England, Ireland & Wales (December 15-29, 2010)

Off We Go!

Thames at Night
Thames at night from Albert Embankment

It feels like we have been planning this trip forever, and we kind of have. We made the decision to buy the tickets in June, and we have spent the last six months planning nearly every minute of the journey. We printed blank calendars and emailed friends, negotiating for their valuable time. As the trip got closer we booked our trains, buses, planes, and hotels and considered the calendar full.

Now that we’ve landed in London, it hardly feels real.

We were mostly packed last night, and after feeding and walking the dogs for the last time for 2 weeks, we used the morning to pull the toiletries together and go over our lists. Convinced we had packed everything we would need, we drove to Ryen’s house, put Penny in her garage and took Ryen’s car to the Dartmouth Coach depot. Ryen’s a big reason why we are able to take this trip. We’re grateful she agreed to look after the menagerie while we are gone!

The bus trip from Lebanon to Logan Airport was uneventful. We took an early bus, feeling more comfortable people watching at the airport than our watches on a bus later. The movie was new remake of The Karate Kid, but half-way through the movie the DVD stuck. The driver did what he could, but even had it not stopped the trip was less than the length of the film. More than likely it will be the same film on the way back anyway.

We forget that while we will be away for the next two weeks, including Christmas, that it is too early for most holiday travel, so the airport is less busy than expected. We were both surprised that we weren’t asked to participate in the new “enhanced” body pat-down or choose the full-body scanner — and were mostly relieved. Still early, we went to an airport pub to have a beer and meal before the flight. A little after 7 p.m. we boarded and our red-eye was underway.

The flight over was not that great. A few first-time-flying infants were less than enthusiastic and expressed as much most of the way, alternating turns screaming. Our seats were directly in front of the toilets in the mid-section of the plane, which means no one kicking you in the back of the seat, but it also means less legroom and the constant sound of an airplane’s toilet flushing. With earplugs in and headphones tuned into the in-flight entertainment, the flushing sounded as if an announcement was about to come on over the intercom. We both managed to grab a little sleep, but in fits and starts and dreams involving being flushed down a large loo.

We arrived at Heathrow a little after 8 a.m., found our luggage and made our way to the Heathrow Express. The Express had wifi so we checked email and updated friends and family that we were on the ground in London.

The Heathrow Express is about a 15 minute ride, and once we got to Paddington Station, we queued at the cash machine and learned that our debit cards weren’t working. The bank had been updated over a week earlier, so this was confusing. The credit card was working and so we bought Oyster cards and made our way to the hotel in Lambeth. Outside of the Lambeth tube stop we tried another cash machine and got the same result. The hotel was in walking distance, so we decided to check in and wait until the bank was open to contact them.

We got a little turned around, but eventually found the Novotel and checked in to our room. We drew the curtains, turned off the lights and tried to nap, but we’re foiled a few minutes later by staff knocking loudly on the door. We shooed them away and went back to sleep, knowing we need more energy if we are to keep up with Nick and Jess this evening.

More later.

Cosmopolitan London

When we woke up from our brief nap it was nearly time to get ready to meet with Jess and Nick. While Sarah called the bank to sort out the debit card issue, I went to the lobby to use one of the hotel’s iMacs. After a few tweets and instant messages it was decided we’d meet Jess at their flat while Nick attended to some pre-Christmas party time with his boss. Our plan was to walk along the Albert Embankment and across the Vauxhall Bridge to reach the flat, so we bundled up and headed out into the misty gray rain.

View from high above London
View from high above London

Jess buzzed us in when we arrived and we took the lift up to their place, and hung out drinking tea. Nick had been communicating with Jess and was trying to decide whether he would be missed if he binned going to the office party. He eventually decided he needed to make an appearance and suggested we have a few drinks before meeting so we weren’t too far behind him; Sarah and Jess had martinis and I had a Stella Artois. The message from Nick to meet him at the secret location for drinks before dinner came shortly and so the three of us hopped on the tube.

We arrived at Tottenham Court tube stop about 20 minutes later and made our way to the Centre Point building, where Jess had a few words with some smartly-dressed people at the desk and we are waved to the lifts. The lift was an express that only stopped at the 27th floor, the Paramount Club. Once we arrived we were greeted by a loud bar packed with more well-dressed people. Now we understood why Nick made sure to insist we didn’t wear ripped jeans.

After a quick eye at the extensive drinks menu, Jess made her way to the bar and ordered a round of cocktails for us all. Drinks in hand we attempted to go up to the top floor bar but were told they were hosting private office Christmas party up there. Nick said he only wanted to show his out-of-town guests the view and we’d come right back down, and the doorman acquiesced and sent us up in the lift a few more floors.

The top floor bar presented a nearly 360 degree view of Christmas-decorated London spread out in all directions. We slowly walked around pretending like we belonged and then found a corner, where no one else was, and chatted. When we felt we seen it all we went back downstairs, grabbed Nick’s coat and bags and headed toward our dinner spot.

Once in SoHo we made a beeline to the restaurant, which means we went by way of another place Nick wanted to show us first. A place that sold delicious … cake. We were hungry, not having eaten since Boston, and tried to keep Nick focused, but he led us to Yauatcha where — like a dessert ninja — Nick got us in and out and managed to buy us an adorable cake!

Carnaby Street at Xmas
Carnaby Street at Xmas

We (finally) found the restaurant, Polpo, where we waited only a few minutes for our table. As we were being seated, Nick accidentally bumped into the next table nearly knocking over a bottle. The couple was polite and we got on with ordering wine and discussing which dishes the table would order. Polpo serves Italian-inspired “tapas” dishes. Small portions meant to be shared. We each picked a favourite item from the menu and filled in the gaps with other interesting plates. The food was delicious! Mortadella, walnut and gorgonzola salad; Pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts; Grilled sliced flank steak and white truffle cream; Buttered new potatoes with roasted radishes; Cod cheeks in a light red sauce, and a few others I forget.

All delicious.

The only bad news was it was nearly 11 p.m. and the kitchen was closing! This started a little lighthearted chat with the couple whose bottle of water had nearly been knocked over. We joked about buying their pork bellies from them. They laughed and eventually insisted we accept a plate of the grilled flank steak they couldn’t finish. Nice folks. They were dining late in order to stay up to watch the English cricket team play in The Ashes.

The next stop was Milk & Honey, a drinks club of which Nick & Jess are members, and where we first met them in 2007. We each had another drink, chatted a bit more, and then rang up a taxi. As we waited in front of Milk & Honey for the taxi we noticed the people we saw were in fine spirit and holiday cheer. One nice couple was helping their equally inebriated inflatable sex-doll friend get home safely. We waited a little longer then bribed a driver out front to take us where we wanted to go. Once back at Nick & Jess’ we said our goodbyes and made arrangements to meet for breakfast the next day. We walked back to our hotel, getting in at a little past 2 a.m. and cursed agreeing to such an early start the next day.

More tomorrow.

The Regency Cafe to High Wycomb

As predicted we both woke up a little worn for wear from the cocktails the night before, but we got up, got dressed and walked back to Nick & Jess’ flat before landing at The Regency Cafe — which both Jess and Rich had recommended.

We had been warned about the rules of this place: Do not sit down at a table until you had placed your order, and be ready to order when it is your turn. We had also been warned of the way our order would be called, but that part ended up being nothing like we imagined. After the four of us had placed our orders with the nice, petite, soft-spoken woman at the counter we grabbed a table by the far window and chatted. The food comes out in spurts, but you are alerted in bursts.

“BREAKFAST SPECIAL, BLOOD PUDDING, HASH BROWNS!”

Vibrating off the window next to us came bellowing a deep, baritone voice from the same woman who had quietly referred to me as “love” moments before. We realised then that this place was a challenge the morning after a night of drink.

Thames and Tower Bridge from Monument
Thames and Tower Bridge from Monument

Jess needed to get to work, so we left The Regency Cafe, said our goodbyes to her and walked with Nick to Pimlico Fresh for coffee. As we are standing out front I noticed a familiar face waving to us. Rich greeted us at the door explaining that he and Carol had different methods for dealing with red-eye flights. Hers was to nap (I agree) and his is to plow on through and pretend nothing happened. Granted Rich travels a great deal, so your mileage may vary. Rich was having his breakfast and we joined him with our delicious lattes.

After second breakfast, Sarah and I took Nick and Rich’s suggestion and took The Tube over to Monument to the Great Fire of London (aka Monument) to take in some views of the city from Christopher Wrens functional tribute.

When we arrived the weather was gray and misty, but by the time we paid our admittance fee and climbed the spiral staircase to the observation deck it had also become a bit gusty, making the walk around the deck interesting. We both think the thick wire meshing made it a challenge to enjoy the view, and may have even induced a bit of vertigo. It was an enjoyable experience that we were glad we did. We took a few more photos and then made our way back down, where we were greeted by a woman who gave us certificates that we had, in fact, been to the top of Monument.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum
The Sherlock Holmes Museum

Next we headed back to our hotel to pick up our bags which had been stored while we played tourist. We strapped on our backpacks and rolled our luggage to the Lambeth tube station, and took a straight shot to the Baker Street stop. We got a little turned around, but we weren’t expected by Tait for an hour. We reoriented ourselves and headed for the Sherlock Holmes Museum to pick up a souvenir for a colleague of Sarah’s. We then noticed a Beatles memorabilia shop a few shops down and squeezed to the tight little shop with our luggage, which they preferred to my standing in the doorway. I stood very still with the bags while Sarah looked at suitcase-friendly gifts and brought them to me for my approval or whimsy. I listened to the two female store employees as they quoted Yellow Submarine along with the film which was playing in the store.

Satisfied with our purchases, we walked a few blocks along the crowded sidewalks of Baker Street to Tait’s workspace. Still a bit early, we made our way to his office and took a seat and tea and chatted while he tied up loose ends with clients in various time zones. Satisfied that no one would be too angry if he left 2 minutes early, we made our way back down the lift and around the corner to The Bee Hive pub, where we briefly caught up over a shout before heading to Marylebone station.

Brews at The Bee Hive
Brews at The Bee Hive

We gave Tait cash and he used a kiosk to purchase our tickets to High Wycomb. We made our way to the platform and boarded a “quiet” carriage, where Tait and I played backgammon against each other on our iPhones while Sarah played a game on her iPad. The trip was brief, so I was only able to beat Tait the one game we played before we our stop. At the train depot we cleaned out the back of Tait’s station wagon which was full of dog gear. Sarah asked to be in the front seat and promptly made her way to the wrong side of the car.

After a quick shop at the market to get some more beer, we arrived at Tait’s place where Paula was waiting. Tait retired to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on the curry, while we caught up with Paula and met their two wonderful rescue Greyhounds. We presented Tait with a hat made of our yarn that Sarah had knitted along with some Vermont-made hot sauces and a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Paula received a set of handwarmers which Sarah had also knitted and we also gave them the spoon I carved when we took a course with Bill Copperwaite five years previous. I also had one of the better beers I would drink this trip when I was presented with a Gem by Bath Ales. After dinner, we watched a few comedy sketches on YouTube, and I beat Tait on a traditional backgammon board, before we all went to bed.

More tomorrow from Wales.

Snowy Cardiff

Cardiff Sunset
Cardiff sunset from hotel room.

After Nick and Paula spoiled us with an evening of great food and good humor in High Wycombe, we were ready to camp out in their home for a few more weeks of idle relaxation. Alas, they have lives to get on with and we had plans to meet up with an old friend in Wales, so we had to press on to the next stop on our tour.

We tagged along with Nick on his morning commute via train, stopping at a small cafe near his office for yet another Full English Breakfast. (It was at this point in the trip that I thought one or both of us might turn into a Full English Breakfast if we continued eating them.) Fortified on grease, potatoes, and coffee we took a short hop on the tube before catching the train to Cardiff.

Cardiff Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland Carnival in Cardiff

The view out the train window was beautiful, and we rolled along through the hills and many farmlands with sheep, horses, and beef cattle. At some point it began to snow quite steadily, adding to the layer of frozen precipitation already on the ground and upping the magical winter-wonderland feeling.

After three hours we arrived at Cardiff Central Station in the Welsh capital. At this point the snow was falling fast and heavy, and had already blanketed the city. We waited several minutes for a cab to take us to the hotel, managed to check in despite a problem with the online reservation I had made weeks earlier, and spent a few minutes relaxing in the room and enjoying our snow-laden view of downtown.

Cardiff Castle
Cardiff Castle in snow

I wasn’t keen to spend a day lazing about, so, despite the snowstorm, we decided to trudge into town for some sightseeing. We realized that this type of snowfall was unusual for the area, and this was confirmed along our walk: a van stuck in a car-park — unable to make the 10-degree incline of the exit to the street; taxis, buses, and cars sliding along the road; and no sign of any snow shovels or snow blowers for clearing the sidewalks. By mid-afternoon there were at least 4-5 inches of accumulation on the ground and the snow was still coming down in a sheet. It was beautiful! We made our way along the river and over the bridge to the central downtown area.

Snow Seal Gargoyle
Snow Seal Gargoyle

Apparently the economic boom of the early-mid 2000s spurred a massive revitalization effort in Cardiff. The buildings on the main streets looked completely new, and the entire downtown felt like one large upscale open-air shopping arena. Although traffic on the streets had lessened due to impassibility, we found many people on foot enjoying the snow while holiday shopping. We passed through the streets of shops to the northern end of the city and found Cardiff Castle. Unfortunately, due to weather, the tour guides were closing it up. We did manage to cajole them into letting us take a quick photo from the main gate, and they told us that they expected to reopen at the weekend.

Cardiff at Dusk
Cardiff at Dusk

Foiled at our first attempt at tourist activities, we set off to try to find the Dr. Who exhibit that a friend had recommended. I couldn’t remember whether this was in the Millennium Center, or the sports stadium, so Rick humored me as we made a circuit around town, trying to find any sightseeing opportunity that hadn’t closed due to weather.

Eventually we backtracked and found the National Museum Cardiff, but like all the other cultural points, this was closed too. Tired, cold, and soggy, we decided to give up and began making our way back to the shopping district in search of dinner. Rick had received some suggestions of pubs to try, but our phone Internet service was spotty so it was difficult to locate them. Then, as we passed Cardiff Castle and paused for another photo of the outside, I realized we were standing in front of The Goat Major, one of the suggested spots. It was a sign, and we went in to warm up with pints and pies.

Sarah & The Goat Major
Sarah & The Goat Major

Like many of the pubs in Cardiff, The Goat Major serves Brains…SA Brains beer that is. This brewery was founded in 1882 and has their headquarters is in Cardiff. We began with one pint of Brains Black and one of the bitter while pondering the menu, an extensive list of pies, including their award-winning chicken pot pie.

Yummy Pies at The Goat Major
Yummy Pies at The Goat Major

After ordering I took a turn around the pub to check out the historic photos and memorabilia on the walls. It turns out that the place is named for the mascot of the Royal Regiment of Wales. There were photos and a number of newspaper clippings about the history of the Regiment and its Goat Majors….a fascinating and quite odd bit of military tradition.

The pies were brought and we settled into a second rounds of pints. The food was indeed excellent, and we enjoyed our meal as the pub began to fill with the after-work crowd. Finally, warmed from the food and drink, we tottered back to the hotel through the snow and the Christmas lights, looking forward to our visit to Trealy Farm the next day.

Usk & Trealy Farm

Hanging Pheasants
Hanging Pheasants

Having gone to bed relatively early, we awoke refreshed to a beautiful snow-covered day on Saturday morning, ready for another adventure. Knowing we’d be on the move for most of the day, we headed down to the Novotel’s breakfast buffet, which is much higher quality and greater selection than the type of “continental breakfast” one finds in US hotels: there’s cereal, fruit, juices, pastries and fresh breads, plus hot items including all of the makings of a Full English. It’s quite a good deal.

After our meal we walked to the train station, which was easy to find now that we had started to get our bearings around Cardiff and the sun was shining. We took the train down to Abergavenny, the closest rail stop to Usk, then hopped into a taxi for the second leg of our trip. Farmlands set along rolling hills sparked in the sunlight and I was reminded very much of home.

James Swift and Wares
James Swift and Wares

The taxi driver didn’t know exactly where the farmer’s market took place, but we knew that it was set up “across from the prison,” so easy enough to find. We arrived to find a few shoppers milling about outside, and immediately noticed some of the vendors, selling whole game birds, fresh fish, and locally brewed beer. Inside we found yarn, cheeses, local wine, handmade chocolates, vegetables, and in the middle of the market, our friend James from Trealy Farm with a crowd sampling his traditional charcuterie: cured sausages and air-dried ham. James seemed to be the most popular stall in the market. We said hi briefly but didn’t want to get in the way of commerce, so stepped aside for a cup of hot tea.

Untapped Brewing Company Selection
Untapped Brewing Company Selection

After the warmup, I decided to check out the two yarn vendors there, while Rick browsed some of the other booths. I couldn’t decide which yarns to buy and went to look for Rick, who had left the building. Then I remembered the beer vendor setup outside. Sure enough Rick was there talking with the brewer of Untapped Brewing Company who was interested in the popularity of the homebrew scene back in the States. He had a nice selection of different styles available, and we selected a stout and a porter. Then, after securing our purchases in James’ booth, we decided to check out the local castle.

Usk Castle
Usk Castle

Usk Castle is a ruins dating from 1170 CE, but still functions as a residence! To reach the site we crossed through the village passing small shops and quaint houses, and saying hello to people in the street. As we came to the castle grounds we had to walk up dirt drive, and met a young man who smiled and greeted us. At first we thought he might be a castle caretaker or a guide, but as we crested the little hill we found that he was there selling Christmas trees, and apparently had thought we might be customers.

Usk Castle Grounds
Usk Castle Grounds

We didn’t see any other grounds staff and asked if we could tour the castle on our own. The young man seemed to think it would be alright, so we clambered up some terraced gardens and made our way into the keep, which was still well intact. We then circled around the walls and eventually found a gate leading into the main courtyard. A small signpost on the gate warned that there were sheep grazing in the castle and asked visitors to close the gate behind them, which we did. As we entered, we found some geese to our right and another signpost explaining that they were on sentry duty and warning us to stay clear — knowing geese to be quite territorial, we also heeded these instructions.

Usk Castle and Rick
Usk Castle and Rick

We didn’t see the sheep at first, but immediately noticed the view beyond the walls and towers of the castle. In a corner of the grounds we spotted some stairs leading up to the top of a wall. I had some trepidation about walking on a ruin but the wall had been reinforced with steel bars and there was a handrail, so Rick forged ahead and I eventually followed. The views of the mountains and the village were incredible! At the other end of the wall was another tower, and Rick found sheep droppings on the stairs. He descended the tower and eventually ended up back in the courtyard below my position on the wall. I had him take my picture, and then we switched and I took his. Finally, we spotted two sheep on the other side of the courtyard, eating shrubs and reaching up to nibble on some evergreen trees. They were nonchalant about our presence so we took a few pictures as we made our way around the circular courtyard to check out more of the view.

Usk Castle Sheep
Usk Castle Sheep

We stayed in the castle as long as we could, enjoying the quiet, the snow, the views, the sound of sheep munching gently. Eventually it was time to return to the market, so we headed back down the hill, passing one of the castle manager’s buildings on our way to the road. He had some dressed pheasants hanging on a line outside the door, strung next to tools, coats, boots.

Sarah Loves Wales
Sarah ♥s Wales

Arriving back at the market, we found many of the vendors clearing up. After James finished with his last customer, we started helping him organize his wares and pack up the truck. Apparently it hadn’t been as much of a sale day as he’d hoped, so there was more meat to pack. We sorted, organized, and began stacking bins and baskets of sausages and dried hams. Through careful planning and puzzling we eventually managed to stack every last piece in the van and squeeze in after it. James then drove us back to the farm.

Trealy Farm is situated on the side of a hill in Monmouthshire, and as we approached the road curved so that we could see most of the property from a distance. After a few minutes we turned onto a snowy dirt road which was fortunately flat as the meat van didn’t have much traction. We passed a neighboring dairy farm and eventually parked at the bottom of the drive. Since it was cold out, James elected to leave the meat in the van, and we unpacked just the essentials — James’ cell phone charger, the cash box, a tray of veggies and a box of desserts traded at the market — and carried them up to the house. Ruth joined us, and we were invited in for tea and a warm-up by the massive hearth in the living room.

Trealy Farm
Not sure why there is a badger on the sign

Once warm, Ruth suggested a walk to see the land and the animals up close. I was feeling a little tired and feverish but didn’t want to miss out. Fortunately there were extra wellies since our shoes were already wet and we were about to head out into damp snow. Bundled again, the four of us set out along with Ruth’s new sheep dog, Sid. We made our way through a series of pastures, each one fenced and bordered by hedgerows. The views across the sparkling valley were spectacular!

Trealy Farm House
Sid & Ruth

In each pasture there was a different group of animals. First there was a flock of sheep with a few different breeds including Manx. Next we made our way over to a herd of boer goats and met the friendliest buck I’ve ever seen. He loved getting scratches from James. We moved through this pasture into the next, which held some Welsh Mountain sheep, the primary breed that Ruth raises both at Trealy Farm and her family farm in northern Wales.

View from Trealy Farm Fields
View from Trealy Farm Fields at Dusk

This particular group consisted of ewe lambs that had been selected for breeding. Because they were young, Ruth had been using them as a practice group for her dog Sid to work. Apparently young dogs like Sid have to build up their sheep-herding confidence, so practicing on a group of nervous young sheep is preferable to a group of stubborn matron ewes who might not respond as easily. Ruth was happy to give us a demonstration of Sid’s abilities as she had only had him at the farm for a couple of weeks. Sid did an excellent job – first gathering the flock and bringing them to Ruth, then moving them to the other side of the pasture. At one point the flock broke into two groups, but Sid was patient and eventually got them back together and into the correct spot. It was the first time that Rick and I had seen a sheep dog work outside of a staged demonstration and it was very impressive to watch.

By this time dusk was rolling in, so we began making our way back to the main barns. We saw some kids that were being kept under shelter for warmth, along with a couple of beef cattle. Then James wanted to show us his wooly pigs, a rare breed that he uses for the charcuterie business. Unfortunately the pigs were reluctant to come over when James called, and weren’t enticed even by grain, so we climbed the fence and went over to the pigs. It was dark out, but you could see how hairy these pigs were. They also were smaller than the commercial breeds we were accustomed to seeing. I was a little wary as they snuffled my boots (pigs do bite!) but stuck around long enough to feel their thick, wiry coats.

We retired once again to the living room hearth to warm up, and were invited to stay for dinner. James cooked while Rick and I got to spend a little more time with Ruth. Of course Rick had met both of them when he visited in 2001, but I wanted to learn more about Ruth’s connection with sheep. Turns out her family has been in the farming business for generations, and much of that time has been with sheep. She told us that her father had passed away the previous year and left her a large farm with 2,000 head of sheep in northern Wales, which she hired someone to manage. Rick and I half-joked when we volunteered to help manage the farm. We talked breeds and shepherding for a while, and I mentioned that knitting had become a trendy hobby in the US. It was very interesting to note the similarities between the breeds that I’d seen at Trealy farm and those that I was more familiar with in the states. The Manx reminded me of the Navajo-Churro sheep that Rick and I raise, and the Welsh Mountain were small, like Shetlands.

All this time amazing smells were wafting in from the kitchen, and Ruth traded places at one point to finish the roasted vegetables. We then sat down to an amazing meal of a French-style cassoulet with a new type of salt-cured sausage that James had been experimenting with for the business, plus fresh cabbage and potatoes from the market. There was a side of roast turnips and more potatoes with herbs. The meal was amazing! After dinner we talked about the local- organic- and slow-food movements and compared progress in Europe and the US. James had attended a Slow Food North America meeting and was impressed at the innovative marketing and products that some US producers were using to sell their products. We talked about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of direct sales from farmer to customer, the farm-to-plate initiative in Vermont, slaughterhouse and meat inspection regulations and our friend Walter Jeffries who is building his own meat processing facility on a micro-scale. James and Ruth seemed pleased as we were to find others who shared an interest in local, sustainable farming and were more engaged with their efforts than the average city visitors.

As the conversation drifted into beer-making, James broke out a selection of desserts that he’d also scored at the market, including French tarts, cheesecake, and other delights. Rick discussed the homebrew movement in Vermont and the renewed interest in being able to grow hops and grains locally for small and hobby beer production. It was a wonderfully engaging and relaxing evening and we were reluctant to leave, but knew we had to get motivated before we missed the last train back to Cardiff. Before we left Ruth gave us a Welsh Christmas card.

James, Rick and I bundled into the farm’s ATV and headed down the drive. At the bottom, James retrieved a couple of packages of meats for us to try, then we got into the family car and James drove us to the train station. Trying to read the schedule was a bit confusing but with the help of another passenger we confirmed that a train headed to Cardiff would be along in a few minutes. It was about 10:00 pm and a few more passengers arrived on the platform, all of them dressed up for a night out in the big city. Rick and I couldn’t purchase tickets via the kiosk without chip-and-pin credit cards, so we boarded the train planning to pay cash for our journey. We rode along and kept expecting a conductor to pass through, but arrived at our stop without seeing one. We then tried to purchase an exit fare but the office was closed. Seeing that the exit gates were open, we figured we had made our best effort to pay for the journey and walked back to our hotel, full of awesome food and memories.

Tomorrow we explore Cardiff some more.

Exploring Cardiff

Cardiff Castle Entrance
Cardiff Castle Entrance

After a wonderful visit in the countryside, we attempted to see some of the Cardiff attractions that we’d missed previously due to snow. Our first stop was Cardiff Castle. Unfortunately we found the place still closed due to snow, and at first I boggled at this. The keepers had over 48 hours to clear away the snow, so why wasn’t the castle open again? But reality was sinking in. None of the sidewalks or roads had been cleared, because there were no snow plows. Heck, there weren’t even snow shovels! So, we took a few more pictures of the castle exterior, then did an about-face and headed back to the shopping district across the main avenue.

On our first day in town we had spotted a couple of souvenir shops across from the castle, and these were fortunately open. We browsed through trinkets and eventually found a few items to purchase: a couple of refrigerator magnets for our collection, a miniature love spoon, and a baseball cap for my step-father. We also purchased a few postcards. From the shop we headed south back through the central mall, now treacherous with sand-like snow/salt in places and shear ice in others. We spotted an open-air Christmas market and stopped to look at jewelry. While I browsed earrings for my mother, Rick watched and heckled folks who were trying to break up a thick sheet of ice on the sidewalk, at one point asking the sausage vendor to use his enormous frying pan to aid the effort. After selecting some earrings we ducked into cafe for some hot chocolate (for me) and coffee (for Rick), which we enjoyed on our way back to the hotel.

Sarah & T.A.R.D.I.S
Sarah & T.A.R.D.I.S

Among other attractions we’d missed on our first day, the Dr. Who exhibit was still on our list and, after getting better information, decided that this would be our pre-dinner activity since it was in the bay, an area we hadn’t ventured to yet. We took the scenic route off the main avenue, wandering through a new development of townhouses and condos. Like the main shopping center, this are looked completely new. After about 15 minutes we arrived at Cardiff Bay and made our way into the shopping mall.

The exhibit was a little corny but worth the £6 entry fee. It was fun seeing all the costumes, props and especially the daleks up close. We took our time going through the exhibit and took lots of photos. At the end we browsed the gift shop and I decided to get a small die-cast dalek/tardis set for my office. We noticed one of those souvenir penny machines and made a few Dr. Who pennies to give to friends. At this point it was time to think about dinner, so we decided to ask the guide at the exhibit for his recommendations. The man was a trove of information! Not only did he make some very good suggestions of restaurants, but he also gave us a detailed overview of all of the locations in the warf where the Dr. Who series was filmed, from the main streets, the parliament building, even the ice cream shop.

Rick & Cardiff Bay
Rick & Cardiff Bay

Based on our friend’s information we decided to stroll the bay before heading to dinner. It was early and there were very few people out, and most of those we did see were workers clearing the sidewalks. We decided to head to the pub for some quiet away from the sound of shovels on ice. The sea was grey but we enjoyed the view from the second story as we sipped our pints. I could imagine a large bustling crowd of tourists on the docks below in the summer – queuing for boat rides, waiting in line for ice cream, getting sunburnt – and I was reminded why we opt to travel in the off season.

After our beer it was time for dinner, and we chose CÔTE based on our tour guide’s suggestion. This is a chain restaurant with a French bistro feel and menu, and we found the atmosphere, service and food excellent. When we arrived we were still a little early for the main dinner hour, but as the evening wound along the place filled up. There was a French couple in the corner eating steak, an Asian couple on holiday, and, eventually, a large group of coworkers/friends out for the annual Christmas party. We took our time finishing the delicious meal, but were happy that the timing had worked out well, as we departed just as the place started to get noisy.

Wales Millennium Centre at Night
Wales Millennium Centre at Night

On our way back we walked up the main boulevard, Lloyd George, towards the city center. It was getting cold again and walking was difficult through the snow/sleet/sand mixture on the sidewalks. I was very glad to see the hotel bar again, where we stopped for a quick nightcap before retiring. We went to bed early in anticipation of our 5:00 am train to Holyhead in the morning on our way to Ireland.

Travel Day to Ireland

Being able to check out the night before made getting to the train station early this morning much easier. Switching rooms the day before had the added benefit of giving us more time since we were mostly packed, and going to bed at 9.30 p.m. made getting up at 4 a.m. … tolerable.

As soon as we woke, we called down to the front desk and asked them to have a taxi ready by 4.30. We brushed our teeth, threw on some clothes, and were in the lobby a few minutes early. We confirmed everything with the checkout staff and gave him one of the complimentary coupons for a bottle of wine we received the night before at Côte. The taxi arrived at the set time and the driver politely chatted with us about the state of world economies as soon as we got in the back seat. Nice guy, but at that hour neither of us were interested in such a heavy discussion.

Random Castle in Wales
Random Castle in Wales

We had already booked our train online from the states, so we weren’t all that concerned when we noticed the gates were wide open and no one was there to take our tickets. We figured we’d show the conductor our confirmation print-out and all would be well. Not knowing where we changed trains, we couldn’t figure out which platform to be on, so we asked around.

Once on the train there was some confusion as to whether we were on the correct train, but eventually we were assured; and told we needed to change at Shrewsbury to get to our final destination in Holyhead. We settled into our seats across from each other, covered our heads and tried to sleep. The speaker in the carriage didn’t seem to work, but we didn’t notice until we both woke and noticed we were at the Shrewsbury station. We hopped up, grabbed our gear, got off the train and ran down to the train heading for Holyhead.

Awake and on the train we checked for a cafe car, and found none. Announcements were being made that the train was being checked for a technical problem, so I took a chance. I grabbed my ticket from Sarah, just in case and I ran from the train to the Pumpkin Cafe on the platform. The place was packed but many people were simply waiting with their luggage until their train came. It was too cold to wait on the platform. I was able to order 2 chocolate muffins and 2 teas with milk and be back on the train in a matter of minutes. Only to be told a few minutes later that the train had been canceled and that we needed to move to another platform and wait for a train which would arrive in 20 minutes. By now, Sarah wasn’t feeling well, so we waited in the heated area near the next platform. When the train arrived we got in the last carriage on the train which just happened to be the one closest to where we were on the platform. We boarded, found seats and settled in for the rest of the journey.

It ended up that we were in a very cold carriage that we eventually learned had no heat! The train was packed and everyone was bundled up against the cold. The train was too packed to risk losing seats (and moving luggage), so we stayed in our table seats. Due to the weather, many people had opted to use the train to travel and those trains that were running, were running at capacity we learned. Sarah began knitting a baby’s jumper to keep her fingers moving. The train remained packed as Holyhead is a main ferry port and with closings at a few airports — including Heathrow and Dublin — more people than usual found themselves heading home for Christmas via the train.

We spoke with a few people on the train including a nice Irish guy who worked in England and was heading to Dublin to be with family for Christmas. We asked him if the ferry port was close to the train station, not knowing if we would have trouble considering we were a little behind schedule. He replied that he thought the 2 were connected as there is “nothing in Holyhead but the train station and the ferry.” A few minutes later after he had taken a phone call from his brother he said “I stand corrected. There is also a nuclear power plant.”

Once in Holyhead, we walked to the end of the station and directly into the ferry port, where we showed our tickets, passports and checked our bags. We then were shuttled from the station to the boat via buses. Once on board the ferry we found a few seats in the middle of the boat and settled in for the 1.5 hour trip. I picked up a newspaper in the store and Sarah continued to knit. The Irish Sea was relatively calm, the skies were clear and sunny, and the trip was uneventful. We noticed that most of the passengers on the ferry were parents and their young children, and decided that even in good weather parents may choose to take this route over airplanes. We also noticed that every crew member on board the Irish Ferry, including the people doing the announcements, seemed to be from Eastern Europe.

When we reached Dublin, we found our bags, headed for the taxi stand and quickly found a car hire to get us to Connolly Station. We arrived in time to use the facilities, grab a cup of coffee, and sit for a few minutes before boarding the train to Longford. The train took some time getting out of the city, but once it did we rolled nicely through the Irish countryside as the sun set on one side of the train and the moon hovered low above the horizon on the other. We arrived at the Longford station, on time, just after dark, where our friends Dave and Anne fetched us. We all caught up in the car on the drive to town, stopping briefly to get a few medicines for Sarah — who seems to be coming down with a chest cold. We dropped Anne off at their place to take care of the dog, and continued on to Ballymahon to check-in.

Hello Ireland!
Hello Ireland!

Skelly’s is one interesting place, and in the good way! From the street there is an off license shop with a pass-through to the pub, which can also be accessed from the side-street alley. Behind the pub, with another entrance off the alley, is the hotel lobby and the entrance to the restaurant. The stairs lead up to the hotel’s rooms and office space.

Dave walks us in from the street, says hello to everyone in the place as we make our way to the bar, introducing us along the way to members of the staff who quickly get us up to our room. Before we can blink we are closing the door behind us and in a very cute room with a full-sized bed, two end tables a wardrobe, a sitting chair and a small flatscreen TV mounted in the corner. The en suite has a new stand-up shower and lots of space. It is obvious the whole hotel part of the building is nearing the end of a complete remodel, and they have done a good job.

Milk Mustache
Milk Mustache

Once we unpack and clean ourselves up we head down to the pub and order two pints of Guinness. I made an embarrassing mistake when I grabbed for my beer off the stand after the second pouring and was reprimanded. One more pull later and we both had two pints with thick creamy heads, defying gravity, in front of us. We thanked the bar manager, Seamus, and took long pulls off what were the best pints of Guinness either of us had ever had. My personal mustache thick with a rich overlapping one of foam.

Like much of the rest of the area, Ireland has been dealing with record cold and snows, which are unusual for them. The pub was a bit chilly, and while we waited for Dave and Anne to meet us to go to dinner, we moved over to a table in front of the pub’s big fireplace to finish our drinks. Once they arrived we walked out (without paying or negotiating of any sort) and went to another establishment that is a pub/restaurant/hotel called Cooney’s. We all talked and talked and barely had time to look at the menu, but eventually ordered our meals (we had only nibbled all day) and had a nice supper. When we were done we walked back to Skelly’s where we had a few more drinks in front of the fire before saying goodnight.

We went upstairs and crashed. It was a long travel day, but a great deal of fun. Hopefully Sarah will feel better tomorrow, but she’s probably going to take a “duvet day” if she doesn’t.

Exploring Athlone

The room was very comfortable and we both slept pretty well, even though Sarah’s cough has gotten a little worse. When we got up we went down to the dining room and Pat fixed us up with breakfast. Full Irish for me, and scrabbled eggs and cereal for Sarah. Pat’s an excellent cook, and very generous with his portions.

An Cearnog in Athlone
An Cearnog in Athlone

Because we are the only one’s currently staying here we dined alone near the window that looks out into the alley. Today seems to be rubbish day as we watched staff from Skelly’s and the next door shop gather their bins and take them to the street. Then we noticed a coffin going by on a gurney into the back of Skelly’s. Pat came into the dining room a few minutes later and said with a smile, “I guess you saw the coffin go by. We also do the undertaking around here, so if you die don’t worry it’s all sorted.” We laughed and I suggested they print up cards that read “Eat, Sleep and Be Buried!”

Pat also tells us that overnight were record cold temperatures for Ireland and that they are having trouble with some of the pipes. This means that we still won’t be able to get our laundry done!

After breakfast we return to the room to await the call from Dave and Anne. Sarah has decided that she is going to stay in and try to get better by watching Gaelic soap operas. Dave sends me a text message that they need to run some errands and asks if we want to join. I informed him that I will be glad to tag along, but that Sarah won’t be joining us.

Rick at Scully Guns & Tackle
Rick at Scully Guns & Tackle

Dave and Anne picked me up shortly after the text and we pile in the car and head for Athlone. We park in a lot and then walk around the frosty village taking in the sites, including stumbling upon a store named Scully Guns & Tackle! After while Dave and I parted ways with Anne so she could shop for a dress to wear to an upcoming wedding. Dave and I eventually make our way to his brother-in-law’s pub, An Cearnog (translates to The Square) where we had a delicious lunch — egg mayonaise (egg salad to Yanks) for Dave and a B.L.T. for me — and a couple of stouts* by a roaring turf fire.

After lunch Dave and I found the local O2 shop where I was hoping to top up my phone with more minutes, but ended up simply buying another SIM with time on it, as it was easier. Afterward we made our way to the mall where we planned to meet back up with Anne. Once we found the mall entrance we popped in a book shop to pick up a driving test manual and as we exited the store we ran into Dave’s mother and father, Ann and Tommy, before Anne found us. Dave invited his parents to join us at Skelly’s later for drinks, and we all made our ways back to our respective cars.

When we arrived at the car Dave got a call from his father that they couldn’t get into their car because the locks had frozen! We started toward where they were before receiving another call from them saying not to bother as a woman threw some tea on it and they were able to get inside. Dave and Ann dropped me off at Skelly’s so they could head home and feed their dog before meeting up with us later for drinks.

Gaelic Guinness Sign
Gaelic Guinness Sign

When I got back to the room, Sarah was still in bed but said she was feeling a little better, so after freshening up the two of us headed back to Cooney’s for a light supper. Sarah had soup and salad and I had the chowder and a stout. When we finished we walked back to Skelly’s, ordered a stout for me and a brandy for Sarah, and settled into a booth close to the fireplace to wait for the others to arrive.

Dave, Anne and Dave’s parents arrived shortly and we played the Interesting Americans role as Tommy peppered us with questions about the farm. Dave got the next shout and Sarah switched to Bailey’s which Dave’s mother was also drinking. A little while later a boyhood mate of Dave’s named Ollie joined us and the conversation and drink continued to flow. It was probably fortuitous that Sarah switched from brandy, as each member of the group eventually made their way to the bar to buy their round based on what each person was drinking when they left the table. By the end of the evening I had had six (20-ounce) pints of stout and Sarah as many Bailey’s!

Eventually we had to call it quits, and it was a damn good thing we are staying above the pub. We slipped out of our clothes, brushed our teeth, chugged water and did our best to pass out. We have to make a good impression for Dave’s brother and his partner tomorrow.

* Apparently in most parts of Ireland one simply orders “stout” to get a Guinness.

A Day in the Country

Despite falling asleep rather easily, I had a hard night — and harder morning — after all those pints last night. When we left the room and dragged ourselves to the dining room for breakfast I had difficulty even listening to Pat suggest a full Irish breakfast, so I opted for scrambled eggs, cereal and lots of coffee. I was so hungover, I had to take my time with breakfast, but managed to get through it without incident.

Rick and Sunset in Gazing Ball
Rick and Sunset in Gazing Ball

Back in the room we were still wondering what to do with a week’s worth of laundry and very little in the way of clean clothes, so while Sarah showered I took a walk down the high street to see what options might be available. I poked my head in the chemists shop and was directed to a shop a few blocks away. After managing to pass it the first time I found the shop and spoke with the woman who runs it. She was glad to help, but her turn around time would be too late for us, so I thanked her and walked back to Skelly’s. Dave had said the night before that we could do our laundry at his brother’s place when we visited, so now it was looking like that was going to be our only option.

When I got back I asked Pat about wifi access because we had noticed at breakfast that there was a SSID named “Skelly’s”. He said we should be able to access it, but we hadn’t been able to. Nice (and trusting) guy that he is, Pat led us to the office where the access point was located and left me to fiddle around with things. After looking over the settings I decide to power cycle the access point and then we were finally able to connect.

Once back in the room we talked about the plan to return to London the next day, and decided that based on the news reports we should consider taking a train and ferry rather than risking our flight from Dublin being canceled. Sarah did some research and booked our train and ferry tickets and I spoke with Skelly’s manager, Peter, about the possibility of hiring a car to get us to the train station early tomorrow morning. Peter said he would speak with their brother James who drives the taxi (naturally!) and make the arrangements to have the car there at half five. We are very impressed with Skelly’s!

Dave and Anne met us out front with two cars. We hopped in the car with Anne and met Dave at the market to pick up the ingredients to make faux meat sauce and pasta. While there we hunted for fragrance-free laundry soap in case Dave’s brother and his partner didn’t have any on hand. Then we followed Dave to drop off the car he had borrowed and made our way to his brother’s place.

Glowhouse
Glowhouse

We meandered through the snowy back roads before arriving at Ken (Dave’s brother), and his partner PB’s, farm just as the sun was setting. What a beautiful spot they have! Before the sun went down completely we all wandered around outside enjoying the way the last light of day shown on the hoarfrost before heading in to start making supper, and finally do some laundry!

While PB and Anne made supper, Dave, Sarah and I chatted and noshed on some cured meats from Trealy Farm that James gave us, and delicious beers from Untapped Brewing we bought in Usk. Ken was finishing up some chores but joined us shortly before the meal was served.

Irish Sunset
Irish Sunset

After supper, I helped with the washing up, before we all settled in the sitting room around the Stanley wood stove to talk. Occasionally I would pop out to check on the laundry, which was is in the garage. The telly was on and when the weather reports came on we’d all stop to see what the latest was on the Dublin airport. It was starting to look like we made the right decision to book the ferry.

It was getting late and we had to get up very early if we were going to be ready for James the next morning, so we grabbed our clean clothes, thanked our wonderful hosts and all piled into the car. Once back at Skelly’s we all hugged and said our goodbyes. What a wonderful visit it has been, but tomorrow we head back to England.

Back to London

Another early start to the day for your intrepid travelers with a 4.45 wake up to finish packing, eat, and be out front by half five to meet James our driver. Since we had most of our stuff packed last night, we finished up and dragged our cases downstairs.

Pat, being the good man he is, left us a note letting us know where we could find the fixings for our cereal. We each had a quick bowl, some yogurt, and some orange juice and were on the sidewalk with 5 minutes to spare only to find Jimmy waiting. I quietly soaked in the view of Skelly’s one last time while Jimmy helped us load the bags into his minivan. Then we headed to the Edgeworthstown train station, which had been recommended by all the Skelly’s as the better option as it is closer to Dublin by a stop.

Irish Moon
Irish Moon

Damn good thing we took that advice — not that we wouldn’t have — because, as usual, we had set a strict schedule for ourselves. You can then imagine our panic as we did some Google searching and realised the train we were on was apparently destined for a station we believed to be further from the ferry port. It therefore came as a surprise when the station we wanted (Connelly) was called as the next stop. Whew.

We hurried to grab our bags and moved with the heavy crowd to the exit, where found the exit fare booth, which had a long queue. After paying for our train ride we exited the station and found the taxi stand, where we found a car waiting and ready. I fired up GPS map on the iPhone and followed along to see how long it would take to get to the ferry; and I found myself agreeing with the cabby’s planned route. We made great time.

Once at the ferry port, we hopped out, grabbed our luggage and made a beeline for boarding. We signed in, checked our larger bags and headed up the escalator to the gate. We slightly panicked again when it looked as though the gate was closed and the door was locked, but the sign said the boat was boarded. The next ferry wasn’t for at least 4 hours; we needed to be on that boat. I ran around looking for someone to ask and only found a coffee stand. Everyone simply waived me to the doors which I already knew to be locked without any explanation.

Eventually another waiting passenger said we were in the right place and they simply hadn’t unlocked the doors yet. A little embarrassed, but mostly relieved by this news, I dropped my shoulder bag with Sarah and entered the gents, where I was startled by another confusing announcement. I quickly washed up and ran outside where only Sarah was standing anxiously. They had announced last call to board! We hurried through the gate, hopped on the shuttle bus, which immediately departed, and then we were the absolute last passengers to board the ferry. But we made it!

Small Boat in Wales
Small Boat in Wales

Being last to board meant we had poor choices available for seating for the voyage, so we grabbed the first seats we saw together. Like the last trip across the Irish Sea this boat was filled with young couples with young children. Some in the arms of a parent, stepping gingerly as they negotiated the narrow aisles. Others running amok, staring at people as they charged through, and quickly losing their tender balance. Today the Irish Sea is more awake than the last trip, and she wanted to have a laugh.

At first I tried to play Angry Birds on the iPad, but quickly realised that was a bad idea when I started feeling a bit dizzy, so I put my earplugs in, leaned my head on my hand and tried to nap. My theory being that when one is drunk and the room is spinning it is better to fight closing your eyes, but when the room — or in this case, boat — is, in fact, moving, I thought it would be better to close my eyes. And while I was correct with this assumption about closing my eyes, it was the earplugs that were genius.

On the rare occasion I opened my eyes, I saw screaming children (muffled by the earplugs for the most part!) in the arms of a frowning parent. In most cases either the child, the parent, or both had sick on them, and I re-named the previously christened “Breeder Boat” as the “Baby Barf Boat.”

A short poem film by Rick Scully.

Once the voyage ended we went though customs at Holyhead, and found a cafe to grab a coffee and muffin before picking up our train tickets. The train to Chester was on time, so we boarded, stowed our luggage, found our reserved, forward-facing, seats with a table and settled in. Directly behind us ended up being some drunken Irishman who spent the entire journey messing with the staff, hitting on the women within sight, but mostly taking the piss out of each other. They were annoying, sometimes amusing, but mostly harmless, and we just hoped they weren’t switching trains to London with us in Chester.

The Chester station was packed with people as people did everything they could to get home for Christmas, and it was difficult to get through the crowd to the platform where our train was expected. Again, we stowed the luggage and found our seats on the more posh Virgin train. We both took advantage of the free wifi to check email, and check in with friends. We were hoping to hear from the airline about the status of our flight, but didn’t see anything.

Once the train started moving, Sarah went to the cafe car for a snack and came back with some wine and beer, despite being carded and not having her passport on her. I chatted with an elderly couple behind us who recognised me as the bloke who bumped his head on a low-hanging lamp at the cafe in Holyhead. They too had opted for the ferry and train and abandoned their plane tickets. In front of us two older women seated themselves and they had a sweet little dog with them who was eager to make friends with me. We all introduced ourselves and we found out our new friend was named Lily.

My Friend, Lily
My Friend, Lily

Shortly the elderly couple who had also taken the ferry told us that their flight had been canceled and that ours had to have been as well as the entire Dublin airport had been closed! Sarah and I high-fived each other as we realised how much time and frustration we had saved. Instead of being an hour or so out of London on a train with wifi AND a cute dog, we might have been camped at the airport. Bullet dodged, Christmas saved.

Just after dark we pulled into Euston Station and it was mobbed with people, making it a challenge to get through with our small rolling bags, but we packed ourselves into a Tube carriage and made our way to Pimlico Station. Once on the sidewalk, we fired up the GPS on the iPhone and mapped the flat address where we are staying for the next few days. We got a message from Kaszeta that everyone is at the Cask & the Kitchen having a few beers and to meet them there. We arrived a few minutes later and greeted Kaszeta and Carol and met Kaszeta’s brother Dan and Dan’s wife Sophie.

Sarah at the Cask & The Kitchen
Sarah at the Cask & The Kitchen

Carol offered to help us find the flat and the nuances of getting in and out — which includes a fob for opening the gate, taking an elevator to the next floor up, walking along a veranda to the door which is down a few stairs. Once at the door we had trouble working the three sets of locks, but luckily Sophie anticipated this and joined us to help. We got the 2-minute tour, dropped our bags and headed back to the pub.

After a few more delicious, and strong ales, we all made our way to Dan and Sophie’s place in the same complex where we had a lovely meal of bangers and mash. After supper, we got to know Dan and Sophie and caught up with Kaszeta and Carol. We said goodnight, had one more at the Cask & the Kitchen and then retired after our long travel day.

Tomorrow, we get to see Chris Mear!

Chris Mass Eve

Today ended up being about getting ready for Christmas, and the evening was spent much as it was three years previous, basking in the company and talents of Chris Mear. Thankfully we didn’t try to recreate that night’s drinking!

The morning’s first task was to find someplace to buy all the things needed to make the trifle for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner with Ann and Jack. Using the GPS in the iPhone and the general directions given to use the night before by Sophie, we decided to head to Victoria and see what any of the markets had to offer, before continuing toward the Belgravia Waitrose.

Along the way we entertained ourselves by counting the number of Mercedes and Jaguars we saw parked as we walked along the sidewalks of the neighbourhood embassies. The market was small but surprisingly had a large selection of everything from wine to produce. The staff did their best to make the bins look full, but the customers deftly moved around them to fill their carts as fast as they could restock. There were plenty of staff to help customers find items on their lists, and we were on our merry way within an hour. Our four reusable bags borrowed from the flat filled as full as we could manage for the long walk back.

Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Cathedral

We were rather hungry by the time we got back and unpacked the groceries, so we headed back out to see if anything was still open for lunch. We pushed on a few more blocks between Pimlico and Victoria, eventually locating a nice Mediterranean place named Kazan, which we chose mostly by the fact it had the most people inside it for a mid-afternoon, and then by the enticing menu posted in the window.

The staff were attentive and the food was delicious. We ate slowly savoring the wonderful spices, sipping from the red wines we selected. I was pleased with the Turkish wine, Yakut Rouge, I chose to go with my fire grill meat platter. The Turkish Delights delivered with the check may have been Sarah’s favourite though, and she asked a staff member for the name of the product. The guy returned with a piece of the cardboard box in which the double-roasted pistachio Güllüoglu brand candies were delivered.

We were told they were a popular brand, but we stopped by a half dozen newsagents on the way back and none appeared to have head of it. Once we got back to the flat I did some more research and it looked like we would be able to find Güllüoglu in the states, but knew we could just beg friends to ship them if the need arose.

After showering and freshening up we walked to Victoria Station to start our journey to Snaresbrook to meet up with Chris. The tube was packed with people getting in some last-minute shopping or making their way home for tomorrow’s holiday, when all transportation is closed. We stood for most of the trip, shuffling to one side or the other depending on which side’s doors were opening next, and taking in all the people. Some quietly staring ahead with their earbuds falling into a pocket or hand, others talking to their mates, many people laughing and smiling. The two teenage girls sharing a set of earbuds and singing along to a favourite pop song was hillarious.

We arrived at the Snaresbrook station about 5 minutes later than we were expected, but there was Chris Mear waiting with a car and that famous grin. We decided to try and find a pub serving food and walked to a few pubs near St. Mary’s Church, but they were all packed. The one that was marginally less packed, the Nag’s Head, is were we stopped for pints to assess the dinner situation. After reacquainting over beers, we returned to the car to drive to a tried-and-true favourite of Chris’ named Loon Yee.

We were seated by the window next to a group of 6 people having a good time. We ordered drinks and tea and tried to look at the menu while wanting to talk. We each picked a few appetizers and entrees, closed our menus and resumed catching up. The food came quickly and we tucked in. At one point a pair of young drunk guys came down the side walk singing and Sarah cheered them on through the window, only to be greeted with one of the fellas stopping and giving his willy some fresh air. Everyone turned away and thankfully the guy wasn’t persistent and his mate wanted to keep walking, so they left and we laughed. Such Christmas enthusiasm.

The more welcome Christmas spirit came a few minutes later when the staff walked into the room with a fondant pig cake with lit sparklers sticking out, and we all sang happy birthday to one of the women in the group next to us. When we finished I leaned over and said hello and the birthday girl introduced herself. Born on Christmas Eve, and named Carol!

We finished up our dinner, and drove back to the same spot we had parked before to get to St. Mary’s for midnight mass. We enter the church and Chris settled in to the organist position and we took our spot in the front row directly in front of him, but our view blocked by the size of the instrument. Still the best seat in the house in our opinion and we’re there for moral support. If we could see him we might heckle him and we don’t want to make him mess up. Not that we’d do something like that.

Our 2007 File Photo
Our 2007 File Photo

The music filled the small, old church and service was very nice. I always enjoy shaking hands with the welcoming strangers and taking a blessing during communion. The karaoke-like screens for the hymns are welcome to these trespassers, but still look out of place in this very old building of worship.

After mass, we thanked the vicar and made our way back to the car. Chris fired up his iPhone’s Tom Tom app to navigate his way through the practically deserted streets of London; only going the wrong way once, and rewarding us for his mistake by driving us over Tower Bridge for the first time. We didn’t remember the actual address of the flat, so Chris dropped us off at a corner in the general area, where our day of looking for lunch helped us navigate back to the flat.

Once home, we got ready for bed, and off to sleep without any sign of Father Christmas having broken in. I thought we had been good this year, myself.

It’s Christmas.

Christmas Day

We were a little tired this morning after the previous night’s events, so we didn’t get up to peek at abandoned London, which is what London looks like on Christmas Day morning. Instead we each had a bowl of cereal before Sarah got stuck in making the trifle and I attempted to do laundry in the flat. Attempted, because the tiny all-in-on washer and dryer doesn’t do what I expect of it. No matter how small a load, everything comes out damp and hot and far from what I would call dry. What was supposed to be a quick task quickly became a reason to worry about the clock and the timing of our departure for Jack’s place.

Santa Sarah Wishes You a Happy Christmas
Santa Sarah Wishes You a Happy Christmas

I think Sarah’s trifle looks great, but she worries about it. Working in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar equipment and materials always makes it a challenge to her, but she always does well. Even the plastic punchbowls we picked up at Sainsbury’s are doing a fine job in their roles as trifle bowls! We are each a little on edge as the clock clicks closer to the hired car arriving in front of the building at half two. It took a great deal of begging and negotiation on Jack’s to secure a car on Christmas Day for a reasonable rate of 25 quid. We have spotty reception in the flat and we did not want the driver to leave us behind.

The car arrived a few minutes early, but we got the call. We rushed to gather the food, gifts, coats and anything else we could before running to the lift and out to the road. The drive from Pimlico to Tooting went by our windows quickly as London was closed for the national holiday. We were soon at Jack’s doorstep. Ann showed us where to put our coats and we made our way into the front room to meet their “German friend”, Al. We had been expecting a person who spoke German or at least English with a German accent, but instead it was an old mate of Jack’s from university who happened to be of German decent.

Let Al Demonstrate
Let Al Demonstrate

Ann brought Sarah a glass of red wine and a pint of bitter for me, along with some delicious canapes, and we sat down in front of the fireplace to get acquainted and reacquainted. Al put on his special winter mix of music which was made up of selections from Captain Beefheart, Del La Soul, Radiohead, Revered Horton Heat and even Snoop Dogg. Not your traditional holiday sounds!

When the turkey was ready, we gathered at the table, pulled crackers, donned hats, and made very merry over a lovely meal. In addition to the bird, there was bread salad, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and a tangy sauerkraut which our new German friend had brought.

Jack Carves the Christmas Turkey
Jack Carves the Christmas Turkey

After the meal we retired to the front room again, loosened our trousers (well, I did!), and tried to play a game far too complicated for the conditions. We decided to have pudding and try another game (Scruples) and had more than a few laughs. I am dubbed a “man of high moral caliber” making it easier for people to get points simply by asking me their questions.

Drunk and happy, we reluctantly call the car hire service for our return trip before they close for the evening, and it arrives so quickly we barely have time to say proper goodbyes. In the backseat on the way back to the flat I follow along with Google Maps as we weave through the heart of the capital while we discuss the evening. To the taxi driver I mention the agreed upon fare of £25 and he fires back that it will be £37! I argue as politely as I can, but once we arrive at the flat I eventually bite through my lower lip and give exactly £37. The driver on the way to Tooting received a nice tip, but not this guy.

Exhausted, we brush our teeth, fall into bed and wish each other a happy Christmas.

Boxing Day

View from the Flat Window
View from the Flat Window

Boxing Day morning brings news that the Tube strike that had been all over the media over the last few days was officially on, meaning we need to take a bus to the football match in Fulham. We check London Bus, and over cereal study the maps and routes before gathering our coats (and Rick in the Father Christmas hat) and boots and heading out to Victoria Station.

We know this is traditionally London shops’ busiest day; the Tube strike is bound to make for slow travel everywhere.

We stand outside Victoria Station and wait for the 11 bus to Fulham Broadway; mostly because of the information the app gave us, but also because we see people in West Ham colours obviously dressed for the grounds. The streets are packed with people, but only slightly more than previous days. The buses are packed as they arrive and empty quickly at this busy station. We swipe our Oyster cards and go upstairs where we find a seat.

Players and Ref
Players and Ref

We hop off the bus at the last stop of its route, and a quick glance at the GPS Map app shows we still have a ways to go. Nothing we can’t walk and still be on time to meet the lads. As we step off the bus and look at the phone a pair of male Chinese students ask if we can help them find Craven Cottage. Heading that way, we say they are welcome to join us for the long walk. We make small talk before ducking into a Nero Cafe for coffee and hot chocolate to warm us up. While we wait for our drinks, we sit down at a table where we learn they are huge Premiere League football fans, and primarily Manchester United supporters. They tell us they are trying to see as many matches as they can while on break from their classes. The orders ready, we continue on our way with our new friends.

At Putney Bridge we send text messages to Sharp, Tait, and Spahr. We quite literally bump into Sharp as we are all looking at our phones typing messages to each other. Warm greetings and introductions of our new friends to our old friend and we make our way to find Tait, Spahr and Charlie. Doing so, we’re on our way! The long walk through the park on the way to the grounds is covered in ice and we mind our steps as we chat and laugh. One of the students says he will always picture me as Father Christmas. When we get to the gates we say goodbye to the Chinese students, wishing them luck, and make our way to our seats. The queues at the refreshment stands are long and undefined. They also are having trouble with the hot water. No tea or coffee, making many in the crowd groan and swear. The hot dog is only filling.

The match gets underway and the home side start well, and are rewarded in the 11th minute when Hughes scores on a header. However, despite out-playing West Ham, the Cottagers make a few mistakes and combined with a brace from Carlton Cole. The final score is 3-1 to the Hammers. The walk out is slow as fans soak in the loss. Sitting in the middle of the relegation zone at Christmas is not something that was expected.

Sarah and Her Lads
Sarah and Her Lads

Once the crowd thins, we make our way over the Thames to The Boathouse for beers and crisps. We find a small table in a back room, away from the bar, and tell stories, catch up, and laugh, and laugh. We all leave together, hug and say goodbye. We make our way across the river to a bus stop and wait. We overhear a pair of drunk men who wonder aloud “who won the West Ham match?” I tell them the result and they cheer and start singing songs. The bus arrives and the songs go on. The men sing West Ham chants from the top of the bus and we smile from below at what we started.

Pretty Lights
Pretty Lights

The traffic is horrible and our bladders fill faster since the drinks at The Boathouse, so we hop off the bus somewhere along the line with lots of posh shops and fairy lights in the trees, but not one single place available to us. We wander around the square as quickly as possible thinking of our limited options when we find one of the self-cleaning public toilets to save the day! We hop back on the next bus to Victoria Station, jumping off a few blocks early to avoid the crowds. From here we walk the quiet neighbourhood streets and eventually to the flat. We eye the closed Cask & Kitchen and lament that it is not open at this moment.

Not seeing much else open, and after consulting with Smith via Twitter, we decide to head over to the Queen’s Arms. The same one where the MetaFilter meetup is scheduled tomorrow. A trial run for us, and a much needed meal. The place is very cozy, and our server Mike was witty and friendly, taking time to chat with us. We finish with the amazing sticky toffee, and I knew we would enjoy a return trip.

For now it is time to sleep, and save energy for the meetup. Thankfully the flat, and the bed, is only a few blocks away.

Tourist Day & MetaFilter Meetup

Back of a Double Decker Bus
Back of a Double Decker Bus

Allowed ourselves a bit of a lazy morning knowing it would be a long day. After bowls of cereal we cleaned ourselves up, made our way to Victoria Station and caught a bus to Liverpool Street. Being a little early to meet Dan, Sophie, Carol, and Rich, we wandered around the streets outside of the station taking in the architecture and taking photos. After meeting the others we grabbed another bus to a pho place Rich suggested once he realised his favourite spot was closed.

The food was delicious and we all enjoyed ourselves, but the restaurant made things a little difficult by refusing to honour our American credit card. Rich said they can’t legally do such a thing, but ultimately we decided to repay Rich and Carol later rather than argue.

After lunch we parted from the group to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral to do a little site seeing. Neither of us had been inside St. Paul’s so we were curious about the London skyline landmark.

Different Footprints
Different Footprints

Once inside, we paid our fee, picked up the iPhone audio tour device, and made our way through the beautiful space. Eventually we climbed to the top and made our way around the dome, dodging other tourists, and taking photos of the stunning views of the city.

With the closing hour nearing, we made our way toward the exit, stopping by the gift shop and restrooms before heading out into the dusk. We made our way to the Tube stop and head toward Oxford Circus to have dim sum at our favourite place, Ping Pong.

The closer we got to Oxford Circus the madder the Tube trains and stations became. When we got off the train and made our way to the surface it was wall-to-wall people moving in every direction. We stepped against the wall to check the iPhone map and then did our best to stick together as we moved with the crowd.

We ducked down and alley seen on the map and found a less busy route to the restaurant. Ping Pong was busy, but we were shown to our table right away. The table was small, making it a challenge for the wait staff to find places for our items, and as more people poured in the service got spottier. We eventually got our puddings, settled the check and scrambled to get back to the flat so we could make the MetaFilter meetup.

London Skyline
London Skyline

Once outside the crowds seemed larger and when we got to the Tube we encountered long queues at all the Oyster ticket machines. It took 20 minutes just to get a top-up so we were definitely running late. Glad we called the meetup for a place close to where we are staying!

We got back to the flat, dropped our packages, freshened up, changed clothes, and dashed out to Pimlico The Queen’s Arms to meet the others. As we were walking, I sent a Tweet asking for someone to post updates from the Arsenal/Chelsea match that was about to kickoff. The Queen’s Arms doesn’t have a television, and I wasn’t about to be rude and be glued to the phone for updates. Someone offered to send me direct message updates shortly after we arrived at the pub, and we settled in at the large table set up for our group.

View of St. Paul's from St. Paul's
View of St. Paul’s from St. Paul’s

We got to meet some new people; however, we found it amusing that very few of the attendees were actually British! Other Americans visiting — including Rich, Carol and Dan — plus an American who works in London, a few Canadians, and at least one lovely Irish musician were there. The Mear brothers, Sophie, and some bloke were the only proper Brits!

Some people ordered food, most had drinks, and everyone had a good time. The staff was great to us; Ollie and Rosie really took care of us. Rosie was curious about brewing beer, so I helped explain the basics to her, and at last shout bought the two of them a beer of their choice. Rosie opted for an Anchor Steam just as I had just ordered. We also learned that Arsenal had upset Chelsea, 3-1, so we were chuffed … and surprisingly not too drunk.

We said our last goodbyes to Chris and David, and Rich and Carol for this trip, and made our way back to the flat for the last night in London, where we got ready for bed immediately.

Last Full Day

As the trip winds to an end I am finding it a little harder to get up and go in the morning. I am having a great time, but running on fumes now. It’s a grey, rainy morning. I am not hung over, but feel a bit out of it. We meet up with Rich and Carol early before they make their way to the airport and back home. While walking around Pimlico we found a modern, yet cozy, little place called Carmel’s, across from Kazan. We each tucked in to some variation of a full English breakfast and quietly chatted about our various adventures and plans for the our return to the States.

Mirror Fun at Tate Britain

Once breakfasts were finished, we said our goodbyes and parted. We then made our way to the Tate Britain for some culture. We decided to investigate the Eadweard Muybridge exhibit and if there was time check out the Rachel Whiteread drawings, which were included with admission to the Muybridge. We did end up seeing both, and very much enjoyed the Muybridge exhibit. We went in knowing a little bit about his work in timed photography, and came out amazed. The large-scale panoramic work was particularly fascinating. We also found time to walk around other permanent collections that were beautiful, and got to people watch.

Feet starting to drag, we eventually made our way to the museum’s shop, and found a few gifts for ourselves and a few friends. While waiting for Sarah to complete the purchases, I ran into Dan and Sophie in the lobby. Appears they fancied a bit of culture as well! Before they went on their way though, we made plans to have breakfast in Pimlico in the morning so we can return the key to the flat.

People & Paintings

After all the pretty things and culture and stuff, what we fancied most was lunch and we decided we had to go to the Queen’s Arms one last time. We made our way through the sprinkling rain back to our new favourite comfort food pub where we split a burger and a sticky toffee, and I had a pint. As we left we said our goodbyes to the staff we had spent time chatting up over the week and headed back to the flat to rest and clean up before our date with the Mear family later.

We finally left the flat and began our journey to North London just after dark. The tube was filled with people when we got on at Victoria, but eventually thinned as we made our way north east across the city. Most of the way we amused ourselves people watching.

We were in great moods when we arrived at our stop. We walked the long platform, checked our Oyster cards’ values, and turned the corner to see Chris’ smiling face once again. We assumed we were walking to their place, but ended up meeting David and Jennie just up the road and continued with them to their local Chinese restaurant. Jennie’s milieu.

Jennie took charge and ordered (in Chinese) the set family meal, but we didn’t know what that meant. A pile of plates came out and we ate. And more came out and we ate. And then soup came out and we ate. And by now we are feeling more than full. It was then we found out we hadn’t even had the entrees yet! And the thing about the set meal is there is no take away leftovers! You eat what you order. By the end of the meal we could barely keep our heads up. Full and tired, and happy. Jennie continued to speak Chinese to the staff and it became obvious she was picking up the check despite our offer to take her and her sons out as our treat! She’s so sweet. We’ll miss her and the boys!

After dinner, we barely had the energy to waddle back to the South Woodford tube. However, being a few zones outside the city meant we got seats. The train filled as we got closer to the heart of London. The ride was long and filled with characters coming home from football matches being played or pubs where they were watched and discussed. We leaned against each other in solidarity and exhaustion, remembering to switch at Oxford Circus and getting off at Pimlico, which we’ve learned is a much nicer walk this time of night.

Starting to think living here (not London, though) would make all this visiting so much easier than these marathon visits every few years, but tomorrow we begin the process of going home.

Voyage Home

Today is all about travel. We need to meet Dan and Sophie for breakfast and to hand the keys over to them so we scurry around the flat making sure the place is at least as clean as we found it — checking behind dressers and bed for items that may have wandered off. We want to make sure Dan and Sophie don’t have to do anything more before her father needs the place next. As we find wandering items we do our best to squeeze them into the bags we have. We may have more with us than when we left in the gift exchange market, but eventually we find a place for everything.

Satisfied, we leave our luggage near the front door and walk to Pimlico Fresh. We are early, and order coffees before grabbing spots on the long bench near the huge blackboard. Dan and Sophie arrive shortly thereafter. We place our breakfast orders, and return to the table. We chat about Muybridge, our visit, and their holiday travels. Once we finish our delicious breakfasts we all return to the flat, retrieve our bags and return the keys. Then we try to convey just how grateful we are to them for their hospitality to strangers.

After the goodbyes, Sophie points us to the bus stop around the corner where we catch the 436 which terminates at Paddington Station. The bus weaves its way through the heart of the city, and we attempt to soak it all in one last time. The city looks a bit stuck in the aftermath of Christmas, between the madness of the few days after the holiday and the days leading up to New Years Eve. People on the street have slowed their pace a bit, it seems. Even Paddington Station seems to be moving in slow motion when we arrive, and I start to wonder if it is my desire to stay has made the time crawl.

We take turns monitoring the luggage, grabbing coffee, and using the facilities, all the while monitoring the board for the next Heathrow Express train. Despite my apparent time control, the train is ready to board and we make our way down the platform and choose a carriage. We settle into our seats and take advantage of the last free wifi we are likely to see on this side of the pond. The conductor comes by, and soon after we are on our way.

Heathrow — as always — is buzzing with people when we arrive. It doesn’t have the crazed atmosphere we had seen on the television for the last week when so many flights were canceled. It is the busiest airport in the world, and it shows, but last week was mad. We make our way to the Virgin area, check in at the kiosk, and then wait in line to check our luggage. The staff is efficient and polite and we move on. We are so early we don’t have a gate assignment. After going through customs and having our bags scanned, we find spots just past the duty free shops and relax. Again we take turns watching bags and grabbing drinks or snacks. I use the iPhone to chat with friends on IRC and to use up as much of the pre-paid card as possible. Sarah reads Sherlock Holmes on the iPad.

We had been monitoring Rich’s tweets of their journey home the day before, and it sounded like they had a long, hard trip. The weather was still bad today, but we were hopeful. Once we were able to board, the plane’s captain came right out and said they anticipated a quick flight. We went through our usual boarding routine, meaning I immediately put earplugs in, and we nested as best we could. I was able to tell it was the exact same plane as the flight over, but at least we had better seats this time. Luckily the flight was smooth, the movie, books, and iPad entertained us, and we each were able to grab some sleep. We even landed early!

We breeze through customs, grab our bags, and find the waiting area closest to where the Dartmouth Coach stops. Unable to find an ATM, I exchange a few a quid for the local currency at a less than perfect rate, before buying a couple of muffins on which to nosh. Sarah monitored the bags and iPhone which I had plugged in to a (rare) public outlet for a much-needed charge. We are early for the bus, and spending most of the time waiting by zoning out and/or people watching.

The bus is a few minutes late, but it ends up being the “express” so we will go directly to Lebanon, cutting out one stop along the way. The dark, quiet bus is perfect and we melt into the high-backed seats as we pull out of Logan and into the Boston night. As predicted the movie is The Karate Kid (again) and we watch the muted screen to see if we can find where we left off 2 weeks ago.

The bus trip is uneventful — although we still didn’t see the end of the film. We are very happy to see Ryen’s smiling face when we arrive. We all exchange hugs and she helps us with our bags. I slide into the driver’s seat and we drive the short distance to Ryen’s grandmother’s house, where we extend our thanks and say goodbye. The car is warm, and feels good. We are both tired, and with the end of the trip in sight, we get on the highway and aim Penny toward home.

In our absence a good amount of snow has fallen, and thankfully Ryen called Matt Loftus to come over and plow. It was nice to return to a clean — very well-plowed — driveway. At the door we are greeted by excited dogs who have been startled from their naps and are bouncing for our attention. There is a stack of holiday cards that arrived while we were away. We unpack the toiletries, grab beers, turn on the tree’s lights, and go through the cards together on the floor while the dogs get as close to us as they can.

As we get ready for bed, we talk about how much we already miss our friends and wonder when our schedule will allow for our next visit. Hopefully soon.

Published by Rick Scully

Rick is a craft brewer, shepherd, gardener, photographer, writer, tech nerd, web developer, and all around good guy.