Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Last Day in the UK

We took the train from York to London, where we stayed one more night before catching a flight back home to Seattle. Since it was our last night in the UK, we splurged and stayed at a nice hotel, which offered the gorgeous view in the photo above.
We took a stroll through Hyde Park and I told hubs about how historical romance novels always have the gentry of the day riding or walking through London parks, to be seen in their finery. Since it was the last day of the trip, we were far from fine (in fact, my jeans were in a constant muddy state from the rain and the country walks), but the park did have a sweeping, romantic feel to it.
The next day, we got up, took the train to the airport and boarded a plane for home. Then we sat on that plane for two hours, deplaned because of what they thought was a broken toilet but turned out to be a cargo of fish that had leaked from an earlier flight. Ew. So after a four-hour delay, we were up in the air and touched down in Seattle about 8pm. Commence jet lag. LOL
Hyde Park with Lancaster London hotel in the background
I hope you enjoyed following along on our trip to England and Scotland! It's so much fun to share with others, and blogging about our travels helps me remember the trip as well (since I'm not getting any younger!).

York Minster- The Church to End All Churches

Yes, we're back in the states now, but I got behind on blogging about our trip, so I am attempting to catch up on the days I missed!
Okay, I'm getting a little ahead of myself with that blog post title because York Minster was not our first stop in York, but it was certainly the most memorable. We took the train from Edinburgh to York before heading back to London, and it was definitely worth the stop. 
York is celebrating their 800 year anniversary this year. The city has a defensive wall all around it. You can walk along the edge and get a wonderful view. Hubs and I had a lively discussion about how exactly one would lift a cauldron of boiling oil to pour on one's enemies. hehe 
The downtown section of York looks like Disneyland, with narrow, cobblestone streets lined with shops and teeming with people. Perhaps because it wasn't raining (for the first time in days),  but folks were out in force. Hen parties (bachelorette parties where the ladies all dress up in wild clothing) were everywhere. We must have seen a dozen different groups. That, and the clusters of young men going on pub crawls lent the city a very hip, fun atmosphere in general.
We spent a fair amount of time enjoying the gardens outside St. Mary's Abbey (another ruin courtesy of King Henry VIII).
By the time we reached this point in our trip, we'd seen some pretty impressive (and old) churches. But nothing, and I do mean nothing, could top York Minster. Sadly, there is no way to capture the beauty and grandeur of this church in a photograph.
I could post a dozen photos for you here, but still not convey the majesty of this place. I did a Google search to see if I could find something online to portray its magnificence, but everything falls short.
York Minster looks much like other towering church buildings from the outside, but it's the inside that sets it apart, for a couple of reasons. Unlike Westminster Abbey (which is really a Who's Who of Important Dead People), York Minster is focused on God, not on people. The whole atmosphere of the church was bathed in worship, rather than primarily being a collection of tombs. There were a handful of those (most notably one for an archbishop dating back to the early 1200s- wow!), but Christ was the focal point of this church. 
But what sets York Minster apart most of all was the height of the building in the center. Imagine standing in a sky scraper lobby and having it open all the way to the top with light streaming in through colored glass windows all around. The center of the building is 102 feet high and you have to tilt your head all the way back to take it in. It's almost impossible to do so without your mouth falling open in sheer awe. Incredible. Not only that, but the men's choir was rehearsing while we were there, the rich tones of their voices echoing throughout the church. I tell you, if you ever have the chance to visit York Minster, do it. You won't be disappointed!

Day Tour Through the Scottish Borderlands

Yes, we're back in the states now, but I got behind on blogging about our trip, so I am attempting to catch up on the days I missed!
On our trip to Scotland in 2010, we explored the highlands. This time around, we took a day trip through the borderlands south of Edinburgh. The weather was cold and rainy, but the lush countryside was breathtakingly beautiful. Quaint brick homes dotted the green rolling hills while baby lambs frolicked in the fields. There was something peaceful and ethereal about the place that settled deep inside my bones.

*blissful sigh*

Emily, our tour guide, had bright red hair and an accent to die for. She was a thousand percent adorable and I had to tell my hubby he could not take her home (though I can see why he would want to). After driving through the countryside, we got out to stretch our legs and go for a walk to see a statue of William Wallace. Emily explained that Wallace was from Glasgow (therefore not a highlander) so would never have worn a kilt, but that he is often pictured as such. Worse, the kilt he's wearing in this statue doesn't come to the knee like a kilt should, so it's more of a mini-skirt. LOL Poor William: hung, drawn, and quartered for his country and then pictured wearing a wee skirt in his manly statue.
We stopped for a good long while at Melrose Abbey, which was destroyed in the mid-1500s when King Henry VIII went on his rampage, destroying anyone and everyone who wouldn't convert from Catholicism to the Church of England (aka The Church of Henry). England and Scotland is riddled with ruins because of that wicked king. *shakes fist*
That being said, Melrose Abbey still had a majestic quality, perhaps even more so because it was in ruins. The mist settling over the hills through the empty window frames was an awe-inspiring sight.
We were able to climb a tight, narrow staircase to the top of one tower. The view over the village was worth the effort, even in the rain.

Down was easier than up!

Robert the Bruce's heart is buried at Melrose Abbey
As we drove through Galashiels, our guide explained that "Borders Law" used to be in effect, which was different from English Law or Scots Law. Essentially, raiding neighboring farms was common place and if you were caught red-handed, you could be executed for the crime, no questions asked. Emily told us the wonderful story of Sir Gideon Murray, who managed to catch Willie Scott trying to steal some cattle and resolved to hang him the next day. Now Murray had a bunch of daughters, but none of them could be married until a groom was found for his eldest, a lass with the nickname of "Muckle Moo Meg" meaning "Big Mouth Meg" for her unsightly large kisser. Murray's wife convinces him to give young Willie the option: marry Meg or hang from the gallows.
He chooses to hang.


Well, he changes his mind on the way to the noose (as most most men would!) and marries Muckle Moo Meg, a marriage that unites the two rival families, lasts decades, and produces twelve children. I love it when a story has a happy ending!
Our last stop was Rosslyn Chapel, where they didn't let us take photographs inside. The speaker gave a brief overview of the history of the chapel, noting that prior to The DaVinci Code book and movie, they received about 30,000 visitors each year. Last year, they had about 180,000! They've built an impressive visitor's center and have undertaken massive restoration work with the admission fees they get (about $2 million per year now). Intricate stone carvings decorated every square inch of the inside, making it a much different type of chapel than any we'd seen. Definitely worth a visit, even with the steep entry fee.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Damp But Happy in Edinburgh

We got a full measure of "Scottish sunshine" today in Edinburgh. The rain was constant and soaked into our bones by the end of the day. *shiver* The day started out a bit gloomy beyond the weather as well. When we first visited Edinburgh two years ago, we weren't able to visit Holyrood Palace. It was closed because some noble or other was there. So upon our return to this magnificent city, Holyrood was at the top of the list in things to see. And after we figured out the bus system, waited in the elements for it to arrive, and drove through the massive construction zones going on downtown, we made it to the beautiful palace at last.

Only to find out it was closed. Dang Lord so and so was in residence. *growls*
After a quick trip through the Scottish Parliament building, we ventured up High Street. And wouldn't you know it, but even with the rain coming down and the cold seeping through my windbreaker, the sight of kilts in shop windows lifted my mood. :)
We stopped in at a whisky shop and met a fabulous, passionate Scot who told us the proper way to pour Jura (the label must go against your palm as you pour or it's bad luck). He also told us the story of the last Campbell who finally left the island community, broke, on a white horse, and missing one eye... just as had been predicted by a young girl ages before (while being burned at the stake as a witch). He was fantastic. I could have hung out with him all day, grinning like a smitten schoolgirl. LOL
The other Edinburgh site I really wanted to take in was the Underground Tour at Mary King's Close. A tour guide took us through the dark streets under the city where residents lived in the 1600s and 1700s before they built over the narrow alleyways. Plague ripped through the dirty, cramped living spaces, killing the majority of the residents. The tour was entertaining, but it boggles my mind to think of families living in such miserable conditions. We are so truly blessed!
Technically, the wall carving above is outside the Scottish Parliament building, but I thought it was more appropriate here, in recognition of the life I enjoy as compared to the poor folk who suffered and died in Mary King's Close. *grateful*

We finished off the day by taking in a movie, which we rarely do back home. We saw The Avengers in 3D. It rocked! Chris Hemsworth is super hunky (and a front runner to play Aiden MacRae in the movie version of Between, based on the comments to my earlier blog post)!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In Love With Orkney (minus the wind)

We made it to Scotland! *dance of joy* After a train ride to Gatwick airport from the center of London, we took a plane to Aberdeen, then to Kirkwall in Orkney (islands in the upper north part of Scotland). According to the pilot, an "unruly passenger" on the flight before us (who required police presence!) caused our flight to be delayed, so we didn't make it to the hotel until about 8pm. Still, the hotel is beautiful, with antique furniture and spacious rooms. After the awful business hotel we stayed at in London (because everything is so expensive!), I was in love with Orkney before we'd toured it at all. Heated floors in the bathroom, no less! Ahhhh...heaven.

We took an organized tour with Explore Orkney and turned out to be the only ones scheduled, so we had a private tour throughout the island. How cool is that??? The first place we stopped was called Earth House. It's a tiny underground circle made of stones that has been buried underground for thousands of years and was only recently discovered when a farmer's tractor sank into the ground above.

Next, we traveled to Maes Howe, an impressive domed structure made entirely of overlapping stone slabs that was built about 3000-4000 years ago. They wouldn't allow photos inside but here's a site with good pics. The tomb (called a cairn in Scotland) has a skinny opening that is lined up precisely with the setting sun so that on the midwinter solstice in December, a shaft of sunlight streaks through the entry and lights up the back wall. But if you can't make the trip out for the celestial show, you can watch it through the site's webcam! In the 1100s, some Viking soldiers came through and wrote graffiti inside the tomb (in runes) that were along the lines of "I was here" and "For a good time, call..." While the content of the scratchings is not significant, the runes themselves are a neat piece of history. If nothing else, it is proof that human nature hasn't changed much in the last thousand years. LOL
After a nice lunch of soup and sandwiches, we ventured off to see two standing stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar (above) and the Stones of Stenness. The wind had kicked up to an unbelievable level by this point. If I'd unzipped my jacket and held it open, I'm pretty sure I'd have gone para-sailing across the island! We were incredibly blessed to avoid rain pelting us (it seemed to only rain when we were traveling in the car between sights), but the wind was something else. I've never experienced anything quite like it, but our guide was completely unaffected by it, having been born and raised in Orkney. Amazing!
The main reason I wanted to come to Orkney was to see the Skara Brae. In 1850, a terrible storm battered the Orkney coast and revealed a Stone Age village that was incredibly preserved, including pottery, dice, and tools. Underground passageways led from one room to another. It was just as cool as I thought it would be, though having experienced the bite of the wind, I can see why they had to build it underground! Not only that, but the sand from the coastline was like a compulsory all-over exfoliation treatment. I should have baby smooth skin now! *ouchie*
Skara Brae
Our last stop on the tour was to the Broch of Gurness. This was actually my favorite part of the tour because we were able to wander through the broch and the stone village.
Broch of Gurness today

Artist sketch of the Broch entrance
Along with the large multi-level broch (stone tower) in the back, this neolithic village has three stone walls surrounding it and several rooms off either side. Once we were up close and examining the layout, we could clearly see the indentations where the doors had been hung, the fire pits (hearths) in the center of each room, as well as their grinding stones and wells. It was incredible! In the visitor's center, we got to grind grain using a large round stone with a hole in the center. Out in the broch proper, several of the grinding stones were still there.
Grinding stone, well, and hearth at the broch
The tour through Orkney surpassed my wildest expectations, which were pretty high to start with. If you ever get the chance to come out here and experience it for yourself, I highly recommend it!! And if I haven't mentioned it already, I love comments, so if you're following our trip through the UK, please leave me a note to let me know. Cheers! :)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In Which I Meet Kurt From England!

After sleeping in late (hey, I'm on vacation!), we headed off to Harrod's to see all there was to see. Now, I normally would consider Nordstrom's to be a pricey store, but Harrod's was off the charts. Dior, Armani, Chanel, Bulgari... Every ritsy name you can think of had a presence at Harrod's. I saw a diamond necklace, bracelet and earrings set for 2 million pounds. Eh, pocket change, right? I'm surprised alarms didn't go off just because I breathed on the glass case. *not worthy*
The pet section was hilarious, with pink jackets, jewel-studded collars and other such craziness. The children's clothing areas were adorable. I'm pretty sure Kate and William's little ones will be wearing those outfits someday (since they can afford them!). The real clincher for me was a pair of foam flip flops that looked just like the kind you'd find at Target or Wal-Mart for a couple of bucks. A pair of them marked with the Gucci label (under the sole of your foot, mind you) was priced at...

wait for it...

One hundred and thirty-five pounds!!

Yeah, Nordy's ain't looking half bad now. LOL I didn't check the tag on this guy, but I wanted to take him home anyway. Isn't he cute? :)
Next up was the British Museum, where we took in some unbelievably old (like 3000-4000 years old!) artifacts and statues from Egypt and Greece.
My favorites were these enormous horse guardians that framed an entryway. To think that these incredible works of art have survived over millenia just blows my mind.
But by far, the best part of the day was getting to meet Kurt Chambers, an author friend from Twitter. When Kurt and I first connected on Twitter, he introduced himself as "Kurt From England" to which I promptly replied, "I'm Cyndi From America." He has been Kurt From England to me ever since, and I didn't want to pass up the chance to meet him face to face. We met for a drink and had such a wonderful conversation, my throat is sore from talking and laughing so much.
Kurt is the author of the wonderful middle grade series Truth Teller. If you haven't already done so, go buy a copy! You can connect with his awesomeness on Twitter as well under emailmanROCKS. What a fantastic end to the day, laughing with friends over a pint. Life is good. :)

What To Buy With a Gajillion Dollars (aka Our Leeds Castle Trip)

Olive Paget inherited an obscene amount of money from her American relatives back in the early 1900s and while everyone else in America was suffering through The Great Depression, she decided to put her millions to good use: she bought a castle. Leeds Castle was the first stop on our day trip outside of London, and it was a fascinating mix of old and new. Originally built for King Henry V's wife, Catherine, it fell into disrepair and eventually went up for sale.

While Olivia could easily afford it, there was one catch: the castle could only be purchased by someone with Kent connections. So she divorced her husband, married a man with from the Kent area, and wrote a big, fat check for Leeds Castle and spent a bunch more fixing it up. But what fun is it to own a castle without the proper title? So out with hubby number two! She married nobility this time and gained herself the title of Lady Baillie. And even though she eventually divorced the third husband as well, she never remarried because she would have had to give up her hard-won title! When she died, she donated the castle to a trust so the public can now wander through.

Leeds Castle is an odd mixture of old and new, with some rooms dedicated to the time of Queen Catherine and others arranged to show the styles and times of the 1930s when the Baillies entertained political dignitaries and popular performers of the day. The library was particularly cozy. I wanted to curl up and stay a while, but we were rushed through the castle by the guide who was on a tight timetable. Sigh...
The grounds were absolutely gorgeous: a lake with both black and white swans, English gardens, and a fun yew maze (thankfully, our guide printed out the path ahead of time or we'd have certainly been lost in there for hours!).
We stopped at the Battle of Britain memorial and learned about the brave airmen who played such a critical role in keeping Hitler's forces from being able to take over England. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." This quote by Winston Churchill is cut into the stone around the touching memorial.
We stopped for lunch at the coastal town of Dover, famous for its white cliffs. The guide told us the cliffs are really more gray than white these days, but we were in luck because not too long ago, a sliver of the cliff broke off and slid into the water, showing what the rock underneath looks like when it's unexposed to the elements. It reminded me of what the carpet looks like when I move the sofa. LOL
We visited Canterbury Cathedral, but were unable to venture all the way inside (into the 'quire') because they were having a church service. Oh, how I wanted to stay and attend the service! We were able to sit in the nave and listen to the choir sing, and that was lovely.
After a quick walk through Greenwich, we boarded a commuter boat and traveled up the Thames River back to London. Once the organized tour was over, we walked over to St. Martins of the Field church. We didn't get to go inside, but they have a Crypt Cafe which is exactly what it sounds like. Stairs lead down to the basement of the church where tables and chairs have been set up over people's grave markers. Kinda cool and yet, kinda wrong all at the same time.
This stone was set into the floor next to our table. I wonder how the Searle family would feel if they knew we'd be eating dinner above this stone less than 100 years after it was placed. *creeps out a little*
Trafalgar Square was hosting a big outdoor orchestra concert, which had people hanging out at the church where we were across the street. The weather was beautiful for the event as well. A very full and fascinating day!