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Thursday, March 31, 2011

I find Jesus and Harry Potter in an Irish cab on the way to Stonehenge

Hey. Nice to see ya. Have a pint.

Yeah...It's room temp sorry about that. Kinda an English thing.  Let it settle it'll taste better.

Right so back when I was researching this trip, I became enthralled with the immense amount of places to see and equally irritated with the lack of time I had in which I had to try and visit all of them.  So I found this nifty little tour that could allow me to check several items off my list, all within the space of a single day.

It was on the 29th of March that I set out on this formidable journey.  Beginning at Harrods in London, our bus would take us to Stonehenge, then Bath, then to the Cotswold town of LaCock(pronounced lake-hawk you sicko).

Traveling on my own this time into London, I arrived at Harrods a bit a head of time and ended up waiting quite a while longer than I anticipated. Twenty minutes in and I thought I'd been had.  Then pulls up the bus in question, which had been waiting for me at the other side of the street.  They recognized me by the sad, confused look on my face and the white receipt I clutched.
 The group on the bus was quite diverse. A couple families from Colorado, one from Florida, a couple sisters from Iran, some chick from India and so on.  Nice, small, polite group of people.
Our guide was a badass Irishman named Tony.  Born in Ireland, raised in the U.S. and currently living in London, he gave us quite a non-traditional viewpoint on the place.  Pretty irreverent but very informative and quite hilarious.
This is Tony. He's a badass.
We drove out of London toward our first stop, Stonehenge, passing many landmarks along the way that
Tony was more than happy to share stories with us about.  Windsor castle, Eton college, a few burial mounds, he ended up knowing a lot about everything.

Turns out he was real into Stonhenge though.  Had a friend in the local archeology that kept him up to date on latest finds, so he was actually a lot more accurate than the audio tour.

Insert x-files theory here
The stones were pretty cool.  You couldn't help but feel a bit in awe of the know-how required to get them the 80 some kilometers from the quarry to the current spot. Tony regaled us with all the current theories on how many people it took(3-4000), who did it(the beaker people) and what purpose it served(burial ground).   Apparently the archeologists have a plethora of new information that they are going to release soon and it's gonna turn a lot of heads.
Still, looking at these things...I could buy the alien bit.  Even the druids moving them with their minds.  Maybe the giants, maybe merlin.  Regardless of what theory you follow, these monoliths are from such a different world than ours and you can feel it just looking at them. I wasn't planning on originally coming to check them out but I'm glad I did.

Next on our tour was the city of Bath.  Originally a roman settlement, it was an ancient hot springs/resort town in its heyday.  Now it houses some great ruins, some awesome museums and some really cool pubs/shops as well.
Most of our time was spent within the old roman bathhouse, a temple dedicated to Minerva that housed some hot-springs. The museum was really informative, and the audio tours were interesting as they focused on daily life of different people discovered to be among the ruins.  Much of the general history I had read up on previously so I admit I did skip over a lot of it, but it was really cool to see an actual roman site.
 The city itself was really interesting and had a lot of architecture that I hadn't seen before.  Mostly Georgian they told me.  And apparently Johnny Depp has an apartment here.  Or a flat. Sorry.
I wish I'd had more time to further explore it, as the city had many more sights(like the Abby sitting right there that I didn't have time to see!!) but after about two hours we were off again.  If I have the time later I'd love to come back and give the city it's deserved attention.  And I would enjoy having another lovely pasty...

Next we set out on a journey to LaCock, a tiny medieval town in a historical section of England called the Cotswolds.  These towns were thriving before the industrial revolution and were focused on the wool trade that gave this area it's name.  Once the industry disappeared or moved to the bigger cities, these towns remained as they were.  So it was a cool way to step into medieval England. 
Now when I say step, what I mean is pummel ourselves through two way roads less than five feet across in a rather large tour bus going like 50 mph.  If you haven't driven(or been driven) through the narrow streets of old England by a crazy Irishman then you haven't lived. I swear I found Jesus during a particularly harrowing right turn, and he was gripping the seat and wincing just like the rest of us.
This was my favorite part of the trip so far.  I loved the feel of this village.  Every building had a slight tilt, as if it had wedged itself into the ground and buildings surrounding it.  There were plenty of warm old locals waving at us from the windows or sharing favorite stories with travelers over a pint in the many centuries old pub.  Further down the street we saw something I didn't expect.  The house of a particular wizard with a certain lightning bolt shaped scar on his head.
Or rather, the house his parents died in...his original house. 

I guess they filmed part of the seventh movie here as well, plus Slughorn's house was found just down the street.  Fun place.  The woman that owns it also takes care of a killer hedge maze in her spare time. By herself.
 Anyway, a charming if quite dead little village.  I imagine I would love to retire there someday...though I doubt the maintenance on any of the homes is very reasonable...still...Harry's folks had good taste.

The last stop on our tour was an extra surprise.  Not planned but on the way, it was another rock henge, this one two hundred years older than it's more famous counterpart.

Avebury was supposedly built by the same beaker people around the same time as Stonehenge.  Though it was built for quite the opposite purpose, to celebrate life as opposed to celebrating burial rites.  It's actually quite larger than Stonehenge in diameter, though a lot of the stones are missing and none are as fancy in terms of their arrangement.  And there are sheep. Lots and lots of sheep.

But another perk, you can touch and sit and even climb on the rocks. And no one seems to care...

Don't look at me weird but there were times when you could feel the energy emanating from these things. Avebury is supposedly built on a point where two ley-lines or energy-lines intersect.  Call it magnetism or spiritual-mother-earth-ness or whatever, but I felt heat from cold rocks damn it.

So anyway a very cool end to an excellent day.  I saw a lot more than I anticipated, and had a lot more fun than I thought I could traveling on my own. My tour-mates were all really cool folks and it would be fun to do this again with the same people.

And props to Tony. You rock man.

Here's a ridiculous amount of pictures...

3-29-11 Bus tour photos

Stone hedge
My next romp will be summarizing my time in very wet but very learned Cambridge and a very cool day in Ely cathedral...

Cheers! I'll finish your pint if you don't want it...I'm getting used to the luke-warm ale thing...

A tour of Sutton-on-the-Isle...

Cheers to ya! Sorry it's been so long.  I've been moving about a lot in the past couple days and haven't really had much time to post...but enough about my lame excuses...we've got some catching up to do...
Lets go for a walk...

Where are we you ask? Why this is the fair town of Sutton-on-the-isle, voted Village of the Year in 2002. .We just passed the grocery store/post office/bus stop building...It's a tiny, tiny, TINY collection of old stone town houses dotted with apple orchards and laundry lines hung in the yard. It does have a lovely cathedral(1305?) though with a fascinatingly ancient graveyard encircling it...
The whole area used to be an island sticking up in the middle of the marshes, hence the on-the-isle...Its a grand place to call home "temporarily."  There's my friend Jess's Sister-in-Law's house down the street next to the pub.  Pretty close to the Pippin house...I know right? Feels like that kinda town...

Down the street from the cathedral we can really get a look at the countryside around the town.  Lovely green fields, a bog and a pond here or there.  Forest is pretty sparse though we get a bit of that too.  Lovely walking paths around here.

I gotta tell ya...coming to this place at night, grabbing a pint at the pub, listening to the owls and song birds and the locals argue about cricket...I kinda feel like a hobbit.

Its a good feeling.

Check out my picasa album for more pics of Sutton.
Sutton, Cambridgeshire

Bit of a shift in pace I know in this the next one I promise much adventure, intrigue and even a bit of magic.

Clique? Yeah. Awesome? Um...I go from Stone-hedge to Harry potter's house in one day...I would say...Awesome.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Seeing the London sights people say I ought to see...

Oh hey how are ya?

I'm good. Relaxing in a little village called Sutton.  It's about an hour and a half from London near Ely and Cambridge.  Cool place. Old. You know. Like everything else around here. 

But I'll chat with you about it some other time.  I still have one more day of adventures in London to share with you. 

So it's Sunday morning.  I've gotten up all early(like 8:30) to be a good little catholic on my vacation and go to church.  So I walk down the street to go to St. Pauls...and no ones there. They say that theres a service at 10.  Well that won't work I have far too much to do today I thought.  Jess was going to take me to see all the big sites, you know, the big clock, a couple of parks, some palaces, no big deal.

So they say there's a proper catholic church like ten mins down the road past the Old Bailey.  So I grab some caffeine and go.  So far this is my favorite time to be in London. At 9 in the morning on a Sunday.  There is no one on the street. There's no noise.  Just the coo of pigeons and the occasional screech of sirens.  It's fantastic.

Past the roundabout, through the gate marked "Ely Place," sat the church in question.  It's this hole in the wall, scrunched between two other buildings and no-one's parked there.  It looks interesting enough, so I walk up the stairs, looking around like a cautious tourist should before entering strange buildings in a foreign country.

The church is St Etheldreda's Church, and just happens to be the oldest catholic church in london.  Too tough to be killed by the reformation or the great fire.  I walked in and was greeted by an angelic latin chorus...singing to an empty chapel.  

Did you know there was a time change on Sunday in Britian? 

Yeah Me neither.

So I helped the priest organize his songbooks and sat and listened to the choir for a half-hour. Damn good way to start a morning even if you do miss mass.  I highly recommend coming to check out this church and it's nifty crypt if you have the chance.  Their 11:00 mass is in Latin. I'm hitting that up later...

Upon checking out at the hotel, I had my first legit English breakfast. Aside from the runny eggs it was quite good. 

Then we began our odyssey across the city. First we hit the Tower of London but found the tour to be waaaaay too expensive. Sad day. I'll have to come back.

Then we back tracked and ended up at Hyde park.  Twas huge, green and lovely if not a lot crowded.  I did enjoy walking down the area they shot "The King's Speech" in.  

After that we moved on toward Buckingham palace.  St. James park was very nice. I tell ya I really did over-prepare for the weather here.  Either that or I am the luckiest tourist this side of the Thames.

There was an awful lot of building going on.  Some was the common restoration stuff that always is happening but I have a feeling that a lot of it had to do with that big wedding thing happening in about a month over here.  Bet that buffet is gonna be choice.  Really glad I'm not gonna be here for it...

The palace was just as I thought it would be, if a little underwhelming.  The guards were cool and the fountain and other architecture was really interesting, but I guess I'd seen it in so many movies I wasn't too surprised.  Glad I saw it though. There were a lot of tourists sticking their head between the fences just staring at it for long periods of time. Like they were waiting for a jig.   Seeing that statue of the queen was really cool because I was familiar with it but i didn't really know where it was beforehand. So it was like, "Oh. That's where it is. Huh."  But yeah, the fountain was really impressive.  Many large statues that people felt inclined to climb and take pictures of themselves climbing...Jess and I didn't trust our balance to attempt that.  Plus we have like respect and stuff...

Did some more walking...through St. James toward that huge edifice pointing in the distance like the tallest kid in the classroom, Big Ben. From a ways a way I was like "Thats a big clock." 
As I got closer it was revealed that the sheer complexity and scale of Big Ben and Parliament were something me and my nearly dead battery were just not prepared for.
 Sooo many details to photograph...sooo few digits left on my battery...I was impressed by how many photos you can squeeze out of a 2% reading.  Props to Jessica for letting me use hers in a pinch.  
Westminster abby was particularly impressive. I will have to come back to check that one out.  There were tours of parliment but only on saturdays...bollocks.  
For a sunday there were an insane amount of people around.  As the hours waned and the toes wailed in pain, we decided to head for one more stop; Westminster cathedral.
  It was a worthwhile trip. This cathedral was significantly different than the others in its construction; the brick and mortar on the ceiling was still black from the centuries of smoke.  Even then the air was thick thick THICK with incense lit quite cinematic-ally through the small stained glass windows.  It had a much older feel than the other churches I'd been in; a bit more mystical too.  So...I'll call it homey.  Incense always reminds me of home for some reason.

So yeah...long day.  At least six miles on foot.  Even with my "travel" shoes, the cobblestone was starting to break me soles.  Strangely enough this was the most time I'd spent exploring London above ground, so it gave me a bit of bearings on the central part of the city. 

From there began our long, crowded journey to King's Cross station to leave the city.  We stopped for a quick bite(I had my first uk fish and chips!) and were soon off from victoria station, to hoborn, to bank to the whatever the hell I lost track station.

Three lines were down, so naturally it was standing room only in the station. The tubes to Kings Cross were so crowded that people were literally stuffed into the trams. Like "put your leg here and I can put my head here and if you rotate your abdomen just slightly we can get this five year old girl home to her mum." Its funnier because it's not an exaggeration.

After I spent 20 mins getting someone to stamp my railcard we finally got out of London and I slept through my first legit train ride.  It was getting dark though so I wasn't missing out on much.  From Cambridge we had to take a bus to Ely, and from Ely Jessica's sister in law picked us up and drove us the 15 min journey to Sutton, where I now type from.  

So yeah...gettin down with the public transit system mostly that day.  Now I have a little more confidence with it though so when I travel on my own later this week, I should be set.  Hopefully. 

As always...check out my pictures...\

And thanks for reading!

I can hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men...

Welcome back! Did you get your coffee?

Good, well have a seat, I was just about to go into my second day in London.  It turned out to be interesting, exciting and even a little scary at times...

When I started researching for this trip months ago, I happened upon this tiny little place called the "British Museum." Further investigation prompted my decision that at least half a day would have to be spent exploring it's British depths...and on the second day of my voyage, we set out to see this wonder of history and dust.    I really haven't gotten a feeling for the city itself as I am constantly using the tubes for transport.  Each little spot I visit has a very distinct feeling and character, like little mini-metropolises.

The Piccadilly line took us to the bustling business center of this massive city. It felt very New Yorkish, with huge display screens atop massive buildings both ancient and modern.  There seemed to be a bit of a commotion on the street.  Cars were nowhere to be seen and isolated lines of people marched together down the middle of the square  Most worrying was the sheer number of bobbies surrounding the area, resplendent in their florescent vests and shiny black caps.  There were few on the street itself, but many more in the packed police vans that lined the sidewalks.  They were waiting for something to happen; the stickers on the walls revealed it to be March 26th "The Day of Rage." It was pretty calm at the moment(the few journalists we saw looked pretty bored.) That would change soon.

We scuttled quickly through the square toward the museum. The streets had an incredible character here, each inch of the sidewalk was lined with intriguing shops and pubs.  My favorite was an awesome little comic shop whose only advertisement outside was a giant Batman symbol.
Even the gross alleys had character! Eat your heart out Butte, Montana!

Just down the street was our goal, the British Museum.  The entire walk toward the entrance I was geeking out so badly I could barley walk a straight line.  I'm a huge history nut, and I was about to have a sensory overload.  Cigarette please...

The building itself was just about as impressive as the collections it held.  Each room we entered seemed to be built to tailor to the era and culture it represented.  First was the Egypt exhibit.  I admit that I broke the law...I had to reach out and touch the symbols I had sketched as a child.

From Egypt we moved on to the Assyrian Empire, whom I had just spent some time studying on my own.  Mean bastards they were.  It was their politics of pure terror that made Babylon and Persia go "Oh crap...guess we better take care of this..." It was amazing to see real cuneiform writing up close...

We had already spent an hour and I felt way guilty for going so fast through this treasure trove...Next was our personal favorite, Greece.  We went through Minoan, Mycenaean, and archaic Greece with the biggest grins on our faces. We even met this cool tourist from Greece and discussed the politics of having the Elgin Marbles here instead of in Greece.  He had a very balanced view; he thought that it was good for it to be here because more people will see it, but some should be returned to Greece for the new museum.  Hooray for compromise!!

Next we had a little bit of lunch underneath an obelisk(felt awkward) then spent time in the middle ages exhibits. Sutton Hoo was there, which made me freak, and there was even a lovely viking telling children heartwarming stories of raping and pillaging through the coast of England...

Much more was seen in our 5 hours in the museum but I know It'll take far too long to go through.  If you jump over to my picasa album you'll have full access to the Roman & Buddhist exhibits as well as the King's Library...which may be the coolest library I have ever seen.  I want one.
Heading out of the Museum we wandered back through Piccadilly square to do some shopping and get our bearings for finding the Les Mis theater later that evening.   The Day of Rage was really kicking off.  What was before a few isolated groups of people had become a mob of thousands crowding the square and climbing on the light-poles.

The streets were covered in anarchy signs and splattered paint.  Windows were cracked and some banks had been broken into and their lobbies trashed.  Above us at least two helicopters shone their searchlights down into the square.  The Mcdonalds wasn't treated very nicely either.  I decided to eat elsewhere.

After some mexican food and some wandering through the side streets(even a chinatown!) we ended up back at the square.  We were curious to see what was happening within the now cheering mob.  Then we heard the first gunshots and saw the first gas-bomb go off.  The line of bobbies convinced us to go the other way...

I found it myself chuckling and shaking my head during Les Mis.  We were watching barricades and Protests, singing and marching, as another type of march was going on outside.  A show about the french revolution...If I was a protester I would have been blaring the music and using the lyrics on my signs...
The show itself was incredible.  Not every actor did a great job, though all had fantastic voices.  It was the ensemble(or swing?) players that made it all work so well. Every little part was just as good or better played than then major roles.  Javer was so badass, so cool.  It was incredibly sad though...I'm not sure how they could do this show every night and not be a little bit depressed.

The square outside had quieted down by the time we got out, and the lines back home were busy but not horrible.  Not compared to Sunday anyway...

A very interesting and exciting second day.  I will have to return to the British Museum and Piccadilly square would be interesting to see again sans the violence. 

Our last day in London would bring new friends via crowded subways, long bus rides, lots of tourist traps and some incredible building feats...

Thanks for reading all...check out my photos!!