Monday, May 31, 2010

The In-Laws Week Three: Bonus Time in London

The week of April 19 was a crazy one. Louie and Suzanne were stuck with us for another week due to volcanic ash (I think we were happier about them staying than they were!), but I was really busy: school was back in session. So while they took a second look around in the British Museum and other places, I was writing or in rehearsal. Still, I managed to come along to a few things here and there.

On Thursday we went on a London walk of the City. In case I haven't explained this before, most of what people consider to be London is actually Westminster, just west of the 'proper' capital City of London. The City, as it's called, is now London's financial district, which means Teriann and I are relatively unfamiliar with it, but it's also the oldest and most historic part of London, which makes it an interesting walk.

Leadenhall Market was very nice,



and Londoners first got hooked on coffee in a little alley nearby.



In 1652, there weren't numbered addresses as we think of them today, but signs or pictures above each shop that would identify them to people who couldn't read. You see what I mean, though: history is thick on the ground.

The Guildhall is an old (and surprisingly German-styled) building now sandwiched in between modern glass insurance buildings. It is itself built near the site of the old Roman amphitheatre, whose outline is now the public square in front of it.




We'll be going back soon to see the exhibition about the amphitheatre — we didn't have time on the day, though.

During their first week in London, we had gone to Windsor Castle, home of Her Majesty Queen Superfluous, but because she was holding a superfluous State posh dinner, it was all closed up except for Queen Mary's doll house. Fascinating though the doll house was (check out those model cars!),



it wasn't really what we had come to see, so we went back for another visit during our extra week. The castle turned out to be worth the extra trip: fantastic and overwhelming (and a head-scratching use of public funds for a nation so profoundly in debt). We couldn't take our own photos inside, but the grounds were spectacular.




This just happened to be on St. George's Day, England's national day, so there was much patriotic singing and merriment at the local pub.



Okay, I guess there's not singing in the picture, but trust me... there was merriment! Just beyond those windows, there was a crowd of old Brits proudly singing/shouting "Ruuuuuuule Britannia! Britaaaaannia ruuuuuules the waaaaaaves!"

The next night, Teriann and Suzanne went to see Billy Elliot, but Louie and I went for something a little more gentlemanly: snooker.

Neither one of us had ever played snooker, but we were both basically hooked because the World Championships were on TV throughout April. So basically every night, we were watching snooker matches, and we were keen to have a go.



Look at the size of the table! I'm in the picture below... somewhere.



I lost, of course. Louie is a pool shark after all.

On their last night, the Suns were playing early enough in Phoenix for us to watch it in London. The only trouble was that only one place in town was showing it: the renowned American expat hangout, The Sports Cafe. Turns out Americans really do have bad taste: it's the worst bar I've ever been in: smelly, loud, rather-be-elsewhere staff — all that and more. Or less? Oh well... couldn't dampen our spirits — we had a great trip.

The In-Laws Week Two: Liverpool to Stonehenge

I'm way behind the times... so much to update, and I've been so busy finishing up school stuff! That's finished now (woohoo!) so let's pick up where we left off a few weeks ago. Mind you, this was all in the middle of April.

After a few days in the Lakes, we headed towards the Cotswolds, stopping quickly on the way to pop into Liverpool and the Beatles Story. Is there any musician or group that is as universally loved as the Beatles? I think not.

Our home base was the quaint little village of Chipping Campden.



On our first night, weary from a long day's travel, we happened across what we think is the best pub in town: the Noel Arms. The food (and ale) there was outstanding... some of the best pub food we've ever had. Perfect pub atmosphere too: two parts refined, two parts comfortable, three parts good food and ale, one part laid-back with a liberal sprinkling of grubby.



Our first stop in the region was Stratford upon Avon, one-time home to the Bard himself, Billy Shakespeare. He's buried in the church on the right.



We went to Mary Arden's House (his grandmother's house) just outside town. It was fun, but not necessarily because it had anything to do with Shakespeare. It was fun mostly because it had cows



and Teriann-sized doors.



The bulk of the Shakespeare stuff was in the house in Stratford where he was born. Known as 'the birthplace' ever since he was a famous playwright in London, visitors have come here over the centuries to pay their respects. In its modern incarnation, it has a copy of the First Folio as well as exhibits about how his writings have infiltrated and influenced every corner of Western culture.

We also visited Hall's Croft, home of his daughter (since she married a doctor, most of the exhibits were about medicine in the 17th century) and saw a play that evening (Royal Shakespeare Company performing Antony and Cleopatra).

We spent our second day having a walk out in the countryside. Starting at the Town Hall,



we bought rock cakes from the tiny market inside (mmmmmm) and set off to explore the neighboring village of Broad Campden and... whatever else there was to explore.

That turned out to be sheep,



cottages,



fields,



and general quaint-ness.



Broad Campden isn't so much a village as it is a cluster of cottages around one of the most charming pubs I've ever seen: the Bakers Arms.



Of course we had to stop for a pint. How else does one walk in the English countryside?

For our final day in the country before returning to London, we started with a visit to Longleat Safari Park, a kind of drive-through zoo. You'd think Americans would have invented a drive-through zoo, right? Well not so fast. It was bizarre to see African wildlife roaming across the rolling countryside of England. It seemed less like a zoo and more like the animals just happened to live in Wiltshire.




This tiger was REALLY CLOSE to our car!





Lunch was a really great picnic on the lawn outside Longleat House. It was simple — bread, cheese and a little wine — but it was one of the best lunches we had.



The main event of the day, however, was a visit to Stonehenge. Here's a good candidate for best pic of the day:



but my money's on this one, Audioguide Henge with Pigs.



As Louie said of the monument: "Stonehenge: That's some crazy shit." Indeed it is, Louie. Indeed it is.

We headed down to Salisbury (it's only just down the road) to have a quick look at the cathedral, but the town was pretty much closing up by that point. Ahh... one last view of idyllic Salisbury...



...before heading back to concrete London.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The In-Laws Week Two: Yorkshire and the Lake District

We get out to Europe whenever we can, but Teriann and I had yet to explore our own backyard. Sure, we had been to Brighton, Cambridge, and Bath, but there's so much more to see on this little island, and we hadn't gotten to it yet. Louie and Suzanne wanted to see some English countryside, and we couldn't have agreed more. Our plan was to start in Yorkshire to visit their friends Kitty and Richard, then head over to the Lake District and come back through the Cotswolds.

On our way up, we stopped in York briefly to visit the Minster. York Minster is roughly the same size (massive) and age (ancient) as most other major cathedrals in Europe. What makes it stand out, however, is the amount of work that has been done on it just within the past few decades.

To get there, we walked along the fun (and somewhat precarious) city wall. "Look Ma, no railing!"



From the front, it looks pretty standard,



but then we walked around it to get a sense of its size — and came across these.



I haven't seen anything like that since Gaudi's unfinished cathedral in Barcelona. And it carries on inside. When you step in, look up and you see this:



Brand new. The guide told us that when the original medallions were blackened by a massive fire in 1984, rather than try to restore them, the artists simply designed and made new ones. There have been several fires and other incidents (at one point a bell fell from the tower) and in the 1960s a major engineering effort had to be made just to keep the poor thing standing. All of this makes for an interesting story, but what was really fascinating was in the basement.

During the engineering works of the 1960s, they dug out most of the cathedral's foundations, letting archaeologists find what had stood on that spot before. Their findings are very well displayed in what would otherwise be a crypt. It shows how a Roman-era building on the site fell into ruin and was replaced by a Norman-era church, which itself was replaced by the current, even larger Gothic building. It's more interesting then I'm making it sound.

York itself turned out to be a pleasant little town. It's the sort of place I could live: big enough to get what I need or go to the movies, but small enough to feel like a town. One of my favorite things was this building:



Probably from the 16th century or so, it now is used to sell cell phones. Oh how I wish I could try to explain to the people who built this building what would be sold from it centuries in the future.

But it was getting late — time to finish the drive up to Kitty and Richard's.

Louie and Suzanne met Kitty on a rafting trip some years ago, and when she married Richard (the week after Teriann and I got married, incidentally), he turned out to fit their adventurous group perfectly. They are fantastic people — hospitable, generous, and kind, yes, but also funny, interesting and well-traveled. They live in Yorkshire, near Pickering, and we started our week in the countryside with a weekend at their home.

What a home it is:




This was the view from our guest bedroom:



The four of us were so well looked after: Kitty is an outstanding cook and between her cooking and Richard constantly topping up our wine glasses, we must have gained a few pounds in those two days!

On Saturday, we went to Levisham train station to watch the steam trains go through,




then walked up the moors to see Skelton Tower. Well, we just set out to have a walk, really, and happened to come across it.



The scandal goes that Skelton Tower is where, as a local at the train station informed us, "the Reverend used to take his bit of nookie."

From there, we could see the train coming back through the valley.



I don't know if the photos do that landscape justice: it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been; all the more beautiful because of its strangeness. The moors aren't exactly pleasant, frolicking grounds. Especially in April, they are scratchy, harsh, and barren. With the vista and the forests in the background, though, it was stunning.



Sunday was spent at Go Ape, a kind of rope adventure course through the trees of Dalby Forest, betting on the Grand National (an English pastime), and of course, more wine.

It was reluctantly that we set out on Monday morning. We were headed for the Lakes, but our route took us by Whitby, a pleasant little coastal town where, in Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula arrives in England. We had a stroll on the beach and had the best fish and chips I've ever had anywhere.



Donkeys on the beach?



Our drive took us through the dreary and grim industrial North (Middlesbrough has to be the poster child for such things — it's even worse than Birmingham), but ended up in a spectacular place: the Newlands Valley just outside Keswick. I never thought I'd see scenery this dramatic in England.




That first evening, we took my favorite walk of our trip, around Lake Buttermere,




and ate a fantastic pub dinner in the Bridge, one (the better one, if you ask me) of Buttermere's two pubs. I can't recommend the walk around Lake Buttermere highly enough: completely level and non-stop views.




The whole area, really, was scenery overload. Our B & B looked out over this:



It was a working farm, so there were plenty of sheep around. There were loads of sheep everywhere, in fact, and it was the height of lambing season. Our hike the next morning took us up a mountain and around a waterfall... none of which was too steep for our woolly companions.






Our afternoon was spent in the neighboring town of Cockermouth, where we took the Jennings Brewery Tour. Teriann and I have been on a few such tours (Guinness and Jameson) but this was our favorite. It's a real working brewery, not a tourist show. We tasted the different flavors of malt grains. We smelled hops. And we happened to be on the very first tour since the floods that devastated the town last November. Had we come in the day before, we would have been turned away.

When we got back to Keswick, we figured we had a couple of hours before dinner, and that we should go on a short walk. So we went to Castlerigg, a stone circle a mile or so from town (Stonehenge is the most famous and elaborate stone circle, but there are thousands of others in Britain). It was okay — not great — so we planned to take a different route back to town, a route that would bring us along the edge of Derwent Water, one of the largest lakes in the region.

This didn't work out so well.

To cut a very long story (that is, hike) short, by the time we made it to the lake's edge, we had taken more than a few wrong turns, we were hungry, and twilight was falling.




It made for beautiful photos — we barely got into town by dark — but it was exhausting.



This is getting pretty lengthy, so my next post will pick up the following morning as we headed towards Liverpool and the Cotswolds.