Wednesday Wanderings: Edinburgh

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

We packed up, bid farewell to the Lancaster Gate and our driver ferried us to Kings Cross train station for our five-hour ride to Edinburgh. We were veerrrry early to the station and had quite a bit of time to kill. I babysat the luggage while Stud Muffin wandered around, got us coffee, and turned in our Oyster cards to get the credit refunded from our unused Tube rides. After a bit, we traded places and I headed to the restroom.

Right behind where I’d been sitting was the area marked Platform 9 3/4, which, as any Harry Potter fan knows, is where Harry, Hermione, Ginny, and Ron catch the Hogwarts Express.

There’s a luggage trolley jutting out of the wall and an employee standing nearby to take pictures and hold your scarf so it looks like you’re running through the wall. Of course, we had to pose. There’s a huge Harry Potter shop there too. I wandered the shop quite a while, debating whether to buy any souvenirs there. I didn’t, and that’s probably my only regret of the trip. We have several HP fans in the family and I wish I’d brought them back something from there.

On our Strawberry Tours walking tour of London, our guide, Will, told us J.K. Rowling actually made a mistake about the train station in the first book. She’d gotten confused and said Platform 9 3/4 was at Kings Cross, but her description of the station was of Euston, not Kings Cross. Just a bit of Harry trivia for you.

The train ride was comfortable and the time passed quickly. We saw lots of beautiful scenery. In Edinburgh, we had a driver from the train station to our hotel. He questioned why he’d been booked when our hotel was so close. We shrugged, said we didn’t know the area, and besides we had luggage. But he was right. We could have walked to the hotel more quickly because he had to deal with traffic. And because of the traffic, he dropped us around the corner from the Old Waverley Hotel, so by the time we wrangled our luggage out, crossed the street and got it up the front steps, we were tired! There was a step up from the street, (not bad) then a long hallway, then more steps to get to the lobby. There was a sign that said, Ring Bell For Porter, which we did. A few moments later, a young woman arrived to carry our bags, our two big bags up the two flights of stairs. She hefted one and Dave carried the other up. We were able to check in and dropped off our luggage in our 3rd floor room. The lift was working. This is important to remember for later.

Then we hit the streets of Edinburgh.

2017-09-19_15-57-36_521First up: The Scotch Whiskey Experience. It’s a visitor attraction maintained and put on by one of the Scotch associations. It’s not a distillery, it’s an attraction. You ride in a motorized “barrel” (kind of like at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion), while watching videos of the whiskey making process. You also visit a collection of over 3300 bottles of whiskey. It was truly fascinating. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but the place is amazing and definitely worth a visit.

The Scotch Whiskey Experience is located at the top of the Royal Mile, in old town Edinburgh, right in front of Edinburgh Castle. By the time we finished our tour of the Whiskey experience, the Castle was closed and we couldn’t go in. Every August, Edinburgh hosts a music and arts and drum festival, called the Tattoo. The castle is the venue for military drum corps and marchers. The bleachers that had been erected for the festival were being disassembled while we were there. We watched the process for a few minutes, then left to find dinner.

The Whiskey Experience had a restaurant and bar called Amber. I had to take pictures since we also have an Amber.

We wandered a ways down the Royal Mile and settled on the Ensign Ewart pub for dinner. It’s a small place but warm and cozy and charming. The dinner offering was venison pie and it was delicious! Tender chunks of venison in a thick gravy, topped with mashed potatoes. A wonderful and hearty meal to end our first day in Scotland.

We fell in love with Scotland and Edinburgh today. The old buildings are really, really old. Much of London was old, too, but many of London’s buildings were destroyed in the Blitz and there’s lots of newer construction. In Edinburgh, particularly where we stayed, we could tell we were in the midst of history.

Our hotel was named the Old Waverley, after a book by Sir Walter Scott, a revered Scottish poet and writer. Many of the streets and shops referred to Scott, or Robert Louis Stevenson, or Ian Rankin, or Robert Burns. From our hotel room, we could see the Sir Walter Scott memorial, on the right above.

Tomorrow (or next week, actually): driving in Scotland, more whiskey, and the very real possibility of sleeping in the car.

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Wednesday Wanderings: Pret-a-Manger, Hastings, and Portobello Road

Monday, September 18, 2017

We woke Monday morning in Royal Tunbridge Wells and it was Stud Muffin’s birthday. Due to the B&B proprietress trying to shake down an additional 16£ from us, we elected to find breakfast on our own. We asked the man of the house and he cheerfully directed us to walk down the hill a hundred yards or so. Sure enough, there was a coffee shop on three of the four corners. We chose Pret-A-Manger, a quick take-away or eat in shop,  because we hadn’t visited one yet and they were all over. Starbucks is in England, but Costa Coffee is far more prevalent. I don’t think we managed to visit a Costa Coffee. Breakfast and coffee at Pret-A-Manger ended up costing us just about 16£ but the satisfaction at not feeling taken was worth it.

Back in the car and we headed to Hastings. We’d watched the British television show, Foyle’s War, set in Hastings and wanted to see it for ourselves. Hastings is a coastal town southeast of London, overlooking the English channel. It’s the home of Hastings Castle and is where William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066.

Parking was the usual issue, but we were able to walk on the pier and the beach. I 2017-09-18_10-40-38_911learned a rocky beach is called a shingle. The Hastings beach is very rocky. So is it very shingly? I don’t know. I do know walking was unsteady and hard. The weather wasn’t especially cold but it was windy. We took refuge in another coffee shop on the pier before deciding to visit the castle.

The ruins sit on a bluff overlooking the town. William conquered Hastings in 1066 and the castle’s construction began in 1070. There’s a short and informative movie you can watch. You can wander the ruins, the walls, and some of the underground rooms. It’s amazing to think that almost 1,000 years ago, it was considered new.

The roads in Hastings were narrow and steep. For the castle, we parked at a municipal “lot” of five cars, then hiked up to the castle, through a church yard and narrow bricked walkway. The entry fee was nominal and the ticket booth was managed by a teenager with a video game.

After a short visit (it doesn’t take long to see the whole place), we headed back to London. I wanted to visit Portobello Road and the Notting Hill Gate neighborhood.

And the adventures began in earnest.

I was still the driver with Dave navigating. As we entered the city, he got turned around and we ended up along the docks and had to take an “alternate” route to our hotel. That route just happened to direct us through Trafalgar Square and past St. James Palace. Just the sort of tourist attractions we’d planned to avoid. I was white-knuckling my way through traffic and only got a couple of glimpses out of my peripheral vision, but I promise, I was suitably impressed.

We returned to the Lancaster Gate where we’d stayed previously. We left our luggage at the desk and drove back to the Marriott to drop off the rental car. The agency was only open until 3 pm on Mondays. We got there about 2:45. Remember, when we picked up the car, one of the employees had fetched it for us, saying, “It’s a bit cramped down there”?

Oh. My Word.

The ramp down to the parking area was a twisting, winding lane with inches to spare on either side. Before we made it all the way to the bottom, Dave had to get out and guide me down. I had to back up a few times to make the curves. And I’m not exaggerating. At all.

Inching into the only spot was nearly impossible. Finally, the employee finished with the other couple he was helping and he rescued me and pulled the car in. I’d left my back pack with our luggage and had only a cross-body purse. Dave had his back pack and he set it down in the garage to take a video of the car, to prove we had returned it without damage, in spite of our precarious arrival.

We completed the check-in process and summoned an Uber to get us back to the Lancaster Gate. As we got out of the Uber, Dave realized–I’m sure you know what–yes, he didn’t have his back pack. Mild panic struck. It had his passport and we were leaving for Scotland the next day, not returning to London except for a layover at Heathrow on our way home. The staff at our hotel helpfully called the Marriott, but no one there had the back pack. Dave talked to a security person and said we were on our way back.

We Uber-ed to the Marriott again, but of course the rental office had closed and everyone was gone. The security officer met us and after pinning down the times we’d been through, he left to look at security footage of the lobby.

While the rental office was closed for business, it wasn’t locked up. I peeked over the counters and under desks, but didn’t open any drawers. No black back pack.

Dave paced, then walked down to the garage to be sure it wasn’t still down there. The security guy came back and showed us the footage he’d found. We saw the employee who’d helped us carrying a black back pack across the lobby. A clue!

We moved back to the office and this time, the security guy did open drawers and there was the back pack! Whew!! Dave had to list the contents, sign a statement, and a copy of his driver’s license was taken.

Friends had told Dave to take some CHP patches, that overseas law enforcement agencies love to see them. Dave had some patches in his back pack so he gifted one to the security officer and left two more for the rental agency guys. The security man was overjoyed! Really, you’d have thought we gave him a 100£ note.

2017-08-31_22-54-06_543We breathed easier and this time we Uber-ed directly to Portobello Road. I love the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts movie Notting Hill, and Portobello Road is an important character in the movie. We found a kitschy tourist shop where we bought refrigerator magnets and another shop where I added to my  knob collection.

And then we found the shop that’s supposed to be the Travel Book Shoppe in the movie.

It’s now an even kitschier shop than the one we’d stopped at, but I couldn’t resist getting a picture.

We’d had an exhausting day, so when we saw a restaurant, The Distillery, advertising Portobello Road Gin, we gave in and stopped. After a gin & tonic and a snack, we returned to wandering the streets. Because of the whole lost back pack adventure, we didn’t get to the area until 4:00 and many of the shops were closed or closing shortly. We did find a spice shop and Dave purchased some different spices to bring home. A curry, and something else fragrant and exotic. Our luggage smelled yummy the rest of the trip.

We found a pub for dinner, the Duke of Wellington. Dave had the charcuterie board and I had fish and chips. Both were delicious. I found it funny that a pub named after the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo had pop art and Beatles decor on the walls.

We wandered a bit more and found the most amazing gelato at 3BIS. Rich, creamy, artisanal, and completely amazing. We each got one and shared.

Our adventurous day was finally over. We Uber-ed back to the hotel where the staff had kept our luggage safe for us, and fell into bed.

Wednesday Wanderings: Highclere, Jane Austen, Irish Football, and 40 Years Married

Sunday, September 17, 2017 — I probably should have been dating these posts before this one.

We woke up in Newbury, in the Furze Bush Inn. During our Full English breakfast, the innkeeper, Jules, asked what brought us to the area and what we planned to see. I’m a huge Dick Francis fan and I wanted to see the village of Lambourn and the training grounds that are often featured in his books.

 

I’d also wanted to visit Bath and some Jane Austen sites, but Bath was just too far out of the way from the other places we wanted to see. However … the village of Chawton where Jane Austen lived the last few years of her life was in the area and they have a museum in her home.

UK map (2)

 

 

So I told Jules we were headed to Lambourn, then to Chawton. He asked about Highclere (home of Downton Abbey) since it was very close. I had checked into visiting the castle, but it wasn’t open to guests/tours/tourists while we were there. It’s only open limited times. I told him it was closed, but he said we should go by there anyway, it was worth a look from the gates. He mentioned the popularity of Downton Abbey had been a huge boon to the area with the influx of tourists. Jules also encouraged us to find a Sunday carving for dinner. It’s roast beef and is a Sunday tradition in pubs. We didn’t realize Sunday carving dinner is actually lunch.

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A Lambourn racing stable

So we headed out. Lambourn was our first stop. It was a drizzly day, but not a downpour. We found Lambourn easily and drove through the village and along the training grounds which were empty since we were there late morning. We did see a stable that I know was in many of the Francis books. It could have been transported from Lambourn onto the page. I knew it right away. I had never visited Lambourn before, but I’d been there and I’d been in that stable, thanks to Mr. Francis.

 

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A typical road between villages. This is a two-way road.

The scenery was lush and green and beautiful. And the roads and lanes were a bit wider than in Ireland, which helped my driving confidence. Having an automatic transmission helped also. I often thanked the kind employees at the Marriott in my mind. One of them told us story about a tourist from another European country (which I won’t name but you may be able to guess). The employee said he was upgrading him to an automatic. The tourist got angry, and said, “You think I’m lazy like an American?!?!” The employee apologized, changed him back to a standard, and then offered a hybrid vehicle, so he’d get better mileage. That also angered him.

From Lambourn we backtracked a bit and pointed the car towards Highclere. We found it easily and sure enough, the gates were closed. Another car had followed us up the drive. We all got out of our vehicles and approached the gates, eager to see the famous castle. 2017-09-17_12-12-14_513Unfortunately, Jules was a bit over optimistic about what was visible. We could see a curving lane and a security car approaching. I knew he was coming to tell us to leave, so I returned to the car. The other car’s occupants lingered and talked to the security guy. As they came back to their vehicle, they said he’d told them that if they drove to nearby Beacon Hill, there was a short hike that had a great view of the castle. We decided to try it since it seemed silly to come all that way and then leave without a glimpse.

We followed the other car, and parked. They were out of their car and disappeared down the trail while we were making sure our bags were covered, the car was locked up, and so on. We started on the trail and immediately met the others returning to the parking lot. “It’s very muddy. You need proper shoes and to be fit,” one of them said. “We’re not fit.”

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The view from the first hill. You can get an idea of the steep trail we climbed.

We decided to proceed. It was very muddy and a stiff incline. After a hundred yards or so, we went through a gate and instead of mud, it was a grassy hillside to hike up. A very steep and slick hillside. We headed up. That was six months and 66 pounds ago. I made it up, but it wasn’t pretty. I told Dave if, when we reached the top, there was another hill to climb, he could do it on his own. 2017-09-17_12-57-02_959

Sure enough, there was. From the top of my hill, I could get a glimpse of the top quarter of the building. Dave went on to the next hill and got a better view and picture before we headed back down.

I think the security guard had a good laugh as we left at his great practical joke. He’d directed those crazy tourists to a strenuous hike with barely a view.

We made it safely back to the car and headed for Chawton. We found the village and the museum pretty easily. Parking was another matter. But there was a pub across the street from the museum and since Stud Muffin isn’t into Jane Austen, we parked in the pub parking lot. He went to the pub, I went to the museum.

Jane Austen lived in Chawton for the final eight years of her life, although her family moved her to Winchester for the last months, hoping her health would improve there. The house in Chawton is now a museum. July 2017 was the 100th anniversary of Austen’s death, and a choir from Winchester had performed at the observance last summer. They happened to be singing again on the day I visited and I was treated to some lovely music in the beautiful gardens. That was a serendipity I was not expecting!

 

After about an hour wandering the house and grounds, I found Stud Muffin at the pub. Our poor phone’s data plans had taken a beating, so I added more data to his phone then we headed out again.

While in Ireland visiting our niece and her family, we’d learned that County Mayo, where they live, were in the Irish Football championships against Dublin. It’s a long and heated rivalry, with Mayo losing far more often than winning. The game was that day, so we put “Sports pub” into our phones and headed to the closest, The French Horn, in Alton.

We found the pub just fine, but they had no sports on and no way to show the game. They suggested the Wheatsheaf. As we headed out the door, a group of three sitting nearby asked if we were good at crosswords. Stud Muffin offered my services to help them finish. They were lacking two answers. With a sigh of relief, I was able to supply one of the answers: Coda. The clue: Ending the music. The other clue I had no idea. This was a real neighborhood pub that welcomed anyone. Even American tourists looking for the Irish Football game.

The Wheatsheaf had televisions and was able to let us watch the last few minutes of the game. County Mayo was winning when we started watching, but they did indeed manage to lose the game. We arrived at the Wheatsheaf at just after four o’clock and the Sunday carving was over. They were out of food. They recommended we try The George, so we headed out again. In case you’re counting, we’ve now been to four pubs in one day. Not drinking, not eating, just visiting.

It was a short walk to the George, and they were serving food, but no Sunday carving. This was our actual 40th anniversary, so we sat and prepared to celebrate.

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Dave had rump steak and I had a burger. The food was excellent and tasty and you could tell they paid attention to it.

One thing we’d learned in pubs is that the wait staff don’t just bring you your tab when you’re done eating. They assume you’re there for the evening and the table is yours. You have to ask for the bill when you’re ready to go. We almost left the George without paying, but we remembered just in time.

We had about a 90 minute drive to our stop for the night in Royal Tunbridge Wells. We wanted to visit Hastings on the coast the next day, so I’d picked a town between Newbury and Hastings, but closer to Hastings. It was after dark when we arrived and it had been a bit stressful driving. But we got there safely. The B&B wasn’t the easiest to find, because the street and houses weren’t clearly marked, but after asking for help from some people leaving the nearby church, we found it. The proprietress asked if we wanted to add breakfast for 8 pounds each. We asked why breakfast wasn’t included. She said AirB&B wouldn’t let her offer breakfast. That still sounds fishy, but we didn’t argue and just declined.

Whew! It was a long day packed full of memories and lovely moments. Thanks for reading this far!

Next week: Hastings, Notting Hill, and Portobello Road. Oh, and checking in the rental car. That may deserve its own post.

Wednesday Wanderings: Exploring England

Somehow two weeks have elapsed since my last trip post. Sigh. Thank you for sticking with us!

We woke up Saturday morning in London, had breakfast at the hotel and checked out. Stud Muffin had wanted to get out of London, so I’d reserved a car. We Ubered over to the Marriott and got our rental car.

The staff at the rental office were so kind and helpful. They upgraded us to a Volvo with an automatic transmission which turned out to be a huge help. One employee fetched the car for us from the underground parking garage. “It’s a bit close quarters, down there,” he said. Remember that, because it will come back to haunt me.

We found our way out of the city fairly easily and headed to Windsor. Stud Muffin wanted to avoid “tourist” attractions, which is one reason for getting out of London.

Before our trip, we’d watched several television shows based in the UK. Escape to the Country was a favorite, as was Walks With My Dog. Escape to the Country is like our House Hunters. Walks With My Dog is exactly what it sounds like. Not-quite-A-list British celebrities take a walk with their dogs. They walk several miles, stopping to learn about local culture or history or taste a local delicacy at a pub or restaurant. We watched all we could of each series, although we get a very limited selection here in the States.

One of the Walks With My Dog episodes we’d seen included Windsor Park, the grounds around Windsor Castle. I thought it looked gorgeous and would be a great place to visit. So we plugged in “Windsor Park” into our phones and headed off. We found Windsor the town pretty easily. The park though … not so much. First we were directed through town to nearby LEGOLAND. Not quite what we wanted. Then we circled town to a large area of open ground that could have been (and likely was) horse training grounds. People and dogs were walking around, so I could see why Google maps thought we wanted to go there. We finally just went back to town to find parking and ask around. We found a mall with parking, and headed out. The mall was an outdoor shopping area and guess who found a cigar shop?

We discovered we were just a block or two from Windsor Castle, so we walked there and then asked where was the park. It turned out to be a short walk around the castle grounds, through a gate and then we were in the park. We learned it was called the Long Walk and Deer Park and is part of the Windsor Great Park. It was gorgeous! We saw chestnut trees, a private polo club, and lots of people and dogs. We spent some time wandering the grounds. We could see the castle through the gate and fence. The castle had obviously been built directly adjacent to the old “village,” since the grounds wall was shared with a pub. Literally. They were side by side.

After a good walk, we looked for a place for a drink and a bite to eat. We found a cobblestone street with several restaurants with outdoor seating. The Queen Charlotte Pub advertised a local gin, Guildhall Island, so we chose that one. We had the Guildhall Island with flavored tonic. This was our introduction to the wide variety of tonic waters available in England. We were used to Schweppes or Canada Dry. We’d occasionally see a “specialty” tonic like Fever Tree. This pub had lots of Fever Tree varieties. We shared a baked Camembert in sour dough (delicious, so creamy and tart and yummy) and a gin and tonic.

We struck up a conversation with a couple sitting nearby. They had been to a gin festival in London a few weeks prior. We said we were in the UK celebrating our anniversary which would be the next day. Their anniversary was the same day! Only 39 years separated us! They were celebrating their first anniversary, our 40th. They were not youngsters though, so must be a second (at least) marriage for both.

We continued on our stroll though the mall again with a stop at the cigar store, before getting back in the car and heading to Newbury.

I had booked us a room at the Furze Bush Inn, a lovely and charming country pub outside of Newbury, in the North Wessex Downs. We loved the inn! If we ever get back to England, a return visit to the Furze Bush will be on our list. The room was cozy, but modern and clean. The food and drinks were excellent. They had a lovely back patio where Stud Muffin enjoyed one of his cigar purchases.

We ate in the dining room. Dave had a Gammon steak, which we learned is ham, not beef. We should have known since it wasn’t listed with the other meats, and came with an egg. He just thought it sounded good. I had a salad with calamari and both were delicious. The staff was incredibly kind and helpful and attentive without being intrusive. We chatted quite a bit with Jules, whose family has owned the pub and inn for a long time.

After dinner, we retreated to our room for a good night’s sleep.

Next week: Highclere, Lambourn, Jane Austen, and Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Book Talk Tuesday: STORM FRONT

I look for three things in a book:

  • Characters I love and relate to
  • A plot that moves without unnecessary internal navel gazing
  • Multiple story threads that intersect
  • A satisfying ending

Why I love Susan May Warren’s books:

  • Characters who emerge from the page as real and fully developed people
  • Engrossing and exciting action that moves the story forward
  • An overarching mystery or story that ties the others together
  • The main protagonists end with a deeper understanding of themselves, God, and they usually get the love of their life.

STORM FRONT has all that and more. Much more.

Storm-Front800-768x1187The story starts about nine months after TROUBLED WATERS (the most recent book in the series) and about eighteen months after A MATTER OF TRUST (when Ty and Brette met, in Gage and Ella’s story).

Ty Remington blames himself for the helicopter accident that nearly killed his friend and mentor, Chet King, and ruined Ty’s knee. He ignores the fact that he hiked out in a snowstorm with a broken knee and saved Chet’s life. He’s been unable to fly and feels like he’s just a hanger-on and pizza fetcher for the PEAK rescue team.

For the past eighteen months, he can’t get journalist Brette Arnold out of his mind. They only knew each other for two days, but they’d developed a bond. Or at least he thought they had. He can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong and that she needs him.

Brette ran from Ty when she got a devastating medical diagnosis. She convinced herself he was better off without her. And she didn’t need rescuing or anyone taking care of her. Except she did. She really did.

As STORM FRONT opens, Brette is on the mend and working with a crew of storm chasers. She and Ty both happen to be at the aftermath of a tornado in Minnesota. Brette’s co-worker’s younger brother is missing and so is Chet King, Ty’s mentor.

As soon as he sees Brette, Ty knows he was right. Something was wrong, terribly wrong.

Brette and Ty work together to find the missing people after the tornado. In the process, they find the spark they shared is still warm and it takes only a kiss to fan it into a flame.

But they both have some deep issues they have to deal with before they can become the people God has designed them to be.

The secondary couple in this couple is Ben King and Kacey Fairing, who we met in the first book in this series, WILD MONTANA SKIES.

The next and final book in this series will be Pete and Jess’s story.

Warning: STORM FRONT ends with a heckuva cliff hanger that leads into that final book.


I received a free copy of STORM FRONT from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.