Posts tagged epic UK adventure
Posts tagged epic UK adventure
Day 8 was our final day abroad. (Technically there was a Day 9, but it was spent packing, eating breakfast, and leaving for the airport - then freaking out about last minute ticket changes, finally getting things sorted out, and then flying from London to Los Angeles, watching lots of movies and reading some books and sleeping a little bit along the way. But I digress.)
Back in London, M & K and Michael wanted to run around the city doing things we hadn’t done before. K’s dad and Claudia decided to take a day trip to Oxford, and word has it they really enjoyed their visit - but that’s another story. Ours began with a
quick ill-fated jaunt up to King’s Cross Station (subway closures forced us to figure out alternate routes and we were not altogether savvy in our methods) to visit Platform 9 3/4. Clearly we had to get the touristy Harry Potter photo op, no matter how long it took us to get there!
Having traveled a good distance in one direction for a five minute photo op, we then turned around and headed an entirely different one. We wanted to go tour around famous St Paul’s Cathedral, listed on the floor of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome as the second longest cathedral in the world, although this is apparently a matter of some contention (apparently the floor needs an update). And of course, by “we” I mean “K” wanted to tour it. M and Michael mostly wanted to hurry through the building and climb the enormous dome. They were troopers and allowed K to read some of the more interesting tidbits out of her guidebook, but the dome was definitely the highlight. After 530 steps to the very top, with a few stops along the way, we were rewarded with amazing panoramic views of London.
After climbing back down from the top of the dome, we left the cathedral behind, instead wandering down the street until we made it to London Bridge. Guidebook in hand, K shared that there has been a bridge over that exact point in the river for nearly 2000 years - quite a history! While crossing the bridge, K snapped a quick quintessential tourist-in-London picture: the red double-decker bus crossing the London Bridge with the Tower Bridge in the background!
We went to the London Eye with the intention of riding it, but the lines were too long and our time too precious. Instead, we turned our feet in the direction of Buckingham Palace, and on the way, stopped for food at St George’s Tavern. This was the best decision of the day, we later decided. We had a fabulous Polish waiter who regaled us with stories of London, himself, and pub antics, and who made all our food and drink decisions for us. We told him we wanted beer; he brought us a surprise sampler and made us taste them all before he would tell us what they were. Michael told him he wanted the chicken burger; he insisted that Michael actually wanted the sausage. (This turned out to be entirely correct.) He told us jokes and gave us pop quizzes (why do the beer mugs for the men have handles and why are they so heavy? because when men get into bar fights they can club each other with them OR break of the handles and have a handy little sharp weapon. awesome). We could have sat there in our little corner booth for hours just listening to him talk, but eventually, after taking some pictures with our new friend, we did head back out into the London afternoon.
Our timing actually turned out to be pretty good - we got to Buckingham Palace just in time to see the (miniature) changing of the guard - certainly not the level of the daily spectacle as all of the troops change shifts, but the minor changing of the guards at the front of the palace. Still pretty nifty to see.
That night, for our last night in town, we met up with some friends of K’s dad and Claudia and went out to a place near Covent Garden for dinner. We had a great time and the food was fantastic, and afterwards, K & M and Michael had once last adventure as we sought out the first ever Hard Rock Cafe. M has always liked to collect t-shirts from places he visits, and he quickly discovered that Hard Rock Cafe shirts last, while those from street vendors… well, don’t. So we try to visit a Hard Rock anytime we’re in a city that has one so we can get a souvenir we’ll actually be able to use later, and we were both excited to see the first ever Hard Rock Cafe. Little did we know what we were in for: there’s a whole rock and roll museum across the street, with memorabilia that they literally could not fit into the Cafe! We took the quick free tour they offered, and the boys especially were blown away by the musical history captured in the small space. We took lots of pictures, bought our souvenirs, and ended the day - and, essentially, the trip - with smiles and laughter and the feeling that, while we hadn’t seen it all, we’d definitely made our time in the UK count!
The seventh day of our grand adventure was mostly devoted to traveling from St Andrews back to London, which took most of the day. We caught the train on a morning that dawned clear and bright - we could have been sad to miss the gorgeous weather, but instead chose to value our True Scottish Experience (rain) and look ahead to a fun night out in London!
The train only carried semi-edible snacks and we were stuck on it straight through lunch, so by the time we got back to London, checked into our hotel, and quickly freshened up, we were MORE than ready for some food. Claudia got a recommendation from our hotel’s concierge for a place down the street and we practically ran there. Look how tired and hungry we were:
Which is why we what? Ordered alcohol, like any good family on vacation. Whoo!
The last half of the trip, we extensively documented our alcohol intake. You, faithful reader, may have already noticed this trend.
Anyway! Our little group had an engagement that night: we had tickets to a show! Now, we were in London. London theater is legendary. You might assume we would take the opportunity to go see a headline musical, like Wicked, Les Mis, or something of the sort. But K’s dad wanted to see something new, something out of the ordinary, and so, we saw…
In case you can’t read that, it says “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”! It’s a show about a drag queen who travels across Australia singing disco and it. was. AWESOME. We (that is, K & M & Michael) were skeptical at first, but we were blown away. We had a great time, and the performances were superb! We got to the theater early and had drinks before the show, and then when it was all over, we weren’t finished having fun so we headed to Covent Garden and had some food and drink at a restaurant in the square. We may have spent most of the day traveling, but we made up for it in the fun we had that night!
On the morning of our first (and only) full day in St Andrews, we awoke to the heavy fog and light drizzle that is so well known in Scotland. M & K were geared up for our own adventure while K’s dad and brother headed over to the Old Course to realize a golfer’s dream of playing the course where the game was invented. Claudia tagged along with the golfers for a while, then wandered the streets of St Andrews enjoying the scenery of a small, picturesque Scottish village. But back to our story: first thing, in spite of the extremely limited visibility, M & K went sightseeing! We wanted to tour the ruins of St Andrews Castle, and the fog almost made it even cooler to wander the site. We climbed around the remains of the walls and foundation of the castle, peered out over the small cliffs to the water below, and learned some Scottish history.
One of our favorite parts of touring the ruins was getting to explore the underground mines - tunnels which were dug hundreds of years ago during a siege on the castle in the 1500s. The attackers had the advantage and hacked steadily away, creating a cavernous tunnel in which men could walk upright - they could even fit pack animals inside to carry all of their tools and weapons for when they made it to the castle. Meanwhile, the castle’s defenders worked feverishly, trying to locate the attackers’ tunnel by sound. All over the castle site, there are entrances to failed mines - locations where the defenders tried to dig down and intercept the attackers but eventually realized they were in the wrong place. But then! Success! The castle’s defenders managed to intercept the tunnel and fight off the underground attack. And part of that two-way tunnel still exists - you can crawl down through the tiny passage cut by the castle defenders, and eventually you make your way to the point of interception where the mine really opens up. The difference is amazing. It’s a pretty incredible piece of history.
When we emerged from underground, it had begun to rain somewhat more earnestly. But we gamely opened our umbrellas and moved on to the next stop on our list: the ruins of a medieval cathedral just down the road from the castle. (A lot of ruins in St Andrews - they were too distracted by golf to keep up with anything else, apparently! Ha, ha.) It’s really very sad that the cathedral was ransacked and destroyed by Protestant reformers several hundred years ago - it dates back to the 12th century and would have been an amazing example of medieval religious architecture. As it is, a few walls are still standing and you can still see the outline of the cross marked by the foundations in the ground, but beyond that the only thing that has survived is the graveyard and a standalone tower (unrelated to the cathedral). We climbed that tower, of course, and tried to imagine what the cathedral must have looked like nearly a thousand years ago.
After a long morning of wandering and climbing a fair number of stairs, we were ready for food. We lunched at a cafe-type place called Little John’s, where K enjoyed a cold Guinness and M sampled Scottish soda - which is, incidentally, apparently the only nationally made soda which outsells Coke within its own country. It’s called IrnBru (pronounced “iron brew”) and M thought it was pretty delicious! (Maybe not quite as good as Coke though.)
We had arranged to meet K’s dad and brother at the 18th hole to watch them finish, so we booked it over there after lunch, hoping we had all guessed accurately on the timing. It worked out perfectly! Through the rain, we could just make out my brother’s yellow jacket as they approached the tee.
The three of us (M, K, and Claudia) whispered excitedly to one another about this cool opportunity for Michael and K’s dad as the two of them conferred with their caddies.
Then - the swing! We followed the group down the fairway, over the famous Swilken Bridge, to the final moments on the green. K’s brother Michael had an especially terrific finish, making his putt to birdie the 18th hole!
What a great day. Although it was only midafternoon, the golfers hadn’t had anything to eat since a very early breakfast, so we traipsed over to a fish market for some fish ‘n’ chips and, of course, adult beverages to toast our adventures in St Andrews.
Then, because eating at a weird time threw off our schedule and we weren’t hungry for dinner, after some relaxation time at the bed and breakfast we simply decided to go out for more drinks! K’s dad was a fan of this decision. And, of course, at the bar, we watched golf.
We could have stayed in Edinburgh for several more days and fully enjoyed every minute, but the next day, we had a train to catch to St Andrews. It didn’t leave until the afternoon, though, so we decided not to waste our morning. Instead, we hiked up Calton Hill, where there are beautiful panoramic views of the city as well as a few monuments to climb on.
To get the best views, we all climbed to the top of the Nelson Monument. We then clambered up onto the National Monument, mostly for the photo ops.
By now we were getting a bit peckish, so we headed down the other side of the hill via some ivy-covered stairs, wandered through a graveyard, and finally made it to Tolbooth Tavern for some yummy food and beer.
After lunch, we said a fond farewell to Edinburgh as we headed to St Andrews. We got there with plenty of time to wander around, and we especially enjoyed taking a look at the famous Old Course, since K’s dad and her brother Michael were able to get a tee time for the next morning! We were all thrilled for them, it was an amazing opportunity.
For dinner that night, we ended up at a little place called The Doll’s House, where Michael fell briefly in love with our adorable Scottish waitress, we all fell in love with the beautiful evening and delicious food, and we all got perhaps a tiny bit tipsy.
We awoke in Edinburgh to Scotland’s standard chilly drizzle, and to the sad news that K’s brother Jack was going to have to head home early. Travel arrangements were made for him, farewells were said, and while K’s dad stayed with Jack to make sure he departed safely, K, M, and K’s other brother Michael headed up the steep streets to the ancient castle on the hill.
You can see in that picture how Edinburgh Castle was literally built into and around the volcanic rock on which it stands (that’s the black stuff). It’s pretty amazing.
We stood in line for a while to get tickets and an audio guide, which turned out to be pretty cool and helpful in addition to K’s guidebook. We headed up to St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building on the castle site, and admired the stained glass image of William Wallace. We viewed the enormous Mons Meg - a very old cannon last fired in the 16th century which still hangs out up on Castle Rock.
We saw the Scottish Crown Jewels - not nearly as impressive as the ones at the Tower of London, but still very cool - and the Stone of Destiny, which has quite a history. Legend holds it to be the Stone of Jacob, where the biblical dude was said to have laid his head when he slept in the wilderness. That makes it a pretty big deal, so it was stolen by Edward I of England and used for centuries as the Coronation Stone, fitted into the Coronation Chair which England still uses. Recently the stone finally found its way back to Scotland, with the understanding that England gets to borrow it whenever it’s time to crown a new monarch.
While at the castle, we also saw the firing of the One O’Clock Gun, wandered around the grounds for a while, and walked through the Prisons of War exhibit, which showed what conditions were like for prisoners kept at the castle over the centuries. We left the castle around lunchtime, having made plans to meet K’s dad and his wife at a pub on the Royal Mile. After lunch, we all went to Mary King’s Close for their guided tour of the spooky underground neighborhood. Apparently, there are a number of alleyways over which buildings were built a few centuries ago as the city expanded and grew - and some of the streets remain preserved underground. These alleys are called “closes” and this particular one has been made into a fascinating, eerie, historical tourist attraction. It was crazy to walk up and down a street which was once - back in the 1600s - a bustling, busy alley, lined with shops, directly connected to the Royal Mile.
After our tour of the close, we split up again - K’s dad and Claudia headed to the castle, while M & K and Michael wandered the Royal Mile in search of interesting places. We peeked into St Giles Cathedral (the “Grand Kirk of Scotland”), and K took some pictures, but the real highlight came after that, when we randomly decided to try the Scotch Whiskey Experience. The advertising made it sound hokey and silly, like a Disney ride all about alcohol - and it sort of was - but it was really interesting and fun as well!
First we went on a ride in a “whiskey barrel” (see photo above) on which we learned all about the distilling process. Then, we learned about the four distinct regions of Scotland which produce different kinds of scotch whiskey, all with unique characteristics (Islay, Speyside, Highlands, and Lowlands). We then got to taste some scotch whiskey from the region of our choice - naturally we three each picked a different region, and enjoyed tasting and smelling each others’ scotch to pick out the differences. M chose Islay, and his was so smokey it tasted like a bonfire - he and K both thought it was delicious. K went with the Highlands and got a much sweeter, fruitier flavor. Michael’s choice was Speyside and his was pretty spicy.
While we tasted, we marveled at the tasting room - it houses the largest collection of Scotch Whiskey in the world, donated to the Scotch Whiskey Experience by a South American collector who wanted the amazing collection to “go home to Scotland”.
In addition to this amazing assortment, the next room had several cases of more unique, and sometimes goofy or crazy looking, bottles.
For the rest of the afternoon, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon on the streets of Edinburgh. We even had a bit of blue sky! That night, we had dinner at an Italian place called Gusto - it was delicious - and later, drinks at the Dome, a really cool bar in a building that used to be a fancy bank. It was an amazing day.
On the third day, we traveled. Our original plan was to catch a mid-morning train up to Edinburgh, but sadly, as we were in the middle of tourist season and had neglected to reserve seats, we ended up having to wait several hours to leave. We made the best of the situation, found a pub where we could park ourselves and our stuff for a while, and K realized that the British Library was just down the street, so she and M headed there to take a look. For zero dollars (or pounds for that matter), we got to see two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, a copy of the Canterbury Tales, and many other original copies of literary works that totally blew K’s mind. Both of us loved their music section, which included original pages of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s wedding contract, the sheet music for Bolero, and a whole case full of Beatles paraphernalia, including original sheet music and lyrics with notes from McCartney and Lennon. So cool! The Library was also featuring a new (temporary?) Sci-Fi exhibit which was full of interesting tidbits, copies of famous (and less-so) works of science fiction, and a variety of informational videos and interviews with authors playing throughout the exhibit.
We made our way back to the pub to join the others in a few pints before catching our train. I think all of us had perhaps one or two too many…
Ah, the joy of family time.
Our train ride to Edinburgh was fairly uneventful. We mostly read, napped, chatted with each other. We did see some lovely views, especially as we crossed into Scotland, but of course it’s difficult to capture those vistas from a quickly moving train…
Once in Edinburgh, we quickly made it to our bed and breakfast (where we all fell instantly in love with our beautiful, comfortable rooms), and then headed out to get some food. K’s brother Jack chose to befriend some locals, but the rest of us wound up at a place called Cafe Royal for oysters, wine, and some really delicious food.
After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to conquer London once more. This time, we were starting at the heart of some of the bloodiest (and most interesting) history of the city: the Tower of London.
We got to the Tower grounds before the gates opened, so we were some of the first to enter the area. K had done her research and knew we needed to head for the Crown Jewels first, as the lines would get ridiculously long later in the day. Great success! We saw so many precious gems our heads were spinning, and all of us were amazed to think of the royal heads the various crowns had sat upon. (No pictures of the royal regalia, sadly, but you have to see the world’s largest cut diamond to believe it anyway, so we suggest you go to London.)
After viewing the Jewels, we joined a Beefeater tour that was just beginning. “Beefeater” is a term which refers to the Yeomen Warders who guard the Tower and have done so since the time of the Tudors. They are still considered to be “on guard” - they safeguard the Crown Jewels, live on the Tower grounds, and also care for the Tower ravens. In their spare time, they give tours. Awesome, hilarious, gruesome tours.
The Beefeaters make sure to dwell on the bloodiest, most shocking stories of British history - the story of Henry VIII and his wives, especially Anne Boleyn; the story of the two young princes who were murdered by their uncle in his quest for the throne, and whose bodies were eventually discovered walled up in a stairwell in the Tower; and of course multiple stories of torture taking place in the dungeons. It’s a great tour! Highly recommended if you ever visit London and the Tower. After the tour, we wandered the grounds some more, visiting the Beauchamp Tower (famous for the carvings in its walls from prisoners throughout the centuries), the execution site within the Tower grounds (where there is now a memorial to the executed), and the White Tower museum (which boasts displays of Henry XIII’s armor as well as the actual execution block, ax, and executioner’s mask).
My my, look at that codpiece!
We had a brief moment of terror when K realized she had put her (nice, expensive) camera down and forgotten to pick it back up. Frantically, we raced around trying to find it. Finally, K asked one of the Beefeaters where to find lost and found items, and just at that moment, he got a message on his walkie talkie that a camera had been found and turned in. Crisis averted! Thank goodness for the Beefeaters. (And the kindness of strangers.)
We had spent several hours at the Tower by the time we were leaving, so after enjoying the view of Tower Bridge we headed to the Dickens Inn for some fish and chips and beer.
After a late, leisurely meal, we headed to the famed British Museum. With not much time left before it closed, we prioritized and headed for Egypt. We saw the Rosetta Stone (SO COOL), amazing Egyptian statues and art, and of course, the mummies.
Sadly, after an amazing day of touring, M & K (K especially) were amazingly exhausted. So, we all headed back to the hotel, where M & K ended up crashing for the rest of the night, while K’s dad and his wife went to Covent Garden for dinner and K’s brothers went out to a couple of pubs. M & K were disappointed to miss out - but the rest was sorely needed and definitely helped them to get in the groove for the rest of the trip!
At the very end of July, M & K embarked on a nine-day journey through England and Scotland with K’s two brothers, her dad, and her dad’s wife. Full of crazy adventures, ridiculous family togetherness, and amazing experiences, it was an unforgettable trip.
Day One: We dropped the dogs off at camp, picked up Starbucks and sandwiches, and drove to the LA airport, where we hung out for several hours waiting for our flight. Thankfully, we had a nonstop flight straight to London, so once we boarded we were home free. M watched a total of four - yes, four - movies (Just Go With It, Battle: Los Angeles, Source Code, and Water for Elephants) on the way there. (K watched the first and last of those with him, read some, and slept as much as she could.) We discovered a passionate love of Virgin Atlantic and highly recommend flying Virgin at any opportunity. (Free drinks! Good food! Goody bags!!) As exhausted as we were by the time we finally reached our hotel (the Melbourne House Hotel) in London, we were still ready to go exploring (and get some food) - after all, it was the middle of the day there! We were staying right down the street from Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, so that’s where we headed first.
We had planned to go to Westminster Abbey for the evensong - but as we walked over, we saw signs that it had been postponed until later. So since we were already there, we decided just to tour it instead. K was especially fascinated by all the history inside, and was strangely moved to see the tombs of Elizabeth I, Mary I, and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as those of such pillars of music and literature as Handel and Chaucer.
As we left that area, waving goodbye to Big Ben (and having visions of Peter Pan and Wendy flying around the face of the enormous clock), we headed up Whitehall and saw the remnants of Whitehall Palace (another geek moment for K). Just before reaching Trafalgar Square, we realized we could not go any further without sustenance and good beer, so we headed into the Lord Moon of the Mall for some fish ‘n chips and British ale. First, of course, we had to take a touristy photo.
After getting food, we pressed on. We saw the building that stood in for Gringotts in the Harry Potter movies, the Royal Courts of Justice, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Millennium Bridge. We stopped along our walk for another pint, because, you know, that’s what you do. Also because it was called Ye Olde Cock Tavern and had a fun poem in the entry way.
By the time we crossed over the Thames by way of the Millennium Bridge (with a lovely view of the Tower Bridge lit up by the sunset), we were all a little loopy from exhaustion. In our delirious state we entered the Tate Modern. This may not have been the best plan, in hindsight - we younger folk ended up playing in the kiddie area, making up new names for the modern art we saw everywhere, and basically making a nuisance of ourselves.
Yeah, by then it was time to go back to the hotel, get some food at the Italian place down the street, and collapse into bed. After an approximately 30 hour day, it was definitely time.