Random Acts of Tourism

Friday, July 31, 2009

Astute GSRED Twitter followers may have noticed a certain ennui in some of my tweets recently. In truth, I've been having trouble finding my stride since I left Scotland. Maybe I've been making poor choices about where to go and what to do. Maybe I'm expecting to have great and meaningful experiences every time I round a corner. Maybe I'm already haunted by too many sights-not-seen and too many roads-not-taken. Or maybe there's the tiniest chance that it's actually not possible to sustain a high level of savvy travel and serendipitous encounters for weeks on end. I know intellectually that sometimes it's going to be Rucksacks Hostel and wrong turns - I never expected otherwise. The sad thing is it turns out that knowing bad times are inevitable doesn't actually help when I'm hurdling a dead body to get to the toilet after spending a day walking in ever-decreasing concentric circles around my intended destination before confidently striding off towards a part of town that turns out to be inhabited entirely by packs of feral children and mobile phone shops.*

People who know me may recall that I'm ever-so-slightly fond of a good plan. (Which is a bit like saying Hitler had a vague interest in expanding his real estate portfolio.) This meant I happily spent last year planning everything to do with the trip, and had a great time doing it. But it also means that when I don't have a plan I get a bit antsy, and end up spending a lot of time trying to devise a plan instead of just picking something to do and going with it.

One day in Dublin I bounced aimlessly around the city until I finally committed to a museum that ended up being closed for renovations. Left without a plan, I took one of the cheesey hop-on, hop-off bus tours that are in every major city, intending to ride it all the way around to get the lay of the land and then decide what to do (In other words, I was going to sit on the bus in order to make a plan). Instead, on a whim, I got off the bus at the far end of the route and took a tour around Kilmainham Jail**. It was a Random Act of Tourism, and it was good. There was a guided tour, and it was interesting to be in the jail, which actually reminded me a bit of the good old Millennium Falcon Room. I also had fun taking weird pictures, because the whole place was so... textured. And it had really really good doors. I zoned out of what the guide was saying a lot of the time because I was just looking at how interesting the surfaces were, and I thought about all the designers and scenic artists I've known who would have been in raptures about the place. It was a really different perspective.

One of the fantastic doors of Kilmainham

And it was good. I felt like I'd done something, and thus felt free to go and have a nice bit of lunch. So it turned out that doing anything was better than obsessing about trying to figure out the best thing. Lesson learned. Not the first, and not the last.

It's funny, though. In the end, the best things that happened that day were getting an excellent an unexpected email from a new friend I met over here, and skyping with an old friend who happened to see that I'd left myself signed on from a previous skype session and called me up on a whim. Once again, it's the people***, not the places that really save the day.

* Mom: Not really. But there are a LOT of mobile phone shops...

** Well, actually Kilmainham Gaol, which is pronounced "jail" but looks like, well, you can see that it just looks weird. Like tyre, and aluminium.

***The Dublin hashers have also been fantastic. I went out for drinks with them this week, and I believe I may take part in their annual Bog Hash on Saturday. As far as I can tell, this involves hashing through an actual bog. I'm not sure my shoes will recover, and I need to find a way to get back to Dublin airport in time for my 7:55 am flight to Moscow on Sunday, but I was assured by somewhat-sober hashers that there would be a way. Originally I intended to move to a nice, big, Days Inn near the airport for a quiet Saturday so I could revel in anonymity and fluffy towels, and get myself organized for Russia. (There are also some significant laundry issues that I need to address before attempting a new continent.) But the bog is calling, and really, how could I pass up the offer? Especially since it could result in a Bog Blog...

Surf's Up! (Or: Just call me Lefty)

Monday, July 27, 2009

If you had asked me to compile a list of things I would NOT be doing on my around-the-world trip, surfing in Ireland would have been at or near the top, along with snow-shoeing in Egypt and pearl-diving in Moscow. Then again, camping on a beach in Scotland probably also would have made the top ten, so I guess I should just toss out all those preconceptions and go with the flow.

And that's what I did. I'd had a couple of bleah days in Bushmills, N. Ireland. This may have been because my internet access was inconvenient and expensive (£1 for 20 minutes!)*. Or it may have been because the hostel I stayed in felt like a big, institutional ghost town compared to Arnie's. Or it may have been that Bushmills was not exactly brimming with things to do. There's the Bushmills Distillery (the tour of which wasn't nearly as good as Oban) and there's the Giant's Causeway, which is undeniably cool, but can only sustain interest for an hour or so, at most.

See? They really are cool.

And that's about it. So it was that I found myself staring a a poster for Trogg's Surf School in Portrush, just a 25 minute bus ride down the road from Bushmills. Seizing the moment, I splurged on a B&B for a night and arranged to join the 1:00pm - 3:00pm surfing lesson on Friday, for a mere £30.00.

I rolled in to town at about 11:30 and spent a happy few minutes strewing my belongings around a very pleasant room at the B&B and then marched down to the surf school to get kitted out for the lesson. I met up with Carl and James, the two instructors, who were both appropriately wind-blown and wet-suited. There was also a family of Irish holidaymakers from Belfast in the group and they were very friendly, so it was looked like I was in for a fun time. First James fitted us with wetsuits, and I went off to struggle into mine, which is not easy at the best of times (as anyone who's done it will know). It also didn't help that these suits were damp, though it turns out that there was another reason I was having such trouble...

Eventually I got the bottom half on and went out seek assistance with the top half. Imagine the delight of James and his lifeguard buddy when they informed me I had the damned suit on inside-out. Oh, the hilarity! And here I thought I was a wetsuit pro after my experience in Perranporth. After all, I knew the zipper goes in the back...**

Anyways, once James recovered his breath, and I got myself turned around (literally), we went off to the beach. They made up do a bunch of goofy warm-ups, and gave us some good instruction, and then we were off into the sea to have a go.

Naturally I did not take my camera surfing with me, so all you get is a shot of the beach

In fact, it may have been the longest two hours of my life. Most of the time was spent waiting for a decent wave, hopping onto the board, laying on my stomach, and paddling like mad, as per instructions. Then the wave would come up behind me and I'd attempt to get to me feet while being propelled forward. This would inevitably end up with me emerging sputtering from underwater with my surfboard bobbing merrily by its tether, while another, bigger wave crashed in on top of me to add insult to injury. I believe I passed a quantity of seawater roughly equivalent to that of the Suez Canal through my nose.

(It actually reminded me a bit of my first and only attempt at downhill skiing. There was a lot more falling involved than there was skiing. Perhaps those of us from flat, land-locked places should just stick to more geographically appropriate pursuits, like curling or Tag-Team-Dead-Battery-Jump-Start Relays.)

Actually though, it was madly fun. James and Carl were really nice, and helpful and encouraging, and not at all surfer-dude too-cool-for-school. I even started to get the hang of things and managed, on one notable occasion, to get to my feet and ride for about 2.5 inches before the water ran out and I was at the beach, whereupon I hopped off the board quite jauntily and pumped my fists in triumph.

But it was also really exhausting, so near the end of the two hours (Two hours? It felt like a week and a half) I was getting a bit punchy and committed a grave surfing sin. James had made a point of telling us that we should always make sure not to hold the board broadside between ourselves and an approaching wave, or the wave could cause the board to smack into us with, er, a tiny bit of force.

So naturally that's exactly how I ended up. I think I'd just got upright again after spitting out a gallon of seawater, a bundle of seaweed and a starfish or two (Did I mention that the sea tastes yucky?). I grabbed my board to head back out and was stuck in exactly the wrong position when the next wave hit. I think the board must have caught my right thumb and bent it back at an unnatural angle, because once I'd gained my feet again I realized that something was quite wrong. I wisely retreated to shallower water, and James came over to check on me, though I could tell the thumb wasn't broken or dislocated, or even respectably sprained, since I could sort of move it. He made me sit with my hand in the water to keep it cool, and I elected to sit out the rest of the lesson, and was grateful for the excuse.

After we'd finished I went and hung out with the instructors and lifeguards for a bit, because they were friendly and had icepacks. Then there was the tricky matter of getting out of a damp wetsuit with only one functioning opposable thumb. Finally I made it back to the hostel and downed 3 ibuprofens and had a well-earned lie-down while waiting for the drugs to kick in. The swelling went down enough that I could use my hand again in time for supper, and so I was able to hoist my pint of Guinness and handle cutlery. I had a celebratory sticky toffee pudding (sub-par, I am sad to report) and retired for an early night.

Saturday morning the swelling was back and the whole meaty part of my thumb had turned into one big, festively coloured bruise.

See? Dramatic! In fact, the bruise shows up better on camera than it does in real life.

The ibuprofen didn't helping with the swelling much that morning, but I could move the thumb reasonably well, and was able to close all the zippers on my bag when I vacated the B&B, which I'd been worried about the night before.

So now I've got a swollen, semi-functional right hand, and an interesting story. I can only hope that the injury will turn into one of those things that lets me predict when a nor-easter will be a-blowin' in. "Ach," says Pam, " I think we're in fer a spell o' bad weather. Me old surfin' injury is actin' up!"

* I know, I know - there are lots of times coming when I won't be able to roll out of bed and check my email before getting dressed. I know I need to get used to that. Just leave me to my fantasy for a while longer.

** In my defense, when I was handed the suit it was inside-out. And it was a much more interesting colour on the inside than the outside.

The "Peace" Wall

Friday, July 24, 2009

I didn't do a lot of touristy stuff during my short time in Belfast, but I did one really important thing. I took a black cab tour of West Belfast to see the sectarian murals, and the Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. (Those of you who know how I spent my last few months of work will understand why this was important.) These tours are quite common - the cabbie takes you around and gives you a guided tour as he drives. I think I got a good one - it was recommended by the hostel I was at*, and the cabbie was very good, though the whole experience was a bit uncomfortable and strange, as you will see.

I suspect that the whole idea of the tours sprung up because people wanted to have a look at these neighbourhoods, so they must have just started getting into cabs and asking to driver to take them, and the now-formalized tours grew out of that. I did my tour with a Mickey and Tasha, two girls from the hostel who happened to be around when I arrived, and arranged the whole thing. Because there were three of us it only cost me £8.50, though it would have be £25 if I'd been alone.

The cabbie picked us up right at the hostel and drove us through downtown, pointing out the sights as we went. He stopped in front of the Europa Hotel which used to be the most-bombed hotel in the world. Or in Europe. Or something like that. In any case, it wasn't a place you could confidently expect to pass more than a few nights without incident. It's better now, but the IRA used to target it regularly because it was a favourite spot for foreign journalists, so any incident there was guaranteed to garner international attention in the press.

From the Europa we headed to the Protestant Shankhill Road area, and that's when it started to get weird. I suppose it was hopelessly naive of me, but I really did think that most of the sectarian trouble that plagued Northern Ireland was over, so it was a real shock to find out that there's still a huge wall dividing the Protestant and Loyalist Shankhill area from Catholic, Republican Falls Road. The wall is euphemistically referred to as the Peace Line or the Peace Wall. In fact, there are (I think) three different walls in the city, though that's something I only vaguely remember from the tour. In any case, the fact that even ONE wall still necessary was totally unexpected. The one I saw actually has gates in it that get opened every morning and closed every night. The other walls don't have gates - you just have to go around them.

A gate

Learning about the wall was the first weird and uncomfortable thing. Then we passed through one of the gates into the Protestant area, and I really felt uneasy. It's not that I felt unsafe, but I remember going by a woman pushing a baby carriage, and I could tell that she knew we were tourists and it just made me feel creepy and voyeuristic to be gawking at this woman like she was an animal in the zoo. I suppose the residents are used to it, and it's a damned sight better to be stared at than shot at, but still...

The cabbie stopped and let us off in a green(ish) space near a bunch of row houses, many of which were flying Union Jack pennants. There was a sort of community centre, and there were kids playing football and stuff, but it was obviously a pretty poor neighbourhood. The gable ends of each row of houses was decorated with giant colour murals, and most of them were quite political, and there was a lot of orange.

They call this one the "Mona Lisa" because the barrel of the gun follows you as you walk around. It's creepy.

And another shock - these murals are not a relic from the past. There are new ones planned and painted frequently. I saw scaffolding set up near one house where new mural was being painted to commemorate a local soldier who died in combat in 2000. At least now they're moving away from the overtly political (unlike this one).

Cromwell? Seriously? That was 350 years ago...

So I walked around the immediate area a bit before rejoining the cab and getting some more of the history. We piled back in and drove to a spot where we could really get a sense of the wall. It's big.

The Wall

And then it got weird again. The cabbie pulled over so we could take pictures, and he kind of insisted on taking a picture of me at the wall, so I have a oddly incongruous photo of me, smiling, in front of this horrible blight of a thing. He also gave us felt markers to write a message on the wall, which is very common. I wrote a message, but it wasn't particularly inspired or anything. Most of the messages were just a cry for peace.

The writing on the wall.

After the wall we went back through a gate into the Catholic area, to a memorial garden. Right next to the garden there was a house that backed up against the wall, and behind the house there was a big sort of shelter to protect people who might be out in the garden. Apparently, things still get throw over the wall.

Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, and the wall, and the house and the shelter

Then we went by some more murals - these ones Catholic. The traffic was quite busy, but still the cabbie was insisting we hop out into the street to take pictures. It was mad. Setting aside the obvious problem of snapping photos while dodging oncoming traffic, there was the deeper and infinitely more disquieting feeling of being an insensitive intruder in this place. I stayed in the cab.

And here's the other other other creepy thing - the cabbie told us that the various paramilitary organizations are still very present and "in control" of these areas. There's the IRA (Irish Republican Army, or some variant) in the Catholic area, and the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association for the Protestants**. It's not like they're patrolling the streets with machine guns, but he claimed "they know everything that's going on." I'm telling you, it's madness. I can only hope he may have been overstating for effect. Then again, that was a really big wall.

Thankfully, it was over shortly after that. The cabbie dropped us off near City Hall with the cheerily expressed hope that we'd enjoyed our little tour. Just bizarre. I'm glad I did it, but wow, I was glad when it was over.

And what else can I say? I wish I could sum up with an eloquent plea for peace in our time, but really all I can think is "Smarten up and get over it."

* Arnie's Backpackers, which was really really excellent, and I'm not just saying that because the Glasgow place was such a horror. Arnie's was the real deal - a small independant hostel that was super friendly, with a comfortable living room, a shared kitchen and a homey dining/common room. There was free tea or coffee whenever you wanted it, and a coal fire Tuesday evening, and a couple of Jack Russell terriers. And they'd do you a load of laundry (wash and tumble dry) for £4, which Arnie donated to charity. The rooms were basic dorms, and the toilets and showers were reasonable, but the real treat was the vibe. It was the kind of place that just made you want to chat with whoever was in the room, which I did, which was great. I even ended up going out on my second night with a new friend from there, and we had a fantastic time at a local pub that was fully equipped with a good live jazz band and hot-and-cold running Guinness. Arnie himself even came to the pub, as did a bunch of other hostel people. And there was dancing. All that for £12/night - a steal. Please let there be more Arnie's in my future.

** Apparently the UVF and the UDA have even feuded among themselves. Insane. And please don't spam me with stuff about the "Provisional IRA" and the "Real IRA" and the UDU and blah blah blah. I'm presenting my own simplified, barely understood version here. I can scarcely grasp the whole thing, so give me a break.

Pick of Pics: More Scottish Signs

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Sweet and Sour Haggis our specialty!" (Fort William)

And if sweet and sour isn't what you fancy.... (Stirling)

And exactly what kind of combat does someone with a 52" waist engage in? Agressive smothering? (Glasgow)

Seriously? (Falkirk)

It was the best of Glasgow, it was the worst of Glasgow

Monday, July 20, 2009

Glasgow and I did not get off on the right foot. It was a long trudge from Queen Street Station to the hostel I'd booked with such relief the day before. Little did I know the horror that awaited me.

Calling Rucksacks Hostel cheerless would be (quoting Bill Bryson) "to flirt recklessly with understatement." When I tried to check in there was one poor, harried South African guy at the desk, and a pile of laundry on the floor (I can only hope that it was a pile of dirty laundry, but prefer not to contemplate that further.) Eventually I managed to check in, along with a young Australian girl. The kid said "I'll show you to your room", and we embarked on a circuitous journey involving going down one long flight of dark stairs, through a dim and dingy basement common room crammed with suspicious looking couches with no feet, up another flight of equally dire stairs, and into a room labeled "Millennium Falcon" (The adjacent room was "Death Star". At least the place had a bit of a sense of humour.) The Millennium Falcon room was, er, basic: 4 sets of bunk beds, one tilting floor lamp, and a sprinkling of holes in the drywall.

The Millenium Falcon Room, though the photo really doesn't do justice to the arresting grubbiness.

Really, the whole place seemed unfinished. They'd obviously started some renovations, and equally obviously they hadn't finished them, but went ahead and started letting people in anyway. When poking around to find a toilet I kept opening doors or turning corners to find half-installed showers, exposed framing, holes knocked in walls, toilets without seats, and piles of construction debris. I eventually did find a bathroom but getting to it required squeezing past two couches stood on end and leaning against the wall in a narrow hallway. (Seriously? You don't have enough couches of questionable lineage? You have to keep these two as well? In the hallway to what seems to be the only bathroom?) And don't get me started about the bathroom. Let's just say that washing my hands there seemed counter-productive.

To be fair, the Millennium Falcon room did have a shower, so I suppose the room could technically have been advertised as "en suite". However, the shower was positioned in a corner of the room that appeared to have been created by sledge-hammering an opening into an adjacent closet. It did produce hot water though, and there was something approximating a door. The problem was that there was no light fixture in the room (and when I say "room", please be assured I am using that term in the loosest possible sense, perhaps in the same way one might describe a folded newspaper held over the head as "shelter"). Anyway, I'm not kidding: no light. The only way I was able to shower was by hanging my head lamp from a convenient bit of exposed 2x4 framing. This gave enough light to function, but also made me feel like I was showering in a episode of the "X-Files", which was a bit disquieting.

To be even more fair, that Saturday night Glasgow was crammed to bursting with people looking for a bed because of some golf thing, so maybe they were only using the construction sight rooms because of that (in fact, it looked like people were sleeping on the couches in the common room that night). On Sunday the South African kid asked me if I wanted to move to "a nicer room" so I think the accommodations on the upper floors were probably better. I elected to stay where I was because I had it all to myself by that point, and how often do you get the whole Millennium Falcon to yourself?

Another positive sign: when I got back after supper on Sunday I was frankly astonished to see someone vacuuming the carpet in the common room. Up to that point I'd assumed the place had not heard the blissful hum of a Hoover since Margaret Thatcher was in office. (And really, if you're running a place like a hostel, is carpet the smartest floor covering in the first place? I'd think you'd want to make sure everything - floors, furniture, mattresses, staff - were washable, install a drain in the floor, and then just turn on the sprinkler system every few days...)

Really, it's not like I had to hurdle dead bodies to get to the toilet, and there were no used syringes poking out of my mattress or anything. But if you're traveling to Glasgow, I'd recommend giving the Rucksack Hostel a wide berth. Or at least make sure you bring a good flashlight.

So the hostel was the first strike against Glasgow. The second strike happened after I left the hostel and found a nice place for lunch and a pint. (I don't normally have a drink at lunch, but after fleeing the hostel I really felt like I deserved one, if only for anaesthetic purposes.) When I left the restaurant, I struck off for the downtown area to try and find a book store. I wandered for about 20 minutes before realizing that something was not right, and then took a peek at my compass and realized I'd been traveling in exactly the wrong direction. I turned around and wandered in what ended up being a big circle, ending in front of the hostel. Cursing and sweaty, I finally made it downtown to a book store only to find they were completely out of any Ireland guide books that didn't assume I'd be traveling with an expense account and a private jet, and so had to seek out two other stores before finally getting my hands on a Lonely Planet Ireland.

In fact, for the entire time I was in Glasgow I was always going the wrong way*. And it feels like I was forever wandering streets featuring a more-than-ample serving of boarded up windows, graffiti and overflowing garbage bins. It also didn't help when I read this bit from Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Country", Glasgow chapter:

You can wander through the streets on a Friday night, as I did now,and never know when you turn a corner whether you are going to bump into a group of tony revellers in dinner jackets or a passle of idle young yobboes who might decide to fall upon you and carve their initials in your forehead for purposes of passing amusement. Gives the place a certain tang.

Ok, so that was the BAD of Glasgow. I'm happy to report that there is some good, too. For instance, I had a nice tour of the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And I had a lovely dinner with Rob Hamilton's cousin and her husband. And I found the Tenement House museum charming and possessing of more guides per square foot than any sight I've visited so far (4 small rooms with 3 guides!).

Unquestionably, though, the best spot I visited was the Kelvingrove Museum. In fact, I will go so far as to say the Kelvingrove Museum is the best museum I have ever been to, and I've been to some doozies. What was so great about it? Well, let's start with the building. On the outside, it's Victorian era, purpose-built, and covered with spires and big windows and pointy bits. It looks like a proper museum, and it fits in the park perfectly.

Kelvingrove Museum

On the inside, it just gets better. It's all soaring ceilings and marble floors and big stone columns and archways and grand staircases. It was like stepping back in time. In fact, the museum underwent a huge renovation recently, only reopening in 2006. I don't know what it looked like before, but I think everyone involved in that project deserves heartfelt thanks, because the place is simply wonderful.

Inside the Museum

But any museum can be in a pretty building and still suck. What I loved most about Kelvingrove were the exhibits. They were incredibly varied, suiting someone with my shallow-but-broad interests perfectly. Here's a sample of what's on offer: a room of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a room of armour and weapons displayed in the most fantastic was, a room of recent Glasgow history (including several cases on the Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow), the stuffed body of Sir Roger the stuffed elephant (celebrated former inhabitant of the Glasgow Zoo), paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, Matisse, Dali, and Van Gogh (among others), various sculptures, a large exhibit on Dr. Who, a real Spitfire fighter plane suspended from the ceiling, the skeleton of a clydesdale, Egyptian antiquities, paleontology, & a working pipe organ (played daily).

The view from the mezzanine, including the Spitfire and a stuffed giraffe. See what I mean?

Better still, the museum was free. AND there was a free guided tour that started mere minutes after I arrived. AND for the first half hour I was the ONLY PERSON on the guided tour (after that we were joined by a grand total of two other people). AND the tour guide was excellent - she was a native-born Glaswegian, and told lots of stories about her memories of the museum, and what it was like before the renovation, and her life growing up in Glasgow as it related to the various exhibits. You could just tell that she loved the place too, and she toured us around for 2 hours. That was long enough to poke our heads into just about every room, which is the other nice thing about Kelvingrove: it's not too big. The British Museum is undeniably impressive, but can be overwhelming. Kelvingrove was a comfortable size, so that you could fairly quickly get a feel for everything and pick your favourite spots to linger, and not feel like you were either rushed, or missing something.

To top it off the cafĂ© and gift shop are sensibly located in the basement, and the bathrooms have the most intelligently controlled electric-eye faucets I've ever seen***. I was so taken with the place I wrote a glowing comment card and left £5 in the voluntary donation bin, which was 5 times more than they requested.

There's more to say about Glasgow - like my inadvertent 12km run along the Kelvin Walkway****, which was only intended to be 10km long, but Glasgow's geography managed to elude me to the end. And there was my visit to the Mackintosh-designed Willow Tea Rooms for oatcakes, smoked salmon and goat cheese. In the end though, I'd have to say I just never got the hang of Glasgow.

That makes no difference now though, because I'm on the way to Belfast!

* I realized, very late on Sunday, that the reason I'd been having so much trouble was that I had somehow formed the fast impression that Kelvingrove Park - the thing that I'd been using to orient myself to maps - is, in fact, positioned north of the main arteries Arglye and Sauchiehall** Streets. I'd been picturing it south of there, and seemed to have developed some kind of partial blindness when looking at maps that clearly showed otherwise.

** Pronounced "socky-HALL". As in "passageway of knitted foot coverings". Of course.

*** You waved your hand in front of the eye (on the backsplash) to turn the water on, then again to turn it off, so the water stayed on the whole time instead of turning on and off like it needed a dose of Ritalin the whole time you were attempting to wash your hands, which is what happens when the eye is located under the faucet and you move your hands 0.00000000001 inches from the eye's sweet spot.

**** The Walkway seemed like a God-send - a miles-long riverside path recommended by actual Glaswegians. In reality, I got a bit of a dodgy vibe while running there. Perhaps it was just quality of the light (grey), or the state of the vegetation (overgrown), or the amount of graffiti (ample), but I did get the very slightest sense of stabby-ness from the place.

Whisky, friends, and the best bus driver ever

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm on the train from Oban* to Glasgow after a couple of successful days. Oban was quite good, with some notably excellent moments, a few of which I will relate here.

I hit town at about 3:30 on Thursday, with enough time to check in to the hostel and head to the 5:30pm tour of the Oban Distillery. I'm not a big whisky drinker, but the tour was excellent. Unlike a lot of tours in bigger distilleries or bigger cities, this one went through the actual working areas of the actual plant where they actually produce every bottle of Oban whisky in the world, (and have done since1794). We got to see each stage of the process and learn about it. We saw the mash tun full of sloppy glorp. We saw the 4 big wooden casks where they add the yeast and ferment. And we saw the two big copper stills and the new, clear spirit pouring through the "spirit safe". Then we got to taste a bit of cask-strength 13-year old Oban, right from the barrel (a spine-straightening 56% alcohol). And of course we got to taste the finished 14-year old Oban (a tame 43.5%). Here's a big tip for anyone who might do this tour in the future: Hang around the tasting room at the end while everyone else has gone into the shop. The guide had twelve different Highland single malt whiskys on display and if you seemed interested, he offered samples of them too. I had a Dahlwhinnie, though I should have tried the Distiller's Edition Cragganmore, which was purported to be most wonderfully smooth (alas, not available in North America).

Me, outside the distillery

After the tour I decided to take a chance on "The Skipinnish Highland Music Experience" which Rick Steves said was touristy but fun (and what else, pray tell, would you do on a Thursday night in Oban anyways?). The evening was sort of predictable: piping, accordion, Gaelic singing, highland dancing, etc...**, and the venue was a bit meh (I couldn't quite buy in to the presence of the traditional Highland mirrorball and Martin effects equipment) but at least they had a bar and a piper whose name was actually Angus MacSporran or something equally local. They did a lot of audience participation folk dancing, and I even ended up in one dance at the invitation of a woman at the next table, who saw I was by myself. The dance turned out to be lots of fun and a bit dizzying (anyone who has done a "Strip the Willow" will know that it might have been unwise to attempt on top of two cans of Guinness). Anyways, the dance turned in to a bit of a conversation with that woman and her husband, and that's how I met Debra and Tommy from Northern Ireland!

It was another Nigel-and-Margaret kind of moment, and was perfectly excellent. It turns out that the phrase, "Actually, I'm on a year-long trip around the world" is a great conversation starter***. They'd traveled some too, and were suitably impressed with my plan, and gave me tips on where to go in Ireland. We had a grand time talking about all kinds of things until we closed the place down and parted reluctantly at midnight. I gave them my email and blog address, and Tommy gave me his card and mobile number, and I beamed and bounced my way back to the hostel. Great night.

On Friday a did a tour over to two of the Inner Hebrides islands. The ultimate destination was the tiny island of Iona, which is the place where Christianity first came to the UK in the 6th century, and so has an pretty important abbey, and a nice ruined nunnery, and the usual assortment of tea shops, pubs, and twee tourist craft shops. But it's a long trip to get to Iona. There's a 45 minute ferry ride from Oban to the large island of Mull, then a 75 minute bus ride across Mull, then another 15 minutes on a smaller ferry to Iona. Then you've got about 2 hours on Iona, whereupon you retrace your steps for another 135 minutes and end up back in Oban in time for a pint.

The ruined Nunnery. I do like a good ruin...

In future, I may restrict myself to sights that take longer to tour than they take to get to and from, but on this occasion the long bus ride turned out to be the highlight of the day. The bus came (thankfully) with a driver named Stevie**** who was also a local guide, and who kept up a running commentary for the entire 75-minute trip across the island.

Stevie is a resident of Mull for 8 month of the year, so he knows the place well and had an astonishing breadth of knowledge about the area, along with a wit so dry I'm surprised it didn't simply blow away in the not inconsiderable Highland winds. Stevie's monologue covered a truly impressive stream-of-consciousness range of topics delivered in a quiet, almost musical way that was completely captivating. Here's a sample of the areas he touched on:

The smallest post office in Britain ("It's a bit of a challenge if you've got a large parcel. There's either room for you, or room for the parcel."), local Afghan war casualties, the difficulty of pub-crawling on the island (noted after the 30-minute drive between the two nearest pubs), deep-fried Mars Bars, poaching, policing, geology, munro-climbing, bird identification, the particular markings and habits of bird-watchers (trousers tucked into socks, along with the inability to admit to not being able to identify any bird asked about), passing places, the burial place of MacBeth, Maj. Gen Lachland McQuarrie (the "Father of Australia"), thence to the unlikely existence of an Australian National Trust sight in the Hebrides, Viking long boat winter storage practices, mussel-farming, water purity, Gallic place names (pronouced with a satisfying serving of gutturals), meteorology, celebrity tax-dodges on Mull, cattle grids, deforestation (upon passing a clear-cut area: "If that had been perpetrated by a bunch of youths wearing hoodies there would have been a great hue and cry..."), architectural obscenities (particularly a spectacularly out-of-place solar-powered, glassed-in bus shelter that lights up at night, at which we were assured no on ever waits for a bus), island-spotting, bronze age crannocks (man-made islands), eco-tourism, the evils of black-faced sheep, the highland clearances, Yorkshiremen ("just Scots with the generosity kicked out of them"), Duarte Castle, modern-day Lairds & Chiefs, Torosay Castle, and the delightfully named Hugh of the Small Head.

The sea shore at Iona, waiting for the ferry back to Stevie.

What can I say? Stevie was an absolute delight. Here's my favourite story, which I was actually clever enough to capture with the voice recorder on my phone, so you get it word for word. Sadly, you are lacking the lovely, smooth, almost sing-song delivery and, tragically, the Scots accent full of funny vowels and throat-clearing rrrrrs without which this transcription is but the palest imitation of the real Stevie. Try to imagine it as best you can:

"You can see the peat banks here on the left... they've been cutting the peat over the years... Heh, I was having a bit of a laugh about that the other night. Somebody was recalling, I guess it was about last August, almost a year ago. A cruise boat came up - we get several of these a year, this particular one was quite big - and they hired six coaches. They may be back too... the thought sends a shiver to the spine. They bring their own guides with them, you see? And the people who organize the cruise, well, we are regarded by them very much on these occasions as just sort of a component of the coach situated somewhere between the steering wheel and the gearstick.

We're all sittin' up there at the harbour, waitin' for the coach to come ashore, and I saw this guide approach the bus and my heart just sank. It was this kilted apparition from Edinburgh who, well, he sat in the jump seat here, and it was all the usual rations of sporrans and tartans and that nonsense all the way from down the road. Well the passengers were American, perfectly fine people, but the point being that they really had no other point of reference. Most of them, perhaps, would have no other point of reference regarding the Highlands other than what this lad was telling them, and he was, well, he had a kilt on so he must know about the Highlands.

And we got as far as the peat banks there and he started telling the folk how the poor people of Mull, you know, they are just so poor here you know, and they have to dig away in the dirt there just to get a wee spark of heat in the winter time, and I thought, "Well, that's about enough now". At this point I'm nearly putting him off the bus to just leave him standing by the roadside in his kilt. Absolute nonsense! You know everybody's got double-glazing and central heating and this kind of thing. You may have noticed even on the newer houses, many of them have chimney pots. People have retained the idea of an open fire as a, well, it's a lovely feature - the hearth - isn't it? If you have friends 'round on an autumn evening or a winter's night, apart from whatever heating systems you have in operation, it's rather nice to set a fire, sit around, have a dram or two, tell stories, throw another log on the fire... and if you do so it's nice to have a bit of peat to throw on the fire because a peat fire has a nice, earthy aroma...

According to some of these lads, I think, we all get up in the morning and have our porridge, and then we're out to round up the sheep and gather up the peat. Then 15 or 20 minutes cursing Clan Campbell. You'd stop for lunch; haggis, I would imagine, or possibly a deep-fried Mars bar. Then in the afternoon, well, there's bagpipe practice to attend to, followed by, well, the all-important task of ironing our kilts. You know that's pretty much the day done isn't it? There's not much time for anything else. And it's just nonsense! You mustn't believe all that stuff. It seems we've got an endless market for this idea of the Highlands as some sort of tartan theme park..."

Beautiful. The whole ride was like that, both ways. Although at the start of the return trip we got this particularly lovely offering:

"It's a different view of the island on the way back. You see everything in reverse. The sheep are all pointing the other way, for instance."

Stevie, Stevie. I hardly knew ye.

And that was Oban. You should go some time. And say hi to Stevie for me.

* It turns out that Oban is properly pronounced just like "open", but with a B. Please stop pronouncing it Oh-BAN right now. Thanks.

** At the end of the night they got everybody up to sing "Auld Lang Syne", which I guess isn't just for New Year's here. Hands up anyone who knows the words to the second verse of that... yeah. Well everybody knows them here. And there are actions to go with it all. Who knew?

*** In fact, I'm thinking about replying to any question with that response. "So, where are you from?" "Canada, but actually, I'm on a year long trip around thwe world...". Or: "Have you been traveling for long?" "About a month, but actually..." Or: "Will that be to eat on or take away?" "Well, actually..."

**** Or possibly it was just Steve, but Stevie sounds more colourful, so I'm going with that.

The Wisdom of Robbie Burns and the Art of Flexibility

Friday, July 17, 2009

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley..."
- Robert Burns

How appropriate that here, in the land of his birth, the truth of Burns' words should be brought home to me in such a personal way.

Here's how I'd planned the next two days should unfold (and when I say "planned", what I mean is "sorta figured", since I hadn't actually made any firm plans at all. This was, err... a slight error in judgement):

Thursday Morning: Wake up at my B&B in Fort William, have the full Scottish breakfast, and then proceed from Fort William to Mallaig on one of the most scenic rail routes in the world, including crossing over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct (it's the one the Hogwarts Express goes over in one of the Harry Potter movies!). Arrive in Mallaig and get the ferry to the Isle of Skye, thence proceeding by bus to the island "capital" of Portree where I'd check into another charming B&B. Poke around Portree for the rest of the day, have a nice supper and pint in a pub, and retire.

The viaduct I will not be crossing

Friday: Try a spot of sea-kayaking (I had some info on an outfit that does half-day lessons and rentals, and what better way to see and island covered in inlets than from a kayak?). After that, more pootling about the island, another supper and pint, and the next morning hop back to Mallaig and get the Hogwarts Express to Glasgow. Perfect.

Reality turned out to be quite a different thing. The Isle of Skye is one of Scotland's top tourist destinations, so it turns out that expecting to glide in to town in the middle of July and book accommodations, tours and activities with only a day or two's notice is, to be charitable, ambitious. (To be uncharitable, and closer to the truth: barking mad.)

The first part of the plan to fall through was the kayaking. "Ok, " I thought, "there are lots of other things to do," though I really had not much idea what those things might be. Next I spent several hours on the phone and internet trying to secure a bed for Thursday and Friday. My standards for accommodations quickly sunk from quaint B&B to hostel, but I did manage to get a bed, so I figured I was sorted.

Then I turned my attentions to the train schedule. Snort! It turns out that getting to Portree from Fort William on the train, ferry and bus is only a bit less complicated and time-consuming than getting to the International Space Station. The simplest method was actually to get a bus straight from Fort William over the Skye Bridge, and in to Portree. However, that would leave out the whole Hogwarts Express business, cost me and extra £26.50 each way, and waste a couple of days of travel on my rail pass. To top it off, the bus back from Portree to Fort William did not run on Saturday or Sunday, meaning I'd either have to wait in Portree until Monday, or come back via the Space Station.

Let's review:

  1. No sea kayaking, and no real idea of what else to do, especially lacking a car
  2. No quaint B&B
  3. No way to get there and back that was reasonably efficient in both time and cost

Things had, as they say, gone completely pear-shaped. So at around 10pm last night I flipped open the guide book and the map and started scanning for alternate destinations. And that's how I've come to find myself on the train from Fort William to Oban, with a 45 minute stopover in Crianlarich (which, in order to pronounce properly, requires one to pretend there's something small and furry stuck in one's throat, like a bit of pocket lint, or possibly a hamster).*

After a few minutes on the phone this morning I've got a bed at Jeremy Inglis' hostel ("This loosely run place feels more like a commune than a youth hostel... breakfast comes with Jeremy's homemade jam." Rick Steves). I've got a reservation for the 5:30pm tour at the West Highland Malt Scotch Whisky Distillery ("This is the handiest whisky tour you'll see, just a block off the harbour and better than anything in Edinburgh." RS again). And I've got all the information I need to get a full-day tour of the neighbouring Hebrides islands of Mull and Iona tomorrow. To top it all off, I got an email this morning inviting me for drinks with Rob Hamilton's cousin when I get to Glasgow on Saturday.

The view from the train, taken while moving, which is why the foreground is artistically blurred.

So I'm positively glowing with the satisfaction of having overcome my previous errors in judgement and planning, and feel like I've really landed on my feet. Also, happily, this means I'll really have to come back to Scotland some time to see Skye. Somewhere in Portree there's a kayak with my name on it.

*It now being a few hours later, I can report that Crianlarich Station is mildly Godforsaken, though it does have a tea shop and a loo that has the singular distinction of containing the only bathroom door lock I have ever encountered that actually drew blood while being opened.

The people in my neighbourhood

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rob Hamilton, you were right. It's not about the things you see, it's about the people you meet. I've had a nice taste of this while hashing, which has turned out to be a perfect way to find friendly, like-minded people who enjoy the occasional pint. But this week in Edinburgh I had the great pleasure of meeting Nigel and Margaret (hashers, naturally) who turned out to be the best of a great bunch so far.

I was clever enough to arrive in Edinburgh just in time to run with The New Town Hash House Harriers (there are two hashes in the city: TNT and Edinburgh), where I met lots of friendly Scottish hashers, one Canadian ex-pat Nigel*, and his American partner Margaret. After toddling off on the bus post-hash, I got a text from Margaret asking if I'd be interested in going for a drink or dinner the next day, and confirming their offer of the loan of camping gear for the Gullane** hash weekend. So the next night I met them at a pub where we had a drink before moving on for dinner. The whole evening was just great. We got along famously, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself that we'd only known each other for about two hours. Perhaps it was the fact that are, all three, visitors to this country and so could bond over things like why the doors open in to shops instead of out, and why Brits insist on waiting to butter toast until it has cooled completely (even going so far as to employ little custom-made cooling racks designed to speed the process of transforming toast from a warm and tasty foodstuff into something resembling a roofing tile), and so on***. Whatever the cause, it was wonderful.

Nigel and Margaret

On Saturday, I made a long-ish hike (with an unintentional detour brought on, once again, by my failure to instinctively grasp the small scale of maps here) out to their flat in the engagingly named Comelybank area. They walked me along the Water of Leith, and we had a nice lunch in an exceedingly agreeable pub, and then wandered the high street so I could gather groceries for the weekend of camping. Finally we retired to their back garden so Nigel could show me how to set up the tent they were loaning me, and so Margaret could document the lesson for eternity:


And off I went to Gullane, fully equipped with a sleeping bag, therma-rest, and tent and provisioned with artisinal cheese, bread and sausages, all thanks to N&M. In a small attempt to offer some sort of kindness in return, I left them my external hard drive for the weekend, which is loaded with quite a lot of video content (thank you JBJ!), hoping that some of it might interest them.

Oh, and of course they invited me over for supper on Sunday evening when I got back from the beach. It was an offer I gratefully accepted, dragging their camping gear back with me, along with a backpack full of thoroughly smoked clothing for the washer and a significant quantity of Gullane beach sand. Sunday evening was outstanding too, and they made the highly astute and sensible decision to offer a big salad for supper, reasoning that I might be somewhat over-sausaged after a weekend of campfire cooking, and generally lacking in vegetables overall, which seems to be the default here in Scotland. Supper was lovely, as was the whole evening.

To top it all off, when they returned my hard drive they'd actually loaded it up with even more great stuff - movies, tv, music, and (most excitingly) digital versions of several books I've been craving. Oh, and Margaret gave me an old copy of her 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map**** of Ben Nevis, my destination for Wednesday. (Really, you guys are too much! It was perfectly wonderful meeting you, and I could not imagine a more welcoming, generous and fun pair of people to add to my address book. Please stay in touch! And I hope you don't mind playing a starring role in this post.)

When I finally departed their flat on Sunday night, with clean laundry, a full stomach, and twelve episodes of "Fawlty Towers", I walked back to the hostel in a warm glow, and with the happy realization that if this is what's in store for me in the coming year, then it will be a very very fine time indeed.

*Naturally, I got a down-down for being a visitor, and because he's also Canadian, Nigel got one too. So did a poor guy whose only transgression was to have the excellent hash name Canadian Club.

** For those who've been wondering, it's pronounced GULL-in.

*** And another thing - can someone please explain to me the purpose of the "washing up bowl"? Nearly every British household I've been in is equipped with one of these. They're plastic tubs that sit in the kitchen sink, in which one washes the dishes. Note that I said they sit in the sink. They're vessels designed to hold soapy water and dishes, positioned within vessels designed to hold soapy water and dishes. Most annoyingly, the presence of the washing up bowl prevents you from doing something simple like emptying the dregs of your tea into the sink without first removing the entire washing up bowl. Baffling.

**** To quote Bill Bryson on the subject of the brilliance of Ordnance Survey maps, from "Notes from a Small Island":

"Ordnance Survey maps are in a league of their own. Coming from a country where mapmakers tend to exclude any landscape feature smaller than, say, Pike's Peak, I am constantly impressed by the richness of detail on the OS 1:25,000 series. They include every wrinkle and divot on the landscape, every barn, milestone, wind pump and tumulus. They distinguish between sand pits and gravel pits and between power lines strung from pylons and power lines strung from poles. This one even included the stone seat on which I sat now. It astounds me to be able to look at a map and know to the square metre where my buttocks are deployed."

The Pick of Pics: The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Truly an offer you can't refuse...

The Pick of Pics: Gullane Hash Weekend

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

If you've been following over at Flickr, you know I've taken something like 800 pictures so far, but most of them have been uploaded without titles or descriptions of any kind. I'm trying to remedy that now, and promise to attempt to be more disciplined about this in the future (I'll at least try to note what city the picture was taken in, ok?). And if I ever get the time I'll try to go back and label the older stuff too. But it occurred to me that it might be fun to do some really short posts picking out a few of the photos that stand out for me, or are just fun, but don't need a whole novel's worth of back-story to go with them. So I'm launching a new, probably recurring series: The Pick of Pics. Remember you can click on the photo to be taken directly to the Flickr page, where you can see a higher resolution version of any of the photos I post (if I remember to create the links). They're not super hi-res, because the time it takes to upload them in their original 7 mega-pixel format is just not feasible. If you want hi-res pictures of this stuff, come and take your own.

This first one is for the hashers:

The most picturesque check ever, right at the doorstep of what I think is a ruined 12th c. church, surrounded by a graveyard.

A day in the life, Edinburgh

Monday, July 13, 2009

I was Skyping with Karen and Steve last night (which was really nice) and one thing Karen said was that the stuff she likes most in the blog posts isn't the "then I saw this famous sight and here's the history behind it" stuff. (She's got Google for that kind of thing.) She was more interested in what life is like - how my days go by, what I eat for breakfast, that kind of thing. So in that spirit I kept track of what I was doing and thinking today, and here it is:

I wake up at about 8:30am. No alarm, which still feels a bit decadent. I often set an alarm for 8:00am, which is around when I wake up anyways, but I was so tired from the camping weekend on the beach that I didn't bother this morning. Also, I usually end up wearing one of those dopey Felix Unger eye masks things when I sleep because the sun rises at 4:45am, and sets at 9:50pm (though it stays light much later). Apparently Edinburgh is on the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba! The dopey eye mask thing is vital.

I wander in to the communal kitchen and fix myself breakfast from groceries I bought when I hit town last Wednesday. Tesco economy Swiss Style Muesli (44p for the whole box!) and melon (which I slice up with an exacto knife I bought at the local Pound Saver, because the kitchen has exactly one knife, and it's a plastic butter knife), all mixed up with a pot of yogurt. Also a cup of tea and an orange. Carry everything back to my room and sit and email and eat.

Here's what the room looks like. A bargain for £21.50 per night.

Noodle around on the computer a bit more, and then shower in one of the two bathrooms shared by the six rooms in my "pod". The hostel is actually a university residence that's re-purposed in the summer months, which is why there are private rooms. Only one of the showers in my pod actually produces hot water, which I discovered in a chilling way on my first morning.

Get dressed, fold up the laundry that dried overnight, tweet about my plans, and head out to today's first destination - the National Museum of Scotland. I check the map in my ever-dwindling Rick Steves guide book and head towards the vicinity of the museum. Every once in a while I look over my right shoulder, and there's the castle, which is arresting and awesome. There's a guy in a suit sitting on a bench and I want to go up and shake him and say, "Do you even see that? It's freakin' fantastic! LOOK!!!"

You've seen the castle before, but it's my favourite thing in Edinburgh, so here it is again

I'm doing fine until I get to Grassmarket, when I strike off at a perfect right angle to the correct route. I wander amiably for a while, sensing that something is wrong, but not sure how to correct it. Then this thought enters my head: "Hey, another Salvation Army Hostel for Women? Weird! There was one just back there... and here's another market... wait a minute... Oh damn."

Eventually I stumble on the museum (right at the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, for anyone who's looking). The museum is free and I grab an audio guide and head down to the basement, where you're supposed to start. (More on the blessing and curse that is audioguides in another post.)

It quicky becomes apparent that I'm starting to suffer from museum fatigue, since I'm not really concentrating on the displays and thinking more about what I'm going to have for lunch. I wander around for a while longer and then go to meet up with the free guided tour that starts at 11:30am. I figure that will snap me out of it a bit.

The tour guide is ok, and he points out some interesting things in the antiquities area, but I distracted by man in the group who I'm quite sure is sporting a toupee. At least I think it's a toupee. I spend some time maneouvering so I can get a good look.*

The guide, gesturing at a very interesting stone carving. (Toupee Man not shown)

I'm also really enjoying looking at the Andy Goldsworthy pieces that are on display in the gallery, and take a bunch of pictures of them.

This one contains every bone from the skeleton of a beached pilot whale. The audio guide said it's woven together with no glue or fasteners.

I finish up the tour, though the guide doesn't even make it to the upper floors, and happily hand in my audio guide in search of lunch. Head back to the market where I purchase an outsized container of paella (£4) and sit down on a bench to eat it just as it's starting to rain. Seek shelter, tweet about lunch, and contemplate the fact that I think I'm getting a repeptitive strain injury in my left thumb from the tiny keyboard on my cell phone. Don't finish the paella, but go and pay an outrageous sum (£5.30) for a bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit, and then head back to the museum, which seems to be a good place for a rainy day.

The museum (round two) is pretty good, and I pay more attention to the exhibits I should have sought out first - the ones about the industrial revolution and steam engines and cool stuff like that. I leave at about 4:00pm to head to St. Giles Cathedral.

St. Giles is to Scotland what Westminster Abbey is to England, but by this point in the trip my Cathedral tolerance is quite low. I wander in though, and am imediately struck by how different a place this is to Westminster. It's lower and feels heavier, and the stone is darker. The arches don't soar like they do at Westminster or York Minster. The central tower is quite short and the pillars that support it are massive. It feels less refined, but that doesn't seem like a bad thing at all. It feels, in comparison to the other cathedrals I've already seen, very Scots. I donate a pound in the collection box and head to the Scott Monument.

More rain, but I pay my £3 to climb the 287 steps to the top and take lots of pictures. The stairs get quite narrow in the final stages, which makes passing strangers going the other way an arrestingly intimate encounter. At one viewing level (there are three), I run into a bevy of teenage girls who are waving and blowing kisses to some young guys on the ground. They break into giggles and squeels that leave me simultaneously contemptuous and slightly jealous.

Arthur's Seat, the Old Town, North Bridge and Waverly Station, taken from the Scott Monument

After the Scott Monument I start theshort walk back to the hostel to get ready to go for a run. Stop at a Boots (drugstore) to pick up some more hair goop, which is still on sale for £1 per tin! Also stop at Tesco and pick up more yogurt and fruit for breakfast (there's still loads of 44p meusli left) and some veggies to supplement my supper. Get wet again as it buckets down rain very briefly.

Back at the hostel I dry off, check email, munch on pricey snacks and procrastinate going running. Eventually I head out and end up having a really good run. All the hills must finally have made a difference because I run 11.3 km at a pace that's actually faster than my normal easy pace, on a route that includes some serious elevation gain. I don't go all the way up to Arthur's Seat again, but I do get up to the crags, and do not have to stop once for a walk break on the way. Even better, while running around the park I meet a runner coming the other way with a dog, and the dog is carrying the guy's water bottle for him! As I pass I say, "That's handy!" and he says, "Ah knoo!". Get back to the hostel feeling great.

Stretch, shower and then fix some supper. This is the first time I've eaten supper "in", and I make up a plate with some leftovers from the Gullane weekend - a chunk of stilton cheese and half a bun, along with a Scotch pie purchased at an artisinal butcher shop where the proprietor had such a proper Scots accent that I only understood about one word in three. I supplement with the snow peas I bought at Tesco, because I've been dangerously low on vegetables here. (Interesting side note: whereas the Canada Food Guide recommends 5-10 fruits and vegetables a day, here in the UK they must figure that's a pipe dream. Here they're just hoping for 5-a-day, and I think that must still be a struggle, especially if chips, crisps and mash don't count.)

Supper in front of the tv, just like home! (30 Rock - "The Rural Juror" episode)

After supper I wander out for a pint at a neat little pub on Fleshmarket Close (York had snickeways, Edinburgh has Closes). It's tiny and quiet and they have a newspaper with a big section on the new Harry Potter movie, so I am happy. Walk back to the hostel in the rain and do a load of sink laundry, then sit down to upload photos and blog.

Come up for air about 2 hours later. Seriously, that's how long it takes me to crank this stuff out. Uploading photos, writing stuff, adding the photos to the post (which takes about eleven steps...), previewing, checking, revising, blah blah blah. I really struggle with figuring out how divide my time between planning the next thing, experiencing the current thing, and documenting the last thing.

And now with the post safely published I can get on with figuring out which train I'm getting to the Falkirk Wheel tomorrow. Here's hoping for good weather.

* I never came to a definitive conclusion about the toupee, but I'm 99% sure that it was NOT real hair. Either way, though the guy needed some serious assistance with his do.

Running to Arthur's Seat

Friday, July 10, 2009

Almost as soon as I arrived in Edinburgh, I could sense that Scotland is different than England. The city itself seems a lot like London, but there's also an unmistakable sense of otherness here. Anyone who's seen Edinburgh Castle may know what I'm talking about. Unlike the Tower of London (the place it seems to compare most closely to historically and politically) it's got a sort of wildness about it. First of all, it's perched on top of a giant ancient volcano, so you can't really miss it. More striking though is the fact that it seems to actually grow out of the rock, or cling to it, or something.

See what I mean? Isn't that great?

Instead of carving up the rock to conform to where they wanted to build the castle, they just kind of stuck the castle onto and into the rock. There are lots of spots inside the castle walls where the rock is poking out, which I just loved.

The whole whole city just feels a bit less domesticated than England; I think I like it. Emblematic of that was the run I took today. Besides the castle, the other sight you can't escape in Edinburgh is Arthur's Seat*, which tour guides invariably refer to as a "volcanic plug". Actually there's the Seat, and another slightly lower peak, and the imposing Salisbury Crags. All of it looks like a wild chunk of Highlands plunked down in the middle of the city.

A view of Arthur's Seat, from part way up.

If this park were in England, the whole thing would be very different. The Seat - the very very top bit - would probably have a manicured lawn, and a gated formal garden at the top staffed by eager blue badge guides who would be able to quote the history of the area from approximately the time the earth's crust cooled. And the path to the top would be well-marked, with warning signs posted at regular intervals:
"Warning: Arthur's Seat is 822' high, individuals with heart problems, pregnant women, the elderly, and lazy bastards should consult a physician before attempting the climb."
And there would probably be a gift shop and a place to get a nice cup of tea.

But I'm in Scotland now. So instead I had to just plunge in without the aid of anyone wearing a badge of any colour. I guessed which path to take, and there were several. Some were switchbacks, and some were steep ascents, and some had really rough stone steps. I ended up on a path that had some quite steep sections. There was a lot of scrambling up loose gravel, and hopping over endless chunks of exposed "volcanic plug", and some more guessing. There were no signs, and there were no guides. I did run most of the way up, though I had to stop very frequently for breaks.

And then I was there.

See? And this time, with talking. Just for YOU Rob Hamilton.

The way down was even more treacherous. There were moments when I was kind of sliding on my bum down fairly sheer rock faces. (Really, I'm all for a bit of wildness and such, but would it kill them to put up a freakin' sign?) As I was contemplating my own mortality, I couldn't help but wonder how many stupid tourists fall, or twist an ankle, or break a leg up on that rock every year. I'm guessing double-digits at least.

This was the GOOD part of the path

Still, I'm glad I did it. The run up was really really hard, and I had to walk most of the descent until I got along the path that goes in front of Salisbury Crags (Interestingly, that sheer rock face of the crags is not natural. It was quarried in the early 19th c. by the Earl of Haddington - my cheesey audio guide suggested that the stone was used to cobble streets in London, but that could just be the Scottish-English thing rearing it's head, which it does here frequently, with varying degrees of amiability. Anyways, it took an act of Parliament in 1831 to stop the Earl from carting away the whole thing.)

The view of the back of the crags, taken on the way down from Arthur's Seat

When I got to the bottom, I ran all the way up the Royal Mile, which ends at the gates to Edinburgh Castle, and then I ran all the way back down again feeling pretty damned good about myself and thinking, "I am the coolest person I know right now."** And then I went and had haggis (really good) and a pint (even better).

There's more to say about Edinburgh, but that will have to wait. Tomorrow I'm planning on going to an overnight hash beach party at Gullane. Friendly Edinburgh hashers are loaning me a tent, sleeping bag and pad, and other are giving me a ride, and there's going to be a pub, and a BBQ on the beach Saturday night, and a campfire, and a hash run on Sunday and another BBQ after the run, and it all sounds great.

* Go ahead and read the Wikipedia, but don't believe for a second the bit where it says it's "quite easy to climb". Also, I really wish I'd read that article before I went out. The bit about which ascent is easiest would have been nice to know...

**Except, of course, for Rob Hamilton.

Two Days, Two Pams

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I had a great couple of days in Harrogate, which is a lovely town, but doesn't have a lot to draw the RTW traveler. I was there to visit family, and in response to Rob's comment about how I keep talking about visiting family but never talk about the people themselves, I am devoting a chunk of this post to the family I visited, specifically, my grandfather's cousin. That makes her my first cousin twice removed, but for our purposes we shall simply refer to her as Pam which, happily, is her name.

It turns out that cousin Pam is quite fun. (She's the mother of Anne, my steel-nerved driving buddy and hostess in Plymouth.) Being of my grandfather's generation she's somewhere north of 80 years old, and referred to the great-grandmother I called "Nanny", as "Auntie Kit", which was just lovely.

Despite being of advancing years, Pam was happy to drive me all over the area in her tiny silver car, which was quite handy and only occasioned a few very brief rushes of traffic-related adrenalin. The evening I arrived she declared that she didn't feel like cooking and took me out to dinner at a nice country pub, so she was instantly in my good books. Then upon examining the menu she declared that she'd skip the starter (appetizer) to save room for dessert, which fits perfectly with my philosophy of leaving no dessert uneaten. We both had the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream; it was excellent, and now joins ploughman's lunch and flapjacks on my list of favourites.

After dinner we drove to the neighbouring town of Knaresborough so I could see the ruined castle there, which was really excellent. It was another one of those moments when I was struck with how thickly the history is spread over this tiny island. Here I was in a very small town that seemed quite insignificant in most ways, yet there was a brilliant 14th c. ruined castle sitting there on a high cliff, with a lovely river valley below, and a great stone viaduct that proved to be highly photogenic.

The ruins of Knaresborough CastleThe photogenic viaduct

Ok, perhaps I was hasty in declaring that Harrogate had little to offer the RTW traveler. In fact, it has Bogs Field, whose commemorative plaque reads as follows:

"Behold Bogs Field, a wonder of the natural world where a greater number of unique mineral springs come to the surface than at any other known place on Earth! 36 of Harrogate's 88 mineral wells are found here, of which no two are alike. The waters are Magmatic or Plutonic in origin, having never existed as rain, and have flowed deep beneath the earth for 20,000 years before surfacing through vertical shafts in the strata.... Bogs Field was investigated and developed by the Victorians who piped the mineral waters to the Royal Bath Hospital and to the Pump Rooms and Baths of Low Harrogate."

So it's not enough that there are castles, Roman ruins and manor houses dotting the landscape as thick as empties at a hash run, there has to be a completely unique phenomenon of the natural world hanging around too. Did I mention I really like this country?

We had a turn around the tiny but charming Pump Room Museum, which was diverting and (strangely) had a nice collection of Egyptian antiquities along with the obligatory displays about the weird ways Victorians used the springs in "taking the cure". And of course I had to try a taste of the water from the sulphur spring which was on offer at the reception desk of the museum. It was predictably foul and made me appreciate my pint at the country pub that evening much much more.

On Tuesday I had a nice (hilly) run through Harrogate while Pam was busy having a new radiator installed in the bathroom. I say the run was hilly, but really from now on you should just assume that all runs are hilly unless otherwise noted. In fact I was pleased to discover that the hills seemed less onerous, so I hope that means I'm getting used to them.

In the afternoon we drove to the neighbouring village of Ripon where Pam had an engagement, and so left me to have a wander around on my own which suited me just fine. I visited the Ripon Cathedral which was in danger of being simply "ABC" ("Another Bloody Cathedral"), but redeemed itself by housing a brilliant 7th century crypt that was open to the public. The crypt dates to Norman times (672 AD, to be precise) and is reached by a narrow stone staircase off to the right of the nave, near the crossing (after you've been in one or two cathedrals, the architectural terms get quite familiar: nave, crossing, transept, quire, blah blah blah... ABC). The stairs led to a short, winding stone tunnel, also very narrow, and ended up in a tiny room where a holy relic would once have been displayed. Then another skinny stone corridor, and another steep, narrow stone staircase, and I popped out near the quire. Very neat.

7th c. stone steps. No, really!

Ripon Cathedral's other claim to fame is that one of the seats in the quire (15th c.) has a wood carving on it that may have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland". Apparently, Carroll's father was dean of the cathedral for a number of years, and speculation is that young Carroll may have got the "down the rabbit-hole" idea from this carving:

Look closely and you can see one rabbit being hunted by a fearsome winged creature, while another one (on the upper right) is disappearing into a hole, with just his rear end showing.

Ripon Cathedral was another unexpected pleasure.

Supper on Tuesday was eaten in, and accompanied by a nice bottle of red wine that I opened before the meal was quite ready. "But there's no reason we can't get into that right now," said Pam, and I was forced to agree, and drink 3 glasses over the course of the meal. And of course we each had TWO helpings of dessert. Really, I think that cousin Pam is precisely the kind of 80-year-old I hope to become.

So all in all, Harrogate and environs were lovely. It was great to meet Pam, and we had a good time chatting. When I left on Wednesday morning she said something like, "I shall be sad to see you go, it seems like you've been here much longer than two days." I think that was meant in a good way, and not in a "My God, are you still here?" way. Or perhaps she was just glad to have me around because I helped her programs the timer on her new radiator. Either way, it was a good few days.

The Pams

P.S. I've had much more opportunity to upload photos lately, so head over to the Flickr page if you haven't been in a while. I've also divided things into some sets, and am trying to annotate them too.

Another brief look back

Way back in Deal (Day 13), I spent the morning having a look around Deal, before hopping to train to Tunbridge Wells. The day I arrived in Deal I had a walk along the seaside and noticed some beach art that someone had done on the sidewalk near the rocky beach. The beach in Deal is not sand, but an enormous collection of roundy rocks - mostly in white-ish, black-ish and red-ish colours. Some clever person had taken these rocks and arranged them in a collection of pictures on the sidewalk.

See? Pretty!

I decided then that I'd come back and leave my mark, and on the morning of Day 13 I did just that. And since it forms such a nice parallel to my sidewalk chalk art at Trafalgar Square, I had to post about it.


The rest of the morning was spent at the perfectly excellent Deal Castle. Built in 1539-40 by Henry VIII, it's certainly not the oldest or biggest castle I've seen, but it was really really fantastic. It cost 4.50 to get in, and included a really good audio guide. It was worth every penny.

A nice aerial view of the castle (happily, there was an aerial photo crane available for inquisitive tourists).

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:
It is one of the most impressive of the Device Forts or Henrician Castles built by Henry VIII between 1539 and 1540 as an artillery fortress to counter the threat of invasion from Catholic France and Spain. It is shaped like a Tudor rose, being perfectly symmetrical, with a low, circular keep at its centre. Around the circumference of the keep are six bastions, with a further series of six bastions in the curtain wall, one of which serves as the gatehouse. All the outer walls of the castle and bastions are rounded to both provide strength and to deflect shot more efficiently than flat walls. Over 200 cannon and gun ports were set within the walls and the entire structure was completely surrounded by a very deep, wide moat.
It's really well preserved, and you can walk along the outer wall, and explore all levels of the keep inside, and even go down into the lower level gun emplacements, which was my favourite part (though sadly not good for photography). The lower level had a dark, damp corridor that ran all the way around the keep and you could walk the whole circumference of it, through deep puddles, and look at where the cannons used to be placed, and at the smoke holes in the ceiling, and it was all just great.

Me, at the Castle