Saturday, March 25, 2006

Outside of London

I forgot to mention that I was interviewed last night for Swedish TV. They were collecting "man in the street" reaction to the Labour party funding scandal. I told them that we have become used to such things in America.

I took a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath which we visited in that order. So, I shall recap each in that same order. After some confusion in the bus station with lots of tours leaving at the same time and lots of people trying to make sure they end up on the right tour and a group on our tour that was missed by the hotel pickups and had to taxi in, we are on our way with a group of 50 or so (only a few empty seats on the bus). Windsor Castle was about 90 minutes from the city. Don't recall many highlights on the journey other than passing the Fuller Brewery (one of London's most famous and well respected). During the trip, the guide struggles to bring some life into the group with a good deal of humor laced through his stories - he's actually quite good, its the group that seems to be lacking.

After a bit of a trek from the coach to the castle grounds (definitely seperated the strong from the weak within the group). Only a few other groups are present, so we get tickets and gain entrance to the grounds rather easily. After one or two brief lectures, we are let loose through the state apartments, starting with a walk around Queen Mary's doll house. The doll house was interesting, but the state apartments were another thing altogether. I have never seen anything quite like it. Probably the closest things I can think of for comparison are Napoleon's apartments in the Louvre or the Breakers in Newport (but its been a long, long time since I last visited the mansions in Newport so my memory may have inflated how grand they were). Versaille isn't even close to comparing to what you encounter as you walk through these rooms. The walk takes you through bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms, entry halls, salons - quite a wide array of rooms in all various shapes and sizes. Each is fully decked out with furnishings, paintings, and all kinds of other amazing decorations, carpeting and the like. As an example, in one of the smaller rooms, there was something like $600mil worth of paintings on the walls. The proportions of the rooms are also quite immense in every dimension. I heard that we were one of the last groups to get the extended tour of the apartments as they shorten the tour when the number of tourists starts picking up in the coming weeks. This included walking through the part of the castle where the fire started but has now been rebuilt and restored. Unfortunately, pictures inside the castle were not allowed. They would have been amazing.

And, I'm happy to report there was a Starbucks just outside the castle walls.

Back on the coach for another hour or so and we arrive at Stonehenge. First reaction is that it's a lot smaller than I imagined. A lot, lot smaller. I think the legend and mystery of Stonehenge has become so great that its hard for the actual visit to live up to those expectations. I'm not sure exactly what I had expected, but I guess I kind of expected to take a look and say "wow" or be awe inspired in some way. I'm glad it was included on the trip (and did take a few of the exact same pictures that millions of people have taken before me), but if you're visiting and pressed for time, I wouldn't consider this a must see. They are building a new visitor center which may help with the overall experience - the visitor center at Newgrange definitely helped give some perspective and context prior to actually visiting the passage tomb itself.

Another hour or so and we enter the Bath area. Bath is in a river valley and there are some wonderful views down into the valley as we make our entry. For some reason, I expected the baths to be in a fairly remote area. But, they were located right next to the river in the center of the city of Bath. The tour of the baths was interesting, but you weren't allowed to touch the water. You could buy some water to drink at the end of the tour, but the guide suggested getting one glass and 50 straws as the taste was not good. The most interesting part of the stop in Bath was wandering the city after the tour. I had about an hour to explore the streets and alleyways. Its an extremely picturesque city with an abundance of coffee shops (including a Starbucks) and boutiques lining the streets. A number of chain stores have moved in taking away some of the charm, but there is enough frontage and still enough of a mix that you don't feel like you're walking down Main St in Anytown, USA. The English Ballet was also in town for a performance so it appears to have a healthy arts community. I would definitely recommend a visit to Bath - it also looks like a wonderful spot to spend a few days.

Not much on the journey back other than being able to view Bristol off in the distance as we crest one of the hills. Back in the station at about 8pm followed by an average dinner at a rib place recommended on a local food review site. The tour cost 60 pounds (~$110) of which about 25 pounds went to admission fees for the 3 sites. I'd say it was good value for the money and that the Evan Evans group did a very good job - from the cleanliness of the coach, the knowledge and personality of the guide and to faciliting a large group through a busy day with relative ease. So, picking the first tour offered at the information desk proved to be a good choice.

When I returned, I checked train tickets for Edinburgh (as it now appears the weather may be decent on Sunday), but the discount fares are no longer available so it looks like I won't make it to Scotland on this trip.

Miscellaneous learnings:
Cheerio - comes from "Chair, ho!", which was used to get chair service from the house
posh - comes from "port out, starbord home" which is how the elite travelled to avoid the hot sun on the ships

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