Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Four-For-The-Price-of-One: Harrod's, Salisbury Plain, A Bit of Cardiff & Blarney

June 30, 2007

Nancy Bass will be pleased that I finally made it to Harrod's! But first. . . .

Today was the day Susan and I were scheduled to join the bus tour of England, Wales and Ireland. The bus doesn't actually leave until tomorrow, but people coming directly from the US for the tour will have flown overnight last night will have at least part of today to try to get over their jet lag before we load up at 8 tomorrow morning. So we had to leave the Springfield Hotel and journey about a mile and a half or two over to the Kensington Close Hotel. The Springfield was a few blocks north of the western side of Hyde Park. The Kensington Close is a few blocks south and west of the southwest corner of Kensington Gardens. Same general part of the London metropolis, and still in the city limits of Westminster.

The desk clerk at the Springfield told us which bus to ride over to the area we needed, and the bus driver who took us from Paddington bus stop over to the Kensington High Street stop did much to redeem the London bus company from the problems of yesterday. He actually answered questions and helped us know where to get off the bus. Three cheers!

We met with the Cosmos reception lady and were able to get a room that was already ready, even though it was only 10:45 or so. So we loaded our stuff up into the room and then headed off for the day's adventures. First stop: Harrod's.

Harrod's is the department store that occupies several floors in a big old building not too far south of Hyde Park and not far from the Wellington Monument. Along the way we passed by the Albert Memorial. Susan snapped some pictures from the south side of the street, but said she'd rather do her closer photography on the way back from Harrod's.

Harrod's is something. For one thing, it has an "Egyptian hall" (the owner, Mr. Fayyad [spelling?] is originally from Egypt). In the middle of the Egyptian hall are escalators, but all around them are Egyptian-style designs, mimicking the art and sculpture of ancient Egypt. Like Marks & Spencer, and unlike most American department stores, Harrod's has a grocery store within it: not just specialty chocolates and coffees and teas, like some department stores, but also a deli, a sushi selection, a wine selection, produce, and so forth. Occasionally you see a price that doesn't seem unreasonable, but many of the prices look awfully high by American standards. Of course this is true of Marks & Spencer, and Tesco, and Sainsbury as well.

And to be sure Harrod's has men's and women's clothing lines and all the ordinary departments one expects. Susan and I didn't spend much time looking there. We wandered through the garden department, with lots of nice-looking (and quite pricey) lawn furniture, and one thing that I thought was really sort of cool: packets of "instant gardening" which have soil, seeds and everything inside a sealed plastic bag. All you do is snip off the top of the bag and then water and give light to it and whatever is inside starts to grow--you don't even have to transfer it to a pot! They had chamomile, with instructions on the back for using the plant to make your own chamomile tea; organic dill; lavender; and so forth. Another yard/garden item I liked was a selection of pots for plants that were designed to look like giant-sized tea cups and saucers.

And of course we stopped by the Princess Diana and Dodi sculpture. Dodi was the son of the owner of Harrod's. The sculpture is labeled "Innocent Victims"--I don't know if Mr. Fayyad is suggesting that Princess Di and his son were murdered, or if he simply means that the media and paparazzi and all of the hoohah in some way victimized them. Here is a photo:

You will notice that this sculpture is also placed in the midst of an escalator bank.

After Harrod's we stopped into a little sandwich place for lunch. Susan had one of their sandwiches, and I had a can of tuna and another jacket potato. This cafe had more reasonable prices on their potatoes than yesterday's--meaning a baked potato with butter cost only 2 pounds 20 pence, instead of 3 or 4 pounds: closer to the price of Jason's Deli, though the potato wasn't nearly as large.

Did I mention it was raining? Of course it was raining.

Then we went into Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens so Susan could see the Diana Memorial Fountain and the Peter Pan statue. She took some pictures in both places, and I snapped a few more of the fountain, though none of them is really worth posting here, so I won't!

Then we swung back by the Albert Memorial on our way back to the hotel. Susan took some more shots, much closer up than before, and we watched some French (we think) Cub Scouts entertaining themselves by chunking a Superball as far as they could up the stairs toward the Memorial (you can't walk up the stairs--they are surrounded by a decorative rail fence) and then waiting for it to bounce back down from higher up, to see who could get hold of it first.

After a blitz through Marks & Spencer's food hall and a stop at the hotel, we went back out again. I went to Starbuck's to work on email and the Travel Log (and schedule a banking payment) and Susan went back to Kensington Gardens to take more photos. Earlier in the day she had been carrying only her digital camera, and she wanted to go back with real film for real photographs that she might be able to use in her photography courses in San Antonio. I was close to being finished with all my online work by the time she came back, so I tidied up and then we looked at a selection of his photos that Cary Phillips has posted on the Internet and Susan looked at some of her email--including the very good news that her district is giving their teachers raises of 5 or more percent this year!

We went to Caffe Uno, right down the street, for supper. Susan had grilled salmon and new potatoes, prepared Italianly, and I drank tea, in honor of my allergies. (My supper came later, from Marks & Spencer.) Our waitress asked us at one point if we were going to Royal Albert Hall after eating--she was curious about what the show was tonight. We told her that we weren't, and then the ladies at the table next to us (one of whom was giving me a headache with her perfume) told us that they were going to Royal Albert, that Andy Williams was performing tonight. They seemed quite excited about the show.

Oh, here's your only other photograph for the day, taken at some point as we walked along some street: this is a Morgan:



July 1, 2007

Did I mention it was raining?

We left the hotel this morning right about 8 a.m. on the Cosmos bus. First stop: Hampton Court Palace. Our guide Tricia told us that the Palace was first built by Cardinal Wolsey, chancellor to Henry VII and Henry VIII, as his home away from London and the bad air there because he had a lung problem. Wolsey and Henry VIII had a lot of conflicts, and at some point Wolsey "gave" Hampton Court to the king at the king's suggestion. Later Henry intended to have Wolsey executed, but the cardinal died before the execution could take place. By English standards at least, the word palace can only be used for a royal residence, so Hampton Court Palace wouldn't have been a palace when the cardinal lived here. Here's a shot at the center of the place:

The grounds cover almost 3 square miles and include gardens (in fact, preparations were in progress for a flower show to begin July 2) and a hedge-maze which, according to Tricia, is very difficult to find one's way out of. (She suggested it for parents who want to get a break from annoying children for a while.) Apparently the first queen Elizabeth liked Hampton Court quite a bit.

After leaving Hampton Court, we headed over to Stonehenge. It's in the countryside, off of a two-lane road, and is both fenced off and roped off. If you want to pay the entrance fee (11 pounds 25 pence) you can walk inside the fence and walk all the way around Stonehenge itself, but you still have to stay on the walkway and outside the stones. From outside the fence, we were able to get a pretty decent view of it, looking from the north toward the south, but didn't see the view from the south side.

It was of course cold, windy and wet. Though it wasn't mostly raining while we were there, it had been raining and the ground was drenched. Susan and I both snapped a number of photos, hoping they'd turn out decently, and then went back across the two-lane to the little kiosk outside the entrance for a cup of tea. (It wasn't a bad cup of tea either.)

As we drove away from Stonehenge, the guide pointed out a number of barrows on the hills. Barrows look like small hills or mounds nowadays, but they are actually the burial sites of ancient rulers/leaders, some of which have been excavated. Tricia said that the five counties closest to Stonehenge include 400 barrows, which would seem to be far too many for a relatively small area with a small population in the past. It's a puzzle the archaeologists haven't solved.

We went on to Salisbury (I reckon those steaks are named after it), which has a famous cathedral. The cathedral's spire is the highest in England, over 400 feet, and tilts almost 30 inches out of vertical. Sir Christopher Wren was able to stop the tilting by putting some kind of marble underneath it, but couldn't do anything about the tilting that had already happened. The cathedral itself is perfectly attractive to look at, and is quite large, but is nothing like the showcase of royal tombs that Westminster is or the artistic powerhouse of St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.

The other claim to fame of the cathedral is that it possesses one of the four copies of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was the document signed by much-un-beloved King John in 1215, guaranteeing certain rights to the barons whom he had been abusing. It's a very early and central document in the development of English (and hence American) democracy, even though it didn't really establish anything for the "regular" people. It's kept in a sealed case and (you guessed it) can't be photographed.

Did I mention it was raining?

As we walked to the cathedral after having lunch in the cafe at Marks & Spencer, we passed by a school with this historical plaque on the wall:

William Golding was the author of Lord of the Flies, which so many of us read in school at one point or another. Evidence that it was not an immediately popular book is given in the dates on this plaque. It was published in the early '50s (1951, I think), but Golding kept teaching at this school till 1962. Perhaps by then he could make his living by writing--I don't actually know. I do remember either reading or being told that it wasn't until the '60s that Lord of the Flies (like Lord of the Rings) really took off in popularity.

From Salisbury we went to Bath, a very attractive place along a river and stacked up on the hills above the river. It was a Roman town once upon a time, where there were (yep) baths, though the guide said that its look now and for the past couple of centuries is due to the interests and strictures of George III, so that the town has a very uniform and "thought-out" look, rather than a random assemblage of different time periods. Somewhere in town (at least according to the signs) there is a Jane Austen Centre, though Susan and I never found it. We felt like the signs kept sending us different directions, and then we ran out of town. I got my watch battery replaced at a watch shop, Susan bought Frankenstein in the bookstore, and we each had a scone from the packet I bought in Salisbury. (They were cream scones, which tasted very like buttermilk biscuits.)

Did I mention it was raining?

And then it was on to Cardiff, Wales, for our hotel for the night. We are staying a few miles outside the town center at the Park Inn. They fed us supper as part of our tour price (and even fixed up a batch of chicken breast and plain rice for me, when it was apparent I couldn't eat anything on the buffet except bread.) We met some of the folks on the tour, a mother and son from New York City (the trip is his graduation present) and another duo that we're not sure about: brother/sister or father/daughter?

I'm seeing cool stuff, but I'm really tired of being wet and light-headed.


July 2, 2007

There's not much to be said about today. We got on the bus in Cardiff, Wales, at 9 a.m., and we got off the bus at Tramore, Ireland, at 8:30 p.m. In between, we had an hour to explore Cardiff and 30 minutes at a fancy gas station to take a bathroom break and get a bit of lunch. Otherwise we were on the bus or the ferry, moving from Cardiff to Pembroke (where you catch the ferry), then on the ferry from Pembroke across the Irish Sea to Rosslare, then on the bus from Rosslare to Tramore. It was a long day. On the ferry we were able to get up and walk around and have a snack and sit in non-bus chairs, but otherwise it was just transport.

Cardiff is the Welsh capital, and Wales is a principality of the United Kingdom. Charles, the son of Queen Elizabeth II, is the Prince of Wales, of course, though his sons William and Harry bear that title as well. Wales has its own assembly, which passes laws for Wales itself--somewhat, I suppose, in the way that our states pass laws that don't deal with international relations and all of that. This dragon is on the top of the dome of the building where the Welsh assembly meets:

Not a bad national symbol at all, I reckon. (Can you tell it was raining?)

Not too far from the Welsh assembly building is the Welsh zoo, which has statues of animals on its outer wall, as though they are escaping. We didn't have time for going inside, but I snapped some photos of the escaping animals. This is the lion:

Otherwise Susan and I roamed around a bit, got some food at Marks & Spencer (where else?), and she also found some souvenir gifts at a small shop in the same shopping arcade where we found M&S.

On the long drive, we saw some beautiful green countryside, but the people certainly pay for it with incessant rain and chilly temperatures. We have been lucky to hit 70 degrees, and often it's been 10 degrees below that for the past week.

The ferry ride was fairly rough, and Susan and I both took sea-sickness medicine. I suspect that most of our bus companions spent much of the ferry time drowsing, as we both did.

Tonight when we got to the hotel, I skipped out on the dinner at the hotel, had some tuna and oatmeal in the room, and then took a walk around the town of Tramore. It's a resort town, with lots of bed & breakfast inns, and--right at the moment--a carnival. I walked up a hill or two, kind of around in circles, mostly just stretching my legs and enjoying the fact that, for the moment, there were actual patches of blue sky and no rain at the moment. Don't let anyone tell you that the British Isles sometimes have lovely weather--they don't. Today was my twelfth day (counting June 21 when I arrived about noon) here, and there have been only two days with no rain at all, and both of those days were mostly cloudy. If you have two hours of partly cloudy without rain, that's "lovely". And it is COLD.

Signing off!


July 3, 2007

I'm hoping that the rain will hold off enough this evening for me to get into town (in this case Killarney) to a little Internet cafe where I can connect for 15 minutes for 1 euro and get this sequence posted. Probably won't have time to do email. So if you're awaiting replies from me, you'll probably have to keep waiting till I return to England.

We actually got some sun this morning--it was quite wonderful to see, in among the clouds and rain. But don't worry that we got a lovely day or anything like that--we had plenty of rain, including the four o'clock shower that caught Susan and me on our stroll of the central business district of Killarney. We got a bit wet on the way back to the hotel.

Our first stop this morning was just a photo stop: this is called the Circle of Peace, and it's supposed to be good luck to take a photo through it (or look through it, or something like that). So maybe when I took the photo, that was looking through it too, and maybe now you can look through it, and we can all get some good luck. Good luck in the British Isles would consist of the rain stopping.

I think I also took this photo while at that stop: a look across to the morning sun (hidden by clouds) shining on the water.

Our first extended stop today was in Blarney, a little town just outside of Cork, Ireland. Blarney Castle is the home of the Blarney Stone which one is supposed to kiss in order to get the gift of the gab. I think I gab quite enough, and Susan wasn't dying to see the stone either, so we passed on it. You have to pay an 8 euro entrance fee, then climb a couple of hundred stairs, then lie on your back to kiss the stone. We wandered around a bit outside the grounds, looking at the sites, then went over to the Blarney Woolen Mills, which was the real purpose of the stop for most of the folks. It is a big store, which sells all sorts of Irish-related tourist items--sweatshirts, t-shirts, jewelry, CDs, and so forth--as well as food and woolen clothing and sort of department store stuff, and Waterford crystal. The guide says it's the best place to shop in Ireland because they will: 1] charge you in dollars if you want them to (so you don't have to worry about the exchange rate or paying your bank a foreign currency conversion fee); 2] deduct the "value added tax" from the price of your purchases (which means that you are not paying the tax EU citizens pay because you are going to take the item out of the EU, i.e. "export" it); and 3] ship it for you back to the US. They also enter you in a drawing, if you make a purchase, so that you might win another trip to Ireland.

Here's a sign-post showing the way to Blarney Castle:

We ate lunch here as well before moving on. Did I mention that it rained while we were here?

After another drive of about two hours, we got to Killarney where we are staying for the night. Before stopping in Killarney, though, we went up a bit into the hills where there used to be an old town, before Killarney was built, called Aghadoe (if I spelled it correctly). We stopped for folks to have an overview of the Killarney lakes and take photos, but I trotted back down the street a short way to take a few photos at a graveyard and ruined church. The grave photos didn't turn out well--I didn't have time to pick and choose--but this photo of the grounds, taken from the roadway, doesn't look too bad.

Then we went just a bit further down the road to a family-owned store called Macken of Ireland. The tour guide likes it primarily, I think, because they serve all their customers Irish coffee when they come in! It also sells jewelry, woolen clothing, and so forth, and some of our folks bought some more stuff there. From there back into Killarney itself. Some were set to take buggy rides in the city; some of us wanted to just walk around in the city; and some stayed on the bus to go straight to the hotel and rest a bit. Only the third group stayed dry. Susan and I got caught in the rain (as I mentioned above), and just a minute ago, going back down to the bus to pick up some items we'd left there (included my newly purchased bag of oatmeal!), the tour guide told us that the buggy riders got soaked. The buggies don't have roofs or awnings of any kind, and it rained quite hard for at least 10 or 15 minutes.

If you ever come to the British Isles, don't ever go anywhere without an umbrella!


DrTee said...

Coop, I have stayed at the Kensington Close. Did you see the charming little garden they had in the back?

If it's any consolation, it's raining all the time here too. I mean pouring, too. Our drought of many years is no more, and the lakes are at an all-time high, but the boaters can't boat because the floods have washed too much debris into the waterways. The really torrential rains come right about 5 pm, which is just when my class is getting out.

It's funny, though, in all the time I've spent in UK I haven't had that much rain.

DrTee said...

A bit of trivia regarding the Magna Carta: a copy of it is in the National Archives in D.C. on loan from H. Ross Perot. I'm not usually impressed by wealth, but I think owning the Magna Carta is pretty cool.

Sheila Ryan said...

Raul: Alek Lindus tells me that prospects are looking dim for your visiting her and Jack on Samos. Oh, my. I fear that you are wearing yourself to a frazzle through continual efforts to edify yourself whilst traveling. How 'bout you try and get stoopid just for a while (maybe after you've gotten together with Alan Garner)?