The Saga of Secret Book Begins!

It’s been a week since I returned from invading the U.K.  I finally took the British money out of my purse, but I left my Oyster card and tube map in it.  I’m not removing them.  Nope, not gonna do it.  You see, I’m planning to go back in April for a London meetup of my online community, so I will need these things.  Plus, I like to take them out and look at them from time to time; makes me feel less angsty about leaving.

I miss it.  :(

*sigh* I even miss the slow-ass District line….

*sigh* I even miss the slow-ass District line….

Photo:  Elizabeth West

I still hear the tube announcements in my head.  “The next station is…Turnham Green.  Change here for the District line train to Richmond.”  “The next station is…Earl’s Court.  Change for the Piccadilly line train to Cockfosters.”  (That will always and forever be funny.)

Just kidding; I’m sure it’s a lovely place.    

Just kidding; I’m sure it’s a lovely place.

Image:  Lillo Montalto Monella / thefirstpint.co.uk

Now that I’m back, I have three things to do:

  1. Continue working out to maintain weight loss caused by traipsing around Cardiff and London. In fact, ramp it up; I can’t walk outside much longer before it turns nasty.
  2. Work.  (The bills didn’t go on holiday, more’s the pity.)
  3. Finish Secret Book.

In fact, to finish it, I’m planning to use the NaNoWriMo concept again, just as I did with Tunerville.  I won’t formally join in, since I’ve already started it (and that is against the rules), but doing it got me through the book last time.  I’ve completely outlined Secret Book and I think what I have is workable, so there won’t be any plot deconstruction.

Just building…building…and more building. 

Just building…building…and more building.

Image:  Worakit Sirijinda/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As for the research, I can finish it later.  The main thing I want to do now is get the story down.  There will doubtless be tons of rewriting anyway, so it can wait.  I’d like to build in a few days for more scouting around in London anyway.

If I don’t post much, don’t be surprised–I might blog intermittently during this book, because it will take more concentration than Tunerville.  I had that one in my head so long that it just kind of fell out.  This one is different.

  • It’s more literary than the others.
  • It tackles some settings and time periods I know little about.
  • The timeline is longer.

I can’t talk about it yet, but bear with me.  You know I will, when the time is right.

Britain 2014–Home and Reflections

Photographs © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

After the Airport Saga From Hell, I’m home.

Someone had a medical emergency on the plane whilst we were boarding, and we left Heathrow an hour late.  By the time I got to Atlanta, went through Immigration (they have kiosks now; it’s brilliant.  So much easier.), collected my checked bag (WTF, they don’t even look at it again—why can’t it just go on through?  It’s already been accepted at Heathrow!), turned in the bag again, and ran to my gate, my connection was gone.  There were no other flights to my dinky airport on any other airline that night.

That’s what I get for living in Mayberry. 

That’s what I get for living in Mayberry.

Image: mayberry.wikia.com

Delta gave me a hotel voucher.  I had to drag my overstuffed carry-ons through Hartsfeld-Jackson Airport in search of the ground transportation and the hotel shuttle.  I was so tired of carrying my souvenir duffel and my shoulders were so screamingly painful that I ended up dragging it behind me on the floor like a dog on a leash.

Yeah, my bag didn’t want to go for a walk either.

Image:  timeout.com 

I finally found ground transport, and I spent the night at Country Inn.  The next morning, I got to the gate for the plane to my city.  We had to wait ten minutes for maintenance.  Then we boarded.  We sat there for fifteen minutes before the pilot came on the intercom:  “Folks, we’re having a mechanical issue and you’re all going to have to return to the terminal while we try to find another plane.”

Everybody groaned.

After another hour in the terminal, we re-boarded and took off.  FINALLY!  I figured my bag, which probably had gone on without me, might be lost, but I had to wait until I got to MyCity Airport to know for sure.  It turned out that they had held it back and it was on the plane with me.  One cab ride later and I was home.

Then I went to work for three hours.  Then I went home again and crashed.

Now here we are.  My hotly anticipated holiday is over, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  I debated somewhat whether to post this or not.  It almost sounds like I’m whinging (whining), but I suppose it’s valuable to remember that things aren’t always perfect.

Some of this I wrote before I left, and corrections are in brackets (parentheses).

Things that have changed since the last time I was in the U.K.:

  • The red phone booths. I saw two of them the day I went to BBC.  That was it.  I did see a black one, but I was afraid to step into it, in case it went down to Knockturn Alley.
  • Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a red post box either. Dammit!  (Correction:  I did see one in Kingston.)
  • The iconic sound of British sirens (warning: turn down sound before clicking). They sound like American ones now.  I only heard one like this.  How sad.  It doesn’t sound like London without them, just a city.
But some things still look the same. 

But some things still look the same.

Things I wish had been different:

  • I wish I’d met someone. I didn’t.  I wonder if I ever will.  Even traveling 4,000 miles from where I live, I can’t get it right.
  • I wish I had had more time. Or didn’t have to leave.
  • I wish I hadn’t started packing so early. I ended up OVER-packing and had to lug all that crap back.  It was tempting to donate all my clothes, including the gorgeous black dress I got at Macy’s and packed just in case and never wore, and just take back what I bought.  In the end, I left a few things behind to donate and some stuff my family member will ship to me.
  • I wish I’d gone out at night by myself. In the U.S., I’ve done it and either been shunned or harassed.  I just don’t do it anymore, and I dislike sitting by myself in a room full of people who are with their friends.

It might have been different—but it might not have.  Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t.  Nothing is worse than going out and sitting at the bar alone and feeling like a blowsy hag and getting hit on by fat old rummies.

Things I’ll especially remember:

  • The moment Welsh appeared on the signs when I approached Cardiff on the train.
  • How good Welsh cakes are, especially when you eat them in the deserted remains of a medieval abbey.
Really—just look at it. 

Really—just look at it.

  • Gazing down from the top deck of the bus.
  • The excitement of using your Oyster for the first time and knowing that you can go anywhere in London.
  • Smooshing up next to strangers on the tube at peak time–and everyone just does it.  Without even thinking about it.  Now you know why no one likes to make eye contact there.  No personal space equals an expansion of mental space.

It didn’t bother me to do this, nor did it bother me to share tables at crowded pubs and restaurants with strangers.  You just sit and eat your meal and don’t look at each other.  I’m so used to being ignored everywhere I go that London was absolutely no different.

  • How easy it was to assimilate.  At first, I found it amusing that people read the paper (an actual paper!) on the tube or the bus.  By the end of my holiday, I was swooping down on abandoned copies of the Metro and the Evening Standard on the carriage.

And the day I went to BBC, I got off the tube at Warren Street Station, looked at the sky, and got my brolly (umbrella) out of my purse automatically without even thinking about it.  Twenty seconds later, it rained.

  • Tying my scarf in a knot or doing the European loop to keep the wind from blowing it off me.
  • Wearing a scarf in the first place.  I don’t normally do that, though I will probably continue after this holiday, especially since I have a couple of new ones I really like.  (Yep; I’m wearing one of my Primark scarves right now.)

My online community is having a meetup in London in the spring, and I’m itching to go back.  Despite some disappointment, I can’t stay away.

Can you blame me?  Ah, London.  You’re silly, sophisticated, noisy, quiet, crowded, lonely, happy, melancholy, old, new, ugly, beautiful, backward, and progressive.  And I love you.

See you soon.

Pretty tree--Hammersmith, London

London, Final Day–Maids of Honour and Ham House

Photographs © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

12 October

My last day in the U.K.  *sob*

The family member with whom I have been staying and I spent our time in Richmond today, visiting some local landmarks.  I took a lot of pictures and I don’t have room for them all here, but I’ll try to show you some of the most interesting.

First, we went for brunch at The Original Maids of Honour on Kew Road, where they have been baking their little namesake cakes since Tudor times from a closely guarded recipe.  It is said that Henry VIII loved them so much he locked up the recipe.  He certainly looks as though he ate way too many of them.

The bakery / café. 

The bakery / café.

The maids of honour.  Damn, they were good.  Flaky pastry, with a little custardy center.   Om nom nom. 

The maids of honour.  Damn, they were good.  Flaky pastry, with a little custardy center.   Om nom nom.  (Those things in the cup are sugar cubes for the tea.)

Somebody is watching us eat and I think he’s hoping we toss one up at him. 

Somebody is watching us eat and I think he’s hoping we toss one up at him.

After we ate, we went up to Ham House, a fabulous example of seventeenth-century aristocratic life and architecture, on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond.  Home to the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, the house is one of the most haunted in Britain.

From the National Trust website, because I’m too lazy to type this out and I still have to pack:

This rare and atmospheric 17th-century house sits on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond. It is the creation of the tenacious Duchess of Lauderdale and her husband, the Duke, who together transformed Ham into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England.

Ham House is internationally recognised for its superb collection of paintings, furniture and textiles, largely acquired 400 years ago. Some of our unique objects include a rare Chinese teapot, said to have been used by the Duchess herself, and the exotic ivory cabinet. The house is reputed to be one of the most haunted in Britain. Some visitors have reported the ghostly aroma of the sweet Virginia pipe tobacco that the Duke smoked after meals in the dining room.

The house is a National Trust property, and I have a membership in the Royal Oak Foundation (Americans supporting the National Trust), so I got in free.  Sweet!  The guidebook cost me £4.50, however.  Oh well.

You walk through on your own, though there are volunteers here and there to tell you a bit more about some of the rooms.  Here’s a taste of this fabulous estate.  I apologize for the low light in many of the pictures–it was a very cloudy day, and they keep the curtains shut in many rooms to preserve the furnishings and artwork.

Ham House from the front.  Majestic, is it not? 

Ham House from the front.  Majestic, is it not?

The North Drawing Room.

The North Drawing Room.

The Marble Dining Room. 

The Marble Dining Room.

The Queen’s Bedchamber.

The Queen’s Bedchamber.

Portrait over the fireplace in the Queen’s Bedchamber.  Check out the creepy kid on the right.  Someone needs to keep an eye on him. 

Portrait over the fireplace in the Queen’s Bedchamber.  Check out the creepy kid on the right.  Someone needs to keep an eye on him.

Ham House from the rear.  Still majestic. 

Ham House from the rear.  Still majestic.

The Topiary!  Family member smelled the Duke’s pipe tobacco out here on a previous visit, and I thought I might have caught a whiff, but she told me about it beforehand, so it might have been my imagination. 

The Topiary!  Family member smelled the Duke’s pipe tobacco out here on a previous visit, and I thought I might have caught a whiff, but she told me about it beforehand, so it might have been my imagination.

Ham House from the Topiary.  I think I like this view best. 

Ham House from the Topiary.  I think I like this view best.

Below stairs was where the servants worked.  The National Trust has commemorated some of them, by putting their names and drawings of what they might have looked like on the walls of their workplace.  This was nice, because most of those people passed into complete obscurity, and as myself and another visitor agreed, they worked so very hard.

Mary Hobley, scullery maid. 

Mary Hobley, scullery maid.

Mrs.  Henderson, the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting, and Talbot, a page boy.

Mrs.  Henderson, the Duchess’s lady-in-waiting, and Talbot, a page boy.

William Averill, the butler.  It was through his scrutiny the food passed from the kitchen through the Buttery, before going into the dining room.  I’m sure he was very exacting. 

William Averill, the butler.  It was through his scrutiny the food passed from the kitchen through the Buttery, before going into the dining room.  I’m sure he was very exacting.

The kitchen was an exquisite example of the Stuart period.  The staff had produced coriander and aniseseed biscuits (cookies) from a seventeenth-century recipe, and they put out samples.  They were good.

I love this long table where they worked. 

I love this long table where they worked.

Here is a shot of the storage they used.  No kitchen cabinets back then–they stored everything right there on open shelves.  This would persist up through the Victorian era.

Dishes and implements.

Dishes and implements.

In the beer cellar, we were able to sample Moorish Ale in tiny pottery shot cups, an ale made from a 300-year-old recipe and available to buy in the gift shop.  It is like the ale the residents of Ham House would have drunk in their day.  I sampled it.  It was very nice, without that bitter aftertaste you notice with some brews.

Some flasks in the beer cellar.

Some flasks in the beer cellar.

Some beer barrels in the beer cellar (I’m sure these were fake, just for effect.)

Some beer barrels (casks?) in the beer cellar (I’m sure these were fake, just for effect.)

There was much more to see, and I heartily recommend a visit to Ham House if you’re in London and swing out toward Richmond.  It’s quite an interesting place.

I must leave you now, because I need to pack.  It’s time to figure out how to cram everything I purchased into my suitcase and the extra bag I brought, and weigh it, and see if I can ditch some things I brought and didn’t wear that don’t fit.  They can be donated to charity shops (thrift stores that benefit charities–I bought a scarf from an RSPCA one in Chepstow).

I’ll be back in a couple of days with a reflection post.  Until then, enjoy the pictures whilst I beg the Universe to let me come back sooner rather than later.  Good night.

London–Hampstead Heath and Keats House Poetry

Photographs © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

11 October

Today there were adventures of a different sort.  The District and London Overground tube lines were closed from Earl’s Court to Richmond Station, so I had to take a South West train from Kingston Station downtown.  You can use your Oyster on those trains, thanks to some intense negotiations in 2009 or 2010 (I cannot remember which).

South West Trains was apparently the last commuter service to get on board with Oysterizing itself so commuters from Greater London didn’t have to buy separate tickets to change over.  They look like regular trains, with the seats facing front and back, but then they have all the grab bars like the tube and you use Oyster to get to the platform, just like an Underground station.

 You still have to do this.  (Photo taken at Belsize Park Station in Hampstead)

You still have to do this.  (Photo taken at Belsize Park Station in Hampstead)

I took a train to Waterloo Station, and from there, hopped the Northern Line to Hampstead.  This is a very desirable neighborhood in North London, and one I probably won’t ever be able to afford, unless the gods decide to smile on me and stop kicking me in the arse.

My goal was threefold:

  • To visit Hampstead Heath (aka The Heath), a huge park that has been set aside since roughly 986.
  • To see Keats House (home of poet John Keats), and listen to a poetry reading there.
  • To walk around the neighborhood a bit, as a character in Secret Book might reside there.

I found the park with no problem, thanks to Google (I’ve given up on the London A-Z; it’s too hard to thumb through a book whilst standing on a street corner and it attracts too much attention.  It’s much easier to play with your phone, because everybody does that.

Behold--the entrance plaque to Hampstead Heath on Spaniard Road.

Behold–the entrance plaque to Hampstead Heath on Spaniard Road.

Here is a view of Central London from atop a hill in the Heath (it’s not the famous Parliament Hill view).

View of Central London from Hampstead Heath

That little pointy thing at the right of the space is the top of the Gherkin.  I love the Gherkin.  I look for it around town all the time.

This is the Gherkin, otherwise known as 30 St Mary Axe (the address) for you folks who don’t know.  It’s a large office building that resembles a gigantic pickle.

30_St_Mary_Axe_from_Leadenhall_Street

Image:  Aurielen Guichard / via Wikipedia.com

This road leads in from where the plaque is.  There are several ways in and out of the park. 

This road leads in from where the plaque is.  There are several ways in and out of the park.

I walked down this road and saw numerous paths leading in many directions.  It tempted me to wander as far as I could, but I had got a late start in the morning, and it took a good hour-and-a-half to get up there, and I didn’t want to miss the poetry reading.  So I wandered down to a little grove of trees.

I saw this about halfway there.  No clue what it was or is; perhaps storage for maintenance items.  Love the mossy roof.

I saw this about halfway there.  No clue what it was or is; perhaps storage for maintenance items.  Love the mossy roof.

Except for the paths, the park appears unmaintained, though I know it isn’t–the City of London cares for it.  So you get quite a lot of forest-y bits.

And ponds like this.  Some of them are for swimming (though it was too cold to do that today). 

And ponds like this.  Some of them are for swimming (though it was too cold to do that today).

Dotted about the area are benches with commemorative messages on them.  I don’t know who Tina Gamp was, but she loved the Heath.  I can’t fault her for that.  Bless her, I sat there thinking about how she might have enjoyed the same view.

A very nice place to rest your feet.

A very nice place to rest your feet.

You can’t hear much traffic within the park.  In fact, once you get to an area where there are few or no people, you barely know you are in a huge city at all.  Quiet dominates, except for the birds and the sound of wind rustling the trees.

Pretty view from Tina’s bench.

Pretty view from Tina’s bench.

This area smelled forest-y, damp, and woodsy.  Earth, leaves, and the musty scent of old wood from the big logs and fallen trees lying about.  I love that smell–I used to play in the woods as a child, near where I grew up.

After a sit, I got up and walked a bit further in and came to a playground.  It occurred to me that I should exit the park instead of trying to walk through it if I were going to make it to the poetry reading in time.  I consulted Google again, but it got wonky at that point, so I walked down the hill on East Heath Road NW3 until I found a circus (no, really).  A park ranger sat in a little Rover vehicle near the entrance, and I asked her how to get to the John Keats house.  She very kindly gave me directions.

Right next door to Keats House is a little library, and they were having a book sale today.  I peeked in but didn’t see anything I wanted.  That’s probably a good thing, since the empty duffel bag I brought with me will already be full.

Keats House, Hampstead, London

Keats House, Hampstead, London

Here the Romantic poet John Keats resided from 1818 to 1820, with his friend Charles Brown. He wrote some of his best-known poetry there.  The house is a well-restored Regency period home.  I was particularly taken with the kitchens downstairs (I did not take pictures, though I could have–I just didn’t feel like it, sorry).  You can read more about the poet’s time in the house, including his famous Ode to a Nightingale, at this link.

The reading I attended was not of Keats’s poetry, but that of Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet who wrote these immortal lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Find the rest of the poem here.

The reading commemorated the centenary of Thomas’s birth.  The Keats House Poetry Ambassadors group read several of Thomas’s best-known poems, and two selections from his play Under Milkwood.  I thought they did very well.  One of the most interesting things for me, listening, was hearing their varied accents and how they sounded with the poetry.

One of the readers said to a friend, “It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

After the reading and my tour had concluded, I walked down Haverstock Hill toward the shopping district and Belsize Park Station to catch the tube.  I didn’t know this, but it’s one of the few stations with a very deep air raid shelter under it.  To get to the platforms, you walk down this incredible spiral staircase.  At the top, they warn you with a sign:  This staircase has 219 steps. 

I walked down most of the way by myself, which actually creeped me out a little.  As you can see, the stairwell is more than a little Silent Hill.

Note to self:  don't think of Pyramid Head whilst traversing such places.  >_<

Note to self: don’t think of Pyramid Head whilst traversing such places. >_<

Down and down and down, until finally I could hear the trains rumbling underfoot, and I came out at the end.  I rode the Northern Line back to Waterloo and on to Kingston Station and home.  I wish I could have wandered round Hampstead a bit more, but I saw enough to convince me that it will work for my Secret Book purposes.  I’ll just have to come back if needed, heh heh.

Tomorrow is my last day.

Nooooooo!

Nooooooo!

We’ll be going to the Original Maids of Honour to partake of the little cakes so loved by Henry VIII, and on to Ham House in Richmond, where I can finally make use of my Royal Oak Foundation membership card (free admission, woo!).  It’s on the list of most haunted places in Britain, so I’ll be on the alert for ghostly phenomena.  Since nothing happened on the Llandaff Ghost Walk, I hope I’m not disappointed this time.

London–BBC Broadcasting House and Just Knocking Around

All photographs in this post © Elizabeth West, unless otherwise indicated

10 October

Boy do my feet hurt.  I keep forgetting how incredibly huge this city is.  You don’t think about it until you have to get off the tube/bus and walk somewhere.  Londoners must have legs of iron, feet of titanium, and really really good insoles.

Today, I toured the BBC Broadcasting House, the world headquarters of the BBC, and where they do the radio broadcasts and the news.  It was pretty cool.  BBC has been doing radio broadcasts since before World War II and television and internet soon followed.  The UK is still heavy on radio content, however–they have a long and loving history with it.

I arrived at this building at Portland Place, near Oxford Street.

Herp a derp, I just now realized I forgot to put this picture in here. -- 19 Oct.

Herp a derp, I just now realized I forgot to put this picture in here. — 19 Oct.

The older building on the left is what they call Old BBC, and the new one on the right is the new addition.  Recently, BBC moved house and broke up some of its services so they would have a presence in the north of the country.

When you go to the Media Café to meet for the tour, you are greeted by an old friend. 

When you go to the Media Café to meet for the tour, you are greeted by an old friend.

I asked the security guy, “Are you aware there is a Dalek in your building?” And without missing a beat, he answered, “Yes, we’ve been watching him all day.”  Ha!

Come on, Doctor, let me in!  I want to travel the universe with you! 

Come on, Doctor, let me in!  I want to travel the universe with you!

This studio is where they do live music and I think some comedy stuff.

This studio is where they do live music and I think some comedy stuff.

Here is a studio where they do radio dramas/comedies, like The Archers, a long-running show that I can only describe as an agricultural soap opera. 

Here is a studio where they do radio dramas/comedies, like The Archers, a long-running show that I can only describe as an agricultural soap opera.

Le Poete--The Poet tapestry, in Old BBC.  It was a gift from the French government in 1949 as a thank-you for BBC’s wartime coverage. 

Le Poete–The Poet tapestry, in Old BBC.  It was a gift from the French government in 1949 as a thank-you for BBC’s wartime coverage.

Across the street, you find The Langham Hotel, a five-star luxury accommodation I will probably never stay in (though you never know–the world is a magical place).  I can’t even imagine how much it costs to book a room here.

It’s a lovely building, even though I probably wouldn’t be allowed in the front door. 

It’s a lovely building, even though I probably wouldn’t be allowed in the front door.

The BBC headquarters is literally right around the corner and up the street from the tube station.  God, it’s great when I don’t have to walk miles to get to something.  I adore how people here say, “Oh, [thing] is just a short walk up that way–you’ll come right to it.”  UM NO.

I’m starting to understand why Londoners can’t be arsed to visit someone if they live more than a few tube stops away.  It takes FOREVER to get anywhere.  But I still love it here, partly because of stuff like the following.

I managed to cram several different things in that I wanted to see today, mainly because they weren’t that far apart.  I went to Gower Street, where University College Hospital and University College London are.  One of the founders of the college, philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, specified in his will that he be displayed after his death.

This is J.B.’s skeleton, dressed in his own clothing, with a wax mask of his face.  His head used to be between his feet, but now it’s in the college vault. 

This is J.B.’s skeleton, dressed in his own clothing, with a wax mask of his face.  His head used to be between his feet, but now it’s in the college vault.

The plaque above the display cabinet. 

The plaque above the display cabinet.

We learned about Bentham in my criminology and government classes in my second round of college.  He was a pretty cool guy–very liberal, and very ahead of his time.  But I first heard of him as a child, when I would devour every copy of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not books I could get my hands on.

Bentham’s remains are housed in the newer South Cloisters of University College, but right across the street, the old Octagon Building commands your attention.  I think it is the neatest, most crazy, Victorian-looking place I’ve ever seen, and I wish I could have run all over it.  I also wish I could have gone to school here.  Maybe in my next life…*sigh*

Lying in the shadow of the modern hospital, it looks like a relic from another age, and one that holds many secrets--and more than a few ghosts. 

Lying in the shadow of the modern hospital, it looks like a relic from another age, and one that holds many secrets–and more than a few ghosts.

Further down the street, I found this:

Recognize it, anyone?  :)

Recognize it, anyone?  :)

I concluded my day by visiting a floating bookstore called Word on the Water, housed in a barge that was at Paddington Station but at the moment is located outside Central St. Martins art school at King’s Cross.  They are applying for permanent tender at Paddington.  I hope they get it.  If they can’t, they might have to close.  And that would be a shame.

The book barge, Word on the Water.  Step inside (watch your head) and discover a nice selection of used books. 

The book barge, Word on the Water.  Step inside (watch your head) and discover a nice selection of used books.

An illustrated poem on the wall near where the barge is moored.  I liked this.

An illustrated poem on the wall near where the barge is moored.  I liked this.

And on the way home--a commemorative poppy in King’s Cross Station.  Everyone is marking the WWI centenary in their own ways.

And on the way home–a commemorative poppy in King’s Cross Station. Everyone is marking the WWI centenary in their own ways.

I’ve only got two days left before I have to go home.  I’m not looking forward to it.  A long, long flight, and then it’s back to work the next day.  My coworkers are probably thinking, “FINALLY!” but they’ll never know how much I will yearn to return.  Well, they might–because I’m not waiting so long to come back this time.  And if there’s a way to stay here, I’ll find it.

The Tower of London and A River of Blood

All photographs in this post © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

9 October

2014 marks one hundred years since the British involvement in World War I.  Historic Royal Palaces and the Tower of London are commemorating this with an art installation at the Tower, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.  Ceramic poppies will be placed in the Tower’s moat each day until 11 November, Armistice Day.

I went to Tower Hill today to see this poignant reminder of the cost of war.  As you exit the Tower Hill tube station, you go round the corner to your left and pass under a subway (pedestrian underpass) to reach the Tower.  The first sight of this leaves you awestruck.

Tower of London-poppies 3

Thousands of poppies, one for every British casualty of World War I, glow red in the sunshine.  They lap against the base of the tower like a bloody river.  The thought that there were enough casualties to fill the moat is a sobering one.  There were 888,246 of them.

Here is a Telegraph article about the installation.

Poppies spill from the Tower as though it were bleeding. 

Poppies spill from the Tower as though it were bleeding.

I didn’t go into the Tower, as I’d been there before the last time, and I had other things I wanted to do today.  But I wanted to see the poppies, and I promised my mum I’d get pictures of them.

After this, I got on the RV1 bus from Tower Gateway and went to the Fashion and Textile Museum on Bermondsey Street.  One thing about London–the streets are NOT laid out in a grid fashion as many American cities are, and it’s extremely easy to walk right by the road you want and not even see it.  Especially when it’s raining and blowing on you.

When you walk back from the museum under the bridge on Bermondsey Street, this is what you see.  Pretty neat, huh? 

When you walk back from the museum under the bridge on Bermondsey Street, this is what you see.  Pretty neat, huh?

The museum had a knitwear exhibition on right now.  Though it mainly showcased designer clothing that influenced the fashion, it was still easy to see where the trickle-down to the common closet came from.

As I walked through the 1970s part of the exhibit, I remembered some of the things I’d forgotten about what we wore back then.  Secret Book is set in the 1970s, so I took plenty of notes.  Now that I’ve done some actual research, if I sell it maybe I can write off this trip, ha ha.

A taste of the exhibit.  Though small, it was really interesting. 

A taste of the exhibit.  Though small, it was really interesting.

Image:  ftmlondon.org

After I saw the exhibit, I walked back through the rain and caught the bus back to Tower Gateway.  I stood in the subway for a moment to look something up on my map, and I heard thunder!  Just once–at first I heard a bus go over the roadway, but then it actually thundered.  London has had plenty of storms this summer, but I guess that caught everyone by surprise. For the last couple of days, it’s been raining on and off, but nothing growly until today.

My final stop for today was Forbidden Planet, a geek store on Shaftsbury Avenue near (okay, not so near) Leicester Square.  The Square is a tourist area packed with crap that you do not need.

Two of the most hilarious doormen at a nearby venue (they were seriously funny) gave me directions, but unfortunately, I went the wrong way and had to backtrack.  But on the way, I passed by Chinatown, which smelled absolutely terrific.  I was tempted to go down Wardour Street a short way, and I saw this:

There were spring rolls.  Om nom nom.

There were spring rolls. Om nom nom.

It smelled great, so I peeked in the window.  A number of Asian customers were inside, which in Chinatown would be a good sign, and a few tourist-looking ones.  I made a mental note of the location and walked back along the avenue until I found the shop.

Forbidden Planet is Nerdvana.  It’s full of all kinds of geek, nerd, gamer, comic lover, and fan gear of all persuasions–Star Wars, Doctor Who, Adventure Time, and more.  They have book signings all the time and ship all over the place.

This guy must like it too. 

This guy must like it too.

I bought some Doctor Who loot.  Clockwise from left:  a Tenth Doctor sonic screwdriver (it extends, according to Mike who works there), a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm Don’t Regenerate,” tiny Doctors in a pack, and a travel pass holder with Daleks on it.

Not pictured:  the Gryffindor travel pass holder I bought for my Oyster card.  Sadly, I only have a couple more days to use it, but I’ll save it for next time. 

Not pictured:  the Gryffindor travel pass holder I bought for my Oyster card.  Sadly, I only have a couple more days to use it, but I’ll save it for next time.

Before I went home, I retraced my steps to Chinatown and had a delicious dinner at Young Cheng Restaurant.  It’s a chain, apparently, but the food was good and the service was polite and fast.  It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a good, filling buffet and you can eat as much as you like.  For a tenner, I had a very decent dinner.  I think it would be a great place for lunch if you worked in the area.

Then I walked along the Chinatown street and bought a Korean pear at a small market.  I love those–they’re very crunchy and good.  I discovered them at the Japanese market in my city.

A cool giant lantern.  

A cool giant lantern.

A view down the Chinatown street.  

A view down the Chinatown street.

Tomorrow, I tour the BBC.  With any luck, I’ll have time to cram a pub or restaurant visit in afterward.  I still have a lot bookmarked on my London map.  There’s no telling what I’ll see and I may only have a few photo opportunities at the studio, but I’ll try to tell you as much as I can.

London – Shopping and Buses

8 October

Today was a shopping day.  I was on a mission.  I’ve lost a little weight, and the jeans I’ve been wearing are too loose.  Like falling-down-loose.

I’m not exactly skinny, but I finally felt comfortable enough recently to buy some skinny jeans/jeggings before I left.  Unfortunately, I’m a tall woman and clothing off the rack from most stores doesn’t fit me well.  So the jeggings fit, but they bag in the seat.  That kind of defeats the purpose of skinny trousers!  Not to mention, it’s not fun running for the bus and hiking up your britches at the same time.

There’s a store called Long Tall Sally from whom I ordered some black leggings.  They fit–in fact, they were too long because I had no clue what my inseam measurement was.  They have a store in London, on Chiltern Street north of Oxford Street.  So that’s where I went today.

First, I stopped at 187 Piccadilly, at Hatchards Bookshop, which I found on Buzzfeed just last night.  Founded in 1797, Hatchards is the oldest bookshop in London.  I’m sure its proximity to Fortnum and Mason (next door) has helped it, but it’s also one of the most lovely bookshops I’ve ever been in.

Green carpet, lots of wood, this beautiful old Chesterfield sofa, and spiral stairs.  I think I’ve found my new favorite bookstore in the world.

Green carpet, lots of wood, this beautiful old Chesterfield sofa, and spiral stairs.  I think I’ve found my new favorite bookstore in the world.

Image:  robchilver/Instagram.com via Buzzfeed

Next, I went to Fortnum and Mason, at 181 Piccadilly.  This department store has been there since 1707.  It has lovely china, food hampers, a food section, things for the home, and everything tea.  I wish someone would buy me one of the hampers for Christmas.  They are amazing.

It’s quite a posh store.  But they are nice–they don’t snoot at you.  If you dress up a bit when you go to places like this, you’ll feel like you fit in.

It's all about your attitude.  Also, don't break anything.

It’s all about your attitude. Also, don’t break anything.

Image:  fortnumandmason.london

I bought two tea cozies (a thing you put over the teapot to keep it hot), one for me and one for my mum.  I also got some Earl Grey in one of their beautiful signature tins.  In addition to that, I had some of the Earl Grey and scones in a very nice upstairs ice cream eatery called The Parlour.

Look at the cute little teapot.  The scones and clotted cream and jam were very good, too. 

Look at the cute little teapot.  The scones and clotted cream and jam were very good, too.

Photo:  Elizabeth West           

From Wikipedia:

Fortnum & Mason is famed for its loose-leaf tea and its world-renowned luxury picnic hampers, which the store first distributed to Victorian High Society for events such as the Henley Regatta and Ascot Races. These hampers – which contain luxury items such as Stilton cheese, champagne, quails’ eggs and smoked salmon – remain popular today, especially at Christmas time and can cost (as of 2008) from £35 to £25,000.

I wish someone would buy me one of those food hampers.  They are magnificent.

Speaking of post and quails’ eggs, while trying to find Long Tall Sally, I walked up Bond Street and past some of the most expensive stores in the universe.  Prada, Hermès, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and more.  One place had emeralds the size of quails’ eggs in the window.  I tried not to fog up the glass.

After walking for what seemed like forever, I found it!  An hour and an ungodly amount of money later, I had two black and one blue pairs of skinny jeans–THAT ACTUALLY FIT.  No more worrying about my trousers falling down, and I look good in them.

Also, a scarf.  I love this scarf. 

Also, a scarf.  I love this scarf.

Image:  longtallsally.com

It looked like rain (and it did, later), so I decided to go home for the evening even though there were things I still wanted to do.  Plus my feet were killing me from walking so much down Oxford Street.   Which, by the way, is a zoo.

I’ve talked about the tube and trains, so today I’ll talk about London buses.  They’re red, and many of them are double-decker.  It’s easy to ride them–you just touch your Oyster card on the button when you get on.  You don’t have to touch out like you do on the tube when you get off–it’s a flat rate.  Not only are they much cheaper than the tube, but if you sit up top, you can see a lot.

Like this--these are in Ham, at a private residence.  You can only see them from the top of the number 65 bus.  I tried to take a picture myself, but the bus goes too fast.

Like this–these are in Ham, at a private residence.  You can only see them from the top of the number 65 bus.  I tried to take a picture myself, but the bus goes too fast.

Image:  Matthew Rees / hamphotos.blogspot.co.uk

The bus announces what bus it is repeatedly, and there is a digital screen where the upcoming stops appear.  It’s quite modern.  If you know what stop you’re getting off at, when you see it or hear the announcement, just press the red Stop button on the pole and the bus will let you off there.

Some of the stops have red backgrounds on them and some have white:

Image:  Antalope / Wikipedia.com

At the white ones, the bus will usually stop automatically (if someone is waiting or presses the button), but at the red, you have to flag them down.  The drivers will sometimes stop anyway if they see you, but if you stand up and hold your arm out, you’ll guarantee it.  You don’t have to wave frantically, or hang it out there for an hour; just stand near the curb and raise it.  The driver will see you.

It’s not hard to figure out where the bus you need goes.  And you can always ask someone, or ask the drivers.  They’re used to questions.

Like the tube, the buses can get crowded at rush hour.  Both conveyances have priority seats for older or pregnant passengers, or people who have trouble standing.  At peak time, you have to play human Tetris as everyone tries to squeeze in.

It’s the best way to see London–up close and the way a Londoner would.  I’m desolate that my holiday is almost over.  I’m going to have to come back and just ride around for a week or so, seeing what I can and feeling my pulse sync with that of the city.  Going home is going to be hard.

London – The National Gallery and Westminster

All photographs © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

I told you I was a museum nerd, didn’t I?  I’ve been stalking Impressionists wherever I go.  Today, I spent time in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, in Westminster.  I was so proud of myself–I figured out which bus to get on from Vauxhall Station all by myself.

The square.  It’s full of people.  Probably because it was a nice day.

The square.  It’s full of people.  Probably because it was a nice day.

Artwork in the square--Hahn/Cock, by Katharina Fritsch. 

Artwork in the square–Hahn/Cock, by Katharina Fritsch.

Find out more about this work at this link.

Before I went to the Gallery, I ate lunch at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, at the Café in the Crypt.  It’s a café, in the church crypt (duh).  I found it on a TripAdvisor thread about cheap places to eat.  Well, the thread was a few years old, because it certainly wasn’t as economical as all that!

The café.  It really is under the church, right next to the gift shop.  A bit touristy, perhaps, but still sort of neat.  

The café.  It really is under the church, right next to the gift shop.  A bit touristy, perhaps, but still sort of neat.

My lunch--a cheddar and English pickle sandwich, leek and potato soup, and a Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola.  It was pretty good, actually. 

My lunch–a cheddar and English pickle sandwich, leek and potato soup, and a Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola.  It was pretty good, actually.

The National Gallery is one of the most important art museums in the world.  It houses hundreds of works, including some incredibly famous paintings.  You could spend days in here and not see everything.  I stayed in the painting galleries, and spent a lot of time in the Impressionist rooms.

National Gallery London

Image:  visitlondon.com

Here are some of the paintings I saw today.  These pictures I took–they let you do that, with certain restrictions.  I won’t post everything, because I think you should come here and see them for yourself.

Farms Near Auvers - Vincent Van Gogh.  This is like the one I saw in Cardiff. 

Farms Near Auvers – Vincent Van Gogh.  This is like the one I saw in Cardiff.

An Old Man Holding a Pilgrim-Bottle - Unknown Italian artist.  They don’t know who painted this, but they think it was created sometime in the 1650s.

An Old Man Holding a Pilgrim-Bottle – Unknown Italian artist.  They don’t know who painted this, but they think it was created sometime in the 1650s.

The Fighting Temeraire - Joseph Mallord William Turner.  There is a Turner exhibit at the Tate Britain, which I am debating going to, but it costs £15 to get in.  Kind of steep. 

The Fighting Temeraire – Joseph Mallord William Turner.  There is a Turner exhibit at the Tate Britain, which I am debating going to, but it costs £15 to get in.  Kind of steep.

The Virgin of the Rocks (sometimes called Madonna of the Rocks) - Leonardo da Vinci.  There are two of these--the other one hangs in the Louvre. 

The Virgin of the Rocks (sometimes called Madonna of the Rocks) – Leonardo da Vinci.  There are two of these–the other one hangs in the Louvre.

AAAAAAAND:

Sunflowers - Vincent Van Gogh.  This is the one I came to see!  :D  It did not disappoint. 

Sunflowers – Vincent Van Gogh.  This is the one I came to see!  :D  It did not disappoint.

———-

After I left the Gallery, I took a walk across Hungerford Bridge over the Thames and along the Embankment.  Clouds were hovering over the city, and I could see rain falling in the distance.  By the time I reached the other side of the River and got to the Aquarium, the wind had picked up.

Westminster Bridge.  You can see the cloud coming.

Westminster Bridge.  You can see the cloud coming.

It did rain, but only a little–the worst of the storm passed to the south, and the sun stayed out most of the time.  I only got a little wet.  But it doesn’t matter; I’m in London.  It rains here.  If millions of Londoners can deal with it, so can I.

The sun came out in force a bit later and Big Ben and Parliament lit up.  Here they are all shiny and smiling.

Parliament and Big Ben in the sun- London

Right after I took this picture, Big Ben chimed the 5:30 chime.  I didn’t get to hear that last time I came here, because they were working on Elizabeth Tower (where he lives–Big Ben is the bell).

I walked all the way to Vauxhall Station, but then I became stupid and got on the train going the wrong direction.  I had to get off at Stockwell and ended up getting on the Northern line instead of back on the Victoria going the other way.  I had to go to the Bank station to switch to the District line back to Richmond Station, making a big circle.

See how far this was on the tube map here.  (Hint: look at the bottom center and go up and around from the right, and then back left to the bottom.  I will definitely have to top up my Oyster tomorrow.)

I don’t mind too much, because if I had gotten on the right train, I would have been home sooner and missed a gorgeous rainbow out the train window.  I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of it–there were too many people on the train and I wasn’t on the correct side of the carriage.

Now I’m home and full of chili and basmati rice (they eat chili on rice here.  Seriously, it’s delicious.) and watching a hospital show on the telly.  I’m not sure what I’ll be doing tomorrow.  But I will let you know.

Before I go, I’ll give you one more Van Gogh I think you’ll enjoy.  It’s on loan from a private collector, to whom I am grateful for sharing it.  I bring you:

Two Crabs - Vincent Van Gogh

Two Crabs – Vincent Van Gogh

London: Walking around Hammersmith and Harry Potter Studio Tour

All photographs © Elizabeth West unless otherwise indicated

5 October

Sunday.  I don’t have much time left–baww!  We spent today with my step-cousin, who lives in Hammersmith (a London borough).  We took a lovely walk along the Thames to her son’s school, where they were having a car boot sale to raise money for the school.  It’s like a huge swap meet where people park their vehicles in and use them as booths.

Here is a funny sign above a pub tucked into an alley we passed on the way.

Here is a funny sign above a pub tucked into an alley we passed on the way.

The Dove has been here since the seventeenth century.  I’m a bit sorry we had a drink at a different pub.

Here’s a picture of the car boot sale.  I bought a pretty sparkly bracelet from a funny man who waved an American flag with 48 stars at me and tried to tell me the bracelet was real diamonds. I also got a cute purple plaid satchel for three pounds. I’m such a sucker for tote bags–it’s awful.

Car boot sale at Suzie's son's school

After we walked back, we went across the Hammersmith Bridge to see my cousin’s allotment.  These are community garden spaces you can apply for in the city.  You can grow things, if you don’t have a space of your own.  This site, though not London, explains how they work–you pay a bit of rent and keep up your bit of land.  My cousin grows lovely vegetables and flowers on hers.

What we had for lunch from the allotment.  That’s vegetarian lasagna, with spelt pasta and soy.  The flowers are nasturtiums--they are edible and kind of peppery, like watercress.  It was delicious. 

She’s also a fabulous cook. Some of this is from the allotment.  That’s vegetarian lasagna, with spelt pasta and soy.  The flowers are nasturtiums–they are edible and kind of peppery, like watercress.  It was delicious.

I think allotments are a splendid idea.  The English take their gardening rather seriously, and this is a fantastic way to have one if you don’t have any yard space.  It allows people to grow their own food as well.  And they foster a sense of community, as everyone gets to know everyone else.  That’s hard to do in a city the size of London sometimes.

We walked over Hammersmith Bridge to reach it.  It’s quite a pretty structure, though I have a phobia of high bridges over water and the trek across it was nerve-wracking for me.

Don’t look down…

Don’t look down…

It was a beautiful day, though a bit nippy in the shade.  The sun shone, runners and cyclists were everywhere, and many flowers were still blooming in private gardens along our route.

———-

6 October

HARRY POTTER STUDIO TOUR!

Okay, first, let me say this and get it out of the way.  This attraction at Warner Bros. Studios, which contains actual sets, props, and costumes from the Harry Potter films, is a HUGE tourist trap.  But if you are a Potternerd such as myself, it is worth every penny.

You catch a train from London Euston station to Watford Junction (about twenty minutes north), and a shuttle picks you up outside the station and takes you right to the attraction.  Both the train ticket and the shuttle are fairly cheap.

At rush hour, or just before, Euston is NOT this empty.  Trust me. 

Image: Sunil060902 / Wikimedia Commons

Today, the holiday gremlins were strong.  I got a late start catching the bus to the train station.  A small delay on the District tube line did not help matters, and by the time I had transferred twice to the Picadilly and Victoria lines, I had resigned myself to missing my train at Euston.

I tried to get another ticket for the next train or print mine and see if I could use them again (I could), but the machine wouldn’t cooperate.  The ticket agent told me to print them at Watford, so I did.  It was also raining today and cold.  Like see-your-breath cold.  I didn’t wear a scarf because I wanted to buy one at the attraction, so I nearly froze.

The items at the attraction are the actual ones used in the films.  You can take pictures.  And I did.  Here are some of them (I might get in trouble for posting them, so I’m going to only post a few.  If you want to see it and you’re going to be in London, go here to book tickets.  You must book in advance

Gryffindor costumes in the Great Hall.

Gryffindor costumes in the Great Hall.

Assorted small props that every Potternerd will recognize. 

Assorted small props that every Potternerd will recognize.

The gates of Hogwarts!

The gates of Hogwarts!

GASP!  No seriously, when I walked in and saw this large model, I actually gasped. 

GASP!  No seriously, when I walked in and saw this large model, I actually gasped.

Do your wizard shopping here.

Do your wizard shopping here.

After a hot dog the size of my arm (a sausage, really), some crisps, and a cold butterbeer (which tasted like cream soda with whipped cream in it–everyone was saying it was awful) about halfway through the tour, I hit the gift shop.  Everything in there is overpriced–seriously, £7.95 for a chocolate frog? Yeah it was huge, but still.  Okay, yes, I bought one!  And a Gryffindor scarf and some Hogwarts gloves, because still freezing.

Going back, I just managed to hit the edge of rush hour on the Underground–masses of people moving through narrow tiled corridors and down tight staircases, crammed close to strangers on the train, sitting next to them on the bus.  The reason people ignore everyone on the tube is because it’s weird to have them so close.  But that’s how public transport is, so you just have to deal with it.  I tend to stare at the tube map above the windows or at the floor.  I see a lot of interesting shoes that way.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try and get downtown and to a couple of art exhibits.  I had so much stuff on my itinerary and I’ve been so sidetracked I haven’t made it to any of them.  I need another week.  Wonder if my boss will mind?

Well, a girl can dream, I guess.  Come on, Bardarbunga.  Cough some ash up into the air and postpone my flight.

 

Scotland: Loch Ness, Inverness, Trains, and Tubes

Back from Scotland!

I’m sorry I didn’t post sooner–there was no internet on the train, nor was the internet at the station worth a crap, and I was too tired to even write the post.  I apologize for the length.

I began this leg of my journey at London’s Euston Station.  My train was the Caledonian Sleeper, which I discovered at The Man in Seat 61’s website (see link).  I collected my tickets at the station.

AAAAAALL ABOOOOOOAARRRD!  Okay, they don't really yell that.

AAAAAALL ABOOOOOOAARRRD! Okay, they don’t really yell that.

All photographs in this post © Elizabeth West 

A word about trains in the UK:

  • A train car is a carriage.  On the sleeper, your bed is a berth.  Your berth is located in a compartment.   A rail company employee is handy all night to help you if you need your door unlocked or if you have a problem.  He/she is known as an attendant.  He has a little office on the carriage so if you need him, just knock and he will help you.
  • When you get the ticket, you NEED to keep it until you are completely done with your trip. Why? Because you need it to both enter and exit the platform.  There is a little machine with a gate, not unlike the tube station barriers I remember from London in 1983.  You feed your ticket through the slot and it comes out the top and opens the gate.  Without it, you can’t get in or out.
  • Keep your ticket handy on trains where you are in a seat. They will come round and check your ticket.  If you get on a train without one, you can get fined.  Sometimes you can buy a ticket ON a train if you mess up.  But they want to see that you are holding a valid ticket.
  • You can buy a ticket online and collect it from a machine at the station. This is what I did for both Inverness and Cardiff.  All you need is the credit card you bought the ticket with and your confirmation number.  MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THAT CONFIRMATION NUMBER.

On the Caledonian Sleeper, if you are in standard class, you may use the first class lounge to sit and charge your device, buy a drink, or buy dinner and eat.

The First Class Lounge on the sleeper.  Only train in Britain with real leather sofas.

The First Class Lounge on the sleeper.  Only train in Britain with real leather sofas.

If it’s full of first-class passengers, however, you will have to go back to your compartment and wait until the lounge is less busy.  My advice–there is only the one lounge car, so get your butt up there as fast as possible if you want to eat.  You can purchase food to take back to your compartment if you like or if you’d rather not wait, but the to-go stuff is limited.

Tomato pasta dinner, Caledonian Sleeper

Eating on the train.  Tomato pasta and the bread was delicious.  Tennant’s lager.  The food is heated up, but it was pretty good.  Real cutlery, real dishes.  Sorry it’s blurry.

ScotRail is supposed to refurbish the sleeper.  They actually almost did away with it altogether, but there was a huge outcry because so many people used it to commute, and it was a sort of traditional thing.

The train doesn’t leave until eight or nine o’clock, so you’ll be tired by the time you get on.  The bed is okay; it’s just narrow.  You get two pillows and a thick duvet, and you can control the temperature in the compartment.  I was nice and warm.

The corridor is extremely narrow and the compartments tiny.  First class is just standard class with more frills and the extra berth (upper) folded up into the wall (single occupancy).  If you’re traveling standard class, you will be sharing with someone of the same sex.  They’ve been doing it this way for years with very little problem and you’ll probably be fine.  Or you can spring for first class –if you buy your ticket far enough in advance, you can save money.

Compartment on the sleeper.  The sink is beneath the counter top under the window. You lift it up and it does have hot and cold water.  You get a tiny plastic-wrapped towel and a little bitty soap.  Whee!

Compartment on the sleeper.  The sink is beneath the counter top under the window. You lift it up and it does have hot and cold water.  You get a tiny plastic-wrapped towel and a little bitty soap.  Whee!

WARNING!  The walls are very thin!  You can hear everything.  If you’re planning to shag your sweetie, good luck not bumping your head, and keep it silent.

Someone coughing kept me from sleeping the first night and I was freaking exhausted the next day.  The second night, I had the compartment to myself (yay!) because of a double booking, but my neighbor was playing a video and I could hear every word.  I knocked and politely asked him to turn it down, and he obliged.

———-

LOCH NESS

I met up with Inverness Tours at the station.  What I did was a share-a-tour deal, where someone purchases the tour and they sell off the unoccupied seats.  You then get to go on the tour without having to get a huge group of people together.  A very nice American couple had booked the tour–it was just the three of us.  Our guide was George Munro, who is a retired local and a delightful storyteller with a lovely Highland accent.  He was hilarious and we loved him.

A shot of Inverness.  This is the River Ness, which flows through Loch Dochfour and through Inverness.

A shot of Inverness. This is the River Ness, which flows out of Loch Ness, through Loch Dochfour, and through Inverness.

Here is a video I took of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle. I wanted you to see and hear the sound of the wind and the lapping of the water.  It’s an absolutely lovely place.

The wind is very strong there.  I had a scarf wound loosely round my neck, and when I went to the top of the castle citadel, I had to knot it because the wind actually unwound it and almost removed it!

Loch Ness is almost 24 miles long and contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.  At its deepest point, it is 875 feet down.  Sadly, expeditions found mostly fish and little plankton-type things.  There is not enough food there to support a large monster, and all the sightings are explainable by other means.  But Nessie or no Nessie, you can’t deny its beauty.

See?  :)

See? :)

The presentation at the Loch Ness Centre at Drumnadrochit (pronounced Drum na DROCH it, with the ch pronounced like in loch) acknowledged that the monster probably doesn’t exist.  It left enough ambiguity that you could choose to believe if you wanted to.

Nessie?  What’s happened to your pond, girl?  Driest September in history? Aww, well hump on back to the loch then, lassie. 

Nessie?  What’s happened to your pond, girl?  Driest September in history? Aww, well hump on back to the loch then, lassie.

Before we went to the Centre, we crawled all over Urquhart Castle.

I told you that next time you saw this, it would be a picture by me.  Here ya go! This is Urquhart Castle from the citadel with the loch in the background.

I told you that next time you saw this, it would be a picture by me.  Here ya go! This is Urquhart Castle from the citadel with the loch in the background.

A stronghold during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, the castle was partially blown up by the Clan Grant in 1692 to prevent the Jacobites from taking it over and it was never rebuilt.  In 1715, a storm caused further damage to Grant Tower.  The remains have been preserved and the castle’s ruins are now a huge tourist attraction.

I’ve wanted to see this place since I was a kid.  Despite the gimmicky atmosphere of a short, eight-minute historical documentary before we went to the castle, and a huge gift shop, it did not disappoint.  I loved walking around and reading the informational plaques. I climbed to the top of Grant Tower and only stayed long enough to take a couple of shots, because it too open and the wind too strong for me to feel comfortable with the height.

Shots of the castle:

Urquhart Castle--Grant Tower from a small grassy area. You can see the hole where Clan Grant blew up the tower to keep the Jacobites from taking it.

Urquhart Castle–Grant Tower from a small grassy area. You can see the hole where Clan Grant blew up the tower to keep the Jacobites from taking it.

 

Urquhart Castle--this is where the stables would have been, close to the gatehouse.

Urquhart Castle–this is where the stables would have been, close to the gatehouse.

 

The citadel at Urquhart.  This is Scottish weather--sunny in some shots,  cloudy and dark and rainy in others.

The citadel at Urquhart. This is Scottish weather–sunny in some shots, cloudy and dark and rainy in others.

On the way back, we stopped by the side of the road to get a shot of a house with some sheep in front of it and I broke off a sprig of heather.  I’m pressing it to keep; I hope I can get it home without it falling apart.

This house.  These sheep.  Right after this, it started pouring, though the sun kept shining. 

This house.  These sheep.  Right after this, it started pouring, though the sun kept shining.

Because I hadn’t slept well on the train going up, I was far too exhausted to explore much of Inverness after George dropped us off.  We went to Leakey’s Bookshop, a converted church on Church Street near the city centre.  Sadly, the café there had shut for good, but the bookstore was still open. I bought a cookery book full of historical photographs of Scottish people and full of traditional recipes.  I can hardly wait to try some of them–if I can find ingredients.

Haggis (the national dish of Scotland), neeps (swede turnips), and tatties (potatoes).  Haggis is very rich, very meaty and spicy.  It's not bad, if you forget what it's made of (sheep offal).

Haggis (the national dish of Scotland), neeps (swede turnips), and tatties (potatoes). Haggis is very rich, very meaty and spicy. It’s not bad, if you forget what it’s made of (sheep offal).

Coming back, I lucked out and though I got the same berth in the same compartment, I didn’t have to share this time.  I slept hard (with the aid of two glasses of wine, ha ha), on the way back to London.  In fact, I was still sleeping when the attendant knocked the next morning with my tea, only to tell me “We’ll be arriving in forty minutes.”  GAH!

Things it’s hard to do on a moving train:

  • Use the loo (again, much bigger than on airplanes, and you should see the first class train loo).  It’s hard to stand up without losing your balance if the train lurches.  Just be careful.
  • Get dressed.
  • Make a cup of tea.
  • Drink a cup of tea whilst getting dressed and packing at the same time.
  • Put on makeup–especially eyeliner.  I skipped it.
  • Walk.
  • Take pictures out the window.

Things to know about the tube:

  • Lots of stairs; no lifts (elevators) in many stations, though there are escalators in some.  So don’t overload your bags.
  • Most people just want to get where they’re going, but if you’re polite, they will answer a question or help you if needed.  I was trying to drag my borrowed roller bag up a particularly evil set of stairs at Paddington when coming back from Cardiff.  When I got nearly to the top, my bag suddenly levitated as a man behind assisted me up the last few steps.  He probably just wanted me out of his way, but I thanked him politely anyway.
  • People do talk, but mostly to each other, if they’re sitting with people they know (and on the phone sometimes). There are exceptions–I was at the head of a queue with some people and it suddenly shifted so the front was at the other end.  He joked to me, “Of course, now we’re at the END of the line!”  I said, “I know, right!”
  • On the London Underground, the ticket-operated gates have been replaced by automated barriers that you touch your Oyster card on. Just hold your card over the big yellow button until the light turns green and the gate will open.  Do it when you enter and when you leave to go up to the street.
  • Transport for London will put you on a bus (railway replacement service) if the tube is shut for some reason. I had to do this today–they were doing engineering work on the District line from Turnham Green to Richmond Station, where I had to pick up the bus.  They don’t charge extra for this service either.  I asked the underground attendant who was in charge if we had to use Oyster for the replacement bus, and he said no.  Thank you, TfL!  The bus stops as close to where the affected tube stations are as possible.

I shouldn’t have any problem with the buses, either, though I didn’t ride them last time.  They’re practically idiot-proof now, with stop announcements and Oyster on them as well.  All you have to do is know what your stop is.

It’s almost time for a lovely dinner, so I’ll go now.  Tomorrow, I’ll be visiting with my step-cousin and we’re going to a car boot sale (garage sale) for her kid’s school.  On Monday:

HARRY POTTER STUDIOS!!!

Back to the insanity that is Euston Station!