Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Isle of Skye

Well, last night we got some of the best sleep we have all trip. The hotel is weird and probably not deserving of the three stars it claims to have, but the beds were comfortable and we were in them early…around 10:00 or so. With that solid night’s sleep behind us, we both woke up feeling a lot better than we did last night!

On the topic of the hotel…this morning, we couldn’t get our email or anything. This is because apparently the hotel hasn’t been paying their Internet bill! If you tried to do anything online, you just got a page for British Telecom saying “Service suspended; your payment is overdue”. Very amusing, but also annoying. Certainly doesn’t reflect well on the hotel!

This hotel has an overdue internet bill

I took a short wander outside before breakfast this morning; it was quite misty, but I took a few pictures. Breakfast was very average…though apparently there was a medical emergency and somebody came looking for anyone with medical training! We currently have three nurses and possibly a doctor in our group; one of the nurses went to help out. Pamela and I missed the whole thing, though we heard about it after, and saw the ambulance. The story we got is that an old lady who was at the hotel had a stroke; we doubt that’s true because the ambulance was in no hurry to take anyone anywhere.

The deep, calm waters of Loch Ness

Nessie leaving Loch Ness. Doesn’t the terrain look exactly like the Whiteshell?

Then we started this morning with a cruise on Loch Ness. It was a little drizzly and misty, so while it was very pretty, nobody really wanted to be outside on top of the boat. It was a nice relaxing cruise, but the weather wasn’t great for photos. The scenery in the area was very similar to the Whiteshell! Though we did see a beautiful old castle on the shore (Urquhart Castle), which you wouldn’t get in the Whiteshell. We didn’t see Nessie, so that was disappointing.

Urquhart Castle

The shores of Loch Ness in the morning rain and mist

Now yesterday I said we had taken a longer drive than necessary, but I was wrong; I had misunderstood our guide. That bit was today: we did a scenic drive through the highlands. Specifically, we went for a drive on the Isle of Skye, which is just off the west coast of Scotland (you can get there on a bridge). There were no “attractions”, per se, on the island; it’s just a pretty drive. Lots of lochs, Gaelic signs, long-haired highland coos (aka cows), mountains, and windy roads. We made a couple of stops for photos, with lunch in the town of Portree.

A river that apparently has the water of youth in it. You need to wash your face in it for seven seconds.


Like I said, it was a nice drive, and Roxy played all Celtic music on the coach instead of the club/dance/techno tunes that she normally does, so that was a nice touch. Unfortunately, she also insisted on giving us a couple of her history lessons along the way. I honestly don’t think there’s a single person on this bus that cares. Several of us do enjoy history, but it’s a bit much, and while she tries hard, she’s not the best storyteller. We’ve even got a history major on the bus, and he’s said he’s had enough. Oh well…

The weather really cleared up as the day went on: by the afternoon we had bright sunshine and big expanses of blue sky. But it wasn’t hot, like it was earlier in the trip. Really, it was gorgeous. Hard to believe that we’re almost as far north as Churchill, MB!

A stream in the highlands

This tall rock has a name that I forget

We also stopped at Eilean Donan castle. (Roxy pronounces this “illan donnan”; I don’t totally trust her in these matters but it sounds plausible.) There’s some weird story associated with this about a baby boy whose very first drink was drank out of the skull of a raven. It gave him the power to understand and speak to birds, but there’s some questionable parenting involved.

Eilean Donan

Our last stop for the day was by Ben Nevis (sp?). This is the highest peak in Scotland…though it’s not particularly high by, say, Rocky Mountain standards. Roxy says she’s never seen the top, and was getting optimistic with the nice weather we were having, but by the time we got there, it was cloudy again, and the peak was not quite visible. Oh well.

Ben Nevis, its peak in the clouds

For the night, we’re in a town called Fort William. It’s a “young” city, at least relative to the others we’ve been in, since this has only been around since the 15th century. It really gives you a sense of how old everything is here when a 500-year-old city is young. We’re a little ways away from the town pubs and restaurants, so most people opted for the coach ride into town for dinner, but a few of us just ate in the hotel bar. A great choice, actually…Pamela and I had a Cajun chicken breast dinner that actually was real food, not deep-fried, and felt like it might be prolonging our lives instead of shortening them.

The Scottish Highlands

Tomorrow’s an early morning again: up at 6:30, on the bus at 7:45, so we’re hoping to get to bed nice and early again. And tomorrow night we’ll be in Glasgow for our last night with the tour group before we’re on our own again, so we might actually head out to the pubs with everyone for goodbyes. We both want to, but it depends how we’re feeling.



Winding through the highlands

After our nice leisurely day in Edinburgh, we’re on the road again today. We’re told that the drive from last night’s hotel to tonight’s hotel could be done in not much more than two hours, but we take all day to do it, because we take the scenic route and make a couple stops. So, after breakfast was served (I didn’t have any), we had about a 90-minute drive in the drizzle and cold to the Scottish town of St Andrews.

A bustling St Andrews street

This seems to be a really sleepy little place. It has an old ruined cathedral, an old ruined castle, a very prestigious university (the one where Prince William met Kate Middleton), and a very prestigious golf course (if they decide to let you play there, you have to book a year in advance, and it costs about Β£1,000).

The ruined cathedral in St Andrews

St Andrews on the coast, and it was cold and damp and rainy and windy. For some reason, I had a series of massive coughing fits for about 15 minutes when we got off the bus, so that really got my morning off to a good start :). There’s not a lot to do in town, and neither Pamela nor I were really excited to be there. We saw the old cathedral and its graveyard (where William Wallace’s gravestone is), as well as the castle (from a distance). Then we saw a Costa Coffee, and I was all over that. Hot chocolate and a brownie served as my breakfast, and Pamela bought a gingerbread man with union jack buttons because it amused her.

The ruined castle in St Andrews

We did have a older local gentleman apologize for the weather (“It’s no alwaes like this!”), and then we stumbled across a cute little churchyard that was out of the wind; I took the opportunity to take a few pictures. We had nothing that we really wanted to see, so we just meandered through town. We saw parts of the university (it’s spread out quite a bit), and passed a coffee shop that proclaimed “Will and Kate met here for coffee” (with “for coffee” in much smaller letters). We eventually made our way to the official St Andrews Links golf shop, where we were supposed to meet the bus. We nosed around the tiny little shop, and were quite ready to leave about 20 minutes before the bus was. So I took a few pictures of the golf course, and we hung out with all the other people who were waiting to get back on the warm bus.

St Andrews golf course

As we continued towards Inverness, the scenery really started to remind me of driving through BC. It was hilly, and very green and lush, with streams and even pine trees at times. Quite nice; not exciting.

Pitlochry, Scotland

Lunch was at a town (city?) called Pitlochry. We just stopped for about 45 minutes to grab a quick lunch, but it’s clearly a popular coach stop. There were another six or seven coaches in the parking lot that we were in, and the area was full of restaurants and gift shops. Pamela and I ended up in a fish & chips shop run by a burly Scot. Deep fried food is very popular in Scotland; Pamela’s hoping to find a deep-fried Mars bar somewhere. We had “chicken breast chunks” and chips (with white vinegar instead of malt vinegar, for this first time this trip), and I had an Irn Bru. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before.

Just some of the coaches parked in Pitlochry

Irn Bru is a soft drink that’s very popular in Scotland. In fact, it’s apparently more popular than Coke, making Scotland one of the few countries in which Coke isn’t the #1 soft drink. Irn Bru is basically orange pop, though it’s got a more complex flavour than, say, Orange Crush; I think it tastes a bit like cream soda.

We kept heading north, and made it to the Glenlivet distillery for a tour and whiskey tasting. It was neat to visit such a well-known distillery, and the free scotch at the end didn’t hurt either! We had three options; I think the one I chose was an 18-year-old. The amusing highlight of the tasting was probably the fact that most of the people on the bus obviously don’t drink scotch.

The Glenlivet warehouses

Quotes afterwards included:

  • “Our tastebuds are destroyed.”
  • “My stomach hurts.”
  • “Very bad memories.”

I was apparently one of the few people on the bus who will actually drink a scotch on occasion. I was probably most amused by our 18-year-old American, who has been enjoying drinking legally for the first time. He…was not a fan of the scotch :-).

The Glenlivet distillery. The new distillery is on the left; the old is on the right

Then, just after leaving the distillery, we passed a golf course named “Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course”. Which amused me and seemed worth sharing.

A nice display inside The Glenlivet.

Overall, the drive today felt a lot more familiar than probably anywhere else we’ve been. Some of the houses could have been right at home in Canada. There were cattle pastures by the side of the road, and forests of pine and birch. Some of the hills and windy roads in the highlands might have been the Trans-Canada through northern Ontario. Of course there were plenty of discrepancies, starting with the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road, but the scene was not nearly as foreign as most of what we’ve been looking at on this trip.

Sheep in the Scottish Highlands

We’re now at a hotel that’s just full of character: the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. It’s kind of small, and the rooms are freezing, but it feels like stepping back in time. There are about a dozen of us in the library right now: tartan carpet, tartan curtains on the bay window, couches, a wood fireplace with a roaring fire, and one wall covered in a bookshelf full of old books. And we’re all on our iPads and smartphones and laptops because it’s one of the only places in the hotel that you can get wifi πŸ™‚


A lazy day

We didn’t have to leave the hotel until 9:00 AM today. 9:00! Can you imagine? That means we could sleep until 7:30!

Seriously, it’s been a while since we’ve slept in like this. Combined with an early night last night, it was fantastic…and we could have slept more. But we got up, showered, did not have to pack our bags, had breakfast, and met the group on time for departure to Edinburgh Castle. Roxy was not her usual perky self this morning; she was out drinking last night with some of the others and seemed to be feeling the after effects πŸ™‚

Our bus driver also had the day off (EU regulations demand it), so we were all given day passes for the Edinburgh transit system (well, one of them; there are at least two), and Roxy took us to Edinburgh Castle. She gave us our entry tickets and left us to our own devices.

Approaching Edinburgh Castle

Pamela and I wandered through the castle, which was very cool, because unlike Cardiff Castle, it’s not just an outer wall – it’s full of buildings and streets inside like it would have been originally, so it feels a lot more real…you can get a sense of how it might have operated. There’s been a fort on Castle Hill since at least 600 AD. (Quote from the information sign: “Three hundred heroes rode to their doom after a year drinking in a hall on the castle rock” β€” doesn’t that just sound Scottish somehow?) I gather that the current castle setup was started by someone named King David I in the 12th century, but the only building that remains from that period is one church. The castle’s been invaded several times so most of the buildings have been knocked down and rebuilt over the centuries.

Buildings in Edinburgh Castle

Also in the castle, we wandered into an impressive-looking building called the War Memorial. It was built after the First World War, and has of course been turned into a memorial for the Second World War and later wars as well. On the inside, it was absolutely stunning. It’s like a church inside: all stone arched ceilings and stained glass windows and engravings and such. I didn’t expect anything at all like it, and was quite blown away. Unfortunately, because photography is prohibited inside, I can’t show you what it looks like. But I can relay the engraving that was in the room dedicated to the unknown soldiers, which really struck me:

Others also there are who perished unknown
Their sacrifice is not forgotten
And their names though lost to us are written in the books of God

The Scottish War Memorial

Next we went to the tower that held the old Scottish crown, scepter, and sword, plus the Stone Of Scone, aka the Stone Of Destiny. There are whole big complicated stories about these: they’ve been lost, stolen, recovered, broken, repaired, hidden, found, modified, and so forth over the ages. The most modern bit is about the Stone Of Scone. This is just a rectangular chunk of rock from a place called Scone. Historically, all Scottish kings were crowned on it. Back in the 13th century, King Edward I stole it from Scotland, and it was only just returned in 1996! (There’s a lot more to the story; look it up if you’re interested.)

Edinburgh Castle’s “main street”

A snail I found in the flowers

By then, I was getting hungry and Pamela was getting bored, so we skipped the rest of the castle and headed out. We were looking for a place to eat, and actually ended up in a Pizza Hut; we’re still feeling unwell and we just wanted some familiar food that we knew would fill us up. It did the trick, and then we went wandering the Royal Mile β€” a stretch of road full of various shops β€” and did some souvenir shopping.

Edinburgh, we’ve decided, is an extremely pretty city. It’s just really beautiful to look at in most of the older part of the city. Part of this is because it’s a very hilly city…which also makes it kind of tiring to wander around. So we certainly took our time. It was really nice to not be in a hurry for once. We had the option of getting back to the hotel for a free dinner at 7:00, but other than that we had nothing on the schedule.

A lot of people rub this toe.

So after shopping, we ended up at an unusual place called the Camera Obscura. This is a tourist attraction centered around…well, optical things, is the best way I can describe it. There are optical illusions and holograms and stereoscopic photos and a maze made of mirrors and all sorts of stuff. One highlight, for me, was this hallway that you walk down that’s basically a catwalk through a big round tube. The room is dark and the inside of the tube is covered in coloured lights, and it’s rotating as you walk along, and it’s absolutely disorienting. It’s a very weird feeling, and you need to grab onto the rails because you’re convinced that you’re tipping over.

Pamela’s very bad day

The reason for the name “Camera Obscura” is because of what’s on the top floor: a dark room with a white table in the middle, with an image of Edinburgh projected onto it from a mirror and three lenses on the room of the building. This gives a live image of what’s going on outside, in quite clear detail: you can easily recognize people walking on the streets below. An employee controls the “camera” and points it in different directions around the city, so you get a bit of a city tour thrown into the mix.

And then you can also go out onto observation balconies on the top floor and look over the city. There are binoculars and telescopes up there too. Overall, it was a surprisingly neat thing to do for almost two hours, and a nice break from the cultural and historical stuff that we’ve been immersed in for the last week.

Edinburgh, viewed from the top of the Camera Obscura building

We headed back to the hotel then and spent some time just reorganizing our bags and going through receipts and things, making sure we had records of what we were bringing back to Canada and how much money we owed each other and whatnot. Then we headed down to the hotel dinner to check out the menu, decided we didn’t feel like nibbling at another weird British meal that we were only half-interested in anyway because we weren’t feeling great, and agreed to walk across the street to a conveniently located KFC. Along the way we met another member of the group who had reached exactly the same conclusion :-). So we ate, went to the pharmacy and bought ourselves some drugs, went to the grocery store for snacks (yogurt and chocolate milk), and returned back for a relaxing evening.

So really, today was a vacation from our vacation! We both needed it, and we’re feeling better now than we did yesterday at this time, so that’s promising. It’s an early morning tomorrow, back on the road and going to Loch Ness! (I think.)


Border Hopping

Today, we crossed the England/Scotland border three times!

Our first border crossing was on the drive from Shap, England to Gretna Green, Scotland. Greta Green grew out of a tiny nowhere town that was a blacksmith and not much else, back around 1750. Here’s why:

The English, in an attempt to stop young couples from eloping and getting secret marriages, put some laws in place: to get married without your parents’ consent, you had to be 21, and the marriage had to be in a church during daylight. But Scotland didn’t adopt these laws, so people would run across the border to get married, and Gretna Green was the closest town to the border (about a half-mile). You needed a witness to the wedding: someone of profession, like a blacksmith. But you didn’t need a priest! So the blacksmiths in Gretna Green started doing marriages. This turned into a lively trade, with more blacksmiths coming to profit from it, and that’s what put the town on the map.

One of the wedding rooms at Gretna Green

So we staged a fake wedding with the couple that “won” the blind date game last night. It had “cheesy tourist attraction” written all over it, but it was kinda fun anyway. Afterwards we did a little souvenir shopping; there are a lot of shops, and Roxy claims that the prices here are fairly good.

After that amusing bit of nonsense, we popped back into England and headed to Hadrian’s Wall. This wall marked the northern border of the Roman empire, and the site we visited was Housesteads Roman Fort: the remains of a fort built along the wall. There’s not a lot to see, since most of what’s left is only a foot or two high, but I’m a sucker for old ruins so I enjoyed it. Plus you’re allowed to climb all over it if you want, so you can walk on bits of the wall and so forth. There’s a museum too, but I didn’t even bother going into it. We didn’t have an enormous amount of time, and I was enjoying wandering the ruins and taking pictures.

Hadrian’s Wall

Remains of a 19th-century well by the fort

After buying a quick snack (including “sea salt and cider vinegar crisps”, how British!), it was back onto the bus and back into Scotland! We stopped at the Scottish border crossing for the obligatory tourist photos. There was a bagpiper there too (playing, of course, “Scotland The Brave”). I briefly played with the idea of buying Dad one of the CDs he was selling, but for some reason Pamela didn’t think he’d enjoy it. (But I’m quite pleased to finally learn that “Scotland The Brave” is the name of that song that you always hear pipers playing.)

We made it to Scotland!

We stopped for a quick lunch at a service stop in a town called Jedburgh. There’s a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a few gift shops all together. It’s clearly a popular place for coach tours to stop for lunch. Nothing exciting to report here, though. We then headed on to Edinburgh. (I don’t quite have the proper pronunciation figured out, but it’s something like “Edinburra” or “Edinburrh”, if that makes sense.)

In Edinburgh, our tour manager Roxy went to meet the new people who are joining our tour. See, this trip we’re on is a “modular” tour…apparently the only one that Contiki does. It goes to England, Scotland, and Ireland, but they sell five different tour packages: all three countries, England and Scotland, Scotland and Ireland (I think), Scotland only, or Ireland only. They’re all on the same bus, so people join and leave at different points. Pamela and I are doing the “England And Scotland” trip, which means we’ll be leaving the group in Glasgow. (We are going to Ireland, but we’re doing that on our own, not with Contiki.)

That’s a lot of text to have to deal with. Here are some sheep to look at instead.

The new members of our group came out to our Scottish dinner event. We went to a restaurant (the Murrayfield Hotel and Lodge) where they served us a traditional Scottish dinner. (Appetizers: soup and haggis; entrΓ©e: chicken balmoral; dessert: sticky toffee pudding.) Yes, we both tried the haggis, and it was surprisingly edible. Very spicy, and oddly reminiscent of meatloaf. But we’re not likely to order it again.

(Actually, I didn’t finish any of my courses, including dessert. We’re both a little sick right now and I don’t have much of an appetite.)

After the meal, a bagpiper came out for an hour or so. He played the pipes, told jokes and stories, and generally entertained us. He was very popular. Apparently, this fellow (Andy) was the late Queen Mother’s favourite piper. He was a little crude, but always with a twinkle in his eye so he never came across as offensive. Very Scottish, really. I really enjoyed him and would have loved it if we had a longer show.

Andy the piper

Then the bus dropped most of the group off for a night on the town, and took the rest of us back to the hotel. Eventually. It seems like half the roads in the city of Edinburgh are under construction right now, so every time our driver though he knew how to get to the hotel, he ran into a “road closed” or “no right turns” sign or whatever. We definitely drove in circles a lot. He was impressively good-humoured about it.

And tonight in Edinburgh is our first two-night stay…with a later wake-up time tomorrow morning! I’m looking forward to that! What with us not feeling well, a bit of a slower pace for a day or two will be welcome. We’ve got a nice hotel, too. It’s a Holiday Inn, and we have double beds instead of twins for the first time on the trip. The room is a decent size, and we decided to pay for the in-room wifi. So it’s not a bad place to spend two nights.

We’re going to Edinburgh Castle in the morning; after that we don’t have any plans. We’ll see how we feel. We’re both pretty tired and Edinburgh is very hilly so we don’t expect to have the energy to do a whole lot. But who knows?


The full immersive experience

Ok, this is mostly me just fiddling around, but here’s some video I shot out of the bus window yesterday. You can watch it and see what the English countryside looks like (at least some of it) and pretend you’re on vacation with me πŸ™‚


(Hey, I’m paying for this hotel internet access, I might as well use it!)

I’ve never tried this before, so someone let me know if it worked please. (And if it’s at all interesting. Now that I’ve figured out how to do it, I could do some more if we’re somewhere interesting…)


A photo update

Just a note for everyone that gets email alerts on new posts but not on updates: I’ve added photos to my blog post from yesterday. So you can go look at the pretty pictures now if you found my wall of text scary.

Things I missed

Just a couple of points I meant to make in my last blog post, but missed:

  • Keswick has a big graphite mine, and as such has some sort of close connection to the pencil industry. They have a “pencil museum” with the world’s largest pencil. It has a name: Drew. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
  • Our hotel is deep in the countryside, surrounded by trees and a stream and walking paths. It’s all quite beautiful.
  • There are apparently red squirrels here, which is a big deal. Britain has native red squirrels, and an invasive species of large grey squirrels which are eating all the red squirrels’ food or something, so the little red squirrels are in decline and the big grey squirrels are everywhere and everyone’s rooting for the little red squirrels. It’s all very reminiscent of some sort of fable.

I think that’s it. I’m tired and not feeling well so I need to get to bed. If you don’t hear from me for a day or two, I’m not dead, the Internet access is just awful.

The Lake District

First of all: the Internet in this hotel is really bad. So unless it magically gets better, I won’t be able to upload any pictures for this post :-(. You’ll have to settle for my giant wall of text :-(.

The day started out well: Pamela turned off her alarm before I even woke up, and then she fell back asleep! The wake-up call that our tour manager set for us did wake us up, but we ended up rushed as a result. And then, when I put my shoes on, my shoelace snapped. So that was awesome.

Today was a very scenic day. We went to the Lake District, which is, if I understand it, is a sort of national park. And technically, there’s only one “lake” there; the rest are “mere”s and “water”s. We went to a lake called Windermere, where there’s a town called Bowness-on-Windermere. It’s basically a resort town like Gimli or Winnipeg Beach, but a bit larger. It’s a very popular destination for local tourists, and since it was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the place was crammed.

First order of business was a lake cruise. We got on a boat, it drove us around the lake for about 40 minutes, and someone occasionally told us something about what we were boating past. It was really very pretty, and we had perfect weather for it. The shoreline is very hilly, and very lush and green, with lots of different types of trees. That’s something I’ve noticed around here: while a forest in Manitoba will normally have one or two dominant types of trees, here it’s a whole mixture.

Sailboats on Windermere

It’s kind of cottage country at Windermere, but really expensive cottages. Apparently plots of land start at around Β£3,000,000, so the houses on them are very nice indeed! There were also loads of sailboats out on the lake, and overall it was a nice relaxing outing. It was kind of weird, I thought, to be on vacation doing the things that British people do on a day out.

A cozy little cottage

After the cruise, we had some free time in town. Two well-known authors lived in the area: William Wordsworth (not great for tourism) and Beatrix Potter (amazing for tourism). There’s a Beatrix Potter museum and everything.

So we wandered around a bit, bought a quick lunch (exactly the same as yesterday’s, actually), and did a little souvenir shopping. We also bought some locally-made ice cream (delicious!), admired the quantity and variety of tourists (including a group of Germans in lederhosen), and listened once again to the locals enthuse about how amazing the weather is. Overall, I found the town felt a little fake. It reminded me of Jasper; it felt like it was deliberately built to look quaint and old when it isn’t really.

One of the main roads in Bowness-on-Windermere

Then it was onto the bus to Keswick (pronounced “Kezzick”). Along the way we drove down what would have been a typical lakeside road, except there were sheep everywhere. Seriously, this place is just full of sheep. Sometimes they’re in pastures, other times they seem to just sort of be wandering about. The countryside is divided up into all these little pastures by…not fences, but stone walls.

The English countryside

Anyway, at Keswick, we were doing some outdoorsy activities. Some people did canoeing and kayaking…most (like me) did something called a “high ropes” course. This was a lot of fun: there are a bunch of ropes and cables and swinging platforms and such, all tied to trees in this wooded area, and you put on a climbing harness and clip yourself to safety cables and clamber along the course, which gets steadily more challenging β€” and higher β€” as you go. At times, I’m sure we were higher than a second-storey window. It was good fun, but very tiring. The whole time, the sheep in the neighbouring field baa’d at us. I think they were laughing.

Safety first!

(Oh, on the way to the ropes course, our coach approached a road with a sign “not suitable for coaches”. The driver paused for a second, then turned up the narrow road, and the bus broke into applause.)

Afterwards, we wandered over to Castlerigg Stone Circle. This is another stone circle, akin to Stonehenge, but the stones are just vertical; there are no cross-pieces. And because it’s not nearly as famous, it’s not protected β€” you can walk right up to the stones, touch them, hug them, climb on them…it was great! The legend is that you can’t count the stones; you’ll get a different number every time. Though the group eventually decided that there were (probably) 49…there was still some disagreement.

Castlerigg stone circle

I’m a tourist!

Then it was into the town of Keswick itself. It’s a small town, not a lot of shopping, with an outdoorsy focus. There are lots of shops selling things like hiking shoes, a lot of the shops have “Dogs welcome!” signs, and it’s generally that sort of place. Everything had closed early, because it was Sunday afternoon. Pamela and I found an Italian restaurant for dinner; she had a ham and pepperoni pizza (I think) and I had a piri piri chicken breast. I don’t really know what piri piri is, but I’ve seen it a few places. Some sort of spice mix, I think. It was pretty good. I also learned that “lemonade” in some places around here means “7-up”. (Oh, the other day, in York I think, I had an amazing glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. The lady made it right in front of me from a couple of lemon halves and some ice and water. Delicious!)

After dinner we headed back to the bus. We were early…a lot of other people were too. Everyone was hot and tired and just hanging around in the shade. For the night, we’re in a place called the Shap Wells Hotel. It’s near the town of Shap, and is in fact a Best Western.

Our hotel. It’s a rough life.

And the night has been good and surreal. First, this hotel is just strange…bizarre patterned wallpaper and rich leather furniture in the lobby and old wooden furniture and random three-step staircases halfway down hallways and an inscrutable room layout. Second, Pamela and I are having our first drinks of the trip (she’s having some sort of pear cider, I’m having Glenfiddich). Third, an absurd female lounge singer is singing covers of an amazing variety of music from about a five-decade span. Fourth, there are an enormous number of very old people here…and they’re dancing along to the lounge singer. And finally, we played a “blind date” game to pick two fake couples to stage a wedding tomorrow. I’ll tell that story…well, tomorrow.

The Internet access here seems to be getting progressively worse, so if this post, even without pictures, makes it online, we can all consider ourselves lucky.


Heading North

I’m looking at my notes for today, and wow, were we busy! Good thing I took some notes along the way, because this morning already feels like a day or two ago!

(On a side note, tour manager Roxy has suggested that everyone on this tour should try “wi-fi rehab” and not worry about getting online every day, but…that’s not gonna happen!)

So we started with an English breakfast at 6:45 this morning. The phrase “continental breakfast” comes from the British, to distinguish the simple, cold breakfasts common on the European continent from the English breakfasts that they’re used to. Breakfast had…I don’t even remember everything. Sausage and potatoes and eggs and ham and bacon and baked beans and fried mushrooms and probably more, PLUS toast and cold cereal and croissants and coffee and tea and juice and yoghurt… It was an impressive spread. We’ve been told to expect this most mornings.

But because it was early morning and I’m used to a simple breakfast, that’s what I had. Croissants and tea and orange juice. Three of each, actually.

You know what? I don’t even remember what this is. Pretty though, ain’t it? (It’s in York, I can tell you that.)

Then on the bus at 7:30! We got a bit of a geography lesson on the drive: Roxy explained the meanings (and historical relevance) of the terms Britain, Great Britain, The United Kingdom, and England, as well as how Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland fit into the picture…plus how the politics are structured now with how the various countries are governed by both independent parliaments, a shared parliament, and a shared monarch.

So now I’m smarter. (Short version: Great Britain is England, Wales, and Scotland; The UK is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland.)

And then we went to Liverpool!

Of course, the thing to do in Liverpool is Beatles tourism, and we certainly did that! We had a local tour guide come on the bus and she gave us the “Magical Mystery Tour”: she told Muffin where to drive us, and she pointed out all the sights: where the various members of the band went to school, grew up, met, what bus route they took, where some of the locations mentioned in the songs were, and so on. (So we saw Penny Lane and where Strawberry Fields was, but for some reason not Abbey Lane.) She also told us a bit about the history of the band, and how it grew from the Quarrymen into the Beatles.

Guess what song the guide played as we drove along this street?

While in town, our tour guide Jackie also told us the story behind the fairly distinctive Liverpudlian accent. It’s because of the history of the city: a huge number of Irish people moved there during the Irish potato famine. So the Liverpool accent has a significant Irish component to it: there were so many Irish people that it influenced the accent of the entire city.

She also pointed out a couple non-Beatles landmarks, like the former offices of the White Star shipping company, and the balconies where the owners stood to announce to the public that the Titanic had sunk.

Entrance to The Cavern Club

Afterwards, we had some free time. We walked down to The Cavern Club, which calls itself “the most famous club in the world”. It’s most well-known for being the place where The Beatles first performed and made a name for itself, but loads of other bands performed there as well and their names are written all over the walls. Some of the names I saw and remember are the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Queen…loads more, many of whom are quite well-known, but my memory fails me. I ordered a drink while we were there (just a coke) because it seemed like the thing to do.

The stage where the Beatles first performed.

Inside the Cavern Club. It’s smaller than it used to be.

Then, we just wandered around the local shopping streets while making our way back to Albert Docks, the waterfront district where our coach would be meeting us. We grabbed some lunch (I did a very British thing and got a box of takeaway chips), and sat on a bench by the harbour (I think) and waited for the bus. Pamela had something from a coffee chain we’ve seen everywhere we’ve been called Costa seems to be the British equivalent of Second Cup. I went in after I was done my chips and got an iced chocolate drink, and then wasn’t allowed to take it on the bus! (No dairy products allowed, because if they spill they’re a huge mess to clean up). I should have known better, so I just had to chug it πŸ™‚

The harbour at Albert Docks

It was a very nice wait for the bus though, because today was another gorgeous day! Not a cloud in the sky; blue from horizon to horizon. Everywhere we go we’re hearing how lucky we are with the weather! It reminds me of when I was in Alaska and kept hearing the same thing.

Anyway, that was Liverpool! A neat city, kind of funky, with a different feel than the other cities we’ve been in. There’s definitely a music/pub scene going on, and there are apparently a huge number of students theat come to atudy at the two universities…not because the universities are amazing, but because of the night life.

Oh, we also saw a very big brick church. It was huge and impressive and imposing…not particularly ornate, but there was a lot of it. Our local guide described it as the largest cathedral in England (remember this for later). Also, trivia: it was designed at the age of 21 by the same guy that designed the iconic red British telephone box, and there’s one of those telephone boxes inside the church.

And that was only HALF the day!

We then drove to the city of York. It’s a very old city, with lots of history: the Angles lived there, the the Vikings took over, then the Romans invaded, then the Romans left, then the Normans invaded, and so on. Everyone left their mark. So it’s got a very old city wall, and lots of very old stone buildings, and yet again it’s completely different than any other city we’ve been to so far. York feels quite medieval…a lot of the city hasn’t changed much in a few hundred years, and it shows. It’s surprising to me how different these cities are in architecture and design and atmosphere, and it always seems to relate to their history.

Driving from Liverpool to York

Roxy started by taking the entire group on a walking tour of York, but about halfway along, Pamela and I abandoned the group in an area called The Shambles, which is where all the butchers used to be. It’s all twisting roads and tiny hidden alleyways, and it’s filled with shops, including a surprising number of sweet shops (that’s “candy stores” if you don’t speak British). We wandered around for quite some time, exploring the alleys and doing some shopping and just relaxing. It was quite nice: we didn’t have any goals and we weren’t trying to cram in any tours, so for probably the first time on the Contiki tour we didn’t feel rushed.

Just one of the windy shopping streets in The Shambles

One of the lanes that the locals use to avoid the crowds.

We didn’t wander totally aimlessly, though. Every once in a while, we saw a tall impressive stone building in the distance, and we assumed (correctly) that it was the Yorkminster (a cathedral), and we meandered in its general direction.

When we finally got a clear view of the Yorkminster, we were impressed by its size. Then we stepped out of the alleyway and could really see it, and were astonished. And then, just as we were taking all that in, the bells started playing! We admired the building, tried in vain to photograph it, and listened to the carillon for probably 20 minutes.

A feeble attempt to photograph the long side of the Yorkminster. See those tiny people at the bottom?

Another view, from around the corner.

Later, we learned two pieces of trivia about the Yorkminster. First, it took about 300 years to build. Sounds ridiculous, but having seen it, I believe it (and others on our tour say it’s even more impressive on the inside). And second it’s…the largest cathedral in England. That makes two cities in one day each with the largest cathedral. There must be some technicality here that I missed out on…is one a cathedral and one a church? Is there more than one way to measure size? No idea.

When we were done there, we started to make our way back to the meeting point for our group…the same place we started our walk. This was when I was really glad to have my GPS. Because I knew from the GPS where we were and where we needed to be, we didn’t need to try to retrace our path. Instead, we could walk back to the meeting point down an entirely different set of streets and alleys. We found our groups and went to a pub for a local pub dinner…something that was included in our tour package. This turned out to be vegetable soup, pork roast, Yorkshire pudding (naturally), potatoes (mashed and…roasted? not sure), boiled vegetables, and some sort of chocolate cake with clotted cream.

And our day still wasn’t done! The final item on the schedule was a ghost walk. See, York is reputed to be the most haunted city in the world. So we had a local guide take us around the city and tell us some of the stories of the alleged hauntings. He did a really good job: he wasn’t over-dramatic and wasn’t trying to scare people, just told stories of what people had seen and what the background was (i.e. “The description of this ghost matches so-and-so, who had this story and died here in this way…”)

This lane got its name from one of the ghost stories. Then the city changed it. Then the locals got cranky and they put a new sign up with both names. Our guide says that everybody uses the old name.

(Side note that I don’t know where to fit in: York has an enormous number of pubs. And it’s always been that way…old manuscripts apparently claim that a man could spend a year inside the walls of York and have a drink in a different pub every night. That works out to a pub every 2-3 doorways in some areas of the city. There aren’t that many now, but there are still a lot. There’s a big pub culture…apparently not heavy drinking, but going to the pub is definitely the thing to do in the evening.)

Finally, it was back to the bus and time to go to our hotel. We’re in a small town called Wetherby (pronounced “weatherbee”). This town is right on the old route from London to Edinburgh and used to e a stopover point for people making that journey, so its very appropriate that we’re staying here! It was a late arrival…we didn’t get to the hotel until around 10:00…but it’s a later start tomorrow morning too, so that balances out!



First day on the bus!

Our tour officially started today, and it was a loooong day. We were to meet in the courtyard at 6:45 AM, which meant we needed to be up, showered, packed, checked out, and ready to go by then. That turned out to be pretty easy, because I woke up at 5:20. So we were both all ready to go at the appointed time.

The tour, though, wasn’t! There were four different Contiki tours departing from the hotel this morning, all at the same time. Ours ended up being the third one out, so we had our group meeting and check-in at 7:00, and were on the bus and on our way by 7:30.

And of course we got to meet our Contiki reps. Our tour manager is a tiny hyperactive Aussie girl named Roxy, and our driver is β€” really β€” a tiny grinning Aussie guy in tight pants, shiny shoes, giant graduated aviator shades, a lip ring, and a shirt unbuttoned almost all the way to his navel to show off his very hairy, tattooed chest.

Oh, and he’s named Muffin.

This is Roxy.

The bus itself is a bit dangerous all by itself, because it’s a European (actually Dutch) bus, which means it’s left-hand drive. Which means the door is on the right-hand side, like any bus in Canada. But since, in the UK, you drive on the left side of the road, that means that the door does not open onto the sidewalk; it opens into traffic. We’ve been warned to be careful about that!

So our first “stop” (not really a stop) was a driving tour of London. Muffin drove us around London for an hour and Roxy pointed out basically every major tourist landmark in the city. From Buckingham Palace to Tower Bridge to the “Gherkin” to the London Eye to Picadilly Circus, you name it, we probably saw it.

Tower Bridge (definitely not London Bridge!)

London Tower (it’s short, more like a fortress) with the “Gherkin” in the background

Then, we drove to our first actual stop: Stonehenge!

I forget where I took this

The drive through the English countryside was interesting all by itself. In a lot of ways, it was almost but not quote like driving through, say, some of the hillier parts of Saskatchewan. Especially when going past canola fields and power lines, you could almost forget you were in a different country. But the trees and bushes and such are kind of different, and there are a lot of sheep, and it’s hillier and the roads are windy, so it always feels just a little bit off. And then you spot an old farmhouse or a quaint little village and it’s all red brick buildings and very British and you remember where you are.

Some of the English countryside

Stonehenge was kind of weird. It was exactly what you expect: a big ring of stones. Though it was actually smaller than i expected. Not the stones themselves: they were huge. But the ring itself was more compact than I had envisioned. It was pretty cool, because you walked all the way around the ring and could see it from all sides. We had the audio guide gadgets so we got a bunch of education out of it.

Unfortunately, we only had 45 minutes there, which was enough time to listen to the whole audio guide, but if you also wanted to take photos, go to the gift shop, etc., it was really tight. So I skipped over some of it (and mine was acting up anyway), and ended up buying the guidebook from the gift shop so I can read about everything I missed πŸ™‚

Another view of the stones

Then it was off to Bath! Well, first we had to wait for one late member of the tour to show up. That was about a 10- or 15-minute delay, and Roxy did not look pleased. Generally a Contiki tour will happily leave without you, but because this was our first stop on our first day and you can’t exactly get on a train from Stonehenge, I think she was being a bit forgiving.

Bath Abbey

The town of Bath is quite literally named: it’s the site of an old Roman bath that was built on a hot spring which was reputed to have healing qualities. Over the years, the baths have been expanded, built on top of, rediscovered, restored, etc.. So we took that audio tour as well. It was neat to see but really took longer than I would have liked (even though I enjoyed seeing it).

Modern (20th-century) statue in the Roman style overlooking the baths

The baths from water level…a couple meters below modern ground level

The town of Bath is kind of interesting. It’s very different than any other British city I’ve been in. There are a lot of white stone buildings; our tour manager kept talking about the Edwardian (no, wait, I think it was Georgian) architecture. And the streets are very winding and narrow and pedestrian-oriented. Pamela and I both thought it felt a lot like an Italian city…it reminded me of Rome in many ways.

A street in Bath

Anyway, after the tour of the baths, we had lunch at an establishment that described itself as “The smallest pub it Bath”, and it was indeed tiny. By then we ony had about an hour to kill before catching our bus, so we went to a fudge shop that Roxy recommended highly, bought some fudge, and wandered around and took pictures.

Fountain by Bath Abbey

Then it was time for a fairly long drive to the place where we’re spending the night: a city (?) named Wolverhampton. Our hotel here is surprisingly nice: the rooms are spacious, there’s free wifi and even a pool(!), the restaurant is quite nice (dinner was included with our tour package tonight), and the hotel halls are kind of winding and full of weird turns and steps and nooks and crannies. It’s not near anything remotely touristy, but Pamela and I both really like it.

Our room.

One downside is that there’s no elevator…a common feature of these hotels. We’re on the second floor…which is European for “third floor” (it goes: Ground floor, First floor, Second floor, etc.). So we have to climb the narrow staircase every time we leave or return to our room. This also means we have to carry our bags up and down the stairs. Pamela and I are both well under the 44-pound limit for the trip (my bag originally weighed in at under 30 pounds), and we’re glad about that!

The hotel hallway and stairs.

After dinner, I went for a short walk while it was still a little light to get some photos of Wolverhampton, and now Pamela and I are in our room relaxing. It’s another early morning tomorrow (that may be a theme on this tour) and neither of us were super-enthused about the idea of going pub crawling with the rest of the crew. We did meet a few people over dinner, so we’re not being complete loners πŸ™‚

Residential street in Wolverhampton