Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thoughts on Never Flying Again

Okay, maybe never is a bit of an exaggeration. But I certainly can't see flying anywhere that I can drive or take a train. (UK trains were great, it's a pity that in the US, cross-country trains are so exorbitantly expensive.)

Flying was the absolute worst part of the trip. I realize they were long flights (~8 hrs each), and that flying for a shorter period would be less difficult, but I still can't see myself doing it hardly ever. 

I flew frequently when I was in grad school, since I attended at least one professional conference a year, and they were mostly held in San Francisco or Texas (and I was in school in Michigan). I never minded it, I was often able to get a window seat, and the seats were relatively comfortable. Even in 1998, when Rob and I flew to Edinburgh, the plane ride was not uncomfortable. (There was the issue of changing planes in Laguardia, with two hours sitting on the tarmac. This was why we sprung for non-stop flights this time.) 

This experience was different. And I'm not talking about the increased security since 9/11. At O'Hare, the TSA agents were polite and efficient. Yes, we had to take off our shoes, but it really wasn't much of a disruption --certainly much less hassle than we were expecting. The same was true at Heathrow. The airports are big, and you have to do a lot of walking, or catching trams, but in general it wasn't at all difficult to figure out the signs and find your way. Whenever I was unsure, I looked around and was able to find some employee I could ask, and they were always helpful.

No, the difference in our experience really comes down to the fact that we were crammed like sardines into the plane. We are not a small family, obviously --I'm 5'10", Rob is 6'2", and Emma is 5'8". Rob has broad shoulders, and I have a middle-aged spread. So, flying might be easier if you're petite and thin. For us, however, there was no way to sit in our seats without being in constant physical contact (thankfully we know each other well), and my knees (I have the longest legs in the family) were in pain, smashed as they were against the seat in front of me. (And then the young woman in front of me leaned her seat all the way back. I know she's allowed, but I just couldn't do that to the person in back of me.) I felt more than slightly claustrophobic. 

So it will be a long time before I agree to fly again. Perhaps in 10 or 15 years, when Rob and I decide to rent a flat in Edinburgh for a month, sans a grown child, and just explore. And maybe we'll spring for first class seats :-)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Visiting the Castle

We had fairly good weather until the day we decided to visit the castle --it had been cloudy, with occasional gentle rain, and temperatures in the mid 50s to 60 range.

This was supposed to be a relatively relaxed day --coming after our day in Glasgow, where we got in late, and then Rob's and Emma's day in Perth, where they got in even later. So we slept in, had some breakfast, then caught a city bus up the hill toward Waverly station. This left us with a short walk to the Royal Mile, then uphill to the castle.

In front of the castle is the esplanade, the place where the Edinburgh Tattoo takes place each August. On the map below I've drawn a red arrow pointing to the esplanade. Behind it is the castle, while the buildings in front of it are part of the Old Town. (This map is a little deceptive: there is a street called Johnson Terrace to the left of the esplanade, and I know from my own experience that you have to go down at least 2 flights of steep stairs from the Royal Mile to reach that street! Then you can go down another 2 flights to reach the Grassmarket, another wonderful neighborhood with great pubs. Then, if you're really smart (like me), you suggest flagging down a taxi to take you back up all those hills to your flat, and your husband says to you "a taxi was a great idea!" as he happily hands over 10 pounds sterling to the driver. Edinburgh and its hills, and the joys of being older adults with a decent income, rather than poor recent grads.)

I took the photo below standing in the esplanade looking (over the group of tourists) toward the castle entrance. (I really think there should be a Facebook page where people can upload their photos of the castle and Royal Mile so that other tourists can tag themselves in your photos.)

The last time Rob and I were in Edinburgh, our friends got us tickets to see the Tattoo, and it was amazing. Rob took the following two photos at that time.

After traipsing across the esplanade, you enter and buy tickets. Then you encounter the actual castle entrance, with a portcullis ready to lower onto any enemies. (There are more-than-expected people in red in this photo, but that's because some of them are employees, and all of them were wearing red rain jackets.)
Soon after you enter, you reach the "Lang Stair", which is the original way that people accessed the upper levels of the castle. The wide road you can see winding around in the map was built much later, to accommodate larger military equipment.
In the photo above, and in the one below, you can see how the components of the castle are built literally into the rock of the (extinct) volcano. It seems so organic to me, like the rock just grew some stairs and walls. Another interesting feature that you can see in the photo below is the pavement in the center of the road. It's made of much smaller rock pieces, and was apparently created because it was easier for the horses to run on.
There are various things to see as you wind your way up --it feels like a city. We followed this turn and toured the prisons; there are two of them. A much nicer prison for soldiers who acted up, and then a really awful one for various enemies. They have a room full of the torture equipment used at various times.

At the top you have some of the newer buildings, and the oldest building. The photo below is part of the newer buildings, now the National War Museum of Scotland. It's part of a set of newer buildings arranged around a central courtyard.

Also at the top is the chapel of St. Margaret. This is the first building that was built on the volcanic hill, and dates from the 12th century. In 1314, Robert the Bruce recaptured the castle from the English, and ordered all the buildings destroyed to keep the English from re-occupying it. The only building he spared was this chapel. As you can tell from the blue skies in the photo below, I stole this picture from the interwebs. The reason for that: we encountered our first real rain just as we were reaching the top of the castle. This was not the gentle rain we had experienced before --no, this was horizontal rain which soaked us from waist on down as we tried to shield ourselves with our umbrellas.
We did go into the chapel and admire it, but then we retreated down the Lang Stair and found a chamber with a very cool model of the castle and some window seats. We waited out the worst of the rain there, then continued on down (and down, and down, as we made our way to the Grass Market and found a pub where we could have dinner and dry out.)

Before the rain hit, we were able take some great photos of the New Town from the castle. The Royal Mile is the center of the Old Town, with it's twisty streets, closes, and a whole warren of buildings built underneath street level. The New Town is quite different, as it was planned, and created in a grid pattern.
A map from 1819, illustrating New Town.
An areal view of New Town in 2001.
In the areal photo, at the very bottom, you can see the large green space known as Princes Street Gardens, as they run along Princes Street. Originally the buildings were houses, and the gardens were private gardens, but most of the street level along Princes Street is now fancy shopping, and the gardens are now public. From the castle, you are gazing out over the gardens into the New Town. I took the photo below before the rain had started.

So we did dry out during our dinner, and so did the city. After that rain moved out, we had two days of beautiful sunshine and blue skies for our last two days in Edinburgh.

When younger versions of Rob and I were in Edinburgh 17 years ago, we climbed Arthur's Seat, a volcanic sill that creates an impressive hill next to Holyrood Palace and Park. I took this photo of it from the Regents Street Bridge (see that sunshine?):
You walk up the gentle side, but it's a long, long, uphill walk. When I was looking for the photos of the Tattoo, I came across this picture Rob took of me as we were making our way up.

--so much younger, so much more energy :-)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Royal Mile

For those of you who are not familiar with Edinburgh, the Royal Mile is a mile-long street (actually a little longer than a mile --apparently it's an old Scottish mile) that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Edinburgh Castle is up on a volcanic hill (built into the volcanic rock), and the Royal Mile runs downhill to the palace. This is part of what is called "Old Town", the original site of the city, which grew up slowly after the earliest parts of the castle were built in the medieval times. Edinburgh is actually called the city of seven hills, and I'm pretty sure we walked up most of them over the course of this trip.

The Castle is a working castle, meaning it still houses a military unit, a Scottish dragoon. There are areas that are not open to the public because of this. Holyrood palace is sometimes open to the public, but both times Rob and I have been in Edinburgh (17 years apart, last time in late July/early August, this time in June), the Queen has been in residence, so we have not been able to tour it.

We first visited the Royal Mile on Monday, enjoying the scenery and spending time in many little shops, looking for souvenirs. It was cloudy, but not rainy, that afternoon.

So . . . funny story. I'd been taking photos of the Royal Mile for a while, when Emma looked at my phone to see a particular photo, and then asked me how long I'd been taking photos in black and white. Between the gray skies, and the gray buildings, I hadn't actually noticed. But I think this black and white view looks kind of 1940ish.
Throughout the Old Town there are little alleys, called "closes", that run off the streets. These are still used for foot traffic. This is the photo I took that alerted Emma to my B&W setting:
So, I changed my phone setting and took another. But we both liked the black and white effect in the close.
The following view is down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood palace. In the distance you can see the Firth of Forth; Edinburgh was built along this estuary. 
The photo below was taken from much farther up, just before you reach the Castle. You can see that the road has narrowed significantly.
There are also adorable little twisty streets that run steeply down hill from the Royal Mile. We had already walked up so many hills that we often just peeked down these, without venturing too far, so we didn't have to walk back up again. To really explore all the charm of the Old Town, you'd need a month in Edinburgh.

After a while, of course, we needed refreshment, so we found a nice little cafe in one of the closes off the Mile. The view below is from their outside terrace, toward the archway back to the Royal Mile. Edinburgh is like a warren, but this is especially true in the Old Town. The cafe was actually behind one of the shops on the street, with the entrance located in the close. Some of the closes are steep steps, and businesses are often located below the main street level. Some, like this one, are terraced, and some open up once you get through the archway. To the right of this photo was a set up steps going up and down, to other businesses and presumably, residential flats.
One of the things that was different about being in the UK was the use of crockery. Everywhere you went, ordering a coffee or tea involved china cups, saucers, little milk jugs and sugar bowels, and silverware. After a short time, the table was so full of crockery that I felt scared I was going to accidentally sweep things to the floor. And the poor wait staff! Running around with piles of precariously balanced crockery! And another different thing --you never bus your own table, even when you order at the counter of a place that sells pre-packaged food. (When I asked Emma's friend Katie if we bussed our own table she looked at me blankly. Apparently they don't know the term "bus" --they would say "clear" the table. This made me wonder where the term "bus the table" had come from and I had to look it up. It was first used around 1913, and the "bussing" probably referred to the cart that was used to carry the dishes. You're welcome.) Of course, they also don't have trash cans --when we ate pre-packaged sandwiches, we were expected to just leave our wrappers on the table for the staff to clean up. This was impossible for us --we gathered it all up and brought it back to the counter and asked to put it in the trash can.

On this day, we walked up to the castle, but there was a possibility we'd visit it with a friend of Rob's, so we didn't go in. We eventually visited the castle on Friday, but this post is long enough, so I'll save that for another post :-)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Back in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is such a delightful city. It's used to tourists, so there is easy access to everything, but it's also home to its own large population, so you can feel the town's life flowing around you. We arrived Saturday evening, and while we were out looking for a pub for dinner, the streets were crowded, including a fair number of interesting characters. Each weekday morning as I look out the window of the flat, I see lots of people walking to work. Most of the locals walk with earbuds in, if they're alone. It's late June, but it's been cooler than normal, and many of them are still wearing winter clothing --heavy coats, wool sweaters, and tights under dresses. I found a short-sleeve shirt to be fine (especially when you're walking up some major hills), but 50s and 60s is much warmer than our Midwestern winter of teens and 20s, whereas for them it's just barely warmer than their winter. We have appreciated the cool weather, since we are walking so much. 

Our flat (on Hopetoun Crescent) is a 15 minute walk (all uphill!) to Waverley Station. Another 15 minutes south and you can get to the Royal Mile. There is light rain, on and off most days, so you quickly learn that a small "brolly" that can be carried in a purse is a must. The rain is very light --sometimes it's not actually worth getting the umbrella out, because you mostly dry off as fast as you get wet. But many days you end up using the umbrella for 10 minutes here or there. Of course that (and the lack of 80-90 degree days) is what keeps everyone's garden looking so beautiful.

There are several tourist buses, where you get a recording explaining the sights as you do a large loop, and you can get off and on multiple times in a 24 hour period. We got tickets the afternoon of Monday, and continued to use the bus through the afternoon of Tuesday. This allowed us to view various places, and get off to explore the Royal Mile (Monday) and the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens (Tuesday). 
This is a small square, near Waverley Bridge, where we caught our tour bus. Looking across the square you can see some of the Old Town.
The area around our flat includes Broughton Street and Leith Street. Broughton street was built in the early 1800s. 
Looking down Broughton Street.

Both streets have lots of little cafes and restaurants, so our first stop each day has been for coffee at a new cafe. One of the mornings we stopped into a place that is really more of a chocolate shop, but so far that's also been the best coffee.
Emma with her morning hot chocolate, in Coco's Chocolates. She got the window seat.
Coco's coffee cup chandelier.
A flower shop on Broughton Street
On Tuesday we took a train to Glasgow and walked and walked and walked and walked . . . we met some friends of Rob's through the vinyl community and they showed us around. However, while John (from the Peak District) is our age, these two are just 21. They are fabulous people, but they are also 30 years younger than us, and my legs just couldn't keep up. Many of the places we visited in Glasgow were music related, much to Rob and Emma's delight. Below you can see all four of them geeking out in Barrowlands Park, where the city printed the names of all the bands that have played at the Barrowlands concert hall.
Rob and Emma took another train today, up to Perth, to meet up with them again (they live in Perth). My legs needed a rest, and I also had some grading to catch up on (I'm teaching an online class while we're here). I'm sure they are having a great time, and it has rained all day here, so it was good timing. We have three more days here, and then we catch a train back to London, meet up with one more friend for a beer, and fly home on Monday.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Exploring the Peak District

Yesterday, we dropped off the car. Not, of course, before a harrowing drive, beginning with fog and rain at the farm, and ending in crazy traffic in Stoke-on-Trent. Although we couldn't have done that part of the trip in any other way, and it was worth it, it was also a source of incredible stress. The farm where we stayed was a half hour drive away from the closest town, so there were no short drives. Also, I just don't associate England with mountains. So when we booked a place in the Peak District, it honestly never occurred to me that it was named "Peak District" because we were going to be in the mountains. These are old mountains, gently rolling, but still quite steep. There was one place along the main road into Leek where you are looking up at a road that looks literally --literally!-- like a wall in front of you.

We did get a bit worn out by the end of our week in the Peak District. On Tuesday we drove to Stafford, about an hour south of where we were staying. This trip was to meet up with Katie, the long-distance friend Emma made through Instagram. We used Google maps to route ourselves there, but didn't realize it was taking us on the M6. Also, I messed up the navigation and we ended up on the M6 going north, when we needed to go south. In the US this wouldn't be much of an issue --get off at the next exit, a mile or two down the road, and re-enter the highway going the other way. But apparently once you get on the M6, you're not allowed to get off. We had to drive about 15 miles north in order to find an exit! We were quite late, but as soon as the girls saw each other, they hugged, and soon they were comfortably chatting away. We took Katie to lunch, and then walked around the high street and a beautiful park. Rob and I hung back so they could have some privacy and later Emma said she and Katie could have talked for many more hours. 

We did have a day of relaxing on Wednesday, and went to a pub in a small town just north of us (Buxton) for dinner.  Except for the drive there and back (very foggy and rainy), it was a lovely evening. It had stopped raining when we finished dinner, so we walked around the town a bit.

On Thursday we drove back to Buxton and took a train to Liverpool. We met up with another long-distance friend, Pete, who took the train in from where he lives in Birmingham, and he showed us the city. We visited Matthew Street for Beatles stuff, stopped into the Cavern Club where Pete bought Emma a t-shirt, Emma bought her boyfriend Drew a t-shirt, and then went down to the docks and took the ferry across the Mersey. Having a tour-guide friend was such a nice way to see the city, and we also spent some time over coffees just chatting. We didn't get back to the cottage until about 9:30 pm that evening --while it's not much more than 40 miles from Buxton to Liverpool, it is a two-hour train journey, with one train change. 
The high street in Liverpool.
Matthew Street, Liverpool
Ferry across the Mersey, with Liverpool in the background.
Friday we also had plans, this time with Rob's friend John who saved us when we first arrived. John and his wife Julia planned a wonderful day for us, but it started (of course) with an hour and a half drive. The day started off with a brewery tour at the Bass Museum in Burton upon Trent (John waved to us from the parking lot as we drove by --typical of our driving experience. We had to drive around the block, except it wasn't really a block and took us another 15 minutes before we were back at the brewery center.) The tour, which was hosted by a young woman who obviously really loved the history, was very interesting and ended in the bar with a couple of good beers. Emma was a bit bored with the tour, but our next stop more than made up for it: a quirky record store, where she scored a box set of Nirvana, and both she and Rob picked up some vinyl. We were also joined here by another friend of John's, who Rob also knows long distance through the vinyl connection.

While music is very important to me, I don't really like to browse record stores. Actually, I don't really like to browse any stores. John suggested a pub a block down the street, so I headed down there, got a lemonade and relaxed. (Lemonade! --every time we ordered a lemonade, we received something different. Sometimes it is a lemon-lime soda like Sprite with carbonation, sometimes a lemon-lime drink without carbonation, sometimes just soda water with a slice of lemon. We have never received a drink made with lemon juice, though.)

Inside the pub where I relaxed.
Our next stop was Weston Hall, for afternoon tea. It was about a 40 minute drive from the brewery, but at least we were able to follow John. This stop was such an amazing treat --a true high tea, in a beautifully restored old building. Each person chose a tea (except I chose coffee, and Emma had yet another version of lemonade), and we were each served with our own little pots and drank from beautiful china. There was a regular tea, with sandwiches, scones, and tiny cakes, served on those triple-tier dishes. There was also the "gentlemen's tea" which included more savory foods, and beer. The food was amazing, and the whole experience was just so very charming and pleasant.  
Weston Hall

Afternoon Tea. Emma took this photo, which is why she isn't in the picture.
We are getting better at this train stuff. After taking a cab to the train station, we got our tickets, found our platform, and then bought some nice sandwiches to eat on the train. Because this journey and our next one are longer, we got first class tickets. So nice! In addition to more leg room, and seats facing each other across a table, we also got free wifi. Which was significantly better than the wifi we had on the farm. As you can see, Clarence enjoyed the ride too :-)
 So, now we are in Edinburgh, smack in the middle of the city. We are having dinner tonight with some friends I met back when I was in grad school, and then have a busy week planned. But no driving!

Monday, June 15, 2015


I am writing this from a cottage in the middle of nowhere. Well, actually the middle of the Peak District National Park. When we booked this cottage, we didn't have any idea that it was so much in the middle of nowhere. We paid to have global cell coverage of Rob's phone, but we have no service here.

We do have wi-fi, although it's very slow and sometimes just seems to go out. 

Priorities :-)

However, the cottage is beautifully restored, the farm it sits on is beautiful, and the Peak District is beautiful. The only problem is, we haven't been able to get our rental car yet.

We arrived in London late at night on Thursday, June 11th. After an amazingly crowded O'Hare airport, Heathrow was empty. Our plane was almost full, but I think it was the last plane to land --other than passport control, everyone else at Heathrow had gone home for the night. 

We made it to our hotel via cab, and crashed for the night. Except, of course, it was only around 7 pm our time. We finally settled down and got to sleep around 2 am, and then slept through breakfast. Afternoon was a time to sort things out, and then the next morning we started on our next adventure: taking the London Underground and National Rail to get to our next stop, Stoke-on-Trent. This went surprisingly well. It was a 5 minute walk from the hotel to the nearest tube station. We left the hotel around 10 am (our train to Stoke-on-Trent was leaving at 1 pm), buying one-way tickets at the station was easy, and we (and all our luggage --thank god we're not heavy packers) got on to the Piccadilly line. (I love that they have a "Piccadilly" line.)

We got off the tube at Leicester Square (not that we actually saw Leicester Square, as we were still underground) and then followed signs for the Northern Line. There seemed to be lots of stairs, up which we had to carry our luggage, even though we never emerged at street level. We figured out which direction we needed to catch, clambered aboard the Northern Line, and then after a short journey got off at the Euston Square stop. We followed the signs that said "Way Out" and "Euston Station". Rob and I had a short disagreement about where we were at this point: the map had indicated that we would need to walk (above ground) from the Euston tube stop to the Euston Train Station. The London Underground and the National Rail have different symbols and while we were walking (and walking. and walking.), I only saw the symbols for the Underground.

However, after emerging outside and arguing about it, we turned around to look back where we'd come from, and there was the National Rail symbol above the door we'd just come through. Apparently we'd traveled between the two while underground.

At this point we were in an outside area with tables, surrounded by little eateries.  It was 12 noon and we were thinking of getting food. But it was complicated, and the adults just ended up with second cups of coffee (the first cups were called breakfast); we did get some fruit inside Emma. Rob left us with our luggage to find a bathroom and a trash can --I don't know what it is about England, but they DO NOT have trash cans. Anywhere. When he came back, he'd learned quite a bit --where the train platforms were, how to collect our pre-bought tickets, and how to pay to pee. 

So, we settled into our 2nd class seats on the train to Stoke-on-Trent. They are advertised as having generous leg room, but describing them that way is very . . . generous. They weren't terrible, however, and the ride was comfortable. Stoke-on-Trent was the first stop for this train, an hour and a half out. When we pulled into the station, we stood up, gathered our luggage, and walked down the hall toward the exit. We got to the exit just as the train doors closed and the train started pulling out of the station. 

Part of the learning curve --you have exactly 30 seconds (okay, maybe it was 60 seconds) to depart the train. 

A train employee happened to be near the exit, and said we'd have to get off at the next stop and then get on a train coming back. The next stop was just 10 minutes away (thank god) so we just stood there by the doors, so we could be sure to actually get off the train before the doors closed this time. (We were joined by another woman getting off at this stop, and had a lovely conversation.)

So, we arrived at Mecclesfield, and had to wait about 10 minutes for a train to take us back to Stoke-on-Trent. During this time we decided we should call the Enterprise car rental place to let them know that we were going to be late picking up the car. This is where challenging turned stressful. We reached a recording saying they were closed. We had checked their website when we rented the car, and they were supposed to be open until 5 pm on Saturdays. Apparently that was a lie. We got back to Stoke-on-Trent, but could not pick up a car to drive out to this (extremely remote) cottage. It was 3 pm, and we were going on 2 cups of coffee. 

After mostly not freaking out, Rob went through old emails looking for a phone number he'd never thought we'd need, and called his friend, John. Like me and most of you reading this post, Rob and John have never met. Instead, they connected through a Facebook group for people who are crazy insane obsessed really into vinyl (records). John is one of the people we planned to visit with while we are in this area. John arranged for a cab to come get us and bring us to the cottage. While we waited for the phone calls back and forth, we bought sandwiches (those kind you always see the police eating in the British detective shows? In those triangular containers?) and water. There wasn't much flavor involved, but at least we had some calories. 

It was an expensive cab ride. After arriving at the cottage around 5 pm, the owner kindly offered to take us to the nearest town (Leek) to pick up some groceries --otherwise we'd have been stuck here for two days without food. 

It is now Monday morning, and John came to pick up Rob to take him into Stoke-on-Trent and pick up our car. We owe that man a very nice bottle of scotch :-)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Anxiety Much?

So, planning our summer trip with a travel agent was a total bust. Apparently they just don't have many resources anymore, unless you want to book some sort of cruise or something.

So, I took a deep breath and created a spreadsheet. And really, it's been hell. Well, that may be a tiny exaggeration, but only tiny.

Here we are, a week out, and we still don't have all our reservations finished. Still, I think after making multiple train reservations today, we may be done. 

I am more anxious about this trip than I was about having my hips replaced. Really. Truly. I'm a bad traveler to begin with, but the number of connections and reservations required for this vacation means I'll need a vacation when we get back. 

Bus to Chicago hotel, up at the crack of dawn to catch a shuttle to the airport to catch our flight to London, shuttle to hotel in the middle of their night (sleep the day away, up at the crack of our dawn), catch a bus or cab to a central London train station, train to Stoke-on-Trent, cab to car rental place, drive an hour on the opposite side of the road to get to the cottage in the Peak District. And that's just the first few days! I know, I know. People do this all the time, they even speak English where we're going --so why do I feel so anxious about it all? I just know I'm going to be so worried about the next connection, I won't be able to enjoy actually being any place! :-)

Rob loves to travel, but even he is feeling anxious about all these connections. However, I've put my foot down about that --only one of us is allowed to have an anxiety attack, and I claimed it first!!

So, why did we plan this trip in the first place? For our kid, of course. This will be her first time on an airplane, first time in a different country. Plus she's more of an anglophile than we are, which means a lot :-) 

Becky, over at Chicken Wire & Paper Flowers, asked me to participate in a "Five Pictures, Five Stories" blog hop, which sounds like a wonderful idea. But I don't have the peace of mind to do it now, so I'll try to do that once we're back from this so-called vacation :-) In the meantime, though, you should check out her photos and stories.