Trip Start May 31, 2007
72Trip End Ongoing
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It's (once again) been a while since we updated this - we're currently in Canada, but this entry covers the U.K - a land with such a punishing currency for the poor ol' Aussie dollar to deal with that we were left with actual, physical bruises after every financial transaction.
As a result, this entry can be read as either a stirring tale of us gradually fleeing to Gatwick airport, or as a rollicking jaunt through the British Isles, or just as a mildy interesting time-killer between coffees. Whichever is good!
This time we've both jotted down a bunch of stuff while on trains and busses, so to avoid the potentially massive scale of this entry, we'll be posting separately - we've managed to finally find a place that allows uploads, so a couple of my photos are attached
Two for the price of none!
The train journey from Stanraer in Scotland (where we disembarked from the Irish ferry) to Glasgow was a very pretty one in the fading sunlight, with rolling green remote hills and calming views of the ocean. We got chatting to an older Scottish couple on the train who had been visiting friends in Northern Ireland, and they helpfully recommended several places in the highlands to visit during our stay.
The train ride was quite long (a few hours), and we were feeling pretty drowsy. To keep things interesting, the toilet on the train had a lid that kept slamming shut as the train went over a hill or around a corner (or basically if it moved at all). This added a certain dimension of challenge to anything you planned to do in there, to say the least. Several times we saw an unlucky commuter close the door, only to hear the SLAM sound of the lid, closely followed by a muffled stream of obscenities from the occupant
We rolled on through the Scottish landscape and gazed sleepily at the gentle green hills dotted with tufty, purple heather bushes. At times, there were half hour gaps between spotting one quaint little homestead and another.
Eventually we arrived at Glasgow's huge central station and emerged into the city itself. The streets were incredibly dark for a major city, and we had to find our way to the hostel more or less by touch. Checking in was our first taste of the British exchange rate, and it brought tears of pain to our eyes. We realised at this point that our time in the UK would probably have to be cut short unless we wanted to return home wearing potato sacks.
Taking a stroll around the city in daylight proved to be very enjoyable, with the streets providing some brilliant architecture, monuments, galleries, etc. We saw a movie at the "world's tallest cinema", ate a surprisingly good meal in a local pub, and bummed around in a local park for a few hours, enjoying the accents of passers-by.
At one stage we were looking around a local shop near some young Scottish kids playing Star Wars
After a couple of days of this aimless but enjoyable wandering, we jumped on a train to Edinburgh.
As we wandered through the busy streets of Edinburgh looking for our hostel, we were struck by how picturesque so much of it was. High over the city loomed Edinburgh castle (home to the vacationing queen and uhh.. military tattoos), and near the city dramatic cliffs dominated the skyline. The place really did have an energetic, vibrant feel.
After dumping our packs, we headed for the cliffs with the hare-brained intention of climbing them. A few wrong turns up some thistle and nettle studded hills and a few gently bleeding shins later, we began the lenghty ascent to the top of the highest cliff
We (eventually) made it to the top wheezing and panting heavily, and found the summit teeming with old people eating sandwiches and delicately sipping tea (or possibly Gatorade) from thermoses. One woman rested gently on the handle of her zimmer frame and nibbled the corner of a curried egg sandwich. At this point, Eb mumbled something about 'water' and collapsed faceward to the ground. I poked her with a stick. She seemed okay.
The views from the top were stunning, taking in the city, ocean and rolling hills for miles in each direction. After a brief visit halfway down again to retrieve a dropped thermos lid and a few scenes that put me in mind of 'Cliffhanger', we set off to explore other rocky outcroppings and ended up having another enjoyable (if extremely tiring) day.
We had booked a couple of places on a tour bus in order to explore further north, and at 8:00 the next morning we stood shivering on the pavement waiting for the arrival of the tour guide
Disco was a friendly but world-weary guy who gave the impression of keeping up appearances while plowing through the tour one more time. He took us through some amazing countryside; through tiny rural villages, past vast lochs and crumbling castles, all with an entertaining flow of information.
The end point was a tour of the 'Famous Grouse' whiskey distillery, out in the middle of basically nowhere. The tour involved a circuit of the various stages of whiskey production, capped off by an extremely loud and expensive-looking 'Clockwork Orange'-style multimedia presentation designed to imprint the Famous Grouse brand on the minds of those present.
It didn't Famous Grouse work, though.
Our reason for taking the tour was to leave the bus at a town called Crieff in order to visit a friend living on a game reserve in that part of the country
Accomodation in Crieff was "non-existant due to a local festival" according to the frazzled staff of the tourist office, but someone working there kindly offered us a lift to the tiny neighboring town of Comrie in order to find a room at the local pub/hotel. We drove there through more lush, green countryside, and finally arrived at what was to be our accomodation.
Stepping into the hotel and our room felt like stepping 40 years back in time (or perhaps just visiting your grandmother) and the town itself was sleepy to the point of being comatose, but the people we met there were exceptionally generous and friendly.
After we managed to get in touch with our friend from the game reserve, he picked us up and took us to the remote farmhouse he was living in with two other gamekeepers. We had an excellent meal cooked by our host, and got talking to a falconer who was also visiting for the evening. He offered to show us the next day how falconing was performed with a small tour group, and one of the gamekeepers offered to drive us out there in the morning
We gratefully accepted, and found ourselves bouncing along thin one-way country roads, past heather clad hills and fields. Eventually we reached the falconry, and found the group surrounded by veritable forest of perches, each holding a different bird of prey. They were already in the middle of learning how to handle relatively small Harris hawks, balancing them tentatively and uncertainly on gloved, outstretched hands.
We eventually joined them, and spent a harrowing but exciting day flying increasingly larger birds - first a hawk, then a desert owl, African eagle, then finally a full-grown, American Bald eagle. The last was absolutely massive, seemingly angry, and had a wingspan like a single engine Cessner. I had mental images of being dragged into the air in jerky stop-motion animation, like something out of Jason and the Argonauts, before being dropped into a volcano.
In the event, I managed to cope with the thing landing on me with only a small loss of urine, while Eb performed admirably. It was all very exhilarating, and was one of the absolute highlights of the trip.
After eventually finding our way back and spending a night above a Thai restaurant in Crieff, we phoned goodbye to our friends and headed south again, through Scotland and into England, to the city of York.
I had vague, hazy recollections of York from a previous backpacking trip and occasionally I would recognise a house or landmark, but around the remembered structure would be totally unfamiliar. We trudged around York's ancient winding streets for an age before we finally spotted a hostel I thought I had stayed in previously - one with a wacky Viking theme. Most dorm rooms in the place were enormous (with 30 or so beds to a room), but it was a comparitively cheap way to spend the night.
York was a great location for strolling, with largely intact, walkable medievel stone walls stretching around the city, parks, and plenty of narrow pedestrian cobblestone alleys to get lost in. We did a bunch of traditional but uninteresting-to-relate 'touristy' type things, sampled some truly awful English cuisine (I hadn't realised that boiling was an acceptable method of cooking a steak) before the cost became too prohibitive and it was time to move on, this time to the scholarly town of Oxford.
We took a lengthy coach ride to Oxford on a bright, sunny day. This involved a change over in an entirely modern city known as Milton Keynes; possibly the most lifeless, over designed city we'd been to - home to blank, staring glass and steel buildings, barren concrete squares and (seemingly) not much else.
Oxford was a study in contrast with tree-lined streets, cobbled roads for pedestrians and grand, ivy-covered university buildings at every turn. After walking around and taking in the sights, we eventually found a B&B just out of town. This was cheap, but it had its quirks - in order to have a hot shower, you needed to place the shower head on the floor, turn on the cold tap in the sink, then lift the shower head to shoulder height. This was all related straight-faced by the proprietor, as if showers couldn't possibly operate any other way.
All this was okay though - Oxford made a good base in order to take coaches to London and was an appealing city in its own right, especially in the popular university districts. After a few days spent relaxing, drinking, exploring and drinking, we took a coach to London.
We caught a coach to London and emerged into rush hour near Victoria station - packed with commuters. Everywhere you looked were the familiar red busses, clouds of exhaust, general traffic and throngs of people - the noise was incredible. We bullied our way through the crowd and made our way down a treelined avenue to find ourselves at Buckingham palace.
Signs along the high garden walls leading to the palace warned that the bricks were coated with 'climbproof paint'. We could imagine Her Majesty enquiring about the safety of the walls and being assured by a guard in a tall busby hat not to fret;
"The wallpaint is climbproof, Marm."
"Jolly good. Carry on, minion."
Adding to the invincible paint, cresting the walls were racks of cruel-looking razorwire and CCTV cameras. It looked more like maximum security at Alcatraz than the home of a couple of grumpy royals. We half expected to be picked off by an unseen tower guard for reading the signs too closely or loitering, but no shot came. Eb did eventually cop a dart in the buttock for taking too many photos, but it just made her a bit groggy.
We didn't spot the queen (or any other royal-types), but we did spot a gathering of heavily armed police barring the gates behind a vehicle crash barrier. After watching 'the guard' march towards each other, turn, and march away, we realised we had pretty much exhausted all the possibilities for diversion that the palace offered.
We made a large circuit of the streets, wandering in and out of shops, checking out monuments and squares, and generally being very 'touristy'. Prices in London were absolutely astronomical, but we resolved to return the next day regardless - we were meeting up with some friends for a proper tour of the city after spending another night in Oxford.
Unfortunately during our wanderings we had lost track of time, forcing us to sprint a couple of blocks in order to catch the bus. We barely made it, and collapsed wheezing into our seats occasionally coughing up exhaust fumes, dust and cigarette butts. London really is an incredibly dirty city.
The next day was spent wandering again, but this time in the care of some capable guides. It seemed that wherever you looked there were at least 10 people in your field of vision, but despite this we had an enjoyable time in good company. On the way back, we did a spontaneous/ incredibly nerdy thing and went to a Star Wars exhibition (complete with guys walking the corridors dressed like Jedis, to our shame).
To redeem ourselves, we also did a cool thing - checking out a view of the city from atop the imposing 'London Eye' - the massive ferris wheel left over from the millenium celebrations.
Sadly, our time in London was almost causing our wallets to burst into flames out of protest, so we resolved to spend some time in the beachside town of Brighton instead to await our upcoming flight to America in the hope that it might be a little cheaper. We gave a last cheery wave to London, dodged several cabs bearing down on us, and trudged to the coach station for the trip.
We took a surprisingly lengthy (and costly) train ride to Brighton, and emerged from the station into brilliant sunshine. Brighton had the interesting air of a semi-faded seaside resort town, and the stroll to our hostel was a pleasant one, with the ocean glittering at the end of the main street leading from the station.
The 'beach' turned out to be a large expanse of pebbles and smooth rocks instead of sand, but that hadn't stopped people from sunbaking stretched out on the stones. Brighton is apparently a popular hang out for artists, with the result being some unique bars, pubs, shops, and particularly graffiti murals.
Unfortunately it was as prohibitively expensive as anywhere else in the U.K, so we had to limit our activities in order to stay in roughly the same ballpark as the budget. Despite this, we had a good time browsing, window shopping and lying on the beach (though this caused an intriguing pattern of red dents on our backs - with a bit of experimentation you could get a real leopard print thing happening).
We had the odd experience of seeing an elderly gay man become insanely angry with a coin operated washing machine that he believed had stolen his change, or his pants, or perhaps both (very lively), but apart from that our time passed pretty quietly, which was much how we wanted it before tackling the 'States.
After making sure everything was in order for the flight, we headed to Gatwick airport.
Thanks to those who are continuing to read these posts, and thanks also to those who have emailed us and left comments - we appreciate it!