Guildford & Home

17 April 2007 § Leave a comment

OK, so I went through 2 days of jet lag and 8 days of denial that I’m in America. I still have to finish the story – don’t I?

Easter Sunday we meant to go Greyfriars Church… but I misplaced the service details and we were uncertain about Ian’s ability to meld into a strange Sunday School. So we read the Easter story in Ian’s comic book Bible in our pajamas before going down to breakfast at the hotel.

After spending our last hour in Quark’s Internet Cafe, we hopped on the train to Guildford. None of us, Megan included, were up to London after our experience at the Tower the day before. All we wanted was a quiet place to walk and look a High Street and some castle ruins. We were not disappointed.

The Guildford train platform was a bit of a puzzle. Unlike every other platform we’ve ever been on, there was no “Way Out” sign. There were signs to other platforms and the university, but in our confusion we tried going down a tunnel only to turn around and go up some stairs – eventually finding the way out. The streets of Guildford were much less confusing. Just outside the station, a giant map of the city let us know where the castle and High Street were. There were plenty of brown directional signs to help us at each intersection as well.

We ate our Easter meal at Yates’s (also spelled Y8’s)…after waiting a half hour for the “chef” to return from his break. We had the entire place to ourselves. Kurt and Megan split a burger, I had the “Sunday Roast” special complete with mini-Yorkshire puddings (they were out of steak & ale pie), and Ian had his cheesy garlic bread. The whole thing was a bit surreal: it’s Easter, we’re sitting in a bar with our kids, smelling stale cigarette smoke, hearing our favorite Brit bands on the muzak, and watching a muted version of “Keeping Up Appearances” on the big screen TV. (We later saw much more appetizing options on our explorations through town, but hunger overrode patience.)

We found the castle ruins smack in the middle of the prettiest garden we’d seen this trip. The tulips and daffodils were HUGE, the grass was GREEN, the sky was BLUE, and the stone paths were so TIDY. Best of all there were NO LINES. The castle was inexpensive and newly restored. They had some interesting displays on the ground floor with plenty of signage on the other floors. Best of all, I could enjoy being on top of the keep (don’t laugh, Sid). There’s always such an anxious mystery to what awaits you at the top of spiral castle stairs. But this time, the whole viewing platform was enclosed in an iron cage that not even my wiggly son could squirm out of. I actually enjoyed the view, took more pictures than usual, and allowed my children and husband more than 5 milimeters away from me!

We walked through a closed shopping district. All the great British and American shops were represented – must be quite an experience during business hours. Ian needed a loo, so we followed the signs and found a clean and serviceable one not connected with any shop. We saw the Guildhall with it’s ancient clock, a statue of George Abbott (one of the Archbishops of Canterbury), and another Quark’s Internet Cafe tucked into a side alley. The historic “hospital” had it’s gate and door open with a sign that read “If the door is open, come in.” We did. Just inside the courtyard was a sign that told us to stop there and just look. Apparently it is now a retirement community. We obeyed the sign, and were then rewarded by one of the staff who took us beyond the sign into another garden at the back. We got to see a huge copper pot that the historical occupants used to wash their clothes and cook festival meals in – now a planter since the bottom rusted through. We also saw the Hershey’s-kiss-shaped niches in the garden wall which used to house bee bowls. As he led us back out with a “please use the path through the center” (not the one that traces the courtyard near the buildings), our gregarious host quickly changed moods. New visitors had not respected the boundaries and were greeted with an icy-yet-formal “Actually visitors are not allowed past this sign unless you are invited to a tour, and I must go. I don’t have time.” Ooooo, glad we obeyed the sign.

We got ice cream from the van parked outside the train station and waited for a non-Virgin train to take us back to Reading. The kids used their own pence to buy sweets at the station shop. (Megan discovered Cadbury Cream Eggs for the first time.) The kids had their last swim and I watched my last proper BBC while packing.

Our trip home was unremarkable, except for a Bank Holiday snag. We arrived at Paddington Station expecting to take the Heathrow Express to the airport. Unfortunately, it was Easter Monday – a holiday that the US does not observe. The Heathrow Express does not run on Sundays or Bank Holidays. A very kind attendant wearing a black jacket over his Heathrow Express purple suit told us our options were: 1. the Tube (been there, done that, no way with kids), 2. the Heathrow Connect which is a train to Hayes and then a bus (20 minutes before the train would arrive & when would we see the bus?), and 3. a cab (which he said would be hard to find since everyone will want them). We walked to the Connect platform and quickly decided we didn’t want to wait. We walked to the taxi stand which was deserted of passangers and chock full of black-cabs (it’s the shape, not the color). The head cab’s driver estimated ₤55 to Heathrow. A quick talley of the pockets and purse yeilded ₤65 – so in we went.

The ride went smoothly, except for Ian’s obsessive reading of the meter. I’ve never been on the M4 before, though I’ve heard it on traffic reports from BBC radio streamed over the internet. There was NO traffic, so we got to Heathrow for a mere ₤49.80 plus tip. We breezed through check-in, thanks to our online boarding passes printed at Quark’s. Security was a piece of cake as well. The kids enjoyed shopping in the international terminal while we waited to board. Our flight was smoother than the trip over – only turbulence over Greenland. We saw an agriculture-sniffing hound catch a woman with an apple in her handbag at the baggage claim (quite exciting, actually). My mom was there to take us home in our car with home-baked pretzels as a bonus.

All in all, I know Kurt is glad to be home. Ian wants to go back to England so he can swim. Megan wants to live in England. And I think I’m STILL in denial that I’m even home.

Cheers,
Jessi


Quote of the Day:

Ian, to the driver of the ice cream van as we threw our rubbish in his bin, “That was the best 50 pence I’ve ever spent. That ice cream cone was the best one in the universe!”

Megan, after resisting pictures the whole trip, “Ooh, take my picture next to these flowers. No wait, take my picture while I smell the flowers.”

London x 2

8 April 2007 § Leave a comment


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.

Cheers,
Jessi

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.)

Portchester Picnic

6 April 2007 § 3 Comments


We had no idea (none of Kurt’s friends told us/knew) that Reading was such a party town. Since today – Good Friday – is a national holiday, everyone was treating last night as a Friday night. We tried to eat a late dinner at a pub restaurant we dined at on Sunday, but were turned away by a walkie-talkie loaded security guard who told us kids are only allowed in before 6:00 (18:00). So we walked past clubs, pubs, and fast-food joints from 20:00 to 20:20 until we ran across Chili’s. URGH. But we ate and went to bed and Ian got his pizza (he was getting really angry that we weren’t taking him to the nearby Pizza Hut).

Today another of Kurt’s work mates picked us up at the train station roundabout and whisked us off to meet his family. We split between two vehicles and drove through motorways of all descriptions to Portchester Castle. It’s right on the water near Portsmouth and one of the naval fleets. It’s distinguished history includes Roman occupation, Richard II, and even service as a prison camp during the Napoleonic wars. It also has the distinction of being off the beaten track and very relaxing (except for the locked loos).

We loaded up on audio guides and toured. Ian and Megan had 3 playmates – all girls ranging from 6.99 years to 1.75 years. Yes, the precision is important;-) These ruins were very nice because they still had a bit of the original carved arches & window frames. Upstairs in the keep you could even see a bit of wall mural that survived from the Middle Ages. We all braved the spiral stone steps – more precarious than Warwick Castle – and walked the edge of the entire square keep. I took a few pictures, then squatted down trying to quiet the tornado in my chest before walking back down. Megan, on the other hand, kept leaning up against the wall and hanging her arms over – probably the source of most of my fright.

We ate a lovely picnic lunch in the green surrounded by the outer walls. We heard a neighboring dad shout something to his ball-playing son that you would probably never hear in the States: “Mind that you don’t fall in the moat!” We ate lovely mini meat pies, picnic eggs (breaded meat shells that contain a bit of egg salad in the center), and carmelized-onion-balsamic-vinegar crisps. The English are SO adventurous with their crisp flavors (and they’re really good).

We tried to get Ian to walk around the path outside the castle walls, but he was only interested in GameBoy since he’d eaten a cheddar cheese sandwich against his will. So Ian and I walked through the walls one more time and sat by the car while Kurt, our friends, and all the girls skipped stones in the ocean off the path. Once reunited, we all got ice creams from the van parked in the parking lot. And then we noticed the best sight of the day: the loos had been unlocked!

After that relief we headed to our hosts’ home. The kids enjoyed sliding, building sand castles, and chattering away. We had a lovely tortilla supper out on the patio on newly-varnished IKEA furniture, topped off with our choice of strawberry-rhubarb (mmmmm) or blueberry pie.

All the children enjoyed each others’ company so much they didn’t want it to end. But end it had to – baths were needed all around. We adults hated to say goodbye as well, but we will cherish this memory always since it was a PERFECT day.

Cheers,
Jessi

Quote of the Day:

Ian, handing one of his new friends a daisy he picked from the grass – “I’ve gone from like to love. Here’s a flower for you.”

Megan, while walking between the two older sisters & holding their hands – “I’m going to separate you two!”

Windsor & LEGO II

5 April 2007 § 2 Comments


Woke up to a late start this morning after a late supper at The Jekyll & Hyde. Three of us didn’t feel like taking a long train with connections in London, so we traded one Hampton Court for a Windsor Castle + LEGOland (again). Megan, by the way, seems tireless and up for anything.

We got to Windsor just in time for the changing of the guard. The red coats were marching in and playing their instruments. After they passed into the castle walls, we went to the efficiently run ticket counter, passed our bags through x-ray and our bodies through metal detector, and got our ever-trusty audio guides. Windsor’s guides were cool because there’s a kid’s version and an adult version. We could still hear the band, so we followed the path inside the wall and got to watch for a further 15 minutes as they played “Glad Time Rag” and “Reaching for the Stars” while the gold-clad guards with swords switched places. A man from the UK standing near us remarked on the music being played during the solemn change of the guards, “That’s a bit mad, isn’t it?”

We skipped Queen Mary’s dollhouse because the line was just too long. We instead breezed right into the state apartments. The kids really enjoyed seeing a castle with intact walls and ornate furniture. Megan prided herself on finding the hidden servant doors while Ian stared for a long time at the Tudor period portraits. We watched a guard near the rear (where the toilets were) march up and down on patrol then reposition himself near his booth. The pavement was worn smooth in his path.

We then went into the chapel where we saw a Who’s Who of grave markers, including Henry VIII’s. They actually allowed us to sit in the benches that line the ornately carved choir gallery. Looking up at the ceilings were almost the best part. We also found out that the queen isn’t at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle right now – she’s in Manchester (???) for the Maundy Thursday services. Oh well – all that waving yesterday for nothing.

We ate a quick lunch at Burger King (I know, I said I wouldn’t) before hopping on the bus to LEGOland. We managed to get in and out of there without any more offending incidents. Lots more international visitors today. We hit the discontinued bins today and got some random LEGO pieces. Great fun.

Once again, Kurt is swimming with the kids and I am here. No time for tea, though, since we’re having dinner shortly.

Cheers,
Jessi

Quote of the Day:

Sorry, my brain is fried. I can’t remember at the moment what the kids said apart from “OOOh, a gift shop. Can we go in and buy something?”

London – AAUUGGH!

4 April 2007 § 1 Comment


Well, we survived our first proper day in London with the kids. Of course I now have a screaming headache and it’s only 17:16. At least I don’t feel so bad now – Ian had a rougher time in the city than I did. It’s nice not to be the most neurotic one in the group for once.

We got up bright and early…for a holiday. We managed to catch an express to Paddington Station and even got seats. The kids worked in their journals on the trip in. It’s so funny to see what they choose to put on paper. When we get home I’ll have to scan some.

Anyway, we squeezed onto a Circle Line Underground train car to go to the Science Museum. We had heard that it was both excellent and free. Ian did not like the Tube trip – he wanted a seat and he didn’t want to be squished. I think the kids finally experienced what it’s like to be in a post-football-match squeeze. There truly is no way to fall down because all the bodies are pressed together (and yes, we still have our passports, money, credit cards, etc.).

Once off, we walked through an amazingly long tunnel to the Science Museum with the longest advert I’ve ever seen for the “Night at the Museum” DVD. I guess they really want to sell DVD’s. It was easily 30 feet long. After having our bags searched, we were in. Ian and I spent a long time at the energy exhibits. So now Ian knows how to be an Energy Minister and build power plants, be an Energy Ninja and smack people around who waste energy, and type energy saving messages onto a giant electric wheel. Hmmm. Kurt and Megan were more productive with their time, checking out all the computing equipment and making it to more floors than we did.

After realizing eating in the cafeteria would require balancing our lunch trays on our heads, we decided to leave and go to the Natural History Museum right next door. NOT! The line stretched an entire block (not single file), so there was no way Ian was going to make it. True to our form, we went off the beaten path and went into Apsley House (where Wellington lived) and up the Wellington Arch. Both were free because of a Heritage Pass we bought at Battle Abbey. Megan really liked the chandeliers and Ian liked the panoramic print of Wellington’s funeral parade. (what is it with him and funerals?)

Finally at 14:00 we made our way to Henry’s for a posh pub meal. Megan had another round of Bangers & Mash, I had Steak & Ale Pie, Kurt had a club sandwich, and Ian? Garlic bread with cheese melted on. Hey, whatever it takes:-) We walked off our lunch in Green Park and waved to the queen in Buckingham Palace (at least we think she was home). We did see Princess Alexandra ride up in a seafoam green sedan at any rate. Visiting Granny, perhaps?


When Ian ran circles around the Victoria Memorial in front of the palace, we knew it was time to head back to the hotel. We caught not-so-crowded tube trains back to Paddington and – thanks to Ian wanting to walk up the escalators – we made the express back to Reading, even though we all had to sit separate. Ian entertained the lady next to him with his drawings of the Eiffel Tower (???), himself as a doctor mixing medicine for a patient, and himself as a chef cooking up stinky food. Megan decided to be quiet as a mouse so that the man next to her could keep sleeping. Kurt talked to some Americans that were across the aisle (go figure). I just ping ponged my head between giving Megan winks & smiles and giving Ian spelling hints for his captions.

So we made it back in time for Kurt to hit Ian’s reset button in the pool and for me to write to you… My headache’s gone already (17:44) – just in time for our supper date with one of Kurt’s friends.

Cheers,
Jessi

Quote of the Day:

Ian, while looking at a naked marble statue with a grape leaf in the important area: “He should have some pants on. Or at least some underwear!”

Megan, after looking at Apsley House’s spectacular chandeliers: “I don’t know anyone with a house this nice. They must have been REALLY rich!”

Reading Proper

3 April 2007 § 2 Comments

We took an easy day today. Kurt took the kids to the pool after breakfast and I did a bit of laundry in the sink. Afterwards, Ian played with his LEGO’s and I took Megan to Quarks Internet Cafe in Smelly Alley – otherwise known as Union Street. Last night we walked through the alley and couldn’t figure out the source of the name. It was clean and no graffitti. But this morning with the butcher’s, fish monger’s, and grocer’s open it really did smell. Megan enjoyed seeing all the color and the “old fashioned way” to buy food.

We also met up with Kurt’s UK work mates. They took us to Sweeney & Todd’s Pie Shop, a brisk walk from the hotel. The kids were good sports. Ian wanted a fruit pie, but the best I could do was Pigeon & Peach. He ate the chips and drank his OJ. Megan made a valiant attempt at a Ham & Turkey which looked filled with some kind of cheese. She got a third down and polished off her chips as well. I had a lovely Steak & Stilton (cheese) pie on it’s own and Kurt had a Steak & Mushroom with a side of carrots. The crust was heavenly and all the pies had different crust-cut-out shapes on them to tell them apart.

We then went to Reading Abbey Ruins, apparently a popular hang-out spot for teens on school holiday. The kids have now decided that Henry VIII is the meanest person every because (according to their talley) he broke two churches and killed his wives just for having girls. Funny that the way this trip started was that Ian was crazy about Henry VIII and wanted to see his armour.

One short block brought us to the Reading Museum and an amazing display: a life-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry stitched 100 years ago. Having been to Battle, the kids enjoyed reading the captions and finding the pictures that matched. They both enjoyed finding the chain mail and looking at the shield shapes. Ian (someone please explain to me) was fascinated with the panel of the dying Edward the Confessor, his funeral, and the double death of King Harold.

Shooed out 10 minutes before closing, we decided to take in an early showing of the film (probably not to come to the US) “Mr. Bean’s Holiday.” It was a great laugh and especially fun for us as we are on holiday in a foreign country, though not hitting near the snags.

And thus I am now officially caught up with our journey so far. Kurt took the kids to McDonald’s for dinner (yes, we finally gave in – but they’ve been good sports) and I had a cup of tea in Smelly Alley.

You’ve gotta love England!
Jessi

Quote of the Day:

Ian, after studying the Bayeux Tapestry replica, “Where is King Harold’s funeral?” (Ah, war-politics boiled down to a 3rd grade level…)

Megan, at lunch to Kurt’s co-workers, “My favorite food so far is – Mom what do you call that sausage thing?” (Bangers n’ Mash)

Trains & LEGO’s

3 April 2007 § Leave a comment

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?

Cheers,
Jessi

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?”

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