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London, Gatwick, and Stratford-upon-Avon
Volume 72: Sat June 10, 2006
In which our great adventurers, Amanda and Ryan, explore London and other assorted places and spend great quantities of time at Gatwick airport.
I left you hanging in that last adventure where Lea dropped us off at the Plymouth train station to go off on her own adventures (not included here, but if enough people pester her, she might be inclined to write them up). Amanda and I, on the other hand, were on our way to the great city of London, where taking the Underground is a much easier and faster way of getting around than a rental car.
Amanda, let me remind you, was terribly sick at this time. I, however, was thrilled to death to finally see the sights and sounds of this city I've heard so much about over the years. It would be my first time in London.
Our train ride was pleasant and remarkably fast. I couldn't help but compare it to Amtrak here in the states, and it's so much faster and more efficient. Don't get me wrong—I enjoy riding on Amtrak, and Amtrak has more legroom and comfort than this train in England. It's also a lot cheaper, I might add. In terms of comfort, Amtrak kicks some English butt. But the English have mastered the art of being on time which is pretty convenient if you want to be sure you get somewhere on time. =) I heard that something like 90% of all Amtrak trains end up arriving late. It's not really their fault as much as it is the railroad companies that own the tracks—Amtrak is at their mercy.
I happily watched through the window as the countryside quickly passed by. None of that 'waiting for another train to pass' stuff you see like happening on Amatrak. Very efficient. *nodding*
We arrived at Paddington Station a few hours later, home of the world-famous Paddington Bear, before changing trains to the Underground and off to Victoria Station.
It's at Victoria Station that things started to go wrong. Amanda had printed out a list of cheap hotels in the area—relatively cheap, at least, since this is London we're talking about here—and we looked at a transportation map to figure out where Belgrave Street was which had many such cheap hotels to choose from. Except on our way there, Amanda led the way and turned us to the right, which wasn't really the image I had in my head and asked her about why we were turning where we were, and she snapped at me so I shut up.
We walked and we walked—much further than it seemed like it should have been from the map we saw—and finally reached Belgrove Street. Except we were looking for Belgrave Street, not Belgrove Street. Clearly, we had taken a wrong turn. I pulled out my trusty letterboxing compass and determined we were walking in a general northeast direction. Which would have been good, except we were supposed to be walking in a general southwest direction. I told this to Amanda, but she was convinced we had to be close to the right spot. We were on Belgrove Street, after all, so Belgrave Street had to be just the next street over or something. She really didn't want to walk all the way back.
She was feeling terrible, and I felt really bad for her, so I humored her. She wasn't in the mood for me to tell her we have to walk back almost from where we left Victoria Station. We walked a couple of blocks along a perpendicular street before she conceded that we might be in the wrong place. I found another bus stop with a map where we were finally able to figure out our location and sure enough, we had been walking 180° in the wrong direction.
On our way back, we did cross paths with a hotel and I went in to inquire about the cost in the hopes of saving Amanda a long walk back to our original destination, but it cost way too much for our skimpy pocketbooks so we walked nearly the whole way back to Victoria station. And Amanda was miserable every step of the way.
The walk back actually seemed to go faster, but that might have been because we knew where we were going now. The hotels we wanted were just a few blocks away from Victoria Station, and we checked ourselves in the the Belgrave House Hotel. Room 503, in case you want to visit. I can't say I recommend this hotel or this room, but it's a particularly memorable one if you're looking for adventure. =)
The route to the room was the first challenge since it required walking up two flights of stairs to the third floor (or the second, as the English would say, since the ground floor is not considered the first floor as in the states—something else I had a hard time getting used to). Then you had to walk around the third floor to find another flight of stairs up to the fifth floor (or fourth, as they called it) before reaching our tiny, little room. And tiny, it was. The room ranked right up there with many of our Central American accommodations.
I actually left Amanda in the lobby—we had a lot of luggage and carrying it up the stairs all at once was something of a challenge, so I grabbed all my stuff and hauled it up to the room, then came back down to help Amanda with the rest of her stuff. Except I actually got lost on the way back walking down to the second floor (or first, as they call it) leading to a dead end and having me scratching my head wondering why I couldn't get out. I finally figured out I had to go back up a flight of stairs and walk across the third floor (or second, as they call it) to the staircase that would actually take me back to the lobby where Amanda was waiting.
Having traveled this complex path twice, I managed to get Amanda to the room without getting lost, and now let me describe this room.
The toilet, I almost immediately discovered, had a seat that was not actually attached to the toilet. If you wanted to sit down, you had to be very careful not to slide off. Since I prefer to pee standing up in most cases, I just took the seat off completely and handed it out to Amanda outside the bathroom. (There wasn't room inside the bathroom for it!)
We actually had a pretty nice room for this hotel with our own bathroom and even a small kitchenette. We also discovered that when you flush the toilet, the water gets pumped out through the plumbing for the sink so the sink would make a large gurgling sound every time the toilet flushed or someone was taking a shower. And the smell of raw sewage would escape through the sink into the rest of the room. The sink was about three or four feet away from the bed—maybe less—so if you were sitting on the bed and someone flushed the toilet, you'd know it. It wasn't pleasant, but it certainly helped make the experience memorable. I can truthfully tell you, I will never, ever forget that room. =)
We put all our perishables into the frig and tried the telly (that's what they call the TV in England) to see what stations we got. Surprisingly, we didn't get a single station. Not one. I wondered why they gave us a TV with the room when it couldn't pick up a single station. And in the middle of London, that itself I thought was kind of surprising. But we weren't there to watch the telly anyhow, so it didn't bother us much.
Once everything was in order, we left to explore London with the little daylight that was left. Amanda, having been in the area before, walked me to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey—all neat-looking places I'd seen so many times before in photos and reruns of The Simpsons. But what I can I say about it? They look just like the photos and lots of tourists were standing around taking pictures. The only real surprise was when we found a statue of Abraham Lincoln not far from Big Ben. Abraham Lincoln? That seemed a little out of place to us, so I took a photo and we continued on our way.
There's not much to write about this evening. Just a walk around some of the more prominent features of London which was exciting to see, but not really exiting to write about.
We went back to the hotel early and immediately went to sleep, absolutely exhausted from waking up so early that morning. The real day of exploration would come the next day when we had the entire day to explore the jungle the locals like to call London.
The next morning, we woke up to a clear, sunny day. We took showers, flushed the toilet a few times for kicks, then headed downstairs to room 32 which turned out to be something of a challenge to find. It was one floor below the lobby, and a few French girls were serving an English breakfast. It seemed odd to me that French girls would be serving an English breakfast—I was kind of hoping for french toast or something instead. And I'm not entirely sure they knew what an English breakfast was since we got some toast and a hard-boiled egg and that was it. Not a proper meal in my book. But it was included with the cost of the room, so I took it anyhow.
Planning to do a lot of Underground travel, we purchased tickets that were good for the whole day then headed off to the Tower of London. The Underground was absolutely packed—morning, rush-hour traffic, indeed! We waved as a few trains passed us by because there was no more room for people to board before we made it to the front of the line and took a crowded position with the masses of unwashed public. (That's a figure of speech—I'm sure they were really washed, but let's not dwell on that.)
We got to the Tower of London immediately when the place opened and before it filled with tons of people, and it's a fascinating place. Definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area and have never been there before. The White Tower, the oldest part of the complex, was built hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and it occurred to me that Shakespeare was walking around this very area 500 years ago and saw the very same structures I was looking at. Though, at the time, I don't think it was open for the public to view. But structures nearly one thousand years old—that just amazes me. Anything older than about 100 years is considered really old where I come from.
We checked out the White Tower first, learning fascinating stories such as the infamous Gunpowder plot. I had never learned much about English history, so all of the displays and exhibits were new and interesting. Then we headed over to the Crown Jewels, so famous that people capitalize the words that describe them. Only once, they explained, did someone try to steal them over the years, and of course, the culprits did not succeed. But that fascinates me. I'm one of those people that's convinced there is never such a thing as having something 100% secured. So I started imaging what it would take to be the first person to successfully steal the Crown Jewels. Of course, I'd never actually do that—I don't have the training or talent for such an enormous feat. And while I'm sure there is some method that someone could use to steal them, I'm not the guy who can figure that out. And even if I could—what could you do with it? It's not like something as famous as the Crown Jewels would be easy to sell on the black market. But it didn't stop me from imagining it, though. Such a diabolical mind, I have. =)
The Crown Jewels, I'd like to mention, were kind of disappointing to me. They looked so fake. So large, obnoxious, and generally ugly. Sorry to all you English out there, but I just didn't understand the fuss. *shrug*
Amanda seemed most interested in Bloody Tower, perhaps because Sir Walter Raleigh spent most of his 13 years imprisoned in the Tower of London locked up in Bloody Tower—being from North Carolina, she knows a lot about Sir Raleigh. *nodding*
Fascinating place, though. They've preserved a lot of the graffiti carved by past prisoners, marked the places where beheadings took place, and have colorful, dressed-up people to show you around and tell you the history of the area. Legend has it, ravens that inhabit the place and if they should leave, the tower will fall and the monarchy will crumble, so for hundreds of years they've clipped the wings of ravens to ensure a permanent population of them in the place. At the time we visited, however, the birds were kept in cages to prevent them from catching the bird flu, so we didn't see any ravens running about. Nothing like a pandemic scare to use as an excuse for caging them. =)
Next we headed to the adjacent boat dock and purchased a couple of round-trip tickets to Greenwich along the River Thames—one of the few places around London Amanda had not visited previously. The ride was great! One of the employees explained about all the areas we we passed by such as pointing out the setting for Oliver Twist and where Charles Dickens once lived. While passing the business district, I guess it's called, he pointed out the tallest building in England—a building I'd normally have not have even noticed. It topped out at 700 odd feet, and it has a pyramid top, but seemed surprisingly dull for being able to boast of being the country's tallest building.
In fact, I was rather appalled at some of the dreadfully ugly architecture along side the Thames. The buildings looked very new, but where were the fashion police when these buildings were designed? There were a couple of new buildings not far from the Tower of London, in fact, that looked liked something right out of Buck Rogers. It seemed so out of place—especially one bullet-shaped building that could have been a giant spaceship about to blast off. Practically right next to the Tower of London. It's shameful, really.
Considering the ugly London Bridge that replaced the original and very beautiful one (which was packed up and shipped off to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in case you ever want to see the nice one), I had a shocking revelation: English architects should be fired. Sorry guys, but is that really the best you can come up with? I have nothing against bullet-shaped, space-aged buildings (take the Space Needle in Seattle, for instance, which I think is a terrific addition to the skyline), but next to the Tower of London? That's just tacky. *nodding*
But I digress.... While on the cruise to Greenwich, I took lots of pictures of buildings I considered ugly, so you can judge for yourself. =)
The ship stopped at Greenwich, and Amanda and I wandered up to the Greenwich Observatory and the world-renowned Prime Meridian. Tickets are required to enter, but fortunately they are free. Amanda and I took photos of the self-proclaimed "First shop in the world!" with a longitude of 00°00"4'W then continued to the ticket counter, and entered this famous observatory.
I should point out, the Greenwich observatory is actually ON the Prime Meridian. Additionally, there is a gift shop in this observatory. So that 'first shop in the world' claim—don't believe it for a minute.
Now the Prime Meridian, the line that separates the western and eastern hemispheres, is a pretty long line stretching from the north pole to the south pole. I mention this only because the people in and around Greenwich seem to forget this fact and assume theirs is the only populated place located on it. That's okay, though—I'd never walked on the Prime Meridian before, and I'm not especially particular about where I do so. So long as it's on dry land, of course. =)
We took the obligatory photos of us on the meridian, then toured the rest of the observatory which is just fascinating and well worth a visit if you're in the area. There are exhibits about the discoveries made at the observatory, the people who lived and worked in the observatory, and how time has been measured over the years.
Back in the old days—yes, even before the iPod—sailors had a tough time figuring out exactly where in the world they were. The problem was figuring out their longitude. They needed an accurate timepiece to make such calculations, and none existed. A £20,000 prize was set up to encourage the public to create such a clock, small enough to travel on a ship, stout enough to face severe temperature changes and the rocking motion of the ship, and all sorts of complications. One man spent 40 years on this mission before finally cracking the secret to an accurate timepiece: John Harrison. Not only did he succeed building the most accurate clocks of the day, but his creations are on display at this museum. These are the clocks that changed history. It's a humbling thought. And they still work to this day.
Well, most of them do, at least. The last clock is more like a large pocket watch, but it requires oiling to work properly. Over the years, the oil has been wearing down the parts of this famous clock, so they finally drained it of the corrosive oil and that one, H4, is not currently operating. It can work, but it would not last indefinitely so it was permanently silenced about 50 years or so ago. Actually, they did run it for a week or so in 2002 for National Science Week, but so far as I know, that's the last time it ever ran and there are no plans to run it again anytime soon.
Part of the telescope used to discover Uranus rests on the property. It seems a tree or something fell on it many years ago and a large part of it was destroyed, so only a short segment of this famous telescope is left, weathering in the sun.
The views from the observatory, I might mention, are phenomenal. The observatory rests on the top of a hill which helps alleviate the atmospheric distortions and, when it was originally built, was far away from the city of London and the light pollution associated with it. Now days, the observatory isn't used for observations because of that light pollution as the city grew around Greenwich.
From the top, we could also see the Millennium Dome. It looks like a porcupine. A large bulge of white making up the building itself with bizarre spikes pointing out of it. Dreadfully ugly thing. Amanda and I heard earlier in the day a couple of locals telling some other tourists about it saying they spent billions of pounds building the thing (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I haven't looked up the actual construction costs) and the place is now closed since it was only intended to stay in use for the year 2000. Can you believe that? Spending a boat-load of money to build a giant porcupine, just to abandon it after a year's worth of use?
After two weeks in England, those English still baffled me more than ever. =)
After completing the tour, Amanda and I stopped at the nearby Honest Sausage stand and ordered a couple of honest sausages. Not that I've ever seen a dishonest one, but why take the chance?
We wandered back to our boat for a ride back to the Tower of London where we'd ride the Underground back into the center of town. Except—while examining the map of the Underground, I noticed a little stop called The Monument. This fascinated me. What monument? The Monument. No adjectives necessary, and with a capital T. What sort of monument can it be that it needs no qualifiers? So I asked Amanda about The Monument, and she didn't have a satisfactory answer. In fact, her answer was something along the lines of, "I don't know."
I needed to learn more, and armed with tickets allowing unlimited use of the Underground, I talked Amanda into stopping there to find The Monument. We weren't sure what to look for, but we hoped we'd know it when we saw it. We stepped out of the subway and looked left, then right. And we saw it. We knew that had to be it. A huge tower, 202 feet tall, reaching high into the sky. It was The Monument.
Reading the inscription on it explained the history of The Monument. It was build to commemorate the Great Fire of London in the 1600s when much of London burned to a crisp. Thousands were left homeless, but good things came out of the destruction. New laws were put into place requiring structures made of materials like brick that would not burn, streets were widened, and it pretty much put an end to the plague that had been causing problems anyhow. Afterwards, The Monument was erected, in memory of the worst fire in London's history. It stands precisely 202 feet tall, the plaque explained, because the origin of the fire was thought to be at a bakery precisely 202 feet away from The Monument. If The Monument ever fell over in the right direction, the top of it would rest at the exact spot the great fire was thought to have started.
In the United States, of course, we'd have build such a monument ON the precise location where the fire was thought to have started. Not 202 feet away with a tower tall enough to reach that point if the tower were to fall over. I'm not suggesting anything here, but even in the 1600s, the English seemed to show a hint of odd architectural tendencies. Nothing conclusive, of course, but definitely circumstantial evidence if I ever found it.
Normally, the public is allowed to climb the steps to the top of the tower, but alas, on the day we visited, it was closed for several weeks. Probably because it's several hundred years old and trying hard to reach that spot 202 feet away where the fire started, but that's just a guess on our part. =)
With our curiosity satisfied, we entered back into the Underground and headed to the Westminster Abbey stop. Our goal: the Cabinet War Rooms and Winston Churchill Museum. I heard about this place a year or so ago—probably on the History Channel (I just love the History Channel)—and while one of the more expensive tourist traps in London, I wanted to check it out anyhow. Amanda was kind enough to amuse me.
The place is nothing short of amazing! These are the rooms where Winston Churchill ran his side of WWII, and they're set up exactly as they were when he walked the halls and gave out orders. At the start of the tour, they gave us something that looked a lot like a cell phone, and we could punch in the numbers at the various stops along the self-guiding tour to hear about whatever was at the stop. Voices would read accounts of the people who worked there, things that were said, and problems discussed—taken straight out of diaries and journals. A steel and concrete ceiling were secretly installed after the start of WWII to help protect against Nazi bombing runs.
After the war ended, everybody locked up and left. Everything was pretty much left exactly as it was at the conclusion of the war. Huge maps covering an entire wall that used to mark where allied ships were sunk was perforated with countless thousands of holes from push pins.
Amanda and I didn't expect the visit to last more than an hour or so, but we spent closer to three hours. And even then, we were a bit rushed because by the time we left, the place was about to close. The majority of our time, however, was in the newest addition that made up the Churchill Museum. This museum was only completed last year, I think it was, and is the most state-of-the-art, interactive museum I've ever seen. A huge timeline of Churchill's life spans across the room, and you can touch it in various places for the year, month, and day of Churchill's life and it'll pop up information about what he did, what he wrote, pictures, and other significant events of that day. Churchill was also something of an artist so another display has you 'painting' some of the pictures he painted from another interactive monitor. We spent a full two hours wandering around the displays, watching videos, and learning about Winston Churchill from his childhood to his death—and we didn't even see it all. If you make a visit to this place, come early and plan to stay for several hours if not the entire day. It'll keep you entertained that long!
Once we got booted out since the museum was closing, we took the Underground back to Victoria Station where we stopped at an Internet cafe, got some dinner at a nearby restaurant, and then retired up the maze back to our hotel room. All-in-all, it had been a long and exhausting day, but a wonderfully educational and fascinating one as well.
Our time in England was at an end. We woke up early, walked to Victoria Station, then boarded a train to Gatwick Airport. Security worked a little differently than here in the states. I had my laptop with me and noticed a lack of signs warning that laptops must be taken out of the case and run through the X-ray machines separately, and wondered if that meant I didn't have to do that in this country. They also took a still photo of every person going through security.
When my turn came, I asked the security guy—I don't know what they call them in England, but in the US they'd be TSA—if I had to take my laptop out and he asked, "Why? The X-ray machines can see right through that!"
I just knew it! All this time, TSA has been yanking our chains for no other reason than they can. I happily run my laptop through the X-ray machine—without taking it out of the case. =)
I should also point out, on our way to England, I put my case (sans laptop) through the X-ray machine with my shoes on top of the case, then the laptop followed in a separate bin just after that. While going through the X-ray machine, the shoes got pushed out of their bid and fell into the one with the laptop. Boy did that get the TSA guys into a frenzy, berating me for not putting the laptop into its own container but they'd "let it slide" this time. *rolling eyes* Bastards!
Anyhow, I made it through security without any trouble—less trouble than a US airport, even. Then we waited for any flight out of the country. US Airways has two flights per day out of Gatwick—one to Philly and one to Charlotte, and they were both pretty full.
Shortly before the Philly flight was due to leave, we learned that their computers in the USA were down so they couldn't process non-revenue passengers (or affectionately known as 'non-revs' in the industry) such as ourselves. But as it turned out, the flight filled up completely and left without us anyhow.
We headed to the gate for the Charlotte flight hoping for better luck, but once again, we learned the meaning of stand-by when we stood at the window and waved bye-bye to the last plane of the day heading back to the United States.
The gate agents escorted us back through immigration and customs—we had already passed out of the country as far as England was concerned when we went through security and therefore needed to formally enter back into the country. Coming back in a second time was significantly faster than the first time since the gate agents had that special power to let us cut to the front of the line. They swiped my passport, officially entering me into the country once again, and I joked with the immigration guy that they can't keep me in this country forever. I was an American, and I'd get myself deported if I had to! =)
Amanda and I decided to take the cheapest lodging we could find for the night, which consisted of benches at Gatwick Village, a small collection of restaurants, shops, Internet access, and other things that weary travelers demand. We changed out of our nice flying clothes in the restrooms into the more comfortable grubby clothes we had, then I spent most of the afternoon reading a riveting book about the TWA crash off of Long Island a few years back. Nothing like reading about a good plane crash while waiting for a flight at the airport.
We ate dinner at Frankies and Bennies where we ordered a pizza and jacket potatoes for dinner. Then headed back to a quiet corner not far from the 24 hours McDonalds, laid out on some benches with some other stranded passengers, and went to sleep.
We slept in until 6:45am at which point we got up to prepare for another day of hoping to get on a flight. We changed into our nice flying clothes, but at the ticket counter, we were informed of the bad news. The flights were overbooked and it was very unlikely we'd make it onto the flights this day. They didn't bother with giving us a ticket to get through security—to help avoid the annoyance of having to get us back through immigration and customs a second time if we didn't make it onto a flight. They did ask us to come back in a few hours, to see if any seats opened up if enough people didn't show up at which point they'd give us a ticket to get through security. But, they warned us, it wasn't looking good.
We went back to Gatwick Village to kill the time, then returned to the ticket counter a few hours later to have our worst fears confirmed. We would not be catching a flight this day either.
Even worse, the agents explained, the flights were even more overbooked for the next few days. For some inexplicable reason, it was Spring Break in England, and all those young hooligans wanted to go to Orlando for a week of partying and fun. Flights into the country were half empty, but flights out of the country were overbooked out the wazoo. It wasn't just this airline either. People were trying to catch any flight to the United States, on any airline, from any destination. They were all overbooked.
The next open flight wasn't for several days, but the danger there was that passengers bumped one day would be rolled over to the next day, causing even more passengers that next day to get bumped, which would roll over again.... So even that day that had open seats, by the time all these people got bumped and rolled over, could fill up that plane full of bumped people.
In a nutshell, we were stuck in England and could not get out for the better part of a week.
Amanda and I considered our options. I suggested that maybe we could fly on to Paris or Munich or Madrid or something and perhaps fly out from another location under the theory that perhaps one of those countries didn't have a bunch of kids on Spring Break hogging all the seats to the United States. And, I'd never been to visit any of those countries—I wouldn't mind exploring them for a couple of days before flying back. =)
But what we finally decided on instead was to head to Stratford-upon-Avon and see Shakespeare's birthplace. We'd head back to London tonight, travel to Stratford the next day, spend a couple of days there, then work our way back to Gatwick at which point, hopefully, we'd catch a flight back to the states.
It was a daring plan. It was a dangerous plan. But it's the plan we decided to go with.
We took the train back to Victoria Station and walked to another hotel across the street from where we originally stayed, The Stanley. Having most of the afternoon and evening left to kill, we checked the bus schedules to Stratford and did some searches on the Internet for lodging in the area (*coughexpensivecough*), then headed off for a Jack the Ripper tour.
The tour started at the Underground stop for the Tower of London, and we walked around with a large group of people as the guy took us to the locations of several Ripper murders, following in the steps of the famous murderer. The setting was perfect—it was a dark and stormy night. Can you ask for anything more on a Jack the Ripper tour?
Yes, actually. The group was so large, our tour guide would say something like, "The murder happened at the end of that alley," as he'd wave in the general direction of it because the group was too large to take everyone down it at once. Another large Ripper group was also wandering around, so we stopped away from them since they were hogging the crime scene to themselves. And one of the old Ripper murders took place in what is now a large parking structure, which kind of ruins of the ambiance of the run down apartments where it originally took place.
Overall, both Amanda and I were a bit disappointed with the tour. If the group was smaller, I think we'd have enjoyed it more, but walking around with twenty or thirty other tourists didn't work out well.
After that, we headed back to our hotel for the evening, prepared to wake up early for our bus ride to Stratford-upon-Avon and a lesson on Shakespeare. =)
We did indeed wake up early and walked to the bus stop where we purchased tickets to Stratford-upon-Avon. We sat in the front row on the passenger side of the bus so we'd have the best view of the English countryside, and the bus driver amused us greatly with stories and jokes. I wrote down in my notes to tell you one joke he mentioned, and I quote: "that's a hanging offense—russling!" I'm not sure what that means anymore. Was that the punchline or the story to the punchline? Why did the bus driver tell us this? I think it's the punchline, but I can't remember the story leading up to it and the punchline by itself just isn't that funny. Usually my half-hearted notes are enough to jog my memory to recreate the entire story, but alas, my aging brain cells can't make any sense out of this joke anymore. Rest assured, though, it was funny when he told it. =)
We arrived in Stratford about 3 1/2 hours later and proceeded to walk to the hostel. The website suggested that the hostel was about a half-mile walk outside of town, which was great. Except that in the center of town, we found a sign saying that the hostel was really two full miles outside of town. That was a problem, because we had a lot of crap with us. Most of our time in England we expected to be using a rental car and making a home out of the manor on Dartmoor, so packing light was not a great concern. Not knowing what else to do, we followed the road out of Stratford towards the hostel.
Amanda was having the worst of it—not yet fully recovered from her bout of sickness. About halfway, she stopped at a bench and broke down in tears—a heartbreaking thing to watch. I told her to wait there and I'd go on ahead with all my stuff, check us in, then come back and help her carry her luggage.
As it turns out, the hostel was a half-mile out of town—it just wasn't the town of Stratford. Very deceptive website, so don't be fooled if you ever happen to visit this area. There is a bus stop directly in front of the hostel—a fact their website fails to mention. Maybe they think everyone is driving their own car, but the website was seriously deficient in certain pieces of important information.
I checked us in, put my bags in the room, then walked back down to where I left Amanda. I hoped I wouldn't have to walk back the entire way since it looked like it might rain at any moment and she got herself back together enough to continue walking before I got back. Which, I'm happy to report, is exactly what happened. =)
I carried the heaviest of her bags the rest of the way to the hostel, and I think she must have hid a cow in it because it was that heavy. Remarkable she got it as far as she did. I also told her that we'd be taking the bus back to Stratford when it was time to leave. She wouldn't have to walk that distance with all that luggage ever again.
After a short rest at the hostel, we got back up and walked back into town. Without all our luggage, the walk was rather nice and significantly faster. Along the way, we stopped at a convenience store for some conveniences such as milk, bananas, Starbursts, and an orange Fanta for myself. In town, we stopped at an information center to pick up a map of the area, then walked out to visit Shakespeare's birthplace.
Stratford-upon-Avon is a cute little town, but we were both surprised to learn that it contained a Carnegie library! I knew he built hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of libraries in the United States, but it was purely by accident that we walked past the town library and saw a plaque stating that it was one of Mr. Carnegie's libraries. Who would have known? I wonder how many libraries he built in England or if the English even know who this American was?
Shakespeare's birthplace includes the actual home he was born in and lived and, in a significantly more modern-looking building right next door, a museum of his life, the times he lived, and information about his works. We arrived just after a large group of kids entered the museum, so we skipped that and went directly to Shakespeare's home.
Shakespeare, it should be noted, became a very wealthy man during his day, and the house was considered rather large and extravagant during his day. But today, it seems so small, cramped, and cluttered. It struck me as remarkable that a person of modest means today lives significantly better than some of the richest people alive over 500 years ago.
After exiting the birthplace, we were directed through a third building that was the gift shop—two words that will always capture Amanda's attention. =) She looked through the gift shop, purchased a few items, then we exited back onto the street. Since we skipped the exhibit on Shakespeare due to the plethora of kids, we reentered the entrance to see the part we missed. Lots of exhibits on the life and time of William Shakespeare.
Finished with that, we followed the route back through Shakespeare's birthplace a second time, either startling or confusing one of the workers there who recognized us from our previous visit. The maze once again dumped us out in the gift shop.
Having seen Shakespeare's birthplace, we figured it was time to pay our respects to the man himself at the Holy Trinity Church. We figured he must have been in the cemetery just outside of the church—a logical place for a man who's been dead about 500 years—but it turns out he's actually buried in the church. We entered and paid a few pounds—not required but definitely encouraged. Photos, we were told, were allowed—which took both Amanda and I by surprise. They didn't mind us taking lots of flash photography in that beautiful church with stained-glass windows everywhere?
So we stopped by his grave and paid our respects to whom many people consider the greatest writer of all time. A string outlined his plot in the church with a simple sign marking his name, and a bust of Shakespeare—kind of a spooky looking thing, I thought, since it was in full color and that seemed weird to me—overlooked the grave. I think it looks suspiciously like like The King. You know the one, from those Burger King commercials. Yeah, creepy, I know. *nodding*
I told Shakespeare that he could spin quite a good yarn and how much I enjoyed his Merry Wives of Windsor but, alas, had the misfortune to explain that I didn't find many merry wives when we were in Windsor. Amanda hit me in the arm.
By this time, we were getting hungry. It was time for dinner. We had walked past a little restaurant called The Dirty Duck on our way to Shakespeare's Grave—a cute little place overlooking the River Avon. And we loved the name of the place. That was the main thing. I needed an excuse to write about The Dirty Duck for my adventures, and eating there was it. =)
I ordered the baked lasagna and Amanda chose salmon. Huge portions, and we were filled to the gills. While waiting for dinner, I pulled out my laptop and took notes of the last couple of days of adventuring so I could faithfully recreate our travels for you, our readers. =)
Then it was the long walk back to the hostel. I was running low on clean socks, it appears. I can't really remember this, but Amanda swears she wrote it down in her personal journal, so it must be true. They do laundry at the hostel, and it seemed like a reasonable price for the basketful we were able to do. We filled up the basket and returned an hour or two later to pick it up—and the clothes were completely and totally soaking wet!
Needless to say, we never read the small print. They'll only wash laundry—they won't dry it for you. You'd think we were back in Central America.
This did help to explain that strange sign on a door near the lobby that was labeled 'Drying Room.' People could take wet laundry down to the drying room where miles of clothesline stretched in a dizzying patterns across the room, filled with what seemed like hundreds of drying clothes. The room felt like a sauna—very hot to dry to the clothes, and very humid from the wet but quickly drying clothes. It was also full up without so much as two inches of free clothesline for us to hang anything.
Plan B went into action. Back in our room—it seemed it was a slow night since we had a room with enough for six beds all to ourselves—we laid out our wet clothes all over the place. The radiator was a natural place, but I also turned on lamps and hung clothes on and under them. We were going to make our own drying room.
Frankly, I'd have been okay with a little wet clothing. A shirt will dry out quick enough once you put it on, for instance, but Amanda kept getting up at all hours of the night to rotate the wet clothes onto the radiator which did a fabulous job of drying. She did not want to leave a trace of wetness in any of the clothes, which only bothered me because the beds were very squeaky and she'd wake me up every time she made a midnight run to the radiator.
By morning, all of the clothes were dry except for one pair of my socks. We slept in fairly late since we had no real plans for the day except to take it easy and relax. When we did finally get up and headed to breakfast (included with the price of the hostel), we learned it was just as well since the weather forecast was for snow with gale force winds. Tomorrow would get even worse with a slight dusting of turnips!
April Fools! I was quite pleased to learn that the English celebrate such a wonderful holiday just like we do. =) Behind the fake weather forecast was the real one, which was more of the same moderate temperatures and scattered showers.
Amanda and I also changed rooms. This night the hostel would be packed, and we couldn't have a room together. So we moved out of room 6 and I checked into room 12 while Amanda checked in next door into room 13. At least we weren't far from each other! =)
Amanda and I both had letterboxes we wanted to plant, so we first headed to the Anne Hathaway cottages where Amanda planted a letterbox. We didn't go in the cottages since there was an entrance fee and we were running out of money, but we could see the exterior just fine from the side of the road and that was good enough for us.
Afterwards, we hoofed it to a canal towpath running out of town. Amanda was tired and wanted to rest, so she stopped at a convenient place while I hiked for a mile or two trying to find a place to put my letterbox. Not having much luck of it either. The path is cute, following along a narrow canal that's still in use today. A series of locks allowed boats to rise or fall along the length of the canal. Very cute. *nodding*
But finding a place for a letterbox was tough. Water bordered the one side of the trail, and a fence separating the trail from private property bordered the other side. Depending on where I was on the path, I might have maybe two feet in either direction to find a place for a box, and there weren't a lot of trees or rocks available for hiding the box in. I walked far longer than I anticipated, and finally gave up and turned around. I'd have been happy to follow the trail to its end several miles distant, but I didn't want Amanda to worry about what happened to me.
On the way back, though, I did finally find a spot to hide the letterbox under a railroad bridge. While scrounging for rocks, an English plant attacked me. I'm not very familiar with English plant life, but I went to pick up a few rocks next to this one particular plant and I swear it felt like a thousand needles attacked my hand. Very similar to stinging nettle for those of you who are unlucky enough to be acquainted with it, but it seemed so unfair to me for it to pick on an American who couldn't be expected to know what plants to be aware of. The plant looked harmless enough!
I finished planting the box, and returned to Amanda to complain about the pain in my hand. She gave the appropriate signals of pity then we headed back into Stratford.
We stopped for lunch at Oscars, which was especially delightful for several reasons including the fact that it was non-smoking (not many places in England are, much to our annoyance), it was not crowded, and it was on the second floor where we picked a table overlooking the town. I ordered a jacket potato with creamy garlic sauce while Amanda ordered something with salmon. With all the salmon she'd been eating, you'd think she was in Seattle or something. =)
Afterwards, we sauntered over to another of Shakespeare's old homes—or at least where it once stood before it was destroyed. The foundations of the home are now part of a garden. Kind of cute, really.
Nearby was a bookstore that Amanda had to visit. Needless to say, they had a large section on Shakespeare—cleverly labeled as 'Local Author'. And at long last, we finally discovered the meaning of that circular, blue road sign, outlined in red with a red X through it. It was a book about driving in England, and it explained this perplexing sign: No stopping. Which made sense since we saw it on freeways and such, but I was kind of surprised anyhow. Do they have a problem with people stopping on the highways in England unexpectedly? I thought it just fascinating that the English needed to be reminded that highways are not to be stopped on.
At least for those English who actually knew what the sign meant. Our Dartmoor buddies didn't!
Also, not far away, Amanda found a Wallace and Gromit tie that she couldn't help but buy for me. After nearly not getting on the plane because of my shoes on my way to England, I wanted to look as sharp and professional as I could on my way out of the country so I was more than happy to accept the tie. =)
On our way to visit Shakespeare's grave the day before, we passed an interesting place where people can do brass rubbings. Amanda and I decided to go back there and give it a try. We scouted around the various pieces we could rub, and Amanda found the Owl and the Pussycat which she wanted to do. So we paid the price, and they taped a piece of black paper to the brass and gave us a few colored pieces of wax along with directions on how to do the rubbing. First the white, very lightly, so you can see what you're doing. Then the colors on top of that, harder, moving the wax in the same direction like so....
Amanda and I took turns. I'd do the owl, then she'd do the cat, then I'd do the boat, and so forth. Since I took most of the pictures, though, it looks like she did the nearly the whole thing. Don't be fooled—I had a part in this masterpiece as well. *nodding*
We finished with the Owl and the Pussycat, and wrapped up our artwork. Then we strolled around the River Avon and back towards the hostel.
Just as were almost to the hostel—not more than a quarter of a mile away—a car came up from behind us with its horn blaring. Stupid punks. We turned to look and who should we see but Lea!
"You need a ride?"
Sure, why not? =) We piled into the rental car and we directed Lea the rest of the way to the hostel. Lea told us of her adventures since we departed each other in Plymouth. She got pretty sick there for a day or two—just like Amanda did—and wandered around a bit looking for King Arthur or something like that. When she found out we hadn't made it out of the country yet (e-mail is a wonderful thing), I e-mailed her back earlier that morning saying we were at a hostel in Stratford-upon-Avon. Neither Amanda nor I expected Lea to drive out to meet with us since she had her own itinerary of places to visit, and she was a couple hundred miles away to boot. So we were both pretty surprised when she pulled up alongside of us and offered us a ride to the hostel.
She wasn't even sure which hostel we were at—she just started calling them trying to figure out where we were staying. Not knowing what we were doing or where we were, she spent much of the day wandering around Stratford on her own keeping her eyes open for us. Not until late that afternoon, as we were walking back to the hostel, did she finally find us.
At the hostel, Lea checked in. Amanda and Lea wanted to share a room, so Amanda had her room changed to be with Lea in room 21, while I was left to my lonesome self in room 12. Well, there were five other guys in the room, but nobody I knew and one of the guys was kind of creepy and I wanted to avoid him, so they don't really count.
That evening, we watched the telly to kill the time. Absolutely fascinating. For instance, we watched Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, except all the denominations were in pounds instead of dollars. I thought that a bit unfair to Americans because one million pounds is a heck of a lot more money than one million dollars. All things considered, I'd rather have the million pounds, thank you very much.
But seriously, I was surprised at how hard the questions were. Even the ones that were supposed to be easy! I wondered if the English were really that much more intelligent than Americans or if they just learned different stuff in school. A question about the War of the Roses came up, and I didn't have a clue what the answer was. But, I thought, if they asked a question about the American Civil War, I'd beat the pants off of them! Ha! =)
At the £32,000 level, the question was about the first line of Moby Dick. Amanda, Lea, and I practically screamed at the TV—"My name is Ishmeal! It's C! Pick C!" as the guy clearly struggled for an answer. How could he not know this? Everybody knows this! It's as famous as "to be, or not to be..."
He decided to use a lifeline. We shook our heads with disgust. A couple of other people were in the room watching along with us, Englishmen, and we asked them if the question was really that hard. They confessed to not knowing the answer either. Yeah, it's an American writer who write Moby Dick, but isn't that story famous everywhere?
The guy on the telly read the question and answers to his friend who he called. The friend said they weren't sure, but that he was leaning towards A. The three of us howled in protest. "Noooo!!!! It's C!"
"A. And that's my final answer."
Well, you know how the rest goes. He didn't make £32,000, and another contestant took his place.
Another show the three of us enjoyed watching—which we actually watched in Dartmoor—was called Flog It. It sounded oh so dirty, but it really wasn't. It's a lot like Antique Roadshow, in fact, where people take in a bunch of stuff to get appraised. Where it differs is that after they've appraised the items, they give those people the option of auctioning it off to see how close it comes to the appraised value. And, this is the best part, they call it flogging the item. Thus, the name of the show: Flog It!
It was a nice twist on the Antique Roadshow concept. Some of the items went for substantially more than the appraised value. Most came fairly close to it. Only one item, I think, didn't reach the minimum value. But every time we could see that Flog It sign in the background, Amanda, Lea, and I would start to giggle. We couldn't help it. "I'd like to flog it." More giggles. I hope they import that show into the United States at some point, and I definitely hope they don't change the name of it. =)
We finally called it a night and headed off to sleep. Amanda and Lea to room 21, and myself to room 12.
The next morning, the three of us met up in the dining room for our full English breakfast, then packed up all our belongings into the rental car. It was time to say goodbye to Shakespeare, and return to Gatwick for another attempt at fleeing the country.
On the way, however, we decided to stop by Warwick Castle because it was fairly close and why the heck not? =)
We were impressed. It was the most Disney-fied place I'd seen in England. We stood in the queue to purchase tickets (there are never lines in England—just queues!) and were entertained by characters dressed up in all sorts of period costumes. My favorite, of course, being the fool. =)
The place cost as much as a Disney attraction, and all the grounds were manicured to an inch of their lives. Spotless.
Warwick Castle is actually owned by the Madame Tussauds Group, the same people who do those wax figures, but don't let the commercialism of the place get to you—it's a very historic castle and one of the best-kept ones as well. I was kind of skeptical when I learned that the rooms of the castle were populated with wax figures doing whatever it is the inhabitants of the place used to do, but it turned out rather tasteful and seemed to make the rooms more full of life than the usual empty rooms you see on tours of other historic places. I rather liked it. =) If the owners of the place read this, I'd like to suggest getting some wax figures into places like Hearst Castle. That would be cool. *nodding*
We spent several hours there—climbing the castle walls, watching an 18-meter tall, 22 ton catapult (called a trebuchet, which is a very fun word to say) wound up with two human hamsters to shoot a cannonball through the air, checked out the waterwheel, watched an archery demonstration, and visited the torture chamber....
They said there are no accounts of anyone being tortured at Warwick Castle—not that it didn't happen, of course, but there's apparently no proof of it actually happening. However, the signs around the torture room explained, the instruments displayed in the room were all genuine and actually used to torture people. Let me tell you, that sent a chill down my spine! I was kind of disappointed they didn't explain who was tortured with each of the devices or why—seems to me like they left out half the story by not including that information. But maybe they don't know who was actually tortured—did they keep records of stuff like that in the past?
Hours later—much later than we expected—we finally parted from Warwick Castle. It has a very Disney feel to the place, but it's a fascinating place. Definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.
Then it was back to the roads and the long drive back to Gatwick. Lea's flight left the next morning, while Amanda and I hoped and crossed our fingers that we'd make it out of the country the next day too. We were coming back a day earlier than the agents suggested we should, but we didn't really have anything better to do than wait around and try to get on anyhow.
We got a room at a nearby B&B. I wandered around the small town of Hosley, but almost everything was closed since it was a Sunday and struck out finding anything of interest to do. Amanda and Lea went to the airport to return the rental car—we'd have a shuttle to take us to the airport the next day and didn't need the rental car anymore.
We ate dinner at the B&B since everywhere else within walking distance was closed, then watched the telly a bit before going off to sleep.
Amanda and I were up bright and early since we needed to get to the airport early to catch the first flight out of the country. Lea could sleep in a couple of extra hours—she already had a confirmed seat. Not that that didn't stop me from teasing her about the flights being overbooked and she might get bumped along with us and spend the night at the airport too! Lea didn't seem to find my jokes as amusing as I did. =)
I put on my nice clothes, the new shoes I purchased in Tavinstock, and got the Wallace and Gromit tie on. I left my laptop out of my backpack. I figured I'd look more like a businessman instead of an unemployed shmuck stranded in the country if I was walking around carrying a laptop. =)
Amanda and I took the shuttle to the airport, then proceeded to wait in the queue. The agents explained that it didn't look good for today. There had been seats available, but they had to bump 24 people involuntarily from the day before which filled up the empty seats of this day and then some. But we should come back in a couple of hours to see how it was looking. For the time being, however, they would not issue us a pass to get through security.
We made our way up to Gatwick Village to kill the time and visit our old haunts. It seemed like nothing had changed since our last visit, but then it was only a few days before we had spent the night there. And very likely would spend a second night.
At the allotted time, we strolled back to the ticket counter where one of the agents told us that there was one seat still available and we'd get on! We only needed one open seat for me since Amanda could ride on the jumpseat. They issued us tickets and warned the plane was already boarding so to get over there as quickly as possible. We checked our bags after the agent let us cut to the front of the line, then rushed to security where we waited for what seemed like forever to make it through. Then jogged across the airport to catch our flight, hoping it hadn't left without us.
I could run a bit faster than Amanda and did so, dashing between people and saying, "Pardon me! Pardon me!"as I pushed my way through. Just like you see in the movies. =)
When I got to the gate, I slowed down. It looked like there were hundreds of people milling around doing nothing. They hadn't even started to board the plane yet. All that running for nothing! *shaking head*
We milled around for five or so minutes, waiting for the plane to board. Then Amanda approached me with some bad news....
"They need your ticket back."
"Whaaa? You're joking!"
She wasn't joking. One of the first class passengers who had failed to check in had just been found. He lost his place in the first class cabin, but they had to take off the non-rev to make room for him. And, alas, that non-rev was me.
I sadly watched all the other passengers board the plane. So close! I even had a seat assignment! Curses! Foiled again! If only the plane had left on time, we could have gotten away before they found the missing first-class passenger.
They switched us to standby for the next flight out of the country—the same one Princess Lea had the confirmed seat on—but they warned us it didn't look very good for us getting on that flight either.
We wandered over to the other gate and proceeded to wait some more. Eventually Lea showed up and the three of us were back together once again. Though the way things were going, she'd be leaving without us and we'd be spending the night again at Gatwick Village.
The gate agents told us that the flight was full, but to hang out until after the plane had boarded so we could be escorted through customs and immigration once again. Alas, we had failed to get out of the country. It was disappointing, but not a great shock since we knew the chances of getting on were so slim from the very beginning.
Just as the last of the passengers were boarding—we already waved goodbye to Lea as she boarded—our names were announced on the loud speakers. We walked up to the gate agents who explained that a couple traveling together who were on the stand-by list ahead of us didn't want to get broken up and there was only one seat available. Thus, miracle of miracles, it was available for us! YES!!! The lucky Wallace and Gromit tie and walking around with a laptop/briefcase worked!
The last of the passengers had already boarded, and the gate agents frantically worked on printing out our boarding tickets and getting everything straight. She handed them to us and we ran down the jetway to our ride out of this country. We beat the odds! We were back on our way to America!
The flight was uneventful, and we landed in Philly without any trouble. Just before customs, where we pick up our checked bags to get them through customs, I couldn't help but notice that over half the bags had labels showing Orlando as their final destination. I know the gate agents told us that the kids in England were on Spring Break and all headed to Orlando, but I thought that was a figure of speech. Sure, some might go to Orlando. Others Fort Lauderdale. Perhaps some would be going to sunny California. But no, they really were all headed to Orlando.
In Philly we got some more bad news. The plane to Seattle was 10 people overbooked and there was a very real possibility we'd be spending the night in Philly. At least we were spending on the night on American soil, but we really, really, really wanted to get back to Seattle.
The Wallace and Gromit tie pulled us through once again, however. It was stormy and flights were delayed all over the place. In fact, the plane we wanted to Seattle was delayed. But enough people had missed connections that there was room for us to get on!
We took to the air again, this time heading to Seattle. Our trip was over. =)
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