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Thursday, February 19, 2015

January 2015 -- London and Scotland

The day finally arrived for our trip to London.  Though I was to be a faculty chaperone on this one, I had bought a spot for Stacey for our anniversary last year.  I keep saying that it counts for at least two anniversary gifts.  So we loaded up the Lil Egg on New Year's Day and the radio quit before we got out of the driveway.  We listened to my phone's music the whole way.  We found our group of students at the airport in Chicago, checked in, and after the usual waiting about, flew away across the Atlantic.  I tried to sleep a bit, but I also watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  A little boy behind me was kicking my seat the whole way.

We met Megan Boccardi, History prof. and group leader of the trip, at Heathrow airport, and we all took a train into London.  We checked into the hotel and took the tube downtown.  We saw some of the sights there, like Big Ben and The Eye.  The students took lots of pictures.  That night we went back for a turn in The Eye, which is a giant Ferris wheel.  Each car is a big enclosed bubble, so that the weather is not a factor.  It gives you a good view of the city, which is pretty at night.

Saturday is market day at Portobello Road, so that's where we went.  I don't think I bought anything, but Stacey picked up a few gifts.  It's just neat to see everything.  It rained most of the time.

The next day we took a guided walking tour of the downtown sights.  It was supposed to be two hours, but ended up being four. So we got our money's worth, but it was quite a walk. Stacey's pedometer recorded over 19000 steps. We learned a lot and saw a lot, including things I had not seen/learned last year, like Florence Nightingale's Museum.  We had lunch at a quaint pub, where I had Shepherd's Pie and the first of many ales. That night we went to Picadilly Circus, which is kind of like Times Square.  There are some cool stores and the big screens on the buildings are bright and colorful.

Monday we went to the Tower of London.  This time I got to see the store of arms.  They had lots of cool suits of armor, even for horses, and Henry VIII's armor from the fat period of his career.  There were some huge swords too.  I know they're just ceremonial, but they had to be the inspiration for the insanely long ones used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  We got a boat ride up and down the Thames that day to get us back and forth.  We toured the Tower Bridge at night, which was neat.  The new transparent floor section on top is kind of scary, as it's a long way down.  I enjoyed seeing the old engine room, which they used to raise and lower the center section.

Tuesday morning we toured Churchill's War Rooms.  They're interesting, but I'd seen them last year.  I got out a little early, so I quickly walked around the path in Regent's Park and photographed every bird I saw.  We had the afternoon to ourselves, and Stacey and I chose to go to the Zoo.  We took the tube to the correct station, but could not find the right bus to take us around the park to the Zoo entrance.  We walked instead, which would have been OK if it had not been raining.  Again.  The great thing was that there was no one else at the zoo!  No lines or hassles.  It is quite a nice zoo, and I saw some things that were new to me.

Wednesday was our bus trip to Stonehenge.  A lot had changed since last year.  They had put up some huts that would have been typical of the period, and a fake stone on a cart that you could try to push.  We stopped at Avebury, which has an even larger stone circle than Stonehenge, though the stones are unfinished.  It's so big that there are several buildings within the circle, including a pub.  Within the pub is a well, into which it is thought one of the previous owners had thrown his wife.  We stopped by Oxford for a brief tour.  Stacey and I ate at the Brown Cafe, but after looking around the place I realized it was owned by some Portuguese guys.  They were a little surprised when I said, "Muito obrigado" on the way out.  Oxford University was old, traditional, cold and damp.  Our University President went there.  I can't imagine a place more different from UC Riverside, where I attended.

Thursday morning we went to St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge. We stopped at Twinings to stock up on tea, and had lunch at the Old Bank of England (now a pub). Our afternoon was free.  Stacey and I went to the Natural History Museum.  It was really impressive, containing things you just don't see everywhere, like collections from Darwin and Wallace, and one of the few Archaopteryx fossils. The fossils in general were awesome.  They had a whole wall of Plesiosaurs, and some of the American megafauna, like a ground sloth.  The taxidermic mounts of the extinct birds is always a bit depressing.

Friday morning we left early for Kings Cross Station, met our guide and caught the train to Scotland.  Stacey and I actually glimpsed of Hadrian's Wall on the way.  When we got to Edinburgh we got on a bus for a short tour of the city.  Our guide Robin played the bagpipes at Holyrood House.  We went to our lodging, which was a Bed & Breakfast that was not exactly in the center of town.

Saturday was our bus tour of Scotland.  There had been a fairly serious storm, with high winds, and it had knocked out the electricity to the castle that we were supposed to tour.  Consequently, we spent all day on the bus, with short stops at various places.  Of course, we had an hour to burn in a small town on the shores of Loch Ness, but there was very little to see or do there.  We went down to take our photo by the Loch and it was blowing sleet harder than I've ever seen.  My eyes were burning from the tiny balls of ice pinging off my face.  We saw the Three Sisters mountains as well as Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain. We caught a glimpse of the castle used by the French taunters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I kind of fell in love with all the sheep.  They look so pastoral on the green hillsides.  I saw about three life birds, including the Crested Tit, Chaffinch, and Hooded Crow.

Sunday morning Stacey and I walked all the way to Edinburgh Castle to take the tour.  Again, it was raining, and hardly anyone was there.  The big cannon, Mons Meg, was one of my favorite sights, and it was cool to see the Stone of Destiny, just as I remembered it from that episode of The Highlander.  We got back on the train and returned to London.

We got up early Monday morning and took the express to Heathrow.  Two little girls were sitting behind me on the plane.  They kicked my seat all the way back to the USA.  I watched a few movies, but couldn't get much sleep.  We were late getting in, so we ended up having to drive in Chicago rush hour traffic.  In the dark.  After being up for 16 hours.  Eventually, we found our way out of the city.  Some of the students were unable to catch the Amtrak, and we gave one a ride back to Keokuk, which was on the way home anyway.  We got in late after being up about 24 hours.  We were sure happy to see our puppies again.