London and southern England

Day 1 - arrived in Manchester after an overnight flight from Philly. We went to the train station, had our 8 day rail pass validated, and boarded the train to London. Arrived in London in the early afternoon, checked into the hotel, and walked around our neighborhood. We were close to Hyde Park, a lage open green space with playgrounds, pools, and ponds. After the park, we found Harrod's, and stopped in to see how the fabulously rich spend their money. We even had cheesecake in one of the many cafes/restaurants that they have. Adam said it was the best $8.00 piece of cheese cake he ever had :) And the waiter was even slightly snooty. That night, we stayed in and planned for our trip the next day

Day 2 - Stonehenge & Bath. On our second day in London, we had our first experience with the tube (underground, or subway to us Yanks). We needed to take it to get to the proper rail station that would take us west. We were packed like sardines in the cars, since it was rush hour. We even broke down, and had to leave the car and wait for the next one. At least the conductor apologized and explained what the problem was (a door wouldn't close) before asking us to leave. But, within minutes, we were on our way again. Once at the train station, we found our train and boarded. The trains in England are great, even though they are the butt of many jokes about their timeliness, and the number of breakdowns. But every train we used throughout the week left on time, and only one was delayed (for 10 minutes, and we did receive numerous apologies and an explanation of the problem - track damage). You board the train, with or without ticket. A person works his way through the train to either punch the tickets, or sell you one. There is also food service on most trains - either a cart that goes up the aisles, or separate cars with more full service hot food. I never figured out why, but on two occasions, our drinks were free. And yes, you can have beer or alcohol on the train, even in the mornings! You're even allowed to bring your own food and drink with you. Despite this, the trains are still very clean. When we reached Salisbury (the closest station to Stonehenge), we decided to splurge and take a cab to the site. I guess a lot of tourists do this, since they had a fixed rate to take you there, wait, and take you back. Stonehenge is roped off now, so you can't get closer than 20 feet to the rocks, but it was still very impressive. After oohing and aahing for awhile, we loaded up on Stonehenge souvenirs and went back to Salisbury. Salisbury has the distinction of having the fastest built and oldest(?) cathedral in England. It was built in a mere 38 years in the early 14th century, and actually came out looking like the original plans. I guess most large building projects like that were done in parts over many more years, with changes to the original ideas. The inside was like most large cathedrals in England - awe inspiring and overwhelming - you could spend days just looking at the artwork involved. They had many graves for famous Englishmen inside the church, going all the way back to the 1400's. There was also an old timing device, the first of it's kind. It used gears like a clock to keep track of time, and when the time was right, it rang the large bells in the tower. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the older part of Salisbury - it still had a medieval feel to it. At lunch, I finally tried Shepards Pie, and Adam had "potato jackets"., which was just a fancy way of saying baked potato with stuff in it. We took the train back to London, and spent the rest of the evening walking up the Thames by Big Ben. We saw the line for the London Eye (a 550 foot ferris wheel) was at least a two hour wait, so we decided to put that on our list to do first thing one morning.

Day 3 - London . On our third day, we started by getting a London Pass,a pass that would get us into a lot of the attractions we wanted to see. We then made our way on the tube to the London Bridge area - we wanted to see an attraction called the London dungeon before the lines started to form. It was a frightful look at London's gruesome past, including displays of the plague and great fire, and various torture and dungeon instruments. They even had a Jack the Ripper exhibit, and plenty of spooky looking extras to "scare" you along. Adam was chosen to demonstrate the torture device that, to put it politely, made you a candidate for the high end of the boys choir :). After that we wandered around the area, and saw the ship that Sir Walter Raleigh used to sail to the new world - it's parked right around the corner from the Globe Pub - featured in Bridget Jones Diary. We also saw the London Bridge - very unimpressive, as the original bridge, with all of the stores that were on it, was sold and is now in Arizona! The new bridge looks like a normal steel span bridge. We crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge, one of the first drawbridges in modern times. After a brief tour that included some fabulous views from the top, we went on to the London Tower. We saw the crown jewels, and the place where Henry VIII did all of his beheading, and the tower were Mary Queen of Scots was held (and later, Sir Walter). The legend says that the monarchy will fall when the ravens leave the Tower, so they have had all of the ravens clipped so they can't fly away....We had an excellent English lunch of fish and chips and shepherd's pie in the cafeteria (King Henry ate here!!), then saw the rest of the castle and walls. We then started walking around to find Trafalgar Square, but got hopelessly lost all right I got us hopelessly lost), so we took a cab. We saw the square, totally covered with pigeons, and stopped in a brass rubbing "museum" located under a church! We walked over to the beginning of the Mall, the long wide boulevard that leads to Buckingham Palace, but decided it was too late to see the Palace, so we ate dinner (this English place called "Pizza Hut") and went home.

Day 4 - London, part 2. We only had our London pass for two days, so we set out today to see everything else it allowed us to. But we started by going to the London Eye - a 550 foot "observation wheel" that never stopped moving. You had to board as the wheel was slowly turning - a total of 28 minutes to complete a loop. It was really amazing to look down on Big Ben. You could see most of London from the top. It's located on the Thames, right across form Big Ben and Parliament. When we were finished, we used our pass to see the London Aquarium, a Dali/Picasso exhibit, and the Namco funstation - all were located in what used to be the old city hall building. We then crossed the river again, and went to see Westminster Abbey - another awe inspiring cathedral with even more famous people buried inside. The Close that was connected to the abbey was even more impressive. They had some of the only remaining tiles and wall paintings from the original 13th century building. It was one gigantic circular room, with the book of Revelations pictured in dozens of paintings. During our time in the abbey, it rained - one of only two times that it rained the whole week we were there. We left and made our way to Picadelly circus, the main theater/entertainment area, and then back down to the river for a short boat tour up the Thames. It was great to see everything from a different perspective, and the operator pointed out a lot of the lesser known buildings. When we finished, we decided to walk down to see St. Pauls - it has the second largest dome in a cathedral. Since we already saw the first largest dome (St. Peter's in Vatican City), we figured we had to see this. It took a good half hour to find our way there, only to find that it was closed for a concert! But the building was still impressive from the outside. By this time it was getting late, so we "tubed" it back to the hotel.

Day 5 - Cardiff, Wales & Bath. We were back on the trains again today. The ride to Cardiff passes through the beautiful English countryside. When we arrived, we were not really prepared to see everything written twice - once in English,and once in Welsh (Gaelic?). We immediately made our way to the castle. This was one of a handful of English castles that have histories back to pre-Roman times, through the Romans and Normans and finally English/Welsh. The keep in the middle was built on a high hill (lots of stairs). then you could walk up the keep to get a great view from the battlements. The walls of the castle were also the living quarters, and they were still decorated with an eclectic mix of "too much money and nothing else ot spend it on" - the top floor had a Roman garden open to the air, and other rooms were designed with themes - one Arabic, one "nursery tales", a medieval banquet hall, etc... After the castle, we wandered around Cardiff and shopped before getting back on the train to take us to Bath. Bath still looks like a medieval town - a huge cathedral dominating the downtown, with lots of small winding alleys and streets. - it even had a bridge that was lined with shops, and covered from the elements. We went to see the cathedral, but it was closed for an event (Doh!), so we headed over to the Roman Bathes. The ruins are impressive, but since there is no roof over the pools, they were all green with algae! Underneath the pools you could see the original spring, and feel the hot steam coming out from it. Upstairs, for a mere 50 pence, you could get a glass of the hot mineral water - good for whatever ails you!

Day 6 - Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon. We started out with the intention of going to Dover and then Hastings and/or Canterbury. But it was Saturday, and when we arrived to take the train, we found that it was a two hour trip to Dover - no expresses running today. So we quickly fell back on "Plan B". We knew that the ride to Oxford was short, so we decided to start there. On the train, we found out that we could get to Shakespeare's town from there. At Oxford, we experienced our second rainstorm. It only lasted for two hours, but it was enough to cut our visit short. Oxford is a lot of dislocated college buildings, and we were already getting soaked, so we ducked into a pub called Yates (who obviously went to Oxford and drank a lot!). It was a beautiful building made with intricate wood carvings. I imagine it would be a great place to be on a Saturday night. We ate the best fish & chips we had on our trip, and waited for the rain to subside. When it did, we walked back to the train station, and tried to figure out how to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon. We had to take another train to a small town called Leamington Spa, then wait for a while before catching a local to SUA - it is a small town in the middle of farm country, and if it wasn't for Shakespeare, it would probably never get any attention. Of all the places we saw, this one had the best medieval feel - the houses looked authentic (as many of them were), and a lot of the streets were no wider than they were in 1600. The town has a beautiful park in the center, with the Avon river flowing through it, and a butterfly farm on the other side! We walked around and saw Shakespeare's daughter's house, his "agents" house, the place he lived, the church he played in, the pub he drank at, and then finally, his birthplace. The fudgcicle vendor right in front of his birthplace did look a little out of place, but I guess that's to be expected in a tourist trap like this. We found another old time "as it was then" museum that even had a few penny arcade games from the 1920's in it - you could buy old pennies (that were twice the size as the ones they use today) to play the machines. In front of this place was a Newfoundland puppy - the dog had paws bigger than Adams feet, and it still had 80-100 pounds to go before it reached adulthood!!! It already looked like a bear, and was probably as tall as me!

Day 7 - York, Manchester. This was our last day in England, so we packed all of our stuff and went back to the train station to get the train to Manchester. We had become such "experts" on using the tube, that we used it, even with all of our luggage, to get to the train station. When we arrived at Manchester, we stored our luggage in the "Left Luggage" stand, and took the train to York for our final outing. York has the distinction of being the only city that has had ALL of England's invaders/conquerors in it at one time. Celts, Romans, Vikings, Normans, etc..... They recently uncovered a lot of Viking remains from 900 AD, and used it as a basis for an interactive museum on Viking times. the Jorvic (pronounced yor-vick) Center had the coolest museum ride I was ever on. You were in rollercoaster like cars that were suspended from a track near the ceiling. As it moved you along the exhibits, it could swing from side to side, so you were always facing directly at the exhibit you were viewing. It also had a pair of speakers built into the headrest, so you could hear the tour in any one of 7 languages. The recreation of early Viking life was astounding. The rest of the time in York we spent on a bus tour of the city - we were there too late to be able to walk around to see everything. But, we were able to hop off the bus to see the old keep on the hill (more stairs!). Back at the train station, we grabbed a couple of baguette sandwiches to take with us, and rode back to Manchester to check into our hotel.

Day 8 - home again. The Manchester airport was packed with people stuck because of a bus strike in Spain!! The flights were backed up for 14-20 hours because of it - I guess a lot of people were getting to the Spanish airports on the islands they visit, but were then stuck there, so they stopped sending more people in!!! Luckily, the lines for US Airways were short, so we didn't have to wait long at all. And then, before we knew it, we were home again. And after a week of work, I'm ready for my next vacation!
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