Friday, November 23, 2007

Blenheim Palace

We left Liverpool Friday morning, the 19th, heading out toward London. Our stop during that drive was my favorite place of all we saw in England, Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim has everything. Famous English aristocracy, unbelievable scenary, history, romance and amazing art. The grounds along with the funds to build his palace were given the first Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne to thank him for his service to the country in 1705. The Duke's family eventually became the Spenser-Churchill family through deaths and marriage leading down to Winston Churchill. Princess Diana, born Diana Spenser, was a distant relation to this family. Winston Churchill was born in the living quarters of the palace.

We arrived there early morning thanks to our navigator, Beatrice, who directed us to the nearby town of Woodstock. After buying admission tickets and parking, the first things we saw were trailers and Victorian dressed actors having lunch, and it was apparent that they were filming a movie. Signs posted informed visitors that the movie was "Young Victoria" a Martin Scorsese production starring Emily Blunt. They were filming a funeral procession scene and it was interesting to see the period costumes, horses and carriages. But, since they were filming the scene over and over, Haley and I decided to take the 3 mile round trip walk out to the water pump house through the gardens and Mary went off on her own to take pictures.

The scenery was spectacular. Absolutely beautiful no matter which direction one would look. Manicured English gardens, mazes, rose garden, garden follys, paths and cottages.

When we came back, and after a warming lunch in the cafe of soup, sandwiches and hot tea, I decided to upgrade my admission and take the tour of the living quarters and state rooms and it was fascinating. Incredible art, a full wall pipe organ, huge library, gilded china and large scale furniture. The program included a "real life" walk through family rooms as they were in the past with a "ghost" narrator explaining the the story of the first Duke. The scandalous family history includes American railroad heir Vanderbuilt who "convinced" his daughter Consuelo, against her will, to marry the current impoverished Duke in 1896 because her family could provide the money the Duke needed to keep his palace in repair and Vanderbuilt and his wife dearly wanted their daughter to be a duchess.

It was a wonderful last day in the UK, But it was time for us to head back to Heathrow airport where we would say our goodbyes.

I dragged my luggage through Terminal 3 at Heathrow to the Heathrow Express train to Paddington station where I had a hotel for the night.

It seemed fitting that when I got off of the express train that there was an entire orchestra rehearsing in the train station. They were playing James Bond themes and it echoed off the glass ceiling and sounded great!

I'm now officially "outta time". All that there is left to do is take the morning Heathrow Express train out of Paddington Station to my flight home.

Magical Mystery Tour -

Thursday, 10/18, we were to take the Liverpool Magical Mystery bus tour. We walked from our hotel over to the central town area with enough time to split up and walk around looking at shops. Liverpool residents have their own accents - different from London, but they are friendly and take time to stop and point out directions.
In the afternoon we filed into a line getting aboard the Magical Mystery tour bus. Our fellow travelers represented a wide assortment of ages and nationalities and the bus was completely full and very hot. As we boarded the bus, Beatles music started playing. The tour guide was a cute blond guy, naturally a huge football (rugby) fan. He kept reminding us how many times Liverpool had taken home the trophy cup . . I think it was 5 times. He knew his stuff tho, he played John Lennon's best friend in a recent movie and worked with Paul as a stage manager . . . at least once. A lot is crammed into the tour and it is spread out across Liverpool which necessitates "drive bys" for some of the sights.

We see George Harrison's birthplace at 12 Arnold Grove, we see the church where Paul met John 50 years ago, we see the house where Ringo was born, and Paul's childhood home, which is part of the National Trust. We see the Linda McCartney cancer clinic and the bus stop where Paul and George used to wait for the school bus and talk about guitars.

Heading down a very narrow street, the song "Strawberry Fields" starts playing and we get ready to file out of the bus to take pictures at the gate. The brass sign was stolen years ago, but it was fascinating to see the places that inspired songs that we have sung for years. "Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about . . . Strawberry Fields forever." A legacy for a former Salvation Army children's home. Our guide tells us that the "hung about" referred to John's Aunt Mimi worrying that he would accidently hang himself while climbing over the gates and climbing the tree branches when he snuck into the deserted grounds to play.

Not far from there, we start hearing the beginning notes from "Penny Lane." As we drive the neighborhood, the tour guide points out the elements of the song: here's where the barber shaves another customer, here's the fire station, and ohmygosh, here is the "shelter in the middle of the roundabout where the pretty miss is selling poppies from a tray."

"They're just ordinary places" a teenaged girl on the bus tells her dad. He was obviously a huge fan, and told her that it didn't matter. He always wanted to see them. And it was a lot of fun to put the pieces together. As popular as the Beatles became, the tour illustrated how they reached back and used their memories of growing up in and around Liverpool to shape popular culture in the '60s.

The tour ended at Matthews street, home of the Cavern's new location. The old Cavern, the site of the early Beatle gigs before Ringo joined them, was demolished for a street project. We asked the tour guide to suggest a place we could go for a fish and chips dinner, and he recommended "The Grapes" which was a pub frequented by all of the bands playing the Cavern because it had a bathroom . . . and the Cavern didn't. The street has basically become a tourist stop for Beatles stores, but the fish and chips were great.

Tomorrow is my last full day in the UK. Haley and Mary will travel on toward the north for another week, but they are going to take a detour back to London to drop me off before continuing their journey.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tuesday Night - Liverpool

It was dark by the time we approached the port city of Liverpool. We learned that you don't necessarily need to "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey", you can now drive underneath it via a toll bridge when you make the wrong turn. We stopped traffic -again- while it took the 3 of us to figure out the correct change to get out of the toll plaza, and we got back on track towards our hotel.

Wednesday morning, 10/17/2007:
Liverpool is a much nicer city than I expected -- having just been named the European Capital of Culture for 2008. There is much construction and improvements going on to prepare for the year of celebration and many, many fans in town. Fans of football (rugby), and Beatle fans as well. The Rugby semi-finals were going on in Paris, and every pub, restaurant, and public tv was tuned to the finals. This, evidently, is a sport that must be enjoyed in a crowd of fellow fans. Loud fellow fans, but they were all having a great time. Just don't expect to get served dinner during the game because the wait staff is busy watching as well.

The Liver Building was built in 1911. The clock faces are bigger than Big Ben - in fact the largest tower clocks in England.

There are two "Liver" birds high up on each end of the building. As our tour guide explained, the Liver Bird on the tower at the "river end" actually represents a female bird gazing out wistfully across the Mersey River to see if her beloved is on his way back to her side. Her counterpart on the opposite tower is a male impatiently looking toward the town to see if the pubs have opened. We had lunch down at the Albert Dock and spent most of the day at "The Beatles Story" museum and shopping.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Magnificent Stonehenge

All of a sudden, there it is. Magnificent Stonehenge. Even with a crowd of tourists and the highway whizzing by surprisingly close, Stonehenge is awe-inspiring. As you circumnavigate it, it is possible to find an angle where everybody else disappears and your own view is just as it was 3,000 years ago. There is a definite feeling that something ancient and inexplicable dwells at Stonehenge. If you turn and look around you, you are surrounded by a wide green expanse of fields. All along the edge of the fields in the distance are softly rounded grassy mounds of earth, or "barrows", which were ancient burial grounds. As with many of the historical sites in England, admission entitles you to a very informative program accessed via a head set. There is a path around the monument and stations are marked that allow you to learn that on the morning of the summer solstice, the sun rises directly above the "heel" stone and shines through an arch to the inner stone circle.
Heading down the A4 main highway, the next town we stopped at was Avebury -- where there is also a "henge, " another circle of stones stood on end, but covering a much larger circle all around the town.

These stones are more accessible and we walked through the town and had lunch in the visitor's center. We made a couple more stops along the road to see the 13th Century abbey at Lacock.

Lacock Abbey was the site of many scenes for Harry Potter's The Chamber of Secrets -- the cloisters shown here were used for the scene where Harry freed the house-elf, Dobby. Signs in the visitors center indicate that much of the filming for the 6th movie will be shot here as well. There was an excellent visitors center, with friendly workers who gave us a tour of the photograph exhibit by one of the former residents of the abbey, William Henry Fox Talbot, known as the father of English photography.
Luckily, the rainy weather held off during our sightseeing today, but it was starting to rain harder and we had about a 150 mile drive to make it to Liverpool by nightfall.
After getting some miles behind us, we stopped at the "Moto" which is UK for truck stop, but it was a very posh one with a Marks and Spenser food hall as well as a buffet restaurant along with the usual Burger King. Diesel petrol for our car is sold in litres, and our partial fill up was 28 pounds, almost $60.00.

Salisbury Faire or Not

Awakening on a misty Tuesday morning at the Rokeby, we enjoy tea, coffee and a "full English breakfast" in their pleasant sun room.

We dragged our luggage downstairs to the car and headed off on our walk back into the town center of Salisbury. Every Tuesday, there is supposed to be a quaint farmer's market and craft faire, but we picked the one Tuesday of the year that featured a noisy carnival with rides and games.

So, after walking across the street from our lodging and under the round-a-bout, we headed past the carnival into town and toward the famous cathedral. Salisbury is a busy town with shops, bakeries, and narrow streets. We peered into the shops as we walked the long way around the back side of the cathedral and found the entrance.

The Salisbury cathedral, dating from the 1200's, is often described as England's most beautiful, as well as the inspiration for Harry Potter's Hogwart's school. It boasts the tallest cathedral spire in England and its additional claim to fame is that it has on display one of the 4 copies of the original Magna Carta, writen by hand and given to the cathedral in 1235. We walked through and enjoyed reading the information and talking to the informative docents who pointed out many of the archectural features.

We spent quite a bit of time at the cathedral and the gift shop. There was still much more to see today in the countryside as we head north towards Liverpool, so it was time to get back on the road.

Salisbury was one of my favorite places on the trip. There really was something to see around every corner such as these two friendly locals spotted by Mary:

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Night Falls and We Are In Salisbury

Now, as we are heading to Salisbury Monday evening, you may be asking yourself, "How are the girls finding their way around all of these English towns?" The answer is "Beatrice". Beatrice is the name we gave our trusty navigator you see above. She sits on the dashboard and tells us where to turn. Click on the arrow above to hear her.

She would say, "Take the second exit off the round-a-bout" and Mary, the navigator, would count them off. Worked like a charm. Well, mostly. But she did get us to the Rokeby Guest House in Salisbury without losing us once. The Rokeby was another cozy choice and it was set up like an olde English upstairs/ downstairs residence, although they told us it was most recently a schoolhouse. Decorated in maroon and cream with satin pillows. We moved in. The bathroom for our room was out the door, and up the stairs, but it was roomy which was welcome after the tiny bath in London. Made for some careful late night trips, but I never ran into anyone else -- thank goodness.

The innkeepers gave us instructions on how to walk into the center of town, and we headed off to take a look for a friendly pub. The Royal George Inn fit the bill perfectly. Shania Twain was on the jukebox and the locals were playing cards in the corner. We were warmly welcomed by the proprietress who loaded up the juke box for us and broke out bowls of peanuts. We closed up the joint and weren't kicked out at closing time but accepted to stay on with the regulars.

Haley was conked on the head by the low roof as we were leaving, a reminder that the inn dates back to the 13th century, but we had a great time until it was time to walk in the brisk air back to the Rokeby.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Good Day Monday

10/15/2007 - Monday morning, and we are ready to get going! After breakfast our last morning at the Jesmond Dene, Haley and Mary return to the room to pack and organize. I decide to jump back on the tube back to Covent Garden to do a quick bit of shopping at the London Disney store and the Quicksilver Surf shop. Walked through the Marks and Spenser department store and then headed back to King's Cross to meet up with the others.

On the agenda for today is going back to Heathrow via the tube to pick up our rental car and head out toward Winchester and Salisbury.

First stop was the picture perfect town of Winchester and its beautiful cathedral. Mary and I walked the length of town to where the ruins of the Great Hall remain to see King Arthur's round table, which was a copy made in the 12th or 13th century, but it was closed.

It was time for lunch, so we found a picturesque sandwich shop upstairs over a side street and went up for an afternoon tea. The home-made soup, sandwiches and warm scones accompanied by a steamy pot of tea were just the thing after all of that walking in the misty air.

We were interested to see where Jane Austen was buried right in the middle of the floor of one of the aisles of the cathedral. It was fascinating to see the memorials and burial stones in the floor of the church dating back to the 1400's and 1500's and some even older. Jane Austen's stone does not mention that she was a famous author, only that she died in the town. Intricate crypts are up and down the aisles jumping the centuries, but many of the marble memorials in the floor and being worn away by time and feet.
It was incredibly solemn and beautiful in the cathedral as the Eveningsong services began, and since tourist season was past, we had it almost all to ourselves except for a few townspeople attending the service. It was very easy to imagine people coming through the door and hearing those same words every evening for centuries.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sunday in London

10/14/2007 - We covered a lot of territory in London today. 17,486 steps according to Haley's pedometer. First, we had a "Full English" breakfast at Jesmond Dene's breakfast room. A Full English is 2 fried eggs, a piece of bacon, a large link sausage, baked beans and all of the toast, coffee and tea you would like. After breakfast we walked down the street 200 yards to Kings Cross Station, site of the famous Harry Potter Platform 9 3/4. Took the underground to the Tottenham Court tube station to meet up with our "London Beatles Walking Tour", which, of course, was just up our alley. A little on the corny side, but there was a large group of about 25 of us following the tour leader up and down streets and alleys to peer in the windows of Paul McCartney's office building (MPL Productions) and other sites in the city proper.
We saw where 'Hey Jude' was recorded and the former Apple Corp. headquarters building where The Beatles did their final rooftop "Let It Be" concert. It was a 2 hour walking tour and it was a beautiful day for it.

Coolest of all, was Abbey Road Studios where we stopped traffic in the famous cross-walk.

Pretty much the same way the boys did it (at least we thought so) ------------>

Everyone signs their names on the Abbey Road studios wall -- I wonder how many times a year they have to repaint that wall?

And we weren't done yet. Next we hopped back on the tube, this time traveling under the Thames to the South End where we took a ride on the immense London Eye ferris wheel.

It is a 45 minute slow revolution that does not stop when you walk in the capsule. The entire city was laid out for us like the best 3D map ever. After, we strolled along the Thames River and crossed it on an ultra-modern footbridge. Spectacular!

Time to head back to our beds, after passing the Big Ben tower just when it was glowing gloriously in the golden light of sunset. We ended up with a pint at the Nag's Head pub in Covent Garden. We certainly got our money's worth on the London Underground today.

Monday, November 12, 2007

First Night in London

10/13/2007 - The plan was to take the Picadilly line underground to our bed and breakfast, the Jesmond Dene across from Kings' Cross station. However, Mary had arrived 6 hours before Haley and me, and in addition to purchasing Oyster tickets (preloaded tickets for the underground) she found an article in the London paper that author Terry Pratchett was autographing books at a science fiction store in Covent Garden. Mary's son is a big fan of the books, so we made an unscheduled stop at the bookstore to get autographed books for him. The line was long . . .

But the author was charming and the time spent talking to people in line and taking turns checking out the nearby shops made time go by fast. After that we hailed a black English taxi, squeezed into the one seat with all of our luggage, and hung on while the taxi driver duplicated Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through London traffic across town to the Jesmond Dene. . The bed and breakfast turned out to be very cozy with a friendly staff person who helped us muscle our suitcases down a curving, narrow staircase to our room, downstairs right next to the cheery breakfast room.

We were still on L.A. time and ready for bed after unpacking, but we walked through the neighborhood to find dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Then it was back to the hotel to finally sleep!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Glorious Britain !!!

A week in England with my friend from work Mary -- and Haley --- who was originally just Mary's friend. Haley is a kindred spirit and fellow Beatle fan. So, . . . it happened that Mary and Haley were planning a wonderful journey to England to include a pilgrimage to all points Beatle, maybe a little Harry Potter, with the express intention to get Haley back to the UK and get Mary there for the first time road trip. One day they came down to the Times cafeteria for lunch to tell me all about it. We didn't document the date, but it may have been August? Their plans sounded fabulous. They were going to do almost 3 weeks visiting London, Liverpool and as far north as they could manage. Well it sounded amazing. So as we bid goodbye, Haley said, "You know, you could come along too." I said, "Oh no. I couldn't. I shouldn't" as I bid them goodbye and happy planning. That evening, I was telling Brent about their plans, and he said, "You ought to go." Hmmmm . . .

So, after several conference call planning sessions and by the grace of my frequent flyer account ----------> TA DA !!!

On October 12, the 3 of us, taking 3 different flights met at Heathrow Airport in London to start our adventure! Let me skip to the bottom to say that it came out perfectly! I only had a week, and Mary and Haley would journey on. Over the next few days I will add some of my favorite pictures and memories from the trip.

And thanks so much, Mary and Haley, for including me along on your adventure.