Category Archives: United Kingdom

A Weekend in the Cotswolds

I was in the UK for a meeting last week in Oxford, and in my world that translates into “what’s nearby for a weekend trip?” The Cotswolds were the obvious choice- the area filled with lovely rolling hills and tiny villages just west of Oxford- so my fellow astronomer-in-crime Jess and I rented a car to go out and explore. We were actually quite lucky with the weather- it didn’t rain buckets until the last day, and there were even times of blue sky- so lots of rambling (hiking to the American lot), exploring picturesque villages, and making various bets on the Euro Cup matches playing in the tiny village pub ensued. All in all a great place to spend a weekend, and certainly a picturesque one!

An Edinburgh Weekend

Because I am still quite the “you mean I can be in another country in an hour?!” shock that comes from living in Europe, last weekend I went to Edinburgh.  Now I’ve actually been to Edinburgh before and left the place rather smitten, so when I was thinking of going on a break someplace I knew and where they spoke English, it was a bit of a no-brainer when the airfare was cheap to boot.  It’s not like I’ve met a Dutchman who didn’t speak English, mind, it’s just incredibly novel to get on a bus and realize you can read all the signs after losing that ability two months prior! Continue reading

Summary of the U.K.

The interesting thing about the United Kingdom is you can never let go of the feeling that there’s something very… proper about it. I blame stereotypes for this- when you think of the British some stuffy accented professor comes to mind, meaning I’m always secretly entertained when I hear British people cursing with their accent. Though I should note that this doesn’t always apply to Scottish people, where you are lucky to understand them at all.

Highlights:

  • I know you’re not supposed to say this, but I hit a streak and the weather was wonderful- I even got pink wandering around Cardiff, which I am aware is just not supposed to happen. I spent about two weeks here and it rained about two days the first week and only one the next, making me suspect they had better weather here than what everyone else had back home.

  • I have a confession to make: I never quite got over being delighted with the British newspapers. Back home we like to think rags like USA Today are complete fluff but believe me when I say their British counterparts have nothing on us- for 40 pence you can buy a hundred pages of newsprint which you can finish feeling no more enlightened about the world than when you started. Though the articles unfortunately often stop short of giving you the really important details. Take the above article- by showing up in a jar of Marmite, what is Jesus trying to tell us about yeast extract? Does he endorse it over other breakfast spreads, for example?

  • I am indebted to Doug and his hospitality in particular in London (and, I suppose, his hippie roommate who bought a new guitar instead of paying his rent so I had a place to sleep). Plus London is cool. Can I run away to Camden or the South Bank and never go home?

  • I am in love with Scottish people, their scenery, Edinburgh, and their roast pig. And because Chris from Toronto was sad that he was not mentioned in my original writings about Scotland, he gets a mention here.

  • I really enjoyed my time in Bath, as it’s a lovely little city and my hostel there was the one I enjoyed the most out of the U.K. ones I stayed at. The one in Cardiff may have been rated the best in the world but St. Christopher’s gave me a free Stonehenge tour and had Strongbow for 1.50 pounds in their bar- what’s not to like?

  • Lowlights-

    • I spent a night in Manchester which I didn’t mention before, mainly because I exploited all the touristy things to do there in a few hours. I think if you lived there it would probably be a nice enough place, but not much to do if you’re a tourist really.

    • And while I know we all knew this before I went there, the price. Wow. I’m pretty sure I could have lived a week in South East Asia for what I would spend in a day in the U.K. No wonder you run into British tourists everywhere else in the world, everywhere else is cheap after home for them! And yes, this still stands even after their currency has taken a pummeling and is almost on par with the Euro… I hesitate to think of what it would have been like to visit here last summer.

London

I am now going to attempt the impossible and write a blog post about London without posting a picture of Westminster in general and Big Ben in particular.  This isn’t to say I don’t like either, but rather you all know what they look like and I’d rather focus on some of the more unique things I liked about this visit to London.  It’s a wonderful city in that “if anyone needs a PhD student let me know” sort of way, and the days of beautiful weather and great company didn’t hurt!

These are my hosts, Doug on the right and Ryan to his left, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.  I met Doug and his lovely cousin Laura two years ago in New Zealand while they were on their gap year, and I received an all too kind invitation to stay in a spare room when I got to London.  Doug was kind enough to spend his days wandering about with me, which resulted in an odd mix of sights ranging from “tourists never come here” to “Doug has lived here for years and has never been here before.”  Just perfect and I am indebted to their hospitality!

But before I forget, the Globe!  If you ever come to London and have very little money but want to catch a show, do what all the broke kids do and head for the Globe Theater.  The yard tickets are 5 pounds a pop, the plays are wonderful (we had As You Like It and I nearly died laughing), and you’ll have one of the best spots in the house if you show up a little early.  Oh, and you can drink, a la what they did during the era of Shakespeare.  What’s not to like?

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None of the Londoners had any idea you could go see a show for so cheap (but you guys are going to be regulars now, right?) but made  up for it by introducing me to Camden.  Wow, what a great area.  Camden is an interesting combination of one of the best markets I’ve been to and the home of the punk scene in London, meaning you can spend many happy hours checking out the goods, eating delicious stall food, and people-watching.

And then, this being Camden, time for the pub!  Where a great band you would kill to hear back home is playing even in the late afternoon whilst you argue what counts as an “unusual pet.”  An iguana?  A tapir?

Here’s another place I was determined to check out but Doug hadn’t ever been to voluntarily- the British Museum!  I love the atrium here by the way, which wasn’t around the last time I visited here five years prior.

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Some of the cat mummies in the British Museum.  This place is fascinating because basically the British during their heyday went everywhere in the world and took the prettiest stuff back to London.  Obviously now this causes a bit of consternation in some relations- the Egyptians would really like their Rosetta Stone back, the Greeks are arguing over the Parthenon carvings- but until further notice the pirate’s treasure remains here.A sight we stumbled upon while walking from the British Museum- the infamous changing of the guard.  Apparently it happens twice a day but the middle of the night one isn’t half as showy- we watched  for nearly a half hour while the band paraded around, playing classic marching tunes like Elanor Rigby and the theme from Doctor Who.

Finally because I’m certain under normal conditions this doesn’t happen in London, a few artists were doing sand sculptures on the South Bank. (I love the South Bank by the way. Can I get a flat here when that PhD position opens up and promptly go bankrupt?) Possibly the best sand-sofa I have ever seen, because I have clearly seen so many.

PS- This blog post is stopping right now because on average it is a week behind, meaning right now I am in Greece with my parents and sister for the first time in four months.  And we are sitting at a table in Crete where the waiter gave us a bottle of Power Ade that curiously does not seem to be Power Ade, and we are on the fourth shot of this strong clear liquid.  My writing can’t stay clear much longer…

Cardiff

I came to Cardiff for two reasons: I wanted to dip at least a toe into Wales and because of the hostel.  I’m sure the latter reason sounds like an odd one to visit anyplace, but for months now I’ve been primarily relying on Hostel World for my hosteling information, and while some have been good and some have been bad it has not escaped my notice how at 96% the River House Backpackers in Cardiff is often rated the best backpackers in the world.  I soon became fascinated with this- what constitutes the world’s best hostel anyway?  Wasn’t it worth a two night detour to find out?

Anyway, this is the River House backpackers as seen from the water bus  that runs up and down the river.  To be honest it really is nice- excellent location and breakfast spread, above and beyond friendly staff, and a comfy lounge with big TV and the rest of the works.  While I can see why they win on the ratings scale, I confess this hostel was a reminder of how what you remember most about places are the people you meet which is a factor you can do nothing about.  For example, I was awakened at this hostel at 8am by a German girl blasting her hairdryer beside my bed who uttered an unconvincing “sorry” when I shot her the death stare known in the hosteling  world as synonymous with “you are being a jackass, stop now,” and it’s not like you can do a thing about that!  So it goes.

Anyway, Cardiff.  I like Cardiff.  The weather was this clear blue sky that makes you convinced the Welsh really have great weather they make up stories about so they don’t have to share (cue the maniacal laughter from anyone who has lived in Wales ever), and there’s enough going on in the city that you can happily spend some time exploring.  This here is a view of the enormous Cardiff castle that takes a few hours to explore properly.  My favorite  thing about it is it turns out residents of Cardiff can enter the castle for free so on days like this many do to picnic with their families, and after lunch the parents laze about while their kids are encouraged to run around with cheap plastic swords and other props.  Wouldn’t be awesome to grow up where your playground is a castle?!

I also realized I liked Cardiff Castle because it has the exact same layout as the Playmobil castle that we had back in the day- nice large square area in the middle, large gate, a tower on the corner, and residential houses on the side. This was possibly the favorite toy  my brother, sister, and I had as kids, and we spent many happy hours inventing adventures for two Barbies and a stegosaurus.  So I got a bit nostalgic about that…

The interior of Cardiff Castle is pretty sweet as well- the nobles that had it in the past century redid everything in a lovely classical style, so the whole thing feels a bit like Ludwig II’s castle in Germany.

Oh, and there was a falconry too!  They used to have peacocks at the castle up until two years ago as well, but they kept climbing up a wall and launching themselves into a busy intersection and wandering into Burger King.  Needless to say this caused much unhappiness on both sides, so the peacocks were sent to a farm far out in the countryside where there are no fast food joints to disturb for miles.

Perhaps I’m mean, but when I saw this museum I laughed out loud.  Perhaps the reason the Welsh could never defeat the English is they didn’t realize goats aren’t exactly the most frightening of creatures to have in your regiment?

Speaking of Welsh, I was always on the lookout to see how many differences there were between Cardiff and England proper, even though I’m told this isn’t “real” Wales yet.  Verdict?  It’s much more like England than Scotland was, but the Welsh really have the Scots and even Irish beat when it comes to speaking their original language.  Only 3% of Scots speak Gallic and you see  it on roadsigns occasionally, Ireland you see Irish most everywhere and they learn it in high school but hardly anyone speaks it, but in Wales it’s written first and lots of people speak Welsh over English!  The above is from a festival by the harbor that was a language festival where I couldn’t understand a word- the kids above are singing along in Welsh to the costumed characters in front- and you saw several kids wandering around working on their Welsh school assignments.  Speaking as someone who speaks an obscure language that has minimal use outside its borders, good for them.  Glad to see they still use it.

image254Finally, a sunset over the river with the Cardiff stadium on the side.  What a nice little city.  It was a short break from the capital I’d been slowly working in the direction of seeing all this time, London…

Bath And Stonehenge

I confess I’ve wondered about this a lot- do we call a bath after the town of Bath, or is it Bath because of the baths there?  I’ve been doing this a lot in Ireland and the U.K. actually- discovering place names that I already know as other places or whatever and having an “aha!” moment about the origin of the word or name.  The county Bath is in, for example?  Somerset.  Not at all like the one I immediately think of an hour from Pittsburgh, but there you go.

Anyway, I ended up in Bath for no real reason other than I’d gone down to Manchester and that was so non-touristy that after a night I needed another place to visit and all the outdoorsy stuff was booked solid due to a bank holiday. (They have a lot of these around here- this particular bank holiday was the second in May!) Somehow Bath came up in my survey of opinions, and I’m glad it did.  It’s a lovely town I quite recommend checking out at some point.

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The cathedral square in Bath dominated by a religious building of some sort.  No really, the abbey in Bath is stunningly lovely, and I say that as someone who has seen a huge number of religious buildings in the past few months!  If you don’t sit around for awhile slowly noting every lovely flying buttress and gargoyle from your side I’m guessing the never-ending English rain is falling down in buckets again.

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The main tourist attraction of Bath are, of course, the baths!  Specifically the ancient Roman ones- about a century ago a house built up on this area kept getting water in its cellar, and they started digging around and discovered some of the most wonderfully preserved Roman baths in the world today.  The reason they’re here is there is a hot (45 C) spring that wells up from underground that the Celts in the area worshipped, and Romans being Romans it was only natural for them to build a marvelous set of baths here once they took the place over.

Another fun detail because I have nowhere else to put it- if you go to the Roman baths you get a free audio guide, but do yourself a favor and just listen to the kids version.  This is because the grown-up audio guides are notorious for some producer saying “hey, let’s put in a lot of random music that sounds old with a guy doing a voiceover of some marginally related text- that would totally excite everyone!” and all the grown-ups stand around politely listening to the crap because they’re trying to be cultured.  The kids version, on the other hand, quickly tells you the important dates, what said object is, and an interesting fact or thing to notice about the object.  Simple.  That’s what I want over “and now we will recall what Sillyfus the Ugly had to say over the Roman practice of caldera use…”

Oh, and the baths got Bill Bryson to go around and sort of talk about what he was thinking and put that in a special audio guide tour as well.  I happen to really like Bill Bryson though, so I will approve of this.

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Anyway, back on my mini-tour where you are captives of my commentary until you decide to stop reading, one of the reasons the baths in Bath are so famous is because of the amazing amount this stuff was preserved- when the Romans left the subsequent English kings just built their baths on top of this bath, so all the Roman stuff is remarkably well preserved really.  This face here was at the front of the Roman temple dedicated at the spring to Sulis Minerva, patron of the healing water at the spring.  The “Sulis” part comes in because the Celts here had her as their god of healing, so the Romans diplomatically said “oh yeah, must be the same goddess!” rather than causing a fuss over it.

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The heating tiles that used to hold up the Roman floor of the warm room in the baths- you had air heated via furnace moving about the pillars that were holding up the floor, which thus warmed up the room.  I include this because anyone who took Latin in any detail probably studied Roman baths to death, and can understand my excitement to see “hey they actually did do that!”  The Roman baths here are really great at giving you a visualization of what the place was like, really.

The other tourist thing I was looking forward to seeing in Bath, by the way, was the house of a certain famous astronomer named William Herschel.  Herschel was famous for his discovery in the 18th century of the planet Uranus, one of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries of all time, in addition to being an awesome astronomer in general.  And hey, I found the house!  It’s a nice house, on a nice residential street.  But I never got to go in the house- it turns out the darn museum is closed on Wednesday of all days and I was already set to leave Thursday, thus ensuring that the only person planning to voluntarily go to the Herschel astronomical museum in weeks was deprived of seeing it.  Sigh…

To make sure I get a new stamp on my astronomy geek quota card though, because if I get 10 stamps they send me a decoder ring, I did make a trip to Stonehenge which is an hour away from Bath.  Besides the lure of a decoder ring the St. Christopher’s hostel in Bath threw in a free Stonehenge tour if you booked two nights with them (thanks, guys!) so I headed out.

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A rather fascinating signpost on the Sailsbury Plains on the way to Stonehenge- they say the miliatary does excersises here.  Fascinatingly this is also the “crop circle” area of England though I arrived too early for the season of seing pretty patterns flattened out in fields with pieces of wood.  Darn?

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Stonehenge!  Which is really, really windy!  I admit this place isn’t half as exciting as you’re led to believe- it looks nothing more than a pile of rocks, so you have to spend a lot of time reminding yourself that it’s a really important pile of rocks over 4,000 years old with stones dragged here as far away as Wales for reasons we’re not entirely certain of.  So if you get something like a free tour go as it’s worth contemplating this with your own eyes for a bit, but probably not worth going out of your way excessive miles to see.

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The astronomy-related part of Stonehenge is, of course, how the stones correspond marvelously with the sunrise.  This view specifically is showing where the sunrise is in midsummer, ie June 21, with the heelstone in the appropriate gap.  Apparently modern-day Druids show up here on June 21 every year to mark the occasion, but it should be noted the ancient Druids never actually did anything at Stonehenge, so the modern ones are just full of it.

And that is my journey in the Essex region of England.  Unlike Bath though I actually know what Essex is from though- it refers to the Saxons that used to live here, once they beat the Romans out.

Loch Ness

To start things off, there is no actual scientific evidence that the Loch Ness Monster exists.  Every single picture you’ve seen is thought to be a fake, sonar efforts don’t turn up much of anything, and incidentally there are monsters reported in other bodies of water around the world that have never showed up with a shred of evidence.  So why do the locals still talk to you about the Monster and their experiences and all the evidence they can’t release for one reason or another?  It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s the only Loch tourists have ever heard of and hence one of the most visited places in Scotland right?  Nah.

To be fair, Loch Ness is a rather lovely body of water-

And deep.  230 meters deep at its deepest point to be precise, meaning it has more water in it than the rest of the lakes in the U.K. combined, because it happens to be along a fault line.  It’s also about 37km long, so why not check out the Loch Ness booze cruise in the evening?image156

A local brew available on the boat that had to be tried once I saw it.  Actually quite tasty!  I also was beside myself by discovering on the same day that there’s an ale in the U.K. called “Fursty Ferret” with pictures of ferrets all around the label.  Just brilliant.

Of course, lest we forget this is a Loch Ness booze cruise.  And how can we cruise around the lake drinking beer with questionable names if we aren’t equipped with sonar to make our intentions look legit and stuff?

The sonar readout- the above picture is actually just the GPS map.  You can see the loch drops off precipitously and if you look very closely in the black part you can see specks which I’m told are fish.  The boat crew also says that a few times a year they get a ping that’s the size of a fingernail, corresponding to an object several meters in size.  Conclude what you want but I never did get a good  explanation as to whether they get false positives with the sonar system.

But perhaps I was too much of a skeptic.  After all, look at this picture I snapped on the cruise-Ohmigawd, it’s proof of the monster!  I mean there is just no way that’s just a decal on the boat’s window lined up with the water!!!

Perhaps I’m coming across as a bit harsh here about the whole thing, as I did talk to a few kind souls who genuinely believe they saw the monster in the loch at some point. (“I saw a hump rising up from the water and disappear within a few seconds, so I don’t have a picture of it.  You think I’m full of shit don’t you?”) To be fair once your skepticism is established I highly recommend saying “stuff it” and going along with pretending there’s a monster down there.  Frankly it’s more fun that way, and what good is traveling if you don’t expose yourself to different viewpoints anyway?