Ireland/Britain 1998 day 41: London to home


On 2 March 1998, I went home. Sort of.

I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.

Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.

My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.

This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.

Travel still life with cat
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.
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Ireland/Britain 1998 day 40: London/Greenwich


On the first of March 1998, I made a rail journey across London to the borough of Greenwich. I had one day left on my Britrail pass so I figured I may as well use it. Part of the adventure was a transfer at Clapham Junction which claims to be the busiest station in Britain and seems to have a gazillion tracks so I’ll believe that claim.

In Greenwich, I straddled the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. I strolled through the timely exhibits but the coolest thing I saw there was a camera obscura which projected an image of Greenwich onto a white table. I thought it was a photograph at first until I saw the cars and boats moving. I also visited the National Maritime Museum where I learned an awful lot about Admiral Lord Nelson. I also admired, but did not board the Cutty Sark clipper (which I wrote about previously), which is in dry dock in Greenwich.

I’d not enjoyed any nightlife since Liverpool, and it would not happen in London either. I passed by many intriguing pubs but was turned off by the crowds of suit & tie wearing patrons who looked like they were discussing stock prices. Really, the Big City was intimidating me. On Saturday night I attempted to go to a night club but when I saw all the hip, attractive young people in the queue I turned around and went home.

For my last night abroad, I wanted to do something and selected from the Time Out listings a early Sunday, relaxed chill-out club night in Brixton. I took the Tube to Brixton with Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” in my head. But I couldn’t find the club. I mean, I found the street, but the street number of the club just plain didn’t exist! So I ended up wandering aimlessly again, taking the tube to Piccadilly Circus where I gazed at neon and played a couple of games in a big arcade. Kind of a bum last night.

Prime Meridian

The Otter and I at Greenwich Mean Time.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 39: London


After exhausting myself the previous day, I started of 28 February 1998 rather slowly. I did some laundry even though I would be returning home in a couple of days because I wanted to have something nice to wear to the theatre. After checking my email at an internet cafe and taking care of some other housekeeping, I went to Leicester Square and purchased tickets for two shows: a 5 pm matinée of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap followed immediately by J.B. Priestely’s An Inspector Calls.

I had time in the afternoon for one museum and I narrowed it down to The Tate Gallery (which was just one museum at the time) or The British Museum. The Tate won a coin-flip, but I allowed history and prestige to reverse my decision (it was also closer to the theatre district). On the downside The British Museum was undergoing heavy renovation, a rude clerk in the shop falsely accused me of stealing, and after a while I got really tired of looking at lots of broken statues. But the British Museum has a lot going for it. I saw pieces of the Parthenon, items from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and the well-preserved corpse of the Lindow Man. I also had to hold myself back when I saw people touching the Rosetta Stone!!!! I mean its the most awesome relic in the world and stupid people were just rubbing their grubby fingers on it.

Back in Leceister Square, I took in some busker performances. One juggler was looking for volunteers from the audience and since I’d read that public humiliation was a good way to meet people, I stepped up. Basically, his act was to tie one leg behind his back clamber up on top of a suitcase balanced on a stool and juggle. My job was to hold the suitcase and act as the ladder for his one-legged climb up, something he told the audience would be very painful for me. The act went off without a hitch, and afterwards two gals from North Carolina congratulated me on my busking debut. That was about it though. I told them I was going to see The Mousetrap, they told me they were going to see Shopping and Fucking, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation.

The Mousetrap is kind of a silly play, but since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York (The Fantasticks), I figured I had to see the world’s longest-running play period. I was at performance number 18838. An Inspector Calls was more of a social commentary than a thriller, and one of the leading women looked strikingly like my friend Krista (unfortunately this was the understudy so I have no idea who the actress is or if Krista was moonlighting). Oddly, both plays have a person pretending to be a police inspector as an important plot device.

Busker

The busking juggler in Leceister Square who gave me a supporting role (literally) in his act.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 38: London


After more than five weeks of travel, I finally hit the wall on 27 February 1998. Most people just get plain tuckered out when constantly on the go, but I had somehow managed to keep my energy and enthusiasm up to this point. Then London just knocked it out of me.

I returned to the Tower of London, intent on spending the better part of the day exploring. It is well worth the time, and while I was not to interested in the crown jewels, I did enjoy strolling along the walls, taking in the aura of history. In one tower there were historical reenactors dresss in medieval garb demonstrating swordplay. I also took a tour led by one of the excellent Yeoman Warders who are just brilliant fonts of knowledge. The ravens also fascinated me. They’re much bigger birds than I imagined when one sees them up close.

There were a number of school children visiting, all wearing their charming school uniforms. One group got a bit rowdy, and a Yeoman Warder chewed them out, ordering them to behave “like good little people.” I found this much amusing.

After leaving the tower, I found myself riding the Underground and wandering the streets of London rather aimlessly. I felt tired, sore, and really didn’t know what to do next. I just felt I should be doing something to enjoy London. Finally, I gave in to the obvious and returned to Earl’s Court where I slept for about seven hours. While I napped, women from all over Europe gathered in my dorm room and pretty much had a picnic. I didn’t care and they didn’t seem too concerned either.

Good Little People

Good Little People at the Tower of London.

Tower Bridge

View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from the Tower of London walls.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 37: Paris to London


I crossed under the Channel again on 26 February 1998, arriving in London for the final leg of my journey. I checked into O’Callaghan’s Hostel in Earls Court, which was a dump, but a dump conveniently located near a tube stop and charging only £10 per night.

I indulged myself in hokum by paying a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It was fun to play make believe at 221B Baker Street and read letters that real live people have written to Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, like the Dublin Writer’s Museum, there’s just something about books that you can’t really get into in a museum. The real fun is in reading.

I passed by Madame Tussaud’s, and while I’d not planned to visit, I figured as long as I was there and there was no wait to get in, I may as well find out what all the fuss is about. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the alarmingly life-like waxworks and their clever arrangement in various galleries. I found it interesting to learn the history of Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution and the “how a wax dummy is made” exhibit. Unfortunately, after all the exhibits I ended up on The Spirit of London, a psychedelic carnival ride in a “black cab” through London history with animatronics, anachronisms, and alarming chronological jumps from the Great Fire to Carnaby Street in the 1960’s. It was so disturbingly hokey it soured the entire Madame Tussaud’s experience for me.

That evening I engaged in a much more historic tradition, The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. A small group of tourists are allowed to witness this simple and rather quiet performance each night. I liked how the Yeoman Warder described the 700-year old ceremony as the “longest-running show in London.” He also pointed out that it happened every night, even with Jack the Ripper prowling around nearby and during the Blitz. Photography is prohibited, but I found this website that has pictures and videos of the Ceremony of the Keys if you’d like to see what it’s like.

I finished off the evening with some food and people watching in the “centre city.”

Sherlock

How many lips have touched that pipe before I put it to my mouth?

Dalai Lama

Me and the Dalai Lama are real close. We go back 3 or 4 reincarnations.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 36: Sidetrip to Paris (day 4)


On Ash Wednesday, 25 Fevrier 1998, I started with a bit of memento mori by visiting Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. This “city of the dead” is the final resting place of numerous illuminaries such as Sarah Berndhart, Frederic Chopin, Jacque-Louis David, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, and Jim Morrison. It’s ghoulishy cool place to take a stroll. Year’s later I would read a great book called Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson in which all the people buried in Père-Lachaise are reincarnated as cats.

I returned to Norte Dame, this time to worship. The cathedral was quite crowded and a security guard valiantly tried to keep camera-toting tourists out of the choir. I had no idea how to tell him in French that I was here to pray, so I made a sign of the cross on my forehead, and he let me in with a smile. I received the actual ashes on my forehead a little later during a lovely Mass where I sat next to a French woman with an amazing singing voice. Not knowing the language, I really couldn’t sing myself.

On Wednesday, the Louvre Museum was open to 10 pm, and anyone arriving after 2 pm got in for reduced admission. I figured 8 hours was a good amount of time to take in the world’s greatest art museum so I joined the snake-like queue leading into Pei’s glass pyramid. The line was long but moved fast and soon I was inside and overwhelmed by choices. I bought an English-language guide for first time visitors that described and guided me to the 51 top masterworks in the collection. Following that took me about four hours and was well worth it to see all the famous art works I’d heard of (as well as many I never heard of but liked anyway).

On my own, I revisited some of the galleries more in-depth, mainly the collections of paintings. I was amused by the crowds gathered in front of Mona Lisa, all talking nonsense. I figured one could make a comical recording of tourists in front of Mona Lisa with witty bon mots like:

AMERICAN MAN: What makes it so famous?

AMERICAN WOMAN: Marketing!

After being around so many Australian travelers, I was amazed by how many fellow Americans were in Paris. Luckily I had my English-language guide so I could tell the woman from Michigan that David’s Le sacre de Napoléon depicts the Emperor’s coronation, not his sacrifice.

I admired a lot of art, but settled on the following three paintings as my favorites: La belle jardinière by Raphael (I especially like that John the Baptist wore a hairshirt as a baby), La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche, and the drool-worthy Woman with a Mirror by Titian. After a full day’s work looking at art, I was bleary-eyed and staggering through the gallery. I took the Metro back to the hotel and dreamt of curvy, curly-haired women with mirrors.

Pere Lachaise

An “avenue” in the City of the Dead.

Mona Lisa

If you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, expect company.

Aphrodite avec otter

Venus de Milo and Newport Otter enjoyed one another’s company because they both understand what life is like with stubby arms.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 35: Sidetrip to Paris (day 3)


On Mardi Gras, 24 Fevrier 1998, I moved out of Jessica’s flat because Madame Françoise was hosting several guests and didn’t have room for me. I enjoyed two nights rent free, but I also looked forward to having a place of my own for the next tonight. Jessica took me to her favorite budget lodging in Paris, Hotel Clairefontaine. I ended up in a petite chamber (9 1/2 x 8 ft) with a faded, dirty floral wallpaper, a squishy bed, a sink, a bidet, a wardrobe, and a window looking out on the courtyard covered by an old brown rag. And I loved it! This was the first place I had to myself in weeks, and it cost less than many of the hostels I’d been staying.

I took the train to Versailles, avoiding the wait to visit the actual palace of Château de Versailles, and instead I set out to explore the expansive gardens. I spent most of the day enjoying fresh air and exercise in a beautiful setting, which was inspiring despite replanting, statues covered in canvas, and no bubbling fountains. My favorite part is Petit Hameau where Marie Antoinette would dress up as a dairymaid and live a rustic lifestyle. Today there’s a working farm on the site, so I got to see a French sheep to go with all the Irish, Scottish, and English sheep I’d seen. It seemed to me that Marie Antoinette was ahead of the curve in creating the Disney/Busch Gardens experience.

Back in Paris, I met Jessica for dinner at a fondue restaurant. To complete my Parisian experience, we had a very rude waitress who responded to Jessica’s French in English, mocked her for ordering a Coke, told us she knew we were American because we came to dinner at 7 pm (too early), and would not tell Jessica what type of cheese was in the fondue. “It’s a secret recipe and I don’t want you opening your own restaurant.” It was so over the top, I had to laugh and simply enjoy the whole rude waitress experience. Oddly, the more I laughed, the nicer the waitress behaved to us, and by the end of the meal we were rather chummy. I figure Parisians are like New Yorkers: if you get offended it’s your own problem, but if you play along, the you’re alright.

Clairefontaine

My petite chamber in Hotel Clairefontaine.

Petite hameau

The Petite Hameau in the gardens at Versailles.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 34: Sidetrip to Paris (day 2)


On the morning of lundi, 23 Février 1998, Jessica and I went to the nearest Metro stop where she recommended I buy a book of 10 billets to save money over the next few days. Unfortunately, the cost of the booklet was 48 FF and the smallest note I had left from the Bureau de Change was a 200 FF, which the clerk wouldn’t accept. Instead Jessica went through the turnstile on her own, and then opened an exit gate, pulled me through and said “run!” When we got on the train and I caught my breath I was mortified that I’d just jumped the turnstiles and worried that I’d get busted. Jessica assured me that her friends did this all the time with no trouble. At our destination we were greeted by the controle who busted me for not having a ticket, and after a heated conversation in French with Jessica, forced me to pay a fine of 150 FF. The controle had no problem making change for a 200 FF note. I found it well worth it for an amusing French experience.

Jessica went to school and I went to Jardin du Luxembourg where I saw great statuary, trees, fountains, people doing tai chi, and children riding ponies. I strolled across the Seine to Isle Saint-Louis, where I tried a cone of the delicious local ice cream. On the next island, Île de la Cité, I visited the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. After visitng so many Anglican cathedrals, it was nice to be somewhere so thoroughly Catholic and I spent a long time there falling in love with my surroundings. The highlight of course was climbing up the tower so I could see the gargoyles up close.

I walked through Jardin du Tullieres, took a break and studied my map. I noticed that a section of the city had streets all with American names including Avenue de New-York and several avenues named for US Presidents. I decided I had to explore this part of the city. There I stumbled upon a replica of the flame from the Statue of Liberty dedicated as a monument to Franco-American friendship, of which I felt very proud at that moment. I was annoyed that the flame was defaced by graffiti, but soon realized that I was standing on top of the overpass where Princess Diana died in a car crash the previous year and these were messages to her. Still, I wanted her to get her own monument and leave Franco-American friendship alone. I finished the day at the Arc de Triomphe followed by a perambulation down the Champs-Élysées.

boats

Children sail boats in a Parisian fountain.

Flame of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty Flame, a monument officially to Franco-American friendship and de facto a memorial to Princess Diana.

Avenue de New-York

Slouching on the Avenue de New-York.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 33: London to Paris


In less than 24-hours, I saw for the first time London & Paris, Big Ben & The Eiffel Tower, and the Thames and the Seine among other things. Due to my late night tourism, I had some very full days, but in the sunny part of the morning of 22 February 1998 I woke up from a nap at Waterloo Station and started again.

I took another walk around London, this time to see the exterior of Westminster Abbey. I thought about going in for the Sunday service but the risk of my falling asleep was too great. Instead I continued on to a quiet Trafalgar Square, and around the windy streets of Westminster.

I boarded the 11:44 am train for Paris. The Eurostar trains are very sleek and feel almost like the interior of an airplane. I enjoyed that on English soil all the announcements were made in English first, then in French. Once through the Channel Tunnel the order of languages switched. The French woman seated next to me rolled her eyes at the English engineers French pronunciation. The Chunnel itself is rather dull, no more an experience than riding a subway in any city around the world. In fact I slept for most of the 20 or so minutes under the Channel (see Extreme Napping).

Sleepy and disoriented I disembarked at Paris’ Gare du Nord and was hit by waves of culture shock and panic. For some reason I had no problem traveling to a new city where I don’t speak the language, but I allowed my phone-phobia to prevent me from confirming ahead of time that I’d have a place to stay. Worse, when I tried to call Jessica from the railway station with my phone card I couldn’t get through to her. Did I have the wrong number, was she not there? I changed my money and tried calling from a coin-op phone and luckily this time I got through.

My worries weren’t over though, because Jessica gave me complex directions to her flat that involved riding the RER commuter train and two Metro lines. From what little I could remember of my high school French, I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket from the clerk, so I just wrote down my destination and held it up to the window and gestured for a single ticket. I have no shame. I jumped again on the Metro when a loud siren went off, but it was just the sound that signified the doors were closing. After that, I calmed down a bit and navigated my way to Jessica’s flat. I was even charmed by the busker who came on the train playing an accordion – it was just so … French!

Jessica welcomed me warmly and invited me up to the flat where Madame Françoise, the French woman who was hosting her, was chatting on the phone (I don’t think I ever saw her not on the phone). Jessica spoiled me with a dinner of gnocchi, Caesar salad, and lots of wine. At one point I casually looked out the window, and dumbfounded realized that I was looking at La Tour Eiffel! Jessica had a good laugh about that. Reinforced by a good meal, I decided to take a bonsoir walk around the arrondissement.

Excitement and curiosity got the best of me and I ended up walking a long way beneath elevated Metro tracks down to the Seine, and finally to the Eiffel Tower itself. Since I’d come so far I figured I may as well go up, purchasing the most expensive ticket to reach all the observation decks. At the tippy-top, a group of teenagers from North Carolina and their chaperons were taking group photos. One of the mothers asked me if I spoke English, and I responded “Like a native!” After I took their pictures I asked them to take mine, and cheekily invited some of the girls to join me for the photo so I would not be atop the Eiffel Tower alone. After that I rushed back to Jessica’s flat, hoping that she hadn’t already called the police.

tour-eiffel.jpg

La Tour Eiffel from below.

eyefull.jpg

At the top with a pair of North Carolinians.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 32: Bath/Cheddar/Wells/London


I pushed the boundaries of traveling on 21 February 1998 and became a 24-hour tourist.

I checked out of the Bath hostel and went to the bus station to purchase a Day Rambler pass on Badgerline. Then I checked my bags at left luggage only to learn that I’d need to be back by 5:30 pm if I wished to retrieve them. This would make things tight for reaching all three destinations I wished to visit that day: Cheddar Gorge, Wells, and Glastonbury. In retrospect, I should have just asked the hostel to hold my bags.

Cheddar is the biggest gorge in Britain which lends its name to the world’s most popular cheese. This was something of a cheese pilgrimage for me. First I climbed up a set of stairs called Jacob’s Ladder to the to the cliff walk over the gorge. The stairs were marked off with each step representing a geologic era. Humanity only appears on the last step from the top. I walked along the footpath for a bit and took in some lovely views. I chatted with some mountain bikers who were walking their bikes up the hill and making self-deprecating jokes about it.

The village in Cheddar Gorge is full of cheesy attractions (in both senses of the word), but unfortunately the cheese-making facilities were not open this day. The cheese-vending facilities, however, were operational and I bought a wedge of aged blue-veined cheddar. Sadly I missed the bus to Wells by just a few minutes and found myself wandering around this Gatlinburg of England for another hour. It also eliminated any chance of getting to Glastonbury that day.

Wells is a small city with a huge cathedral. The blue skies, dark clouds, the madding pealing of the bells, and the soaring towers of Wells Cathedral combined for a spiritually enlightening experience. The other main site in Wells is Vicar’s Close the oldest intact street in Europe. A line-up of charming houses with their chimneys all in a row. I took a break by the canal of Bishop’s Palace and watched people feed the birds. I was thoroughly charmed by Wells and did not want to leave. Perhaps it was good I didn’t have to rush off to another town.

I returned to Bath, picked up my bags, and boarded a train to Winchester. I planned to stay overnight in Winchester, visit Winchester Cathedral in the morning, and then take the train to London to meet my Eurostar train to Paris the next afternoon. At Winchester station, I decided to call the hostel, and learned that they were not open for individuals, just groups at this time of year. So I boarded the train again, and decided I’d have an adventure and sleep in the train station in London.

At London Waterloo International Station I dropped my big bag off at the high-tech security left luggage station. Then I followed signs out of the station to Westminster Bridge. After walking through a series of confusing “subways,” I walked up a staircase and right before my eyes was the famous tower and clock faces of Palace of Westminster. I crossed over the Thames and spontaneously decided to walk along the riverside path to the Tower Bridge. It was a long walk, but I had a real “wow I’m in London” experience seeing St. Paul’s, the Tower of London, and other sights along the path. After crossing the bridge, I walked back along the south bank and arrived in time to hear Big Ben bong.

Back at Waterloo, sleep wasn’t coming to me. The benches had fixed armrests which made it impossible to lay down. There also was a loud family of Chicagoans who were oblivious that people were trying to sleep, including the young French woman who starred daggers at them. I ended up befriending the college-aged son, partly to save them from the French woman’s wrath (which they deserved) and partly because company is company.

In the wee hours, Glenn and I went for a sightseeing walk around London. I can’t say I’ve ever gone out at 4:30 in the morning in a new city to take pictures before or since. Glenn was one of those charming people who ended every sentence with the words “and shit.” He also mistook several buildings for Buckingham Palace including the Victoria Coach Station. We never did find the actual palace.

We returned to Waterloo where Glenn & family boarded the first train to Paris. I of course hadn’t planned to be in London in the morning, so I had several more hours to try to sleep in the railway station.

Gorge Path

Bounding along the cliffs over Cheddar Gorge.

Cheddar Waterfall

A waterfall in Cheddar Village. In my Willy Wonka vision of Cheddar, this waterfall would be pure cheese.

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral.

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.