London x 2

We are officially done with London now – except for the flight home on Monday. Ian is definitely glad. He’s tired of hearing the announcers at some of the Tube stations saying “Mind the gap.” At one point, the kids turned it into a joke using the GAP sweatshirt Megan was wearing. We stopped at stations and the kids would say “Mind the…” and point to Megan’s sweatshirt. I guess you had to be there.

Lot’s of rail repairs were taking place this weekend, but we lucked out and got the express into & out of London instead of a local that had to be redirected on the bus. We also needed the Tube lines that were NOT being worked on. Ian has a special fondness for the sound of the Picadilly line. Every time we stopped at a station that connected to it, he would say it over and over for at least a minute.

We made it through the ticket line for the Tower of London. Ian was a real trooper, and the line only got bigger behind us so it put our short wait into perspective. Many portions were under construction, unlike when Kurt and I had gone two years ago. They also “enhanced” the Medieval Palace display, but Kurt and I liked it better the old way. They took out a beautiful metal chandelier in the room with Henry III’s chapel and replaced it with a video projector showing not-quite-relevant historical information. It completely took away from the intimate, sanctuary-like feel that used to be in the room. Some of the other walls have had their ancient stone white washed (except for the tiles that bear 500 year old inscriptions from prisoners). It completely messes with the awesome feeling of antiquity that should be felt in a place that’s nearly 1000 years old.

Kurt and Megan braved the “queue” for the crown jewels while Ian and I did the wall walk. We thought the wait was bad…that is until we looked at the wait after a Richard III re-enactment on the green. The line went from the door of the tower, all along the side, turned 90 degrees, went all the way down by the armory/cafe, turned 180 degrees around a central cannon display, and up the length of the green to the sidewalk that enters the White Tower. Unreal!

Navigating the White Tower was an experience as well. They have rerouted the traffic to see the armor & prisoner inscriptions first, then the Norman chapel and the rest of the tower. You couldn’t move on the “ground floor”, there were so many people. Upstairs it smoothed out a bit until the Guy Fawkes display. Megan wanted to watch the videos, but Ian had had it and it would have taken more than 30 minutes.

We all talked to an employee dressed like Robin Hood (though that wasn’t who he was portraying). Ian told him all about Henry VIII while Kurt and I made some history-related-dry-humor jokes. The man asked where Ian lived, then turned to us and said, “But you’re not from America, are you?” When we said yes we were, he gave me the biggest compliment in the world: “Oh, I just – you’re more well-spoken than most of the Americans that I meet.” Quite funny and well appreciated:-)

After the Tower, we walked across Tower Bridge. We followed the Queen’s Silver Jubilee walk markers along Southwark, saw the Globe Theatre recreation & London Bridge, and then crossed the Millenium Bridge (Ian nearly went through the wires trying to see when I stopped to take a picture – serves me right!) We took a look at St. Paul’s then found the neares Tube station. Megan liked retracing “Daphne’s” steps from the movie “What a Girl Wants.”

We arrived back to Reading just when all the disappointed fans were returning home from the home match against Liverpool. I had to sniffle because we tried for a very long time to get tickets to that match. They lost, so I guess it’s just as well. This was, however, Kurt’s first trip to the UK without a soccer/football match. We finished the evening with Pizza Express, a swim in the pool, and Victoria Sponge Cake from Sainsbury’s. A great way to wind down from all the urban stress:-)

As we have to leave early tomorrow and the internet cafe closes early for Easter, this will be our last post from this side of the pond. I’ll try to fill in the last of the blanks on Tuesday from the comfort of my own chair. Thanks for sticking with us and sending us your well wishes. We miss you all and hope to be seeing you (even our far away friends) very soon.


Quote of the Day:

Ian, after noticing some stations were handicapped accessible and some weren’t: “Is there such a thing as a cat wheelchair? How about a disabled litter box?”

Megan, once the Tower of London came into view & responding to my “Look, there it is!”: “Mmmmm, the ice cream?”
(There was an ice cream van parked next to us on the sidewalk.)

Trains & LEGO’s

Our journey to lodging #2 took nearly all of Sunday. First a two hour train from Hastings to London Charing Cross followed by the Bakerloo Line on the Tube to Paddington Station, finishing on the NON-express train to Reading. Fortunately we had room for our luggage and to sit on the two proper trains. On the Tube, however, Kurt and I stood tending the luggage while the kids acted very grown up on seats 1/8 of a car away (trust me, I had my eye on them the entire time).

A one block walk had us to our hotel – a swanky new place called the Novotel which just opened in October. You have to love European culture. All the employees at the hotel wear name badges with flags on them – with each flag representing the languages they speak. I surprised myself with my flag knowledge. So far I haven’t not-known which languages an employee can speak. I’m a little afraid though that they might think I’m odd, not looking at their faces but their lapels…

Choices are very hard for Ian. He also tends to narrate everything he does or thinks when he’s in a room alone. In the loo, there are two stainless steel ovals on the wall – flush buttons. The large oval is for a large flush, the small oval for a small flush. Kurt and I were in hysterics listening to him narrating his daily duty and then the quandry which followed on whether or not it merited a large flush. I’m thinking of sketching up a flow chart before the week is through!

Monday opened warm and semi-sunny so we chose that as our first LEGOland day. It’s the first large amusement park we have brought the kids to (yes, even though we live in the state that houses Disneyland). What an affair! We stood packed like sardines in the space that connected one train car to the next from Reading to Slough, then sat on the branch line to Windsor. After turning circles a few times, the information agent told us how to catch the dedicated £11.75-for-family-round-trip bus to the park (thats $23.50 by the way). But it was loads of fun hearing the kids as they discussed all the LEGO figures we passed in the driveway – as well as hearing OTHER parents saying to their offspring “Do you want a smack? Keep it up and you’ll get a smack.” Our kids were rather well behaved, if I say so myself.

We got our exit passes with no problem. This enabled Ian to actually get on rides instead of melting down halfway through a line. We hit 5 rides in 2 hours then stopped for lunch. We finished the day in the Discovery Center where Ian and Megan made mechanical LEGO animals, and in the 4D movie with no words. The gift shop blew the kids’ minds – the size of a large Blockbuster filled with only LEGO items.

We drove by, but didn’t stop at, Windsor Castle. I think the kids were relieved to see a castle that was actually intact. We’ll have to get them to Hampton Court… The train journey home was uneventful, that is until the announcement came through that the trains brakes were faulty and it would be stopping in Reading to be serviced instead of going on to Oxford. We wondered if we would have to leap out, but we managed to stop without crashing.

Neither Kurt nor I are amusement park people, so we were exhausted when we got back to the hotel. The kids, on the other hand, are drooling to get back. Oh well, that’s why we bought the annual pass – isn’t it?


Quote of the Day:

Ian, racing a car against a UK native in Miniland and creating the other child’s first impression of Nasty Americans: “Woohoo, I won!” to which the crestfallen opponent said, “Well you don’t have to tease about it.”

Megan, hungry for once, “Can we get some more of those Worcester and Sun-Dried Tomato crisps?”

Pevensey & Brighton

Well we did the educational thing and then the mindless thing. Actually, at the end of the day the kids preferred the educational thing.

Pevensey Castle used to be right on the Southern coast of England, but due to time and tide it is now a mile inland. The castle has been in ruins for ages, but was used as a WWII outpost with the crumbling towers camouflaging soldier barracks and gun towers. The outer wall has Roman & Medieval components, while the inner wall has two dungeons (only one with stairs – the other you got lowered in by rope). It actually had a manned (womanned) information booth and gift shop, so we were able to get Ian his audio guide enabling us all to concentrate and browse. Our favorite part was the pyramidal stack of stone catapult balls that had been fished out of the moat.

After a chilly, windy wait at the train platform for 40 minutes (nearly getting sucked onto the express trains that whizzed past without stopping) we finally headed for Brighton. On the train we met an inquisitive 2-year-old George who wore a friend’s baseball cap. George could not accept that it was baseball when I commented on it – he was quite insistent that it was a cricket hat. His big brother Alfie did a lot of translating between George and Ian.

Brighton was HUGE – more like a seaside London. We made our way down a LONG hill toward the sea, stopping off for baguette pizzas and jacket potatoes and popping into a collectibles shop before making it to the beach. The kids rode a carousel on land, then on the pier Megan rode a whizzer and Ian jumped on a huge trampoline. You could see the ocean through the slats of the pier, and when the boom ride was on you could feel the whole thing sway. Needless to say, the kids enjoyed the pier much more than Kurt and I did. And the wind! I think it actually beat Chicago.

We all collapsed back at the guest flat and ate leftovers from the night before. After the kids went to bed, Kurt and I watched Match of the Day since we’d gone a whole Saturday with no football (we usually watch 3 matches on Fox Soccer Channel at home). Poor Newcastle.


Quote of the Day:

Ian, at the guest flat: “I washed my hands in the little sink.” (It was a bidet…)

Megan, while drawing in her journal: “I liked the rides in Brighton, but I liked Pevensey the best. I can see it in my mind, and my drawing actually looks like it.” (She really is getting better at perspective.)

Bed, Bath, and Beyond

Sorry it’s been awhile. Sunday we slept in (thanks to ear plugs we found in Stratford upon Avon), the shops were closed and the train was extremely limited, so we hung around Oxford and tried to do a walking club walk. Unfortunately we didn’t start in the right place, so the directions had us all turned around. We only found 3 of the 4 landmarks for answering the
questions. Not sure if we’ll be able to swing the credit for that one or not.

the light and space at this castle were fantastic

Monday we went to Warwick Castle (pronounced War-ick). Getting there was an adventure because some (in the words of the train conductor) “hooligans set the
signals alight” on the line into Birmingham. We found out on the news that they had broken into the signal boxes and burned them. Anyway, we got to go on a bus ride from Leamington Spa to Warwick with a bus driver that didn’t know the way. The Chiltern Railways staff was totally hysterical and putting a funny spin on a frustrating situation. The more northern we tread the more I enjoy the personalities we meet.

It was cool to see evidence of royalty and history from William the Conqueror (1068) to the present. They had a really funny guy doing the archery
presentation and Kurt enjoyed a Monty Python moment when we saw the Trebuchet demonstration (tray-boo-shay: a cross between a catapult and a sling
shot). I even battled my fear of heights and climbed to the top of the tallest turret. Of course once up there I sat down in the very center next to the flag
pole and let Kurt walk to the edge… You wouldn’t believe how narrow and twisty these stone walkways are. I could barely do it slowly holding the handrail
and wall. The medieval soldiers were running up these stairs with weapons and ammunition in hand!

Today we went to Bath at the insistence of Kurt’s coworker who lives there. The Roman portion is at the bottom with an 18th century extension making the bulk
of the viewing and exhibition area. I love watching documentaries & reading about Rome, as well as watching Gladiator (mmmm, Russell Crowe…). But
nothing prepares you for seeing that amazing technology from 100 A.D. in person up close. They even let you touch some of the mosaic and stonework
displays. Try that in a U.S. museum!

After eating Toad in the Hole for lunch (sausages in a Yorkshire pudding shell with gravy), we went to the Jane Austen center. She lived briefly in several
houses in Bath. I never realized what kind of destitution she lived in after her father died. It really puts her stories into perspective. Of course
what drew us in there was the portrait of Colin Firth (aka Pride & Predjudice’s Mr. Darcy) in the gift shop window.

the flowers and architecture were so fun

We hung out in a garden at the edge of the Avon River. It’s free to residents, but we had to pay 95p. Worth it because I needed to… We ate dinner with Kurt’s
coworker and his fiancee, who gave us a driving tour of Bath. We started in the lower sections with rowhouses & underground servant quarters. Then there
is this fabulous circle of townhomes called “The Circus”. Very posh with a small circular garden in the round about. This was then outdone by the
semicircle of LARGE rowhouses called “The Royal Crescent” – set apart from the city by their large, gated, residents-only park that covers an entire
hillside. It really set the Georgian Era concretely in my mind and made me understand why my underprivileged ancestors decided to cross the pond.

So it’s nearing 11 p.m. on our last night in Oxford. Tomorrow we make the long & neccessary (scary) trip to London.

Stratford upon Avon

The British Rail system is unbelievable. We got to the station late after sleeping in and dawdling. But after waiting for 20 minutes and having a tomato and cheese baguette (the cheddar here is out of this world!), we got on a train that took us to Banbury. 3 minutes after getting off our connecting train arrived and took us to Stratford upon Avon. We rode through rolling hills – some green and freshly mowed, some brown and awaiting new seeds. We saw lots of black-faced sheep, all kinds of cows, some gorgeous race horses, 3 humongous pigs, and silky brown bunny rabbits grazing in the pastures. We saw lots of churches, villages, and one windmill. In Heyford we saw a huge fleet of “narrow boats” in the canal – all painted different glossy colors with curtains on the windows. Though on the return trip, I wrote in my journal and Kurt slept.

It only took 5 minutes to walk from the train station to the city center. A brass band was playing outside the public library (I shot a quicktime video and felt like my grandpa was with me at the time!). Just beside the band was a statue of Shakespeare…I thought. Then all at once people started making noise and ignoring the band and I realized it was a guy dressed up like a statue and kids were posing for pictures. He had a pedestal and a “statue” dog as well. I don’t know how he kept that grey, grainy stuff on his face!

creepy living statue

We went to Shakespeare’s birthplace. The visitor center was interesting because they had his family tree somewhat mapped out and outlined his patronage by royalty as well as his “road to stardom”. There was a creepy exhibit with a wax statue of him sitting at a writing desk – very realistic. I don’t think we’ll go to Madame Tussaud’s after my reaction to just that one!

The house was neat. Amazing that you can keep any building in shape for 500 years, much less a timber & plaster one. We hung out in the garden, browsed in the shop, and then walked on. We heard screaming down the street – it was Shakespeare again freaking out a 3 year old and some teenage girls.

We found some earplugs in the Chemist Shop so Kurt could finally fall asleep. We saw an American flag flying from a building across the street (huh??). We ended our stay by visiting the ice cream truck and sitting outside the market stalls. Oh yeah, and on the way back we took the traditional stupid american picture standing next to a red phone box. (Better on an empty Stratford street than in the middle of London!)

We ate dinner in Oxford with some ex-Oracle employees which was fun. On the way to the restaurant I saw the British sign to end all signs and it took Simon awhile to realize why I couldn’t stop laughing: “humped zebra crossing” (i.e. speed bump).