Monday, October 31, 2016

Anatomy of a Murder, I mean, Painting!

Happy Halloween!

If you've been reading my blog, you'll know that in July I travelled to England and Scotland. I love to travel! Regular blog-readers will also know that my previous incarnation had joined the US Navy to see the world, only to be stuck inside a cramped submarine during WWII. When the sub surrendered to the Japanese, he chose to commit suicide.

Is it any wonder that I like to travel? Now and then on this trip (having recently met my previous incarnation), I would stop and ask, "Willy [for that was his name], are you enjoying this? Seeing the world?" I'd get a distinct impression of pleasurable amusement from him.

I cheated. I cheated big-time. I blew up the original picture and traced it onto the canvas.
Didn't want to struggle through all that perspective and such. Bad, bad Strick!
Then again, one of my college profs, a big-name illustrator turned fine artist, always told us that
anything that brought us quickly to doing the actual art was entirely "legal." Yay!

I take SCADS of photos on my vacations! In the future, I'm hoping to have enough time to stop and do some plein air paintings. But this was a bus tour, and bus tours aren't set up to really see the countryside, much less stop for a couple hours so someone can paint.

There's no scarier thing in this world than a white canvas. Usually I do a bunch of random color
washes, but here I was experimenting with color as well as value. The values of the background
buildings and sky are opposite what they were in the photo. It was an overcast day, but
it was a BRIGHT overcast. I was trying my hand at "Playing God" within my painting.
**I** control the color. **I** control the value! Bwa-ha-haaa!

So I work from photos. I usually have a handful of shots of the same site to work from, but in this case I'd just turned around and there it was. I was on my way back to the bus there in England's Stow-on-the-Wold and didn't have that much time to lose. Click! I knew it would be a perfect shot.

Speaking of "playing God," I put a cat in that one window who wasn't there originally. Felt
so naughty! This is the "wait and see" stage, where I leave the canvas on the easel for a
few days (or in this case, weeks) so I can come back with fresh eyes and make final changes.

I love painting from my travel photos. It cements me to the memory and as my skills improve, I like to think that I'm bringing out aspects of the place that people don't usually notice.

I also hope that viewers will be immersed in the atmosphere of the spot. Perhaps they've been there. Perhaps they've dreamed of traveling there.

The final changes were mostly in that ochre archway on the right, toning it down and
tying it more to the purple side of the house. "Stow-on-the-Wold" (I
couldn't think of a snappier title), 18x24", oil on top of acrylic; stretched canvas.

Maybe they're like Willy and can never set out to see the wider world. However the world brings them to view my art, I hope they like it.

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.

Monday, August 29, 2016

O ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road…

All this will likely not be in order unless I really check the numbers on the photos or the tour description. These are days 5-6 of the tour, plus a bit of #7.

Speaking of photos, let's begin with a nice one. I believe this gentleman's name was Kevin MacDonald, and we met him when we visited Stirling Castle. Well, not quite Stirling Castle. (Part of some of the oddities of the Trafalgar Tour were that they were more interested in timetables than touring, and touring Stirling Castle was something our schedule couldn't fit in, though we were RIGHT THERE.)

We were going to eat as a group in a restaurant just next to Stirling. Kevin met us and, after letting most of the ladies in our group have their pictures taken with him, gave a little talk about the place and how it was connected with William Wallace (the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Bannockburn, both so emphasized in that British History for Dummies book I'd read. Hillary waved in the general direction of the countryside as we drove back down the mount. The historic sites were somewhere out there), and then walked us down to the restaurant, playing the bagpipe.

After we'd eaten, here came Kevin into our cramped parlor and began to play the bagpipes! It was EXCRUCIATINGLY LOUD!!! I dug into my purse for the ear plugs I'd brought for use on the plane over, but those plugs -- even with Amazon top-ratings -- did little to dim the sound. The poor people sitting even closer than me were holding their ears, except for the ones who were wasted.

After that he gave a bio of Rabby Burns and then recited a lengthy if edited version of "Tam o'Shanter," chewing every bit of scenery he could. Tremendous!

I was disappointed that we couldn't see the William Wallace memorial up close (it was visible on its hilltop a bit away from us), but also was curious to see the statue of him done up as Mel Gibson in Braveheart. But according to all-knowing Wiki: "The statue was deeply unpopular, being described as 'among the most loathed pieces of public art in Scotland' and was regularly vandalized before being placed in a cage to prevent further damage. Plans to expand the visitor centre [at the memorial], including a new restaurant and reception, led to the unpopular statue's removal in 2008."
THIS will scare the English out of Scotland!
Back to the beginning of Day #5...
A bit drizzly. That's the North Sea there.

St. Andrews was just above Edinburgh, and it was not only raining but thundering as we drove through. We stopped at the clubhouse of the historic golf course. You could see the North Sea just over there. I wanted to run over just to dip my toes into it to say I had been there, but I'm a good North Carolina girl and here if we're on a golf course and we hear thunder, we head inside. Even so, I think NC is #2 in the US for people getting hit by lightning.

We visited a whisky manufacturer, a family-run affair. Because of the rain, the stream that ran the equipment was threatening to overflow, but it made for pretty pictures. The process was interesting enough, and at the end they gave everyone but me drinks for a toast, and then led us into their little shop for large purchase and small. (Of course I ran into sharp criticism again about not drinking.)

These were terribly, terribly narrow country roads we were traveling. We SQUEEZED through a few turns in the middle of nowhere, and on occasion gave Paul, our driver, a round of applause for accomplishing the seemingly impossible. We visited a farm (actually, this was after Gretna Green, but I'm going to leave it here) for supposedly lunch, and discovered it was actually just tea. No one else thought the food was anything but good, but I thought it was pretty awful. I just hated to think that because the lady had made it herself. But this is her business: to feed the tourists as they come around. They served 1"-wide ribbons (no crust) of "sandwiches" with white bread, mayo and cheese, and maybe one kind had a few morsels of chicken on it. Then there were little finger desserts that didn't taste like anything except sugar. At least the tea was good.

Speaking of tea, the place had two outdoor toilets, looking like overgrown portalets. We made a line, and I was second in for the one on the right. The guy who went in ahead of me couldn't keep the door shut, so I made sure I shut it well when I went in. What had been his problem? I locked it because you go in such a thing, you lock it. Did my business, went to unlock the door… And it wouldn't unlock!



I turned that knob every which way I could, and shouted at the people outside of my situation. They shouted back instructions on how to unlock. Finally, after doing the same thing I'd been doing, the door unlocked. Whew! Of course no one else had any problems with it.

Must have been gremlins, I tell you.
Through the clouds, Ben Nevis rises to 4400 feet.
Somewhere in here we arrived at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. The statue of the Green Berets that trained in the area during WWII faces Ben Nevis, which is the UK's highest mountain and was unfortunately socked in with clouds so we couldn't see it.

Eventually the sun came out and we wound up around Fort William or thereabouts, where we had time enough to find a very nice lunch. (British food is fairly fine as long as you're allowed to look for a good place yourself, though veggies were still rare.) Fort William was charming, and we took a look at the Caledonian Canal, which stretches 60 miles from Loch Linnhe in the southwest to Inverness, on a bay of the North Sea.

We went to Neptune's Staircase, which is a series of nine locks. There was a Hogwarts-type railroad running nearby for the tourists, and the neighboring village was so pretty I asked Hillary how house prices ran in this area. I mean, retirement's not far away. She assured me that homes were sky-high high in those parts. Too bad!

Glencoe is the site of a horrible massacre. My book and our tourist guide said it was another Highland clan, the Campbells, who killed the MacDonalds on orders from the new king. Yet I just watched a TV travelogue that said it was "redcoats" what done it. Well, check out the Wiki version, which seems a little of both.

But Glencoe itself is a lovely valley and then you drive into this GORGEOUS country of very high hills and waterfalls and people hiking everywhere! It's absolutely fabulous. I think it even has some hot springs. It made even me want to get off the bus, don some sturdy boots and my walking stick, and start strolling!

The other side of the mountains is pretty dreary, though.
Loch Lomond, the inn on the untravelled side.

I took a half-billion pictures for the rock formations and the cloud shadows.

From there we visited Loch Lomond, where we had a nice boat tour of the lake. Lovely high hills lead down into it, and I think that one side, which houses an older hotel, isn't served by regular roads. Our captain named a couple movies that had been made in the area, with scenes shot at the waterfall beside the hotel. I wasn't familiar with them.

Along a narrow local highway somewhere during this time the bus stopped so we could carefully troop out to a lake's edge and take some shots of Ardverikie Castle, which was used (among other media) in the BBC's Monarch of the Glen as Glenbogle. I'll have to check Netflix to see if it's available there.

Let's see. Stirling is close to Glasgow, so we must have taken those in that order. Glasgow had an interesting downtown in that any city's downtown is interesting, but I don't recall that much about it except that Robert almost got lost again, 70 feet from the bus. Hm. I think it was there that I saw the TARDIS.

Have I mentioned the STUPENDOUS room I had at the golf resort? iIrc, it was in the Stirling area. Too bad I was only conscious for about an hour in it. And that it didn't have air conditioning. I suppose perfection isn't possible. Bathroom's on your right; closet's on the left. Massive bedroom is straight ahead.

Jedburgh Abbey. They didn't have to open their windows at night and hope for a breeze.

Jedburgh: We got about 20 minutes to use the bathroom and check out the ruined abbey there, which we couldn't go into because it cost money (and time).

Finally in Scotland was Gretna Green, which I was really looking forward to. I read a LOT of Regency romances, and people in those are always trotting off to Gretna Green, which was just north of the border, to be married when they can't find a way to get married down London-way. In Gretna you could just show up at, say, a blacksmith's forge and he'd marry you off as long as you could scrounge up some witnesses. Scottish law allowed it.
The billboard I most remember (besides the one that gave the weather report: Chili today; hot tamale!) was the one that advertised the hotel at SotB as having "Heir Conditioned" rooms. Perfect for Gretna!

I was expecting a South of the Border-type tourist display, full of gaudy goodness. Gretna Green: North of the Border! (Pedro -- yes, I know he's completely un-PC, but his billboards are everywhere up and down I-95 -- is in South Carolina, just across the NC line.) Instead we visited a sedate shopping complex with a mousy museum (which you had to pay extra for) at the end. Nothing was worth taking a picture. I'm afraid what impressed me most about the place was the ladies' room.

You see, I'd been trying out black pudding that morning and the one before. "This is really, really bland sausage," I decided. My body hates sausage, but this seemed safe enough. Day #2 and my body rebelled. Quite suddenly. "Which way's the bathroom?" I yelled as we pulled into the parking space and I jumped off the bus.

The rest room must have had thirty-five stalls. No waiting! Afterward, I thought it was funny because Gretna would be a very female-centric place, so it was good they accommodated them.

Which reminds me: we stopped at one "service" (they call rest stops "service" on highway signs) that had a good 18 parking slots for buses. Inside the travel plaza was a number of fast-food restaurants, two Starbucks (I kid you not) (one was a regular Starbucks place and the other was hot drinks only), another brand coffee cafe, the ubiquitous video parlor, a travel electronics store… and a ladies' room that must have had sixty stalls! There was a guy inside helping a female employee direct traffic. (Signs warned of his presence.) For that one you had to wait, but the line moved VERY quickly thanks to the loo cops.

Speaking of bathrooms, and this blog seems inordinately obsessed with them (as one is when on a bus trip), I discovered a new system of toilet paper dispensing: like those small, square kleenex boxes, only on its side, affixed to a stall wall. You pluck one sheet at a time. You know something? I think it makes a LOT of sense, especially in a public venue, as it keeps things neater than usual.

ALL public bathrooms in the UK used those air dryers. I thought Mythbusters had proven that paper towels were more hygienic?

My point? What was my point? Oh, right: Gretna Green needs to be more showy. As in: show a little tastelessness! Have some fun with the concept!
Dinosaurs never hurt sales either! Imagine Nessie paying Gretna Green a visit. Tourist heaven!
And that was Scotland. Darn my note-taking anyway! I know I missed some good stuff, but hopefully have made up for it with pics.

Next: Back to England and then… London!

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Fling in the Highlands!

Sorry for the delay. I was busy getting a book and two paintings to places they were expected, getting ready to buy a new car... Meanwhile, back at my UK trip:

Northern England had become hilly and farmland was broken into a patchwork of stone wall-bordered plots. We paused at the border (where a bagpiper was playing in the parking lot, natch) and then moved along through a definite piedmont with very high hills and deep valleys. There were no walls to separate farm lots except the occasional hedge, and everything stretched green, green, green.

With LOTS of sheep.
This was the scene on our side of the road when we stopped for the truck fire. I know there's a painting somewhere in this series. I took LOTS of pics of sheep for future reference purposes.

As I mentioned, the bus usually took us down non-highway routes. It was along such that we encountered traffic coming to a complete stop though we were in the middle of nowhere. Ahead of us in the other lane stood a burning log truck. The explanation: "The driver went to do a wee and when he turned around there was smoke coming out of his lorry." Ouch. No one likes it when smoke comes out of their lorries. The translation: Apparently the driver had gotten out to have a little rest stop out there in the open but to the side of the road, and when he turned back to his truck, discovered it was quite on fire.

Traffic in both directions came to a halt and we had to wait until the fire and police folks came out. They got traffic moving very quickly, leaving one embarrassed fellow next to his truck awaiting a tow.

We crested one very high ridge and I could see the ocean. Or rather, the Firth of Forth. The Forth is a river, and a "firth" is an estuary, or place where a river flows into the sea. It's a type of bay with a river flowing into one side.

We soon arrived at Edinburgh, which our driver pronounced as "ed in bra." What Ed was doing in that bra I'll never know. We took a quickie tour of the town in the bus and then headed off to our hotel. My room was lovely (if outlet-deprived, as all UK hotels are), with three large windows along one wall that I could open so as to let whatever breeze I could find in so I wouldn't have to die in my sleep from heat stroke. It also let in the announcements from the train station right across the street and down a cliff, as well as noise from the street and drunks. Luckily for me, Edinburgh seems to roll up the sidewalks (and trains) before midnight.

The next morning we were up bright and early for a half-day of touring Edinburgh's castle. If we'd come a month later we might see the Tattoo, which they were setting up for. That has nothing to do with ink, but is rather a festival with lots of martial bands and pipers and horses, as well as fireworks. When we arrived, only the stands were in place around a central plaza.
View from the castle... ramparts, I guess. As any Gilmore Girls fan can tell you, the person who has the high ground, wins. Actually, the first time this castle was taken, waaaaay back when, it was torn completely down except for the chapel (iIrc) so the English couldn't use it. That's the Firth of Forth up there.

The castle was a solid tourism spot, full of stone stairs, a 900-year-old chapel, the Stone of Scone (just recently stolen back from the conniving English scum), the birth room of James VI (Mary, Queen of Scots was his mum), crown jewels, dungeons, and varied museums. One could easily spend most of a day here.

But I had friends to meet! I saw the highlights, forgot about the dungeons which had been recommended to me by our local guide, and took off down the Royal Mile back to the hotel. Martin Gray and Steven Robinson, stalwart heroes they, picked me up there and we were off! They had taken off from work just to take me around. Aww!

Let me digress a moment. On the whole, bus tours are only a step or two better than watching a travelogue on TV. You sit on the bus and the country passes outside your window. Now and then you get out and have an hour to walk about at a particular site. You don't usually get the in-depth commentary a TV show provides.

But these were Edinburghers. Or Leithers. The cities have merged over the years, like Chapel Hill/Carrboro or Raleigh/Cary/Durham. They knew their area in a different way from guides. As we set off we passed darling neighborhoods and business districts. Then we arrived at the Britannia, the retired Royal Yacht, and saw EVERYTHING. By this time my camera had pooped out, though I thought it didn't do that until the next day, but anyway, I discovered when I got home that I'd only taken a couple shots that day -- and it was the BEST DAY OF THE TOUR!! Arrggh!!!

Always, ALWAYS recharge your camera at night while on tour. Always have it with you! I'd become too accustomed to being able to go a couple months without recharging. On tour you're always turning your camera off and on and fiddling with the focus and... This takes power.

The Britannia had a contest in which they had nautical-dressed teddy bears secreted here and there. You were supposed to spot as many as you could and at the end of the tour report to someone and see if you'd won a prize for finding them all.

Martin and Steven, Edinburgh's Dynamic Duo!
Yep, Steve and I were really there. I was trying to look cool. Ah, you see the phone is out instead of my camera. When I got home, I discovered that my computer is too old to really interconnect with my new phone, so I had to take screenshots of what was on the phone. Most of these E'burgh shots came from Martin and Steven's phones, and they were kind enough to send them to me.
We lost count. There was too much to see. (And I was doing my best to appear witty. This takes concentration.) I was surprised at how bland (and yet in spots ostentatious) the royal living/entertaining quarters were. Then again, everything Mid-Century registers as Bland in my head. The crew were stuffed into semi-tiny quarters and of course they had boiler rooms and laundry with zero air conditioning, so life must have been pretty awful for people in those positions. Otoh, there were lots of photos on display of the crew having a swell ol' time doing team sports stuff about the ship. And since they were all young men in excellent condition, the photos were another perk of the tour.

From there we went to fetch some more converters for me, since the one I'd brought wasn't doing too well. (Not its fault, but rather the horribly-installed outlets in the hotels.) The new ones gave me several to experiment with and eventually I got everything recharged well. There are tricks involved. At the same shopping mall we hit a pizzeria/Italian place for late lunch. What lovely conversation! I had very little trouble understanding my Scots friends, even when Steve said, "The camel always bleem twice." I made sure he didn't see me writing that down, but I swear, that's what he said.

Before I'd left, someone had warned me about public loos and how they often had no toilet paper. What? Pshaw. Yet here at this modern, spacious pizzeria, I discovered that their ladies' room had none, not even a holder. I thought perhaps I just didn't understand this long box in my stall and it was hidden somewhere inside it, but I encountered the same type of box a few times elsewhere, and the toilet paper holders were located at another place inside the stall. ??? Yeesh.

I'm mixing up the order here, but not much. We passed Mart's apartment -- I discovered that he has two roommates, and neither of them was Steve. Our valiant Scotsmen knew I was keen on seeing Roman ruins, so they motored us to a little spot that has some stones in the ground and historical markers from where a small Roman army had housed themselves back before the Romans pulled out of the area. Cool!
Mart and I at the Roman ruins. Since this is north of Hadrian's Wall, it would be older than that. People have had a lot longer to cart all the stones from the site. They overlooked a few.

From there it was a short walk -- actually, rather long, if you realize I'd been walking since 7:30 that morning. I racked up over 20,000 steps that day! -- to the "beach," or edge of the river which did indeed seem beachy. Though a workday, there were lots of people out enjoying the day, kicking balls, eating ice cream, and making an awful mess in the public ladies' room. I was allowed (thank you!) to sit on a bench and utterly enjoy the scene.

Then it was back to the car. Just before this, Steve had made a turn to get us to our destination. It was one of those typical two-way streets without parking spots on either side, which meant there was an almost solid line of cars parked on either side of the road, half-in and half-out, transforming it into a one-way street. Cars pulled over as they could to let cars coming from the opposite direction through.

We started to pass an apartment building's parking lot. A car zipped out of it right in front of us. Steve hit the brakes hard! Phew, accident averted. As he was still stopped, the car decided that it wanted to go backward so it could go back into the lot. ((meep)) went Steve's car's horn as BUMP! the guy backed RIGHT INTO US!!!! (Despite me using my telekinesis at full power!)

Mart and I were having conniptions. I was in shock. I mean, we were RIGHT THERE. There was no way the guy could have missed seeing us! Steve got out, the guy got out, and I had Judge Judy thoughts: road rage! The guy would pull a gun on Steve!

But no, they talked a moment or two, both peered at Steve's front bumper and the guy's back one, and then both returned to their cars. The guy returned to the parking lot. Steve said the guy claimed that there was something wrong with his kid, so he was anxious about getting something something, which is why he drove the way he did. "No major damage," Steve reported.

Actually, there were a couple of small dents. Steve was completely cool about the whole thing. There had been no exchange of insurance info, etc. No cops. !!!
Drat, it's not showing up. I'll try to remember to fix this tonight if I can recall which picture it is. Oh right, it's the awful new Parliament building. Too awful for Blogspot to show, apparently. Wait, I'll Google and here it is. If I can remember, I'll add my own shot below.

From the ruins we went back to Edinburgh proper and (this might have been before) the boys gave me a driving tour of the awful new Parliament building (it really is atrocious, and it was designed by a Spaniard instead of a proper Scot) and Hollyrood, which is a palace right below Arthur's Seat, which is this big ol' mini-mountain sitting at the edge of the city, akin to Montreal's mont. Some road was closing just as we were arriving, so we couldn't drive up to see whatever they wanted to see.

But now we're back to being after the ruins. We found a parking spot near High Street (which I kept thinking was the famous Prince's Street, but that's a block or so over), which has the Royal Mile. It runs from Hollyrood up to the castle. We went in search of Edinburgh's Ghost Tour, which starts aboveground with stories of how the city used to be quite the scary place. Once again (popular UK stories) I was told that "loo" comes from "l'eau" (water), which is what the natives called the night slops that were tossed out onto the street in the morning. "Gardez l'eau!" (look out for the water) became "Gardy loo!" Drunks just becoming semi-ambulatory in the early morning, walking about and thus facing the onslaught were "shit-faced" because they looked up to mumble, "Whuh?" Splat!

Then we moved into the foundations of a not-so-old bridge. It had been designed so that businesses could be established on top, while the arches and such below could be used for storage. Only thing: the waters from above leaked through the stonework, leaving the chambers soggy. As conditions worsened topside and the law drove the poor out of the streets, they began to live in the chambers, where no law reached. Conditions and society were terrible there, and the waste that came through the walls added to the general sickness experienced by the inhabitants.

Our guide showed us through a little museum of torture devices, giving gory details of just how they were applied and what the effects were. Then we went into this one room. The city had invited Wiccans in to clear the bad spirits that had been reported. The Wiccans eventually abandoned it, but set up a ring of stones and salt to imprison one very evil essence they had encountered. (There's a current coven meeting place a few rooms down.)

Guess the hoodoo didn't work on this shot?

Our guide said that many who had dared to step into the circle had encountered bad luck (broken bones, etc) soon afterward. Of course a bunch of kids had to step into it. He also said that pictures taken across the circle would turn out blank.

Mart took a picture of our guide across the circle. When we were in the hall outside, he checked it. It showed up a moment… then blanked. "What?" He tried looking at it again and again, and each time it blanked after a moment. A girl next to us said she'd seen that trick before and it was Photoshopped. "But I just took the picture!" Mart retorted, but she had none of it.

I made the mistake of brushing up against a wall. Ugh, it was slimy! And it was the first wearing of that particular blouse. Then the water dripping out of the ceiling caught me. Ick!

I'd hate to have lived anywhere near that bridge back during the bad times, but the worst thing about it these days was the final step in and out of the place. Really, they could have put down one or two extra wooden steps to help people in. I think that's how the one guy who stepped into the circle broke his leg. No, nobody on our tour. Some other tour. Mart said he'd contact the tour company and tell them that they should do it for minimum safety standards.

We went to the Tolbooth [sic] Tavern for dinner. (Yes, we washed our hands first!) What a lovely place, so friendly! My friends joked with the waiter about me never having had haggis, and I relented to a sample. I don't see what the big deal is. It tastes like liver pudding, but lighter. They mix oatmeal or something into it so it's not so dense. It would make a good cracker spread. But Steve ordered a "Scottish Tower," I think it was called (darn me for throwing out my receipts! If you look up my review on TripAdvisor, you'll see the proper name). That's tatties (potatoes) on the bottom, haggis in the middle, and neeps (turnips) on the top, under the sprig of rosemary and the Scottish flag. Steven was kind enough to give me the actual, real, crunchy salad that surrounded the concoction. The belly back there under the Superman symbol belongs to Martin. Hi, Martin's belly!

What fun the day had been! How lovely it is to tour with such splendid chaps as Martin and Steven! Thanks, guys!!!

Uh. Is this the back of the castle? It was on the other side of the train station as we toured our final Edinburgh day. Anyway, there are several hill-topping castle-like features in Edinburgh, but the thing that caught most people's attention was the private school that inspired Hogwart's. JD Rowling lives in Edinburgh, you see. Lots of guides mentioned the Hogwart's school to us.

The next day we got a tiny tour of the "New Town," I think, just before it began to rain. Then it was off across the Firth to the Highlands! This is mountainous territory -- low mountains -- and knock-your-socks-off gorgeous. It reminds me of Montana before Montana turns into full mountains, only these hills are heavily forested and there are cute stone villages here and there. Maybe the Appalachian foothills would be a better comparison.

There was one long stretch of boring road, but we stopped along it at a farm. I had paid for this extra, but others had not. As the bus pulled away with them, they later reported that all of us on the mini-tour were just standing, hands on hips, looking off in the distance. Then ALL OF A SUDDEN comes this flock of sheep, running toward us hell-bent for leather!!!! And then behind them appears a border collie, chasing them like the very devil!

A sheep farmer was demonstrating his border collies' abilities for us. Some of you may know that my favorite dog is the border collie. This guy had about seven of them with him, and used a flock of about… oh, how many sheep are there in the shots? -- that many to demonstrate the dogs one at a time. He also had about seven ten-month puppies, and one of them wanted SO BADLY to join the adults at what they were doing! He'd pace around and stop and watch, then pace and see how close he could get to the adults without being reprimanded.

They had something like 3000 sheep on this farm and 20 collies. The farmer told us that it actually costs a little more to shear the sheep than it does for what they get for the wool. They only shear them for health reasons. The wool usually winds up being sent to China for use as insulation.

The farmer grabbed one full-grown sheep and told us it was a lamb as it was only a year and a half old. Looked like an adult to me. Anyway, the lamb had never been sheared, and now the farmer did it, manually, and invited those who wanted to to help.

Then we saw the puppies! I mean, the 10-day-old puppies whose eyes had just opened within the past twelve hours! Eee! Hillary (our guide) had to body-search one lady to make sure she didn't smuggle a puppy back onto the bus when we left.

There's the year-old pup on the left.

Think I'll leave it there. The rest should take up about two parts (maybe three with leftovers), which I'll try to have presented next week. See you then!