Friday, August 19, 2011

London: Westminster Abbey

And so it finally came to the last week of my journey. I chose to spend it in London as I hadn't really spent much time there. I found a cheapish hotel across the road from King's Cross tube station and parked myself there for the week. It's not the most upmarket area but you get what you pay for I suppose. The 91 bus stops right outside and goes in to Trafalgar Square so getting around was easy enough. I preferred to take the bus rather than the tube because I like to see where I'm going. The downside to the buses is, however, that they can get stuck in traffic.

Double decker

Anyway....being a tourist in London is easy because there's so much to see.
I started with Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey

No photography allowed inside unfortunately. That's a shame because the abbey is full of interesting bits and pieces. There are 17 monarchs buried there for a start. It's actually very cluttered inside I thought: tombs and memorials everywhere. There was one large tomb, I don't know whose though, which featured an effigy of the person on a kind of four poster bed with the whole thing being carried on the shoulders of four (or possibly six) life-sized kneeling men. They appeared to be carrying whoever it was right into a wall. There aren't just kings and queens buried there: Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Handel, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Tennyson, Laurence Olivier plus a whole host of politicians, military men, writers, etc. Poet's Corner has many memorials to poets and other writers, such as Shakespeare; all along the walls and on the floor of that particular area. They're not all buried there but it's become tradition to place a memorial in the abbey. The Shrine of Edward the Confessor (died 1066 and the first monarch to be buried in the abbey) was closed off due to its fragile condition. I felt a bit sorry for Anne of Cleves: amidst all the pomp and finery of other tombs and memorials she just has her name inscribed, very plainly, on a small section of a wall down near floor level. The whole thing is about the size of the front (or back) of her coffin which, presumably, is in the wall itself. Poor girl.
I managed to surreptitiously snap a few pics inside but they're all at wonky angles with even wonkier focus. This is probably the best of them but it doesn't really show what the abbey is really like.

Westminster Abbey

I had a chat with one of the abbey officials on duty about why photography is not allowed. He told me it was down to a decision taken by the Dean and Chapter but couldn't give me their reasons. I told him I thought it was a selfish decision, wanting to keep it all for themselves. It's all about the money really - buy the postcards! This is on top of Westminster Abbey being the most expensive church in the country to enter: 16 pounds a pop if you don't mind. (I had a London Pass so didn't actually have to hand over any cash at the door, but that's by the by.)

The cloisters are similarly lined with memorials. I particularly noticed Halley's with the words spread out to the side like a comet's wavy tail. There was another chapel further on with a photographic display of William and Kate's wedding. I was more interested in the medieval frescoes on the walls - most of them had their lower halves worn away from people sitting against them. Clearly no-one, back in the day, thought to protect them for future viewers. Hindsight's a wonderful thing.

All in all though, the Abbey is a fascinating place, full of history. If you stopped and looked at every little thing you could be there all day.

I have more observations on London so stay tuned.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011

Liver building light show

Created by Macula. My first try at making a video with the Canon. Turned out okay I think...

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The journey is finally coming to an end. I leave Liverpool on August 4th, stay in London for the week then fly out to Melbourne on the 10th. Arrive on the 12th - damn international date line!
Mixed feelings at the moment. There's so much I still haven't seen, especially in Europe. But... when sightseeing becomes a bit of a chore it's probably time to go home. Jaded is me I think. Also jaded is the bank balance - another reason to call it quits.

I had a call from today. You might remember a recent post, from Scotland, about the hotel from hell: the Stewart Hotel. I wrote to Expedia saying I thought they should remove the hotel from their listings because of the atrocious service, etc. They asked for details so I gave them. I've received a few emails since telling me they're still investigating the complaint. I thought they were just generic emails and thought nothing of it. Today they called me personally. They've been trying, all this time, to get some co-operation from the hotel manager but have had no joy. Calls not returned, obfuscation on the few occasions he actually spoke to them, etc. The Expedia guy was totally sympathetic to my case. He'd read TripAdvisor and had got a good overall picture of the hotel. The manager, apparently, is trying to get all the bad reviews removed - hahaha, that'd be 95% of all their reviews. Anyway, the guy said the matter was being bumped upstairs to managerial level.
An hour or so later he rang me back. Management had agreed to remove the hotel from their listings and, even better, refund me 50% of what I'd paid for my stay there. I wasn't expecting any sort of refund, hadn't asked for one; I just wanted the listing removed so other travellers weren't tempted to book the place.
An unexpected but very pleasant bonus :)

This weekend, 22nd-24th July, is the centenary of the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool. I'm off into town tomorrow, weather permitting, with camera to record some of the celebrations. Should be fun.


Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


From Cambridge I headed to Bath. The whole City of Bath is a World Heritage site and much of the surrounding countryside is owned by the National Trust. I didn't know that until I took the open top bus tour.
There are two bus tours: the Skyline and The City tours. I took both while I was there. The Skyline skirts around the city and goes up into the hills around it. It's supposed to give good views of the town but the damn trees get in the way. The City tour is better value as it gives you a good look at the main parts of the old town.
Bath is built in a big bowl, I think maybe it's an old volcano. The hot springs are what attracted people there of course. Back in the day people would go to Bath to "take the waters" for their health.
The first thing I noticed about Bath is the architecture.

Georgian houses

Pretty much everything is built from Bath limestone in the Georgian style. A guy called Ralph Allen pioneered the use of this stone and made a fortune in the process. It's soft as cheese before it's cured so is easy to quarry. It's very porous though. I was told that it costs an average of 10 to 15 thousand pounds to clean the outside of just one house. The dirt has to be sprayed lightly so that the water penetrates only the dirt and not the stone. Then sprayed again and again until the dirt can be taken off without damaging the stone. At that price I was surprised that the place looks quite clean!
Even though Bath has been settled since pre-Roman times, the architecture is almost exclusively Georgian (circa 1700s). Gets a bit samey after a while. In 1704 Beau Nash was made Master of Ceremonies in Bath and turned the place from a small spa town into England's most fashionable place to be and to be seen.
The oldest house still standing in Bath is the Sally Lunn tea room which dates back to 1482.

Sally Lunn's

Sally Lunn was a French refugee who started a bakery there in 1680 and became famous for her buns. They're still made there to the original recipe. I stopped in for lunch. The buns are basically oversized bread rolls with a little bit of a croissanty texture. Not bad.

The Avon River runs through the city, but it's not the same Avon that runs through Stratford. There are several Avons in England apparently. The Romans, so the story goes, would ask the locals what their river was called and were told "the avon", so that became the river's name. Turns out that "avon" is the old Celtic word for "river". River River.

The Pulteney Bridge spans the river in the centre of town.

Pulteney Bridge

It's one of four bridges in the world that is lined with shops.

Pulteney Bridge

Two of the others are the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Rialto in Venice, both of which I've seen. Damned if I can find out what/where the fourth one is though.

There's a weir just below the bridge and another one a few miles up river at the village of Bathampton. I took the boat cruise which wanders from one weir to the other and back. Just for a change the sun was shining which made it a very pleasant hour's journey. There were lots of people punting and canoeing along the river too.

Sometimes you have to use the paddle

This guy had lost his punt pole - it got stuck in the mud. Raised a few chortles from us on the big boat :)

The bridge at Bathampton is now a main thoroughfare but is privately owned by a local family who've had it for centuries. Due to a medieval Royal Charter they have the right to charge tolls to cross the bridge but don't have to pay tax on the earnings. We were told that an average of 4,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily, all paying a tax-free toll. Nice little earner!

Bathampton bridge

Much of central Bath is pedestrian only zones. There are more than enough shops and plenty of other stuff to look at.
The Abbey dominates the city skyline. It was quite badly damaged in WW2 but has been extensively restored.


It's lovely inside; very Gothic and great stained glass.

Bath Abbey

Of course, no trip to Bath would be complete without a visit to the Roman Baths complex.

Back in my day.....

The Baths were, obviously, built by the Romans. An inscription on a stone pedestal has been found from 76AD so they've been there at least since then. Only two of the baths in the complex still have water in them. The large open air bath, in the photo, is the main one. The circular cold plunge pool is also still wet. The other baths in the complex are pretty much archaeological dig sites. The Sacred Spring has water of course. This is the source of the bath water. It comes out of the ground at an average temperature of 46C and only ever varies by one or two degrees.

Sacred Spring

There's an overflow stream from this spring and you can see the steam rising from the heat of the water. The whole complex is quite amazing to wander through. The Romans really were impressive engineers. It's easy to imagine the place full of Romans; bathing, gossiping, doing deals, etc. Now, of course, it's all just a tourist attraction. In July and August the complex is open in the evenings and lit with torches. I was a week too early for that spectacle.

While in Bath I did a day trip across to Cheddar Gorge. It's the home of Cheddar cheese. The town is at the bottom of a large gorge with massive cliffs rising either side. If I hadn't just come back from the Scottish Highlands I probably would have been more impressed. The town itself is very pretty, despite the rain. I bought some cheese of course. Absolutely yummy! I also ventured into Gough's Cave. This is where they found Cheddar Man.

Cheddar Man

He's Britain's oldest complete skeleton, dating back to 7150BC.

The cave is nothing special at first, unless you like limestone. But inside is the most wonderful little rock pool in its own little cave.

Another world

The water is so crystal clear. Amazing. It took ages to get this photo - water kept dripping into the pool, sending out gentle ripples which, though lovely to watch, spoilt the perfect reflections.

From Bath I headed back to Liverpool with one day to spare. The car I've been using has run out of road tax, as of July 1st, so can't be used anymore. I'm not going to pay for another year's tax and insurance as it's horrendously expensive. So my days of touring the UK as I please have come to an end. It's just about time to go home I think. I'll spend some time in London, maybe do a day trip or two by train across to Bruges and places like that. Then I'll be ready to go home.

Bath abbey


Friday, July 1, 2011


Cambridge is a lovely town. It's dominated, of course, by the University and its many colleges. The architecture of most of them is superb. Sadly they were all closed when I got there - end of year celebrations following end of year exams. You'd think, after all this time I'd be better at doing some research before I go anywhere. But no, I'm still blundering about in a fog of my own making. However, most places opened up again while I was still there so it turned out alright in the end.
I stayed in a pub in Barton, a few miles out of Cambridge and took the Park & Ride bus into town each day. Cambridge is not a car friendly town - narrow streets, pedestrian only zones and horrendously expensive parking. Most people, sensibly, ride bikes.

I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like

Have I mentioned Park & Ride before? It's a wonderful invention found in most English towns and cities. You park you car at the P&R and catch the bus into the town centre, and then back to your car at the end of the day. In Cambridge it cost me 2 pounds 40 for all-day parking and 2 bus rides; some places are cheaper, some charge a bit more. To park in Cambridge itself for a day costs 22 pounds. No brainer.

The first thing I did in Cambridge was take a punt ride along the River Cam. The trip goes from the Magdalene (pronounced Maudlin for some reason) Bridge at Quayside to the Mill Pond and back. It passes through the part of the river known as "The Backs" as it runs past the back of many of the colleges. It's the only way to see this part of town, if you're not part of the University, as the riverside land is all privately owned, by the colleges, and not accessible to the public. The same goes for many of the bridges that span the river along here - college property.
One such bridge is Cambridge's version of the Bridge of Sighs.

Bridge on the River Cam

This bridge, built in 1831, is part of St John's College and is supposed to be modelled on the original in Venice.
The oldest bridge is the Clare College Bridge. It dates back to 1639. Older bridges were all destroyed during the English Civil War. Silly men.
You get good views of the colleges from the river, although the temporary fencing and huge marquees set up for the college balls spoilt it a bit. I think the fencing was to stop drunken students falling in the river.
The best view is of King's College Chapel - a really imposing structure whether seen from the river or from town.

King's College Chapel

The punt trip goes as far as the Mill Pond where you'll find the Anchor pub.

Remember when you were young...

This was a regular haunt of Syd Barrett. Both Syd and Dave Gilmour were/are Cambridge natives. I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd on the iPod while I was in Cambridge and still can't think of the town without Shine On You Crazy Diamond running through my head.

I'm glad I took the punt trip when I did because for the rest of my time in Cambridge it, naturally, rained. Fortunately, by the second day, the colleges had started to reopen so I was able to do some indoor sightseeing. The colleges are not just university buildings but also provide student housing - probably only Oxford can compete for such impressive student digs!
The two big colleges are King's and St John's. They're huge and the competition/rivalry between them is apparently fierce. From a purely architectural point of view, King's wins hands down for me. It was founded in 1441 by Henry VI but the Chapel wasn't completed until during the reign of Henry VIII.

Chapel organ, King's College

Another of the big colleges is Queens' College: founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (the Queen of Henry VI), and refounded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville (the Queen of Edward IV). Hence Queens', not Queen's. Two of its notable students are Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry. Appropriately.

Apart from the University and colleges, there are plenty of other things to see in Cambridge. The pedestrian zones make it a pleasant place to wander around, although you do need to watch out for the bikes! There's a large open air market in one of the squares - everything from fruit and veg to tourist trash on offer. Plenty of shops too. I noticed lots of high-end clothing shops and tailors. I don't think there's any shortage of money in this town. I doubt I've ever seen such well-dressed students anywhere.

The Round Church is an interesting little structure.

The Round Church

It dates back to the mid 1100s, built by the Normans. Inside is a series of poster boards outlining the history of Cambridge: it's an old town with settlements recorded back to pre-Roman times.
There are some really nice, spacious parklands to wander through: Midsummer Common, Jesus Common are two that I strolled around. There was the Midsummer Fair set up in Midsummer Common so I went and had a look. I'd hoped there'd be market stalls and such like but it was mostly just rides. A proper old time fairground. I was too early though and nothing was open - it all takes off in the afternoons.

Crazy Fun House

Still, it was all very colourful and a bit olde worlde. There were even some traditional travelling vans which were cute.

Travelling wagons

There's a nice path along Jesus Common that wanders along the riverside but that was blocked off at one point.

Road closed

A body had been found in the river that morning. Local news reported that the death was suspicious and two teenagers had been taken in for questioning. Not a particularly nice way to end my sojourn in Cambridge!

On the way back to Barton one day I took a detour to Grantchester, another little village just outside Cambridge. Thatched cottages and cute pubs!

The Red Lion

Behind the Red Lion is Grantchester Meadows about which Pink Floyd sang on the Ummagumma album.

Grantchester Meadows

Beautiful little spot.

All in all, despite the murder and the rain, I enjoyed Cambridge. It's a very picturesque town.

King's College Bridge


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Scotland #3: Western Highlands

Fort William is a major tourist centre due to its location and was quite crowded as a result. The main street is a pedestrian only zone so it's quite pleasant to wander along. Plenty of shops (particularly for the outdoor adventurous types), pubs and cafes. It's also the gateway to the western Highlands with Ben Nevis close by, the lochs and the coast not far away.It's also at the other end, to Inverness, of the Caledonian Canal. Neptune's Staircase, just out of town, is a series of 8 locks which lift canal traffic 20 metres up, if they're heading north. 20 metres down if they've come from Inverness.
One of the first things I did was take a ride on the Hogwarts Express.

Hogwarts Express

The Jacobite steam train (which is the Hogwarts Express) runs from Fort William to Mallaig, on the east coast. From Mallaig you can take the ferry to Skye. The train journey takes you past some wonderful scenery as it trundles along the coast, through the mountains, alongside lochs. Unfortunately the windows don't open so photos have to be taken through glass.

Over, under, sideways, down

It also crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct which fans of the Harry Potter films should recognise.

Glenfinnian Viaduct

The viaduct was built at the end of the 1800s: opened 1901 I think. It's made of unreinforced concrete and has 21 arches. It looks impressive as it marches across the valley.

Mallaig is a pretty little harbour town. You get about an hour to wander around before the train returns to Fort William. I watched some fishermen unloading their boat - boxes and boxes of ice-packed goodies.
Just on that, Scotland has great seafood. The salmon is the best I've had anywhere and the shellfish are huge and plentiful. Not cheap though.

Glenfinnan is an interesting place. It's where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in 1745 in his failed attempt to restore the Jacobite monarchy.

The Prince's Cairn

As well as the viaduct, there's an impressive monument to the Highlanders who helped him. The village is tiny but it gets a lot of visitors. It's in a lovely place too, right on the edge of Loch Sheil.

Glenfinnan Monument

I decided I'd better do the trip across to Skye. There are two ways to get there: the ferry from Mallaig and the road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh. I chose to take the ferry as it's closer to where I was staying. I think if you really want to see Skye you need to be prepared to shell out big bucks for a hotel and actually stay on the island. The ferry lands at the south end of Skye and I had about 6 hours before it sailed back to the mainland. That gave me just enough time to drive to Portree, the island's main town, have something to eat and drive back to the ferry. Consequently, I didn't see any of the northern half of the island where all the really spectacular scenery is. Still, I did see some very pretty coastline areas.


And lots of sheep.


I decided to try the drive to Kyle of Lochalsh and maybe take the bridge across the Skye and see some more of the island. Haha, eight hours later and I made it as far as Dornie (maybe 20 or so miles from Kyle) before I turned back. It's a spectacular drive through the Highlands though. It took me that long because I kept stopping to take in the views.


At Dornie is the castle of Eilean Donan.

Eilean Donan Castle

I think this castle features on every second postcard you see in Scotland. Sadly the tide was out so I couldn't get the classic "castle reflected in the water" shot. It was closed by the time I got there but the gates where still open so I was able to wander around the outside. When the tide's in the castle is cut off from the mainland and is accessible only via a stone footbridge. The bridge is a later construction as the original one was destroyed. The castle itself dates back to the 13th century and was originally built as a defence against Viking raiders. It then became a clan stronghold (Clan Macrae I think) and has been subjected to many attacks as a result. It's been much restored over the years. One of its claims to fame is the left-handed spiral staircase: which I didn't see as it was closed. Just about every other spiral staircase anywhere is right-handed to leave the sword arm free for swinging.

After the Highlands I wandered down to the Loch Lomond area. This is the biggest, by surface area, body of fresh water in the UK. I stayed about 20 minutes outside of Glasgow and wandered in to check it out. It's just a city, nothing special. However, it wasn't as dark, gloomy and dangerous as I was expecting. I heard a story about how fanatical the people are about their football teams that's worth sharing I think. Glasgow is dominated by 2 teams: Rangers (who play in blue) and Celtic (green). There's also an UK supermarket chain, Asda, which also has a green livery. Apparently Asda wanted to open a store in a rabid Rangers area. No go unless the store changed its colour. I don't know what the end result was but it just goes to show how fanatical people can be about their football.
Also, the Glaswegian accent is practically indecipherable.

I took a cruise on Loch Lomond. It's very pretty but, after the Highland lochs, was somehow a bit too manicured and 'safe'. The weather, surprise surprise, was atrocious. It started off sunny, then we were subjected to heavy rain and hail. Thunder and lightning too. Then sunshine again. Nevertheless it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon watching the loch slide by.

Loch Lomond

There are numerous stately homes along the loch shores: most are now luxury hotels or golf clubs.

Loch Lomond Golf Club

This one is Rossdhu House, formerly the seat of Clan Colquhoun; now the Loch Lomond Golf Club.

Then I drove back to Liverpool.

Scotland is a fascinating place. It's not somewhere you'd go for the weather though, unless you like clouds, rain, wind and chill. I saw lots of walkers and touring cyclists, especially in the Highlands. It might be healthy and make them feel very self-righteous, but it can't be fun being constantly cold and wet.
The food is excellent, especially if you like seafood. I had a seafood platter in a restaurant in Kinlochleven (near Fort William) that had to be seen to be believed: half a lobster, half a crab, 6 huge langoustines (like big prawns or even yabbies) and dozens (literally dozens) of mussels and clams. I couldn't finish it by a long shot. I tried haggis but only managed a couple of mouthfuls. The taste was okay but the texture, and the thought of what was in it, defeated me.
If you're going to Scotland you must get to the Highlands. Magnificent scenery everywhere you look.

Loch Shiel