It’s been a while: London, York, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh

June 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.  I’ve been in the UK since Tuesday evening and adventuring since Wednesday.  Where can I start?

Leaving Asturias

Leaving Asturias was remarkably difficult.  I slept late, not surprisingly, and spent the morning feeling nervous and puttering around.  My aunt made me an early lunch (around 12:30 or 1:00) so that I’d be able to eat before my flight and so that I’d get onto a more English schedule.

When we arrived at the airport, the clerk at the check-in counter told me the flight was delayed by at least an hour.  I spent the extra hour being nervous, which surprised me because I had no rational reason for feeling that way.  I was taking the same flight I’d taken before to the same location, where I would then take the same shuttle to the same hotel.  Nothing new, nothing confusing.  When it finally came time to head through security, I found myself totally unable to say goodbye to my fantastic hosts.  I’d had an absolutely incredible time with them, and it was unbelievably hard to go.  But go I did, only to be patted down by security.  I know, I know, I’m pretty suspicious looking as 5’2” girls who look like they are 16 go, but in comparison to the rest of the population I’m still pretty non-intimidating.

Once through security, I found that my plane was yet more delayed, making it about an hour and a half later than it was scheduled.  Aside from feeling foolish as I repeatedly battled bouts of departure tears in the waiting area, the delay really didn’t bother me.  Unlike the plane I arrived in Asturias on, the plane leaving was packed full.  When it became obvious that every seat was booked, I moved so that a man and his young daughter could sit together.  I wound up next to a man with the hairiest arms in the entire world.  They were so hairy, in fact, that he seemed not to know his own hair-girth, and he repeatedly brushed me with them.  You can imagine my reaction.

When I got to Stansted, I easily called myself a hotel shuttle and waited patiently for its arrival.  The driver remembered me from my stay before and asked me how my visit to Spain was.  It was a very pleasant greeting!  The good vibes kept on coming when I arrived at the hotel and was checked in by a much more competent clerk than the time before.  Things only continued to get better when I went to the hotel restaurant and was waited on by a man who had been pretty sour and unpleasant during my first visit but who was friendly and chatty this time around.  He was intrigued by my e-reader and engaged me in conversation about it multiple times.

Things took a nosedive, however, when I returned to my room and entered the bathroom for the first time.  First, there was a used towel hanging on the inside doorknob.  Second, the toilet seat had most obviously not been cleaned, no more detail necessary.  I could only imagine what else hadn’t been done to have the heebie jeebies for the rest of my brief stay.  I spent the rest of the night repacking my belongings to be ready to head off on the rails with just a backpack.  As it turns out, my backpack holds a lot, which is great… but heavy.  I’m working on my shoulder strength.

After a somewhat restless, nervous (and grossed out) night, I headed into London for the start of my adventure.

London for a day

Before departing for my grand BritRail adventure, I spent a day in London.   I met a good friend of the family at King’s Cross, and from there we proceeded to Clapham to drop my things at her house.  She’s kindly letting me keep my suitcase there while I gallivant around the country with my backpack.  Once my belongings were deposited and we’d had a few moments to breathe, we headed back into the city to see some of the major sights.  We hit a great number of them, including:

Buckingham Palace
The Mall/Queen’s Gardens
Parliament
Big Ben
Westminster Abbey
London Eye
River Thames
Shakespeare’s Globe Theater
Tate Modern (although we didn’t go in)
Millennium Bridge
Gherkin
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Fleet Street and the Strand
Theatre District
Trafalgar Square
Covent Garden

We took the Tube to Buckingham Palace and did the rest on foot.  It was a lot of walking, which was good practice for me for the next week and a half of doing the same type of tour everywhere I go.  From Buckingham Palace, we walked along the river parallel to the Mall, through the Queen’s Gardens.  There were more species of birds there than I’d ever seen in one place before.  Most were water foul, but, of course, there were pigeons aplenty.  There were swans (both white and black), about a zillion varieties of duck, a bunch of birds that I can’t begin to identify, and even a couple of pelicans.  Pretty incredible for the center of the city.

Buckingham Palace!

gardens parallel to the Mall

are these even pelicans?

puffy-headed duck!

From there, we wandered along to Trafalgar Square, but it started to pour along the way so we didn’t linger long.  We continued on toward Parliament and Big Ben, which were great fun to see in person; Big Ben is such an incredibly iconic landmark.  From Parliament, we wandered to Westminster Abbey.  We were planning to go in, but it was shockingly pricey and neither of us cared enough to do it.  We did manage to have our photograph taken by a nice Spanish school teacher who was there with a large group of high school students.  Funny that of all the tourists I picked a Spanish one; I guess I’m still pining away after Asturias…

Trafalgar Square in the rain

Big Ben, as seen by a tiny short person

Westminster Abbey

From Westminster Abbey, we crossed the river and got ourselves coffee and a cookie which we munched while sitting on the banks of the Thames.  It was a casual pause in our day, but it struck me then, and continues to now, as a particularly sweet way to be introduced to the city.  After our coffees, we continued along the banks of the Thames, east toward the Globe Theatre.  The Globe was not a disappointment for a Shakespeare lover like me, and while we were there we discovered that they have some incredibly cheap tickets to shows, so I think I’ll try to see one while I’m in London later in the month.

Coffee and cookies on the Thames... not a great shot, but you get the idea

Shakespeare's Globe!

From the globe we crossed the Thames on the Millennium Bridge and headed straight for St. Peter’s Cathedral.  The doors were closed, so we didn’t try to get in (and it was well past business hours by then), but I may try to get back later in my visit to see the inside.  From St. Peter’s, we wandered down Fleet Street to the Strand and the edges of the theater district.  From there, we wandered up to Covent Gardens, where we caught the Tube to head back to my host’s home.  On our way back, we stopped for some fish and chips, for obvious reasons.  All in all, it was a fantastic day of sightseeing and I enjoyed every minute of it.

that's London Bridge waaaay in the distance, as seen from Millennium Bridge

griffin statue on Fleet Street

St. Paul's Cathedral

York

Waking up Thursday morning was more challenging than expected.  I’d worn myself out the night before, and I was happy and comfortable for the night.  Although nerves kept me awake until the wee hours, once I fell asleep I didn’t want to wake up for many hours.  Because of my lethargy, I woke up a bit later than I’d intended and was slower getting ready than I had anticipated.  On top of that, I found many great excuses to put off my departure, as nerves struck me again and I had a bit of cold feet about striking out on my own.

After much encouragement and reassurance from my hosts, I finally set off for the Tube to get to King’s Cross.  As soon as my feet hit the pavement, my confidence returned and I found my stride.  I got to King’s Cross with no trouble at all.  Once there, I had to activate my BritRail pass, which required me to go to a ticket counter.  I did so, again with no trouble.  I asked the nice clerk when the next train to York was, and he told me it was in four minutes.  I took off running across the station thinking I was at the start of a great anecdote from my trip, only to find that the gate I wanted was just a few yards away… not worth running to at all.  I boarded the train and settled in happily for a couple of hours of admiring scenery and reading the guidebook I’d borrowed from my London hosts.

Once in York, I struck out from the train station to the Tourist Office, which was a quick ten minute walk into the center of the city.  The clerk was extremely helpful, booking me a room for the night and providing me with a York map and guidebook.  I purchased myself two self-guided tour pamphlets: one a tour of the many cathedrals in the city and one a tour of the Bar Wall, the city walls built by Romans before 100 AD.  Then I wandered off to find the guest house where I’d be staying.  The owner/proprietor had only one room left when the tourist office clerk called, and although it was a double room the owner let me use it at the single room rate.  Score!

After dropping off my things in my room, I headed back out to explore the city.  York has a tiny, tiny city center, and the walls themselves are only 2 miles around.  I wandered into the very center to find myself some lunch and I wound up at Betty’s Tea Room, where the staff all wear maid-like period outfits.  It was a bit odd, but somewhat entertaining.  From the restaurant, I wandered down a street filled with shops and found a place to buy myself a UK prepaid cell phone.  After an enjoyable conversation with the utterly adorable (and utterly English, perhaps that’s the same thing) clerk, I invested in a £5 piece of very fine equipment; you can imagine how sophisticated it is!

Phone in hand, I took off wandering around the city center.  I would have wandered farther afield, but there didn’t appear to be much of particular interest in doing so.  After about an hour of relatively aimless wandering, I decided to try my hand at one of the self-guided tours.  I chose the wall walk, as the instructions were clearer, and I thought I probably had time to do both anyway.  Following the directions in the pamphlet, I made my way to the Yorkshire Museum gardens (it was after business hours at the museum, but the gardens are freely accessible until 8pm).  Not realizing that I could access them from the main road, I wandered a very back way to enter the gardens.  Once inside, I found that I couldn’t get up onto the walls, nor could I even determine where I was supposed to try to.  So, I decided I’d start with stop #2 on the tour and make my way around to end at #1.  I quickly found landmark #2, and a big orange fence with a sign saying the walls were closed that day for repairs, to be opened again the following day.  Fantastic.  I was pretty disappointed, but I consoled myself by exploring the museum gardens some more.

ruins of the Bar Walls in the Yorkshire Museum gardens

Eventually growing tired of that, I decided to try my hand at the cathedral tour.  Sadly, this proved to be even less doable.  The cathedral tour pamphlet included two maps: one was the regular street map of the city with no landmarks indicated.  The other was a stylized map with no roads/walkways and the cathedrals as landmarks.  Sadly, it was supremely difficult to reconcile the two maps with each other, and I found myself wandering aimlessly in vague directions.  Ultimately, I found only two of the landmarks, but I really only found the second one because it’s right next to the first.  Ho hum.

York Minster (right)

At this point, I had been walking around the city for about 5 hours and I was pretty tired.  I decided to call it a night, and I walked back to my room, stopping at a grocery store along the way to pick up dinner.  I enjoyed the quiet night in my room watching wonderfully horrible British soap operas (really, watch Emmerdale sometime).  I slept quite soundly through my alarm, and woke at the smells of breakfast wafting up the stairs from the dining room.  I was late enough getting up, however, that I left the hotel and went straight to the train station.  I had intended to get up early and walk the walls, but I foiled my own plan.  I wish now that I’d stayed and walked the walls, but I’ll get to that…

Aberdeen, and a failed attempt at last minute improvement

When I left York, I was headed to Edinburgh.  The ride to Edinburgh was quite enjoyably filled with pretty views of English and Scottish countryside, frequently dotted with sheep and sometimes cows.  There is a low-growing shrub that I kept noticing that looks oddly like larger than life clumps of broccoli (at least when seen from a distance) if, of course, you ignore the yellow flowers.  I intended to get a picture of it, but I didn’t.

The ride was not as enjoyable when it came to my rail partners.  In the seats directly in front of me was a “hen party,” a group of women on a bachelorette trip to Edinburgh for the weekend.  They were perfectly pleasant-seeming, but once they’d cracked open the champagne they got pretty loud with their screeching laughter.  Still, they were nothing compared to the 12 or so guys seated directly behind me who were, drumroll please, a stag party.  Yep, you guessed it, bachelor party to Edinburgh for the weekend.  After a few pints each, they were pretty rowdy, too.  Alas, not a peaceful journey to Edinburgh but entertaining for sure.

As we rode, I read up on Edinburgh in my guide book.  The fact that Edinburgh is emphasized as being a place with great night life began to combine in my thoughts with the rowdiness and annoying behaviors of the two groups near me on the train.  As we neared Edinburgh, I began to doubt my interest in staying in a big, bustling city for the night.  I began to hunt through my guidebook for a suitable alternative.  I had spent a lot of time the night before trying to book a room in Edinburgh for Friday night, but most things in my price range were fully booked.  I decided that I’d better find a room before I picked my destination, so when I got to the train station I made some phone calls to various hotels, b&bs, and guesthouses.  I didn’t have great luck, so I decided to try finding a room in Aberdeen, the next good-sized city up the eastern coast from Edinburgh.  For some reason, I believed Aberdeen to be considerably smaller than Edinburgh and thought I’d have a chance to take a scenic walk to the shore.

I secured a room in Aberdeen and hopped onto the next train.  After two and a half hours of traveling farther north, I exited the Aberdeen train station to find myself in the heart of a rather rough-seeming city with nothing scenic about it.  Aberdeen, as it turns out, is mainly an industrial port.  The people on the street were markedly rougher and ruder than elsewhere, and I got myself rather turned around straight out of the train station doors (the station has been modified since the guide book was written, and the exit is no longer on the same street).  After struggling to find the tourist office, I finally made it to my hotel which was actually quite nice.  Once inside my room, I wasn’t even remotely inclined to leave again to explore the city that I had deemed awful and scary.

Leave again I did, however, mostly out of a perverse desire to force myself to find something to take a photograph of.  I wandered down to “the Esplanade” along the river, which turns out to have been a bit seedy.  I made it back to the center of town and headed the other direction, stumbling upon the city library (it’s like I have a sixth sense) and a much nicer part of town than what I’d originally seen.  By then it was getting a bit late, however, and light was fading.  I considered continuing on to find the big cathedral (St. Machar’s), but it was a ways away and I was worried it would get dark before I got back to my room.  Not willing to risk it, I returned to my hotel slightly less disappointed with my choice to come to Aberdeen but still not happy about it.  I spent the night revising my whole plan of action for the next week and making reservations in advance (I did feel that my inability to find a room in other places was moderately to blame for my decision to land in Aberdeen, and I didn’t want a repeat event).  I sincerely wish I’d stayed the extra night in York and walked the walls rather than wasting the time in Aberdeen, but what’s done is done.

the "Esplanade" in Aberdeen

Aberdeen did have some cool old buildings...

... library-dar?

Ultimately, I spent the night in a nice hotel with lots of amenities, which was relaxing even if my destination wasn’t.  The only thing that I can say in “praise” of Aberdeen is that ocean lovers may enjoy the sound of seagulls throughout the city.  I found it pleasant at first (reminding me of summers spent at a family home on the coast of Maine), but it lost its appeal rather quickly.

Edinburgh

As I’m writing this, I’ve just gotten on a train to leave Edinburgh, and I’m a bit disappointed to do so.  I considered breaking my reservation for tonight and trying to find a room in Edinburgh for the night, but with the rain and the promise of both a castle and a cathedral at my next stop, I decided to keep moving.  Also, I’m wondering what “scree” is.  Is it something I’m seeing as we ride along through the countryside? [As it turns out, it’s broken rock fragments at the base of cliffs.  Never mind.]

When I got up this morning, I was happy to be leaving Aberdeen and excited for a chance to see the Edinburgh Castle.  I was up in time to catch breakfast at my hotel, which was fine, although I couldn’t bear to try the Full Scottish Breakfast: porridge, eggs cooked to order, bacon, sausage, tomato, blood pudding, toast, and coffee or tea.  I opted for eggs and toast and coffee; pretty boring, but also pretty safe.  The coffee was remarkably good, the eggs remarkably funky, and the toast just right.  There was nothing too off about the eggs, but I did wonder if they might not be chicken eggs.  I might have tried the full breakfast had I not seen someone else eating it when I arrived.  The chewy-looking thick bacon and brown slop really weren’t appetizing.  The man I observed couldn’t even cut the bacon with a knife, although that might have had something to do with it sliding all over the plate in the remains of egg yolk and blood pudding.  Scrumptious!  I do intend to try an English Breakfast at some point, which I think is quite similar only with kippers somewhere in the mix and no blood pudding, to the best of my knowledge.

I got to the train station, found my train, and hopped on.  I spent the first half our or so of the ride admiring the countryside as we passed.  It was raining heavily on the way, though, so the view wasn’t terrific.  I ended up spending most of the ride reading my book (and finishing it).  Ahhh, vacation book reading.  There’s really nothing else quite like it.

When I got to Edinburgh it was around 11:30, and I determined that I had about an hour and a quarter to trek to the castle and back in order to catch my next train.  I headed out into the rain with my absurd aqua raincoat (which looks really swell with my absurd orange backpack, I’m sure) and began snapping pictures as soon as I possibly could.  I LOVE being the most obvious tourist in the world.  In a touristy place like the castle area in Edinburgh, you can get away with it quite well.  Even if I didn’t snap pictures, I figure that my mondo backpack gives it away.

view of the National Gallery from the Prince's Gardens in Edinburgh

I have nary a clue (I can say that, I’m in the UK) what buildings I photographed for the most part, but they were awfully appealing regardless.  The itinerary for my next UK adventure will definitely include a repeat (and longer) visit to Edinburgh.  All I could think as I hiked up the hill to the castle was that I couldn’t believe I’d passed Edinburgh up for Aberdeen.  What on Earth was I thinking?  Not much, I guess.

Edinburgh Castle in the rain. I was not the only tourist...

The castle is pretty impressive, particularly from below.  The view coming in on the train was actually very good, too.  I took a path through the Prince’s Gardens to reach the castle, which was quite nice, although I suspect it’s doubly impressive in nice weather.  Once I got to the top of the hill and the front of the castle, I enjoyed the view as much as the rain would allow (both in terms of visibility and in terms of my own tolerance for getting cold and wet), then headed back down to the train station, this time along the Royal Mile for a bit.  The Royal Mile connects the Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse (the monarch’s official residence in Scotland).  I didn’t continue all the way to Holyroodhouse; I’ll go next time. :)  The rain was beginning to irritate me, as my “rain coat” is in fact not even remotely waterproof and will only keep you dry if you’re walking through heavy fog, and even then if you are in it for too long it will soak through.  When I finally peeled it off, my sweatshirt was damp and cold anyway.  Perhaps I should abandon this useless item in favor of my umbrella.

View across the city from Edinburgh Castle. Grey sky with spires and mountains... Scotland, anyone? ;)

At the moment that I’m writing this, I’m steaming along south and west toward my next destination.  I’m looking forward to it, and fervently hoping that my expectations don’t far outshine the reality.  I’m prepared for rainy and cloudy weather; I’m not really prepared for another awful stop like Aberdeen.

Written later:

Now I’m in Carlisle, England in the northwest.  Carlisle has both a castle and a cathedral that I’m hoping to see.  It’s been pouring since I got here, and after learning that my hotel didn’t have any internet access, I decided the best thing to do was to find myself a cafe with WiFi and update my blog.  I’m looking outside and the rain seems to have lessened, so I think I’ll do some exploring.  I checked the weather for tomorrow, and it is supposed to be much clearer.  The train to my next destination doesn’t leave until around 11, so I think I’ll go to bed early tonight and do some exploring in the morning.  For now, I think I will try to get into the cathedral (it’s supposed to be open for another hour or so).  Wish me luck!  More soon, I hope.

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§ One Response to It’s been a while: London, York, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh

  • Hey Abby!

    I’m glad you’re having such a fabulous time and not staying in hostels! When you go back to London you really should go inside Westminster. It is pricey but totally worth the price and comes with a recorded tour narrated by Jeremy Irons so it feels like Scar is showing you around Westminster. I kept waiting for him to yell Mufasa! It sounds like you are having a great time (aside for the Aberdeeness of it all) and that you still have pletny of adventures left to come!

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