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UK and Ireland

UNITED KINGDOM | Tuesday, 30 September 2008 | Views [2336]

For these 3 weeks our plan was to rent a car and drive in a clockwise direction around the UK and Ireland, starting and finishing in London.  Given the one night stand nature of this trip, I think I'll have a go at a straight diary style.

UPDATE:  This may have been a mistake as it’s made me think more about the details of each day and made the whole blog super long.  So long, in fact, that I doubt you’ll get through it (even though, on the whole, it’s not too bad).  So I’ve decided to put an executive summary at the top and some contents to help you if you’re not quite as devoted to following our trip as us or our Mums.  Bear in mind, though, that at just under 3 weeks it was the longest trip we've done so far apart from the Kumuka tour, so there's a lot of content.

Executive Summary

We arrived in London and had a day to look around.  We spent most of the day on a sightseeing bus passing all the big sights and generally orienting ourselves.  The weather that day was not great – but luckily London is one of those cities that isn’t diminished too much by a bit of rain (it’s almost expected).  The following 16 or so days were spent driving around the country (and its neighbours) in a hirecar, following the itinerary outlined in the table of contents below and ending up back in London.  The final day was spent in London walking around looking at a few more sights close up, a day that was surprisingly successful in seeing all the sights we wanted to see and having fantastic warm, sunny weather to enjoy them in.

We caught up with quite a few friends during the trip including:  Tonia (London), Duncan and Louise (Plymouth), Fiona (Cardiff) and Michelle (Edinburgh), as well as staying at Silja’s place in Glasgow (with permission), though she was out of town at the time.

It was great to see so much of a country we’ve known so much about remotely through history, literature, movies and popular culture.  Much of it also held a certain comforting familiarity through shared cultural background, food, beer, placenames and, of course, language.

Geographical highlights included:  New Forest;  Salisbury (major highlight);  Dartmoor (also major);  Wales (although we didn’t spend much time there and think it was definitely worthy of more time);  Aran Islands;  Snowdonia;  Scottish Highlands;  Edinburgh;  York;  Peak District;  Cottswolds;  and, of course, London.

Cultural Highlights included:  English and Irish pubs;  English and Irish beers;  traditional food from all over (especially sausages, roast beef, Irish stew, English breakfasts and even black pudding and haggis);  Bill Bryson’s audio commentary in the Roman Baths in Bath;  English comedy panel shows;  cathedrals and castles.

Anyway, if you’d like to know more have a read of the main blog below, or just scroll to the days that interest you.


Note that these aren’t links and clicking on them won’t take you to the relevant part of the document.  I’m not that clever.

Day 1 - Örebro to London
Day 2 – London
Day 3 - London to Brighton via Canterbury and Hastings
Day 4 - Brighton to Salisbury via New Forest
Day 5 - Salisbury to Plymouth via Old Sarum, Stonehenge and Avebury
Day 6 - Plymouth and Dartmoor
Day 7 - Plymouth to Cardiff via Bath
Day 8 - Cardiff to Wexford via Cardigan
Day 9 - Wexford to Galway via Kilkenny
Day 10 - Galway to the Aran Islands and back to Galway
Day 11 - Galway to Dublin
Day 12 - Dublin to Lancaster via Snowdonia
Day 13 - Lancaster to Glasgow via Lake District and Hadrian's Wall
Day 14 - Glasgow to Inverness via Loch Lomond, Western Highlands, Great Glen and Loch Ness
Day 15 - Inverness to Edinburgh via more Highlands
Day 16 - Edinburgh to York via North Yorkshire Moors
Day 17 - York to the Cotswolds via Sherwood Forest and Peak District
Day 18 - Cotswold Hills to London via Oxford
Day 19 - London
Day 20 - London to Örebro

Day 1 - Örebro to London

We had decided to fly Ryanair, the European international equivalent of JetStar - super low prices for expectedly minimal service.  Part of the reason for this (apart from saving money) was because Ryanair fly out their Sweden to UK leg from the remoter airports of Västerås to Stanstead, and Västerås is actually about 1hr closer to Örebro than the main Stockholm airport Arlanda (which itself is about 40min north of Stockholm anyway).  The other consideration was, of course, the price.  We got two people and their baggage to the UK and back for a total of about $120, and most of that price was checking our baggage.  In fact, our train tickets to and from the airports at each end each cost more than the flights, though complaining about that seemed like buying a house for $5000 and than complaining that a new car cost more.  The baggage limits on Ryanair are a little weird with a 15kg limit per bag but a 10kg limit on the carryon.  Like JetStar they are notoriously strict with limits and times and such (and the choose-your-own-seat when you get on the plane was a bit of a novelty) but we managed to get through it all without incident.  The seats were on the cramped side, but then again we paid full price to fly to Madrid on (the recently disgraced) Spanair and they were just as bad.  So after starting out at about 9am to get the train from Örebro for our 2hr flight, we ended up getting to our destination in London at about 5pm (thanks to the usual absurdities of air travel where it takes you longer to get to the airport than it does to fly between countries).

Our destination was the flat of my old friend Tonia who has been living in London for a few years now.  This was nice and fairly central in Kings Cross just to the north of the city centre.  After catching up and grabbing dinner at the restaurant next door, it was off to bed.

Day 2 - London

This was the first of two full days in London (the second coming at the end of the trip).  We took the bus to Victoria Station to get on one of the big red tour busses that do the tourist loop around the city.  Well, we took the bus part of the way until it got stuck in traffic on Oxford St, when we got off and took the tube the rest of the way (yay for the all day tickets - boo for our first bus being about the only single-decker in London).  So we got on the hop-on-hop-off tour bus and decided to stick with it the whole day since it was pretty exy (actually they all are in most cities - about $50 each).  The bus went on a big loop past Marble Arch, around the back of Hyde Park (through Kensington and Notting Hill) before finally getting to the meaty landmarks of Central London.  The detour was nice enough, except that by the time we got to Trafalgar Square, it was starting to rain on our open-topped little possie.  We soldiered on with umbrella up though to get a good orientation of where all these sights were that we'd heard about our whole lives.  After Trafalgar we went past Big Ben (and the clock tower it is housed in - Big Ben is just the massive bell that bongs out the hours) and across the Westminster Bridge, past the Eye over another bridge, up Fleet St to St Paul’s, over another bridge to the south side of Tower Bridge and over that to the Tower. 

Here we got off to have a look around and hop on the ferry that was also included in our ticket.  First we had a look at the Tower of London, both remarking on how we thought it'd be bigger.  But I guess fortresses are hard to see properly if they're built to be properly defended and the 4 or so various concentric walls built around the central White Tower (the square one with the minaret-type turrets at each corner) gave the whole complex a dome-like appearance.

We hopped on the ferry back to Westminster at this point (would have been nice to get to Greenwich but ran out of time) and enjoyed a nice commentary put on by the boat crew (for tips) which was jolly good fun with little anecdotes about the various buildings along the river.  It brightened up the grey weather a bit (not that we were glum, but it's always nice to feel better than one otherwise might have).  At the end of the cruise we hopped on the remainder of the bus loop, past Westminster and Buck House (well, the side anyway), and hopped on the tube back to Tonia's place to get changed for dinner.

As it so happened, Emma's Aunt Margie was in London doing much the same trip around the country as us - except in the opposite direction and on a coach.  So Tonia used just a small percentage of her considerable organisational skills and rustled us up a really nice restaurant right near where Margie was staying in South Kensington, and the 4 of us had a lovely meal and all swapped travel stories.

One thing that struck me about London (particularly the outer inner suburbs) was the Rhapsody in Brick that the Victorian engineers had made of it.  Rather than dull monochromatic stone that cities like Paris and Rome had far too much of, some parts of London had a lovely palette of browns (ranging from dark chocolate to ... less dark chocolate) with the light mortar pattern giving something to actually focus the eyes on.  A bit like the Eiffel Tower, it made the engineering the highlight of the architecture and showed how wonderfully practical those Victorians were - like the Romans before them.  In fact I remember reading once a comment in an old history that the Victorians were the first society to re-attain the standard of living that the Romans enjoyed in the 2nd Century AD (ie the 100s) - though I guess we're talking about the upper classes in both cases here - showing what a society of engineers can achieve I guess.

Day 3 - London to Brighton via Canterbury and Hastings

Next morning we took our stuff to the Hertz car rental place where we'd booked a nice little fuel efficient diesel car to take us around the country without draining our funds on the $2.40/L petrol ... or hurting the planet more than we needed to (says the guy who burned up a few years worth of motoring on the plane from Oz).  We got there and the sales guy (northern Italian I think) gave us some fast talking spiel about doing us a deal on the Audi or the other sports car out the front (which he helpfully showed us the boot space of - as if that was the main point of interest), and after tapping away announced he could let us have it for just £590...extra.  Now, given that we had booked our car for about £570, we were understandably uninterested in paying more than double (plus the extra fuel) for a car we didn't want.  So he crapped on for a bit about other cars until we asked him outright why we couldn't just have the car we'd ordered.  It was only at this point that he told us he didn't have that car there for us.  So he offered us a (manual) Saab.  We told him that Emma couldn't drive a manual and I didn't want to, to which he replied "It's no problem".  We pointed out it was a problem for us and pointed out that Emma is not licensed to drive a manual, at which point he settled on a little Nissan Note that was really our only option.  He took a bit off the price and we got on our way after only wasting about an hour being stuffed around by this (potentially) coked up git.

The car itself was a bit like my LG mobile phone.  It did some stuff really well - like telling you your average speed, fuel consumption and exactly how many miles you had left till you had to get more petrol.  But it didn't have cruise control or a decent stereo (after stuffing around with the equaliser, we could only get about 2 of our CDs to have decent sound, most had a very prominent high hat and bass drum or something and really faint melody and vocals).  It did get over 40 miles per gallon (about 16km per L, I think) so at least we were on the fuel efficient side of the field, though it had a fairly un-aerodynamic shape (with a back like a van) which was an odd choice.

Anyway, armed with Tonia's A-Z we took only another hour to navigate our way out of London to get on the freeway to Canterbury (only slightly longer than Chaucer's mates took I'm sure).  We got to Canterbury at about 2pm and had a glimpse of the top of the cathedral over the walls - we didn't go in due to a mix of lack of time and annoyance that you couldn't even get into the Cathedral close to see the outside of the place without stumping up £7 ($17) each.  After a quick lunch we decided to skip Dover (which would have added about an hour to the trip - possibly more since we found out later that there'd been a fire in the Chunnel) and head straight to Hastings via some lovely hedgerows and fields full of sheep.

We drove through Hastings and about 10miles inland to the town of Battle, where the Battle of Hastings actually took place.  It was again about £15 together to get in to the site, but the people at the shop talked us into getting a years membership in English Heritage for £72 together, which got us free entry into lots of other sites (including Stonehenge) and discounts at others.  We weren't sure if we'd get our money's worth but we figured it'd give us that extra incentive to go into a few more places just for a quick look rather than succumb to the stingy bug (update: we would have gotten at least into the high £60s worth of free visits so it worked out pretty well - and we'll be heading back to East Anglia for a week more yet [update on update: no more discounts in East Anglia so we got close to our money’s worth]).

Anyway, it was really nice to have a look around the battlefield of one of the turning points of history and see the considerable slope the Normans fought up and such.  The Normans built a monastery on the top of the hill (Battle Abbey) that is now in ruins and part of the site.

After that we headed to Brighton, past some more green fields and little hilltop villages with ruined churches and castles, arriving at about 7pm.  The B&B was a nice old house near the pebble "beach" and after a very cheap but suitably bland Indian meal (the raita and other condiments were the best part) we headed down to Brighton Pier for a look.

Brighton Pier is one of those old fashioned Victorian numbers with amusements along it and a fun park at the end.  The whole town has been one of the most famous seaside resorts in Britain (albeit a country not renowned for its beaches) since the early 1800s, and is apparently still quite the happening place.  We had a nice walk on the pier in the dark with all the twinkly lights and heard the music and waves crashing underneath, before heading up to bed.

Day 4 - Brighton to Salisbury via New Forest

We started the day with a very nice vegetarian breakfast (one of the reasons we chose that B&B), before heading out for a quick look at the Royal Pavilion - a pleasure dome built by Prince George (of Blackadder the Third fame) to host his parties and other orgiastic activities.  We didn't look inside (no time and not much of a discount with our card) but the outside seems to be a cross between a sandcastle (the walls are all a sand colour giving a weird adobe look) and a Moorish palace (with carvings and reliefs not unlike the Alhambra).  After that we headed on the road towards the New Forest.

New Forest is a patch of woodland roughly between Salisbury, Southampton, Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight.  It is called "new" because it was set up relatively recently by William the Conqueror (much like Newcastle) to provide a hunting ground and, more practically, a ready bulk supply of meat (ie deer) and wood for military campaigns.  It is not so much a continuous stretch of dense tree cover (as the name might suggest), but is also dotted by many clearings where the residents have farmed and grazed since before the Normans.  And it's these clearings that give the New Forest its character, with the ever present New Forest Ponies grazing among the heather.  It's also got some lovely little villages like Lyndhurst and Burley.  In fact it's this littleness that's the main charm of the place - like a model world.  The clearings make for small contained settings for the little ponies and the little villages with little houses surrounded by little farms.  Very cute.  We bought some sandwiches and headed to Bolderwood to have a walk through the pines and oaks and see some deer and more ponies.  The ponies are a special breed and are just everywhere.  At one point we passed some standing on the road that were so uninterested in our passing that we had to really manoeuvre the car around them (a few centimetres to the right and one of the ponies lips would have smudged along our windows).  After a lovely afternoon in the forest we headed up the highway to Salisbury.

We got into our B&B right across the road from the cathedral and after checking in Steve, our host, pulled out a map and highlighted a nice walking route for us to take in the hour or so before sunset.  And he did a bloody good job too (he said it was the route they took for their evening walks themselves).  We went past the 12th century cathedral, with its tallest spire in the UK (though only by default that the two taller ones fell down in the middle ages) and through the cathedral close around it that contained all the houses where the officials lived. Then we walked to the Avon river (not the Stratford-upon-Avon-where-Shakespeare-was-born Avon - Avon just means river in the old Briton language and there are a few Avons in England) and across the old St Nicholas Bridge, the old main bridge into town.  Then we went along the Avon to an Old Mill pub where we got a drink.  It was our first realisation of how cheap the beer is in England - a pint of beer and a pint of cider cost £4.50 (not much more than $10 - a big change from Sweden).  Then we walked back towards town across the water meadows - fields on the floodplain with sheep grazing, streams crisscrossing and the cathedral spire in the background.  On the way back into town we crossed a few more streams.  Salisbury is built on the junction of 5 small rivers that flow off the low plateau of Salisbury Plain to the north, and each "river" is a babbling brook that is a pleasure to cross on little bridges.

We had dinner that night at a pub called the Wig and Quill.  Now a few of you may have heard me wax lyrical (no it's true) about a little pub/microbrewery in Canberra called the Wig and Pen, with it's delicious beer and wonderful atmosphere (if you ever go to Canberra check it out), so I wonder if this pub was the inspiration for that or if it's just a coincidence.  Anyway, as Steve said, the Wig and Quill is a fairly new pub - until a century or so ago it was just a private house.  As you may have guessed, it's an old town.  Steve was telling us he'd just been to Sydney and seen an archaeological dig in the rocks where they were excited to find a house from the early 1800s - he politely pointed out that his house in Salisbury was older than that and still standing.  Anyway, I had a bangers and mash consisting of 3 different varieties of local sausage (made from 3 different species of local livestock) and they were all delicious.  This was washed down with a pint of local beer called 6X - and true to its name it was at least 50% better than the Qld local brew.

On the topic of English beers, we in Australia traditionally give the Poms crap for drinking warm flat beer (well, not me since I found the light at the W&P in Canberra), but I gotta tell you it's not something to criticise.  The beer is cellar temperature, so it's probably about 8 degrees Celsius - cool, not warm.  Following this tangent, during Midsummer in Sweden (and at Finafallet where there's no electricity) Anders stored the beer in the cellar to keep it cool, rather than filling the fridge).  Also, the best beer in my opinion (known confirmationaly as "Best") is not bubbly with CO2 (like a lager) or Nitrogen (like a creamy stout), but is rather the consistency of water.  And the resulting cool, non-fizzy, midstrength (about 4%) beer is incredibly quaffable with nothing but the rich flavours to stimulate the palate. 

The food was similarly much more enjoyable than England's international reputation gives it credit for.  Given that we've grown up in Australia with such an influx of ethnic cuisines to choose from (Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Greek, ...) the old standards of sausages and roasts and so on have been relegated to home cooking, so that going out for a well cooked roast or sausage or whatever is now more of a novelty than a curry or a pasta.  So getting the old standards done well by a nice restaurant is both a novelty and a comforting memory of Mum's cooking all at the same time.  Good simple food done well is always a pleasure in any culinary tradition and England, Scotland and Ireland more than held their own.

Day 5 - Salisbury to Plymouth via Old Sarum, Stonehenge and Avebury

Next day we left the lovely town of Salisbury and headed up to Old Sarum.  Old Sarum was the original site of Salisbury on a hilltop fort up on the plain a couple of km out of the modern city.  The site was continuously occupied since the stone age (I think) up until the 1200s when the Bishop decided to move the cathedral down to its modern location as a result of politics with the local heavy (baron, duke, whatever) that ran the Norman castle, as well as the more practical consideration that water was a bit hard to get on top of a hill.  The inhabitants gradually drifted down to the more pleasant modern site by the 5 rivers and the castle was abandoned by the 1500s.  As an interesting sidenote this made Old Sarum one of the more notorious "rotten boroughs" that plagued the Westminster System until the Great Reform Act of the mid 1800s.  Before then there were no electoral redistributions to account for population change and so Old Sarum (or rather the couple of farmers left grazing their sheep on the site, or rather the local heavy who leant on them) still elected a member of parliament while New Sarum was part of a bigger rural electorate.

Anyway, Old Sarum was a great visit.  The castle is just ruins (just a bunch of old stones as Steve put it) and the cathedral below it is only the foundations outlining the walls (some of the stones were used for the new cathedral and the rest were sold off by the local landowner in Tudor times), but the site is still up on a flat, green, circular hilltop surrounded by a pretty impressive defensive ditch.  And it was on the way to our more obvious destination of Stonehenge.

To get to Stonehenge, you drive along a fairly major road looking for the turnoff until you come over a hill and see the famous pile of bricks right next to the road (with an obvious turnoff into a minor road next to it).  It's a pretty big operation with lots of people wanting to see it.  And it's worth a look.  You could just walk along on the other side of the chainlink fence and see it for free, but our English Heritage card got us in for free and the audio guide was nice to get a bit of background.  There was also a great mural of what the site would have looked like back in the day to help make sense of the jumble of stones that remains.  Some people have complained that you are kept at a slight distance and can't go inside the circle (unless you arrange a dawn or dusk tour and pay a lot extra), but we felt there was a huge upside to this in that you could see the Henge (and take photos) without having a bunch of tourists ruining the scene - it preserves the sense of remote, windswept desolation as much as possible for one of the most visited sites in England.  There are other stone circles and some of them are bigger (see Avebury later on), but Stonehenge has the tall stones and is the only one we know of with the lintel stones across the top, making it more impressive for its size, structure, and the effort and skill that would have been necessary.

After Stonehenge, we headed further north (past Woodhenge - just a circle of modern stumps marking where the remains of ancient wooden uprights have were found) towards the larger stone circle of Avebury.  On the way over Salisbury Plain we saw a few cute "Tank Crossing" signs (with a silhouette in the same vein as the Kangaroos and Elk signs in Australia and Sweden) - Salisbury Plain being one of the main military training ranges in the UK.  Avebury is a village featuring a couple of stone circles that are so large (in diameter) that they go around half the village.  A series of paintings in the museum cafeteria where we had lunch of the area at different times stretching back to the Palaeolithic showed quite a complex of sites around the area, including a barrow burial mound just outside of town that is the biggest in the UK.  The circle itself was pretty cool, with the usual ditch and dyke surrounding a flattened bit of ground with many irregular standing stones and a few modern cement markers representing the stones that aren't there anymore.  The village also seemed quite quaint but unfortunately we had to move on after an hour and a half in order to get all the way down to Plymouth that night.

One of the reasons for the high concentrations of stone circles in the Salisbury Plain area is to do with ridges.  In the Neolithic (New Stone Age), England and most of Europe was naturally heavily forested, forests that have since mostly been cleared for farming (providing a logical, if somewhat less than helpful, riposte for any third world country when asked by the developed world to stop its land clearing in the name of climate change).  In those days the ridgelines (with less water and soil depth) were the less densely covered areas, allowing easier movement along them than in the lower lands.  As a result they were the highways of the age, carrying information and trade across the country.  Now Salisbury Plain is at the junction of about 3 ridgelines coming from the Northern interior, the Southwest (Cornwall - where much of the trade from Europe and Ireland met the UK), and the Southeast (Kent, where the rest of the continental trade came from).  This made it the natural centre of its day and the basis of the saying "All ridgelines lead to Salisbury" (or it would have if not for the Romans)...

Anyway, after an afternoon of driving through the West Country and finally hitting the freeway, we made it to Plymouth down in the far southwest of England by about 6pm.  We were there to spend a couple of days staying and catching up with with Duncan and Louise, two locals (I'd say Plymothians, but apparently that has certain connotations that certainly don't apply to them) who had been in Brisbane last year for a few months and dazzled the Swing scene with their ability to make Modern Jive look like a fun, rhythmical, musical and not-at-all crap dance.  They've since gone home and started their own Swing school (madaboutswing.co.uk for a free plug) and two better, funner and lovelier dancers and people you'd be hard pressed to meet.  Duncan has an exceptionally well developed sense of humour and Louise is cute as a button in every way.

That night we went out to a night of dinner, comedy and swing dancing at a local golf club.  The comedian was roundly agreed to be quite bad (he seemed to have a big chip on his shoulder about anyone who wasn't as Christian or English) and the Swing band was a couple of guys singing to backing tracks, but they were quite good nonetheless and played some great danceable songs.  And dance we did, and have a great time we did also.  And the dinner and cheap local beer was nice too.

Day 6 - Plymouth and Dartmoor

Next morning we headed into town to have a look around the seafront - Plymouth being a traditionally major port in the area (both commercial and naval) and grab a Cornish pasty for lunch - Plymouth is not quite in Cornwall (it's in Devon) but it was close enough and the pasty was delicious, though I did manage to tear a hole in the seat of my all purpose travel pants (the green shorts I always wear with the optional zip-on legs) while climbing onto the wall where we say eating our lunch overlooking a park and lake, which was a bit of a bother.

After lunch we drove up to Dartmoor, a large expanse of open hilly treeless country (moor) as well as some quaint little villages and farms.  The whole area is a national park but, unlike in Australia, it still has farms and villages in it since they were there before it was a national park and are probably considered part of the landscape.  National park status in the UK is as much about restricting development and maintaining traditional farming and villages as it is about maintaining natural ecosystems (since none of the ecosystems are pristine anyway after thousands of years of human settlement).  Dartmoor is a gorgeous bit of country with rolling treeless hills covered with grass and heather.  There's a great sense of isolation, remoteness and pure space that really appeals to an agoraphile like myself.  It's a bit like being above the treeline (which readers of our past travels will know I absolutely love) without going to so much trouble.  With no trees you can see the contours of the land stretching out like a continuous Lipschitz function in two variables (by now the mathematicians are nodding sagely, or shaking their heads at some definitional mistake I’ve made, and the adolescents are giggling at the word Lipschitz - I assure you I'm doing both).

We stopped off at the little picturesque village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor (WIDD-e-come) near the eastern side of Dartmoor and had a looksy around the little village church and a very strange old knickknack shop.  After that we had a "cream tea" in a little tea shop.  What the English call a cream tea is what we'd call a Devonshire tea in Australia, and since we were in Devonshire we thought it'd be fun to see how it's traditionally done.  And it is a cut above, I have to report.  Instead of thickened cream or whipped cream they use "clotted cream", which is thicker and sweeter and much, much fattier than the cream you'd get in Oz.  And they don't just use it for scones - clotted cream featured in about 4 out of the 6 meals we had in Devon, making for a very indulgent stay.  The scones were nice too.

After such a caloriffic lunch, we drove to Hay Tor, one of the bigger of the many granite outcrops that dot the higher parts of the Moor.  After a bit of a climb (partly on steps cut into the rock, probably by prisoners from the famous prison in Princetown in the middle of the moor), and losing Louise near the bottom and Emma near the top (to unfitness or acrophobia, not to gravity), Duncan and I made it to the top for the marvellous view over the Moor and to the sea.

After a drive back through the Moor and along hedgerows and past fields and over streams we made it back to Duncan and Louise's for dinner – a yummy roast veggie salad and a lemon pie for desert (with clotted cream of course).  Afterwards we stayed up playing a couple of games (including a playdough version of Pictionary) before hitting the sack.

Day 7 - Plymouth to Cardiff via Bath

We left Duncan and Louise's and headed along the highway to Bath.  After detouring off for some more hedgerow action we finally hit town.  A quick word on hedgerows for those wondering (too bad for those keen to hear about Bath):  A lot of country roads in England are between fields that are bordered by high hedges and other foliage.  This makes the narrow roads appear even narrower as the roads are now lined with walls of foliage.  The foliage is smoothly trimmed - either intentionally, or by the action of passing trucks strongly hinting to the plants not to grow leaves and twigs in their space.  Often, if taller trees are involved there is a (partial or more complete) ceiling on the tunnel as well, roughly the size of the standard lorry.  The effect is like driving through a leafy canyon and one is tempted to look out for a 2m wide hole to drop one's photon torpedoes down.

While I'm sidetracking (and ignoring the growing chorus of "Get to Bath!"), I might as well mention our navigation system that was evolving to its final form by about now.  We had opted not to pay £10 per day extra for a SatNav system (which would have ended up costing us about $350 all up, more than the cost of one) and were instead relying on a large map of Britain and Ireland that was one of the ones my workmates gave me as a going away present.  And it turned out to be supremely useful, thanks guys!  It had the A roads and B roads marked, and it also highlighted (in green) the roads that had nice scenery along them (and it was pretty right most of the time we followed them).  This, coupled with following road signs to different cities got us quite nicely between towns (and out of town in the morning).  When it came to finding our way to our accommodation each night, we had Google Maps of the area printed out with directions (actually, we had the directions from start to finish each day printed out but it turned out to be easier to just use the map).  This was less stress free and it was a shame that this happened at the end of each day, when we were already tired.  At the start of the trip, Emma frequently whinged (at different times) about not wanting to drive, navigate or take photos from the car.  Once I pointed out that she had to do at least one of those things at any point, she did knuckle down and do a more thorough job of helping with the navigating (and got quite good at it - which is impressive since spatial thinking is really not her forte).  The system was for me to drive at the start of the day and for Emma to bring it home - purely so that I could do the navigating on that last difficult stretch.  And frankly, it was somewhat empridening (you think of a better word) to have done it the old fashioned way (except for Google maps, but their directions are not that great and often extremely unhelpful), and if our relationship survived that test, it can survive anything (-:

OK, so anyway, we reached Bath ("Finally!" I hear you all cry).  Bath is (of course) the site of a hot spring that the Romans built a bath on top of and turned into a resort of sorts.  The town was somewhat rediscovered in the 1700s and 1800s and, a lot of Victorian buildings later, turned into one of The Places to Be for the upper crust.  We only had a few hours to spend there, so we headed in and got a pasty for lunch (they were becoming somewhat of a cheap staple).  We ate this lunch at a lovely garden by the (yet another) Avon river.  It cost £1 to get in, but it was quite a well maintained garden with lots of lovely flowers in an elegant Victorian style setting.

After lunch we went to the Roman Baths - the main reason for visiting the town.  The baths are interesting enough - they fell into disrepair and finally collapsed onto themselves after the end of Roman rule and were rediscovered a few hundred years ago following an investigation into why a certain cellar kept getting flooded.  The water from the hot spring bubbles up into a pool and is then fed into a bigger pool to the south east.  It is this second pool that is the main focus of the complex, with a few side rooms as well - and it was this one that was buried for centuries.  The first pool was known about the whole time (it's a bit hard to bury a spring that pumps out millions of litres of hot water every day) and used by various people from shepherds to local monks to, eventually, kings - for this reason it was renovated in Victorian times.  There was also a temple to Minerva (the equivalent to the local Celtic god Sulis for whom the baths were named), but that was rebuilt as the local cathedral/abbey in the Middle Ages.  The baths are very cool, with the mix of mostly Roman, as well as some Mediaeval and Victorian buildings and artefacts, but the best part of the tour was the audioguide.  There was the standard audioguide telling you what and when and who, and there was a guide for kids with different characters telling their stories (which was a nice touch) - the real highlight though was Bill Bryson's commentary. 

Bill Bryson is an American writer who has lived in the UK for decades and writes entertaining books on travel, language and nearly everything (as per his book "A Short History of Nearly Everything" that I read in Malmö a few weeks ago), and he was asked to provide his comments on different aspects of the site.  The result sounds like he wandered around the site with a tape recorder and gave his unscripted thoughts and impressions of what he saw (having obviously visited the site a few times previously).  The result is like having a very knowledgeable, but still very human friend tell you enthusiastically about what they genuinely think.  For example, Bill really liked one of the carved reliefs of a Celtic-looking male gorgon who he thought looked like someone you could have a pint with, but was less impressed with the gold plated bust of Minerva (that the museum is clearly very proud of), who he said left him a bit cold and that the Romans didn't carve women very well, finishing his thoughts with "I don't like it."  It helps that Bill has a very listenable speaking voice - one of the less annoying American accents (possibly because it has been tempered by so many years in Britain).  The result is that you get enthusiasm and genuine, well expressed opinions that you can agree with or disagree with but that actually make you engage with the site, rather than just look at it.  Often we'd skip the standard audioguide of an object and go straight to Bill's comments, and even found ourselves looking for the green numbers indicating that spots had Bill's comments.  It's a bit like a factual guide telling you all that is known about a painting, and listening to sister Wendy (the art loving nun) telling you the "story" of it - or, hopefully though definitely less successfully, looking up the places we've been in Wikipedia for the "facts" vs reading this blog.  Needless to say, both Emma and I considered Bills comments the highlight of the day in Bath and feel that more museums and galleries should do likewise to engage their patrons, rather than just trying to inform them (we've not bothered about getting audioguides for many sites, considering that reading a few paragraphs on the plaques usually tells you all the information you want to know - or will remember an hour later at any rate).

Anyway, after leaving Bath we drove around Bristol, across the Severn Bridge (the bridge over that big gulf between southwest England and Wales) and into Cardiff.  We stayed that night with Fiona, an English girl from Newcastle that had stayed with us in Brisbane after meeting Emma at a conference in Auckland (oh our shrinking globe).  We went out to dinner with Fiona and Fiona's neighbour Annie - a Cardiff local with that lovely Welsh accent.  I drove to the restaurant and Annie navigated and did better than any SatNav lady, except that the city is undergoing a bit of a building boom, resulting in exchanges like (picture the Welsh accent - if you don't know what that is, think of "the only gay in the village" but not quite so grotesque: "[very calm Welsh computer SatNav voice] Ok, get in the right lane.  Go right at this intersection and get in the left lane.  Go straight through and now turn left and [surprise at dead end] OOOH! That wasn't there last time I was here!"  Sorry, you had to be there, but I just want to remind myself when I read this in the future.

After a traditional Welsh dinner of Nasi Goreng and Gado Gado (we went to an Indonesian place), Annie took us on a night tour of Cardiff.  First stop was a drink at a swanky old theatre that had been transformed into a pub (Emma tried a Pimms) before a walk back past the castle to the car and a night drive around the city.  Cardiff has a go-ahead kind of vibe, with lots of building work and bright lights.  The south-east corner of Wales (Newport, Cardiff and Swansea) are where most people in the country (of Wales) live and where all the administration gets done - hence a bunch of jobs in the civil service (the Office of National Statistics for the whole UK is based in Newport).  The other main earner is as a centre for the people of the Rhonda valleys to the north to do their shopping, which is odd since Annie (a social worker) said that the Rhonda area has some of the most disadvantaged communities in Western Europe since the coal mines were closed down a few decades ago.  With Annie's local knowledge and clear quiet enthusiasm about her city, we had a great late night driving tour of Cardiff, which was fortunate since we only had one night there and no other time to see it.

Day 8 - Cardiff to Wexford via Cardigan

We left Cardiff and followed Annie and Fiona's suggestion to take a detour on our way to Fishguard to catch the ferry to Ireland.  We followed the main road west to Carmarthen and then turned north to follow a minor road to Cardigan before following the coast down to Fishguard (might be best to grab a map or go to maps.google.com).  And we were extremely glad we did take the detour since we got to drive through some of the Welsh valleees along winding rivers, across stone bridges and through green green forests.  We didn't get much of a chance to see much of Wales on this trip (pretty much the overnight in Cardiff and two half-day drives, but it's somewhere that I think deserves a bit more attention than it gets (but not so much that it means there'll be lots of people like us ruining it for the rest of the people like us).  Cardigan was a nice little town but we had a lamb pasty (for me at least) for lunch and a quick walk and then headed down the coast to catch our ferry.  Lamb seems to be the traditional dish in Wales (moreso than Gado Gado) with a Welsh Irish-stew the traditional dish.  I had asked Annie if there was anything that Welsh people ate that others might think odd (like our Vegemite) and she said told me about laver bread, a dish made from seaweed that had been boiled for hours to a paste and then mixed with oats to make a salty cake.  I didn't get to try any but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

We got to Fishguard and went to the Hertz place (actually part of a furniture shop) to get the paperwork done to make sure our taking the car to Ireland was all above board.  It hadn't occurred to us in this modern border-free Europe and the Hertz website we'd used to book the car hadn't mentioned it, nor had the useless, potentially coked-up sales guy in London.  But it all went easier than we'd hoped and we had a quick lunch and got our car in line for the ferry.  We had to sit there for about 90min since they demand that cars are there at least 1hr before departure, but it was a mizzly day (misty drizzle) and we enjoyed listening to the radio (including a Welsh language channel demonstrating the vocal gymnastics the language demands).  It was nice to be in an English speaking country again (the whole UK that is - Celtic nationalism notwithstanding, and good on them) for the simple pleasure of idly listening to talk radio, knowing what rowdy people on the street are yelling and not feeling just that little bit guilty every time we had to speak English to someone.

The ferry was nice enough, though not quite as swish as the duty free express between Finland and Sweden, and only about 3 hours each way - just long enough to have a look around, find a comfy seat, get some lunch and read a newspaper.  I bought a copy of the Times and was shocked to read a newspaper with moderate, informative, interesting articles for most of its length.  Mind you, the US election campaign was in full swing, the stockmarkets were collapsing and Golden Brown's leadership of UK Labour and the country was under a constant cloud, so the news was particularly interesting - though the level of reporting totally outstripped the Courier Mail back home.

We landed in the port of Rosslare just to the south of Wexford and ran the thorough gauntlet of Irish immigration - they routinely stopped our car on the way out and asked Emma (who was driving) through the window what we planned to do in Ireland and she flusteredly answered "Um, we're going to...um...Wexford [the main centre near Rosslare] and then, um, we're just going to drive around a bit."  Luckily that was the right answer and they happily sent us on our way (without looking at any documentation) wondering just how much vaguer the answer would have to be to warrant a bit more questioning (I guess they look for body language that might tell them that someone's hiding something).

We drove through Wexford (no real chance to see anything) and headed for our B&B about 10km to the north.  It was a nice enough place, though in a disappointingly new house - as was our other accom in Ireland as well.  I guess old houses in England have more inherent comfort to upgrade to a B&B than the old buildings in Ireland - I actually saw a morning show interview with a hotel expert bemoaning the low ratio of renovated B&Bs to new ones.  The whole area of southeast Ireland had a lot of new houses suggesting a bit of money flowing about.  Anyway, we got to our room and I flicked on the TV and what show do you think might have been the first to greet us in Ireland but "Father Ted"?!  We went out for dinner at a nice enough pub-restaurant where I had a stirfry (no Irish stew on the menu, which was a shame as I was developing a sore throat and really could have gone one).  They did, however, manage to Irish it up slightly when they served us a complimentary side of spring rolls filled with mashed potato.

Day 9 - Wexford to Galway via Kilkenny

We left our B&B near Wexford and drove northwest towards Kells Priory near Kilkenny, following some green (scenic) roads as marked on our map.  We passed a few nice valleys with fairly swollen rivers - Ireland and the UK had had quite a lot of rain in the couple of months till then.  First stop was a ruined monastery called Jerpoint Abbey.  There are a few of these around Ireland - all founded in the couple of centuries around AD1000 and almost all abandoned when the Reformation that hit England in the form of Henry VIII's roving eye (for fertile women, the extra political power shaking off Rome gave him, and the wealth of the newly nationalised monasteries) spread to relatively recently acquired Ireland in the 1500s.  Nowadays there are crumbling towers and walls from abandoned monasteries and castles spread throughout the fields of Ireland giving it a weirdly Ozymandian vibe of forgotten power, glory and relevance.

Next stop was another crumbled monastery called Kells Priory (not to be confused with the town of Kells to the northwest of Dublin where the famous Book comes from).  Unlike the previous, relatively compact site, which had a small facilities block, carpark, guided tours and corresponding cover charge, Kells Priory sprawls alone on the side of a hill in a sheep paddock.  There was some building work going on to repair or restore one of the towers, but other than that we were free to wander the site with no extra information and no-one but the sheep for company, as God intended (well, if he didn't intend it this way it wouldn't be like this would it - stands to reason).

After leaving Kells Priory we drive the 10km or so north to the regional town of Kilkenny ("You bastards!").  A pleasant enough little place, we found a carpark and headed along the main street to get a sandwich and see the Castle.  The main street was lined with yellow and brown streamers wishing the local hurling team well in the All Ireland Grand Final.  It was really sweet to see the photos of the participants on posters on shopfronts with messages of support (even the board of selectors got a shrine).  I'm not at all sure if this is strictly true, but the hurling in Ireland seems to have retained that sense of amateur sport where a team's players are drawn from and therefore truly represent the local area.  BTW, if you don't know what hurling is, it's an Irish sport that's a cross between hockey, Aussie Rules and "a bunch of mad Irishmen hitting each other with axe handles".  They used to show the final on SBS, check it out if you ever get the chance. 

Unfortunately for us the rain showers (and the need to move the car from its 2hr parking) dampened our spirits a bit as we drove past the castle and had our lunch in the green park behind it.  We didn't go in the castle (you can't do a mad dash around the British Isles in under 3 weeks if you keep going into things), but the park was nice and the back of the castle viewed across the green lawns was quite impressive, moreso than the front which was undergoing extensive building work in accordance with the 2008 International European Year of Scaffolding.  Everywhere we've gone in Europe, some monument or other will have been covered with scaffolding.  It's probably just rolling maintenance that happens all the time, but we have felt as though the whole of Europe's being done up for some big event next year or so and we've just come at a bad time.  (You don't see the evidence in the photos because:  we try to frame it out; we don't take photos of the scaffolding side; and Emma's not prepared to fill an album of lovely buildings covered in metal exoskeletons - so you'll just have to take out word for it.)

After leaving Kilkenny, we drove across the middle of Ireland towards Galway on the central west coast.  I have to say that Ireland was not nearly as green as reports had led us to expect.  Friends and books had talked about the almost unnatural emerald green of the grass caused by the moisture coming off the Atlantic.  Now, maybe it was because we were there in early Autumn, maybe we didn't go to the right places (the southwest for example), maybe it was the faded grey stone walls providing an odd contrast, but we found the grass to be a fairly dull, faded, unremarkable green.  The fields of England and Wales were (at the same time of year) much greener, with the faded green fields of Ireland and its more unkempt, less precisely trimmed hedgerows giving it an oddly Australian appearance - a bit like the acreage around Brisbane in Australia.

Anyway, we got into Galway and, after about an hour stuck in after-work traffic, we found our way to our B&B - a pleasant, but once again disappointingly new house overlooking Galway Bay, that relatively large slice of water protruding into the central west coast of the island.  We took a quick walk into town to look around and get some dinner.  The centre has a real charm with its narrow, winding main street and old buildings.  We had dinner in an old Irish pub called the King's Head - according to a plaque inside it was founded in the 1600s by the Galway man who volunteered as Charles I's executioner (the Parliament didn't want an Englishman to do it) and paid for from the large fee he earned.  And I finally got to have a nice big bowl of Irish (lamb) stew to soothe my poor förkyld throat, with a large (though slightly contraindicated) glass of stout to wash it down.  Afterwards we went across to another pub promising live Irish music, but we arrived between sets and were too tired to wait around for the next one a fair bit later.

Day 10 - Galway to the Aran Islands and back to Galway

Next day we drove west along the north shore of Galway Bay to catch the ferry to the Aran Islands, located just outside its mouth.  This area (both the mainland of Connemara and the islands) is one of the most traditional areas of Ireland, with Gaelic still widely spoken.  The countryside was oddly desolate and windswept, with the extremely shallow soils over the rocky limestone ground preventing trees from growing, leaving a dry grass and rock landscape sloping up to the distant mountains to the north.

We hopped on the ferry at Rosaveel for the trip to Inish Moor (the largest of the islands), taking the opportunity to eat our lunch to save a bit of time.  The ferry arrived on the island just before 2pm and departed at 5pm, leaving us just over 3hrs on the island (you can stay overnight of course, or get the really early ferry, but we were having none of that).  We were planning on renting a "jaunting car" as the ferry company brochure advertised (hoping for a reprise of the fun we had zipping around Magnetic Island in a Mini Moke), but information was as thin on the ground as trees in the region and it turned out that those didn't exist anymore (if ever).  Forced to make a quick decision between paying 10euro for a guided tour that essentially took us to the ring fort and back and paying 10euro to rent a bike we probably went the wrong way when we opted for the bike to give ourselves more freedom - not taking into account the distance, surprising hilliness of the island and, of course, Emma's cycling ability.  In the end we only had time to ride to the main ring fort and back anyway, but at least we did it at our/Emma's own pace (slow) and got to breath in the Atlantic air and take in the views for real instead of through those TV screens known as "car windows".

Anyway, time for a bit more on the ring fort that I've enigmatically mentioned a couple of times.  The Aran Islands are dotted with Stone Age forts - rings of stones built up into walls.  Apparently the Aran Islands were one of the first places to settle into farming (probably due to the limestone soils and lack of tree cover).  As a result, they built up a handy population to the size required for some berk to decide to lord it over the other poor saps.  The forts would have been religious sites as well as defensive, but looking around the desolate island with no trees, limestone rocks everywhere, and small enough that it took Emma under 3hrs to cycle from one end to the middle and back and it makes one wonder - what the hell could have been worth defending?  The main ring fort that we went to, Dun Aengus, is best described as a half ring fort since half of it isn't.  Halfway through the circle, a sheer cliff drops about 100m into the ocean below - with no walls or even fences between the fort and the cliff, it just drops away.  As this was the westernmost point of our whole European trip, it was a somewhat appropriate (and emphatic) full stop.  The fort was probably originally built further from the cliff as a full circle, with the cliff gradually moving in under the erosion of the open ocean waves.  The islands whole southern coast is these cliffs, giving the effect of the islands being tilted from the low northern side (with a few beaches) to the sudden drop.  As well as the forts, there are a few Christian sites, including the smallest church in the world (measuring about 2.5x3.5m), but we didn't have time to see that.

The Aran Islands are one of the most traditional parts of Ireland, with Gaelic being the main language spoken.  Prior to the arrival of tourism about a generation ago, one would assume that there would not have been much large scale movement between the islands and the mainland.  The current residents may well be the descendants of the people who built the forts.  One possible example of this was given on the ferry, where we saw the stereotypical little guy with his big oafish friend (think Of Mice and Men here) going home to the island from the mainland.  The little guy was an adult about the size of an 8 year old (I had to look twice) and the big guy seemed incapable of speech, merely grunting in a non-threatening way (I had to get past him on the boat).  Now, I'm not saying the people of the Aran Islands are inbred; I'm just putting those two pieces of scant evidence on one side of a small gap and the conclusion on the other and inviting anyone who wants to jump across with me.  The islands were cool though - I don't think I've really done them justice here, but then we didn't really do them justice with our 3hr visit so it’s all fair.

After getting back from the ferry we drove back to Galway looking for a nice local pub in one of the towns along the way that might serve us another Irish stew (and have something Emma might want).  Failing to find any suitable candidates, we finally ended up at a place on the bay in Galway just around from our B&B where I got that other great Irish contribution to cold-friendly cuisine, a beef and Guinness stew washed down with a glass of extra gravy.

Day 11 - Galway to Dublin

We left Galway and headed pretty much straight down the main road to Dublin.  Having only one night in Dublin and having to leave straight away the next morning, we wanted time to look around the city.  We arrived in our hotel without too much stress - the directions were pretty simple this time since the main road from the west ends up right in the middle of town, a bit like the Southeast Freeway in Bris.  The hotel was on Talbot St, in the inner north and right near one of the main shopping strips.  First stop was to ask the hotel staff for a tailor to mend the travel pants I'd ripped in Plymouth (I only had two pairs of pants with me).  We found the tailor OK and walked off to find something to do in the 90min it would take. 

We wandered across the Liffey River to Trinity College for a look around.  Seeing a sign advertising guided tours that finished at the Book of Kells at about the time we wanted to head back to the tailors before it shut, we decided to splurge.  The guide was a Politics and Philosophy graduate who was back studying Law and looking a lot like Drew from Brisbane except with about 3 more testicles - not that Drew is lacking anything in the pants department (as far as I know, and there are plenty of witnesses so one of them probably would have mentioned something), this guy just had a ridiculously deep voice.  The tour was quite pleasant, and it was nice to sit back and relax a bit and see things a bit more passively for a change.  Trinity is in the inner east of the main city to the south of the river and was built in Elizabethan times on the site of yet another recently closed monastery (though at least this one was put to a new and better use).  The highlight was definitely the Long Room in the main Library, a splendidly old wood panelled affair lined with tall shelves, themselves lined with dusty ancient books.  The guide told us that the students of the College were entitled to request any of the books to read, but as they were sorted by size rather than author or subject you'd be hard pressed to get any useful information unless you knew the dimensions of the book you were after.  The book of Kells was impressive, but as it is displayed with only one opening shown (well two since the book was divided into 4 at some point in the past and two quarters are on display), it's a bit hard to get a feel for the book as a whole (not that I expected any more or am disappointed, it's just life).  What was on display was very impressive, however and I guess you'd need to get a book of high-re prints to fully appreciate it.

After racing back to get my pants (the silly woman just fixed the rip that was there instead of suring it up all over like I asked her to, meaning that as I write this they are in again being properly fixed - but at least it solved the immediate problem) we headed back across the river to Temple Bar to see more sights.  Temple Bar is the centre of old Dublin, but nowadays it's a bit of a clubbing strip and, having seen our fill of cobbled streets and running out of daylight, we walked through to Christ Church Cathedral, the main Anglican cathedral in town (I think).  It was nice enough, but the mad dash had to continue without looking inside (they were closed pending Evensong anyway).  Next stop was Dublin Castle, which as its name doesn't really suggest, is a bunch of buildings that house the local government.  The castle part is reduced to a few low towers and a church, but one cool thing they've done, in renovating it and adding the lost towers and battlements, they've painted the restored bits in bright primary colours (uniform for each structure).  This clearly differentiates the original from the added, while giving it a cool, IKEA/Lego-style modern look.  After a look around, we headed down past St Patrick’s Cathedral for a quick look at it (it was also closed) and the park surrounding it before packing in the sightseeing and heading for the pub.

Unlike many places in Europe (particularly the south), Ireland knows how to do pubs.  England has a pretty good handle on the concept too, but it's the Irish pub that's found its niche to be exported in pre-fab form to countries around the world.  So we thought we'd try the original to see how the knock-offs rate.  First pub was Whelan’s in the Camden area to the south of Dublin, a bit of an alternative strip.  This was a nice, dark place with great 90s music playing.  The lights in many of the places we went were of the sodium kind, giving everything a yellow tinged warm feeling (but not quite so much as to give us a jaundiced view of Ireland’s pubs).  A quick word on Guinness:  Drunk people (at the Guinness time of the night) have often crapped on to me about how the Guinness in Australia is not as good as the Guinness in Ireland, so I'd tried a few in different parts to test it out.  Now, I find Guinness the blandest of the stouts - just about any other brand (especially the microbrewed ones) has lovely rich chocolate/coffee flavours from the roasted malts.  I didn't find this extra taste in the Irish Guinness, but it did seem to be a bit smoother and quaffable than the exported stuff...but not so much as to crap on incessantly about it (so I'll stop now).

After leaving Whelan’s, we headed through St Stephen's Green back towards town, a lovely little park with flower beds and water features and lawns.  Until then I'd actually been thinking that Dublin seemed to lack open space and greenery (the river a narrow affair nestled between quays/embankments that are now main roads), so it was wonderful to see that I was wrong and that the Dubliners weren't denied the greenery the rest of the island (supposedly) enjoyed.  After a quick spot of souvenir shopping (and finding a cool green shirt that I'll probably unveil on 17/3/2009) we headed to the Stag's Head - the oldest pub in town and therefore the original Irish pub.  We were ready for a feed by then and asked the bar staff if they did food - the guy said no, but helpfully directed us down the street (though past another closer pub we noted - he must have been doing us a favour) to another place called O'Neill’s.

O'Neill’s was a very nice place indeed.  With the polished wood panelling and railings and the rooms branching off in chaotic directions (I looove places with lots of rooms and hideyholes more than being above the treeline) it actually reminded me of old-school Aussie pubs like the Victory (RIP) and RE.  The dinner was from a canteen style servery (though this just made visible what other places would do behind the scenes) and it was a quick, relatively cheap and large portioned feed of Irish Stew (alas my last plate of the stuff in Ireland).  We sat and ate and drank and just relaxed in the bustling friendly atmosphere before heading back to the Stag's Head - feeling that their helpfulness in directing us to a nice feed was worth rewarding by buying a couple of beers.

We sat in a dark back room, revelling in the dusty grandeur of the place - it had a sort of look of a 1920s posh ballroom that hadn't been cleaned since (but in a good way).  The dim lights were occasionally rent by someone opening the door with a flouro light behind it, but otherwise it was a wonderful place to relax.  A quiet lilting song drifted into my consciousness and I looked around to see a couple of men (possibly father and son) singing quietly to themselves snippets of songs.  The older man would start and the younger would join in and then they'd discuss things a bit.  Having missed out on traditional Irish music thus far we were quietly overjoyed to get a snippet of the most traditional form of Irish music (unaccompanied song) sung in such a real and uncontrived way.  I was going to thank them buy a girl sitting in the same corner did it for us and told them it was her 21st that night and would they sing here something.  They obliged and soon after Emma and I went home with big smiles on our faces and a lilting song in our heads.

Day 12 - Dublin to Lancaster via Snowdonia

[Note: I just spent 40min writing this day in full but went to save it and was met with an error and lost the lot, so I'm having to rewrite it from memory.  Apologies if the second attempt lacks the enthusiasm and spontaneity of the first, which I can say, without fear of contradiction, was the single best passage of prose travelogue writing in the history of the universe.  AAARRRGGGHHH!!!!]

Next day we drove to the ferry point at Dun Laoghaire (pronounced, in typical Irish antiphonetic style as "DUN LEER-y", the "aogha" presumably being silent) in the southeastern suburbs of Dublin.  After a bit more effort navigating there than we had on the way in (but with a comfortable time buffer and a well executed petrol fill to use up all our remaining Euro coins) we hopped in line in our car and waited, listening to Irish radio.  As anyone knows, an Irish comedian can recite Pi and make it sound hilarious, and we happily whiled away the time listening to two pros from an Irish commercial station (though we had dipped out the previous day on the "Horrible things we've eaten" discussion with the line "And we've got Deidre from Limerick on the line.  Deidre, what have you eaten?").

The ferry got us back to Wales (though the north this time) in roughly the same comfort as the trip over (except there was no "sun" deck to look around on and it was a bit more crowded), depositing us at Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey (actually, the Holy Isle off Anglesey, but you'd never realise they were islands unless you looked closely).  The bridge over the Straits of Menai was mildly interesting, with quite a current in a stretch of water supposedly connecting two bits of the same ocean.

After that we headed off the main freeway towards the south and into Snowdonia ("Snowdonia! What makes your big head so hard!"), the wilderness area that covers much of northwest Wales and includes Mt Snowdon, the highest in Wales and England.  The drive took us up a wonderfully treeless and desolate (except for the fields of sheep) post-glacial Welsh valleee (sorry, but I love typing that word with a Welsh accent) and down the next to the quaint village of Betws-y-Coed (pronounced however you like, though BET-oos e CAW-ed might be close).  The valleee was the usual treeless 2D curve that I know that you know that I love, and the village was a quaint little thing at the junction of 4 valleees with a small river tumbling over some granite boulders in a way reminiscent of Crystal Creek near Paluma in NQ, quaint stone buildings, a quaint village green and a quaint tourist pre-fab shopping strip.  This is not to say that the village is fake, merely that it's been a tourist centre for about a century since the railway was built and services the sightseers and hikers while sensibly making a living.

The way back down was a little slow (stuck behind busses), but once on the freeway, we hooned east back in to England, slingshotted around Chester and headed north on the M6 bisecting the main Industrial centres of Manchester and Liverpool.  We'd long decided to give those towns a miss since their interest most likely lies in the culture that has developed there and you can't really see that in an hour (and would have fight city traffic and roads to do it).  So we sufficed to see a few factories in the distance past green sheep fields while we headed up to Lancaster.  We did catch a bit of after-work traffic, but the variable speed limits (designed to keep the traffic flowing smoothly), and the fact that Emma was driving by now really took the edge off the stress.

We finally got off the freeway at Lancaster and drove through it and out to the seaside town of Morecambe (none the Wiser).  Our hotel was an old-school elegant affair, but we just had time to drop our stuff and head out for a walk along the former seaside (the sea had probably been there 6hrs previously, and no doubt would again, but while we were walking the sea was barely visible way out in Morecambe Bay at the end of an enormous sand flat.  It was a nice relaxing walk nonetheless after a long day of driving and we retired after to watch some English TV (they sure do love their comedy panel shows, which is good because so do I) and hit the sack.

Day 13 - Lancaster to Glasgow via Lake District and Hadrian's Wall

Next morning we enjoyed a nice northern breakfast.  The breakfasts had generally been good (the English know how to do it properly, none of this croissant and a glass of wine or whatever) but, being in Eckythump country, I was keen to try some black pudding.  And I was pleasantly surprised.  Black pudding is a large sausage (large enough to belt someone over the head with anyway) made of pork offcuts, oats and blood.  what you actually get served is a thick slice of the sausage (about the size, shape and colour of an ice hockey puck) that's been fried up with the rest of your full English breakfast (sausages, bacon, eggs, beans and toast).  The taste is pretty much what you'd expect (if you put aside childish squeamishness at the word "blood") like a sausage with oats in it and a very slight powdery sensation from the blood - so a bit meaty, a bit sweet and a little bit irony and, frankly, a good efficient use of the nutrients in an animal.  The black pudding remained a consistent member of my breakfast cast right through the north of England and Scotland, and I enjoyed it every time.

After leaving Morecambe, we had a quick couple of laps of Lancaster in the car before leaving.  Lancaster looks like an interesting place.  It used to be a main centre (with the surrounding area, Lancashire, named after it), but now it has a small population (Morecambe is bigger).  But it still has its cobbled streets and a nice castle on the hill in the middle of town and a cathedral on the other.  After a few glimpses though (and the assumption that we'd see similar in York), we headed onwards to the Lake District.

It was a bit of a shame that we had to fit the Lake District into our schedule on a Saturday as, being one of the most popular destinations in England, it was likely to be crawling with that worst sort of tourist - other tourists.  And unfortunately our fears were somewhat realised, despite it being so late in the season.  First stop was Windermere, the main town on the main lake.  It's a bit like Byron Bay and Noosa - a pretty little town in a lovely spot choked with tourists and tourist-supporting businesses.  Moving on from there (we had to keep moving on from everywhere since any car space demanded £3 up front to park there) we crawled along the road along the lake up towards Grasmere behind the line of cars.  Eventually we broke free and followed a road around the other side of a lake promising to take us to the Castlerigg Stone Circle.  In the end it didn't (it was a cycle route that followed the road for a bit before turning off), but it was a lovely drive and we even found a place to park for free and have a bit of a walk down to the lake through the forest, which was nice.  After that we drove up to Keswick aand had a quick look at the Castlerigg Stone Circle, a simple circle of stones (most of them being sat upon by unfit tourists after the long 30m walk across the sheep field from the carpark) with a nice view of the surrounding hills.  The hills did make the Lake District somewhat - treeless and covered in rust coloured ferns, browning for winter.  The lakes were OK too, but not at their best without a blue sky to reflect.  After a nice enough lunch at Keswick we drove out of the Lake District via a detour towards another lake hoping for some gobsmacking beauty, but it was just OK again, so we got back on the freeway and headed north to Hadrian's Wall.

Hadrian's Wall runs roughly from Carlisle to Newcastle and, as you should know, was built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian to form a border and regulate the comings and goings of the neighbouring Picts to the north.  Quite a lot of the wall remains in its length, but most of the height has been diminished by people carrying off the stones to use for houses and fences and such.  We went to the Birdoswald Roman fort near Lanercost.  It was the remains of an old fort, built to garrison a large group of soldiers (not sure the group name, but probably about a hundred - enough for a Centurion to look after).  One interesting fact that I learned was that all Roman forts around the Empire were built to exactly the same plan - the idea being that a soldier could be transferred to any fort and know exactly where everything was (probably also made them feel at home in every fort and stopped them putting down roots anywhere).  After a look around the fort we walked along a stretch of wall to the next Milecastle - a smaller fort constructed every Roman mile along the wall to house a small group (20 or so) of men ready as a base to patrol the wall, react to incidents and pass information along the wall.  On the way out we saw the last of the 3 main structures, the Turret, an even smaller tower used by a couple of soldiers at a time as a lookout.  The wall stretch we walked along was respectably thick - not the Great Wall of china (the current incarnation of which was built in the 1600s) but still a few metres thick.  The museum at the fort had a replica of the wall at its original height of about 3-4m, also pretty impressive for a wall that crosses the whole island of Britain, albeit at one of its narrower points.  The current wall is probably only about 1.5m high and used as the fence along one side of a paddock.  Interestingly, a late middle aged couple was leaving the fort as we went in behind the local farmer and they struck up a conversation with him (they were farmers from New Zealand) about his field usage and silage growth.  It sounded like a fairly interesting conversation to listen in on, but we couldn't loiter without being fairly obvious about it so we left them to their shop talk.

After leaving the Wall, we headed north into Scotland (“Caledonia!  Caledonia!  What makes your big head so” etc) and across the Lowlands towards Glasgow.  It was dark by now, but the shapes of the surrounding mountains gave us hope for some nice scenery next day.  We stopped at a service stop next to the freeway and enjoyed a nice dinner with a surprisingly nice view of a duckpond and field.  After that we headed on to my friend Silja's place in Renfrew on the western suburbs of Glasgow.  Silja actually wasn't there that weekend, which was a great shame since we hadn't caught up since she was in Australia a few years back (and since she's German she's got no great plans, or rights, to come back).  However, being incredibly generous, she insisted that we stay at her place even though she wasn't there.  Thanks mate!!!  After a fairly nerve-wracking drive through a dark city with just some dodgy Google Maps directions, into a scary looking bunch of housing blocks (anywhere unfamiliar is a bit nervy after dark, but this was the burbs of Glasgow on a Saturday night) we made it to Silja's and went to bed after watching a couple of British comedy panel shows.

Day 14 - Glasgow to Inverness via Loch Lomond, Western Highlands, Great Glen and Loch Ness

Next morning we continued north towards Loch Lomond and had breakfast on its shores.  We were looking for a place recommended by Silja, but we couldn't find it (we turned off the highway too early) and ended up at a Sunday morning market by the lake that was very nice anyway.  We had breakfast and then bought some cheese, bread and relish before a quick walk along the loch and continued north.  We drove along the Loch listening to the radio - Just a Minute was on: a radio comedy panel show where the contestants must talk crap about a particular subject without repetition, divergence or hesitation, jolly good fun.  Once we passed the northern end of the loch the country changed quite quickly from tree lined loch to gorgeous treeless curves of grass covered hills known as the Western Highlands.  Being past summer, but not quite winter, there was no snow around, but what we got was huge vistas of grey-green contours stretching all around.  The sense of size was really overpowering - not so much the height of the mountains (which was impressive but not excessive) but rather the way we could see so much of them and the distances between them.  After some nagging from me and resistance from Emma, we stopped at a carpark for a sandwich.  Emma constantly quests after the unattainably perfect spot for a huge sit down meal and ends up passing some nice ones.  I'm more of the quick car bonnet progressive picnic persuasion.  We then drove over the pass and down into the Great Glen at Glencoe.  It's hard to capture the awe of the Highlands, suffice to say that it was certainly one of the three (if not the first) top highlight of the UK trip.

The Great Glen is that huge scar running southwest to northeast across Scotland from Fort William to Inverness like someone has tried to chop off the Northern Highlands with a giant claymore.  It's most likely (since I haven't looked it up) a mini rift valley (graben) created as America and Europe separated as the Atlantic opened (as I'm fond of saying, the Highland mountains are the same geological structure as the Appalachians in the US, as well as the Scandinavian mountains), and contains, among others, the famous Loch Ness, as well as (since the 1800s) the Caledonian Canal linking them all up to cross the country.

We drove up the Great Glen listening to (of all things) the dramatised diary of a member of Scott's tragic South Pole expedition on the radio.  Eventually we got to Loch Ness.  A not unimpressive lake, though not as big as I'd expected - it's very long but fairly narrow.  I found out later that the level of the lake was raised by a couple of metres during the construction of the canal, which I would think would be disastrous for the shoreline ecosystem, but no mention was made (similar raising was done in Lake Baikal in Siberia and no outcry was made there either, oh well).  It's also a very straight lake, meaning that the view doesn't really change as you drive along it (ie no new vistas and inlets opening up) which probably doesn't help in the awe inspiring stakes.  'Sbig though.

We stopped at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, about halfway along the loch on the western side.  This castle had a rich history protecting the surrounding area from attack by the English, the Lord of the Isles (a Scottish/Norwegian clan based in the remote highlands, a remnant of the Viking age) and the Scots (in the Bonnie Prince Charlie days).  It did, however suffer a fairly anticlimactic end when the garrison of British soldiers blew it up to deny it to the enemy during a withdrawal.  Nowadays it is an atmospheric ruin on a small promontory overlooking the loch and was fun the have a look around.  Oddly enough, it is also the cover picture on the big map of Great Britain and Ireland that my workmates gave me before we left.  Now, the castle is pretty cool, but I don't know if it's cool, impressive or even recognisable enough to represent the whole two countries.  Oh and no, we saw no monsters.

We the continued up the Glen, past the end of Loch Ness and towards Inverness.  Our accommodation was past Inverness towards the next destination of Edinburgh, so we parked up in Inverness and had a bit of a wander around.  It's a nice little city, with a nice river running through it (the outflow from Loch Ness), a few churches and a castle on the hill.  The castle is now a law court and has a strange new/pre-fab look about it, as though the main bit was a recent addition or it had undergone a recent total renovation.  Plus it's an odd pink colour.  We had dinner that night at a nice little pub overlooking the river and castle.  Being Sunday night it was a bit quiet in town, but the upside was it was the day most pubs in the UK do a Sunday roast (mostly because they'd feel silly doing a Sunday roast any other day).  I had an exquisitely nice roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and a delightful horseradish sauce (Emma had some veggie crap).  This was accompanied by a delightful Orkney Best (one of the flat, brewed-in-a-bucket-and-strained-into-a-glass beers I love about the UK).  I also noticed a little promotional thingy on the table which turned out to be a flavour graph on single malt scotches (light-rich on x-axis and delicate-smoky on y-axis), with scotches grouped in a factor analysis sort of way, reminiscent of the beer graph on my desk at work.  This excited me enough to order a scotch, which was nice enough, and suggested that I've been on holiday too long.  You can see the malt graph at http://www.malts.com/en-gb/Helpingyouchoose/.  You can probably find the beer one on my desk at work (since only people that work with me would be interested in graphing beer flavours).

After dinner we drove the 10km or so away from Inverness to our accommodation near Daviot.  We'd read some good guest reviews on our favourite booking website (http://booking.com - great site for booking hotels and B&Bs in Europe, has listings in Oz too but we haven't used it there) and were not disappointed.  The luxury was a couple of levels above the low price (including a fresh rose and complimentary sherry and shortbread).  When we arrive the owner regretfully informed us that the boiler has just broken and that it'd take about an hour before the backup was hot enough for a shower.  She offered to find us somewhere else to stay but we thought that was a bit extreme.  After an hour and a half I had a tepid shower (not hot but not cold either) and we went to bed.

Day 15 - Inverness to Edinburgh via more Highlands

Next morning we awoke and had a lovely breakfast with a view down the valley.  We had a walk around the farm for a bit before heading off.  The owner even took £10 off the bill for the hot water - which was more generous than it probably deserved, but was a really nice touch.  It was Daviot Lodge if you're ever up that way (free plug since it was one of the best place we stayed).

We continued south along the road towards Edinburgh, crossing the Grampians and finally, regrettably, leaving the Highlands.  We stopped for a quick picnic at the pass out of the region and enjoyed the view.  We took a walk along a public track through some sheep paddocks past some suspicious looking sheep (ie they looked like they were suspicious of us, rather than having an untrustworthy appearance).  The train goes along this route as well.  In fact, if you want an idea of what the highlands look like, the exterior shots of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films were of this train.

We continued down, leaving the dusty green rolling mountains and entering a region of lush green rolling hills.  Crossing a few nice rivers we eventually hit the freeway past Perth and headed over the huge Firth of Forth bridge into Edinburgh.  It was funny to see so many familiar placenames in the UK, since so many towns in Australia are named after places there.  We found our hotel and got the bus into the Old Town to have a look around before dark.

First stop was the impressive Edinburgh Castle.  Built on an outcrop of granite (I think), it forms the western end of the main street, the "Royal Mile" that slopes down to Holyrood Palace at the eastern end.  On interesting thing I noticed early on is that it's not built on Arthur’s Seat, a frigging huge monolith surrounded mostly by cliffs next to Holyrood Palace, and which is now a park.  The main reason, I surmised from what was written at the castle is that, although the Castle outcrop is smaller, it has the benefit of having cliffs on all sides, except for a nice slope up which the Royal Mile runs, making it defensible but also allowing access for the building necessary.  Plus I guess that being a little less area, you can fill it with castle leaving no approach - Arthur's Seat by contrast could fit a whole town on top.

The Castle itself was interesting enough, though somewhat caught up in the Year of Scaffolding.  It is still a working royal castle - being the official seat of the Scottish crown, currently occupied by Elizabeth II (or Elizabeth I of Scotland as a modern Jacobite might insist - though being a Jacobite they'd probably insist she wasn't their queen at any number).  Anyhoo, there was a bit of history and nice battlements and such, but frankly the main joy to be had there was the magnificent view of the rest of Edinburgh, particularly the New Town laid out to the south (nearer the Firth) by one or more of the Georges.  The Chapel of St Margaret was also cute - dedicated to the Saxon mother of Malcolm III (a refugee from the Norman invasion) and built by him when she died, it's a tiny little church that represents the oldest surviving building on the site.

After looking around the castle, we walked down the Royal Mile to the other end, stopping at a few souvenir shops on the way to try and find a nice Scotland Tshirt. We've done a bit of souvenir Tshirt shopping around Europe.  Tshirts are a useful item and we're not really into knickknacks (plus you have to lug them home).  One thing we've noticed about souvenir Tshirts though is that once you look in a few shops, you realise that they all have the same designs.  The other thing you notice is that these designs usually all suck since they usually proclaim loudly the city or country they were from (certain other themes reappear, like the "[insert city/country here] Drinking Team" and "[city/country] Established [date]" lines).  This is clearly the preference of the average Tshirt buyer, but we like to be a bit more subtle, getting a Tshirt we might actually want to wear.  The result being that you usually have to find the one shirt that one shop sells that the others don't.  Unfortunately this was not to be found in Scotland, despite a bit of looking and listening to the "Modern pop hits played on the bagpipes" in every other shop (though that was kinda cool).

At the other end of the Royal Mile, first passed the new Scottish Parliament Building, a fairly unattractive monstrosity that tried to incorporate all styles of Scottish traditional architecture but succeeded only in going massively over budget.  Just beyond that was Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official Scotland Residence (hence the Royal Mile between the two I guess).  It was nice enough to look at, but was closed and we were in a hurry anyway.  We did get a closer look at Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park, with people walking along the top of the cliffs like ants.  It would be a fantastic walk and an amazing view, but we just had time to snap a few photos of the cliffs soaking up the setting sun before powerwalking to our next appointment.  Incidentally, "rood" is an old word for "cross" for the other amateur etymologists out there.

The appointment we were rushing to was dinner with our friend Michelle from the swing dancing scene in Brisbane, who has been working in Edinburgh for about a year and will be there for a few years yet.  Michelle lives in a flat in (of all places) Scotland Street in the New Town.  Those familiar with Alexander McCall Smith, author of "The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series may know that he has another series of books set in Edinburgh called "44 Scotland Street".  Both series are great BTW.  But anyway, back to the more important topic of meeting up with a friend from home.  Michelle's mum Mary was visiting from Australia, and Michelle cooked us up some haggis for dinner (with a vegetarian version for Emma and Mary).

Haggis, as most will know in theory, is the internal organs of a sheep that have been minced, mixed with onions and spices and oats and cooked in the animal's stomach.  Most people go "ewe" at this point and move on, but I have to tell you, it's quite yummy.  Firstly, you don't eat the stomach - once it's cooked you cut it out of the sack and serve it like a mince (on top of mashed potatoes).  Second, it's got a sort of nutty texture and taste with a savoury flavour with just a hint of sweet.  It's very nice and, like the black pudding, an efficient use of an animal's nutrients (which makes up a little bit for killing it in the first place in my opinion - better than killing it and throwing half of it away anyway).  The vegetarian version was nice enough (a bit like a peppery, oaty stuffing) but not a patch on the real thing.

We had a great time catching up with Michelle and talking about mutual friends and news from home, as well as swapping a few travel stories.  Oh, and her flat was huge, with high Georgian ceilings (maybe not an efficient use of space and heating energy but very relaxing and spacious) and lots of rooms (I love places with lots of rooms - I dream about them sometimes).  Anyway, after strategically staying till after the last bus (just kidding we all couldn't stop nattering), we allowed ourselves a cab home to the hotel.

Day 16 - Edinburgh to York via North Yorkshire Moors

We left Edinburgh, a little disappointed that our crazy schedule didn't allow for more time there, and headed on south towards York.  We got diverted a bit by some military exercises closing off the road we wanted to take, and by the time we were allowed to turn back towards it it was easier to keep going to the main highway past Newcastle.  We didn't go into Newcastle - we had a long way to go and wanted time at the end to see York (plus the same reasons we didn't go into Liverpool or Manchester) - but we did get to see the Angel of the North statue on the outskirts of town, a huge steel structure a bit like a massive Oscars statuette with aeroplane wings.  I really like it, but we just got a glimpse from the highway.

We decided (on the advice of the Lonely Planet) to detour through the North Yorkshire Moors, hoping for a bit more moor like we'd explored in Dartmoor before, and because we'd no time to look at the Yorkshire Dales further inland.  Unfortunately, the road we took was possibly a bit far inland and away from the windswept moors, with just some nice, but not spectacular, farmland.  You'd probably have to go out towards (Captain Cook's birthplace of) Whitby, but we took the B1257 on the other side.  It was a bit of a pity since it took up an hour or so we could have used to look around more of York.  We hit Your in the mid afternoon, found our hotel and (after a short rest, Emma was feeling the cold I'd had in Ireland) walked into the town centre.

York is a small town with a big history.  It was the site of a major Roman city (known as Eboracum) where, as I found out from a statue near the cathedral, Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor in 306.  In fact, a quick bit of research has just revealed that it was the capital of Britannia Inferior and the entire Roman Empire was ruled from there for a couple of years under Septimus Severus from 208 to 211).  Later it was an Anglo-Saxon town known as Eoferwic, before being captured by the Vikings, who called it Yorvik.  During the Middle Ages (when its name eventually resolved to York) it was the location of one of only two Archbishops in England (the other being in Canterbury).  So right up until the Industrial Revolution (and the boom of towns like Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield) it was the defacto capital of Northern England (a place traditionally a bit more independent from the crown - think of the troublesome northern Barons).

York today is a less important town, but it retains a lot of its history in its buildings.  It is the only city in England with its original city wall still intact.  You can still walk around the top, which we did on our way to the cathedral (York Minster).  One drawback with city walls though (which I noted in Xian in China, another city with fantastic walls) is that it's not great for traffic, limiting (as well it might)  access in and out of the city - this is one major reason most cities around the world have gotten rid of their walls.  But a city wall does give great character to a city and really helps define its centre (what better way to do that than draw a great 2D line around it).

After following the wall around one side of the CBD, we came to York Minster, a huge and impressive cathedral.  Luckily, since it was about 30min from closing time we got in for free and had a quick look around.  Very big and impressive.  Sorry, but it's early and there's only so much you can say about cathedrals.  They're impressive and all, and we enjoyed looking around it, but I can't think of anything that really stood out with this one worth reporting.  It did seem to have a higher ceiling than most and generally more space inside.  It is apparently the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, which might explain its size.  Outside was that statue of Constantine I mentioned earlier.

We had a bit of a look around town at that point, the usual gorgeous cobblestoned streets and exposed timber houses.  Lots of old houses in England (that are mostly now businesses of some kind - shops or B&Bs) have a similar design, with exposed dark wooden beams on the outside in a horizontal, vertical and diagonal pattern, with the walls in between whitewashed.  They're very cute.  It's kind of funny how each country or region seems to have its own architectural template.  England has its exposed beam houses and churches with towers that look like castle turrets, Sweden has its red and white gingerbread houses and churches with tall graceful spires (and colourful uniform townhouses with regularly spaced white window frames), the Mediterranean does the rough stone cottage and churches with flat pyramid roofs on their towers (and boring cement looking city buildings).  I guess even Brisbane has its Queenslander houses.  I guess it’s a combination of fashion and practical responses to the climate that have developed over centuries.  It really helps give any region a sense of place and harmony.

Anyway, we found one of these houses advertising that it was a cafe with fairly reasonable internet connections.  With Emma tired from her cold, we decided to go in and check our emails and take a rest.  After that we went looking for dinner.  After looking around for the perfect meal for Emma and being disappointed, I again suggested we eat at the cafe where we'd checked our email.  It only did Asian food, but it was reasonably priced and had a pretty good indie atmosphere.  We got some lahksa-style soups (which frankly were perfect for a girl with a cold if I do say so myself and had been saying all along).  As I said, the place had an indie/student vibe and I noticed that about York in general.  It felt a bit like a University town.  Now, there is a University there but I'd hardly think it was that important to the town's vibe, but that's the vibe we got anyway.  After dinner it was dark and we headed home, but firstly went past Clifford's Tower, the old Norman keep.  Nice, but it was dark by then.

Overall, we really liked York.  It looks great with its old city centre largely intact.  Plus it had a great vibe.  Along with Salisbury and Edinburgh it's one of the top places we wished we'd spent more time (and would definitely go back to if we ever come back this way).

Day 17 - York to the Cotswolds via Sherwood Forest and Peak District

We left York and headed south along the M1 towards Mansfield and Nottingham in an attempt to find Sherwood Forest.  There hadn't been much information I could find about it (which I found odd), but what I could find suggested it was near Mansfield.  As we were driving we saw a helpful maroon and white tourist info sign pointing us towards the Sherwood Forest visitor centre, reaffirming our faith in our navigation techniques.  The signs got us off the freeway and to our destination with a minimum of fuss and we got out for a looksy around Sherwood Forest country.  We were drawn there partly because of the Robin Hood stories (and we'd be lying if we tried to convince you otherwise), but also partly to see more of England’s woodlands.  Sherwood Forest has been continuously wooded since the last Ice Age and kept its trees while all about it was losing theirs and blaming it on it.  We took walk along the path to the Major Oak, sometimes called Robin Hood's Oak.  On the way we passed a group of teenage schoolkids on a field trip.  One of their tasks was to conduct a survey of visitors to the forest and so I dutifully answered a few questionnaires from a few cluster of kids to fulfil my duty to the Statistical community and we moved on to the Oak.  The Major Oak is fairly impressive - over 1000 years old and propped up by a network of struts and cables.  The rest of the forest was a little disappointing.  We found out during our visit that, like New Forest (but moreso), Sherwood has been farmed and logged since for ever (there aren't really any "virgin" forests in Europe - even Sweden's pine forests are logged regularly, albeit fairly sustainably, in a rolling patchwork).  In the old days, the land was grazed leaving only a few solitary oaks to grow unimpeded (to produce better wood).  In more recent times, the dying out of this practice resulted in lots of birch trees growing up.  So, rather than being an atmospheric cover of oak trees, you get a few oaks dotted around a birch forest with a ferny undergrowth (at least in the small patch we saw).  Now, birch trees have their charm (white bark and pale round leaves) but most of Sweden north of Skåne (that isn't farmland or lakes) is covered with few exceptions by pine, fir and birch trees, so we've seen our share.  So it was nice to see Sherwood Forest, but we also discovered why it's not screamed from the rooftops as a place to visit.

We left Sherwood Forest and hacked our way west through midlands suburbia towards the Peak District.  We wanted to have a quick look at the area, supposed to be one of the prettier in England, as well as try to find Lyme Park - the house that had been used as the location for Mr D'Arcy's home in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice (Emma's a bit of an Austin fan, ever since she named a book after her).  We eventually left the urban sprawl around Mansfield and Chesterfield and emerged into some lovely farmlands.  We headed through Baslow and Bakewell and headed west to wards Buxton, which Emma's friend Elaine thought the house was near.  The road between Bakewell and Buxton was very pretty, with a Welsh-style valleee and stream arrangement interchanging with English fields and gardens, rolling hills and, eventually, a Victorian Railway.  I'm not quite sure why it's called the Peak District since we didn't see any mountains, but the rolling hills were slightly higher than the rolling hills in other parts of the country so I guess it's all relative (and maybe they're more peaky further north in the district).

We reached Buxton and had a walk to get some lunch (we were starting to get cranky) and find the tourist info place to work out where this sodding house was.  Buxton is a nice little town, not unlike Bath.  In fact it was a spa town with its own hot spring, built by the Romans and redeveloped by the Georgians and Victorians, with some nice buildings and pavilions and a really nice garden.  It's got more of a sense of space than Bath and a much nicer surrounding area, but no well-preserved Roman Bath ruins to look at.  Still, it'd be worth a visit - except we were tired and a bit cranky and just wanted to get to this country house since we had a long way to go after that and hadn't planned on going this far west.  We found out that Lyme Park was even further west towards Macclesfield so we headed off (anything for my Emma) and finally found it.

We drove in the gate and got the entry to the grounds free on our English Heritage card (though later found out that the gate guy might have made a mistake).  The gate keeper gave us a free CD to play with info about the house and grounds as we drove the mile or so to the carpark near the house, which was a fantastic idea.  The house itself was nice (we couldn't look inside at that time), but the gardens were very nice.  We walked around the lake Colin Firth had emerged from in the miniseries and through the trees starting to get their autumn colours.  We had a look at the nicely arranged garden beds and the rose garden and hothouse, Emma snapping away like I do while leaning out a train window.  After that we had a quick walk towards the Cage, a tower on a windswept hill looking not unlike the White Tower in the Tower of London, but which was used to spot deer.  We had a look at the view of the hills around and took a few snaps of the front of the house and then left to drive the 3hrs or so to our accommodation.

Since we'd gone so far west, it was actually easier to keep heading that way and link up with the M6 running between Manchester and Birmingham and follow that south, which is what we did, eventually, after hacking our way through regional peak hour traffic.  After hooking around Birmingham and passing Coventry and Warwick we left the highway towards Stratford-upon-(yet another)Avon.  Although this was the birthplace of Shakespeare and a major destination in its own right, we were actually on our way to Chipping Campden in the northern Cotswold Hills.  The only impression we got of Stratford was that it looked very difficult to write in, but only because it was very dark by then.

We found our small, quaint Cotswold town and the small, quaint pub we were staying the night in and went down for a fantastic dinner of sausages (Emma had some veggie crap) and wonderfully flat beer.  Greene King was the brand, and you may see it in theme pubs in Australia where they might serve Old Speckled Hen (not brewed by Greene King but by a subsidiary they own).  The best beer they make is the IPA.  The pub we were staying in was called the Red Lion.  We'd seen many of these about the country (apparently it is the second most common pub name after The Crown) and, while they're not a chain (just a bunch of pubs that happen to have chosen the same name), they usually seem to be pretty good establishments.  After our English pub dinner and English pub beers, we retired to bed in our so-many-centuries-old-it's-a-bit-wonky English pub bedroom for a night's sleep.

Day 18 - Cotswold Hills to London via Oxford

We left our quaint little Cotswold town of Chipping Campden (but not before a quick walk and the purchase of the last Harry Potter book) and headed for another quaint little Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold.  After a quick look around there we headed to yet another quaint little Cotswold town of Bourton-on-the-Water.  Quaint little Cotswold towns seem to have names with quaint little descriptions in them (we did go to Upper and Lower Slaughter after that but let's put that to one side shall we).  In case I haven't explained yet, the Cotswold Hills are an area of rolling farmland and quaint little villages, lying roughly between Gloucester, Warwick and Oxford.  It's probably considered by the English as a heartland for central southern England.  It's also the source of the Thames, which runs from there through Oxford and London to the sea.

One thing we did notice about the quaint little Cotswold towns is that they could do with quaint little traffic plans to keep the less than quaint little cars out of the quaint little town centres.  In all places I've mentioned, the centres of the towns were picturesque little oldy-worldy places with modern cars parked all through them.  Now, I can understand how having a great big square in the middle of town (as Stow-o-t-W did) would make the decision about where to let cars park seem like a no-brainer, but I would suggest they find a spot a few tens of metres away to preserve the character of the town centre...Which is not to say that their parking wasn't convenient and very reasonably priced (free) and welcome.  Bourton-o-t-W had actually made the provision for parking about 70m outside of the centre (although they charged a bit more heavily for it), but had failed in the final simple task of stopping traffic from driving through their even-prettier-than-Stow-on-the-Wold centre, with its little stream flowing down one side of the little main street.

Anyway, the reason we'd gone to Bourton-on-the-water was to see the model village that my Mum had recommended.  And it was cute.  It’s out the back of one of the pubs and is a fairly good replica of the town centre, with all the shops represented.  It also contains a little model of the model village behind the model of the pub, which contains its own pub with its own model model model.  This model has a pub too, but it's just got a blank space behind it, which was a little disappointing to my infinite reductionist side.  It was very cute, even down to little recordings of choirs singing at the two churches.  Those who remember the end of "Hot Fuzz" ("Ow.  That really hurts. I'm going to need some ice-cream.") will have some idea of what it might look like.  The rest can just look at Emma's photos.

After leaving the Cotswolds, we continued downhill towards Oxford.  Now, we only had about 2hrs to see Oxford before we had to be going in order to get back to London before peakhour to drop off the hire car.  As a result, we were never going to do it justice and this should be remembered when we talk about it and compare it to Cambridge later on.

That said though Oxford was nice enough, but a bit crowded and busy and had lots of roadworks going on.  We found our way to Christchurch College (past a footpath being dug up), and payed the entrance fee to have a look around (understandable since people actually live there).  Once inside the college it was finally a bit peaceful.  The architecture inside was of the frilly gothic variety.  The dining room had some great long dark wooden tables, with portraits on the walls of old fellows, or just friends, of the college (Henry VIII and Rolf Harris to name two).  The dining room was apparently the inspiration for the Great Hall in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies (it may even have been filmed there, sources are a little vague).  After that we had a quick look at the quadrangle with its space and green grass (and big clock tower at the front), before a quick looksy around the Cathedral (apparently the smallest in England).

After leaving Christ Church we wandered past Merton to the main street, where we grabbed some sandwiches and walked down to Merton field behind the colleges.  This was another highlight of our brief visit, seeing the towers of the colleges doing what they do behind a rugby field and a river on the other side.  Luckily I (and the shortage of time) convinced Emma to walk and eat so that we could enjoy it at a leisurely pace, rather than franticly trying to find a "nice spot", wolfing down our lunch and then rushing through the rest of the walk to make up for lost time.

After that we returned to the car (past a nice looking small castle) and headed onwards, back to London.  We only had time to look around one small corner of Oxford, were in a rush, and had not much information to go on so we were never going to have too much fun.  And we didn't really.  There was a bustle and crowded feeling to the town that I didn't expect (though maybe we didn't find the pedestrianised streets that might have been nicer).  The roadworks and jackhammering everywhere didn't really help either, or the fact that we were coming to the end of a looong trip.  There was some nice red ivy which was nice - well we assumed it was ivy turning red for autumn, and saw it all over England and Sweden (especially Lund), but were never able to verify if it was ivy or something else (the Swedes we asked had a different name for it that didn't sound like "ivy").

Anyway, after braving some traffic congestion caused by yet more roadworks, we left Oxford and drove down the main freeway back to London.  After taking about as long to drive into London as it took to reach the edge, we dropped off the car and walked back to Tonia's.  Tonia was on a well deserved holiday to a Greek island at that time, but had very generously let us stay at her place while she was away (saving us massive amounts of money - thanks T!) - though given that the economy was collapsing at about this time and two separate travel companies had folded in the past weeks leaving tourists stranded (including some on the very island Tonia was visiting), we weren't 100% sure she wouldn't be there waiting for us.  Luckily she had no problems.

We got some Indian takeaway and checked our email at a nearby internet cafe and then retired to Tonia's place for a night of comedy panel shows and top Gear reruns on the strangely aptly named channel "Dave".

Day 19 - London

The next day dawned bright and clear, and we popped around the corner to the local greasy spoon caff for a cheap but filling breakfast.  Then we walked into the City of London along Farringdon Rd (only about 30min).  First stop was St Paul's Cathedral.

St Paul's is very impressive inside.  It's not so much the size, but the light.  It's quite well lit and the gold-leaf on the ceiling mosaics is quite impressive.  After a quick look around, we went for the main draw for me - the climb up to the top of the dome for the view over London.  First stop was the whispering gallery - a fairly uninteresting affair with dubious acoustics, but a nice place to get one's breath back for the next stage.  Once at the top the view was awesome.  I like to get up high to have a look at a city - it really helps me to cement my bearings in my mental map, and links the paper map to the real place.  With the Gherkin in the City to the east, the Tate Modern across the river to the south, Fleet St running into The Strand to the west and the Eye, Palace, Westminster and everything else to the southwest it was a really great all in one view of a great city (that I'd read so much about).  Back down in the church we saw some modern art installations (one showing a staged crowd of people hit by high pressure hose in super slow motion) that were made enjoyable by the two builders having a break from renovations to have a look and comment on it in their matter-of-fact, less-than-awed London way ("Wait for it...there she goes.  Look at that fat bird!  Oh well, you've gotta laugh don't you.").

We left St Paul's and walked down Fleet St out of the City of London.  The actual City of London is the square mile on the north bank of the Thames with St Paul's at its west end and the Tower at the east end.  This covers the site of the Roman and Medieval city.  Nowadays, though it is mostly the financial district with not much more to see.  After the Great Fire of 1666, when most of it was flattened, a lot of new development started to the west, in and around the City of Westminster, creating the Monopoly Board of sights that most of us associate with London, and the modern true centre of the city (sort of around modern Oxford St).  London today is governed at a local level by the Greater London Council, with areas like the City of London, City of Westminster and the various Burroughs being similar to council wards in Australia.

We continued down Fleet St to the dragon (or griffin, depending who you ask) at Temple Bar that marks the boundary of the City of London.  At this point we noticed a few more rubbish bins made available.  London has a problem with litter.  Their response to this problem is a bit reminiscent to the "Madrid needs more water" stickers we saw on the shower in Spain - ie wishful thinking.  There were various news stories about it while we were in the UK, but not only did we notice a distinct lack of an awareness campaign (a la Keep Australia Beautiful) to try and change habits, but also a distinct lack of bins.  This includes litter bins so people don't have to choose between littering and carrying their litter home with them, but it also includes wheelie bins which means that household and business rubbish is left on the curbs in piles of plastic bags, to be broken open by accident of wildlife and recycle the rubbish directly into litter.  We had to walk about 3 blocks down Fleet St to find a litter bin to dump some food wrappers in, and only then did they appear once we'd crossed the boundary into Westminster (and even then they weren't exactly plentiful).  So, in short, London has a litter problem because they're too stupid not to have a litter problem.

Anyhoo, we continued down Fleet St and The Strand, passing Australia House, till we came to Somerset House.  At this point, we turned into the courtyard to have a look around and see if we could make it through to the Embankment along the river.  We did this after stopping to look at the cool fountain in the middle, consisting of a grid of vertical water streams coming out of the courtyard itself.  Walking along the Victoria Embankment, we passed the Obelisk - the oldest structure in London (since it's from ancient Egypt) and then crossed the railway bridge (well, the pedestrian parts that run alongside the old Victorian railway bridge - BTW, when I keep saying "Victorian" I usually do so in a loose assumption sort of way, not necessarily with any authority) towards the London Eye, past a lot of people having lunch breaks and a lot of buskers (yay) and human statues (boo) entertaining them.

The London Eye (that big ferris wheel looking thing on the bank of the Thames that looks like a huge white bicycle wheel with pods around the rim) was built as a temporary structure to celebrate the Millennium, but it turned out to be so popular that they kept it on.  And a good thing too because it's very cool.  It looks great - giving a modern touch to the area (and not that ugly brutalist modernism that was popular in the 1970s and ruined many areas or many cities), sort of complementing the Canary Wharf and Gherkin to the east and adding one more sight of interest.  It's also very fun to go on - especially (as indicated earlier) for someone who likes being able to see long distances and from high up.  The organisation was good but oddly naive.  Upon approaching we saw one of those ribboned off queuing lanes zigzagging towards the Eye.  Since nobody was filling most of the lane, I was about to duck under the tape to join the end of the queue without having to walk all the way around to the entrance.  It was only then that I noticed the guards checking tickets at the front of the queue, and we realised that you didn't buy your tickets in this queue and then get on but had to go somewhere else to get the tickets.  If we hadn't realised that, we could have quite innocently hopped on without a ticket since the tickets were only checked once (or quite unfairly been arrested without realising we'd done anything wrong).  Anyway, we went into the nearby building and lined up for tickets (about £15 each I think).  Although the line was long it moved fairly quickly (with quite a few counters open) and we were soon (legitimately) in the line to hop on the wheel.  This took a short time too and before we knew it (almost literally) we were herded into our pod with about 20 others for the 30min "flight" (the Eye is sponsored by British Airways).  And the view was spectacular.  You really can see just about everything in central London.  Being further west than St Paul's it is also more central to modern London also.  There was a bit of internal reflection from the curvy perspex pod that got in the way of the few photos but that was unavoidable (you can't have windows that open at that height) and otherwise it was close to perfect.

Next we wandered over the Westminster Bridge towards Big Ben.  As I've mentioned before, "Big Ben" refers to the biggest bell in the clock tower (more officially known as "The Great Bell of Westminster"), with the clock and tower known as "The Great Clock of Westminster" and "The Clock Tower" respectively, but since everyone thinks of the tower and clock when you say Big Ben, let's just go with that.  The tower and the whole palace have a wonderfully melting look, dripping with elegance, and we took a few classic photos of the tower with red busses in the foreground, as well as a few more of the "arms length couple shot" that I'm getting quite good at.

After that we wandered down to Westminster Abbey, the nearby Cathedral that gives the whole area its name (the original was the first church in the area west of London - the west minster).  We didn't go in since we'd spent about $20 each going into St Paul's and felt that was enough church money for the day.  Plus from the outside it's nice, but no more spectacular than many other cathedrals we'd seen, and I had a quick peek in a book of photos in the gift shop and the inside was similarly averagely impressive looking.

Next we raced back towards the clock tower to hear Big Ben and the Famous Chimes ring out 3 o'clock.  The familiar tune played, followed by a dramatic pause before Big Ben bonged with its surprisingly and slightly discordantly deep voice, the voice of authority and empire.  Very impressive and nice to be able to hear a sight for a change.

After 3pm (we were very aware of the time at this point) we walked through St James Park towards Buckingham Palace.  Emma took some great photos of the cute squirrels running everywhere.  It was a little saddening to remember, though, that almost all of the squirrels you see in England are the Grey Squirrel introduced from America some decades ago, which for some reason (a bit of research suggests disease carried by the Greys and affecting the Reds) really started outcompeting the native Red Squirrel in the 1970s, almost driving the smaller, even cuter natives to extinction.  There were also lots of pretty water features and leaves taking on autumn hues, as well as some of the landmarks of the area (the Eye, the Clock) poking up over the trees in the distance.  London, particularly the west end, really does public parks well, with lots of big green peaceful spaces in the middle of the bustling city.

Buckingham Palace was interesting enough.  The actual building itself is a fairly bland looking box with a few columns and a fairly rectangular facade.  But the statues, fences and, especially, gates in the area in front of it are quite cute.  The gates are shiny gold-looking with some nice carvings above - including some Australian animals above one of them, which was a nice touch.  But apart from lots of tourists and the traffic flowing through the roundabout that all the cool stuff was on, there wasn't much happening and we walked back down The Mall towards Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square is really nice.  With white marble(y looking stuff), blue fountains and black lion statues, it's a bit of a splash of "colour".  The lions are particularly impressive.  During our trips around Europe we've seen many lion statues, and we've discovered that they're really hard to do well (well, we assume that since many aren't).  I'm assuming here that the sculptors (and their patrons) were generally trying to make the lions look fierce, proud and regal.  However, more often that I would think, they end up looking scared, cranky or constipated (or too fat or too scrawny).  The lions in Trafalgar Square, however, are perfectly proportioned, calm and confident.  And really really big.  Of course everyone wants their picture riding one of them, which is pretty annoying when you're trying to take a photo of a lion without some moronic slavic homie on top, but it's pretty traditional and I doubt the statues are that fragile.  Given the demand, there was a bit of minor lion rage appearing as people try to hurry people in front to get their turn (and then fend off the people behind to enjoy it).  Tourists eh?  Humph (-:  Nelson's column is impressive enough in that it's really really tall, but somewhat less interesting since that makes the statue on top really really far away and viewed from an odd angle - so unless you're interested in Nelson's package (Hardy har har) you don't get a great view.  Nice big fountains too, they remind me of the Trevie Fountain, although they look nothing like it - it was probably more the festive feel of all the tourists hanging out and trying to enjoy it if not for each other.

At about this time we'd started looking for dinner.  Emma, despite being a vegetarian, was keen to have some fish and chips (although she only planned on eating the fish) since we hadn't managed to have that English traditional dish yet during our trip (I was all in favour, but my recollection is that Emma was the driving force).  We looked around Trafalgar Square for a chippie, but finding only expensive regular food we wandered past Piccadilly Circus (and a few souvenir shops) into Soho, the trendy gay nightclub district.  As it was about 5pm nothing much was happening there, and there weren't any chippies there either, just lots of little alleys.  We eventually came out onto Oxford St and wandered in the direction of home and eventually found a chippie at Oxford Circus.  They call those places Circus because they used to be roundabouts, nowadays they're mostly crossroads (it's a fairly pedestrianised part of town and only busses and taxis are silly enough to risk it) - but the buildings are still in a circular arrangement around it.  Anyway, we enjoyed our F'n'C (Emma substituted a cheese and onion pasty for her fish and was very happy with the result) and continued back towards Tonia's place.

One last stop on our way home was at the British Museum, partly because it was on the way and partly out of respect for the institution, and partly because I'd read that admission was free.  Being about 6pm on a Friday by then, we didn't really expect it to be open, planning to finish our F'n'C outside and take a few exterior shots.  However to our delight we discovered that it was open until 11pm.  Sweet!  So we finished our dinner outside and went in.  The interior courtyard is nicely done - the building is of the rectangular box-palace variety, but the courtyard has been roofed over with a perspex geodesic dome type structure (well, more of a geodesic torus with a new building in the middle).  It gives a nice view of the sky, as well as a really cool blend of the old and the new, sort of like the Reichstag in Berlin.  We walked into the first exhibit and at the doorway I saw a big black slab of basalt with writing on it in a glass case.  "That looks just like the Rosetta Stone," I thought.  Then I thought, "That is the Rosetta Stone.  That's the goddamn Rosetta Stone!"  So it was a pretty impressive opening, having the famous stone bearing the same inscription in 3 languages - Greek (known), Demotic (late Egyptian, also known) and Hieroglyphic (classical Egyptian, until then undecrypted) - which they used to decrypt hieroglyphics as the first thing you see.  After that we saw some more Egyptian artefacts, some Hittite bearded bulls, and a few Greek statues, including the famous Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon (with full permission of the Ottomans who controlled Athens at the time) in the 19th Century by Elgin (the British ambassador at the time) for their protection and study - the controversy is that the Greeks now want them back.  Fair enough, but we’ll let them fight that one out (the Museum's side of the argument was presented quite reasonably in a pamphlet I read, which also directed the interested reader to where to find the Greek side of the argument, which I thought was a jolly good show).  We then went to look at the Tutankhamen exhibit, but unfortunately that was closed for the night.  Oh well, we'd just seen the freaking Rosetta Stone at 7pm for free, so we weren't too disappointed, so we hit the souvenir shop and headed home.  I was really impressed with the (for want of a better word) business model of the Museums in London.  Having free admission means that more people might actually go in and learn something, or be inspired to learn more.  It's a bit of a shame so many museums are pretty much targeted at people who already understand and appreciate their contents.  As it was, we ended up spending more at the gift shop (partly in appreciation of the visit) than we would have with a standard entrance fee - which we wouldn't have paid since we wouldn't have gone in if there'd been one - so their business model worked pretty well with us.  London is partly the opposite of most other European cities - in Europe the cathedrals are free and the museums are expensive, in London it's the opposite (not just the British Museum, but the Natural History Museum and a few of the other biggies), and frankly I applaud their priorities.

After leaving the British Museum we finally headed back to Tonia's.  We'd had a bloody good day - we'd seen what we'd planned to see, and we had fantastic weather for it.  So we packed, watched a few final comedy panel shows and went to bed happy.

Day 20 - London to Örebro

Next day we packed up our things and headed to the airport.  Our tube train stopped the stop before Liverpool St, where the train to Stanstead left from.  Luckily we spoke the language so we asked someone and were told there was a blockage on the line and gave us directions to walk to Liverpool St.  Luckily it wasn't too far, but I was a bit miffed at paying $10 for the privilege of walking for a quarter of my journey. 

We got to Stanstead and checked in (no problem with the 15kg baggage limit that we were probably exceeding by then), but after grabbing some lunch we discovered that we were a 15min walk from our gate and the plane was boarding in 15min (and you have to line up to get a good seat on Ryanair - no allocated seating).  Honestly, why to all airlines give you an irrelevant departure time (ie when the plane is taking off) rather than the more relevant time of when you have to get into it.  You'd think that in these days of "Get here 2hrs early to make things easier for us" they'd give you an earlier time rather than a later one.

We got on the plane (with a good seat) and had a fairly pleasant flight home.  Upon landing we saw some amazing autumn colours around Västerås Airport, as well as a stone circle and a couple of burial mounds at one end of the runway (I assume they're originals, why would someone build that sort of thing there?).

We had a really really good time in the UK and Ireland.  Coming from Australia, with its culture descended so much from the Old Dart and having watched a lot of UK TV in my days, it had a very familiar feel.  In fact, given that Australia has become quite multicultural in the past 50 years, thereby diverging more from the English culture that it was based on (which itself has also diverged but in different ways), visiting the UK was a bit like visiting the Australia of our grandparents (well some of them, some of my grandparents came from Italy and more of Emma's from Finland).  The food was one great example - some of my favourite memories of that trip were good pub meals and great beers.  As well as everything else, it was just great to be able to speak the local language without feeling self conscious.  We could relax into the familiar for a while after so much that's been different (though not as different as Africa or Asia or South America, I grant you).  Just to listen to local radio and TV, casually read a newspaper and even eavesdrop on people in the street or on the bus.  It was a bit like taking a holiday from our holiday, despite the hectic schedule (which produced its fair share of stress and frustration).

But part of the point of this trip is to experience the difference of a new culture, which is fantastic in itself.  We specifically didn't plan to base ourselves in the UK since there'd be no great adventure in experiencing something that was almost, but not quite, exactly like Australia.  So we were more than happy to get back to Sweden and back to being different. 

[P.S. Sorry if that last bit got a bit wanky, the cafe in the Örebro library where I typed this just had the soundtrack from Titanic playing and the soaring, melodramatic theme might have crept into the blog there a little.]


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