Monday, April 18, 2011

The Call of Caledonia...

Welcome back fair blog-viewers.  A thousand manly handshakes and chewy pints to you that have stuck with me this long.  To those that joined in now out of curiousity or boredom...

You get one free shot of cheap whiskey.  Now go back to the start and read my other blogs.  I ain't touchin your grubby hands till then.

Oh keep the heid, calm down.  Have a seat.  All worthy gentlemen and bonnie lassies, and everyone else, pull up close to the peat fire. I've just returned from the most wondrous of countries.

Where the barren hills are awash in the purple flame of the heather, where the sounds of drum and pipe echo down the glen, where the stories of ages past are as bracing as the wind under your kilt, where the gift shops and bus passes are a third the price of everywhere else, and where the people are warmer than the warmest fire.

If anyone has ever told you that Scotland was worth visiting, you should punch them because they lied to you.  You shouldn't visit.  You should stay for as long as you can.

Up to this point my tours through the UK had been fantastic.  I had found some truly entrancing places, heard some enthralling history and met some really helpful people.  Everything was beyond my expectations because I didn't really have any.  However up until now I hadn't found any place where I could see myself living long-term.

That changed pretty rapidly.   

But lets take this one day at a time.

On the 5th day of April in the year of our Lord 2011, I set out by train from Ely to Edinburgh.  Armed with Alpha(camera), Ratatosh(laptop) and a couple pairs of pants, I had given myself four days to explore this supposedly epic place I'd heard of and seen Mel Gibson try to save.  Not much research had been done ahead of time.  I knew a few highlights that I was supposed to see. I knew it had some neat castles, I knew I had to eat haggis and scotch.  Maybe buy some wool.  I heard it was cool.  That's about it.

The train ride was almost five hours, which is the longest I have sat in a train in my life.  However It was also the most comfortable I've been in a train.  I didn't even have to shuck out the extra 20 quid for first class.  They just make those cross country trains a little more posh I guess. And It was practically empty. No screaming scottish children. Nice.   I could enjoy "The Time Machine" in relative peace.

As the sun rose and the latitude increased, the countryside became pretty damn pretty.  Northumberland reluctantly gave way to the Scottish borderlands.  Purple far-off mountains rose on my side of the train with a flowing tartan of green fields, blue rivers and millions of white sheep. 

Beyond the sleeping Chinese man to my right I caught my first views of the North Sea.  Mixed with the incredibly clear skies we had that day, the waters somehow seemed a lot bluer than I expected it to be.  

No Vikings to be seen.  Damn.
Pulled into Waverly station.  The place was largely under renovation, which made getting around fun for me.  The parts left uncovered by plaster and tarp were at least more visually interesting than any I'd seen in the UK so far. 

I couldn't see the city so much as feel it around me.  The angle of the train's entrance hadn't allowed me many good views of the capital, but as I grabbed my taxi to find my b&b the city's unique character grabbed my attention.

At first the old cobble streets and grey-gold stone buildings seem grubby.  Everything is a bit rougher here, there's less plastic and metal covering things up than in London or even York.  However the streets aren't really that dirty.  In fact I'd go as far as to say they feel a bit cleaner than most big cities I've visited, London included.

After a five minute taxi drive I arrived at my home base for the next few days, the Alexander Guest House.  A very vertical b&b that continuously reminded me of Faulty Towers.  The stairs were long and the place was nearly empty, but the room was nice and Heather my host had lots of travel advice for me.   She even gave me a free upgrade to the room on the top floor facing the street.  Uh...winning.

Next I caught a ridiculously cheap bus to the city center.  This is a stretch of cobblestone called the Royal Mile.  Turns out that Edinburgh is actually built on a dormant volcano.  This street runs from the top, starting at the castle, and goes all the way down to the edge of the city center close to a nearby mountain called Arthur's seat.

They city's "rough around the edges" quality had made me apprehensive at first, but I was quickly getting to like it.  They weren't hiding any thing.  And another thing.  The people walking down the main street actually gave me eye contact.  It's a real struggle to get someone in a British city to look you in the eye.  Getting them to smile takes even more work.  I got more waves and toothy grins in these first few moments on the Royal Mile than in an entire weekend in London.

My first bit of awesome this trip happened to be waiting for me on the street.  I had arrived just in time for a free tour of Edinburgh's main streets.  A local student named Mark from Manchester led us up and down the city streets, sharing the city's history and telling us all about the ways they used to kill people in this city.  I didn't absorb half of the information given, but it was a damn good time and a perfect way to become better acquainted with the city. 

Mark's telling us about that one guy who got his intestines tied around a tree. 
People used to pay taxes to the man here.  Now they spit on him here for good luck.  
This is the market square where thieves got their ears pierced...into the stone walls...

 Occasionally we would happen upon a building that would be black as pitch.  Several of them poke up out of the skyline like foreign obelisks.  Come to find out that the city used to be heated by peat, a substance taken from the ground in a bog and used as fuel in a fire.  The smoke stained the stone after countless years, and even after it's use has been abolished within the city, the stains still haven't come off all of the buildings.  It makes the buildings in question much more striking.  Especially since they tend to be cathedrals or monuments that look a bit like black citadels.

About halfway through the three hour tour(sigh...those poor, poor people) we caught our first clear views of Edinburgh Castle.  A truly imposing fortress springing from the black volcanic rock beneath it; I feel sorry for the soldiers who had to try and take it over the years.  Pretty drafty up there I guess, which explains why the royalty usually stayed at the Abby at the other side of the mile.   

"Oh hey this is a cool wall.  What's it made of Mark?" "Witches Brian. Witches."
 This is a city of levels.  Any of the large streets will have many alleys or closes branching off of it, like many other cities.  However, take a turn down an alley and you could find yourself in a completely different part of town many tens of feet below where you just were.  All the levels connect in really cool ways, leading you on journeys you don't expect.  Also some of the cemetery walls use dead witches as mortar.  Mark told me that after he made me lean up against it. 

Have a drink Mr. Hare!
 We went down into the original market square, which was once a miserable slum.  Now it's a nice if not a bit touristy collection of shops and cafes.  I totally geeked out when I saw that Burke and Hare's favorite pub is among them. Google those two.  They killed people and sold their bodies to science.  Great story.

 Past the witching wall we found ourselves in one of the many graveyards within the city.  Twas quite creepy cool, with more graves and mausoleums than I could possibly count.  We learned about the many haunted spots within that particular graveyard.  One particular mausoleum held a murderer whose name escapes me...he was a benign spirit until some sleepy bum broke into his tomb and tried to cuddle.  Now he's super cranky.  Gotta give a ghost his space.  We also heard about a dog named bobby who refused to leave his masters side, even two years after he died. Sad. 

Apparently that's Hogwarts in the background there...
 Also we spotted a lot of Harry potter references.  I guess she wrote the first book here so it makes sense.  Still it's weird to see Tom Riddle on a grave stone.  Weird...but cool.

After that we took some quick turns, went up and down numerous alleys and somehow ended up in a glorious park beneath the castle.  This was the image i had seen on a thousand postcards about Edinburgh and it was cool to see it first hand.

After a couple more cool stories were told in the grass, our group dispersed.  A few of us followed Mark up the street to his favorite pub.  There we tried Haggis.  Tasted like Liver.  Then I gave it back and ordered a Scottish hamburger.  Much better.

The day was spent but the night was young. After a quick refresher at my b&b, I joined some of my tourmates and Mark on a pub crawl.  Details become fuzzy at this point.  I know that several bars came and went.  One of which had a life-size frankenstien's monster fall out of the ceiling at one point.  Our tour ticket gave us one free drink at each bar.  So many jager-bombs and pints and whiskeys were had.  Those Australians really love to party.

And I know that there was a club at the end of the night.  However I felt like I had not consumed the right type of drug to enjoy said club so at about 1:30 a.m. I called it in. 

Didn't bring my camera...hate myself for being paranoid...
Anyway Kudos to Kim, Angus, Nate and Georgia my diverse bunch of pub-mates. This was the most fun out I've had since college.

4-5-11 First Day in Edinburgh

So there was my first day in Scotland.  Next came a day of castles and hikes, followed by a tour through the Scottish Highlands.

Come back quick!! Or I'll have to drink all this nice scotch on my own.  That should make the next blog more colorful...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Searching for Ents in the Forest of Dean

Oye! Escucha!!!

It's me!! I'm over here behind this massive moss-ridden trunk. 

It warms my heart to see you so far off the beaten path, just to find me.  I would blush but my face does that when the wind blows so it wouldn't really mean anything.

We're coming to the middle point of my UK voyages.  For this outing Jess and I thought it was about time we strayed away from the tourist guidebook and tried something a little out there.  What we came up with was the Forest of Dean, an ancient royal wood located in western England, near Gloucester(Pronounced Glouster...I don't know why either).

An oasis of wilderness in a rather wood-less country, the Royal Forest of Dean has provided inspiration for generations of British writers, spewing hagrids and hobbits alike.  It's also used constantly as backdrop for many tv shows and movies, British and otherwise.  Being 42 square miles it is also a bit much to handle in a weekend.  However I felt like I could use a bit of isolation after all the touristy crowd mugging I'd done recently.

It turned out to be one of the coolest things we did while I was here.  In the top three at least.

This coolness didn't dawn at first though.  You see our journey to the forest was fraught with much difficulty, confusion and general stress.

We begin in Ely.  Under the cathedral's shadow we booked a train to Peterborough.  After a brief respite we continued from Peterborough to Gloucester. Here's where it gets fun.

So far the trip has taken roughly four hours so it's about five in the afternoon. We knew we would have to take a bus from Gloucester to get to Ross-on-Wye, the village in which we had booked our b&b, "The Bus Inn."  The bus stop was super skeezy.  Lots of nervous travelers surrounded on all sides by tagged concrete and closed convenience shops(It was after five and everything in Britain closes after five...I swear.)  If some cockney thugs were gonna have a sideways gun joust, this seemed like the place to do it.

So yeah after an infinite span of time that turned out to be around half an hour a bus arrived that could take us to Ross-on-Wye.  Lovely little market village next to the Wye river.  Hence the "on." A talkative local told us some war stories and by the by mentioned that we'd need to take a taxi to get us to the aforementioned b&b, which was waaaaaaaaaaay out of town.

Called the taxi company.  Upon reading our infallible google earth directions, the taxi driver pronounced that he had never in his life heard of our destination.  However he was adventurous and didn't want us to be stranded so he took a chance and headed in the general direction where we were supposed to be.  After about a twenty minute drive we arrived at Symond's Yat, a lovely collection of Inns and vacation houses within the Forest of Dean.  The b&b had to be here somewhere we figured, since this area matched with the postal code.

An hour and a half later it was getting close to 8 p.m. and we still hadn't found the Bus Inn.  None of the locals knew what it was, and though it showed up on google, there was no phone number to be found.  Tensions were rising as was the taxi fare(about 50 pounds now.)  Our taxi driver was reasonably sure we'd been had, but he did everything he could to get us to our destination.  Then we made a phone call back home to check if we had written down the right name.  Guess what? Our b&b was in fact "The Royal Inn." And we had driven past it about a dozen times.  Nice.

The place was worth the struggle.  Waiting inside this lovely little inn was a fantastic room...
A damn good meal complete with ice-cold cider...
Cider is my favorite cold British beverage.  Nothing cools aching feet better.
And views that would make Voldermort adopt a kitten.

Though our entire first day in the area was spent traveling, we were excited to explore this wilderness before us.  We even attempted some pitch-black night hiking.  Attempted being the key word.

The next day made up for any transgressions the first day dealt us.  It also made up for any sweets we may have consumed in the previous week.

Beginning around 8 a.m., we grabbed some English breakfast and set out to explore.  The man at the desk had told us that we could find bikes about an hour into the woods at a campsite "that way."  The walk from our riverside abode to the campsite probably took closer to two hours because of all the stopping, gawking and shutter snapping.

Quite the nice shift from vacationing in London.  Not a sound but the birds and the wind.  Plus these woods were quite different than the North Western U.S. fare that Jess and I were used to.  Deep, dark, and incredibly varied in the kinds of greenery that surrounded us.  Many of the trees seemed to be composed of more ivy and vines than wood.  Walking around here, I'd be less surprised to see someone in a tunic toting a staff than someone sporting travel shorts and a backpack.

Arriving at the campsite, we bargained with the locals for a couple bikes.  Turns out renting to non-residents wasn't common but they were very nice about it and only requested my credit card as backup in case we died.  Not that it would get them too far.


With dorky helmets donned, we pedaled like mad for a particular piece of magic in these woods.

The place is called Puzzlewood. An ancient swath of forest, home to secret caves, twisting paths and 3,000 year old open air ore mines.  It is this place that supposedly made Tolkien think of Fangorn forest and Ents and the like.  It is without a doubt one of the strangest places I've visited in my life.  I mean that in the best possible way.

 We spent about an hour and a half wandering slowly through this labyrinth of stone, moss and wood.  The difficulty did not lie in getting lost, but on choosing which fascinating path to take.  The paths were actually reasonably crowded.  Many sojourning families and wandering children.  Though I did initially wince when I heard them coming, it was cool to see the twinkle in their eyes.  I remember creating a place like this in my head when I was that young. Any garden or piece of green turf I found could be transformed. Maybe that's why these kids seemed less in awe and more at home.

After an entrancing hour and a half, we had mastered this ancient maze and found ourselves back at the start.  After a quick break and a hot sandwich, we set out to our next destination.

About a mile and a half down the road lay the village of Clearwell, and nearby were some old caverns that had been mined for various ores over the past couple thousand years.  Currently it's mined for paint pigment but is also an open exhibit for tourists to explore it's historical dusty depths.


Pretty creepy cool.  I have no problem with musty smelling, bat-infested tight spaces.  Jess however was feeling just a tad bit claustrophobic.  We were the only tourists in the cave at the time, and traveling through the cave without a guide, just kinda wandering the tunnels, that was a little bit unnerving I have to admit.  The thought that we could get stuck and that no one would hear us...did occur to me a couple times.  Still it was a very interesting cave, though we did breathe a bit easier once the brightly-lit gift shop came into sight.


Stepping into the "light" of English day, we stopped to grab some coffee and some sugar to power us up for the return bike ride to our hotel.  The trail was mostly up-hill and I admit there was some walking of the bikes taking place....

On the way back we ended up taking a different route by mistake and ended up reaching this viewpoint that allowed us incredible views over the entire area.  Like "take a photo and put it in my den" kinda views.

Watch the trailer for the 7th harry potter film to see this river in action!

After that lovely climb, we sped down the asphalt toward our little river abode.  Dinner was just as excellent that night before(switched beef for fish though) and was followed up by some lovely Oban scotch at the hotel bar.  Jessica had a bloody mary.  I'm not much for tomato juice but she said it was fantastic. 

The following day was more or less a repeat of the first.  An hour long hike to return the bikes, then a leisurely stroll back to take a taxi back to Gloucester.  After all the trouble we really only had one full day to enjoy the woods but I wouldn't have done anything different.  Except maybe stayed longer.  Like two weeks maybe.  Waaay too much to see.  But next trip I shall return to this mystic glade.  Maybe in a tent this time.

Here's a link to the ridiculous amount of pictures I took...

Forest of Dean

Next on the roster is my favorite part of the trip: my four day excursion to Scotland.  Mythic landscapes, enthralling histories & crazy pub parties await!!!

So meet me in Edinburgh!!! You know you want to!