken glass. Lovely.

A loud-mouthed Montrealer (noo! The idea!) in our party had had to find a drug store. "What did you need?" the loud-mouthed Australian (the lady who got such kicks out of bothering Robert) demanded to know the next day. "None of your business." "No really, what did you need? What? What?" Some people. Anyway, the Montrealer had asked at the front desk where she could find a pharmacy. "A what?" the desk lady asked.

"Pharmacy. Drug store. Druggist. Apothecary."

"I don't understand."

The woman tried to describe such a place and what items one would buy there. "Oh, a chemist!" the desk lady squealed. Montreal Woman didn't appreciate that. We saw quite a few places called "drug store" and "pharmacy" as we drove through town the next day, and NONE called "chemist." "What do they expect the guys there to do?" MW asked me later. "Have a lab and test tubes bubbling away behind the counter?"

Some service people like to see people squirm for kicks.

Anyway, we were all mystified at why Trafalgar had chosen Manchester as our stop. Why not Liverpool, which is just a few miles away? We'd all have been delighted (!!!) to take a Beatles tour!
Earlier than sunset. The picture doesn't do it justice.
We might have done that lunchtime, lock-in-the-loo farm in here (or more likely it was just before Grasmere) because the next stop I can think of was Bristol, a nice enough town. It seemed rather pleasant. Again, we were faced with a bridge at sundown that gave a romantically sweeping view of houseboats, etc. They had a statue of Cary Grant, who was born there.

We had an unfortunate walking tour with a Local Guide who ran her mouth incessantly, didn't bother to step around all the many groups who were making a racket for various reasons (playing music, arguing, yelling to be yelling, etc), and who took off at full-out Speed Force speeds. We finally grabbed her and begged her to stop so everyone could catch up. We told her in no uncertain terms that she had to slow down!

Almost immediately she resumed her rate and never bothered to look back except ONCE. She did so to tell us that she was a member of the local improv group and we should come to a show. When? We were foreigners on a bus tour! We arrived at our group dinner location (the place with the ice water I've told you about) completely zonked from the rush. I gave her a penny tip and hope she got the hint. I was not the only one to complain about her to Hillary. Rrr.
The Royal Crescent, Bath.

Interesting river, too.

The next day we had a bath. Wait. Oh, we WENT to Bath. We saw the great semi-circle of townhouses that you always see in photos and of course is always mentioned in those Regencies I read. Bath has the most consistent use of Georgian limestone in the WORLD (memorable!) and is a World Heritage Site. It's very cool. Very British.

Minerva likes to check out the bathers.
But it also has the baths of which it gets its name. The Celts first used the hot springs, and then when the Romans came through they enjoyed them and built a whole complex on top of them. That complex has been uncovered and restored, and it is a true sight to see. Read about the place here. Not only is it all ruin-y, but there are marvelous museum rooms scattered about with artifacts and movies. You can choose from an adult program (not that kind of adult, silly!) or child-friendly narration. Occasionally players in Roman costume will stroll through the baths to have their pictures taken. It is really, really cool beans. And the souvenir stand is great.

Garden along the river.
There's a famous bun shop in town and I happened onto that, not knowing it was so famous. Meh. A huge bun with sandwich fixings plunked on top -- how unwieldy. VERY tiny shop. Still -- quaint. The poor wait staff were running as hard as they could, and after I arrived a long line began to form at the front door.

It began to sprinkle as we waited for the bus to show up. We toodled off into the countryside, and along one rolling patch of green fields, I saw… a crop circle! Really! It looked like the Mickey Mouse Disney logo, upside down, one large circle with two smaller ones attached, with an antenna growing out of Mickey's right ear. When I got back and told my supervisor, he immediately Googled "crop circle" and "Stonehenge" (because that's what came next) and found pictures of a VERY elaborate crop circle just a little ways from Stonehenge that had been discovered… the day AFTER we'd been there. Mickey was nowhere in the design, unless he'd been part of an early version. Maybe a preliminary sketch?

Did I say… STONEHENGE???! That's right, STONEHENGE!!! It really exists. It's stones. It's BIG. And there are more stones around, and big ol' lumps of land and pathways and ancient roads. And stuff.
Some of the mounds that surround Stonehenge. They're not necessarily burial  mounds.

Ah, in focus!
Imagine: the ENTIRE POPULATION of England coming out on a Sunday to check out the place. They were ALL there. And the place could handle it. From one spot we could see the highway (we'd come in on a smaller country road), and that highway looked like the final shot of Field of Dreams, bumper-to-bumper traffic all proceeding toward us. The parking lot was big enough to handle it. There was a special bus parking lot with room for enough buses to take on a good-sized school district.

You stopped at the visitor's center (shoulder-to-shoulder people) (all polite) and got on shuttles, which took you halfway to the site. At the halfway point you could get off to take the path through the pastures and past all those lumps, which were burial chambers and such, as the path eventually took you to the main site. Or you could be like me and just ride all the way up to the site.

You can't touch the rocks unless you've got a special invitation to show up at a solstice. They have the place roped off. There was a guy!!! back there!!! right next to the rocks!!! and I wondered where the cops were until I noticed that he was dragging a hose with him and watering the grass. Well okay then.

I took a few thousand shots of the place and discovered halfway through that I was getting blurry stuff. My camera does that; it's some button that's easy to brush against. Someday I must read the manual. I can't see the screen well in full sunlight to notice, but I do try to keep track. Got it back in focus, and it turns out that only about five hundred of the thousand (okay, that ratio) shots were blurry. Besides, they're just rocks. When I do my paintings I'll still have the placement right.
Back in the day...

The visitors' center has really keen souvenirs and a nice snack bar (though they seem to like those white bread/mayo/cheese sandwiches), and I got about three minutes to take a couple pictures in a mock-up of what area housing looked like way back in stony days before I had to be back on the bus.

Then it was a highway into London and to our hotel. Our tour had come to an end. From then on I was on my own. I'd taken an extra 2 days to see the place.

I didn't plan so well. That's okay; I've learned my lesson. I'll return someday and see the place proper.

Now that I was away from the tour I could choose where to eat, and thus had fairly decent food, especially at this one pub about a mile from the hotel. It was Sunday, "roast day" at the pub, and I had roast pork and roast VEGETABLES and ahh! Things would have been perfect if the entire bus hadn't started coughing as we left Stonehenge.

I stopped at a pharmacy and the clerk called the pharmacist to puzzle out what I needed. A "sachet" was the same as a powder that you add to hot water. (Think Theraflu.) It kept me reasonably healthy except for a runny nose until I hit the plane home, at which point it became a cough until I got home, at which point it became the Black Death.

But London. Day #1 for me would be Museum Day. I had three, maybe four museums in mind, the least of which was the Victoria & Albert, but it was the closest. Day #2 would be touring the city landmarks.

The hotel concierge told me that oh no! I did NOT want to take the subway to the V&A. The on-and-off bus was the best choice. They had a special museum route. He got me a ticket (bet he got a considerable percentage, darn his evil soul) and saw me to the bus parked outside of the hotel. I had to make two changes before I got on the proper route.

It took me THREE HOURS to get to the V&A. It only took fifteen minutes to return on the subway from MUCH farther away. But that was three valuable hours of my touring day! I told that concierge OFF when I got back.

But in the meantime I did see the underwear exhibit at the V&A that everyone had told me was un-missable. It wasn't. The rest of the museum that I saw as I ran through handled fashion, and I'm CRAZY for fashion! and could have spent my valuable time drooling at that instead of undies, darn it. But at least the museum had a nice cafe, even if they didn't warn me that the odd-colored lemonade had ALCOHOL in it. It wasn't very strong, thank goodness. I was extremely thirsty but still only took a few sips. Why spoil lemonade that has fruit floating in it with alcohol? At least the salad was nice.
British Museum.
I took the subway (no fool I) to the British Museum, which isn't that close to the subway, so I got lost a few times walking there. But there I arrived, and WOW! They had stuff from ancient Egypt! Mesopotamia! They had the Elgin Marbles! The Minoans and Mycenneans!



Wow wow wow wow wow wow

Achilles killing Penthesilea, while simultaneously falling in love with her. The cad.
I need to go back and do the museum with some kind of soundtrack telling me what I was looking at. I kept thinking that I had to meet some friends for dinner, and how long would it take me to reach them because I KNEW I'd get lost again.

So I left sooner than I would have liked. It did take me quite some time to find the right restaurant -- even businesspeople a block away from it had never heard of it -- but I arrived an hour early. The staff let me sit at their farthest outside table to wait, though they didn't understand exactly what was going on and kept asking me if I wanted to order dinner. When the others came in ("That looks like a Rob Rundle," I decided as one man entered the restaurant), the staff didn't bother to tell me that my party had arrived.
Let's see. That's Jules Langley, Rob Rundle, me, Jules Clarke, Happy Hass Yusuf, and Gary Hellen. Right?
But eventually we were all there! We yacked and yacked and I so enjoyed it, despite the food. (I had a great salad, but it was a share-your-food thing and so I couldn't hoard it to myself.) These were Comic Book People, Legion of Super-Heroes fans all and members at some point of various apas, whether the American Interlac or the British Apa-247. (Adventure #247 was the first appearance of the Legion, you know.) Happy Hass Yusuf was the only one whose speech more often delved into unintelligibility, but apparently he was that way with the others as well, so I didn't feel so bad. They got me to write on FB that theirs was by far the superior gathering I had attended, and not the one with Martin and Steven. Hope those boys took it as the joke it was intended!

All good things and all that, and Jules L. accompanied me back to the subway so I wouldn't get lost and besides, she was going there as well. She explained quite a few things about the Tube and London as we walked.

The next day was Tour London day. When I'd purchased the on-and-off bus ticket (at 9 AM) the previous day, it was for two days, but the concierge had explained that I had only 24 hours to use the ticket to get a river tour as part of the bargain. I decided what the heck, I'm going to sleep in and miss my "free" ticket. I'd pay for the cruise. I deserved to sleep in once on my trip, didn't I?

I took the Tube to Westminster. The docks for the river cruises are there, but I went to the bridge first. THERE was St. Thomas' Hospital! Oh boy!

You see, I had written a Wonder Woman novel and part of it had her riding in the London Eye (there it was, right over there!) when chaos erupts. Bum bum BUUUMM! She breaks open her Eye capsule and runs parallel to the river, then jumps the bridge, while the chaos sets some cars afire in the parking lot behind St. Thomas', and she has to toss them about. I'd Mapquested St. Thomas' and there on my computer screen was the parking lot. Right there. Behind the hospital.

There was no parking lot.

Oh, there was one, but it was below ground, under a mini-park complete with trees. There was only a bit exposed to air along the edge. Argh. This would mean rewriting. I took another few billion photos so I could remember the setup when I returned to my computer at home and rewrote the scene. (Actually, it turned out not to need that much of a rewrite, phew!) (And if I'd just switched to Satellite View, I could have seen the setup from the start.)
Yes, it's a little blurry, darn it. I have a nice, sharp picture from another angle, but I like this angle. Besides, you know what it looks like.
After that I turned around and got to hear Big Ben chime the noon hour on the other side of the bridge. The full monty! Then it was down to buy a ticket -- only to discover that my on-and-off bus ticket did indeed still cover the cost! Yay! Stupid concierge.
The Globe Theatre
Very enjoyable cruise! The guide spoke clearly and the sound system was excellent. He also made a lot of good jokes. The most important thing we passed was the Globe Theatre, but both shorelines were full of fascinating sites. We finally came upon the Tower Bridge and Tower itself, and docked. I could have gone on to Greenwich and the Tidal Whatsis that keeps the Thames from going bonkers (I really wanted to see the apparatus, and not just because it had been featured on Dr. Who), but I had just this day to see London.
Tower Bridge
Rick Steves' tour book warned about the crowds for the Tower. I decided that I really wasn't interested in seeing a bunch of jewels. Instead I found a nice tavern for lunch and had Britain's favorite meal (no lie; statistics prove this), chicken tikka masala. What do you know? The English CAN make a spicy dish. That opened my sinuses! Tasty.

The day was wearing on. How best to see the sights? Hm. Hm. I get lost so easily... I'd take the on-and-off bus and just sit on top for one full round of the "touristy sites" route. After that I might fit in one or two special visits to whatever looked interesting.
And yet it never rained, though the skies turned BLACK.

Someone had told me to take an on-and-off tour, but to avoid the Original Tour like the plague. Guess what I had tickets for? My bus trip to the V&A had consisted of encountering nothing but friendly, obliging bus drivers. When people in wheelchairs got on, they took about twenty minutes to strap every bit of square inch-age of the wheelchair and sitter in. This happened several times; no wonder the buses took so long!

But that afternoon the driver was silent. There were stops to be made on our maps, but he missed many of them. One he stopped at about a block before the actual stop (there was that much of a line of buses at the actual stop), and I didn't realize that was Our Stop for that site and he wouldn't be stopping any closer. At about 2:30 London traffic just STOPPED. We'd go about five feet and stop. Eventually we'd move forward another five feet and stop. After a while I vowed that I'd get off at the first stop he made that I could determine was near a subway entrance. I knew the buses stopped running at 5:30, and didn't want to get caught on the far side of the city.
Couldn't get the timing right to catch shots of the REAL rush hour. Imagine about three times more people than this on the same amount of acreage. "Mass of humanity" = one large mass.

London was all starting to run together. We didn't get many "good" views of important landmarks, when indeed we came upon any. I missed the experience of a focused tour, with commentary I could concentrate on. The best I could do now was to get my exhausted self off at the Tower, a full circle. The time was about 5:00. I got lost finding the Tube entrance, but did find it eventually and went back to the hotel. There was a shopping center a few blocks from there and I decided to treat myself to a fancy dinner at Jaime Oliver's place there. Ugh. What a dump.

But London was done. Got up at dawn the next day and... well, the story of the trip back was in the introduction to all this tour stuff, right? Got home and collapsed for a day, getting sicker and sicker, and then on Friday was inundated with contractors doing their thang at my house.

What did I learn? Well, I'd like to go back to Scotland to toodle around leisurely and enjoy all the beauty, maybe with an easel by my side. I definitely NEED to go back to London because I missed so much. This time I'll plan for four full days there. I'll schedule a targeted tour, like the Harry Potter tour or a palaces tour, that kind of thing, for mornings, break for lunch and then hit at least one museum (I won't miss the Tate this time!) each day. If I have time for a minor museum afterward, so much better. It will be leisurely and there'll be lots of time to choose nice restaurants and tea rooms.

I've spoken a lot about how rushed bus tours are, but they're splendid at getting a quick overview of an area so you can tell what's worth coming back for. Now and then along the tour, I'd pause and ask William, my previous life who'd joined the Navy to see the world only to be stuck in a cramped submarine during WWII, where he died (I wrote two recent blogs about the past-life regression; check 'em out), if he was happy to see the world through my eyes. I got the impression that it would do fairly well. And of course, just last Saturday, a psychic told me that my soul job was to study cosmic cultures and report back to the "creator-god." I'm sure that entity will read this blog and add to the report.

I WILL be coming back for more British goodness someday. WHEN is that movie deal coming through? I'll need the cash to ride in First Class.