Thursday, November 24, 2011

London, York and Dover (August 19-24, 2011)

We arrived at the Kings Crossing Station in London early on Friday evening, August 19th.   Things were busy as we moved through the subway with our luggage to the London School of Economics where we were to stay for the next four days.  We were hungry, but wanted to drop off our bags first.  We found the Holborn Hall (located a couple blocks from the Holborn subway station) and checked in.  Our room was large, with three beds and a bath and we shared a kitchen with four other rooms.  Spartan, but clean and very convenient and at $120 a night, a real deal as hotels in this neighborhood would have cost three or four times this amount.  The room also included a wonderful buffet breakfast!

We had noticed a grocery store across from the subway station, so we decided we’d head down and get pasta and food that Caroline can easily eat with her “no-diary” needs. However,  once we got there, we found that they had closed at 8 PM and was going to be closed for a month as they remodeled.  So we set out to find another store.  After walking a few blocks, we saw a pair of police officers and approached them, figuring they could direct us.   They couldn’t!  They laughed and sheepishly admitted they weren’t even from London.  As the city had been rocked in riots ten days earlier, they’d been brought into the city from another part of England.  They admitted their main purpose was to walk around and “make a presence.”  They told us where they thought they’d seen a small store and we headed in that direction.  I felt like a king as Caroline insisted on holding my hand.  We eventually found a small store and brought food.   On the way back to our room, we stopped at a fast food place, ran by Middle Easterners and brought dinner as it was going to be too late to fix a meal.  This was my first time to have fast-food lamb ribs, but they were good (Donna had chicken) and we all had fries. 

The next morning, we took the subway to High Street Kensington Station where we met Todd, Donna’s cousin, and set off on a walking tour through London.   Todd works for an American company out of their London’s office and knows the city well.  We walked through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, stopped for photos at Buckingham Palace, then through St. James Park and by 10 Downing Street, headed up into the theater district where we had lunch and tried to wait out an afternoon shower.  After lunch, we headed toward Big Ben and walked around the Parliament building and then on to Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.   Instead of touring the Abbey, we toured the Cathedral (and I went up the tower) and then headed back to the Cathedral in time for the 5 PM Evensong Service. The service was beautiful and the sounds of the organ and the choir filled the sanctuary.  Afterwards, Donna and Caroline decided they wanted to go with Todd to see the play “Wicked.”  Not wanting to come up with another $150 for a ticket to see a play that I was only marginally interested in, I decided to skip the play and to explore the city on my own.

Instead of the theater, I continued walking, checking out again Parliament and then the Victorian Tower Gardens before crossing the Lambeth Bridge and heading up the Thames, passing by the London Eye, before crossing back over the river and back toward the London School of Economics.  Knowing my evening was a chance to eat what I wanted, I headed to an Indian Restaurant I’d seen a few blocks from where we were straying.  The “Punjab” advertises to be the oldest “North Indian” restaurant in the city.  It opened in 1946 (India was then still a part of the British Empire).   The place is run by Sikhs and the food was wonderful.  Again, I had lamb (this time spicy), wonderful bread and vegetables along with a large bottle of Cobra Beer imported from Bangalore (which isn’t North India, I realized as I read on the bottle where it was brewed).

Sunday was a rather lazy day as Donna and Caroline had stayed out late with Todd.  Late in the morning, we took a boat up the Thames River to Kew Gardens.  Getting off the boat, we got to see a Cricket match as we walked over to the Gardens.  We ate lunch in the Gardens and walked around the grounds, but mostly spent time within the buildings that had lilies (the super-sized lilies that had pie pan shaped leaves that were a meter across were neat) and tropical plants (especially orchids).  We took the train back late in the afternoon and ate dinner before returning to our room.  For some reason, I was in a down mood most of the day and never really got into the gardens even though they were beautiful. 
East Coast Line at York
We all got up early on Monday morning.  Donna and Caroline planned to go to Wimbledon and then meeting Todd for some evening shopping and dining.  Having just taken the train from Southeast Asia to Europe, I had wanted to visit the Rail Museum in York and we’d decided this was the best day for me to accomplish this.  After breakfast, I headed to the subway and back to King’s Crossing Station where I caught a northbound East Coast Line train.  Two hours later, after riding through the rolling country of freshly cut grain, I arrived in York.  

 The National Rail Museum is free and supposedly the largest railroad museum in the world.  It is very impressive, but I am not sure that it’s the largest railroad museum.  The Sacramento seemed to be just as large, but it’s been a quarter of century since I’ve been there.  The museum is located just to the west of the station, which makes it convenient to those who arrive by rail.  I spent most of the morning and half of the afternoon in the museum, stopping for lunch in their cafĂ©.  Although the focus is on British rail, there is the engine of a Japanese Bullet Train on display as well as a large steamer from the Chinese (but it was built in Britain in the 30s).  The museum houses a working replica of the Rocket, one of the oldest steam engines and the first to use tubes in the boiler to enable it to develop more steam.  The royal family’s collection of elegant cars is also on exhibit at the museum.  Probably the most sought after engine on display is the Flying Scotsman, a Pacific type locomotive that was built to run non-stop between London and Edinburgh.  The engine came with an oversized tender to give it the water and fuel capacity to make the run without refueling or taking on water.  This was also the first train to break the 100 miles per hour speed barrier and it gained even more fame as it was also the name of the first British “talking film.”    

The bottom of this wall was built by the Romans
When I finished up in the museum, I headed into York and walked around the old walls (the earliest walls in York were built by the Romans), and explored the cathedral in addition to sitting outside of it and enjoying an ice cream as I listed to a free-lance violinist performing on the corner.  I then took the train back to London.  Calling Donna, I learned they were still shopping, so I caught the subway over to Aldgate Station.  Getting off there, I walked down to see the London Tower where I had a sausage for dinner as I walked around the tower and then across the tower bridge.  I walked down the Thames by the H. M. S. Belfast and then back across the river and in the fading light around St. Paul’s Cathedral before heading back to Holborn Hall.

Tuesday was our last day in London.  After breakfast and checking out of our room and storing our luggage, we headed across the Thames to the London Eye, a large Ferris Wheel on the Thames.  It was raining, which meant we didn’t have the best views but we also didn’t have to wait long in line.  The Ferris Wheel consists of a number of carriages in which 20 or so people are packed in.  Each carriage rotates as the wheel slowly makes the revolution, so that you’re always level.  It was interesting seeing the city in the rain, but I’m sure it would have been better in the sunlight or at night.  After the Eye experience, we went to a nearby restaurant where I had the pleasure of eating the most overpriced food served with the least amount of service on my whole trip.   For sixty some pounds, I had fish and chips (which was getting cold by the time the malt vinegar arrived), Donna had chicken strips and cheese sticks or something similar and Caroline had a plate of plain paste.   Donna and I had hot tea to drink, which was served after we’d complained several times and had finished eating our food.   I suppose it took them a long time to boil the water as the tea bags were placed in our drinks as they served them.  At least the place was inside and out of the rain.  I could only imagine what the service would have been like if it had been busy.  Needless to say, I did something I seldom do and left no tip.

After lunch, we took a boat up the Thames to Greenwich Village.  It was nice to sit inside and see the sights through windows dotted with drops of water.  The boat included a narration and we saw where Shakespeare’s Globe Theater recreation and a number of pubs and bars frequented by famous people.  We learned about the shipping and the various market areas within the city and other tidbits of history like where they mounted the heads of criminals after their execution.  At Greenwich, we walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory.  There, we got to straddle the 0 degree longitude line and see the various telescopes and other implements of measurement used not only to tell time but to map the world.    The highlight of the Observatory was an actor who played a number of characters as he told the story of the Observatory and the role it played in developing a way to determine one’s position on the face of the earth, a necessary skill for a country of seafarers like England.  I had hoped to see the “Cutty Shark” that’s moored at Greenwich.  It’s the famous ship that gave its name to Lyndon Johnson’s preferred scotch and was also the last and one of the most famous clipper ships, but it was closed for renovations.  The ship was being restored in 2007 and a fire at that time badly damaged the ship to where it requires even more extensive restoration.  All the masts are down and we could only see a bit of the bow and stern over the solid construction fence surrounding the ship.

We took the boat back up the Thames, getting off near Shakespeare Globe Theater and crossing the Thames on a bridge and walking back to Holborn by St. Paul’s Cathedral (we never got inside of it).  Retrieving our luggage, we headed to the subway and on to Kings Crossing Station where we had sandwiches for dinner as we waited on the train to Dover. We arrived in Dover at 9:00, PM, took a cab to our hotel.  The next morning, everyone slept in but me as I walked around the town, picking up a few items in a grocery store for our journey.  At 11 AM, we took a cab to the wharf where Holland America’s Eurodam was moored and boarded.   The hotel lobby was packed and it seemed everyone was heading for the ship.

The port of Dover is a busy shipping terminal (especially for passenger ships as ferries constantly leave for France (which we could see from the top deck of the Eurodam) and other points in Europe.  The white cliffs of Dover make a nice backdrop of the port.  Late in the afternoon of August 24, after a lifeboat drill, we set sail for Amsterdam.   The Eurodam would be our home for the next seventeen days.
The White Cliffs of Dover and the lighthouse at the jetty

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tallinn, Edinburgh and New Lanark (and two reunions)

Click on photos to enlarge

The bus ride from St. Petersburg to Tallinn was a treat.  As I stepped onto the bus, they handed me a bottle of water.  Coffee was also available, the seats were nice, there was a power plug at every seat AND there was wifi!  I was set for the six hour ride.  Although it wasn’t the fastest wifi I’d experienced, it was a novelty and I sent a few emails as we rolled out of St. Petersburg and through the countryside of Northern Europe.  At the border, we’re ordered off the bus and told to collect our luggage and wait in line as they checked us out of the country.   It’s slow, as there is only one line for those of us on the bus (there are other agents out going through cars that are leaving the country.   I am next to last in the line and when they ask for my passport, I had it with all the collected slips of hotels and guesthouses I’d stayed in while in Russia.  The man takes the slips and adds them to a pile, stamps my passport and returns it to me.  He didn’t even look at my luggage, but while I was in line, another officer had run a dog through the line sniffing at our luggage.  The dog was also walked through the bus and the storage compartments.  The process was  painfully slow and I felt lucky to be at the end of the line as it meant that I didn’t have to wait very long inside the hot bus (they’d turned the bus ‘s engine off as a Russian official opened up the hood and probed around in the engine).  After everyone was back on board, the bus drove a hundred meters or more (turned the engine back off) and an Estonia official came on board and collected our passports.  A few minutes later, she came back, returning our passports which had all been stamped and we were able to resume our drive through the low country.  The land here was flat and there were lots of farms and not much else.  

Sitting next to me, in the back of the bus, was the most beautiful Russian woman who didn’t speak any English or acted like she didn’t.  When I or someone else spoke to her, she’d smile and shake her head.   Around us, in the seats next to her and in the next row up, was a group of co-workers from Spain.  They had been working on a project in St. Petersburg and had decided to go overland back to their home.  I talked some to the guy who seemed to be in charge (or maybe his was just the loudest) as he seemed to yell in both Spanish and English.  They didn’t speak Russia either.  This group was having too much fun, picking on each other and telling jokes that they made the trip go quickly. 

Getting off at the bus station in Tallinn, I looked around for a trolley.  I had booked a room at “16 Euro,” a small hotel/hostel.  They had sent me directions on how to get from the bus station to the hotel via the trolley.  It required a transfer, but once I got onboard I asked for help and a couple who spoke English asked me where I was going.  I gave them my directions (which involved getting off at the main post office and they told me that I didn’t need to change trolleys, that this one also went by the post office and they would let me know where to get off and point me in the right directions).   Twenty minutes after arriving in Tallinn, I was dumping my pack in my room.  It was still a couple hours before dark, so I went out and explored a bit.  

Tallinn is an old walled city and my hostel was only two blocks from the old walls.  As it was Sunday night, things were quiet.  I walked around a bit, and then realized I was hungry and decided to get something to eat.   I’d thought about stopping in the Scottish Bar for dinner, but I didn’t want to try to find my way back to the hostel in the dark.  Remembering a place that looked like a restaurant on the back side of the same building as the hostel and figured I’d give it a try.   Not being able to read the signs, I walked in and was met by a man at the door.  “Are you open for dinner,” I asked.  “Yes, 10 euro,” he said.   “Ten euro?  Is it a buffet?”  He shook his head.   “What do you get for ten euro?”   “Dancing girls.”  I had no idea this place was a strip joint.  Nothing in their logo indicated such and, of course, there wasn’t anything in English.  I told him that I was just interested in food and he pointed to a place in the next block over.  Their kitchen was closed but they had sandwiches, so I had a sandwich and a beer for dinner.  I later learned that the dormitory portion of the hostel (I was in a private room) was over this strip joint and that on Friday and Saturday nights, those in the dormitory had a hard time sleeping with all the noise.  My room on the top floor was quiet and peaceful.
In the basement of the hostel there was a bunya that was open every morning.  On Monday, after breakfast, I had a long steam bath interspersed with dips in the cool water whirlpool.  It felt bittersweet, enjoying the bunya, but missing Russia and the wonderful bunya at Lake Baikal.  Then I took another walk around the city, finding a place to exchange my Russian currency into Euros.  I ended up at the Oleviste Kirik (St. Olave’s Church), which has a high bell tower (it requires climbing nearly 300 narrow worn stone steps).  I paid the 2 euro price of admission and climbed the tower for a magnificent view of the city.  I was told that on clear days, one can see Finland, but the view I got was quiet foggy.   Yet, it was beautiful.  After coming down, I visited the ancient church, which was beautiful yet also had a hint of the modern as there were screens on the sides of the chancel and speakers on poles scattered throughout the wooden pews.

I wish I had another day to spend in Tallinn.  I’d been told that the KGB museum was interesting and then I learned there was a museum dedicated to the “Russian Occupation,” as Estonia had spent years as a part of the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time.  After leaving St. Olave’s, I rushed back to the hotel and picked up my bags and had them call me a cab for the airport.

I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight was scheduled to leave.  I had booked the flight on Expedia, which was to take me to Helsinki and then to Edinburgh (and for some reason, known only to those in the airline industry, it was cheaper to fly from Tallinn than Helsinki).  Arriving in the terminal, which wasn’t that large, I began to have a sinking feeling when I couldn’t find Golden Air.  I couldn’t find my airline.  I then went to an information desk and to my horror, learned that the airline stopped flying out of Tallinn two weeks earlier!  The woman was helpful and called the airline for me and they arranged me to fly on a different airline (Estonia Air), to Copenhagen and then another flight into Edinburgh.  It was going to take me a couple hours more to make the trip, but at least I was able to make Scotland by dark.  I tried all kind of ways to reach my friend Ewan who was going to meet me at the airport (and I never knew if he got the message until I arrived. He told me he received my message just as he was getting ready to head to the airport at the original time that I was supposed to arrive).    When I cleared customs, there was Ewan and his son waiting.   I should note that Expedia had tried numerous times to reach me, both by email and by my cell phone.  But they had my work email that I had automatically send a “on sabbatical” reply and the emails archived.  As for my cell phone, it was safely stored at home…    

I’ve known Ewan since I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in Ellicottville, New York, twenty-one years ago.  Ewan came to the United States as a seminary student right after I had graduated and was beginning my first call.  He had taken a year off of school to do an internship in Buffalo (he knew he was interested in intercity work and wanted to compare the experiences of working in Scotland with America).  During his year in Buffalo, with me just an hour down the road, we became friends and have stayed in contact with each other through Christmas Cards and lately Facebook.  In the mid-1990s, Ewan called me from Los Angeles.  He and his wife had been on a two year “honeymoon” as they worked themselves around the world.  They were on their last leg home (and had arranged to drive a car from Los Angeles to New York) and stopped to see us (and meet Donna) in Utah.  I hadn’t seen him since then, but I recognized him right away!

I spent the night with Ewan and his family.  We talked late and again in the morning as we ate our bowls of oatmeal for breakfast.  After breakfast, I went into town with him, as we rode on the top deck of a double-decker bus.  Ewan is now a politician and everyone seemed to know him.  He’s served on the Edinburgh Council for a number of terms and had recently been defeated in the Scottish parliamentary elections.  Ewan’s office, at the Church of Scotland headquarters, is just a couple of blocks from the train station.  I walked over and found the right train (but then it was cancelled) and took the next Glascow local train to Hollytown (a small shed by the tracks) where I transferred to the train to Lanark.       

It was raining when I arrived in Lanark.  I got off the train and found a restroom and by the time I got back I realized that the bus to New Lanark was leaving.  All the taxis were full.  I asked and found that New Lanark was only a little over a mile away, so I stopped and had lamb stew in a pub for dinner (It was already 1 PM).    After eating, I walked down to New Lanark.  I wasn’t exactly sure where I would find my wife and daughter.  I had tried to call Donna a couple of times, but had never been able to get up with her.  I walked into the compound known as “New Lanark” and was directed to the hotel in an adjunct building.  As I was walking down the path, I heard Caroline yelling “Dad!”   I turned as she ran up behind me and jumped into my arms.  It had been ten weeks since I’d last seen her.  Even with my packs on, I swung her around as she hugged me tightly.  We then walked over to the restaurant where she and Donna were having lunch.  I sat down and joined them. 

The next two days were a little lazy as we watched the rain.  New Lanark was the industrial social experiment by Robert Owen, a British utopian industrialist who felt that businesses should work to improve the lives of their employees.  Unlike other textile mills in Britain in the 19th Century, New Lanark supported education and literacy for all employees as well as provided health care and recreation opportunities.    When the rains soften to a drizzle, we walked up the River Clyde, to the Falls of the Clyde, a site that has impressed numerous Scottish writers.  We also toured the museum at New Lanark and spent time reading and lounging around and washing clothes.  Our quarters, in the “waterhouse” had water that had been diverted from the river to power the mill run underneath.  It was a nice sleep to the gurgling of the water.

After New Lanark, we headed back to Edinburgh where the Edinburgh Festival was on-going.  We retraced my steps on the train (after having traveled with just a backpack and a daypack, it seemed strange to travel with suitcases).   Getting into the city, we took a cab over to the Church of Scotland’s headquarters, stashed our stuff in Ewan’s office, and set out to explore the city.  Everything is exciting during the festival as hoards descend on the city and it seems that on every street corner there is another performance: musicians and magicians, actors and artists.  We stop to observe a few and then find ourselves in the National Gallery where a helpful volunteer gives us a map and clues to paintings that we shouldn’t miss.  It’s a nice gallery (after the Hermitage, it feels like it’s the right size to be able to truly appreciate the collection).  We have a fine time until we come upon a huge painting of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  There are actually two such paintings which freaked my daughter out. 

At five, we’re back at Ewan’s office.  We head home with him and enjoyed a wonderful evening meal prepared by Hilary.  Caroline quickly makes friends with Ewan and Hilary’s two children (their son is her age and they both got to talk about having parents who often have their pictures in the newspaper).  Unfortunately, it couldn’t be a late night as school had just started in Edinburgh and everyone was going to have to get up early the next morning (Hilary is also a teacher).   The next morning, we head back into town and stored our stuff again in Ewan’s office and head up to the Edinburgh Castle.  It’s a nice day with great views of the city.  Afterwards, we tour St. Giles Cathedral, paying homage to the Scottish Reformer and Presbyterian John Knox.  Later that afternoon, we retrieve our luggage and catch the train to London.  It’s a lovely ride, especially the first hour as the train speed along the coastline.   Too soon, we’re out of Scotland and in the heart of England.  Things are going too fast…