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Thursday, May 31, 2012

"On the road again..."

It's been a few days since I last blogged. I've practically been on an internet blackout since returning to England. One thing that America does really well is free wi-fi spots. The U.K... not so much. McDonalds supposedly has it in every restaurant (if you can find one... not so common over here) but even then, you have to sign in, get them to SMS you a code, input the code... It's just messy, when it should be really simple.

The last two places I've stayed haven't had wi-fi at all, and thankfully my B&B in Bath (where I'm staying 2 nights) has it so I can surf and blog to my heart's content. Hurrah!

Now all this wi-fi talk might make me sound like a selfish yuppie, but it has actually had a serious effect on my holiday for a simple reason... I'm driving myself around the U.K. without a map...! I'm navigating by road signs.

I just took it for granted that when I hired a car it would come with a free GPS sat-nav. I was wrong. Thrifty don't even hire them out! So here I was in Maidstone, accepting the keys from the Thrifty lady, and she was suggesting maybe I could find a department store somewhere and buy a sat-nav? I wasn't very happy, but I figured that's what I'd have to do.

Thankfully across the road was a big Sainsburys, and they stocked them. When I took my Tomtom up to the service desk though, I read that before it could be used it had to be plugged into a computer to get all of the map data downloaded... Obviously I don't have a computer (I don't think iPads count) so that was that. The thought of having an automated navigator was out.

So if you can imagine for a moment, being in a place completely and absolutely unfamiliar to you (I'd certainly never been to Maidstone before!) with no idea which direction you're even facing, and having to find your way to a destination 50 miles away that's not on any road signs! Aaaarrrghghgh!! (I do happen to get a wee bit stressed in this kind of situation, but there was no way around it except through it...) Knowing that I needed to travel south-east, I found signs to Hastings, which I knew was south. So I took a fairly massive detour to Hastings, turned left and went along the coast until I hit Dover. Made it!

Dover itself was... quite unimpressive, but I came to see the famous White Cliffs, and they are definitely striking. Since I arrived in the early evening pretty frazzled though, I didn't pay them much mind. I figured I'd see them the following morning.

Well, the following morning was so darn FOGGY I couldn't see more than a couple of metres in front of my face!! So the White Cliffs were white all right... Completely hidden in the fog!!

I did the walk along the cliff edge anyway, it was actually pretty awesome with all the fog swirling up over the cliff, and I hardly saw another person on my walk, just horses and bunnies. (Who'd be that stupid to walk the cliffs at a time like that??)

After that I drove myself back to Hastings and this time visited the town of Battle and did the tour on the site where the famous Battle of Hastings happened a thousand years ago. I wasn't expecting much, but this ended up being one of my favourite parts of the trip so far! My main reason for touring England was to immerse myself in the history, learn about the past while walking in the footsteps of the people in the history books. And the audio tour at the Battle site is really great, it puts you right in the story as you're walking the fields where it actually took place. Very, very impressed by that one, I was like some kind of over-excited history geek! I see that they do an annual re-enactment of the entire battle once a year. That would be so cool to see! (or even be a part of!!)

Last night's bed-stop was Brighton. It's all very well to have the address of your hotel, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't have a map of the town! First I had to find a place to park, pay the ridiculous amount of money (£3.50 an hour!! That's like 6 bucks!!) and then try and find an information centre, since not a single shop, cafe or restaurant seemed to be offering free wi-fi! VERY frustrating!! Finally found the info centre. It had just closed. Brilliant. Any ideas, anyone? Because I was fresh out, and I had to get back to the car before the parking ran out. (sigh) By absolute fluke I passed by a wall near the beach that had a big map of the city, which I scanned and scanned until I found my road. Huzzah! Then it was back to the car just in time to get stuck in peak-hour traffic. (Did I mention I had a really great day yesterday...?)

Finally made it to the hotel and walked along the famous Brighton Pier in the evening. And wouldn't you know it? Just as I was approaching, this massive fog rolled in from the sea and covered the pier so that you couldn't even see it anymore!

Today I drove to Bath via Southampton so that I could visit family friends Pauline, Lindsay and Jack. Once again I was cursing my lack of navigation. I could follow the road signs (and my newly acquired Britain road atlas) to Southampton, sure. But once I got there how was I supposed to find a specific address? I found a big shopping centre, went to the information booth (no wi-fi at all...) and asked the girl if she could look the address up. She jumped on Google maps and then sort of said, "Oh, that's really far away, I don't know how to tell you to get there." My response was: "Could you at least tell me what DIRECTION I need to drive in?" She squinted at the screen and then said, "Nnnnot really." *groan*

I went outside the shops, found a town map that pointed me toward the info centre. I walked there, only to find it apparently doesn't exist anymore.

My salvation came from Burger King. God bless you, Burger King!! They had free wi-fi, so I put the address into my mobile, it plotted a course for me, and I could drive to Brook Lane with a map in my hand! (As it turns out, I'd completely overshot the mark by about 10 minutes, but that was okay, I didn't mind doubling back as long as I knew where I was going!)

So I called in to see Pauline, Lins and Jack. It was wonderful to see them again, it has been quite a while. Last time I visited them was with Andrew back in 2001. I told Lins this, and he looked thoughtful for a moment, until I reminded him that Andrew was really sick. Suddenly a light bulb went on above his head. "That's right, and I took him to the doctors!" he said. They've got great memories, full of details. They were still reminiscing about the trip when we took them to Broken Hill, and I think that was back in 1986 or 1987!

I stayed and chatted for about an hour and a half, and then I had to hit he road again to get myself to Bath before peak hour.

So here I am! I've been for a quick wander around the city, couldn't resist going to the movies and seeing a preview screening of Snow White & the Huntsman. (comes out tomorrow officially) Really enjoyed it, definitely recommended. Not for the kiddies though!

With my wonderful internet here I have actually discovered how I can hire a Ready-To-Go Sat-Nav that will get delivered here tomorrow morning! Yay!! So from now on I shall have a navigator to tell me where to go. Phew! That will make things SO much easier!

Tomorrow I'm going to see some more of Bath, learn a bit of history, and then the day after I'm heading north through the Cotswolds to Wolverhampton.

I'm doing a lot of driving, but I don't mind too much. I think I've got to get some new CDs. I've listened to Newsies about 20 times now. The radio is great too. BBC2 is awesome. They interview lots of interesting people, play good music and there's no ads!

Oh, by the way, there's a small little celebration going on in this country this weekend. The Queen's Jubilee. Not sure how much they're talking about it back home, but here it's EVERYWHERE! Can't escape Lizzy's face! Massive to-do happening in London. It's gonna be crazy, glad I'm not there!

I wonder if anyone's actually read all the way to the bottom of this blog. If you have, hi! I've been long-winded, but it is pretty lonely travelling on your own. Often I just wish I had someone to talk to, so today that's YOU! :-)

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Last few shots of Ireland

I'm back in Dublin now. Can't believe it's really been a week since I was last here! I have seen a lot of Ireland's beautiful scenery, but more importantly I have learned A LOT about this unique nation, its tragic and violent history (both distant and recent) its myths and legends, its odd traditions, and yes, I now feel like I KNOW Ireland.

I must admit, I was kind of expecting it to be a lot like England. And in a sense, it is. A lot of the roads and shops are the same, etc. But this is a country (two countries, really) unlike any other, rich in history and tradition, a proud nation that's been pushed around by others for the past few thousand years.

My prayer is that in maybe 50 or 100 years, the North and South are once again united, free from both British rule and internal conflicts. That the people could look to the past with heavy hearts but look to the future with hope and the knowledge that in the end, their freedom was worth fighting for. I don't know how likely that is, but I can dream...

Here's a few final photos of the Emerald Isle. I'll comment on each one. I have no control over what order Blogspot decides to put the photos, so they will be chronologically all over the place. Nothing I can do, sorry.

1. This is a little pub we stopped at for morning tea. Can't actually remember the name of the town... It was featured in a movie called "The Field" starring Richard Harris.

2. This was on an island called Devenish. We went there by boat and got to wander around the 12th century monk ruins. Amazing stuff... And those monks must have been really short!!

3. We did a day trip to an island called Inis Mor (literally Irish for "Big Island.") It was a brilliant day. We hired bikes and rode all over the island. It's still fairly old-school there, and the people all speak native Irish. (Gaelic) This is me posing on top of a very tall cliff at the site of a prehistoric stone fort called Dun Aonghasa. This thing is thousands and thousands of years old!

4. The Giant's Causeway is something very, very strange. It's right up the very top of Ireland, and on the beach are these incredible stone structures, many of them perfect hexagons like this one. They Irish government has applied to have his listed as an official "wonder of the world," and it truly is. It has scientists stumped!

5. More of the Giant's Causeway.

6. Me at the Giant's Causeway!

7. Not far from the Giant's Causeway is the Carrick-a-Rede suspension bridge, which takes you out over a ravine. It's not a particularly LONG bridge, but it IS a very tall one! Not for people squeamish with heights! This is me standing on the cliffs beyond the bridge. You can actually see Scotland from there!

8. An old church on Inis Mor.

9. This was taken this morning in Belfast. Wow, there's a lot to say about that place! This mural in particular was of note because of how cleverly it's painted. No matter where you stand, that soldier is pointing his gun right at you!

10. Jumping back to the ancient monk ruins on Devenish, we attempted a group photo with timers. Mine didn't turn out too well, others did a bit better than me.

11. The gigantic wall that, to this day is there to divide the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast. What a horrible, horrible thing. I almost couldn't comprehend that these Northern Ireland conflicts could be real. And since it's such recent history, the city is still very raw. I felt a little uneasy around areas like this. Our tour guide told us that politicians talk of tearing the wall down, but the reality of the situation is, that would most likely just flare the violence right back up again. These walls have been built taller and taller over the years to stop people from throwing stones / bottles / explosives over them. It's all wrong. So wrong.

12. They love their murals in Northern Ireland. ("Norn Iron") It's almost like a kind of storytelling, a way to remember what should never be forgotten.

13. Okay, we're back to the Giant's Causeway. If there's a logic to Blogspot's ordering, I can't see it.

14. Here's the bridge I was talking about earlier.

15. Random ruin on Inis Mor. Taken from my bike.

16. I took this photo from the bus. This awesome castle had been built on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, but natural causes took place and the erosion of the cliff took part of the castle with it! No one's lived there since.

17. This was taken in a nice little village where we stopped for lunch one day and I can't remember what it was called. >_<

18. Blimey, it's St. Patrick!

19. One more shot of the monks' ruins on Devenish.

Sorry for the long-winded post, but I hope it's been interesting and gives you an idea of what I've been u to over the past week!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pictures of Eire

Helloooo! Day 3 of the Shamrockers bus tour through the noble and ancient land of Ireland. It is a beautiful country. Over the last couple of days we have visited some absolutely stunning sites of scenery. Today we experienced the famous Cliffs of Moher. (you might recognise them as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride or Tom Riddle's cave from Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince) Unbelievably beautiful and dramatic coastline, with birds soaring through the skies all around the cliffs.

It's amazing being up this far north, last night it didn't actually get properly dark until after 10:30pm. It's been mainly overcast (which Ireland is, 90% of the time) but as of now (almost 7pm) the sun is shining and it's absolutely beautiful T-shirt weather with a slight chill in the breeze.

What I've loved most about the country so far though, is immersing myself in its history and culture. Our tour guide Dave is a historian and archeologist by trade so let's just say he knows what he's talking about. Ireland's history is absolutely fascinating (and for the most part horribly tragic) and since I've only ever heard the basics (which I suppose is so be expected living in the British Commonwealth on the other side of the earth) I'm really loving hearing all of the stories, the myths, the legends and the heroes. I'm slowly beginning to understand why Ireland kinda hates England so much!... Not so much in the modern day. The Queen actually visited Ireland for the first time only last year, the first time a British monarch had set foot in the country in 100 years, and the first time since they became a republic. A strong step towards a harmonious future. But there's a lot of healing to do, it's a long and bloody past between them.

It's going to get even more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) when we go up into Northern Ireland in a couple of days. Not quite sure what to expect there...

Tonight I'm staying in the city of Galway which has taken me a bit by surprise in how awesome it is! Unlike the last few towns which have been quaint and sleepy little villages, Galway is bursting with culture and activity! It seems like a hive of creativity and modernism, while still maintaining the sense of history with its old buildings and stoned streets. Very cool place!

Tomorrow we're spending the day on the island of Inis Mór, where the residents all speak native Irish! If the weather's good I'll be hiring a bike and riding myself around the island. Should be cool!!

I'll blog later, t'be sure.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Top o' de mornin' to ye!

So I be here in de land of Ireland, t'be sure. (Oh man, I'm even TYPING in Irish...) It was a long day yesterday. I got up fresh and early, ready to catch my 12:50pm flight from London City Airport. (smaller airport in the other direction than Heathrow, but still easy to reach by train) I got there about 10am, happy that I had plenty of time before my flight... ... ...

Plenty of time, all right!! When I went to check in my luggage I discovered that the flight had been changed... to 5pm! (cue internal screaming) Let this be a lesson to every traveller... REMEMBER TO CONFIRM YOUR FLIGHTS THE NIGHT BEFORE!!! I couldn't even check my luggage in until 3, so I was basically stuck there in this tiny little terminal with a shop and... not much else. I read an entire magazine and played a lot of Professor Layton. It was a long, slow, frustrating day.

Anyway, the flight eventually happened. It was quick and painless, and I found myself in the land of Eire.

It's true what they say, the place is very, very green. Rolling hills, lush foliage, it's all green green green. I'm on a bus tour that's going all around both Irish countries in a week and I've already learned a lot about its history and workings thanks to our very informed tour guide Dave. (imagine an Irish-accented version of Tony Martin with long hair and you get the idea)

Today we did quite a lot of driving, we've come from Dublin to Killarney where we've stopped for the night. We stopped off on the way to check out the castle at the Rock of Cashel, as well as stopping for lunch at Blarney. Got to climb right to the top of this ancient castle, hang upside down over the edge and kiss the Blarney Stone. So now I officially have the gift of the gab! All right!

Tonight we're going to watch a real Irish story teller (!) tell ancient Irish folk-tales! (although Dave warned us, the guy has a filthy sense of humour. Should be a good craic...) Then it's off to the pub! Because, y'know, going to the pub and drinkin' in Ireland is just like breathin' in and breathin' out! (Oops, I'm typin' in Irish again...)

I'll blog again when I've got more news, t'be sure.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Farewell London

It feels like my feet haven't stopped since I arrived here a few days ago! Tomorrow I'm waving goodbye to London and hello to Dublin.

Last night I saw Ghost. Really cool show. There's nothing particularly surprising about the story or script for anyone familiar with the film, but the staging is really, really clever. There's heaps of moments where you sit up and go, "Holy crap, how the hell did they do that??" Like Sam walking through a door, or just materializing out of thin air. Amazing stuff, I was stumped.

Today I had a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre which was really cool, and tonight was Matilda. Out of the nine shows I've seen in the past couple of weeks, I think this would have to be my favorite! Even though I was very familiar with the soundtrack beforehand, I was so happy to find lots of surprises in the show that I knew nothing about. Incredible show with incredible cast. I'd see it again in a heartbeat. And Amanda Thripp threw her school report-turned-paper aeroplane in my direction so I've got a memento!

Stay cool everyone! See you from Ireland!

Friday, May 18, 2012

More Butterbeer!!

Yes, I have once again sampled the nectar of the gods. And although it definitely tastes better in the proper mug, it's still amazing even in a plastic cup.

So! Last night was the Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium. The show is very good, well staged, and the new Lloyd-Webber / Rice songs are inoffensive enough (the Wicked Witch gets the best new song, Glinda gets the worst) even though they don't really match the style of the originals. I really appreciate how they've tried to step away from the movie; they're not trying to just recreate it on stage. I just wish they'd taken an extra brave step and done a complete rewrite. Keep all the beloved songs, sure. But there's some scenes that while they can approximate on stage, it's just never going to work as well as it does in a movie. And let's be honest... This is a story we've all seen about ten thousand times. I'm sure if I was 10 years old I'd probably think it's the most amazing thing ever. It's definitely a good production. But even with new songs and occasional new dialogue, it still just seemed a bit too familiar to me with very few surprises. The star of the show was little Toto. Cutest. Dog. Ever. I couldn't watch anyone else when he was on stage. 7/10 for this one.

Today was the trip north to see the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Amazing stuff, I was there for about 3 and a half hours. Unlike the theme park in Florida, this is an actual tour. You get a cool visual headset with Tom Felton's voice in your ears, and as you wander around all the setpieces at your own pace he narrates for you, and you can stop whenever you want and watch video interviews on your little display. Really nicely presented and there's lots and lots to look at. I can't imagine any Potter-fan being disappointed.

Okay, time to head off to the theatre again!! Tonight it's Ghost. Watch this space!