Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sixteen Days in the UK

Before I start writing about the amazing castles and wonderful places we visited across the pond, I have to talk about the pre-trip craziness. We almost didn't go! 

In mid-June, I came down with a stomach bug... I thought it was something I ate, but I have since heard that others caught it from something in the water. This is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. But then, because I was eating what I thought was the right thing - the BRAT diet, mostly - for the better part of three weeks, my gall bladder got cranky. So then I was taking antibiotics for the stomach issue plus antispasmodics. And still feeling awful, and working from home. To add insult to illness, on the Thursday before we left, I went out to run some errands, and got rear-ended at the traffic light a mile from our house! Now, the kid was not moving fast - he was already stopped, but his foot slipped - so it didn't do much damage. I took his info, but really, he was so young and earnest (damn those puppy dog eyes) and the damage was so minimal, I'm really not going to bother. 

And now, on with the trip: 

Part I: London & Oxford

We left on July 4th. I was so excited to go back to London, I was willing to miss the fireworks and fun on my favorite holiday. And BA now has a direct flight from Austin! When we got in on Sunday morning, we met up with mom at the airport, and headed into town on the tube. It was warm in London, but we seem to have missed the "heat wave" they were having the week before. We were staying at a two bedroom apartment that I found on Airbnb, and the owner was nice enough to let us come in early, while she was still cleaning up from the last visitors. So far so good, right? 

Well... at this point we discovered that this first floor apartment at the back of the building overlooked the tube tracks, about 40 feet below us. And since there was no air conditioning, we had to keep the windows open. And the trains run every 3-5 minutes. Sometimes it was so loud we couldn't hear the TV. [Apparently I missed that part on the AirBnB reviews -- I definitely added it to mine!]  On the plus side, we were also right above the Sainsbury, so we could get groceries and supplies. By supplies, I mean, we bought a wine bottle opener because although the host left us a bottle of wine as a "welcome" gift, her kitchen didn't have an opener. No wonder the last guests didn't drink it!

After a quick rest, we went out wandering - trying to stay awake as long as possible - and ended up at Kensington Palace. I was really feeling weird, but we sat outside and had some water and snacks in the garden. Here's mom and "Vicki" at the palace. We had dinner at a kebab place in Earls Court that mom likes, and then went back to crash. I will say, it was nice to watch Wimbledon in real time. I was rooting for Andy Murray, because we were going to be in Scotland by the time the finals were on. Sadly, he didn't make it that far. 

Monday morning we took the tube to Covent Garden for the standard Monday morning Fratkin family activity: the Covent Garden flea market. It was surprisingly empty, but it was fun to look around. I bought some "Keep Calm and Carry On" socks. I was very conscious of the fact that we still had two weeks of travel ahead, and I didn't need to carry anything extra! 

We walked from CG through Leicester Square and past one of the antique shops where mom knows the proprietor. We stopped for a chat, and then headed down to the Mall, to see the tail end of the Changing of the Guard. Standing on the Mall sidewalk about 500 ft from the circle in front of Buckingham Palace, some of the guards passed us on their way in, and the band passed us on the way out, so we got to see enough, and we didn't have to cram in like sardines with all the other tourists. 

After lunch, John and I went off to visit the Churchill War Rooms. Unfortunately, everyone else on the planet also wanted to go to the War Rooms after lunch, so we skipped it. We walked along St. James' park, past the Ivy Lodge, the Guards Division Memorial, and across into the Horse Guards parade area. I never noticed the two giant cannons on either side of the park, but of course John did. [Photo of the Cadiz Memorial, right] Then we walked across to Victoria Embankment, and along the Thames up to Westminster. We took pictures of the London Eye, but we didn't really feel the need to go on it. After some ice cream and photos of Big Ben, we took the tube back to the apartment. 

Dinner was leftovers from the kebab place the night before, with some rice and naan and salad from Sainsbury. I will say that the UK supermarkets carry a wonderful arrangement of individual or small portions of tasty things. I think it's partly convenience, and partly the fact that homes in London tend to be small and have very small kitchens. 

By Tuesday, we learned that the tube stops running at midnight and starts again at 6am. Even with earplugs, it's hard to sleep through that, but we tried. The only thing on Tuesday's agenda was the Imperial War Museum. [Requisite photo with the big guns, left.] As it happened, we were on the tube at 11am, on the 10-year anniversary of the London bombings. We didn't realize until halfway there, when it dawned on us that there were very few people on the tube.  

The museum was full of school kids in uniforms, but we managed to avoid them most of the time. It has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and they have added displays about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Really sobering. We didn't even get all the way through the museum.

We stopped for lunch at a pub, and I discovered a wonderful drink - Fentiman's Rose Lemonade. It's pink and bubbly but not sweet. I'm thinking I might have to get some (World Markets here I come)... and probably mix it with gin. :) 

I finally felt well enough to eat Indian food, so we met the whole CASC group at Noor Jahan, which the Fratkins have been visiting on every trip for at least a decade. It was extra tasty, particularly since I'd been eating so blandly for so long. 

Wednesday, we were up and out early, because we had to catch a bus to get up to Oxford for the CASC-UK HPC Meeting. We took a taxi to Victoria, and the bus comes every 20 minutes or so. Being tourists, we rode upstairs at the front window, and marveled at how the bus driver managed to squeeze between and get around things. 

When we got to Oxford the gloomy weather was brightening up. On the way to the hotel, we cut down a side street and I could swear I recognized the scenery from an episode of "Inspector Lewis" on BBC. Turns out I was right - and not only that, they were there FILMING! They called for quiet, and since our suitcases made way too much noise on the cobblestones, we stopped and waited. They filmed the scene, and then people could move again, so we continued on our way. We walked right by Laurence Fox (DI Hathaway)! He's just as good looking in person as he is on TV. 

The Buttery hotel is also a cafe (and the meeting point for most of the walking tours of Oxford). They gave us the room just opposite registration, so we were looking out over the street and the tourists. They also gave us a standalone A/C unit, so the room was cool enough, and the tourist noise mostly stopped after dark. Of course, "after dark" is close to 10pm up there. 

We went out wandering and got a quick lunch, and then I had to report to the meeting at the eResearch Center. John got his bearings in Oxford, and then he joined us for a nice dinner at Kellogg College

Thursday, I spent the day at the meeting, and John got to be a tourist. When I saw all of his pictures, I was jealous. There are dozens of colleges and universities in Oxford, many of which are older than the United States. We'll have to go back. The meeting continued on Friday morning, and then we hustled over to the coach station to catch the bus directly to Heathrow. We had a nice lunch at the airport - Terminal 2 is fancy! - and then we were off to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh - read next post

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