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UK 2 - East Anglia

UNITED KINGDOM | Wednesday, 12 November 2008 | Views [627]

This trip to the UK was primarily to attend the wedding of Sarah (Emma's coworker) and Simon.  Both of them are from England but livving in Australia.  The wedding was just outside of Norwich in East Anglia (that round bump on England's east coast above London).  We'd originally planed to have just a few days, but after looking up the Ryanair flights on the web, we realised that the super cheap flights (No Tax) were about 8 days apart on the Tuesday before and Wednesday after the Friday wedding.  Moving the departure date back, or the return date forward resulted in an increase in the cost of the flights by about the equivalent of a hotel room.  Therefore, we decided to have the week's holiday and spend more time looking about the region.  On our big previous trip around the UK we had deliberately missed East Anglia, knowing that we'd be back for this wedding.

Executive Summary

Not much of an executive summary this time.  We enjoyed the trip.  Colchester was surprisingly enjoyable and we got to go to a real Guy Fawkes night.  The wedding was fun and we got to walk through some real English farmland.  The Norfolk coast was interesting, as were the Broads, but not the best time of year.  Norfolk and Cambridge were both fantastic to see with less of a rush.  As always, the pubs, the food and the familiarity were the highlights.  Check out the contents for more of an overview (best to open google maps or something similar).


Day 1 - Örebro to Stanstead
Day 2 - Stanstead to Colchester
Day 3 – Colchester to Swanton Morley via Bury-St-Edmunds
Day 4 – Swanton Morley feat. the wedding of Sarah Park and Simon Atwood
Day 5 – Swanton Morley to Norwich via north Norfolk coast and Great Yarmouth
Day 6 – Norwich
Day 7 – Norwich to Cambridge via the Norfolk Broads and Caistor-St-Edmund
Day 8 – Cambridge 
Day 9 – Cambridge to Örebro via Ely and Stanstead

Day 1 - Örebro to Stanstead

We left Örebro by train to Västerås to fly to Stanstead.  Our luggage consisted of one check-in (15kg limit) and two carry-on bags (10kg limit each) since they charge you about as much for bags as they do for the flight.  They were pushing the limit, but the checkin person didn't seem to care.  After lots of sitting around we eventually got to Stanstead at about 11pm and got the shuttle to out hotel.  After watching some of the preliminary results of the US election (it was called at 4am local time) we went to sleep at about 1am.

Day 2 - Stanstead to Colchester

Next morning we awoke to the great news of the result, and lots of (becoming almost insulting) commentary about how it was great since he was the first black president.  One lone column in the Times compared it to Louis Hamilton (the black British Formula 1 driver that had just won the world championship) pointing out that they didn't win because they were black, but because they were the best.  Anyway, we tried to enjoy our “breakfast” consisting of a choice of cornflakes or rice bubbles and toast with no spreads on offer.  Pretty piss poor in out opinion.  I mean, the lack of jams was an oversight for that morning, but buy some frigging muesli, people, for those of us who want some actual nutrition in the morning!

We got the shuttle back to the airport and then another shuttle out to Thrifty to pick up our hire car.  We’d decided to go with thrifty after Hertz had stuffed us around so much, and Thrifty were the cheapest and even had the courtesy to let you search for an automatic, rather than having to scroll through all the useless manual cars to find one we can both drive.  In the end it turned out that the price quoted by Thrifty was excluding the 20% VAT, making the final price quite a bit more (more than Hertz who quote their price including VAT) - something to watch out for when you’re in the UK.  But at least they were friendly and helpful and we had a good chuckle when they brought around the car – it was a Nissan Note, the exact same model we’d rented from Hertz for our last trip (right down to the colour)!  At least we were familiar with the car and used to looking for it in carparks, and it’s not a bad little car (even if it does look like they just have the one in the UK and lend it around the different companies).

We drove our little friend to Colchester, about an hour away, fairly easily found a park in a shopping centre carpark and went for a look around.  Colchester is the oldest recorded town in England.  It was founded by the Romans (who were much better at recording things than the Celts before them), replacing the older Celtic town of Camolodunum (which may or may not be the inspiration for “Camelot”) and was the capital of Britannia for a few years, before a dispute with the local Iceni tribe (and very poor diplomacy by the local governor) resulted in it being flattened by Boudica’s army (along with London and St Albans) in AD61.  A second, fortified, town was built soon after, but the capitalship was moved somewhere else more strategic.  During the Norman period (and by Norman they seem to mean pre-Plantagenet, even though they were Normans too – so just late 1000s and early 1100s) a castle was built here (like just about everywhere else) and the keep survives today, though was long neglected in the intervening time.

Colchester is a nice little town.  The main city centre is a bit of a warren of alleys and squares that have been turned into nice modern pedestrianised malls and squares for a nice little shopping district mixing old and new themes.  The main street runs past a lot of nice buildings, from near the old Roman gate and Victorian water tower nicknamed Jumbo, past the town hall and the castle and on to who-knows-where (we didn’t go that far).  We had a look around the outside of the castle, walking along the earthworks and admiring the autumn leaves and cute (though red squirrel displacing) gray squirrels.  We saw something being set up down in the park and asked a passing security guard what was happening.  He very helpfully informed us that it was the bonfire night fireworks that were on that night, and that we could get tickets at the tourist office across the road.  Bonfire Night is another name for Guy Fawkes night or Cracker Night, a night that celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.  It used to be celebrated in Australia in my parent’s time, until it was stopped due to the fires and fireworks burning down too many houses in the hot, dry November weather.  So we thought we’d go along to experience it for ourselves.  More on that later.

After getting our tickets, we went over and had a look inside the Castle, which is now the local museum (and it was pretty good museum weather).  It was a nice little space with exhibits going back to the stoneage, through the Celts, Romans, and Saxons to the Normans.  There was a fair bit on Boudica as you may imagine.  We took a tour of the castle with a lovely guide – we were the only ones on that tour.  The castle is built on the foundation of the old Temple of Claudius, a platform built over some arched vaults filled with sand (stone being rare in the area).  After the Normans were done with it, a local builder bought the ruins and discovered the sand filled foundations.  Being a businessman, and not an historian, he set to work digging the sand out of the vault to sell as building materials.  The vaults are therefore still empty, and were even used as air raid shelters during WWII.

After leaving the castle we had a quick walk around to the other sights – Jumbo and the Roman wall and back through the Dutch Quarter (where Flemish weavers set up shop after fleeing one religious persecution or another).  We found a pub called the Wig and Pen (recall my comments on the Wig and Quill in Salisbury) and decided to eat dinner there as a further homage to the Wig and Pen in Canberra – plus we were waiting around for bonfire night to start.  I had a nice roast beef wrapped in Yorkshire pudding, Emma had something veggie, and we both enjoyed a Greene King beer.

Bonfire night started at about 7pm.  We entered and listened to a local celeb/radio person warming up the crowd by crapping on in an entertaining way for an hour or so, playing a few crowd favourites to the crowd of glowstick waving locals.  Then it was time for effigy of Guy Fawkes to be carried through the crowd and thrown on the bonfire and sent back to Hades.  Boy those Brits sure hold a grudge – lets see the Iraqis burning Bush in effigy in the 25th Century.  After the (slightly creepy to my mind but the locals probably didn’t think about it that way) ritual burning in effigy of political dissidents they set off the fireworks display, an impressive affair, though slightly diminished by the smoke from the fireworks drifting into the way of the sight of them.  All in all it was a really fun affair, with families and teenagers really getting into the fun of it and singing along and waving their glowsticks, torches and light sabres (though luckily there were no glowing pitchforks).  

Afterwards we followed the crowd out, hopped in the car and drove the 10km or so to our hotel out in the country near a golf course, chosen because it was pretty damn cheap and looked pretty nice.

Day 3 – Colchester to Swanton Morley via Bury-St-Edmunds

And it was pretty nice:  nice big room, nice breakfast and reasonably nice golf course to have a quick walk on before leaving; and nice price.  Plus I got a free newspaper to read up on all the Obamamania in the Obamanation (these are all no doubt old jokes by the time I finish this - as well as Barry O’Bama being Irish, which I was proud of when I came up with it myself...until I discovered everyone else in the world had discovered that pun too).  We decided we’d seen enough of Colchester (and the weather wasn’t any sunnier this day to make it worth seeing it again), so we headed north towards the wedding location in Swanton Morley.

We stopped for a breather when we came to Bury-St-Edmunds (not to Praisehim).  Bury-St-Edmunds is so named because that’s what they did there (and to whom).  Edmund was the king of East Anglia when the Vikings invaded in 869, captured him, failed to get a treaty out of him and so tied him to a tree and shot him full of arrows (Boromir style).  Not big on diplomatic negotiations, your average Viking.  He was canonised in true “turn your defeats into victories by changing the playing field” style and a monastery was later built there which flourished for centuries, up until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.  Nowadays the site is an impressive ruin, set in a nice big park in the middle of town.  And it’s quite a bit ruin, there’s the cathedral (where the nobles agreed to force the Magna Carter on King John) and lots of outbuildings and cloisters – now low rubble walls and a few columns in a green park.  The other thing BSE is noted for is that it’s the location of the Greene King brewery and probably the reason that their main bee is called Abbot Ale.

Continuing on from (and before) BSE we passed lots of fields planted with some sort of vegetable crop.  We wondered what it might be for a while – it was a bit late in the year for leafy vegetables.  Emma finally proposed that it might be sugar beet.  We eventually passed a sugar mill which added credence to her theory that we were in a sugar growing area, and final confirmation occurred when we passed through Ingham.

We eventually got to Swanton Morley in the late afternoon (about 3pm – the days were short in England by this time too).  The wedding was held on an organic farm-stay type hotel out of town (appropriate since both of the happy couple are agricultural-scientists interested in sustainability) called Hunters Hall.  After checking into our room, we had a rest before heading into town to the local “freehouse” (pub) for dinner.  Finding the local not yet open (it wasn’t yet 6pm, though it was nighttime) we walked to the other pub at the other end of the village for a pint and to read the paper.  We came back to the main pub (where they did food) and enjoyed some burgers (it was hamburger night, and the gourmet burgers were yummy – I think I had lamb with mint) and a few more pints while we continued to read the paper.  And reading the paper over a pint in a nice cosy English pub really is one of the great pleasures of the world.  Emma didn’t get to quite enjoy it as much since we’d driven in and she drove us home to bed afterwards.

Day 4 – Swanton Morley feat. the wedding of Sarah Park and Simon Atwood

We awoke after a reasonable rest - no thanks to the skylight in the room.  It’s a personal peeve of mine, but I think any room offered for hire to people to sleep in should have the facilities to block out light to let the paying occupants sleep as late as they choose.  Good sound insulation is important too – though in the colder European countries this is usually provided through the heat insulation (including double glazing).  It doesn’t ruin a stay, but it shows a certain lack of forethought by the management.  This place was otherwise pretty good, and certainly not the only offender in this category, but I feel the time is right for a rant on the subject.

Anyway, thanks to my sleeping mask, the beanie pulled over my eyes and the cloudy morning, we had a good night’s sleep and awoke to a nice breakfast.  Emma finally got the chance to enjoy a Full English breakfast, albeit with some vegetarian sausages that were made of something like stuffing (which worked very well even if they looked a little copric.

After breakfast we decided to walk into town since the day had become quite nice.  We walked in along the country road, looking a bit more closely at the hedgerows and fields.  We went the other way when we got to the village and looked at the main centre, with a nice little village green (we’d walked through the burbs the night before).  After buying lunch we walked out to the church on the edge of town and had a look around the graveyard at the old gravestones and the molehills that were everywhere in the area at that time (but we didn’t make too much of them).  There was a public walk through farmland from the church back towards the wedding venue, which we followed.  It wasn’t a walking track or path or anything like that, just a few signs at turning points with the rest normal fields and such.  We walked down from the church to the brook, up the hill on the other side and across a ploughed field (after the sign assured us it was OK).  It was nice to get out right into the countryside.  One thing we noticed was the small lumps of quartz/glass-type rock lying all over the field.  They were ovoid and rock-like, but the ones that had broken looked like they were made of black glass.  We’d also noticed that many of the old buildings in East Anglia had walls made of these nodules.  It was only later that we realised that this was flint.  It was interesting to see the first precision-tool-making material of man (and woman), shame I didn’t realise it in the field or I might have had a go at banging one against the other (though that’s probably for the best).

We made it back to the wedding venue, ate lunch and showered and changed.  I had my usual wedding uniform on and Emma had bought a nice purple dress in Örebro.  The wedding was nice – held in a hall with old farm tools hanging on the walls.  Afterwards we mingled with the other guests while a guitar duo played some great jazz versions of rock anthems (including Sweet Child o’ Mine).  We were itching to dance but prevented by our personal rule to let the bridal couple lead off with the first dance.  This was a bit of a shame since that took place after dinner, when the guitar boys had long since left.  Anyway, I did get to drink lots of champagne while talking to Christof, a lecturer in modern art specialising in surrealism.  It’s not often I get to talk about the works of my all-time favourite Czech surrealist stop-motion animator Jan Svankmajer in a social setting, and Christof had not only heard of him, but was friends with the guy from when he lived in Prague.  Nice (and well played in the obscurathon my good man)!

Dinner was a roast pig-on-a-spit – makes a nice change from the usual alternate drop, and being an organic farm the pig probably lived a happy life before receiving its special wedding invitation.  We were on the young(ish) friends from uni table and enjoyed some very nice conversation with some young English couples.  After stuffing ourselves and enjoying the wine on the table (no sense letting it go to waste, but I still hadn’t had a chance to get to the bar to try the local brew, and the XXXX that was on tap for some bizarre reason) we enjoyed some great speeches - trust academics to know how to but some well chosen words together.

After dinner the DJ started up and the happy couple got their chance for a bridal waltz, opening the floodgates for the rest of us.  Emma and I like going to weddings since it gives us a chance to get dressed up and have a good dance (and people are usually impressed and say nice things (-: ).  One of the girls from our table, ?????, asked us if that was Lindyhop and we said it was, and she said she was learning it in Germany.  So I got to have a dance with her.  The night then became a bit of a blur of dancing and conversations as I finally got to try some of the beers at the bar.  It was good to have our accommodation only 20 metres from the venue, though we did have a bit of a wander out beyond the lights of the farmstead to finally see the northern hemispheres stars on the clear night.  We saw the big dipper and the north star (we think), as well as seeing Orion in the unusual position in the southern sky.  It’s a pity that almost all of Europe (except for small areas in Lappland) has at least some light pollution, so we didn’t get to see the Milky Way.  After that we toddled off to bed.

Day 5 – Swanton Morley to Norwich via north Norfolk coast and Great Yarmouth

Next day I was a bit tender.  We had a good breakfast again and headed off to drive the 35km east to Norwich the long way, via the coast.  We started to the north (Emma driving) to the town of Wells-next-the-sea, passing a lovely beech forest in golden autumn splendour (so nice we had to stop and take some photos).  Wells-next-the-sea is oddly named – we got there to find the tide out in the harbour and the sea nowhere to be found (I did see a hydrocephalic Chinese brother looking suspicious though).  The name is possibly short for “First Wells, next the sea” since you have to walk (or drive) about 1km out to the beach.  It seemed like a nice town, but it was too early for lunch and the weather was a bit on the cold and windy side (and I was hung over).

We continued along the coast enjoying the view.  It was a while before we saw the actual ocean due to the fact that most of the land in the area seems to have been reclaimed from the sea and protected by bug earthwork sea walls.  Eventually we drove the 1km or so from the main road to the sea wall, climbed over the mound of pebbles and looked at the sea across a pebbly beach.  Continuing along we passed Cromer, which looked like a really nice place, except it still wasn’t time for lunch (my poor old tummy wasn’t calling out for food).  We continued along, passing the turnoff to the tiny village of Eccles, but we didn’t stop in to say “Aaaaahhhhllo”.  After passing the village of Horsey we started to think about fish and chips.  Emma was all for turning back to a little place overlooking the sea (and the highway), but I thought we could find something closer to Great Yarmouth.  Unfortunately there were fich and chip shops and there was coastline, but nobody seems to have put the two together.  There are some creepy permanent carnivals of the epileptic flashing lights variety, but no fish and chips by the seaside (and extremely overpriced public carparks that deter one from stopping to look for one).

Eventually we reached Great Yarmouth.  All the Norfolk locals from the wedding had said not to bother going there, and we were planning to listen to them, except for the lack of seaside fish and chip shops that my vegetarian fiancée unaccountably insisted we visit.  But we finally ended up there, parked in a reasonably priced carpark near the beach and found a nice cosy plaice (boom boom).  Great Yarmouth didn’t seem that bad, pretty much like Brighton, except with sand instead of pebbles.  Frankly any cold, windswept English beach in late autumn isn’t going to impress someone who’s gone to sunny Queensland beaches almost every summer since birth, but this one’s failure to impress was probably on the low end of the scale which puts it up there amongst the competition.  Plus it had some nice old shop buildings along the esplanade.  And it had sand on its beaches which is more than you can say for most of Europe.  

At about this time (c. 4pm) it was getting dark so we drove the hour or so to Norwich through the Norfolk Broads along one of the flattest, straightest stretches of road seen in Britain since the Romans left (it almost made us homesick).  We made it to our accommodation in fairly central Norwich with little fuss, checked in and had a light meal of all the soups and nibblies we had in our luggage (we’d just eaten greasy fish and chips at 4pm) before going to bed.

Sightseeing in Europe in late autumn and winter is not advisable if you’re in a hurry.  When we’d been there in September (during daylight saving) we’d had sunlight until about 7pm, now, just over a month later it was dark by about 4:30 – plus many of the touristy things (and almost all in Scandinavia) will be shut out of the summer season.  Luckily we had planned a relaxed trip and didn’t mind so much, but it’s definitely something to consider if you’re planning a trip.

Day 6 – Norwich (NORR-ich)

The next day was a Sunday, and it was Remembrance Day (well, the Sunday before when all the church services were).  We walked past the Roman catholic cathedral on out way to town from our hotel spread through 3 old houses.  We wandered through town, past the town square (with its cute permanent stalls) and up to the castle, past a group of teenagers practising parkour – that newish activity where people run past, climb and jump over obstacles in urban environments (nice to see teens doing something constructive).  The castle wasn’t open yet, so we walked down towards the cathedral.  This was engaged in a Remembrance Day service, so we walked down to the river and along.  [Sorry if this day gets a bit boring, but I’m writing with a cold and running out of time to catch up the blog].

After a nice walk along the river with long views of Norwich cathedral, we made it back to have a looksy in the longest cathedral in England.  It’s pretty cool, but I am beginning to resent the way that cathedrals are split into the public part at the front and the “secret church men’s business” in the back.  If nothing else, the choir screen does tend to divide a wonderfully massive space into two smaller, less impressive spaces.

After this we wandered up through the shopping areas before getting some of the lovely cheese and chutney sandwiches that England doea so well for lunch in a less than super-impressive park (though it was nearly winter).  After that we went back to the castle for a look in the museum.  The Castle is one of the Norman Keeps built to impress and subdue the Saxon locals and generally cement the post invasion new order, and I guess it worked pretty well.  The museum was OK, though we probably should have taken the £1-if-you-come-in-less-than-1hr-before-closing offer.  The Keep was interesting enough, but only for about 15min – the heyday seems to have been Xmas 1119 when the king actually stayed there.  Later, the centre of the complex became a prison and the outer walls were torn down and built over.  Slightly more interesting was the display on the “local girl made good...then bad” story of Boudica – possibly the most interesting thing to happen to East Anglia for a few centuries.  But it was nice to continue the story back from the Colchester part (the Iceni came from Norfolk, but plundered southwards).  This display lead into the Saxon and then Viking eras and gave a nice overview of the history of England in miniature, up to the point where we mostly know from school (if we paid attention).  We also got to see, in a room full of faded stuffed animals, an example of the red squirrel and how it looks compared to the grey squirrel.

After this time, the sun was going down again so we wandered homewards and stopped at a local pub, the Horse and Plough.  The barmaid asked if we were there for the roast, since they’d just run out.  We weren’t too fussed and planned to stop for a pint and read the paper anyway and casually asked if there was a good Indian place nearby for later.  She said there was a place a bit of a hike away, but said we could get it delivered to the pub if we wanted.  We thought that sounded like a nice plan and did so, sitting back sipping our Greene King ales and reading some papers while we waited wait.  When it arrived, the ever helpful barmaid said we could eat it there and gave us some plate and cutlery.  It was a nice meal and a fantastic piece of English pub friendliness, and saved us lots of looking around and then having to work out how to eat our dinner back in the hotel room, and was a real highlight of a fairly pleasant day.  Yay for English pubs!!!  After that we went home, watched some TV and went to bed.

Norwich, despite the lack of enthusiastic details here was a nice city and we enjoyed our day there.  We also had quite a nice sunny day for it too, which didn’t hurt.  It is also rather well churched, with one on just about every corner and frankly the Adelaide tourist board might like to take a fact-finding trip there to see what a real “City of Churches” looks like.

Day 7 – Norwich to Cambridge via the Norfolk Broads and Caistor-St-Edmund

Next morning we had a quick look at the nice gardens built in an old flint quarry behind the hotel.  It was actually forgotten and left to become an overgrown wasteland until it was rediscovered in the 1960s and restored.  Unfortunately the fine weather of the day before had turned back into rain, but we chatted to a gardener about it while sheltering at the far end, which was nice.  Oh, and I tried a smoked kipper for breakfast to see what this English breakfast regular tasted like.  Unfortunately it tasted like smoked fish and stayed with me all day.  Oh well, gotta try things you don’t like to find the things you do.

That morning we decided to drive through the Norfolk Broads (in the daytime this time) to see what the fuss was about.  The Norfolk Broads are wetlands created by the rivers in the area meeting the low country near the coast and broadening out into large estuaries.  It’s also partly formed by a lot of the land being reclaimed over the centuries.  It’s full of quaint little villages and the odd glimpse of river, but a rainy day is a rainy day and it’s one of those places that’d be better by boat anyway.

After driving around the wetlands for a while we came back past Norwich and decided to find Caistor-St-Edmund, the local Roman town for the area.  It was re-discovered when a pilot flew over the area in a hot, dry spell and noticed that the grass in a sheep paddock was brown in an odd gridlike pattern.  It turned out that this was because of the shallower soil above the old roads and excavation began, filling the museum in Norwich (which is how we found out about it).  We got there and decided to brave the rain and walk around the sheep paddock (for that is what it is and what it looks like) to follow the signs around the muddy field.  In hindsight (and if you ever go there), we should have walked along the top part (past the Saxon church) to the big section of remaining wall, rather than following the marked route the long way down past the “river” (more of a small creek) that provided the freight (somehow, you’d barely be able to paddle a canoe up it now) for the town.  It was nice enough.  We got a bit wet, but it was nice to see the different examples of habitation for real – from the Roman walls to the Saxon church built from the stones.

After that we decided to just head to Cambridge along the freeway, rather than stuff about any more.  Despite a bit of concern finding a late lunch along the way, we eventually made it to out B&B in the dark in a small village south of Cambridge called Little Shelford.  The landlady was a bit on the odd side and the room really was small (the bathroom was in a cupboard).  Being told to take off our shoes in the narrow corridor before we’d even had a chance to dump our bags in the room was pretty annoying, frankly, and I made a point of not doing so for the rest of the stay out of spite.  The landlady was nice enough but wouldn’t shut up when what we really wanted to do was get settled and have a rest.  That night we had a nice Thai meal in the local pub and went to bed to prepare for the day in Cambridge next day.

Day 8 – Cambridge

Next day we hopped up and drove the 10 miles or so into central Cambridge, finding a carpark in an aquatic complex just to the south of the centre.  The £10 or so parking was less than the difference between the cost of accommodation in Cambridge and out of Cambridge.  After parking we walked across a nice, though cold and windswept field towards the centre.  After a wander through town to the river and then up King’s Parade past the older, more ornate colleges, we stopped into the Tourist Office to see what there was to see.

We discovered that there was a guided tour starting in about half an hour and decided to go on it.  After our flying visit to Oxford, we wanted to do Cambridge a bit better and actually learn something about the place.  The tour guide was an older, grey-haired, well spoken scholarly gent who turned out to be a psychiatrist.  He was a good tour guide too, taking us first past the oldest building in town – an old Saxon church with the distinctive tower style.  Next we went past the Eagle pub, where Watson and Crick drank and announced their discovery of the structure of DNA – it was just around the corner from Cavendish Laboratories where they, and many other great scientists, made their discoveries.

Next we went past a few of the older colleges – Kings, Gonville and Caius (“Keys”), Trinity and St Johns telling us some interesting stories along the way.  One recurring theme was the Night Climbers – a loose, secret group who would practice their mountain climbing skills on the buildings (in the otherwise flat region), and playing pranks along the way – like leaving a small car on top of one of the old buildings one night.  Another anecdote concerned the funding of the tower on St John’s College Chapel – the masters agreed to go without port and some other luxuries and paid for the construction in only 3 years, showing just how much gravy there was in the ivory towers in those days (if you’ll accept such a wildly mixed metaphor).

The highlight of the tour (and one of the highlights of the town) was King’s College Chapel, a huge building enclosing a huge space.  The difference between a chapel and a church is that a church is an official church building where a priest is based, while a chapel is just a small room for private prayer.  The difference with King’s is that their small room has been built on a massive scale.  The fact that it is not a church means that they weren’t constrained by the usual architectural rules, and so there’s no transepts (the cross part) or cloisters (the side halls), resulting in a huge, rectangular room where all the space is visible at once.  It’s a bit like an aircraft hanger with stained glass windows, carved everything and a few small buttresses on the outside.  It’s also where they hold the “Carols from King’s” every Xmas.  Its building, in phases from Henry VI (during the War of the Roses) to Henry VIII (during the Tudor period), was interesting too, but I’ll leave that to an interested reader to look up.  Luckily it survived the puritan destruction of idols that took place during and after the Civil War in the 1600s that would have cost it its beautiful stained glass windows, except that it was then being used to garrison troops and their horses and they wouldn’t have appreciated somebody breaking the windows and letting the cold air in.

During the tour we also had the difference between colleges and the university explained to us.  It’s essentially the same as in Australia (in UQ at least):  the university is where students study – providing lectures, exams and the conferring the degrees;  while the colleges are where students live – providing accommodation, meals, prayer (if you’re so inclined), tutors and mentors.  Most of the colleges, therefore, have accommodation buildings, dining halls, chapels and libraries, all build in frilly gothic style and all spread around green-lawned quadrangles.  And they’re not as fussy about visitors as Oxford, letting people walk around the buildings and quads and have a looksy (though it was out of season so maybe there’s usually an entrance fee). Many colleges allow masters to live there as long as they choose (and walk on the grass), so there are a few old sods floating around, getting their free meals and using their rooms as office space. 

After the tour, we went up the tower of St Mary’s church to get a different overview of the city.  We got a great view of the colleges again, as well as the market square with its permanent stalls.  After that we grabbed a lunch of a hot potato, beans and cheese and went to find a place to eat it near the river.  Since Emma refused to eat and wander, we had to walk quickly past a lot of nice scenery of the Backs – the canals built from the river around the back of the colleges and their meadows, but with no public access or benches.  We eventually ate on a park bench with a view of not very much (my way’s better).  After that we wandered upstream to some more water meadows and enjoyed the peace and quiet in the middle of town.

We didn’t do a punt ride, since it was getting dark by then and we’d seen the sights on the walking tour.  We wandered back through the town, did a bit of souvenir shopping in the cobbled streets and then went back to the Eagle for a pint.  At the back of the Eagle is a room that was used by Allied Airmen during WWII to relax and have a drink on their nights off.  A tradition started where they’d stand on tables and use their lighters to scorch their unit numbers and nicknames onto the ceiling.  Those numbers are still there, providing for an atmospheric and poignant pint (it was Remembrance Day too).  

After that we wandered down to The Anchor for another pint and a pub meal.  The Anchor overlooks the river near one of the main bridges, and where the punts park.  It's was also a favourite haunt of Syd Barret, a drummer in a local jazz band, as well as a local teenager called Roger Barret, who took "Syd" as a nickname and went on to form Pink Floyd.  I got bangers and mash and, luckily for Emma, they had veggie sausages, which meant she could have bangers and mash too.  It was a lovely meal and we enjoyed some more nice beers and some mulled wine.  It was a great end to a really nice day.

We really enjoyed Cambridge.  As I said in the last blog, it is unfair to compare Oxford and Cambridge since we saw then each in very different circumstances, but we enjoyed Cambridge a lot.  It was friendlier and prettier than Oxford, with a city centre with very little traffic (you’d be mad to drive there since you get stuck behind all sorts of bicycles).

Day 9 – Cambridge to Örebro via Ely and Stanstead

The next day was the last for that trip.  We had a short distance to go south to the airport, but our flight wasn’t till 5pm, so we first drove north across the flat Cambridgeshire plains to Ely (pronounced “EE-lee”, not “EE-LYE” as I had always assumed), since it was recommended by both out map and the other guests at the wedding. 

Ely was built originally on an island in the Fens, a wetland country that has since been drained for farmland (its name means “eel island”).  It was the sight of a monastery founded by some Saxon princess (Ethelreda).  Ely is mostly famous for its cathedral, where we spent most of the morning.  It’s a huge affair with all sort of goings on inside.  Ely was also the home of Oliver Cromwell, meaning that the destruction of the statues and windows was undertaken with extra gusto - most of the statues have no heads. 

Ironically, the cathedral is now home to one of the only stained glass window museums to be found, and we had a very interested look around at the evolution of the artform.  It flourished from the 1200s to the 1500s, and then died out somewhat (possibly due to puritans continually smashing them up), before undergoing a renaissance in the 1800s.  There were methods developed that let artists paint a picture directly onto the glass, but the old fashioned mosaics of single coloured pieces is still our favourite, giving a brilliant contrast of pure colour, which would have been pretty impressive in the Middle Ages when such sensory displays would have been far less ubiquitous than today (imagine seeing a stained glass window or hearing a full choir sing after seeing nothing but natural displays and the odd bit o’ singing around the fireplace your whole life to that point).

After a few more photos of the outside of the impressive cathedral we decided to head for the airport, dropping the car off and getting the shuttle to the airport where we waited for our checkin to open.  When it did, we were surprised to learn that we had to do it ourselves – Virgin Blue style.  Now the act of self checkin was fine by us, but the fact that we’d been charged an extra fee for a compulsory counter checkin (since we were not EU citizens) left us a bit miffed.

We found our departure gate (after having to buy another water bottle since the pricks at security had thrown away Emma’s EMPTY water bottle without even saying anything) and discovered that the line had already formed.  Ryanair has a first come first seated policy (or you can pay $20 extra to queue in the priority line – not worth it), and so all it takes is for someone to lose their nerve first and line up for everyone to race to form a queue and stand there for the next 30min waiting like a bunch of idiots.  We decided not to play along and see how we went (it was a night flight so a window seat was not at a premium) and sat down on the seats next to the queue.  When the flight opened, we discovered that we’d have to push our way past lots of people to get back to the back of the queue and so just stood and merged into the queue where we were.  It is a tactic I’d recommend for anyone using Ryanair in the future.  

In the end we got a nice seat, but ended up sitting next to a Swedish chap who smelled like he hadn’t washed in a few days (saving on the checkin luggage fee no doubt).  And, just like the proverb, he followed us to the train station in Västerås, onto the train and all the way back to Örebro (though not right next to us, thank heavens).  The trip back ended at about midnight, but luckily we’d planned ahead and had good books to read to pass the 9 hours required to take a 2 hour flight.

We had a great time in the UK on both our trips, but it was great to have a more relaxed journey around a smaller part of the country this time, with more time to enjoy the local pubs.  Back in Sweden for the rest of our trip now, we were looking forward to 4 weeks spent in Örebro while the winter closed in.


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