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!

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.


Monday, August 1, 2016

General thoughts about traveling to Britain

Before I get into a real trip report of my Trafalgar tour of England and Scotland, I'd like to bring up a few points that might be of interest to people thinking about traveling in that direction.

First of all: plane ticket classifications

I signed up for economy class, of course. Imagine a city bus seat with higher seat back. Now make those seats about two inches closer together, front to back. If you're on American and have an aisle seat, imagine the foot room under the seat in front of you: half of it is now taken up by a wooden box. This is for future electronic connections that will allow TV screens on the back of each seat. As of now, there are no screens, other than the two or three that hang from the cabin ceiling. What this box also means is that, if you have two feet, there is only room to place one of them.

You will be forced to twist your body into the shape of a pretzel if you want to sleep during the 8 hours it takes to fly from NC to the UK. Or 10 and a half if there are thunderstorms in NC that prevent the plane from taking off. Because of the position, don't expect much sleep. It will take your body approximately 2 days afterward to straighten back to normal.

Two hours before landing, you're silently screaming, "Lord, take me now!" You don't even want to think about the return trip.

So when the screen at the airport greets you on that return trip and asks you if you want to upgrade, you dare to ask, "How much will it cost?" You stagger backward from the response but sign up anyway. "It's an experiment," you tell yourself. "I need to do this just once in my life to know what it entails." You are now Business Class Preferred, I think the designation is. This means that not only do you get to board first, but you can go to Lounge H in Heathrow to wait. Of course, Lounge H is about a mile from your boarding gate, but…

Your seat can recline without bothering the person behind you. You can recline all the way to a flat position to sleep with cozy quilt and pillow to coddle you. Your row mate will never hear you snore. Your seat has a tablet on which you can watch movies, TV, play games, etc. You have TWO arm rests that are yours alone, as well as a wide tray. You can stretch out your legs and then some.

(Note: I had bought a TRTL neck rest for this trip, and it worked out fairly well, especially on the return trip. The nicest thing is that you can slip the material up to just under your nose so that if you drool and/or hang your mouth open when you sleep, no one will notice.)

Instead of the (surprisingly okay) economy-class meal-on-a-dispenser-tray, you get tasty three-course meals presented on real plates. Your attendant comes around every 20 minutes or so to ask how things are going and would you like some more champagne? Maybe cheese and fruit? Did I mention those Bose earphones that blank out ALL cabin noise?

You feel loved. You feel pampered. Ahh. I am NEVER going economy class again on a flight that lasts more than four hours at a time.

More travel info

Let's go back to that Heathrow mention. In the entire American Airlines section, there are only TWO sets of bathrooms. One is behind a gated door which was not open when I looked, and the other was approximately a quarter-mile from my gate, and downstairs to boot. It held four stalls. Back at RDU, there are bathrooms about every 200 feet or so, filled with stalls. And yes, Heathrow's handicapped stall is on the same level as its gates so there are no stairs. But when your ticket says the plane starts to board at 9:10, and the plane's not set to lift off until 10:30, you hit that bathroom hard while you can. Then you discover that no, the gate opens at 9:10 (actually more like 9:15), and you go through all kinds of security crap and then you sit in the waiting room. Need to go once more before boarding? You are Out Of Luck.

Back to the original trip across: After a long delay and being pretzel-fied, you arrive in London! At the same time as three other major flights, which means there are approximately 1500 people in line at Customs who slowly shuffle forward. Finally! Through! You are to meet your driver, whom your travel agency has assured you has checked your arrival time and will be there waiting.

But he didn't, and he wasn't. He'd waited 2 hours from the original scheduled landing time, which eight hours before had been upgraded to include the delay. Luckily, there's someone at the desk who says, "No prob!" and packs you into a lush car to take you to the hotel. That car has proximity alarms and they go off every ten seconds or so as the driver weaves through London traffic. He's a hoot, though, and points out the local sights, of which none are historic.

Hotels in Britain

A few hotels are much like their American counterparts. When I say "a few," I mean the Hilton Kensington in London. The others we went to… weren't. Well, there was that one golf resort that was luscious, but even that had no A/C.

Air conditioning seems to be a luxury in GB. I went during a heat wave, and the nights were QUITE warm. Without A/C, you had to open windows (often over a busy street or at ground level, etc.), beg the front desk for a fan -- if they had any left -- and ask for a top sheet.

One thing that has really gotten me in recent years of travel is that hotels now only dress their beds with sheets and duvets. Duvets are fine if you're in a blizzard and the heat's not working well. But there should be something in between. Some hotels have a blanket in the closet, and that's great.

But GB hotels don't even seem to go in for top sheets. When you crawl into bed, you have a bottom sheet and then on top of you is the duvet. What's up with that? Are you going to tell me they launder a full duvet every time they change guests?

So you call down for a top sheet, and if they can get over their shock at that, it works well. As for the windows, they come with chains so that (theoretically) no one can break in from outside. If you're housed across the street from, say, Edinburgh's train station, you are also treated to loudspeaker announcements every few minutes as well as traffic noises and shouts from drunks passing below.

The windows also have no screens. I was assured that England has no mosquitos or rabid bats. So far I have resisted Googling the veracity of this.

The second night in England I couldn't understand why none of my lights worked. It seems that when you're issued a room key (in this case I'd been issued two), you immediately put one in a box next to the door. This turns on the electricity for the room to keep costs down. If you only have one key, this means that if you're recharging your electronics, they will not be recharging while you're away from the room with your key in hand. Some hotels will give you an extra key to avoid this situation.

Rooms also have minimal wall outlets. You have to unplug, say, your TV in order to plug in your iPad for recharging. Then your power adapter won't work. After buying a new set of adapters, I finally worked out a method of wedging the hair dryer (and sometimes the room phone as well) on top of the adapter that allowed it to hang OUT of the outlet far enough that connections were finally properly made. Some hotels I didn't have to do this, but in the majority I did.

British hotels have electric tea kettles. Hooray! These are not those nasty things they have in the US where people put in a thing of coffee on top and it brews and spits out (ugh) coffee, and if you want a cup of tea even though you ask the desk for a CLEAN pot, it still makes your tea taste like (ugh) coffee. These are pots that take water and water only, and your room is provided with lots of tea bags, packets of powdered coffee, sealed dollops of milk, and various sweeteners. There's usually a couple of shortbread cookies as well. (Shortbread is EVERYWHERE.)

Only the Hilton had washcloths. I am told this is the new thing: no washcloths. "Oh, but you don't know where they've been!" one of my fellow travelers told me with a wink. If hotels aren't washing everything in scalding bleach water, why am I trusting myself to sleep on their sheets? She told me that since she travels first class, she steals a washcloth (which are provided free to her) from the airlines and has quite a collection, which she uses in hotels. Other travelers told me just to use my hands, which provide all the abrasion I need to get the job done, right?

You may or may not find bar soap. Don't count on it. Now there's a tendency to use push-top bottles in both shower and by the bathroom sink. One hotel didn't even have separate bottles for body wash and shampoo/conditioner; it was all combined into one soapy concoction.

At the golf resort my luxury room had both a tub on one side of the large bathroom and a spacious shower on the other side. At another place we had circular showers (no tub) in our teeny bathrooms that were about 3/4 the diameter of a transporter pad on Star Trek. One guy said he dropped the bar soap while showering and had to give up. I know I couldn't bend over to attend to my lower legs.

Think like a hotel owner: How cheap can I make this and still advertise on the Internet? That's the idea behind many British hotels, or at least those the bus tours use.

Hotel bank machines

At the Hilton Kensington early one Monday morning, I used their ATM to get some money. Did I want a receipt? I said yes, and it said that the printer wasn't working and then… nothing. Wha? I tried again, this time saying no receipt, and again… nothing. The concierge said that likely the machine was out of money and my account hadn't been charged.


I broke my own rule of never checking my bank balance when on hotel wifi. Sure enough, the machine had charged me, both times. Luckily, neither had gone through. Why? BECAUSE SOME JERK HAD HACKED MY BANK CARD in Florida two days before, and now my account was frozen!

So because my bank card had the international phone number in 2-point type on it, I spent about 40 minutes calling regular internationally to get things straightened out. Six days later, my new card arrived. Unfortunately, I can't use it in a machine because my new PIN is being sent separately, and no, the bank can't tell me what my new PIN is.



It's true about British food. For the most part it's tasteless. (I'll discuss the exceptions later.) If you're a diabetic, you are S.O.L. because everything is white bread. Even Yorkshire pudding is a big hunk of white bread. Meals are usually: protein, starch, bread, potatoes, starch, sugar, five peas, starchy sugar, bread with cheese, sugar.

I had a shrimp dish one night that the menu warned was extra spicy. It was shrimp and diced tomatoes. That was it. As far as I could tell, salt and pepper had not been involved, much less any other spices.

Another night I dined with a group of friends, eating at a tapas-kind of restaurant with non-tapas kinds of food. All I really wanted was a salad (see below). They actually had a nice tuna salad with some greens, but instead of keeping it to myself (mine! mine!) I had to share it with everyone else because that's what kind of dinner it was. Come to think of it, only one person reached over to grab a tomato.

At that same meal they served a bowl of melted cheese that supposedly had eggplant in it (there was a tiny sliver at the very bottom), and also another dish that consisted of unseasoned boiled potato cubes with a large garnish of mayo. (Mayo is very popular in the UK. Like shortbread, it is everywhere.) Me, I wanted to gag just looking at it. (Keep in mind this was near the very end of my vacation and my body was in full rebellion mode. For everyone else, this was a one-up affair; for me, it was just Day 11 of the Great British Non-Nutritional Baking Show.)

Vegetables? In England? Everyone assured me that they did indeed have veg: potatoes. Peas. An occasional tomato. Maybe a green leaf for garnish. I did see a few green beans here and there. But that was it. My final night in London at Jamie Oliver's place, I had to special order a "market salad" so it would be an actual salad. The waiter looked at me like I was nuts. And oh yes, my first night in London at a Moroccan place, I had a lovely, lovely salad with mint and stuff. Very nice. Thank you, Moroccans!

We'll cover this later...

We had "bus tour" buffet breakfasts every day that always had scrambled eggs, ham (which they referred to as "bacon"), grainy black pudding, grilled mushy tomatoes, beans, juice, tea/coffee, different kinds of bread… Sometimes there is fresh fruit and sausage links. Sometimes there is oatmeal. Sometimes, yogurt ("yoghurt").

So do take your fiber pills and vitamins along!


I don't like alcohol unless it's a wine sauce. Therefore I had probs in the UK.

You have tea. Hot tea. That's standard enough. Sometimes there's coffee (ugh). And water, still or fizzy, which will cost $$ and isn't free. There's the entire gamut of alcoholic drinks available in most spots. "Soft drinks" usually consist of Coke and Diet Coke. Sometimes there is Sprite and sometimes something called ginger beer. "Is it like ginger ale? Or root beer?" "Oh yes." It's not. Ugh.

And then there is lemonade. Lemonade to me means either chemicals or sugar on top of sugar with a dash of lemon juice. In England there's sugar stuff being pushed on you from every direction already. The idea of more sugar…

But sometimes you get tired of water. Okay, gimme lemonade. It's either: (1) watered-down Sprite. Or, when you ask if it's watered-down Sprite and they vehemently tell you no, it's (2) watered-down Sprite with some gakky herb aftertaste.

You ask for iced tea. "Oh no," they laugh. "Iced tea? The idea!" One place assured me they'd make me some iced tea. It took 20-plus minutes to get the drink, and then it was about 4 ounces, served with a packet of sugar. "Sugar doesn't dissolve in cold water," I grumbled under my breath. But I drank it.

Starbucks pointed out that their new menu contains iced tea. I just never found a branch that actually served that item so I could try it.

When you don't drink alcohol and you're out with a group, someone(s) will often DEMAND, "Why don't you drink alcohol???!" like it was some kind of crime or something. Once a group I was with knew that one of us was a Muslim, so they didn't give me any flak about my drink choices. But every other time: "Why don't you drink alcohol???" Once when we were at a dinner that was included in our tour, we were allowed two drinks before we had to pay for ourselves. The gentleman to my right went through his first two wines like water and then pointed at me. "She's not drinking," he declared. "I'll take her two drinks!" And yes, he was QUITE serious, just as he'd been serious about not giving up his front seat on the bus when it was clearly explained at all points of the tour that we rotated seats daily. He was just a jerk.

At another group dinner, again I was the only one not drinking and it had been a strenuous day. After the servers saw I wasn't having alcohol, they left me alone. I had to flag one down and beg them for water. "COLD water!" I pleaded. Soon a bottle of ice-cold water appeared and I grabbed it... only to have my fellow table mates take it from me, and with a great deal of laughing, serve themselves. I was left with (and I had to again flag someone for it) tepid water for the rest of the meal, or at least half the meal, as I ran out quickly and couldn't get another server to stop by. Ugh.

Next time: The good stuff:

England. Scotland.