Posts Tagged ‘navel gazing’

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 31: Bath/Salisbury/Westbury

On the sober morning of 20 February 1998, I took the train from Oxford to Bath. I’d originally planned on staying in Bath, and since by necessity I’d returned to my original plans I checked into the funky Bath International Backpackers Hostel. From Bath I took the train to Salisbury. I didn’t have the time to make a trip out to Stonehenge as I thought I’d might, but that was low on my priorities. Instead I strolled around Salisbury which had some charming streets but mostly reminded me of my childhood hometown of Stamford, CT (if you’ve never been there think of uninspired suburban corporate architecture).

My main site for the day was Salisbury Cathedral with its soaring spire. I spent the better part of the day exploring this 700-year old edifice. On the return train to Bath, I noticed a giant white horse of chalk on the hillside outside the train. I spontaneously decided to get off at the town of Westbury and check out this White Horse. I wandered through the cute town center and then along some public footpaths that cut right through people’s property and got a somewhat closer glimpse of the White Horse. My act of spontaneity was not too rewarding but I did get some fresh air and exercise.

Back in Bath, I laundered my clothing in the basement and after slipping into some clean, fresh-scented clothing I returned to my dorm room. All the dorms were named for musical genres, my being Rock, with my bed named Pink Floyd. En route I passed the misspelled Heavy Mental room where five American students from Bucknell Universitywere drinking wine from plastic cups and climbing out their window onto their “balcony” (in fact, the roof). They invited me to join them so I climbed out and helped them take many, many pictures.

Since I had a whole day’s advantage on them in Bath, and love playing tour guide, I ended up showing them around. At first I enjoyed the company, but I soon grew to be weary of my American companions who continued to drink wine as the strolled the streets, took innumerable photos in the dark, and were rude to pretty much everyone we encountered. In other words, UA’s pure & simple, and I didn’t want to be associated. So I led them back to the hostel and then went to Schwartz Brothers and stuffed my face with veggie burgers and chips. Not too exciting but it’s what I did.

Salisbury Cloister

In the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral.

White Horse

The White Horse on the hillside.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 30: Oxford/Bath

I’d not intended to visit Oxford at all, but couldn’t turn down the free lodging, so I used it as my base to visit Bath and environs. That was the plan anyhow and on 19 February 1998 I took the train to Bath. Despite a late start, I had plenty of time to take in the sites. The city was a site in of itself with its stone Neoclassical architecture. I found myself slowing down just to take it all in.

I first visited the Roman Baths Museum, a place I wanted to visit ever since I read about it in my grandfather’s Reader’s Digest guide when I was a kid. The baths fulfilled my expectations and then some with it’s great archaeological and architectural wonders. Upstairs in the Victorian splendor of the Pump House I drank a glass of the Bath Spa water. It actually tasted pretty good, basically warm water with a strong mineral flavor. I actually felt quite peppy after imbibing it and headed out to tour the city of Bath.

I visited Bath Abbey with it’s West Front covered with carvings of angels ascending and descending ladders, one angel in a full nose dive. Then I walked by the Georgian architectural marvels of the Circus and the Royal Crescent. At the Bath Museum of Costume I enjoy an exhibit of waistcoats throughout the ages and see some I’d look good in (remember I was working at Colonial Williamsburg at the time), but 99.8% of the clothing on display were women’s garments, so there wasn’t much for me. In the adjacent Assembly Rooms I saw the familiar Allen Ramsay portraits of George III and Charlotte. The most beautiful sight of all in Bath is the Pulteney Bridge which doesn’t seem like a bridge at all when crossing it because it’s lined with shop fronts, but from the river one could see its graceful arches with water pouring through it into cascades.

Returning to Billy’s dorm room, I found a note from him telling me how awful my stuff smells. It was true that I had not had the opportunity to visit a laundromat for some time. Still I felt embarrassed and insulted. In retrospect, I overreacted and packed up all my stinky belongings and checked into Oxford Backpackers Hostel for the night. It was a bum ending to a good stay in Oxford.

Roman Baths

Newport the Otter prepares for a soak at the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Angels go up and down on the West Front of Bath Abbey.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 29: Liverpool/Oxford

I found the bloom falling off the blossom of the Embassie Hostel and the city of Liverpool on 18 February 1998. In the morning I couldn’t find a sink available to brush my teeth at, found the toaster eternally-in-use, and Argyle rambling on in an annoying fashion. So I just took off.

I visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum, one of the many great attractions on Liverpool’s Albert Dock. I enjoyed the exhibits of maritime history, customs agents, and art of the sea. Unfortunately, it was Half-Term (the British equivalent of Winter Break) and the museum was crowded with a gazillion children. This wasn’t bad in itself but between the kids and their children there was a lot of screaming, pushing, and downright obnoxious behavior. Out on the Dock itself I enjoyed a couple of buskers playing Beatles tunes on banjos.

I found more frustration in the crowded Lime Street Station where my train to Oxford departed an hour late. I went to Oxford on invitation from Billy, the American student I met in Kilkenny. I met Billy outside the porter’s gate of Magdalen College and he walked me through the quads and cloisters dating back to the 13th-century, then through a deer park, along a riverside path and finally to a door in a wall. Billy unlocked the door and on the other side it we were still outdoors. Billy was actually living in a modern residence hall set away from the main college.

Billy showed me a path to get in and out of the college without keys and went to work on a paper. I snuck out an found an Irish pub called The Elm Tree. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the last pub I’d visit on my holiday even though I would travel for 12 more days. It was a good one with an Irish trad session. The musicians often stopped playing to allow an individual to sing unaccompanied. I was impressed that everyone in the pub would stop talking and give their attention to the singer during these solos. I was also impressed by the group of men who took a double whiskey, poured it in a bowl of peanuts, set fire to it, and then ate the flaming peanuts. They offered me one but I was too pyrophobic to reach in and get one myself, so I settled for an extinguished one offered by one of the men.

After that I went out dancing all on my own at The Zodiac where an enthusiastic crowd enjoyed a 70′s/80′s night. I’d actually meant to go to the reggae club downstairs, but hey I was having a good time and feeling good about myself. I skipped back to Magdalen and conked out on Billy’s air matress. Not bad for my first night in town.

Banjo Beatles

Rockin’ to the Beatles on Banjo at Albert Dock.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 28: Liverpool

On only four hours of sleep, I packed in a lot of tourism in Liverpool on 17 February 1998. First I visited the two cathedrals: Liverpool Cathedral for the Church of England which is the largest in Britain, and the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, an exercise in modern architecture so audaciously ugly that it’s awesome. I also paid a quick visit to The Museum of Liverpool Life which contained surprisingly honest exhibits about labor struggles and racial tensions. I also enjoyed the exhibit about sport in Liverpool where I learned more about Everton, my new favorite football club.

With such fine attractions to see I felt guilty about dedicating the better part of the afternoon to The Magical Mystery Tour, a cheezy 2-hour coach tour of Beatles lore, but I could not resist riding the polychromatic bus. It turned out to be an interesting sociological and anthropological adventure. My fellow tourees devotedly, almost obsessively photographed every single landmark. I found myself more interested in watching them than looking at the rather nondescript buildings that once upon a time were associated with a Beatle or some Beatle’s relative. I was also charmed by the Liverpudlians who would great us at each stop. My favorite part of the tour was seeing local children kicking a football around in the street, blissfully indifferent to the fact that George Harrison once lived at the end of the cul-de-sac. After my trouble getting around the day before, I was relieved that that coach driver Les got lost on the journey back to the city centre.

Back at the hostel I joined some people watching the video Backbeat, a movie about The Beatles before they became famous which includes scenes filmed in and around the hostel. Sadly, I was unable to find Tanya but Kevin, Sr. told me about a pub called Guinan’s where he believed that other hostel guests were hanging out at. I didn’t see anyone I recognized and wasn’t enjoying the vibe, so I returned to the hostel and inadvertently to bed, which is what I should have done in the first place after a long day.

Magical Mystery Tour

Beatles fanatics at Strawberry Field.

Blue Suburban Skies

Children play on a street where a Beatle used to live.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 27: York/Liverpool

The day of 16 February 1998 was a wash. I intended to check my bag at the York railroad station and pay a visit to the National Railway Museum. Then I saw the queue of people waiting to have their bags hand-searched. I waited for 15 minutes without seeing the line move, so I gave up and went to the track for the first train to Liverpool. My waiting didn’t end because the train was heavily delayed. Then about 2/3′s along the journey everyone on the train was unceremoniously ushered onto a platform in some town I don’t recall the name of as the train went out of service. It was a long wait for the replacement train.

Arriving in Liverpool, I managed to get lost for a long time before finally locating the Embassie Hostel. The door was locked and no one answered the bell. From what I came to know of the staff later, I’d wager they were all asleep, but at the time I assumed the hostel was closed for the season. So I walked back into city centre and checked my bags at the station and paid a visit to The Beatles Story Exhibition. It was nice to cool my heels with two hours of Beatles memories.

With the sun going down, I returned to the task of finding a place to sleep. I was feeling exhausted enough that I seriously contemplated using my rail pass to take the longest journey possible by train just to have a place to sleep. Wisely, I called the number for the Embassie Hostel instead and discovered that they were indeed open and booked a room. Too tired to carry my bags on another long walk I took a black cab for the first time, the cabbie generously instructing me on the English rules of tipping (i.e. – don’t).

I received a warm welcome from Kevin, Jr. part of the father-son team who run the Embassie and was introduced to a number of other guests, most of them Australian. One guest named Argyle broke the mold of young, stylish Aussie travelers because he was a somewhat frumpy, 73-year old Australian who enjoyed telling rambling anectdotes. Two younger Australian women named Monica and Sabina asked me what word would an American use to describe a person who never stops talking. I decided chatterbox was the most polite term.

As a group we went on a pub crawl stopping for a quick pint in the elegant Philharmonic Pub and then to an Irish pub called Scruffy Murphy’s which was serving £1 pints. Here we joined even more Australians, including Tanya who worked at the hostel, and one local Scouser name Uncle Ian. Speaking of Premier League football, Ian informed me that Manchester United were a bunch of wankers and that I should support Everton (which I do to this day just because some guy in a bar told me to). We next went to the Jacaranda, a pub where the Beatles played some early gigs, for late night pints and dancing. I liked that the dance mix included James Brown and a lot of Liverpool bands including the Beatles.

Back at the hostel a bunch of us gathered around the table in the lounge for a long night of fun and conversation. Tanya, her friend John, and I managed to stay up until 7 am! The great night certainly made up for the lousy day.

Abbey Road Otter

The otter on Abbey Road.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 26: York

After staying up way too late the night before, I slept in late on 15 February 1998 and didn’t get going until 1 pm. Still I managed to get in a good day of sightseeing in Old York. First I visited the York Castle Museum which is similar to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as it’s built on the “Nation’s Attic” ethos. A lot of the exhibits were full-scale replicas of York street scenes from different eras. My favorite exhibit focused on life on the home frone in York during WWII. Definitely a must-see museum.

Next I shuffled along Shambles, York’s oldest street which maintains it’s narrow medieval appearance. I bought some chips and sat and watched the flocks of tourists amble up and down the street. The soundtrack of ceaseless pealing of bells from York Minster Cathedral provided the soundtrack for the activity in the city. These peals can last several hours, and while they may sound cacophonous there is a method to their ringing as practiced by the York Minster Society of Change Ringers.

Following the toll of the bells, I visited York Minster Cathedral next. The magnificent structure dates to the 14th-century. My favorite part of course was climbing the 275 to the top of the tower. The top was caged in – either to keep leapers in or pigeons out – and the view was thus obscured, but looking at York Minster itself with its many gargoyles was worth the climb. Back at ground level, I again attended a Choral Evensong service. This time I sat in the choir of the cathedral itself among the Ascension Singers, a group of men and women who sang like angels.

After that I had a quiet night and went to bed early.

Shambles

Along the Shambles

Tip Gargoyle

Is it just me or does that York Minster gargoyle look like Tip O’Neill.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 25: Edinburgh/Durham/York

I began Valentine’s Day 1998 in Edinburgh by checking my bags at the railroad station. There were coin-op lockers there, but no self-service as security regulations required having my bags checked by a man with a long wand that whistled like a radio between stations. I asked him what he was looking for, and he told me plastic explosives. I wanted to ask him what he would do if he found plastic explosives – a lose/lose situation I imagined – but decided this was not the best place to ask lots of questions.

Along the streets, a mob of Socialists were canvassing the crowd to sign petitions. I wasn’t paying much attention to the news at the time, but apparently the UK & USA were planning to invade Iraq because Sadaam Hussein was making chemical and nuclear weapons. I guess the Socialists were successful in holding off the invasion for five years.

I visited Edinburgh Castle which sits impressively atop a former volcanic promontory. I found myself disappointed because the castle, while scenic, was less interesting than Stirling Castle. Even the free CD audioguides didn’t help much. Information overload if anything. I suppose that since I had Stirling Castle pretty much to myself and Edinburgh Castle was packed with fellow snap-happy tourists made a difference too.

I sadly departed Edinburgh having only scratched the surface of what this wonderful city has to offer. I took the train south to England making a day-stop in Durham. Due to security concerns, the left luggage at the station was closed so I had to haul my bags with me through the town. The advantage is that it forced me to stroll slowly through the lovely town and along the River Ware Wear. A fun bit of art along the river depicted “The Last Supper” carved into several tree trunks. The image only appears when one views it from a particular point.

The highlight of Durham and my reason for being there is Durham Cathedral. Bede the Venerable is interred here for starters. It’s an amazing work of architecture especially when one sees it used for it’s designated purpose: worship. I attended the Evensong service where the choir boys sang like angels. Quite a beautiful experience.

I continued by train to York where I spent the night at the York Youth Hotel. I took a scenic walk of the city and then returned to the hostel which had its own built-in bar. There I met a young Norwegian woman named Ann Katrin who was visiting York with a group of friends for the Viking Festival. We hit it off well and drank several bottles of Hooch, which despite it’s colorful name was merely hard lemonade.

After the bar closed we went to the hostel lounge where people were watching the Winter Olympics on tv. I had the surreal experience of watching the game of curling for the first time while buzzed on Hooch. Ann Katrin and I stayed up very late talking about things ranging from Irish crooner Daniel O’Donnell to the existence of God. I ended up very tired and cranky, which was kind of a rotten ending to a good night.

Edinburgh Castle

The hilltop location of Edinburgh Castle lends it a stunning prominence.

River Ware

The beautiful River Ware Wear in Durham.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper sculpture in Durham (I see an otter in attendance).

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 24: Edinburgh

I spent Friday the 13th of February 1998 appropriately enough in the capital city of the macabre nation of Scotland. I got the sense originally that Scots were obsessed with stories of doom, gloom, and the dead among us on my Loch Ness tour and it was only reinforced by the FREE two-hour walking tour of Edinburgh provided by the High Street Hostel.

After the tour I strolled Edinburgh’s magnificent Royal Mile, the series of main streets connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Holyrood Palace. Edinburgh is unlike any city I’ve ever scene with it’s architectural marvels built into a hillside crossed by an arched bridge. The city also provides far too many cultural opportunities for the traveler to enjoy.

I stopped in The Museum of Childhood which is probably the last place you want to take a child since it’s a display of old toys behind glass. Much cooler is Arthur’s Seat, a mountain right in the middle of the city. I’d never been to a city with a mountain before (I’ve since been to the equally wonderful Montreal) and I excitedly climbed to the top. There with my trusty self-timer camera I took a photo of myself, almost tripping and falling down the mountain in the process. I figure the Scots would’ve come up with a good ghost story of the Clumsy American Tourist to commemorate me had I fallen.

Back at ground level I walked to the other end of the Royal Mile, checked my email at an internet cafe, and then went to The Last Drop (named because it’s on the site of the former gallows) for supper. Before leaving on my trip, I joked with my friends that I’d eat vegetarian haggis in Scotland. The Last Drop actually serves the stuff, basically the stuffing without the sheep’s stomach with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). It was surprisingly spicy and delicious, although I have no idea if it is representative of the true haggis experience.

I continued my pub crawl at The Bare Story where I watched an hour of The Simpsons while sipping Scottish whiskey. I then took the Mercat ghost tour of Edinburgh. The guide, a local actress, tried to play up the scary stories but as we toured the Edinburgh Vaults the tourees kept interrupting to ask her about the archaeological excavations that uncovered the vaults. I had to laugh because in Colonial Williamsburg, I constantly had my historical tours interrupted by people who wanted to hear ghost stories. The guide was good natured about it though and treated us to a pint and more archeology stories at the (spooky) White Horse Bar.

I’d heard about the Friday the 13th 7 Deadly Sins pub crawl and decided to give it a shot. The basic gist is that you get a card that you have to take to 7 pubs and order the 7 drinks specified and get them stamped by the bartender. Once the card is full one can trade the card in for a prize. I got a pint of McEwan’s at Mary King’s Close Pub to start it off, but after that I gave up because the whole thing kind of seemed stupid. Not to mention that the bartenders looked at me like a stupid tourist and pub #2 was way too crowded to even enter.

Instead I went to Finnegan’s Wake for Irish music (I just can’t let go of Ireland). A raucous band played to a huge crowd. Here I met a young blond English woman named Charlotte who tried to set me up with each one of her many friends even though most of them were there with their boyfriends. I accompanied these women to The Subway, a nightclub which invested heavily in liquid nitrogen. I danced the night away unable to see more than a foot in front of me in a crowded, small venue. Every so often Charlotte bumped one of her clearly not interested friends into me. I had fun anyway.

After a long day and a good night out, I returned to the hostel where I talked with Kevin, a short Australian guy who had also had a good night. Apparently he’d been invited to a house party by a Scotsman named William Wallace. Kevin just couldn’t get over the fact that he’d been drinking with William Wallace. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was still standing, so I crawled off to my bed to sleep.

Mike the Friendly Bagpiper

Mike the Friendly Bagpiper performs for spare pence on the Royal Mile.

Arthur’s Seat

The view from Arthur’s Seat. This could very well have been the last photo of me ever.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 23: Loch Ness

I started my day at the Inverness Tourist Information center where I learned that Dr. Gordon Williamson’s minibus tours only went out on weekends in the low season. Since 12 February 1998 was a Thursday, I could not wait around for the weekend. Instead I signed up for the dreaded Inverness Traction coach tour as my only option for seeing Loch Ness. It was about as dreadful as I expected, a big bus with corny narration, but at least it made frequent stops where I could get out and away from the group.

In all those tv specials about Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster I was always drawn to the beauty of the loch itself. It did not disappoint. Loch Ness is 24 miles long, 1-1.5 miles wide, and unfathomably deep. It exudes an aura of beauty and mystery.

The coach tour’s first stop is at the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre in Drumnadrochit. The most fascinating part of this exhibit is that in all the expeditions conducted to find and/or disprove Nessie’s existence, scientists have learned about many interesting creatures that inhabit the lake such as mollusks and midges that are not known elsewhere in the region.

At another stop on the tour we visited Fort Augustus Abbey a Hanoverian fort which became a Benedictine Abbey which became an incredibly cheezy tourist attraction. Presentation is everything and we visitors were forced to carry Walkmans as we viewed waxworks, models, and artifacts. The monastery was actually still in use so after escaping the exhibit I wandered off to the peaceful chapel and then walked along the Loch itself.

All in all, it wasn’t as bad as I made out. Yes, I did have to listen to macabre tales of Alistair Crowley, but I also got to take in views of the loveliest landscape from all sides of Loch Ness.

After returning to Inverness that evening, I took the train to Edinburgh. I checked in the High Street Hostel and apparently did nothing worth writing down. The have only clues that I went on a pub crawl in search of live music because I listed the names of three pubs: The World’s End, Tron Ceilidh House, and Whistlebinkies. I guess it was a good night, but I can’t remember a thing about it.

Loch Ness Otter

Look carefully in the foreground and you may see the mysterious Loch Ness Otter.

Liam by Loch Ness

Here you can see the not so rare Loch Ness Tourist.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 22: Inverness

Passing the halfway point of my holiday, 11 February 1998 became my second vacation from vacation day. I slept late, and when I awoke I finally made it to the laundromat. Unlike Glasgow, the laundrette woman was cheerful and helpful. I also found a copying machine and a post office so I could send off the dispatch letters I was sending to all my friends (this is what we did before blogs).

The only site I took in that day was another brilliant museum The Balnain House Home of Highland Music. The exhibits included numerous video and audio stations with examples of Highland music of different styles and eras. My favorite part was the room with actual musical instruments for visitors to try out. Blowing a bagpipe is harder than it looks, and I could only make it produce a sickly moan. Two American woman Holly and Lori were there at the same time, and since they were studying music at college, they could make much nicer sounds on the instruments. Then we all jammed together playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

In the evening I tried to take the “haunted tour” of Inverness but no one was there. I wandered about the city looking for signs of nightlife but found nothing, so I returned to the hostel and was in bed by 8:30. I awoke in the wee hours and went to the lounge to write in my journal. There I met Richard, a drunken middle-aged Scotsman who worked at the hostel and attend a local college. He cheered my up with his friendliness and compliments, and just being an all-around good-hearted guy.

Learning that I wanted to visit Loch Ness he recommended Gordon’s Minibus Tour led by a local historian and biologist who takes his groups out of the van to hike around and study the flora. This sounded like just my type of thing so I thanked Richard for planning out my next day, and went back to bed.

Bagpipes

Be very happy that there’s no audio accompaniment to this photograph.

Bridge over River Ness

I loved the River Ness which rushed through the city with a glossy, reflective surface. The pedestrian bridge is rather bouncy which is either fun or terrifying depending on your temperament.

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