The Midlands: The Abridged Tour

My short weekend in the Midlands was drastically different (and way more quiet) than my previous days in London. And green. I mean, there are green, lush areas in Ontario, and I’m sure in other parts of Canada. But I don’t know if they really hold a candle to the lush, rolling hills of the English countryside. It’s a bit surreal, really.

I also must say, Sabrina and her parents were so good to me – too good, actually. They more than made me feel at home and spoiled me more than I should have been. I owe them big time and hope I can find some way to repay them for the kindness and hospitality they showed me over the two days.

But here we go:

Saturday: After a good night’s sleep, Sabrina and I set out for Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s certainly pretty and picturesque, but lemme tell ya, the Bard’s Country ain’t exactly cheap, either. We went to the tourist information centre to try and find a map, only to find out there were only two types: the ones for 80p, and the ones for 1.25 GBP. Who knew trying not to get lost was so expensive?

We skipped the maps and decided instead to do one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours. Not bad. We had one of those plug-in guides, so we were trying to follow along as the bus made its way along those narrow streets. First stop: Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. How pretty. The garden was enormous and filled with all sorts of plants. They also had staff who gave a brief talk about the history of the cottage in Anne’s day and throughout the ages when her relatives took care of it.

We then hopped back on the bus, where we had an actual live tour guide explain things about life in Tudor times as we whizzed past some countryside scenery (and leaned to the right to avoid being whacked in the heads by wayward branches).

Back in town, I went over to Shakespeare’s birthplace, which actually had an adjoining museum about his life. That was informative, but it was kind of disappointing, only because the room where Shakespeare was apparently born was one of the last rooms I saw before I left the building. I have to say though, Anne Hathaway’s cottage was relatively more interesting.

Sunday: Sabrina took me to her old elementary school, which looked a bit like something out of Harry Potter. She then took me into “downtown” Leek, where we walked around and she showed me her mother’s shop (which is named after her older sister, Sophie). It’s the cutest town, but I’m sure a lot of towns in this part of the country all look picture-pretty.

We then drove to Buxton, an ancient spa town founded in Roman times. On the way we passed Flash, which Sabrina told me was the highest point in the U.K. (I’ve read it’s the highest village. If someone can verify that for me, please do). In any case, the scenery on the drive up was breathtaking.

A half-hour later we were in Buxton. Apart from the lovely Victorian architecture and beautiful gardens, another big draw is St. Ann’s Well, which has natural spring water flowing from its small fountain. I took a couple swigs, and it’s (a) unbelievably refreshing, but (b) also quite warm. Turns out the water is – and has always been – a balmy 27.5 degrees Celsius. Buxton also profits from this, as it also has its own mineral water company which distributes worldwide.

We could only spend a couple of hours here, as I left later on in the afternoon for Edinburgh. But we managed to have some tea and scones at a small tea room in town, which capped off a nice weekend.

But it was off to Edinburgh, and trying to cram in as much as possible during the last four days of vacation …

Stoke-on-Trent, Concluded.

When you last read this blog, I (your twit of a heroine) was waiting for my friend and her parents to come collect me from Macclesfield train station, after missing my actual stop.

I just realized I didn’t have my wallet. A frantic search of my hand bag and person a few moments later confirmed it. Nice.

The last place I remembered having it was the phone booth, so I went back out there and checked. Not in sight. I suddenly knew what it felt like to be one of those people in those credit card commercials who go on vacation and lose everything.

I thought I was going to start shitting bricks (pardon the expression). I was looking around, in front of me and behind me, trying to find anyone who looked suspicious enough to swipe a wallet with money and credit cards. I saw this young guy in a gray hooded sweatshirt with a load of grocery bags and immediately my mind started jumping to conclusions. I was like, Oh my God, some yob probably swiped my wallet to buy food and will probably run up my credit card. I’m screwed!

I did snap out of it, went to the ticket wicket and asked them if they had gotten a wallet and daybook turned in. They said to go to the customer service office. I got there, to find an older man just chatting away with the men inside the office. When he finally moved enough for me to pop my head around his shoulder, there they were. My daybook and wallet. Thank. God.

I thanked the man at the office desk profusely for his help, and apologized for being such a twit. I also found out that he thought I’d gotten on the train back to Stoke-on-Trent and put out an announcement for me back there. Hoo, boy.

Things were sorted out in the end. My friend’s parents — bless them, they’re the best! — elected to come and pick me up from the station, since it would take an hour for my friend to drive from Stoke all the way to where I was, and they took me back to their place, where I did eventually see my friend.

The mini-nightmare was finally over. It also made me kind of paranoid, as I vowed I wouldn’t let the same thing happen to me when I finally headed up to Edinburgh on Sunday.

Aimed for Stoke-on-Trent. Kinda missed.

So my trek northwards began Friday afternoon … managed to lug my suitcase onto the tube and up to Euston train station, one of a number of railway hubs in the city.

Got my ticket printed, chilled for a few minutes, and then boarded the right train at the right time. So far, success.

It was at my stop that the trouble began. I noticed the train start to slow down and seeing the signs for Stoke-on-Trent, so I jumped up and began the slightly arduous task of trying to wrestle my suitcase from its hold behind my seat. By the time I got it upright and was making my way to my seat to get my backpack, the train had stopped and passengers were getting on.

It was a nightmare. I couldn’t budge, so I had to stand at my seat, blocked in by my suitcase, while other people passed. Finally, the coast was clear, and as I started lugging my stuff down the tiny, tiny aisle, I got my first lesson about Virgin Trains.

Seasoned travellers, please skip this part, because you all know far better than me. But for anyone ever planning on coming to the U.K. and making part of your trip overland: Virgin Trains is NOT like VIA Rail. The train doesn’t stop and wait to make sure everyone has boarded or gotten off, that has to. Virgin’s Pendolino trains run on a tight schedule, so tight that sometimes, some of its scheduled trains may actually stop longer than expected because they’re ahead of schedule.

I found this out the hard way. The train probably stopped for a total of maybe three or four minutes, tops. As soon as I finally made my way towards the doors to exit, the train slowly started pulling out of the station.

“No!” I said to myself as I saw the train moving out. “No! No! Shit! No! Shit! SHIT!”

It was too late though. My friend Sabrina, who was waiting for me on the other side, would have seen people get off, and then would watch as yet another train pulled in a short time later, with no me in sight.

In the meantime, panicked and upset, I first went to find the station manager to explain what had happened to me and which stop I could get off at next to get back on track (so to speak). Went up and down the entire train (I had stashed my stuff on a non-reserved seat in my car). No manager in site. I returned to my “new” seat near the door, very frustrated.

I asked a nearby passenger if she’d seen the manager, and if she knew which station was coming up next. She said no to neither. But bless her heart, she lent me her mobile to try and call and text my friend. No luck, but it was the gesture that counted.

Turns out the next station was Macclesfield, which was about 15 minutes away from Stoke-on-Trent. I stood in the little area between cars with all my gear, and as soon as the train stopped, I was off there like a hobo off a freight car. I went up to the first train staff member I found and explained my predicament. He told me that there was another train going back to Stoke-on-Trent in about 20 minutes and that I had to go to the opposite platform across from us, via elevator.

Great. So I went up and over. On the other side, I looked for a payphone. No phones. Because they were on the way out. On the other side of the platform from which I came. Twit.

So back up and over I went, through the ticket/waiting area, outside where cars waited to pick up people. The phones were on the other side. I made a call to Sabrina, but I got a message saying her phone was off. I called her house and talked to her mom, who told me to stay put.

THEN my that’s when my second scatter-brained nightmare of the day took place. After making my calls, I went back into the waiting area and sat down, trying to chill out for a few minutes. After what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes later, I jumped up with a start.

My wallet!

High Tea? Check.

Seating for one at Harrod’s Georgian Restaurant for tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, desserts and huge tea pot of green mint tea: 19.95 GBP.

Tip for service: 5.05 GBP.

Taking in the ambience while savouring the gooey, sticky sweet goodness: Priceless.

That’s right. I finally made it to Harrod’s in Knightsbridge. I went. I ate. I bought tea. I have a plastic shopping bag. I am a Harrod’s virgin no more.

(I was going to title this post, “Tea at Harrod’s, Bitches!” but considering there are probably friends and acquaintances who got there long before I did — and probably actually shopped there — they’d probably think I was an immature loser who just happened to do what thousands and thousands of people do all the … Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? I had tea at Harrod’s, bitches!)

I think I was there for about an hour and 20 minutes, but I didn’t care. It was great. I did manage to eventually peel myself off of the chair to look around. I barely got a look at the place in the short time I was there, but what I saw was surreal. The Egyptian Room. A chocolate bar. (No, not like the candy. An actual bar. With big churning vats of chocolate instead of hard liquor along the back counter.)

I didn’t want to get near anything, for fear I’d in some way damage it and have to pay for it. Costly pots … pans … hats … Fendi and Jimmy Choo bags … If I was a shopaholic with a penchant for expensive things, this place would be my Waterloo. It was certainly something else.

Earlier, I’d (finally!) gone to the Tate Modern, which I missed on my last trip to London. Of all the stuff I attempted to digest in the two hours I was there, I must say that this was my favourite (next to Picasso, of course). Don’t ask me why, but I remember spending more time looking at it than most. Oh yeah, this was pretty good, too.

This, however, annoyed the snot out of me. Don’t be fooled by the still picture. I wish I could find a video version of this to properly convey what I mean. Take my word, though – It was almost the audio-visual equivalent of being shot at with a pellet gun.

Of course, me merely mentioning it probably means the artist has achieved what he set out to do. But if you ever go to Tate Modern and stand in front of this thing, leave within two minutes. ‘Cause if you’re not afraid of clowns before you approach this work, I can see the possibility that you just might be when you leave it.

But on a slightly serious note, I can’t believe 10 days have come and gone already! Luckily there’s still more to come. If I’m not held up at the train station by long lineups and luggage searches, that is.

The East London Experience

As circumstance (and laziness) would have it, I ended up spending my entire afternoon and evening in East London.

I originally went down there to retrieve my loaned mobile from a friend of a friend, who was kind enough to drive me home last Saturday after missing the subway back. In my exhausted daze, I’d taken it out and threw it on the backseat, and forgot about it until I’d gotten back to my friend’s place – about 2 minutes after he’d driven off.

He also had promised to show me around when I was in the area this week, but it wasn’t meant to be. He did suggest spending some time at Old Spitalfields Market. I did come through here the last time I was in London, so I wasn’t really in the mood to buy anything. But I figured I’d at least have lunch here for old time’s sake.

(If any of you get to come here, go to Cafe Mediterraneo – it’s where I had probably one of the best chicken salads and hummus ever. I thought I’d be done in 20 minutes. No, ladies and gents. The motto on their bill reads, “SLOW FOOD IS GOOD FOOD”, and they’re not lying. That thing took the better part of an hour to finish. It was like time slowed down when I ate that salad. I was this close to going home and taking a nap.)

After that, it was down to the Museum in Docklands – quite interesting if you’re into the history of London through its ports, docks and mercantile industry. It’s actually bigger than I thought it would be. I spent 2 hours in there and only got as far as the abolition of the slave trade. There’s way more beyond that, and it’s not a bad little place to visit. And for 5 GBP, you can get a ticket that’s good for a year. (If anyone plans on going to London between now and Aug 9, 2007, lemme know I’ll be quite happy to let you have my ticket.)

By the time I caught the Docklands Light Railway (their version of the Scarborough RT, except things smell, well, slightly river-y instead of like sulphur at Midland Station – yeggs!) back to Tower Hill Station, and tried to grab some dinner, it was time for the main event – the Jack the Ripper walking tour I’d been waiting to take for days.

Funnily enough, the tour guide (really informative) took us back through the part of East London where I’d been earlier (dang) and showed approximately where the murders took place. I didn’t know part of that area of town is actually now Banglatown, which is apparently reputed to have the best curry. (Too bad I already ate!) But it was neat.

And here I am, with one full day left before I have to pack up and travel out of the city by train. Sniff. I can’t believe it’s almost over! Well, time to get some shut-eye and make the best of what I’ve got left.

Surrounded by clocks. And STILL tardy.

Today, I took a river boat cruise along the Thames. But, as usual, time wasn’t on my side.

I bought my ticket and, thinking I had plenty of time to make the boat, went wandering off along South Bank, where a lot of the cultural stuff is located.

By the time I figured out it was time to turn around, and hustled over to the pier, the catamaran had taken off. I had to wait until 3:00 p.m. to catch the next one.

I managed to snap a few pictures, and got off at Greenwich, way on the other side of the Thames. Very picturesque. It’s home to the famous Cutty Sark (which brought tea leaves to London), the Maritime Museum, Greenwich University and the Royal Naval College. But I zipped past all of this for what I thought might be the real treasure: the Royal Observatory.

I originally went because of (a) my growing admiration of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural work, and (b) my fleeting interest in astronomy as a child, so I thought, telescopes and great views – sweet. Turns out I was also visiting the symbolic birthplace of modern time and home of the Prime Meridian (a.k.a. The Reason I Have To Do Time Zone Math at Work Every Day).

I also didn’t anticipate the fact it was up on a hill. Pretty when you get up there. Not-so-pretty as you huff and puff up there. As much as I admired Christopher Wren just 30 minutes earlier, I was silently cursing his name as I climbed upwards in my wedges. (I bet 20 bucks he didn’t hike up there in his pointy shoes. Hot air balloon is my educated guess.)

The view of London from here is really impressive, though. There’s also a free tour through the building – the living quarters of the first Astronomer Royal, a Camera Obscura outside, the Octagon Room where they’d peer through their telescopes ….

And all the timekeepers, clocks, and pocketwatches you can shake a stick at. It was definitely something I was taken by. Speaking of time, I was definitely operating on DST (D Slow-ass Time). By the time I got to the section with clocks and watches, I realized I was late for the boat leaving Greenwich for Embankment Pier (where I was supposed to jump off and meet a friend for dinner). Typical.

So I stayed a bit longer, looked around, and then lined up for the famous picture-taking spot where the Eastern and Western Hemispheres are separated by a single, imaginary, dividing line. It took about 20 minutes, but I got my small moment with time snapped (with slightly annoying kids jumping around in the background).

Then I hightailed it out of there (or as much as you can in heeled sandals) back down to the pier. The boat I’d hoped to make it on was full, so I was put on another boat, which turned out to be The Slowest Boat Ever. I was sitting at Greenwich Pier for at least a good half-hour while three other boats docked, picked up other passengers, and zipped away.

I finally had had it and jumped off at Tower Bridge, because I probably could meet my friend faster if I took the tube. I did finally manage to find her, apologize profusely (she was really really good about it) and we had a nice dinner.

But it was definitely a bit of an unpredictable afternoon. And a further reminder of why I need to invest in a wristwatch.

Torture and Jewels at the Tower of London

So after The Day Of Neverending Travel, I slept in and didn’t venture out until well after 2 p.m. My plan: to see the Tower of London.

I took the District Line down to Tower Hill. Unlike the other lines I’ve been on, it’s definitely an older one. The tube cars are old and clunky, and the term “Mind the Gap” definitely applies at each stop – it looked like there were about three to four inches (at least) between the cars and the platform. You could definitely jam a leg down there. Well, it looked that way to me, anyhow.

The Tower is definitely worth it. When you surface from the Underground, you can see a piece of the original wall that fenced in ancient London. And the actual Tower of London (a series of towers) is gigantic.

I can honestly say the best part of the Tower is the tour given by the guards there (called Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters). The one I got was quite lively and very funny. Definitely entertaining if you’re a kid. I think the tour lasts about a half-hour, and then they let you loose to see the other towers. We got a glance at where the prisoners for execution were brought in, heard a few of the stories of folks who were imprisoned, even where a couple of Henry VIII’s wives were (privately) executed. Fascinating stuff.

Most guide books will say you need to give yourself at least a couple hours. I think – if you want to be thorough – you need to give yourself several hours. Because I went so late, I didn’t get to see all of the towers. I spent the most time in the White Tower, but that was because there were so many people. There’s a lot of armour, and a lot of weaponry in there, so if that’s your thing, you would probably appreciate it. (I must say, if you go to the armoury area, check out the suit of armour for Henry VIII. He was pretty, ahem, generous with the codpiece.)

I then had to scoot over to see the Crown Jewels. This is a must. Yeah, the blinged-out crowns and sceptres are sparkly and impressive. But there’s this golden punch bowl … holy crap.

I wanted to get into the Bloody Tower, but only made it in to see the torture implements in the lower levels (nothing says “pain and suffering” like a device named The Scavenger’s Daughter), and then the place closed down.

I definitely would pay to see this again, if only to hit the rest of the towers and Tower Bridge which, even from a distance, is pretty impressive. Alas, another time, another trip.