England and Scotland
Trip Start Apr 24, 2002
4Trip End Jun 08, 2002
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Where I stayed
Our room wasn't ready so we sat in reception and talked to an American lady named Barbara and her son Tony
I hadn't done much planning on what we would do in London, relying instead on two books of recommended walks to fill in the time. We decided to walk down to Buckingham Palace and then through Green Park. Margaret's feet were more swollen than ever and blisters had formed on her toes. Her flu had been joined by a nagging headache but she refused to let her afflictions slow her down. I'm sure I would have been curled up in bed if I had felt as bad as she did.
Walking down Piccadilly we were tempted by the fabulously expensive diamonds, watches and waistcoats sold in the little shops in Burlington Arcade. We saw a besuited salesman smoking a cigarette outside the door of his shop, an exhibition judged by a passing woman as beyond the pale as it "lowered the tone of the arcade"
We dined at The Country Pub in London, just around the corner from our hotel. My bangers and mash was OK but we were not particularly impressed with the pub. Our plan to decide the next day's activities over a pint of beer was dashed when Tony walked in and sat down beside us. He proceeded to harangue us about the evils of gun control, immigration, freedom of speech, etc. in the United States. He was not a liberal!
DAY 2 THU We had our first of many English breakfasts this morning. Over the coming weeks we lost our enthusiasm for eggs, bacon, sausages and, sometimes, baked beans. English/Scottish/Irish breakfasts were basically the same and were almost always undercooked. Margaret persevered longer than I did but only because she began asking that the various components be cooked so that they were crispy rather than pink and floppy. Several of our hosts admitted than the English, Scottish and Irish rarely ate the breakfasts we suffered.
This morning we caught the train to Bank Station to begin a self-guided tour recommended by one of my guidebooks. We weren't terribly excited by the Royal Exchange, Bank of England or the Stock Exchange but things started to become more interesting when we reached Ye Olde Watling pub (Christopher Wren's office when he was building St Paul's) and Bow Lane. St Mary-Le Bow church was rather plain on the outside but, being High Church of England, very colourful on the inside
After walking through what the guidebook described as London's famous and ancient meat markets we lunched at the Bishop's Finger pub where we met a girl from New Zealand and her Australian boyfriend. Coincidentally, the latter had lived in Eastwood for a while. After a pause for meditation at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we strolled past the Old Bailey. The street in front of the Criminal Court was crowded with TV cameras and neatly dressed anchormen and women waiting for a verdict in the trial of two teenage boys accused of juking a ten year old black kid to death. They were found innocent, much to the disgust of the tabloids and TV commentators who couldn't stop fulminating about the result for several weeks.
We ended the tour at St Paul's Cathedral but, as in 1997, couldn't bring ourselves to pay the $35 required to go inside. Margaret wasn't sorry to be missing a tour of one of God's most famous houses; she was more interested in walking down Oxford Street, home to some of London's largest department stores. Before we did that we had to find a WC. We have always admired England's signposting, with the notable exception of directions to toilets. With increasing urgency we followed one sign after another, up the street then back down again until we stumbled upon the conveniences
Selfridges and Debenhams were like huge David Jones stores. I could have spent a fortune in both places had there been anything in either of the slightest interest. A pleasant bus ride took us back to Victoria in time to partake of our pints of lager and plates of fish and chips at the Royal George Tavern. Margaret's feet were very sore so we decided to leave the Jack the Ripper walking tour for another night.
DAY 3 FRI Margaret had wanted to visit a London market, so we took a bus to Covent Garden. We must have arrived pretty early as there were few people about and many of the little shops were not open. As we walked around we came upon a large inflated plastic block containing two men playing a trombone and trumpet while dancing wildly. If I remember correctly there was no sound issuing from their instruments, which made for an even more bizarre exhibition. When next we passed the block the men had been replaced by a go-go girl who shimmied energetically to music only she could hear.
Covent Garden was made up of several floors of small shops as well as a more traditional market at the rear. We skipped the shops and explored the market, which was a big disappointment as most of the stalls sold the usual tourist junk
From Covent Garden we walked down to the Victoria Embankment. The gardens at the beginning of the walk were full of tulips and other bright flowers and beautifully laid out. Unfortunately the gardens gave way to a rather bleak path running alongside the Thames. While yesterday had been sunny and hot, today there was continuos drizzle and our warm clothes couldn't protect our ears from the cold. Shortly before concluding our walk (yet another self-guided walking tour from my book) we came upon a memorial to the great fire of London, which had been erected at the site where the fire was said to have started.
On our way back we walked around Westminster and then through the park behind it so that we could revisit the statue of Emily Pankhurst and the Burghers of Calais. From there we crossed the road and took a leisurely stroll through Green Park. Margaret's feet were bothering her so she returned to the hotel, leaving me to walk to Piccadilly Circus and its HMV, Tower and Virgin Megastores. I returned to our hotel some time later and stood underneath our window coughing loudly
We didn't go to the pub for dinner as I was planning to go on the Jack the Ripper walking tour later in the evening. Instead we walked up the street to the local shopping centre and bought a couple of warm meat pies. Most unpleasant. I left Margaret watching something bad on TV and walked to Victoria Station to catch the train to Tower Hill. Rather stupidly I picked the right line but the wrong direction and had to get off at Sloane Square and catch a train going the opposite way. The train shuddered to a stop every few minutes due to a signal failure and it became obvious that I would never reach Tower Hill by the time the Ripper tour was due to depart. When I finally arrived at 7.45 I found that the tour had just started. I attached myself to the tail of the large crowd and we followed the tour leader through the back streets. It didn't take me long to realise that the tour was not for me. I'd heard the story before and, to make matters worse, the tour leader would stop, gather the people around him and announce that we were standing in front of the house where the first, second or third murder had taken place. Unfortunately the houses had been torn down and replaced by a supermarkets or blocks of flats. I hadn't paid yet and was able to surreptitiously ease myself out of the group and slink down a side street
For the first and last time during our seven-week holiday we went a whole day without imbibing a single beer!
DAY 4 SAT Margaret and I are very impressed with London's public toilets which are manned by dedicated attendants and kept sparkling clean. If only their WC direction signs were less ambiguous.
It wasn't as far to Harrods as I had feared, though Margaret's feet began to give her trouble within a few blocks of the hotel. It was with great anticipation and excitement (ha!) that we crossed the portals of that great shop. Before we entered we obliged two groups of Americans by taking their photos in front of the main entrance. They were on a treasure hunt, which required them to have their picture taken in front of Harrods and to cadge a foreign coin from a passerby. We gave one of the ladies an Australian five-cent piece (worth less than two pence) which pleased her enormously.
The only part of Harrods I found interesting was the Food Hall, filled as it was with artistically arranged and highly exotic foodstuffs
We walked right across Hyde Park and sat by the Serpentine devouring hot dogs and watching the ducks leading the life of Riley. Rather than walk home we caught a bus from Marble Arch back to Victoria. The driver must have been a learner as the double decker shuddered and jarred its way all the way to the terminus.
In the evening we walked to Westminster Cathedral. After a pint of Peculiar Ale I left Margaret to attend evening prayer while I conducted a lightning tour of three bookshops. The beer had its normal effect and I was forced to interrupt my explorations twice, once to find a WC in the Army and Navy department store and then, just before Mass, in a nearby McDonalds . The Mass turned out to be a high one, with lots of incense and singing. The homily was about paedophilia, for which the Westminster diocese was really sorry.
On our way back we escaped the rain by indulging in a large plate of fish and chips (only $18 each) and more beer at our favorite pub.
DAY 5 SUN The taxi ride to Marble Arch was a lot shorter than I had expected. The Hertz people were quite pleasant and we were pleased to find that our car, a Toyota Avensis, was much larger than the Astra we had expected. Even better, it was air-conditioned. Even better again, it was equipped with SNS (Satellite Navigation System) as well as a traffic avoidance system. I threw away my route planner and placed myself in the non-existent hands of the husky voiced woman on the radio.
The computer lady, whom we came to call Helen, had an uncanny ability to know exactly where we were and where our next turn should be. On that first morning we didn't trust her completely and, when she told us to turn left down a tiny lane, we assumed that she must mean that we turn left at the next major intersection. Helen meant exactly what she said, however, and she was forced to keep recalculating our route in an attempt to get us out of London. As a result of our lack of faith we ended up driving through parts of London we never knew existed.
Disaster struck when the computer directed us to deviate left into a road which had been closed by the police. We demurred and Helen, with a touch of irritation in her voice, ordered us to drive for half a mile then turn right. It soon became clear that she was going to insist that we take the closed road regardless of the police car blocking it off. We turned right as instructed and entered a narrow road. Margaret failed to slow down sufficiently to avoid the kerb when we unexpectedly encountered one of those road-narrowing devices and we hit it with a resounding bang. I reckoned that everything was OK as it didn't sound as though the body of the car had been damaged. Once back on the main road we noticed people pointing to our front tyre and smiling. What was so funny? A flat tyre in peak hour traffic on a main road, of course. I managed to pull over onto the pavement and change it without too much trauma, though I hated being the focus of attention of hundreds of passing commuters.
Back on the road again we studiously ignored the nagging of the computer and followed my road map out of the suburbs. Hours behind schedule we finally drove into Cambridge, parking on the far side of town. A pair of friendly young students suggested that the best way to reach the main street was via the rear entrance of one of the colleges. They assured us that the ticket booths at the back were usually unmanned by late afternoon, however they were incorrect. We parted with four pounds and walked through the rather uninteresting grounds of Clare College to the main street. After a rather brief exploration we returned to the car by a more direct route. Neither of us were all that impressed with Cambridge which was surprising as I had found it quite interesting five years earlier.
Finding a bed and breakfast in Ely was not as easy as I had expected. We eventually stumbled upon Walnut Lodge, part of a nice house on the edge of town. A short walk took us to Ely Cathedral. The weather was very brisk indeed and we were soon wishing we had worn jumpers. By the time we reached the cathedral we were wishing that we had brought our umbrellas as well. The cathedral appeared to be closed and a couple of other visitors were beginning to walk away when Margaret gave the front door a determined push. It opened to reveal a nave crawling with several tourists. If you would like a detailed description of Ely Cathedral you will have to go elsewhere as I only remember that it had impressively high ceilings.
The first pub we visited was no longer serving meals so we tried a wine bar across the road. The kitchen there had also closed but the kindly barman arranged for it to be reopened so that we could be served a lamb shank roast dinner (Margaret later reckoned that it was leftovers warmed up in a microwave). Once again we had found that the English could be extremely friendly and hospitable.
DAY 6 MON First thing in the morning I drove the car around to Ely Tyre Repairs. Our flat tyre proved to be completely broken and I was forced to fork over $240 for a brand new one. I decided that I wouldn't make a big point of this just in case I did something similar over the next few weeks.
I set Helen to take us to 3 Scarcroft Road, York but didn't press the activate button as I reckoned I could reach Stamford the old fashioned way (i.e. a road map). Stamford was a picturesque medieval town with narrow, cobbled streets and many old churches and pubs. Stamford Museum was free and quite interesting, especially its exhibition of really old gardening tools. The main feature of the museum was its section on Dan Lambert, a fifty-two stone behemoth who had died in the town a couple of centuries ago. Visitors could measure themselves against silhouettes of Dan and his even more famous pal Tom Thumb. The latter used to crawl through the former's coat sleeve as a sideshow trick.
Margaret took over driving from this point on and we were guided unerringly towards York by our friendly guidance system. Along the way we remarked upon the endless fields of startlingly yellow plants which certainly hadn't been there in 1997. We later learned that these crops were rape (which Margaret believes is another name for canola).
Helen proved to be remarkably clever, guiding us through the backstreets of York and bringing us right to the front door of the Dairy Farm Guesthouse. After a brief chat with our hostess we walked down a road which ran along the old city wall, crossed the bridge and entered the city. The weather became progressively worse as we explored the old town centre. The powerful wind almost blew us through the front doors of York Minster, the largest gothic church this side of the Alps. Almost every time we visited a church in England we experienced a musical performance of some sort. On this occasion, it was the choristers of the Minster singing obscure hymns in angelic voices.
After a never to be repeated cheap dinner of fish and chips ($12 for two!) and the usual pints we wove our way along the riverbank and across the bridge to our very comfortable little guest house.
DAY 7 TUE Each bed and breakfast presents us with a new shower mechanism. At the Dairy Farm we have found the best yet. There are no taps to turn, instead one gets into the bath, pulls a string, then turns dials on a box high on the wall. I didn't know the purpose of the dials but by turning them to various settings I was able to get a strong and hot shower. Margaret was too short to reach the dials so I had to do if for her while at the same time avoiding the spray.
At around ten we joined a small group for a free tour of the city. Who could ask for better value for money? A very nice volunteer led us to places, which we would never have found on our own and, even if we had, would have meant very little to us. After examining the ruins of St Mary's Abbey we climbed to the city walls via Bootham Bar (gate) and walked along the wall for some distance. With the advantage of height we had an excellent view of the Minster and the gardens of the houses which backed onto the wall. In England even the weeds are flowers! Tulips grew wild in backyards. The lawns were all mown and neatly edged. We descended to Goodramgate Street via Monk Bar and followed our guide to King's Manor, once inhabited by Henry VIII and later by Charles I.
We were intrigued by Holy Trinity Church, a seldom used building containing boxed wooden pews once rented by the more well off parishioners. Those less wealthy stood at the back of the church. A little further along we entered the home of St Margaret Clitheroe, a Catholic lady who was pressed to death for hiding Jesuit priests during the Reformation.
A walk through the Shambles (a narrow lane once home to thirty or more butchers) completed the tour and we were left to our own devices. Our guide refused any tips or offers of tea or coffee, insisting that his reward was our appreciation of his beautiful and historic city. After a brief period spent exploring some rather interesting shops we walked to Clifford's Tower, built by Henry III in 1244 on the site of a Jewish massacre. I left Margaret resting in our room and nursing her cold and retraced my steps back into town in search of a souvenir book on the city.
Later in the afternoon we returned once again to the city centre in search of a pub dinner. Neither of the pubs we tried had food available and we ended up eating at an Italian restaurant. Margaret had fusili while I, ever adventurous, chose faggots and pease pie. Let no one tell you that faggots aren't filling! Translated into plain English, my meal was a large plate of meatballs and peas.
DAY 8 WED We left York early, trusting our fate to Helen. Our journey took us across the Yorkshire Moors, a very surreal landscape of desolate, rolling hills covered in sparse brown bushes. I almost felt that we were driving through a country ravaged by nuclear war.
Somewhere along our route we stopped to view the Hole of Horum. I have no idea what it was, though it looked like a giant meteor crater. Not far out of York we decided to make a short detour to Castle Howard. We were not keen to pay the exorbitant entry fee and hoped that we would be able to see the famous fašade from the main gates. Alas, the builder had cunningly erected a tall wall around the property, which concealed the castle from view.
Robin Hood's Bay was like a poor man's Clovelly, but at least entry was free. We strode down the steep cobbled main lane to the bottom of the village and walked along the rocky beach for a short distance. All of the little shops were closed, perhaps due to a dearth of tourists. Rather than return to our car by the main street we struggled up a cliffside path to the Victoria Hotel where we shared a ploughman's lunch.
I had planned to visit Whitby , a much larger version of Robin Hood's Bay but we elected to continue on to Durham without delay. Helen was very helpful, directing us in tones of absolute confidence to the building where the Durham Tourist Office had been a few months earlier. Once we located the new office we booked accommodation at 37 Nevillecross Lane, a street which was not on our map and not even Helen had ever heard of it. I later learned that Neville Cross was the site where the invading Scots had been defeated by the local Archbishop back in 1328. I bet that none of its inhabitants knew that particular historical fact!
It was late afternoon before we were ready to explore Durham. We exited by the front door and ambled down a tree-lined footpath which ran beside the living rooms of the little row of houses. Privacy isn't as important to the English as we have been led to believe and we were able to stare directly into people's uncurtained lounge rooms as we passed.
Durham Castle was closed to the public by the time we reached it. It is now part of Durham University and we had arrived at student feeding time. While we were peering through the main gate a silver haired gentleman stopped to chat. He expressed his regrets that, though he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the university, he could not risk the wrath of the canteen manager by letting us in (though he would dearly have loved to give us a guided tour). We strolled with him across the common to Durham Cathedral while he described some of the interesting things we would find inside. A jolly nice chap! The church was pretty impressive too.
Some time later we found sustenance in a pub where we tried leek sausages for the first time. We shared our table with a middle-aged lady who was in Durham working on her doctorate (something to do with the spirituality of dancing). She and Margaret discussed heavy matters having to do with the spiritual implications of the labyrinth and/or the labyrinth as a metaphor for one's journey through life while I sipped my beer and gazed glumly at passing maidens.
DAY 9 THU We were ready for action an hour before breakfast was due so we walked down the street, around the corner and up a steep path, which ran alongside the local school's playing fields. Along the way we marveled at the myriad tiny birds which flittered from bush to bush and twittered musically. Needless to say, none of them spoke budgie.
Our fellow resident at the breakfast table was a German lady who spoke very little English. Her total incomprehension of our conversation was a little awkward, though our hosts, Brian and Lorna, would occasionally direct a very carefully enunciated question her way. We were not much better off than the frau as the conversation was decidedly one sided, with Lorna making determined attempts to interrupt her husband's monologue, usually without success. We learned that Brian was a retired policeman of Celtic origin who wasn't fond of the queen and who had travelled to New Zealand to visit their son and then spent several days in Sydney where they walked through Kings Cross which they thought pretty tame, etc., etc.
We dragged ourselves away a lot later than we had hoped, setting Helen to take us to Edinburgh. Once out of the suburbs we found ourselves driving through the Northumberland National Park, reminiscent in many ways of the Yorkshire Moors. We missed the turnoff to Hadrian's Wall, mainly because my mind was focussed on getting to Edinburgh. Many miles along we came to a road leading back to the wall. We took it, even though it meant a round trip of thirty-four miles. The road ended at Chesters Fort, a Roman cavalry barracks built beside Hadrian's Wall. I was a little disappointed to find that the fort was not a small castle as I had expected but rather a group of fenced of ruins. Margaret took a photo of what we hoped was a section of the wall but probably wasn't and I tried to dislodge a stone but failed (a good thing as there wasn't much wall left).
Not long after returning to the main road, we arrived at the England/Scotland border. Margaret gave detailed instructions to a couple of young boys whom she had persuaded to take our picture beneath the Scotland sign. They looked at each other with incomprehension and we realised that they were not children of the Empire. Once their father had interpreted Margaret's wishes for them they smiled winningly and took quite a good shot.
Our accommodation, the Seahaven Hotel, was on the edge of the Firth of Forth in the rather seedy Edinburgh suburb of Joppa. The Seahaven website had promised a sumptuous suite just yards from the sea, not the tiny garret overlooking the backyards of a row of gloomy terrace houses which greeted us. Our journey to this point had been under blue skies, but within minutes of our arrival storm clouds gathered and rain threatened. We narrowly escaped being drenched when we crossed the road to the seaside and walked briefly on the rather dismal beach. I was tempted to don my Speedos and plunge into the icy waters but was dissuaded by Margaret, who thought that I might frighten the locals.
DAY 10 FRI This morning, as we slowly digested our egg, bacon, baked bean and fat-soaked toast under a giant screen on which footballers ran up and down a field, I resolved never again to ask for an English breakfast.
At a bus stop a hundred yards down the street we boarded a No. 26 double-decker bus bound for the city centre. We soon realised that our hotel was not located in the most desirable part of Edinburgh. Mind you, Edinburgh itself was not as attractive as we had expected until we reached the Royal Mile. We alighted at the Mound and walked up the hill to the castle. Edinburgh Castle was very imposing, perched on top of a hill like a land bound barnacle. The cobbled path was hell on Margaret's aching feet but she rather stoically refused to allow me to piggy back her to the summit. Once inside we bought a guide and began to wend our way to the top. Never before had we encountered such a concentration of souvenir shops. We visited them all.
At a quarter to eleven we walked back down to the entrance to join the crowds waiting for an unexpected spectacle. The band of the Royal Scots Regiment, bagpipes skirling to the rousingly patriotic "Scotland the Brave", led a battalion of troops up the Royal Mile to return their colours to the castle. We stood next to the proud mother of one of the pipers who was hoping that the band would come to a halt in front of us (which it didn't). I embarrassed myself by informing her that the tune the band was playing was "My Bonnie Lassie". Semi-pacifist though I may be I am always excited by military stuff and this was especially stirring. The first company stamped to a halt directly in front of us and proceeded to perform some pretty impressive drill moves. We were surprised at the youth of the soldiers and their lack of height; they looked like thirteen-year-olds who were short for their age. Nonetheless I felt proud to be a Scotsman. I became most indignant when a group of foreign girls, probably German, laughed at the youthful heroes as they stared fixedly ahead. A stupid foreign matron, probably German, chattered endlessly and loudly to her husband, detracting from the solemn atmosphere and reducing my pleasure.
Having visited all the souvenir shops, explored all the historic buildings (including the Royal Scots Museum where I paid big money to have a machine stamp the regimental symbol on a penny) and indulged ourselves in coffee and pastries, we joined the crowds to watch the ceremonial firing of the One O'clock Gun. As the name suggests, this is a 25 pounder which is fired at one o'clock every afternoon except on Sundays and during Advent. I aimed my camera at the gun with the intention of pressing the button at the very moment it fired. The bang was so loud and startling that I took a picture of the sky instead.
Once out of the castle we walked the entire length of the Royal Mile. A guide at the castle had told us that the Royal Mile was exactly one mile long and it certainly felt like it, even if it was all down hill. At the bottom we entered the grounds of Holyrood palace, or would have if it hadn't been for the thirty four-dollar entry fee (for both of us). Crossing the road we found ourselves at the base of two very tall hills. I was determined to climb the higher hill to Arthur's Seat with its stunning view of the city and the sea. Margaret took one look at the steep path and elected to walk back to Princes Street and do some shopping while I set off happily along what Lonely Planet described as an easy path to the top.
It soon became obvious that if I kept to the path it would take me three days to reach my goal. Setting my pack as comfortably as possible on my back I abandoned the path and began to climb up the side of the hill. Half way up I began to follow a middle-aged woman and her German Shepherd, both of whom seemed to know where they were going. I eventually caught up to them, mainly because they had stopped. We had a long, rather one-sided conversation during which she told me that she had made the climb every day for the last five years so that she could feed the crows. While she spoke large numbers of these rather scary looking birds settled around us, waiting patiently for their dinner. She told me that my fingers must be radiating the right infra red rays as the crows had apparently decided that they liked me.
After twenty minutes I managed to tell her that I had only half an hour in which to reach Arthur's Seat and return to Princes Street to meet Margaret. She informed me that I would be very luck to do so as I was climbing the wrong hill. Arthur's Seat was across the valley and at the top of what could almost be described as a snow capped mountain. I was going to have to be content with climbing to Scarborough Gap, a few hundred feet further up the hill. I couldn't really complain as the views over the city in all directions were breathtaking.
I returned to the Royal Mile with little idea of how to find Princes Street. By pure chance I found it and reached our meeting point, the Walter Scott Memorial, exactly on time. Margaret arrived five minutes later, though we didn't meet for another fifteen minutes as we were waiting for one another on opposite sides of the memorial.
Later in the afternoon we dined at a pub in Rose Street which was pleasant enough until they turned on the music, a loud and raucous cacophony of hard rock which would have been much improved by the addition of bagpipes. I daringly ordered haggis and neeps (parsnips) while a less adventurous Margaret settled on carrot and coriander soup. The haggis was quite flavoursome and not the least bit revolting, though the neeps were a little bland.
DAY 11 SAT We weren't at all sorry to leave Edinburgh. The Seahaven Hotel and, indeed, the suburb of Joppa, were not of the standard to which we had become accustomed. The hotel's website boasted that it was only a hundred yards from the ocean and we had crossed the road to the sandy beach yesterday. It was hardly Bondi.
Our faithful navigation system led us out of the city and all the way to Stirling Castle. Even after paying two pounds to park outside the gates I couldn't bring myself to pay the entry fee to tour the place. Instead we turned around drove a few miles to the William Wallace Memorial. I was determined to climb to the top of the edifice and after puffing my way up the long, steep path to the foot of the memorial I left Margaret to wait for me at the bottom. I climbed the three hundred steps two at a time like a twenty-year-old. The descent was more demanding as the steps wound around and around in a very tight spiral. Emerging from the exit I reeled over to Margaret and collapsed beside her.
Back at the parking lot I set Helen to take us to Tarbet. Unfortunately I had selected the wrong Tarbet and Helen became totally confused. I soon realised my error and we were on our way, Margaret driving while Helen and I navigated. The lowlands of Scotland were rather charmless, though we drove for some distance along a very narrow country road, which we both enjoyed.
The A82 wound its way tightly along the banks of Loch Lomond. The loch was just as I had imagined it would be, a shimmering body of water enclosed by towering hills which, by dint of their bleak majesty, had earned the right to be described as mountains. We reached Tarbet, a rather nondescript village, in the early afternoon and lunched on sandwiches at the local hotel. By the time we had finished the day had grown old and we hurried on, anxious to reach Fort William before the tourist office closed. We were in such a hurry that we scarcely slowed as we drove through Glencoe, site of a famous massacre back in the olden days.
The miles raced by and the mountains grew higher until they became snow-capped. The vegetation became ever more sparse, reminding me of our own Snowy Mountains. I had expected traffic to diminish the further north we travelled; instead it became more concentrated. At each parking area along the road we saw dozens of parked cars, their occupants having temporarily abandoned them in order to hike up the mountain trails.
The number of B&Bs along the road exhibiting 'No Vacancy' signs increasingly concerned us. We knew by now that this was a long weekend in Britain, what we didn't know was that this was the week of the annual motor bike trials. By the time we reached Fort William I was feeling a little stressed. We had a difficult time finding a parking spot in town and at one point drove into a pedestrian plaza by mistake. Fortunately for us we weren't the last tourists to arrive and we managed to procure a very nice room in a B&B on the side of the hill one block up from the main street.
Where was Ben Nevis? I had thought that Fort William was at the base of the mountain and that we would be able to gaze upon its slopes from our window. By the time we had retired for the night we had still not seen the highest mountain in Britain.
DAY 12 SUN At breakfast this morning our hosts described in great detail their experiences while refurbishing their B&B, with the result that we left Fort William a lot later than we had planned. We decided to bypass Oban to make up time and set Helen to take us to Inverary. On the way out of town we found ourselves at the foot of Ben Nevis and parked in a factory parking lot to take photos and, in my case, relieve ourselves. Helen decided to take us through Oban, though we didn't stop.
It was my turn to drive, which I did with some trepidation. Whereas Margaret can look at the scenery as she drives, I have to focus on the road if I am to avoid driving into lochs. Inverary was a small lochside town with not too many things to look at. We were a bit bored by towns sitting on the edges of lakes by this stage and, after consulting with the lady in the tourist office, set off for Dunoon with the intention of catching the ferry across the Firth of Clyde. Margaret took over the driving which meant that we could both relax.
The ferry ride cost us fourteen pounds but was worth it for the experience alone. We always enjoy adventures which are totally unexpected. The waters of the Clyde were as black as coffee (without milk), just like those of Holy Loch. Margaret and I spent ten miles trying to find a word to describe Holy Loch. Mysterious, evocative, spiritual (Margaret), ethereal?
We drove off the ferry and sped off down the A78. The lady at the tourist office had suggested that there would be more B&Bs along the banks of the Firth of Clyde than there would be in Kilmarnock, our original destination. She was probably correct, though we didn't come across any. We stopped in the middle of Irvine, a large and unattractive town, in the hope of visiting the local tourist office. It was closed. I began to worry.
I set Helen for Dumfries, a town we were to pass through tomorrow, and we wound our way out of Irvine. I became rather concerned when she directed us to take the road to Glasgow, way north of our intended destination. Helen knows what she's doing, I assured myself, and put aside my doubts. We drew closer and closer to Glasgow without spotting a single B&B or hotel. I couldn't stand the tension and abandoned my faith in our navigation system. We ignored Helen's monotone orders and headed towards Strathaven.
Somewhere along the way we took a chance and pulled into the driveway of a rather large hotel. While we were anxious to find accommodation we weren't willing to pay three hundred and thirty dollars for a room and resumed our journey towards Strathaven.
We parked in the centre of the rather nondescript little town and I sought advice from the barmaid of the extremely seedy Star Inn. Her Glaswegian accent was almost unintelligible but I gathered that there was a place called The Spring Veal somewhere in town which had rooms. In the meantime Margaret had obtained the same intelligence from an elderly gentleman in the main street. The Spring Veal turned out to be the Springvale Guest House which could offer not one but two vacant rooms. One could actually sit for high tea in the afternoon alongside a roomful of elderly guests straight from the dining room of Fawlty Towers.
DAY 13 MON So anxious were we to enjoy four days of peace in the Lake District that we abandoned all thoughts of visiting Carlisle and Dumfries and set our course for Coniston. Any interesting sights which may have been possessed by Strathaven remained unknown to us as we hastened to leave Scotland behind. Apart from the lochs and hills of the highlands, Scotland suffers in comparison to England. We prefer the ordered, fenced fields of the latter to their wilder, less colourful equivalents in the north.
Almost the entire trip down to the Lake District was on the motorway. Much to my unvoiced disapproval, Margaret exceeded the speed limit all the way, maintaining an average speed of 90mph (150kph). I must admit that she's a very good driver, even performing the dreaded high-speed merge with ease. Once we had reached the outskirts of the Lake District the road changed abruptly from a three-lane motorway to narrow country lanes. This was more the sort of driving we enjoyed. The roads were wide enough for only one and a half vehicles and bordered by stone walls, which meant that we came perilously close to scraping the side of the car whenever we met someone coming the other way.
The scenery was beautiful. The fields on either side of us were fenced with the same slate, which lined the road. From the hills we could admire the lush green valleys dotted with tiny hamlets and farmhouses and the sparkling blue lake for which the district is so justly famed. It was still the long weekend and every village was crawling with tourists. The man in the Coniston Tourist Office smiled when we asked for a moderately priced B&B with a view of Coniston Lake. He was a friendly fellow and managed to find us a place a mile or so out of town with 'glimpses' of the water. As it eventuated, the lack of water view (even a glimpse!) was compensated for by a panoramic view of a farmhouse and fields from our window. The field was sparsely populated by half a dozen ewes and their lambs. The lambs were orphans and the ewes were mothers whose babies had died and were being trained as foster mums.
After settling in we drove down to the village of Coniston and walked around the quaint shops, checking out the pubs as potential eating places for later in the day. As much as we liked the look of Coniston, we decided to drive to Hawkshead to see whether we could find a B&B for the last two days of our stay. We both found Hawkshead too touristy (I should know; we explored every souvenir shop in town) and determined to stay in Coniston for the whole four days.
In the evening we walked half a mile to Torver, the next village, to have dinner in one of its two pubs. This was very much an unspoiled village pub, full of jolly locals and decorated with ancient saddles, rusty farm implements and dusty muskets. It was great, even the fish and chips!
DAY 14 TUE The long weekend was over and most of the visitors had gone home. We were quite relieved as we have little time for tourists. There were still quite a few coaches around but we had learnt to time our travel so that we were rarely in the same place at the same time.
First thing in the morning we drove to Ambleside to visit the tourist shops and absorb the village atmosphere. We ate our lunch sitting on a bench overlooking the council car park. Ambleside was very pretty but just a little touristy for our taste, though we did return several times while we were in the Lake District. Upon our return to Coniston Margaret spent some considerable time trying to remove sheep dung from the carpet. I resolved to be more careful in future.
The weather in the Lake District is very changeable. This morning it was sunny and warm but by lunchtime the sky had clouded over and a strong wind had begun to blow, bringing with it a fine drizzle and extreme cold.
Tonight we ate at the Yewdale Hotel in the village. Margaret selected a tasty vegetarian dish while I chose pheasant. Exotic perhaps, but just as dry as any other bird.
DAY 15 WED Straight after breakfast we drove into Coniston to begin our ramble. It would have been nice to climb to the top of the Old Man of Coniston but we were afraid our hearts would give out, I am being diplomatic as I am sure I could have done it with ease!
On our first day in Coniston we had purchased a guide which provided detailed directions for a walk around the lower slopes of the mountain. Our ramble began with a long walk up a steep lane bordered with the usual stone fences and the occasional cow pen. Margaret was convinced that we were going the wrong way but my navigational skills were vindicated when a young backpacker assured us we were on the right track (then strode briskly past us up the hill). We crossed fields and little bridges across streams, the faster of which were named 'forces'. We took particular delight in climbing the many stiles which allowed access from one field to another. The views of the village and lake were spectacularly beautiful and would have been even more breathtaking were it not for the heavy clouds and mist.
There was rarely a defined path to follow, more often we walked through fields and aimed for the next landmark described in our little guide. At one point we climbed a stile and sat beside a swiftly flowing stream to rest and get our breath back. Margaret was so overcome by the atmosphere that she began to recite a poem, which she made up as she went along. This may have been the home of Wordsworth and Ruskin but Margaret's verse was more of the Banjo Patterson variety.
The five-kilometre walk took us a respectable two hours. It might have taken us less time had we not walked in the wrong direction in the final stage. We became a little confused when we found ourselves wandering through a group of farm buildings; which structure was the farmhouse? We wondered how the farmer and his family liked having a public access path run through their backyard. Once through the farm we had difficulty interpreting the map and walked a long way in the wrong direction. It didn't matter, however, as we got to see eight lambs dashing around a field as though they were engaged in a hundred-yard dash. Their game came to an abrupt end when eight mothers called their children to their sides with a chorus of deep-voiced baas.
On the way back to the car Margaret noticed that Coniston's Anglican Church, St Andrews, had its doors open, which meant that we had to go inside. The interior of the church was rather plain, but attractive nonetheless. A little old lady, deaf as a post, accosted me in the vestibule and engaged me in conversation. Margaret managed to slip through the door and into a souvenir shop, leaving me at the mercy of this rather eccentric old dear who went to great lengths to draw my attention to a supernatural event. If one stood on a particular spot in the vestibule and gazed towards the altar it was possible to see the reflection of a stained glass window which looked very much like a hologram hovering in the middle of the church. It was obvious to me that it was just a reflection but to the old lady it was a major miracle. Even after she conceded that it was a reflection she insisted that it was not exactly the same as the window.
I eventually escaped after promising her that I would go and find Margaret so that she, too, could witness the miracle. We jumped into the car and, with me scrunched up in the passenger seat to avoid being spotted by the old duck who was by now scanning the street, sped off towards Windermere. Windermere was something of a disappointment, lacking the charm of the other villages we had seen and possessing the most uninteresting of souvenir shops. Margaret suddenly realised that she had left her driver's licence behind which meant that I would have to take over driving duties. This was only the second time I had driven since we had arrived and I hadn't improved at all! I soon learnt how to speed down the narrow roads without hitting oncoming traffic or stone walls but I realised that I probably wouldn't be allowed to drive again for some time.
While Margaret rested in our room I drove down to the village to send e-mails. I decided not to proceed once I discovered that the charge was ten pence a minute (minimum two pounds), however I regained my driving confidence along the way. I found that I drove much better unaccompanied and without the clicking of rosary beads from my navigator.
Later in the afternoon Margaret was relaxing on the porch when she noticed that a lamb had somehow got itself onto the wrong side of the fence and was crying piteously. A lamb-lover and would-be farm girl, she went over to help. The lamb panicked and ran at full throttle into the wire fence, wedging its head between the strands. Its mother came running up, drawn by the cries of its foster child. We managed to dislodge its woolly head so that the eight-year-old son of our host could heave it over the fence.
DAY 16 THU The ease with which we had coped with our ramble yesterday had given us the confidence to undertake the demanding ascent of the Old Man of Coniston. Helen (our host, not our satellite navigation system) warned us that it would probably be extremely cold and very windy and suggested that we'd be better off doing something else. It was my secret desire to drive through the Wrynose and Hardknott Passes, so I quizzed her on how difficult they really were. She didn't blanch and stagger backwards so I decided it would be worth making the attempt.
Wrynose Pass, with its hairpin bends and blind corners, was quite scary. Margaret was driving with her usual expertise but I was afraid her teeth would shatter under the force of her concentration. I hadn't seen fit to tell her that the guidebooks described Wrynose as merely a warm up for Hardknott and she suffered quite a shock when the stone fences disappeared to reveal steep slopes and cliff edges. Meeting a car coming the other way on the single lane road was a cause for near panic, especially when the other driver barely slowed. The views on either side of the road once we reached the top of the pass were breathtaking. We had become used to the disciplined layout of the English countryside and were taken by surprise by the desolate wilderness of the hills.
The road wound far into the distance, disappearing into a valley of brilliant green fields. The drive to the bottom of the pass was as frightening as the climb to the top had been and it was with a great deal of relief that we drew into the parking lot of the Eskdale Railway station. The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (aka La' al Ratty) runs, not surprisingly, between Eskdale and Ravenglass and was once the smallest public railway in the world. At first we were reluctant to spend seven pounds each for return tickets, however after driving a few miles further on we had second thoughts and made a U-turn. Every so often we do something completely unplanned which inevitably turns out to be a great adventure. This was no exception. The tiny train chugged chugged along an N gauge line for seven miles alongside lamb-filled fields and through shady forests. We saw colourful birds, cows, sheep, a couple of deer and more sheep.
The fanatic train lovers were in seventh heaven, hanging from every window and photographing the engine each time we went around a bend. Their excitement when we met another train coming the other way was almost touching. At Ravenglass, the end of the line, we alighted and set off down the main street of this one-horse (but extremely historic) town. The marshes on one side of the road contained much more life than the town itself. I would have expected a few more tourists as it was from Ravenglass that the wounded King Arthur is said to have sailed on his final voyage after his big battle with Mordred.
We caught the next train back to Eskdale, pulling into the small terminus almost an hour later. We were not about to return to Coniston via the passes so we took the long route home. Even so we had to drive along some very narrow and twisty roads which did not please the driver. By the time we were back in our room (after a brief intermission for an ale at the local pub) we were looking for a nice rest before dinner and more ale.
DAY 17 FRI We were wandering what the stone walls dividing fields and bordering the roads were called. In the Cotswolds they had a particular name, though we couldn't remember what it was so at breakfast we asked Helen what the stone walls were called. "Stone walls" she replied with a straight face.
The drive down the M6 to Chester was totally uneventful. Our faithful computer took us directly to the TIO in Chester where we booked a B&B. Once again we gave thanks for our satellite navigation system, for the layout of the city was particularly complicated. We had several hours to kill before we could move into our room so we spent them walking from one end of town to the other. The cathedral, though old, was not all that impressive (once you've seen ten cathedrals you've seen them all) and we felt no guilt at leaving without making the compulsory 'donation' of two pounds. Truth be told, we never felt guilty about not making a donation, no matter how impressive the edifice. The city walls were not as inspiring as those of York, in part because they looked down upon supermarkets and council flats.
I remembered Chester as a small, quaint town full of Tudor buildings. In reality it was quite large and most of the buildings quite contemporary. I had learned since my last visit that the majority of the Tudor structures had been built in the nineteenth century, which stripped the town of much of its mystique. The town centre is renowned for its 'rows', a row being a second level of pedestrian ways on the floor above the street. They didn't excite me as the shops, which opened onto them, were, in the main, boring boutiques. We bought plastic-wrapped sandwiches in Marks and Spencers with the intention of having them for tea. A couple of pints at the pub accompanied by plates of soup served to fortify us for the remainder of the afternoon.
Having deposited our bags in our room we walked down a few streets, across a pedestrian bridge over the river and through the town park. The attractively manicured park was almost overrun with squirrels which, when I addressed them in budgerigar, ran over to us and sat on their hind legs. Our resolve to sup on supermarket sandwiches fell by the wayside when we entered the Old Orleans restaurant on the banks of the River Dee. Instead of healthy Marks and Spencer fare we stuffed ourselves with ribs and Cajun chicken as well as more ale.