Friday, July 2, 2021

Blog has moved - see below for link!

Now that I am able to travel more with larger photo albums I want to share, I've had to make the decision to use a different blogging platform. It's also because Google Photos only has so much space, and if I create albums there and link them here, then I'll end up having to pay for more storage. My new site allows me to embed photo albums right in the link, and there are much better layout options, so please head on over to continue seeing where my travels take me.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Day trip to Thaxted

Cobblestone road leading to cathedral

 You might have noticed a trend in my blog lately: day trips. We've been doing a number of day trips on the weekends because it's so easy to get away into the countryside or smaller urban centres for the day. Given the current travel restrictions, we realised that we could just make the decision to use this year to explore the UK and our remaining time here travelling to other countries, since its likely those restrictions will ease next year. It's not that we didn't want to do this anyway, but it just helps to take away any disappointment we might have had at being posted to London and then being unable to travel in Europe more easily. We want to get to know the UK as well; there is much history here, and we both have family connections here that we want to explore as well.

Yesterday's trip to Thaxted was one such family connection. My husband's mom grew up there, and when he was a child, he used to visit his grandparents there each summer. His grandparents eventually moved away from there, presumably when Stansted Airport was being built, and if that was the reason, we can't blame them. They would have been planning to spend their retirement in a quiet town in the English countryside, only to be bombarded by an airplane flying overhead every 10 minutes or so--or perhaps more, since with Covid restrictions, we can imagine there might be more air traffic. But it's a shame, but the town is just beautiful, having been founded in 11th Century and really being developed in the 1300s until their boom time in the 1500s. You can read much more detail about Thaxted on Wikipedia; there is actually a lot to know. But in terms of what allowed Thaxted to develop and prosper, it was the manufacture of cutlery. The cutlers formed their own guild, which led to an ability to organise and develop the town, and they pooled their prosperity to help build the cathedral as well as the iconic guildhall in the centre of town. The guildhall is actually one of the oldest buildings in town, estimated to have been completed between the late 14th to early 15th Centuries, although some of the timber used has been dated as being from the 1500s, so it's not entirely clear. Nevertheless, it's still pretty old, at least 500 years old, if not more. If you're not sure what a guild is, it's Oxford defines it as a medieval association of craftsmen or merchants, often having considerable power. You hear about guilds back home, but usually it's like a quilter's guild or something like that. There is a more modern way we use it, but back then, it was a kind of union, almost, that allowed workers to join forces to benefit themselves and their trade or profession. 

The guildhall

In addition to the guildhall, the nearby cathedral is about as old, and it offers a variety of gargoyles, working church bells, a lot of old artefacts inside, and beautiful stained glass windows from various centuries. There were actually people practising the church bells for about an hour or so that afternoon. We could hear them when we were on a public footpath nearby, and it continued on for some time as we returned to the town centre. But our main reason to visit was to see the place where my husband's parents were married. While perhaps not as wealthy as some other cathedrals in England, it still would be a grand place to hold a wedding. It has a wooden frame, and there are beautiful carvings in both the stone and the wood. The doors leading into the church are huge but have smaller doors cut into them for people to pass through--but they are pretty small. Apparently, people back then were shorter than they are today. I learned this in one of my anthropology classes some years ago, although when I try to verify this information, I can't find anything; it seems that people then might have been only marginally shorter, so if that's the case, I can't explain the short doors. I was grateful that the church was open. The pandemic has closed many churches to the public, some only opening for individual prayer and reflection for limited hours or only open for limited Sunday services, so we haven't been able to go inside all the churches or cathedrals we've seen. 

 We also had cream tea at the windmill, built in 1804, which is located near the cathedral but stands at one edge of the town. I actually haven't ever seen a windmill before, so it was neat to see one in real life for the first time, but what was lovelier was being able to have tea with scones and clotted cream and jam, which is known as "cream tea," as opposed to afternoon tea, which would include more sweets and savouries and be like a light meal. The weather is warm right now, and the sun was out with a light breeze, and it was the perfect weather for exploring but also resting at a table in a quiet little windmill park on the lawn to sip your tea.

One of our main goals in town was to see the house that my husband's grandparents used to live in, which is a short walk from the guildhall. We also wanted to see if we could find the location from which his mother sketched the cathedral because it was at a bit of a distance with some wheat in the foreground which the cathedral on the horizon. We started walking on a public footpath near the grandparents' former house, and we believe that we did, indeed, find where she did her sketch. Trees might have been planted or were perhaps quite small then, so it wasn't exact, but we do believe the wheat fields we walked next to are the ones in the sketch. In any case, the walk itself was one to restore the spirits, with mainly the sound of the wind through the trees and a few birds twittering and calling in and over the wheat fields. My husband also informed me that there was always wheat there when he used to visit; he said he remembered having a stick of wheat in his mouth. I thought it was interesting that the same crops are still being planted decades later.

The location of the sketch, we think

We had a spectacular day. I also was able to get some photos of birds, and we came back feeling very fulfilled and rejuvenated. It's experiences like that that make us not miss travelling internationally right now. We are completely satisfied enjoying places closer to home. There are so many smaller towns and places with lots of history that you really can spend a lot of time visiting it. We have places to go to see us through the next several weekends, so we're really enjoying this approach to our travel plans.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Day trip to Winchester

One of the great things about living in a country so well served by trains is that you can often find a lot of good day trips to do. London is, of course, super well-connected, so if we can't go on a longer holiday, now that restrictions in the country are relaxed, we find somewhere to explore for the day. For today, we decided on the city of Winchester, which is just over an hour by train from where we live. It's an old city from medieval times, and it seemed that there would be much to explore. We had a great visit there!

Not only does Winchester have a lot of historic places to visit, one of the best things about it is that they are all easily accessible from the train station. In fact, it's probably one of the most walkable day trips we've done so far, and we would highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to walk long distances just to find the attractions in a city. It seems like almost everything that Winchester has to offer is accessible within a contained area, from the high street and market, to museums, the old cathedral, and the ruins of the castle built by William the Conqueror's grandson, Henry de Blois, who became the Bishop of Winchester in the 1100s.

High Street, crowded with the market

We started at the Great Hall, where the famed round table of King Arthur is said to be. We learned it's a re-creation of the original, and since King Arthur is not necessarily real, we didn't want to pay to see the re-created table of a mythical person, but at least we saw the area where it's located, and there are ruins from 1000 years ago in the area to see. From there, we walked down the high street and learned there was a Sunday market with all sorts of things to buy, from children's toys to cheese to exotic mushrooms. My treasure was finding creamed honey. It's not easy to find here, and I was pretty excited to find some to bring home. It's not the same as clover honey from Alberta, but it's still a bit of a treat. We kept going until we saw the statue of King Ælfred, a place significant to my husband as his grandfather took him there almost 40 years ago. Once we were done at the statue, we paused for lunch, and then took a walk along the canal.

The canal is just beautiful. There is a small bridge over it that was built between 862 and 868. Yes, you read that right. I didn't forget to add the 1 at the beginning. It's not often that you can still use something that was built 1200 years ago! Along the canal, it was so peaceful with beautiful old homes, some with English gardens, overhanging trees, and a lot of birds singing.

As we continued to walk, we noticed there was an old wall, and we followed it to see what it was, and it turned out that it was the old city wall that protected Wolvesey Castle. We would have found it eventually using our GPS, but it was nice to just come upon it so unexpectedly. Entry is free, and you can explore the ruins and get a sense of how large and imposing it once was. There were some interesting features of the old castle as well. One of them was that the aqueduct system is still in tact in terms of the structure. You could see the two directions it went to dispose of household sewage, and it would get dumped into the moat that used the surround the castle. In addition to the deep water, water with sewage in it would not be good to get into to try to attack. It would be disgusting, but mainly dangerous, I would imagine! The other interesting feature was that one section of the castle was identified as the latrine tower. This is, I think, only the second instance latrine identification I can think of having seen in a place like this. The first was in a castle in Germany where they showed how the royal couple would relieve themselves, which was through a hole in a chair into a chamber pot that one of the servants would have to hold and then dispose of. But here, there was a tower for it. It wasn't clear how it works, but I appreciated the fact that such facilities existed and that we are also told about them. For some reason I'm fascinated by waste management in these old places because usually you never see them, and it's something that everyone has to do, so how did that work in these old places before we had the toilets we do today? Were the Asian style squat toilet facilities? Did people just go out the window or outside? Is there any historical knowledge about this? Well, at least Wolvesey Castle tells us about its past in that regard. 

Latrine tower

Once we were done, we went to Winchester Cathedral. It was built in 1079, using Norman design, but had some rebuilding occur in the 14th Century to add some Gothic features. According to what I read on the city's tourism website, the cathedral was only supposed to be open for reflection and prayer on Sunday afternoons, but we found out it was already back to tours and exhibits. So it was noisier than we hoped, as we had planned on spending some silent time there, but it was not to be. It is a really beautiful church, and we were lucky to be there during choir practice, so we had some nice sounds to drown out the visitors' chatter and noise while we sat. There are several interesting things to see at the church. Aside from the beauty of the architecture, there is Jane Austen's grave, which we were told should have been at her home parish. But as she died unexpectedly in Winchester, where she was living at the time, and had brothers and friends that were all priests, they arranged for her to be buried there instead. There is also an illuminated Bible. We decided not to see it today as it is part of the exhibition you have to pay to see, but I am already planning to go back by myself sometime for that and to see Jane Austen's house. The cathedral also has some very bizarre stone carvings inside, some of which are mythical creatures and others called "green men" that are surrounded by leaves and have, in some cases, leaves even coming out of their mouths.

Once we were done at the cathedral, we rested on the grass near the cathedral and then made our way back to the first statue to get better photos. Earlier in the day, the sun's position prevented us from getting ideal photos, so we thought we'd take advantage of everything being so close and just go back there before heading home. Winchester is a really lovely city that is worth a visit if you have time to go!

Monday, May 3, 2021

Day trip to Salisbury - Stonehenge

I had been to Stonehenge 15 years ago after spending the day in Bath. My cousin had taken me to Bath, and he took me to a lovely tea house in Marlborough for afternoon tea; by the time we got to Stonehenge, it was closed for the day. He explained that you can't actually go up to the stones anyway, which is something I had wanted to do just to get a sense of scale, so I ended up not being too disappointed with not going into the complex where the site is located. I was able to get a decent photo from the road, since there are country roads running through fields in the area, and he showed me Woodhenge and other henge sites where the stones are in worse condition and are just jutting out of farmers' fields in areas and have no fanfare around them. It was good enough for me. If you have been following my travel blog for a while, you'll know that I try as much as I can to take the road less travelled, and being in a vehicle, seeing what tourists don't see, was--and is still--pretty cool. But as I learned today, sometimes the road well-travelled can be pretty good experience.

The train from our place to Salisbury, the nearest major town to Stonehenge, is about 2 hours in total. From Salisbury, there are tour buses offering hop on-hop off service, as they take you not only to Stonehenge but also to a few other sites on the way back to town from Stonehenge. The bus gives you headphones as you enter so that you can listen to information about the town and the sites the bus stops at. We learned that Salisbury was actually a pretty important medieval town, a market town, and that 1 of 4 original copies of the Manga Carta and the best preserved copy, is in the town's cathedral. Unfortunately, the pandemic restrictions have not eased up enough to open up the church yet, so we were unable to see that. But I would go back to Salisbury just for that if I didn't have any other reason to go back. It's a pretty special historical document for this social studies teacher, and I'd love to be able to at least show photos of it to my future students while discussing its significance the rule of law in Western democracies. I'll write more about that another time, when I actually get the see the document next time we go!

Anyway, the bus first stops at Stonehenge, and fortunately, you can buy your ticket on the tour bus along with the bus ticket. So it was nice not to have to wait in line as there were many local people there, although not nearly as many people as usual. A staff member at the gift shop said they would normally get around 6000-7000 visitors on a long weekend like this one, and she said this year, they'd be lucky to get about 10% of that, international tourists making up about 70% of their visitors. From the visitor centre where the entrance is, it's about 1.5km walk across some farm fields to the site itself. We were wondering why we had to walk through some farmer's field, where there had definitely been cattle, based on the dried paddies we saw, but we later learned from one of the info panels that the several acres of land surrounding Stonehenge are also owned by the National Trust, so I guess they do farm it, but it's a public land, technically. It was relaxing walk, although it might have been more relaxing with better weather; it was cold with a high chance of rain and wind warnings. We were grateful not to see any rain while we were out, but wind was wicked. Some of my photos didn't turn out, especially when I used my zoom lens, because the wind was making me so unsteady that my hands couldn't always hold the camera properly still.

What excited me about the site was that, even though you can't go right up to the stones, you can get a few metres away from them, which is still pretty close, if not for scale, but to appreciate them. And the really good thing about the site being cordoned off is that you can get great photos with no people in them. I really never imagined that. Even though there weren't the volumes of tourists they normally get, it's actually possible to get photos with few to no people in them. That is always one of the biggest frustrations as a traveller is getting photos of something interesting without other people in it. I always wonder how they do that for postcard photos, but in the case of Stonehenge, it's pretty easy. 

I think most of you will know what the site is for, so I won't go into detail about that. But I will include the fact that the Stonehenge site is actually part of a large complex that you can see when you go there. You see burial grounds, called burrows, that appear like little hills in the field but are actually burial mounds. You can also see a few other interesting sites, including Woodhenge. We didn't go see everything because it would be a hugely long walk, and I don't know how anyone would have the energy or time to do it, even if you took one of the shuttle buses that ferries people back and forth between the henge and the entrance.

Cloister of the old cathedral

We ended by getting off at Old Sarum, which is a site that has been used by many people for different reasons. It was initially built in the Middle Iron Age, around 400 BC, and was thought to have been built to protect the people living there as well as their livestock. Over the centuries, the Romans inhabited the space, a castle was built by William the Conqueror as well as a great moat, and later a cathedral was added, where you can still make out the foundation of it but has since moved to the medieval cathedral in Salisbury, the one that we couldn't see. The area is also filled with chalky ground, and I picked up a piece to draw with it just to see if it really writes, and it does. Natural chalk. I'll admit I didn't really know that existed and somehow always thought it was just some random ground up rock make into cylinders. Apparently those chalk crayons are made from actual chalk, or at least they were originally.

I'll close by mentioning how neat it is to see and touch artefacts that are 1000 or more years old. I used to say we had nothing like it in Canada--we do: there are many Indigenous sites, but unfortunately, we don't know about them or the government has prevented Indigenous people from accessing them, let alone anyone else. Or they were destroyed by colonisation. So as a result, I need to travel to see ancient spaces and places, from Stonehenge built around 4500 years ago to Old Sarum, beginning around 2500 years ago. Who has walked those lands before me?

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Brighton to Buckingham Palace

The restrictions have eased somewhat, so we've been taking a few more liberties to head out and stray a little farther from home, at least for a day trip. So for the Easter long weekend, we decided we'd go to Brighton. It was a cold day, and as most facilities are still closed, we knew there wouldn't be much to do, but Brighton is only about an hour away by train and is on the English channel, so we thought at least we'd be able to walk along the pebble beach and just enjoy a chance of scenery. We dressed quite warm since we would have nowhere to go and warm up if we needed, and we did enjoy a nice day there. I had been to Brighton once before, 20 years ago, when I visited a friend who was studying here, and the beach area largely looks the same. That trip was my first real overseas trip travelling and having to get around mostly alone, so at that time, I couldn't have compared it to anywhere else I've been, but since then, I've been to so many other places in the world, and I can say that it now reminds me of Atlantic City on a morning after the nightlife has come to its bitter end. Rather than explain it all here, I've included this link to my blog archive from 2008 when I was there for work. You'll just have to scroll down a little to find that entry as when I lost access to my blog, I copied and pasted and then just grouped them by month or by trip. The main difference is that Brighton doesn't really have the casino scene, but there were some fairly sad looking characters, and parts of the shore area look quite run down. It would have been shiny and sparkly in its heyday, just like Atlantic City, and I'm sure that just like Atlantic City, it will look alive and happy when it's filled with people. I've only been to all these locations in the fall or spring when there isn't much happening, so I can't wait to go back to Brighton in the summer when I'm sure it will look more hopeful.

Little did we know that by the end of the week, we would hear the news about Prince Philip. It's a small wonder, given he was in hospital for a month and had only maybe been home for a month longer, and was almost 100 years old. He looked rather ghastly in the photos that the news agencies were able to take of him in the vehicle when he was returning from hospital, so we figured he might not have a lot of time left on this earth. 

We'd had a couple of errands to do on the day after HRH's death, so we decided to head out on our bikes to take care of those. We're still not expert cyclists for London, still getting used to traffic here, but we love being able to do errands on our bikes as we can go to several locations much more efficiently than on public transport and much more quickly than by walking. One of the errands was to check out Pimlico Market, which someone had recommended to me. We discovered that we were fairly out of place there in our cycling gear. People were quite dressed up, and there was even a booth selling oysters there! One of the people quite dressed up was the classic English countryman; he looked out of place at the market, but had he been on a footpath in the countryside, he would have looked much more natural. But his outfit was most excellent, his tweed trousers, sport coat, and newsboy cap all matching, and he even had an ascot. I had to take a selfie just to get him in the shot, but I ensured that his face was obscured for my post because I don't often feel comfortable posting people's faces or even taking their photos without their permission. But I needed to demonstrate how traditionally some people still dress here. 

After we had completed our errands, we decided to head off to Buckingham Palace. We thought it would be good to pay respects, but as this is a historic time in Britain's history, we also wanted to just be there to see what was going on and be part of the atmosphere that the death of such a royal entails. It was subdued, and people were respectful. One could lay flowers, and the police had set up a way to let people through a barrier a few at a time to ensure everyone's safety. We also saw a series of tents set up at the edge of Green Park that faces the palace, all set up for the media. There were probably at least 10 tents or so. We looked for the CBC and CTV, as they do have correspondents based in London, but were unable to locate them. Below is a panorama of the scene to give you an idea what it looked like near the palace, anyway. There weren't nearly as many people as there would be but for the pandemic, but most of the people were locals and foreigners like us who are temporarily living here, so it was interesting to witness that aspect of the aftermath of the death.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Spring is in the air - and hope

Magnolia tree, primroses beneath

The end of the lockdown will be sweet. While it will happen in stages, as has often happened in the past, every step will be welcome. From tomorrow, we can finally meet people outdoors again. This is great, as I've started to meet some of the other people in the ex-pat community, and it will be nice to have a chance to meet some of them in person as we have so far only been meeting online. Little by little, as the vaccines are doled out to greater populations, we'll experience some semblance of social life again.

 I haven't had a lot to write about lately for this reason--one can only write so much about just walking around one's neighbourhood. I've posted Facebook photos, mostly flowers and birds, for friends and family, but I haven't had much of a story to share that the pictures couldn't tell, themselves. The collection of those photos, though, caused my mom to comment to me yesterday that you get the impression that London isn't just a concrete jungle with all the nature photos I tend to post. It was such a great comment, because that is exactly what I have been trying to show in my blog and my photos, the exposition of a city that most people, unless they are Londoners, would typically not see. I mean think about it: when you come to visit the city, you want to see the museums and other attractions. Those types of places are generally surrounded by other buildings. As a result, you're not going to see the neighbourhood parks or spend much time at the river to see what all these areas have to offer. And there's nothing wrong with that, because London is expensive, and you have to pack in as much as you can into the typically short time people spend here, perhaps a week or so. So one doesn't have the time to explore small neighbourhoods or wonder, much less find, where the green spaces are. Nevertheless, these spaces exist. 

Hyde Park daffodils

One thing we've discovered is how much people here love to get their outdoor time. In all the seasons we've been here, we've seen people go outside to read a book. It's not uncommon to see someone reading a book on a bench by the river or in one of the parks, whether they set up a blanket on the ground or sit on a bench. I suspect that with it being cloudy here so much of the time, and the fact that their milk is not fortified with vitamin D like ours back in Canada, that people want to get out and soak up whatever sunlight or daylight they can. And Sunday afternoons are for family outings. Now I don't know what people do when there's not a pandemic, if they are going for walks in parks or if that has just increased since the pandemic began, but the parks are definitely full of families on a Sunday afternoon and often on a Saturday afternoon, too. In fact, I actually try to avoid the parks on those days because there are too many people that I find it difficult to enjoy, especially if there are birds I want to hear or see. But it's lovely to see so many people out; while there seem to be these little parks everywhere, and some large ones here and there, green space is still at a premium in London, so it's something that locals take full advantage of using when they can. 

Chiondoxa, or "Glory of Snow"

While winters here are mild enough that there are a few flowers that seem to grow outdoors, such as petunia/ivy baskets, pansies, cyclamen, and mahonia x media winter sun, but then when spring flowers emerge, there seem to be droves of them in places.  As you can see, I've scattered a few samples of them throughout this post. Thousands of daffodils bloom as well as crocuses, snowdrops, hyacinth, and more recently, cherry blossoms and magnolias. The daffodils are particularly well-timed, as they seem to be blooming everywhere just before the 1st of March, which is St David's Day in Wales, and it so happens that the daffodil is Wales's national flower. They have many varieties of them here, too, from tiny, delicate narcissus types to giant daffodils, and all with different shades and combos of white, yellow, and orange cups and petals. It's quite beautiful!

Battersea Park cherry blossoms

The next flower I'm looking forward to seeing is wisteria. I remember when I stayed with my friend back in 2006 in May, the area of London she lived in, I remember this one high stone wall around a property that was festooned with wisteria, and it was like being rained on by lavendar-coloured flowers as they so gracefully hung down in their vine-y fashion. In any case, this is a London I'm happy to share with you because even if you come visit me, you might not be here in this season, or again, have time to enjoy the green spaces. 
Crocuses at Vauxall park

Thursday, February 25, 2021

More walking around

The UK's lockdown is set to end next month. I believe we will be adopted a phased re-opening, but we're excited about it, even if it is gradual, especially since the country has vaccinated so many millions of people already. I don't think we'll be booking multiple vacations yet, but at least there will be more to do, and at some point, I'd really like to get a trim on my hair if not a proper cut and dye job. I last cut my hair in August, and while the home hair colour kits do a good job, it's hard for me to get all the parts of my hair properly, and there are always grey spots here and there.

While the weather was a bit chilly (dare I say cold and offend my friend and family back home who just made it through over a week of temps around -30ºC!), I wasn't as motivated to go for walks, but from time to time my husband and I would try to get some fresh air. On one of our walks, we discovered that a fountain in a nearby park doesn't seem to get turned off despite the colder weather, so it ended up freezing up somewhat, but the effect was really pretty. I normally don't like to be in the photos I both take and post, but my husband's phone has the option for a wide-angle lens photo, and I liked the effect. 

We go to a nearby butcher for our Sunday roast, something that's a common practice here, and we decided to take a different route. I was sure glad we did, because we ended up coming across a small patch of bright, yellow-orange crocuses. I have seen daffodils blooming for some time now, and I had seen snowdrops here and there both budding and in bloom, but this was something I hadn't yet spotted. The photos couldn't do it justice. You'd probably have to have a pretty fancy professional camera with the knowledge of how to use it properly to capture the way the light hit these flowers. My husband described it as being almost phosphorescent. It's such a unique colour that I haven't seen anywhere else.

On another walk, I noticed a plaque on one of the houses. If you've never been to London before, there are plaques all over the place on various buildings and home. Many famous historical figures have lived and/or worked in the various buildings so marked, but this one was a little different. It was a memorial, rather than a description of someone that lived there. Many other memorials are for war efforts in England or as part of wars in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but this one is for none other than Nicaragua! I had to search Google to see if I could find out more information because the plaque doesn't really tell me enough of what I want to know, and I came across this one site that appears to be some sort of blog, and it had more information and links to more information as well. One of those links is a brochure for the original finished project with photos of the interior. It actually looks quite nice inside! I also learned through that brochure that the vulture looking down from there is not just a pigeon scaring device but actually appears to be part of the design of Nicaragua House. Anyway, it's an interesting little tidbit that is not really along the tourist path, but these are the little nuggets I love to come across in my wanderings around the world.