Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wednesday, 27th September – London

Having done some big tourist hot spots yesterday (along with a gazillion tourists) we were keen to avoid the crowds today – not an easy feat in London but we managed (mostly). Our flat is close to Regents Park, so we headed for a spot called Little Venice (at this rate we won’t need to go to the real Venice – although the only thing they have in common is some water), at one end of Regent’s Canal. There’s a huge network of canals in Britain built during the Industrial revolution as a cheap form of transport, but now mainly used for pleasure. The boats are called narrowboats (for obvious reasons), and we caught one along the canal to Camden Lock. It was a lovely trip, and not a tourist in sight – just locals out for the day. The canal is lined by trees, and we passed dozens of moored narrowboats which people have converted to houseboats. The canal goes through London Zoo and you get off at Camden, just before the locks (I was hoping we’d go through one). At Camden is a famous market, which we wandered for a while, though we were fish out of water – lots of punks & Goths, people from all nations, lots of shops selling very way out stuff, but also lots of character. We really enjoyed it; it seemed to be a very “London” place. We bough lunch (Indian and Moroccan – both yummy) and enjoyed some people-watching while we ate.

Back to the West End to get theatre tickets, then to Sir John Soane’s Museum. A very unusual place, and well worth a visit (and it’s free). Sir John was a brilliant architect, well ahead of his time, but also an eccentric who collected antiquities and turned his house into a museum with hundreds of sculptures, casts, drawings, and even an alabaster sarcophagus from 1290BC. The design of the house itself is interesting, with lots of skylights and mirrors, and clever use of space which was pioneering in its time (18th century) and the collection is incredible. We had to leave our bags at the front door, which is very unusual (as a rule there are very few cloak rooms in London, because of the constant fear of bombs), but when we got inside we saw why – there is so much ‘stuff’ the walkways are quite narrow and everything is very accessible. A veritable treasure trove.

We filled in an hour traveling the tube to Paddington Station to collect train tickets for later in the week. We put our Oyster Cards (I don’t know why they call the travels cards that) to good use today – despite all the stairs and corridors, and the rushing masses or humanity, it is very easy to travel around the city by public transport. The signage is good, the station announcements are in English (!!) and we have never had to wait more than 30 seconds for a train.

In the evening we went to see Mary Poppins the musical, which had been highly recommended. And it was a rollicking good show – great singing, wonderful dancing, fantastic sets, impressive special effects, and, of course, a happy ending. It is based on the Disney film but also the original books by PL Travers (who is an Aussie, did you know?) so the story is a bit more real and less silly than the film – well apart from the magic. We didn’t manage ₤10 tickets this time, but we got the cheapest seats (₤25) which were way up the back – they provided binoculars with the seats! But we had a full view and really enjoyed the show. When we emerged from the theater (the Princess Theatre, lovely art deco style) the streets were full of life – happy theatre-goers dodging swarms of cycle rickshaws all with their bells ringing – so we walked down to Piccadilly Circus with its famous neon advertising signs before heading home to collapse into bed.

Tuesday, 26th September – London

The rain cleared overnight, and we woke to a sunny clear day, so we headed straight for the London Eye. Given that I don’t like rides much and I am afraid of heights, it’s odd that I do love Ferris Wheels – but I do – and the London Eye is the granddaddy of Ferris Wheels. It is enormous (apparently the height of 64 red London phone booths piled on top of one another!). It is naturally very popular, so we had to queue for a while (longer than we needed to because we joined the wrong queue first!) but soon we were flying (it is run by British Airways). It is remarkably quiet and you do get a fabulous view. You only go around once, but it takes 30 minutes so there’s plenty of time to look at everything and take photos. Although you really need to do it 3 times – morning & afternoon (to get photos in both directions) and at night to see the lights. But at ₤12.50 ($30) each, and the rest of London to visit, I don’t think that will happen.

We crossed the Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament, and popped in to Westminster Abbey. And stayed there the rest of the day! It is an amazing place – it contains a thousand years of English history — 3,000 tombs, the remains of 29 kings and queens, hundreds of memorials and the coronation chair on which every king and/or queen has been crowned since William the Conqueror. There’s so much to look at, and so much history there; we were completely mesmerised (and wondered later why our legs were so sore). The history books coming to life! (or death, in this case). There are so many nooks and crannies, huge memorials and tiny plaques all jumbled in together, you could spend hours exploring.

You weren’t allowed to take photos inside but I managed to sneak a few until I got caught. It’s a bit annoying for an avid snapper like me, but most places won’t let you take photos. I can appreciate the problem of using a flash, but I reckon the only reason for the ban is so you buy more postcards or guidebooks. At Westminster the excuse was that it is a house of worship (and it is) but that doesn’t stop them letting in millions of tourist, (charging handsomely I might add) and running guided tours that disturb the serenity. I don’t mind paying because it must cost the earth to maintain a thousand year old building, but I did want to take photos!

In the evening we had dinner with my sister and her children at a nice Kosher restaurant. The food was excellent and it was great to catch up with them – we hadn’t seen each other since 2003.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Monday 25th September – London

Our first day in London promised to be a perfect museum day – overcast and damp. One plan was to do the London Eye if the weather was good. But there is so much to do here that there is always a plan B if the weather doesn’t suit, and what better way to spend a wet London day than to visit the V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum) in South Kensington. One highlight for us was the 'cast' rooms, full of plaster casts of classical statues from Britain and Europe. I know they are 'just' copies, but incredibly well done - so remarkably well detailed and coloured they look like the real thing.

After a few hours looking at antiquities and 16th & 17th Century British decorative arts (Tudor and Stuart) – amazing stuff , and a scrumptious lunch in the museum café, we left the V&A, leaving plenty to come back and see another day, and headed to Leicester Square to check out cheap tickets for West End shows. Getting around London is pretty easy on the ‘Tube’ – we bought a 7 day Oyster Card, as they call it, and just hop on and off and change to another line to wherever we need to go – though you need to be fairly able-bodied, as a lot of stations seem to just have stairs (no escalators or lifts) and long corridors, and lots of them! Despite the weather change it is still warm – people are going about in T-shirts, even in the evenings.

We looked at a few of the half price ticket outlets, but there was a play at a theatre just near the tube station which took our fancy so we went into the box office to see what cheap tickets we could get. They had ₤10 bench seats right up the back, so we took them. When we got to the theatre in the evening we had been upgraded to the royal circle – best seats in the house for 10 quid! It was 'Voyage Around My Father', an autobiographical play by John Mortimer (who wrote 'Rumpole of the Bailey'), and starred Derek Jacobi! Excellent performance.

In the meantime we saw an ‘Aussie’ pub called Walkabout advertising AFL Grand Final tickets to watch the game live on a big screen. We thought if we couldn’t actually be at the MCG on Saturday what better way to watch the game than with a bunch of Aussie ex-pats in a pub at 5:30 in the morning! The ₤10 ticket includes breakfast and a VB!

Sunday, 24th September - Cornwall to London

We drove to Exeter, returned the hire car and got on a train to London (that’s the short version of the story). A tip for next time – don’t return a hire car in a strange provincial city on a Sunday – Keith left Shelley with the bags at the station and dropped off the car at the rental place (which was closed on Sundays, but we knew that), and then had to walk 2 miles to the station – there were no cabs, and no suburban trains for the next 2 hours! Meanwhile Shelley was at the station minding the luggage (couldn’t even while away the time in the bookshop because there’s nowhere to leave your luggage in these terrorist-conscious times) watching the 1 o’clock train go past, in the end we only just made the 2 o’clock. Anyway, the train trip to London was very pleasant – beautiful countryside to look at, and someone else to do the driving.

We caught a London cab (a black one of course) from Paddington Station to the place we are staying, a nice little flat in St Johns Wood that belongs to a family friend, freshened up a bit and then took a stroll to St Johns Wood High Street. This is a chic little shopping street filled mostly with designer children’s clothing shops and trendy kitchen design places, and some nice restaurants. We noted a nice Kosher deli we’ll have breakfast in one morning, and a great Sushi place. We had a very nice dinner at Café Rouge (a fore-taste of France next week), got some things for breakfast at Sainsbury’s and retired to our flat for the evening. A nice welcome to London.

Saturday, 23rd September - Cornwall

The pointy bit of Cornwall was our agenda today - the most western and southern part of England. We drove for about an hour through yet more narrow roads and scenic pastureland (one thing you notice here compared to Australia is the way every bit of land is used. Not surprising, but it does make for a different driving experience). First stop St. Michael's Mount - a rocky island outcrop connected to the coast at low tide by a causeway. Sounds like Mont St Michel? Looks like it too, though smaller. Apparently the island reminded William the Conqueror of the one back home in Normandy. Sadly however closed on Saturdays! But they still wanted to charge us £2 for parking.

We persuaded the man to let us take some photos for free & drove on to Land's End. Parking £3 flat rate! There is virtually no free parking anywhere (there just isn't the room) but most parking is ''Pay-and-Display'' so you can choose how long you want to stay. This was the most expensive we had come across - and wasn't worth it. Land's End is the first place we have been this trip that we needn't have bothered. Tacky & expensive "attractions" (we skipped them), nice coastal views (but not spectacular) and the wildlife centre was closed for lunch.

Not a very auspicious start to the day so far! But the next place (which was the main reason we went to the area) made it all worthwhile. The Minack Theatre is a modern classical amphitheatre built into the side of a cliff in a most spectacular fashion. It was built in the 1930s by a remarkable woman, Rowena Cade, who funded the building but also did much of the physical labour herself. It's an amazing achievement and in summer it would be terrific to see a play there. We had a good look around and tried to remember some Shakespeare quotes to recite.

Next stop was the little fishing village of Mousehole (pronounced Mow-zel), another charming little town with a tiny harbour surrounded by little stone cottages. It seems to be home to a thriving art colony - there are about 8 shops in town and 6 of them are galleries. We had a long chat with a Scottish man who runs one of the galleries, about life in Mousehole.

The harbour was largely created by a sea wall, which is where we were directed to park (for £2 of course) which seemed somewhat precarious but there were other cars there so I guess it's common practice. But I did start to worry when we saw puddles of water on the road - with fresh seaweed in them. As the roads were barely wide enough to drive along let alone park we left the car there with some trepidation. Later as we passed through Penzance we saw huge waves crashing over the top of the sea wall and cars covered in seaweed, although the sea seemed fairly calm, so our worries weren't entirely unjustified!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday, 22nd September, 2006 - Cornwall

Sydney Swans are in the Grand Final !!!

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are Britain’s most visited gardens, and are just a few miles from where we are staying. We had read the story about their creation and were quite intrigued to go there. Heligan Estate dates back to the 13th century but the gardens were developed largely in the 18th Century and were renowned. But the gardens had become totally overgrown with brambles and ivy, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, until they were ‘discovered’ in 1990. “Our discovery of a tiny room, buried under fallen masonry in the corner of one of the walled gardens, was to unlock the secret of their demise. A motto etched into the limestone walls in barely legible pencil still reads "Don’t come here to sleep or slumber" with the names of those who worked there signed under the date - August 1914. We were fired by a magnificent obsession to bring these once glorious gardens back to life in every sense and to tell, for the first time, not tales of lords and ladies but of those "ordinary" people who had made these gardens great, before departing for the Great War.” They have certainly done (and are still doing) an amazing job, restoring the gardens, but also growing vegetables, raising cattle, and creating a wildlife reserve. We spent a very enjoyable few hours wandering around the garden, reading about the history and the redevelopment, and just enjoying the flowers and the greenery.

Did I mention Sydney Swans are in the Grand Final? Again! While we were at the gardens we were eagerly awaiting our sms updates of the game from Rob. What are we doing over here when we should be at the games?!!

From the gardens we took what looked like a coastal drive on the map, to a town called Polperro. We didn’t actually see the coast, but the countryside is just lovely so it was a very enjoyable drive. When we left Polperro we saw a sign pointing to “coastal route” so we took that – well, we couldn’t see the coast any more than the other road, but the road was really really narrow (made those other roads look positively spacious) – somewhat nerve-wracking, but we managed to survive – and so did the car.

Polperro itself was just charming, it looked like a set from a pirate movie – a tiny harbour, with whitewashed cottages perched on steep slopes and tiny, winding streets. It used to be a major smuggling centre, but now mainly relies on fishing and tourism. You have to park on the edge of town, and the whole town is car free. Despite the profusion of B&Bs there is virtually no development, and we just loved it. The sound of the seagulls, the smell of the sea, the views around every bend – just perfect.

Go Swannies!!!!!

Thursday, 21st September – Cotswolds to Cornwall

With a long drive ahead of us to Cornwall we didn’t plan many stops along the way today. It generally takes longer than we expected to get from one place to another. We’ve begun to really appreciate our roads back home. The simple luxury of a lane in each direction was something we always took for granted. And we’ve even started to miss traffic lights – not that they don’t exist here, but there are roundabouts everywhere, some of them huge and others quite complex, so quite scary to negotiate.

But we did have one major destination, and that was Stonehenge, such a famous place and we’ve always wanted to go there. We’d heard lots of people say that when they got there it was smaller than they expected, so they were disappointed, so we geared ourselves not to expect too much, but deep down I think we were hoping that it would therefore exceed our expectations. In fact we were not disappointed – purely from an engineering aspect it was astounding – how did they manage to bring such massive stones all that way (some of the stones came from southern Wales) and erect them with such skill that much of the original stone circle is still standing 3,500 years later. It is an impressive sight although we failed to be moved by the guide’s attempt to spiritualise the place. We passed a group of bored children with a teacher dressed in robes and playing mysterious musical instruments, trying to get the kids enthusiastic about the meaningful experience they’d had. There were a lot of tourists there but spread out over a large area, so it didn’t seem crowded. You can’t walk inside the circle these days due to previous vandalism, which is a shame, but at least it means that you can get clear uninterrupted views – and photos - of the stones. Also in the area, which we had not been aware of, are large numbers of barrows (Bronze Age burial mounds) which you can see as groups of little rounded hills along the ridges in the fields all around.

From Stonehenge it was a 3 hour drive to Cornwall, and we were keen to arrive before dark, so we drove straight there. While we were looking at Stonehenge it was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, although very windy. When you leave you walk through a short tunnel to access the car park – when we emerged the sky was completely clouded over and grey – very weird (maybe the site is magical after all!). It turns out we were on the edge of Cyclone Gordon, which has caused some damage in Northern Island and also South West England (where we are). It became windier as we drove along, at times it was hard to keep the car in our lane (we were on the motorway by then) and by the time we arrived it was very blustery. Fortunately we were not aware until after it was over quite how bad it was. The other effect though, is that the Cyclone has pushed warm air currents ahead of it, and yesterday it reached 28°C - the hottest September day on record, 10°C above average. Good sightseeing weather, but we have a suitcase full of jumpers and thermal undies!

We had a lovely welcome at our B&B – tea and scones with jam and Cornish clotted cream – and a lovely chat with our hosts, exceptionally friendly people.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wednesday, 20th September – Cotswolds

Stratford-upon-Avon is just up the road, so it was naturally the place to go. We were keen, even though Rick Steves says “Stratford is the most overrated tourist magnet in England, but nobody back home would understand if you skipped Shakespeare's house.” We were keen to go, and allowed the whole day so we wouldn’t be rushed. However we were underwhelmed (we won’t ever ignore Rick’s advice again!!). We saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage (she was Mrs W Shakespeare to be), and Shakespeare’s birthplace. Both interesting in their own right, as very old houses which reveal something about the way people lived in the 17th century. There is little in the way of actual Shakespeare relics (understandable as he wasn’t famous when he lived in Stratford), but they have worked hard to put together what they could. At the birthplace there was a very well done exhibition on his life which we enjoyed. But the houses are very small, and although there was some attempt at crowd control at AH’s there was none at SB’s so there were too many people, some of them talking loudly and all of them (it seemed) pushy, so we decided we’d had enough. We were thinking of taking a boat trip on the Avon, but it was cold and grey, so we just left town.

The other advice Rick gave us was “Even with its crowds of modern-day barbarians and its robber-baron entry fee, Warwick Castle is worthwhile.” So we saw the light and went back to being true believers (aka Ricknics). Warwick Castle is very expensive ($AU40 each!) but with our Heritage card we get in for free, so even though it was almost 3 by the time we got there, we thought we might as well. Well – Warwick was great! It’s an old castle, dating back to the 13th century but inhabited until the 1930’s, so quite different to the ruined castles we’ve seen so far. It is now owned by Madame Tussaud’s and they have added wax figures which are (of course) extremely lifelike, and really bring the castle to life (so to speak). One is called the Kingmaker, all about Richard Neville & the War of the Roses (set in 1471), another a Royal Weekend Houseparty in 1898, with guests such as the Prince of Wales (Edward VII to be) and a young Winston Churchill. Most of the furnishings and fittings are those that were actually here in 1898, and photographs taken at the time mean that it has been possible to put every chair, table, bed and book in exactly the place it occupied exactly 100 years ago. Very impressive.

As it is our last day in the Cotswolds, we wanted to eat somewhere special. We went to a pub called “The Fleece Inn” which is was a medieval half-timbered farmhouse originally, and still has many original features. It was dripping with “atmosphere”. A nice way to end our stay in the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, 19th September – Cotswolds

Today we were treated to a personalized guided tour of some of the best of the Cotswold villages by Barry, (our host at the B&B we are staying at) in his Land Rover Discovery. He was born and bred here, and knows every stone and tree, so it was a very informative tour (though he told us so much we have been struggling to remember it all), and we saw villages not on the usual tourist trail. Its such a pretty area, with lovely rolling hills and little higgledy-piggledy villages with thatched cottages made of the local Cotswold stone – picturesque is the only word for it!

After our tour we took off on our own, driving through villages with names like Upper Slaughter, Lower Swell, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Some of them were quiet sleepy little towns which looked quite idyllic, but some were so overrun with tourists that we drove right on by. We ended up stopping at Bourton-on-the-Water, also known as the Venice of the Cotswolds – well, it does have one canal. It’s a pretty little town, with ducks swimming in the little canal lined with lovely trees and crossed by little stone bridges. We found a nice pub with a beer garden overlooking the water and had a very pleasant meal (it was around 4pm, so we combined lunch and dinner. With our cooked breakfast every day, we find we only need one other meal – which is a good thing, because even a cheap meal sets us back about $50 if you translate it - ₤20 doesn’t seem as bad). It must have been pension day – the village was full of people of mature years, hobbling along the main street on their walking frames eating icecreams.

Driving around this area is very pleasant, but also somewhat hair-raising. There are either motorways (which we have, for the most part avoided) where people seem to drive well over the speed limit, despite numerous signs indicating speed cameras, or quiet country lanes – very pretty (often the huge trees on either side arch right across the road – lovely) but very narrow. We are getting the hang of negotiating them, but still get alarmed at signs which warn “Oncoming Traffic In The Middle Of The Road”.

We had a quiet night in, chatting to the other people staying at this B&B. We are encouraged to mingle, and we all sit around one big table for breakfast (between 6 & 10 people), and we have enjoyed comparing travel stories, picking up tips on where to visit, and the best pubs, meeting people from England, Sweden, Germany.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Monday, 18th September – Cotswolds

Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill was our first stop today. It is an enormous, very impressive building, built in the early 1700s. The first Duke won a decisive battle in the Spanish wars, and the Queen gave him the title, the land and ₤240,000 for a house – nice prize! We did the guided tour, as you do, and were impressed by everything we saw, as you are. We were very fortunate because the private rooms (i.e. the part where the current Duke – the 11th – lives) were open to the public, although we had to wait until the Duke had finished his lunch! The private area did have the feel of somewhere people actually lived, rather than a museum, but were only slightly less grand than the rest of the palace, still full of priceless antiques and art treasures. It’s hard to imagine living like that. There were all the rooms you find in your average house – the Duke’s sitting toom, the Duchess's sitting room, the billiard room, the china room (you need somewhere to display 300 years of collected china), the butlers pantry and of course the kitchens (plural). One room is used exclusively to create the flower arrangements for the rest of the house – I think every home needs one of those. We even got to meet the butler (Tim – a very unbutlerish name, but he certainly looked the part).

Blenheim is just outside Oxford, so that is where we went next. We had our trusty map & guidebook, and walked the streets, avoiding cycling students and tour groups. We couldn’t see a lot arriving mid-afternoon as we did, but we got a feel for the place and saw the outside of lots of the colleges and buildings. We visited the divinity school in the Bodleian library (built in 1462 – we are continually being blown away by how old these places are!), the Sheldonian Theatre, and had a look at the Martyrs memorial commemorating Latimer, Ridley & Cranmer who were burned at the stake nearby, in 1555.

We had dinner at a pub called the “Eagle & Child”, itself very old (around 1650), but more famous recently as the meeting place of the Inklings, who met there every Tuesday morning from 1939 to 1962. The Inklings, of course, included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who “profoundly influenced the development of 20th Century English literature”, according to the plaque that marks the spot. It was incredibly atmospheric, and the food was good too.

Sunday, 17th September - Conwy to the Cotswolds

We had planned a leisurely drive through the English countryside to our next home-away-from-home in the Cotswolds, but we struck 2 problems. Firstly the weather – it was very wet and foggy (seems to be the usual on our driving days), and secondly the fact that it takes way longer than you expect to get anywhere, on the narrow winding country roads. Basically we spent most of the day in the car, with very brief stops along the way. However we did enjoy the scenery, and we had a couple of interesting stops. We visited Ironbridge Gorge, famous as the first bridge made of Iron in the world. The area is known as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, but now is a sleepy, picturesque valley with a striking iron bridge crossing a deep gorge. Keith was devastated because we just missed a performance by some Morris Dancers – we saw them all heading for their cars, with bells on their shoes, bright red clothes, and looking rather damp (the rain was well and truly set in by this time). We drove through Bridgenorth, a town built on the edge of a steep cliff, so really there are two towns, Bridgenorth Upper and Bridgenorth Lower, connected by lots of stairs, very narrow winding roads, and a very cool tram – next time we’d like to spend more time there.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday, 16th September – Conwy

Today was our day to see Conwy. It is a very pretty town, set on the estuary of the Conwy River, with an intact set of medieval city walls surrounding the town, a huge castle dominating the view, and within the walls a cluster of authentic cottages & shops. The best preserved medieval town in Britain, they say. There are lots of “ests” in Conwy – the smallest house in Britain, the best-preserved Elizabethan town house in Britain, the oldest house in Conwy, and (according to Fodor) the castle “which preserves most convincingly the spirit of medieval times”.

We started our day with a walk along the city walls – very scenic but not recommended to anyone with a fear of heights (aka Shelley)! The walls were built by Edward I when he built the castle, because he needed some loyal (i.e. tax-paying) subjects living nearby to fund the construction and running of the castle – so he offered land grants and other bribes to English settlers to live near the castle and the walls were essential to protect them from the marauding Welsh.

The castle itself was fascinating. We took a guided tour which was excellent – the guides really know their material, and really bring it to life. Only the stone of the castle remains, everything that was not bolted down was sold for scrap after the English Civil War. Possibly this is what makes it so authentic, because other castles (and there are plenty) continued to be used and modified over the centuries. One thing we learned from the guide was that although they did pour “noxious substances” down on uninvited guests, boiling oil was way too expensive to waste, as well as there being nowhere on the castle walls to make a fire. Also he said the castles were not so much military centres but more administrative offices! Our illusions shattered - that’s what comes of learning all your history from the movies.

The smallest house in Britain is a real house, 6 feet wide and 10 feet high (2 stories). It was apparently a mistake, as they were building a row of houses (back in Elizabethan times) and ran out of space as they came up to the city wall, but built a tiny house there anyway. I hope the rent was cheap! It was set for demolition in 1900, until the owner did a trip around Britain measuring all the small houses to establish that this was indeed the smallest, and it has been a tourist trap ever since.

Aberconwy House was built in the 14th century, which certainly makes it very old. It survived war, fires, and Victorian “improvers”, and now belongs to the National Trust. We were a little under-whelmed – the house was interesting, but there was little information available so we didn’t really know what we were looking at. By contrast Plas Mawr, which is run by CADW (pronounced ‘cadoo’ – the Welsh historic monuments mob) was excellent – it’s a beautifully restored Elizabethan town house (as opposed to country house) built in 1585. Admission included an audio tour, with information about the history of the house and the period, as well as details about the restoration of the property – some parts were left to show you the condition it was in, while others were restored to their original state, which was fascinating. (The little machine we carried which contained the audio tour was labeled ‘time machine’).

By now it was after 5, and our legs were getting quite tired. We drove to nearby Llandudno, which was a popular seaside resort in Victorian times, and still evokes a wonderful sense of faded gentility. The entire waterfront is lined with elegant Victorian hotels, and there is a large fun pier. We promenaded for a while (as you do in a place like this – you can’t just walk) and then had dinner in a pleasant café. It is a natural bay, bracketed at each end by big hills (called the Great Orme and the Little Orme – orme means sea monster in Norse), and the “beach” is your typical English pebbles.

Back to Conwy to get some photos of the floodlit castle. Another exhausting but marvelous day.

Friday, 15th September – North Wales

The rain cleared overnight and it was a perfect autumn day – clear blue skies, not a breath of wind, a slight crispness in the air. We drove through spectacular mountain scenery: impossibly lovely villages with stone cottages, streams and steep tree-covered hillsides; huge slate quarries and hillsides piled high with the evidence of decades of mining; deep blue lakes surrounded green slopes and rocky cliffs. We were heading for Portmeirion, a little fantasy Italianate village built between 1926 and 1976 by an architect to show that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement, and “that architectural good manners could be good business”. The result is magical, though not very Welsh. Many of the buildings have been rescued from demolition around the country, and the whole place was created with a sense of design but also a sense of humour. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours there. (Portmeirion pottery, by the way, was started by the architect’s daughter in 1960).

Our plan was to go to Llanberis to catch the historic steam train to the top of Mt Snowdon. We had discovered that you couldn’t get all the way to the top, because the station there is being redeveloped, but it was still worth going half way up. But when we arrived at the station all the trains for the day had been sold! (It is the first time on this trip we have had any problems with crowds; although there have been a lot of people at some places, we have never had to queue or felt uncomfortably crowded.) I guess the one positive about feeling like we aren’t staying long enough anywhere is that there is plenty more to do if we meet an obstacle like this one. So we drove to the island of Anglesey, to a town called Beaumaris intending to visit the castle there. Wales is dotted with huge castles built by Edward I when he conquered Wales in the 13th century. Beaumaris is the last built and the only one with a moat.

However on the way to the castle we saw a sign offering one hour cruises to Puffin Island, and it was such a gorgeous day we decided to do that instead, although we were informed that the puffins had flown south for the winter. It was very pleasant and a relaxing way to spend an hour. We saw lots of birds (mostly cormorants), and one seal, and a different view of the coast.

Next stop was Caernarfon, to look at the outside of the castle (it was closed – but we planned to only visit one castle in detail, and that is Conwy (pronounced Conway) tomorrow). We had a walk & took some photos of the Castle walls and then found a very nice pub next to the castle on the water where we sat outside and ate slow-cooked Welsh lamb while we watched the sun setting over the water – tough, but someone had to do it.

Thursday, 14th September – York to Conwy (Wales)

Well, I knew I shouldn’t have written that about the weather – we woke today to a very grey, wet, miserable day. I guess it had to happen eventually. However undaunted we set off and had an excellent day.

We started at the York Museum (as opposed to the York Castle Museum, which we went to on Tuesday). This one is more about the history of the York area – and there is plenty of that, dating back to Roman times. It was arranged chronologically, so you journeyed from Roman times through the Vikings & the Norman period, with lots of amazing items found in the local area. There was a special exhibition on Constantine, who has close association with York, as it was here he was appointed emperor.

Alas it was time to leave York, and we headed for the highway. By now it was pouring rain, and the fog had set in, so you really couldn’t see the countryside at all. We drove straight to Chester, near the Welsh border. What a wonderful town to visit. Its streets are lined with many black and white half-timer buildings, hundreds of years old. But the most striking feature is that there are two levels of footpath – one next to the road in the usual place, and a second one above the ground floor shops. Apparently these date from the 14th century originally (though some of them were built in the old style in Victorian times), where the ground level was a storeroom, and the upper level, were the shops. Nowadays there are shops on both levels. You climb up stairs found at irregular intervals and walk along the “rows” (as they are called) just like a regular pavement.

We stopped for a late lunch in a café that was in a heritage-listed building which was built in 1325! We ordered the “Full Afternoon Tea”, a very indulgent but very English meal served on a silver 3-tiered stand, with a tier of finger sandwiches, a tier of fruit scones and a tier of cake. We also had tea “in a silver service made by the cutler to the Queen”. We did share one between us, but it was very yummy and just seemed the right thing to do in such a place.

We strolled along the rows, admiring the old buildings, and were headed for the car when we came across a French Market. We had seen advertising for it, but weren’t sure what makes a market French – turns out it was a genuine French market i.e. run by people from France (some of them barely spoke English), selling French stuff – mostly food – just as you would find in France. It was great, there were tables of spices, dried fruits, cheeses, olives, sausages, breads, fabrics, leather, soaps… Most unexpected in a medieval English town! We had a lovely wander then bought ourselves a delicious picnic for dinner & headed for Wales.

By the way, it did continue to rain all day but while we were wandering around Chester it stopped completely, and then started again once we got back in the car!

We got very worried looking for the B&B – we drove for miles along tiny winding streets (literally one car wide – no idea what you do if you met someone coming the other way) and I was beginning to think I had made a terrible mistake. When we finally arrived it was a caravan park, and I wondered if we could book something else. However past the caravan park is a lovely old, stone, ivy-covered guesthouse with wonderful ambience, decorated in Victorian colours & style, with antique furniture – absolutely gorgeous.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wednesday, 13th September – York

After the frenetic pace of yesterday, we decided to just go to one place today – but still managed to wear ourselves out! We went to Castle Howard, a palatial mansion built in the 1700s. It has been and remains the family home of the Howard family for 13 generations. You might recognize it as the setting for the 1980s TV series “Brideshead Revisited”. We wandered through the house and the extensive gardens. Rather than a guided tour they have helpful guides stationed in every room to describe items and answer any questions, which works really well – you have the benefit of a guide but can still take it at your own pace. It’s a magnificent house (for want of a better word) with grand rooms, beautiful furniture, amazing artworks, a large collection of Roman sculptures… It’s hard to imagine that it is still a home. During the winter when the house is not open to the public they put guests up in the rooms we were looking at today. I’d be too scared to touch anything! (Not likely to be a problem, since I can’t see an invitation coming my way). The house was built originally as a statement of how rich the owner was, and it shows.

The gardens are lovely, with a few lakes (artificial) and fountains, a bridge, lots of trees, a walled rose garden, a big ornamental vegetable garden and lots more sculptures. There’s a mausoleum which was built as the final resting place of the original owner and continues to be used by the Howard family, which is so lovely it prompted Horace Walpole to say it “would tempt one to be buried alive”!

It was another very warm day. I hear it’s been pretty miserable in Sydney, and apparently August in England was very cold and wet, so we have been very fortunate so far. Only trouble is we packed jumpers & coats, and haven’t got to use them yet. This morning it was damp and misty, but it cleared and remained warm all day.

Photos - Update

I am still having trouble uploading photos to this blog, for some reason. I managed to add a couple for the first 2 posts, but now I just keep getting an error message. Meanwhile I have put a link to my "photo album" on the top right hand corner of this page (Under "Our Photos"). The link is But I am currently on wireless network which is quite slow, so more photos will have to wait till I am on a better connection. I have added a few tonight, but it keeps timing out so I am giving up!

Tuesday, 12th September - York

We set off to “do” York today – we walked our feet off, but saw a lot and enjoyed it all. It is a fascinating city with a long history dating to Roman times. York was the Roman centre of administration for the north of England, and also was the Viking Capital a few hundred years later. The Normans had a stronghold here, and it has retained much of its medieval architecture because it had become a forgotten backwater during the industrial revolution

We stopped first at Clifford’s Tower, the only bit remaining of the Norman York Castle. Its major attraction was the excellent views of York, although you had to climb to the top of the walls, a somewhat hair-raising experience, to appreciate them.

Next was the York Castle Museum, a really excellent display of everyday life throughout the ages. It is a huge collection and we didn’t have time to do it justice. There were rooms from different periods of history (e.g. Victorian drawing room, Jacobean dining room), and a whole recreation of a Victorian street which was really well done, complete with sounds of horses & carts, people’s voices and changing from day to night, even a thunderstorm. Sounds cheesy but it was so well done it worked. There was a whole room devoted to the history of cleanliness, with everything from soap to vacuum cleaners to plumbing.

Jorvik is a Disney-style ride through a Viking town. It was cheesy, but still interesting. It is on an authentic Viking site, and the faces of all the life-sized models in the village were based on actual skulls found on the site. They have recently found a collection of skeletons of around 35 men from Roman times and there was a truly fascinating exhibition on the detective work involved in trying to get information from these skeletons. There was a young woman (an archaeologist?) there who was very knowledgeable about the excavation and she was entertaining a group of people with real-life CSI.

From Jorvik we walked through the old streets in the city centre, with names like High Petergate, The Pavement, St Saviourgate (‘gate’ means street in Viking) and The Shambles – narrow lanes with half-timbered shops and upper storey overhangs that look like they come straight out of a Brothers Grimm storybook. The shop interiors are modern, but the streetscape is delightful. The whole city centre is closed to cars so it’s pleasant just to stroll the streets.

Last but very much not least was York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England. It is enormous (they said you could fit an 18-story building inside the central tower). On the recommendation of our guide book, we took binoculars to study the stained glass – and we needed them. We also took a tour of the Undercroft, where they have excavated the remains of previous Roman and Norman buildings on the site, and we saw some of the reinforcement of the foundations of the present structure put in place in the 1970s when the tower was in imminent danger of collapsing. We stayed for Evensong, and enjoyed listening to the organ & choir in such impressive surroundings.

We ate dinner at a Tea Room on the plaza right next to the cathedral, then walked along the ancient city walls which still surround the old city. We strolled along the River Ouse back to our B&B in the balmy evening – and now that I have written all this I understand why we felt a little weary!

Monday, 11th September - Limerick to York

Our last day in Ireland! It has gone so quickly. We were very loathe to leave, we really felt we had barely scratched the surface of experiencing Ireland. At the same time we were pretty tired from moving from place to place, and spending a lot of time in the car, so we were looking forward to a slightly more sedate pace in England.

Given our experience with traffic in Ireland, we took no chances and headed to the airport early. We got there (naturally) with no hold-ups so were the first in the queue for our flight and still had an hour to fill in. But we were pleasantly surprised to find free internet access at the airport, so filled in our time happily. We flew Ryanair – the flight cost €1.99 so we didn’t complain, but it was very cramped on the plane. However the flight was only an hour so it was over soon enough. We touched down in Liverpool and collected our new rental car. A Vauxhall Astra - nothing like as snazzy as our Megane, but adequate.

We drove into Liverpool city so that Keith could pay homage at the Beatles shrines there – the Cavern club where they first performed (actually this one is a replica, the original was bulldozed some years ago, but the new one is still a music venue and has the right feel to it), pubs where the Fab Four used to hang out, numerous Beatles sculptures – some better than others, Beatles memorabilia shops. Keith was dismayed to discover that Brian Epstein’s music store (NEMS) had been demolished in the name of progress! With more time we could have visited John & Paul’s childhood homes, but you can only go there with a tour and we arrived too late (What a pity!).

We drove from Liverpool to York. It was 4-lane motorway all the way, which was a striking contrast to the roads in Ireland, which were virtually all very narrow, winding and congested. It took us a little while to get used to the distances in miles, and we never did see a single speed limit sign on the freeway. We stuck to about 70mph (close to 110km) but were being constantly overtaken. We were glad to have our GPS, which helped us to negotiate some of the trickier large intersections, and brought us all the way to our guest house in good time.

Sunday, 10th September – Killarney to Limerick

Our first rainy day! We abandoned our plans to do a lake cruise, and instead visited Muckross House, a large Victorian House and gardens. We took a guided tour around the house, which took us into the “upstairs” and “downstairs” of this grand house, giving an insight into the days of the English landlords in Ireland. We were interested to see a lot of locally made furniture and other items in the house, including two enormous Waterford Crystal chandeliers. There was a room which Queen Victoria had slept in on a short visit– they completely renovated the house before she came, even putting in a special fire-escape on her room, because she was afraid of fires. The house itself is situated on the edge of the lake, and the setting was beautiful, even in the rain (which was not heavy)

From Muckross, we headed to Listowel, a smallish town famous to Sydney Swans fans as the home of our Irish import Tadgh Kennelly. We had seen the town on a TV documentary about Tadgh, and as it was on our way we thought it would be fun to have a look. Like most Irish towns, it is very charming, with narrow streets, brightly painted houses, and old world shops. We were disappointed not to see any Swans posters or flags though! We had lunch in a pub (seafood chowder) and then spent an hour in an internet café.

On our way out of town we heard lots of car horns tooting, and saw a parade of cars with small boys hanging out of every window, wearing the County Kerry Gaelic football jerseys. We assumed that they had just won their final (they looked like under-12’s, and the whole town was cheering for them. They must have been breaking a dozen road rules (it wasn’t an official parade, just Mums and Dads hooning around with their kids sitting on the windowsills), but no-one seemed the least bit worried.

From Listowel we headed for Limerick, but at the last minute decided we could squeeze in a visit to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s natural wonders. Getting there involved taking a car ferry across the Shannon River, which was fun (by the way, the rain had well and truly stopped by this point) and a couple of hours of driving, so we didn’t arrive until 5.30pm. But it is light until after 8 still, so we still had a good view. The cliffs are a series of dramatic vertical drops to the Atlantic Ocean, over 200m high. We were glad we went, it was really something to see. Although I (Shelley) was a bit traumatized by the numbers of people climbing over the fence to thrill-seek close to the edge. Considering the gusty wind, and loose soil I didn’t think it was a very good idea, but no-one else seemed to be bothered by it.

Our detour made us quite late getting to Limerick. Limerick turned out to be a large city and we got quite lost finding our B&B (in our defense, the directions we had been given were very inadequate). Eventually we rang our hostess for directions and she had to drive down to meet us so we could follow her back to the house. How embarrassing! But the room was warm and the bed was comfortable, so we were happy to be there.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Saturday, 9th September – Killarney

Today we explored the Dingle Peninsula, the most westerly point of Ireland, and in fact Europe. It was a fascinating drive, first to Inch Strand (where scenes from the film Ryan’s daughter were filmed – for those of you old enough to remember), and then along the coast to a town called Dingle (An Daingean in Irish), a pretty fishing village with a sheltered harbour, and rows of brightly painted shops & cottages.

The whole area is ridiculously beautiful – picture postcard scenery around every bend. Dramatic coastlines, rolling green hills with their patchwork of hedgerows and stone fences, white-washed cottages - and lots of sheep.

It is also littered with important archaeological sights from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. We visited an Iron age Fort, perched dramatically on the edge of a cliff, a 1300-year old stone church, so-called “beehive huts” – collections of circular stone cottages surrounded by protective stone walls, dating from the early Christian period, a 12th century Irish Romanesque church built by the English to try to replace the monastic settlements.

The other interesting aspect of the Dingle Peninsula is that it is Gaeltacht – an area which is primarily (and somewhat militantly) Gaelic speaking. There is a strong movement to preserve the native language, and most signs are written in Gaelic. We visited a small museum dedicated to preserving and explaining the importance and the history of the language.

When we got back to Killarney in the evening we did an Irish pub crawl to hear some traditional music. Saturday night is not a good night for live music apparently, as it seems most pubs have DJs that night, trying to appeal to the young people (of which there were lots on the streets). We walked for several blocks – the streets were full of people out for a good time, and there were many restaurants and pubs, some very classy. Eventually we found one pub with a group of old guys (and one girl) playing accordions and fiddles around a table – very authentic; and another place had a guitarist and singer with a very nice voice doing a mixture of modern pop and Irish folk. There is no smoking in any pub in Ireland, which makes for a much more pleasant atmosphere – and also makes pubs easy to spot from a distance, by the groups of smokers standing outside.

But the highlight of the day was frequent sms messages from Rob with progress scores on the Swans game (Qualifying Final against West Coast) which the Swans won by 1 point! Go Swannies!!

Friday, 8th September – Kilkenny to Killarney

After our traffic experiences of yesterday we headed off early without seeing much of Kilkenny itself (the phrase “we’ll have to spend more time here next time” is heard often!). We stopped off at a huge shop, which was supermarket & department store all in one. Absolutely enormous, and quite incongruous amongst the medieval streets and quaint little shops – we stocked up on some picnic food (including bananas!!).

Our destination was the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland’s most historic & evocative sites. On a rocky hilltop rising high above the surrounding plains, it was an ancient home of the local tribal kings until one of them gave it to the church in 1101. It is apparently the place where St Patrick baptized the Irish King Aegus in around 450. Cashel became an important ecclesiastical centre, in use until the mid 1700s. The youngest building on the rock dates from the early 1400s. There is a round tower built in 1101, a chapel which was consecrated in 1134, and a large cathedral built between 1230 & 1290. We thoroughly enjoyed wandering among these ruined yet still impressive buildings, imagining the bare stone walls decorated with frescoes and filled with music and life.

Having lingered at Cashel a little longer then we expected, we headed to Killarney, our next port of call. We are staying just outside of town, near Ross Castle (there are castles at every turn in Ireland), so we went down to have a look at the Castle (the outside of it) and the lake which it overlooks, and watched the sun set. It was so picturesque we decided on the spot to change our plans and stay to do a lake cruise on Sunday rather than head north directly (assuming the weather holds)

We have had, so far, the most fantastic weather – warm, mostly sunny, about 4 drops of rain and they have been before breakfast or after dark. Not what we were expecting at all.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Thursday, 7th September – Dublin to Kilkenny

We left Dublin a bit reluctantly, thinking we could have spent longer there. Although the fact that it took us 2 hours to get out of the city in the traffic made us look forward to being in the country! I promised myself I wouldn’t discuss traffic in this blog, but in Ireland it’s a big issue. Even in the small towns we are often held up for 20-30 minutes in a traffic gridlock. It’s a big issue facing the country. The economy is very strong, the population is growing, and there are just too many cars for a very old road system – they are addressing that – there are roadworks everywhere you go, but in the short term that only adds to the congestion.

On the way out of Dublin we drove through Phoenix Park, a huge park in the edge of the city centre. Along with the President’s residence, the US Embassy, and Dublin Zoo, the park is also home to a huge herd of deer. We spotted a large group of them resting in the sun and I (Shelley) had to get a photo. Keith got very nervous as he waited in the car worrying about me getting stampeded, but I was more concerned they would run away before I got a good photo (they didn’t). We also drove along the Grand Canal, which was very picturesque in the sunshine (yes, sunshine – I know we’re in Ireland, but up till now we have had fabulous weather – unseasonably warm, cloudy at times but sometimes clear blue cloudless sky).

Our main destination for the day was Glendalough, the site of an early monastic settlement founded by St Kevin in the 7th century. Most of the buildings date from the 11th & 12th century, and we enjoyed wandering around the ruins. We were surprised to discover it is still in use today as a cemetery, so there were gravestones everywhere, some brand new, some hundreds of years old, some so worn you couldn’t see the inscription at all. You had no choice but to wander amongst them – one was even in the middle of the path. The site was very picturesque, set in a steep wooded valley. There was an exhibition detailing the life in these monastic settlements which flourished in Ireland & Europe during the so-called “Age of Saints & Scholars”.

Leaving Glendalough we passed through the “Wicklow Gap”, a passage across the mountains which afforded superb views in both directions along the valley. We didn’t know it was there, we only stopped because we saw a few people with cameras so we pulled over. We were taken aback by the beauty of the view, more so because it was so unexpected. Probably the highlight of our day in the end.

We arrived in Kilkenny, a pretty medieval town, and headed for a traditional Irish pub, where we ate Irish Stew and Beef & Guinness Casserole and listened to live traditional Irish music.

Wednesday 6th September – Dublin

After our first “full Irish breakfast” of the trip we drove north to visit Brú na Bóinne, famous for its ancient burial mounds, particularly Newgrange and Knowth. These tombs are older than the pyramids of Egypt, dating from 3200 BC. Not much is known about the Stone Age people who built them, but they are a marvel of architecture, engineering, geology, art and astronomy. You can walk right into the centre of Newgrange along a narrow stone passage – it is pitch black but on December 21st each year a shaft of sunlight enters through a perfectly aligned portal above the door. It was spine-tingling to be standing inside structures that date from the earliest years of civilization. The corbelled ceiling over the chamber was built from huge overlapping stone slabs without any cement and has survived for 5000 years, and even in Irish weather not a drop of water has entered in all this time!

We spent the afternoon and evening just wandering around the busy Dublin streets. We visited Trinity College which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, and its main attraction, the Book of Kells, an elaborately decorated copy of the four gospels dating from the 800s. They would be beautiful whenever they were created but the fact that they are so old made it all the more impressive. There was an interesting display about the techniques and materials used by the monks. Next a stairway leads upstairs to the Long Room, a 200’ long chamber of the old library dating from 1732, which contains 200,000 of the library’s oldest books stacked to its towering ceiling – an incredible room – you just wanted to sit and absorb the history and smell the old books. Sadly no photographs. L

Tuesday, 5th September – Dublin

By the time we collected our rental car (a Renault Megane – very nice car) and found the B&B (a slight challenge as we didn’t have a map) it was about 10.30am, and we were pretty tired. I had arranged to leave our bags there but fortunately when we arrived our room was ready. We were very glad of the chance to freshen up & have a cup of tea.

We hopped on the bus to town (we are a little bit out of the city but on a major bus route – very convenient). We decided the best way to orient ourselves was to take a “Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour”, on an open topped double-decker bus. It was a great way to see a lot in a short time. Our impression of Dublin is of an elegant city with lots of beautiful buildings which all need a good scrub. It’s incredibly busy – the traffic is appalling and the city streets are crowded all the time. There are lots of trees, and a couple of really lovely city parks, wonderful Georgian buildings, statues everywhere (they know how to honour their heroes), and amazing flower baskets and window boxes with the most fantastic colourful displays.

We hopped off the bus first at Merrion Square, famous for its Georgian terraces with colourful doors, surrounding a park. We had a stroll, and took lots of photos of doors, finishing up at “Number 29”, one of the houses which has been restored to its former state and is a fascinating window on Georgian family life.

Our second stop was at Old Kilmainham Gaol, which has seen thousands of prisoners since 1796, but the last ones were the leaders of the Easter rising in 1916, which was the start of the modern independence of the Irish Republic. These men were all executed by the British, and are now revered patriots. We saw the cells they were held in and the simple black cross that marks the spot they were executed. Our guide, Donal, was excellent, really made it all come to life. It was well worth visiting, and helps to understand the modern history of Ireland.

After the tour we caught up with our friend from Sydney, Lois Hagger, who is living in Dublin. We had a guided tour of where she works at the Irish Church Mission and then she took us to a great Spanish restaurant in a converted market hall - great food at a great price. After dinner our tiredness finally caught up with us and we were tucked up in by 9:30.

Monday, 4th September – Leaving on a Jet Plane

The flight was fairly painless – in as much as sitting in a sardine can for 27 hours can be considered painless! But I do think it is a cruel joke that they make us walk on the plane via first & business class so that we can look enviously at the mansion-sized spaces the privileged few get. We slept pretty well, but which ever way you look at it, it’s a long night.

I had a gentleman sitting next to me who was recommending places to see in Italy – he was so passionate & descriptive about how much he loved Venice & Florence, it gave me goosebumps.

We were worried about the extra security measures, but it all went very smoothly and efficiently. We had to take our shoes off, and I saw a few people being “patted down”, but we must have looked innocent because we were spared that indignity! On arrival in Dublin, we chose to follow the “green” line (ie nothing to declare) and it took us straight out the door, with no checks at all.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

This is where we are going

This is where we plan to travel, using planes, trains and automobiles to get from place to place. I know it's a bit hard to see, but if you click on the map you get a bigger version of it.

We are starting in Dublin, & spending 6 days in Ireland. Then we fly to Liverpool, and spend 13 days in the English countryside, followed by 10 days in London. We fly from London to Bergerac in southwest France, and spend 8 days in rural France, visiting the Dordogne, the Loire Valley & Normandy. Then after 6 days in Paris we fly to Venice, where we will stay 5 days, followed by 4 days in Florence, 2 days in Siena and 4 days in Rome. From Rome we fly home.