Mar 25

The Pencil Museum

On Contiki’s UK tours there is a stop in the English Lake District.  During this stop they offer some activities – kayaking and doing rope courses.  Normally I might be interested in doing something like this, but since my leg was still a little sore from surgery over the summer I didn’t think I would be able to do this.  It rained anyway so I was better off.  Instead our driver drove us into the town of Kesik, where we visited the Pencil Museum. 

My bus buddy, Stephanie, mentioned this when she saw it in her Rick Steves book and it became a bit of a joke so we had to go.  I’m not going to tell you that this was the best museum I have ever been to, it was not.  But we had fun there as a group.  We saw a video on pencils, and saw the worlds largest pencil!  What more could you want?  It was actually a pretty good museum for something that had become a joke to us.  We were even given free pencils with our tour.  My only complaint?  The museum shop was expensive, it offered a lot of fancy pencil sets.  I wanted a little something for my nephews, they ended up with pencil sharpeners…

Worth mentioning is that the people who did do the kayaking and rope courses did have a good time, even in the rain.

Mar 23

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is a famous Roman Fortification in Northern England and I got to visit it on my Contiki tour.  Most of it is in ruins, there is the outline of the walls of the fort, but few actual walls.  So, you can see how it was laid out. 

One thing that was not in the brochure was that Hadrian’s Wall is at the top of a hill, it makes sense, but isn’t necessarily expected.  It’s a big hill too, and I got some great pictures of sheep walking up the hill (I was walking they were grazing).  Once at the top of the hill you have to purchase tickets for 4.50 pound, which considering we only had about 20 minutes to explore the actual fort I thought was a bit pricey.  Once I went in and started to explore the winds really picked up.  I was reminded of one of the things I hate about skiing – the cold wind makes my ears hurt.  I explored the grounds a bit but didn’t stay too long as my ears simply hurt too much.

The fort is much larger then I thought it would be and it’s a fort.  Hearing it called Hadrian’s Wall I expected it to be more of just a wall then a fort.  Perhaps I should have researched it a bit before I went.  But the site was well cared for and had many postings telling you which area of the fort you were looking at.  While you can see the wall from where the road is, you will only see the wall, you will not see the remains of what the fort looked like and how it was set up.  They do seem to offer tours, or at least someone does, if you’re really into roman history I think that would be better then just walking around the fort, which I think is fine for the casual visitor.

Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the type of attraction that might be on peoples bucket lists.  While it was not one my favorite things I’ve seen (I have been to the pyramids, my standards are high), I’m glad that I went.  Even when I saw people from my tour relaxing and having hot chocolates at the bottom of the hill I felt like they had missed something, not that I had wasted my time.

Just a reminder that you can find me on Twitter @Travelingiraffe (note there is only 1 “G”)

Mar 18

Bath and Bristol – so close, yet so far away

Bath and Bristol, two very different cities that are not so far apart geographically.

Bath – a quitessential English city

Bristol – a modern city with just an occasional flash of charm.

I was only in Bristol for a few hours, but I was not impressed.  I was sorry we left Bath so early to get to this city.  It was modern with a river going through it and there was the occasional church or pub that had that old world charm that one looks for in a British city – at least that’s what I think people look for.  It was disappointing, especially with so many lovely cities in England like Bath and York. 

Bath on the other hand was an awsome little city.  You stepped into this city and felt transported to England.  The Bath Museum wasn’t so great, but the architecture was lovely.  I stopped in a tea shop and had tea with a scone, what could be more British then that?  And the shops all felt and looked local, it was a warm city that I would love to go back and visit again. 

For the rest of you, skip Bristol and spend a few days in Bath, you wont regret it.

Feb 11

British Weather in the Fall, bring a rain coat…

What they say about British weather is true!

While in England and Scotland the weather was fairly cool, it rained on and off, though rarely hard.  We didn’t see much sun (but were excited when we did).  And you could get several diffferent types of weather in one day.

I will say that overall the weather was pretty good, as in – better then I expected (cold and rainy every day).  The weather was cool, at times cold, but more often on the warmer side – you know – fall weather.  There was quite a bit of wind, but that only affected me when I went to Hadrians Wall.  The rain we did have was usually pretty light, the type where if you don’t have an umbrella and are outside for a while you’ll get wet, but not enough to necessarily open an  umbrella if you had one.  The only place where I felt like the rain impacted the group was when we took a cruise of Loch Ness, I think even Nessie hid from the rain. 

The weather in the Fall makes England a little less hospitable, though I wouldn’t forgoe a trip because it would be in the fall and the weather might not be great.  I did miss the summer crowds and that can be worse then a chilly, drizzly day.  But do bring a rain coat and some warmer clothes.

Jan 26

Stonehenge, a pile of rocks???

Stonehenge, a mystical bunch of rocks in some weird alignment…  Or is it just a pile of rocks?

Well I have to admit, there is a part of me that after walking around Stonehenge I did feel a bit like it was a bunch of rocks.  But if you listened to the audio tour, there certainly is more to it.  The problem. it’s not that long of a walk around Stonehenge but the audio tour has a lot of information.  It was also cold and windy when I was there.

Some cautions:
It is windy there, Stonehenge is surrounded by fields and gets a healthy wind.  Not so great if it’s a cold day.  Though probably nice if it’s hot out. 

It is right on a highway.  That makes for easy access, and only affects the view from one direction.  It’s actually kinda strange how close it is to the highway. 

The audio tour is long and descriptive.  If you just want to see Stonehenge, you could do so in a 5 minute walk, but if you want to learn a bit about Stonehenge, then expect to spend a good half hour listening to the audio guide. 

The shop at the exit gets packed with tourists.

So did I think it was a pile of rocks?  On a superficial level after walking around I did, though I would have to say it’s a pile of really big rocks.  But I also know there is a lot under the ground and that the place had special meaning when it was put together.

Do I think it’s worth visiting?  Yes, it is Stonhenge afterall – one of those places that every tourist is supposed to see.  But it’s not too far from London, you could do a half day tour there (I think), or stop there on the way to another destination.

Jan 19

York, England

We arrived in York in the afternoon and got a quick tour of the city.  As we walked through the streets I was struck by how narrow they were – just wide enough for a single car to drive and barely wide enough for people to fill the sidewalks 2 abreast.  Buildings, although small, generally 2 or 3 floors high, felt big on the narrow street.  I felt a little bit like I was on the set of a movie, where the buildings are made smaller so the actors look bigger.  And they were all crooked, really crooked – a carpenters nightmare.  Hundreds of years of buildings settling had taken their toll, and on this narrow street it felt charming, that old world charm that you expect when you visit England.  I felt like I was in England of my imagination.  The buildings were like Nestle Toll House buildings, white with wood trim, a cute little door in the middle.

After a few blocks we exited the narrow little streets to a large open area with a giant building: York Minster.  Compared to the small streets and quaint buildings, York Minster was a giant.  York Minster is actually one of the largest gothic cathedrals in all of Europe, but it felt like the biggest one after meandering through the narrow streets of York.  It was sandy colored, not like white sand, but like the sand we have on Long Island with a bit of yellow and brown to it, not a lot of yellow and brown though, that would be ugly and this building was not ugly.  To the left were the towers, which tower over the city.  This side of the building had buttresses and was covered in lancet windows filled with Stained Glass.

We ventured inside, but because it was late there was little time to explore the splendor.  In fact it was so late that we could not go to the top of tower for views of the city.  It was time for plan B – shop!  Shop in all the cute little shops that lined the narrow streets of York – candy shops, clothing shops, liquor shops, pet stores, a pound store (like dollar stores), and of course a Starbucks.  I’m not a Starbucks fan, but this Starbucks was a bit of a god send – it had a bathroom and wifi.  This city might have made us feel like we were living a couple hundred years in the past, but I had emails I had written to my family on my iphone that were waiting to be sent and the answer came from a 20th Century coffee shop tucked into a Yorkshire building.  

Having missed going to the top of York Minster there were actually two plan B’s.  One was shopping, which did yield me some lovely fudge.  The other was to go to the top of Clifford’s Tower, seated on a small hill in another part of town.  On the way we made a fatal error, using the bathroom.  Actually, for most people this was a good move, they used the bathroom and made it to Clifford’s Tower.  I however used the bathroom and was locked out of Clifford’s Tower, and also had to wait there another 30 minutes until our tours meeting time.  I made good use of the time, I climbed around Clifford’s Tower for photos of the city.  You’re not supposed to do that, but darn it, I had already climbed to the top and I wanted pictures of this wonderful city!

That night we had dinner in a pub, complete with Yorkshire Pudding. Then we took our ghost tour of York, which you can read about here. It was a perfect ending to a perfect visit in one of my favorite cities in all on England.