Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27 Avebury and Ridgeway Walk

For my last big adventure in England I decided to do part of the Ridgeway Walk, which I read about a couple of years ago in the New York Times. A total of 85 miles, it stretches from just outside Avebury (which I intended to visit anyway) to the suburbs of London; the most interesting part is the westernmost part. The Ridgeway is an ancient highway, dating back to Neolithic times, which ran along the high ground to avoid the marshes and tangled forest lands in the lower ground. It passes a number of interesting archaeological sites, and affords breathtaking views of the English countryside.
I got up bright and early Thursday morning, and took a series of buses from Milton Keynes to Avebury (always an adventure in itself, since the on-line and printed schedules often have at best a suggestive relationship to what actually heppens) - Oxford, Swindon, Avebury. Turns out that Thursday is Market Day in Devizes, the other side of Avebury, and the bus from Swindon was packed with people going to pick up farm-fresh veggies and strawberries. I was tempted - but when the bus approached Avebury it became obvious that a full afternoon would be needed there.
Avebury is the site of a large neolithic monument - no-one is quite certain exactly what it was "for." (They may have had "conceptual art" back then, but probably not.) There are three nested circles of stones - huge stones, many of them twice the height of an adult - connected by two long avenues of stones to other sites. One of these other sites is a set of concentric mounds separated by ditches, probably a fortified village. The other is called the "sanctuary" - it was once a large structure, temple most likely, with both stone and wood pillars, but all that is left now is evidence of footings for the pillars, each marked by a concrete block. All there was to see was a couple of hippies meditating. The avenue of stone pillars, however, which still reaches halfway out (many of the stones have been lost, removed I would guess for use in more recent construction, and their position marked with concrete pylons). It is quite interesting to walk along.
A couple of miles from Avebury and a mile and a half from the sanctuary are two other interesting monuments. One is Avebury Hill, a nearly-perfect conic mound, the largest neolithic structure anywhere in Europe, that stands like a small volcanic peak in the middle of a broad valley. On a ridge beyond Avebury Hill is a long barrow, a burial mound that originally had three chambers; one of these is open for public inspection, and well worth the visit. I walked there from Avebury, past Avebury Hill, and found it a very pleasant walk, but those with autos can park about 1/4 mile from the barrow.
Back in Avebury. The town, much of which dates back several centuries, is located half within the circle of stones. The outer ring of pillars is itself surrounded by a deep ditch and high, steep-walled mound. My B&B (Manor Farm - I would recommend it) is in an old but undistinguished brick building, directly across from part of the inner circle of stones - the Red Lion Pub, where I had dinner, is across from another part. This was all very convenient; after walking around the entire circle, then walking out to visit the Long Barrow and the Sanctuary, I spent a while just sitting on the grass near some of the stones, and after dinner went back out again. The next morning, up at dawn as usual, I walked over and spent close to an hour walking around taking photos. The morning light was a bit harsh, but created nice effects with the dew on the grass and a light mist out toward the hills - and with absolutely no-one else up and about I didn't have to worry about finding the sight-line I wanted without someone's bright orange jacket in the background. I took nearly 100 pictures, figuring I could use the best and discard the rest, but when I looked at them found only a half dozen I could bear to delete. The stones are all interesting, and they are interesting in all kinds of light. It would be fabulous to come during a full moon later in the summer (with really good photo equipment). Even aside from the possibilities for interesting photos, it was lovely to wander around the stones in the morning, with song-birds everywhere.
The writeup of the Ridgeway led me to believe that it was 40 miles from Avebury to Wantage, with the hamlet of Ogburne St. George halfway between, but a closer examination of the map showed that the first leg of the journey was only about 10-12 miles, then Ogburne St. George to Wantage a bit over 20 for a total more like 32 or 33 miles. Since I had planned to leave early, that meant that if I didn't want to spend an entire day in a tiny English Hamlet I needed to dally around somewhere.
I set out, as planned, about 7:20, and walked east along a little country lane to pick up the Ridgeway about two miles along from the official starting point (which I had walked on Thursday afternoon, on the way back from the Sanctuary). It was a beautiful morning for walking, songbirds everywhere, an abundance of wildflowers, many of which I did not recognize. The Ridgeway is a "trail" for only a small portion of its length; most of it is more like a country lane, well-gravelled for the most part and in some places even paved. Parts are open to motor vehicles, most to horses and bicycles, but I encountered no motor vehicles, and maybe a total of two dozen bikes in two days' walking. It is easy walking, and broad enough that, unlike many of the trails in England I could have worn shorts, had I brought them along, without worry about nettles. I was glad to be wearing hiking boots mainly because I was hiking rather a long way, and there were a few stretches of trail still rutted from the spring rainy season, or with large stone cobbles, where I was glad to have them, but if you plan to do the trail in shorter stretches, in good weather, low-top walking shoes would be very adequate. The trail climbs some high ridges, but the grades are easy, few of them much steeper than 7-10%. It is obvious that parts can be muddy in the winter but in the summer it is fabulous walking; walking at a comfortable pace I probably averaged close to four miles per hour much of the way.
About halfway through the first day's hike, at nine in the morning I came to Banbury Castle, an Iron Age fortified hilltop, one of a string of forts along the ridge. Each one has a large are for settlement inside three rings of circular mounds / moats for defensive purposes; apparently the topmost mound also had a palisade of upright logs. This first one was probably the best maintained - they let sheep in during the spring when the grass and wildflowers (not to mention the ever-present nettles) are growing, so the grass has a new-mown look to it, and the nettles are completely under control. Not wanting to reach Ogburne St. George earlier than mid-afternoon, I settled down on a pretty patch of grass overlooking Oxfordshire to the north, took off boots and socks, had a granola bar, and enjoyed the view. After an hour or so I moved to another equally pretty little lawn looking southward across Wiltshire. In both locations I was treated to a variety of songbirds, and swarms of butterflies. Two varieties were larger, orange and black, but one I had not seen before was scarlet red when flying, but with black netting that seemed to cover its wings when it settled onto a dandelion or one of the other yellow flowers for nectar. With considerable difficulty (they don't sit still for long) I was able to get a couple of decent photos. There was also a small electric blue butterfly, but it was even more erratic in motion, and I couldn't capture a picture of it at all. I spent a total of nearly three rather sublime hours on that old fortified hill-top, then put on boots and pack and headed out toward the east.
My concern about arriving in Ogburne St. George too early proved well founded. The hamlet has nothing like a public park, not even a bench in sight. The pub / B&B where I stayed, The Inn with the Well, is a nice place and the proprietor and staff very friendly and helpful, but there wasn't a comfortable place to sit, shade or sun, anywhere. The room itself had two comfortable beds and a little dressing-table type chair, good to sit on while taking off boots but not good for much beyond that, certainly not a place to sit back and read a book. Inside the pub / dining area there are some reasonably comfortable tables and chairs, but it is rather dark and not a pleasant place to spend one of the first really nice summer days. Outside, there are several round picnic tables with hard backless benches - again, a good place to have lunch and a pint, but not comfortable beyond a half hour, an hour tops. I ended up stretching out on the bed for a while, then put my hiking boots back on and went out to explore the alternative ways to get back up onto the Ridgeway, taking a total of about a three mile circle hike, then came back, took a bath, had supper, rambled around town, sat on a hard bench outside the pub eavesdropping unwillingly on other people's conversations for a while, and went to bed early. The Inn with the Well (the name comes from a medieval - or maybe even earlier - well that is actually inside the Inn, with a glass floor over it and lighting so you can see down into it) is a comfortable enough place, a bit too close to the main motorway (right next to the main exit for Ogburne St. George), but there is another hotel a bit farther from the motorway, that actually has a half dozen comfortable sitting chairs on the patio, where I would stay if I were to come again. Even with more comfortable chairs to sit on, the hamlet is pretty to look at but a bit boring and I would plan the trip so as to arrive somewhat later in the afternoon, maybe 5 or even 6 p.m., just time to shower and clean up before dinner.
The proprietor willingly fixed a "room service" breakfast for me, and a lunch to take along. That was good; having gone to bed a bit early I also awoke early. I should mention the ubiquitous "duvet" - a comforter style thick blanket that doubles as a sheet, and allows for no layering - in the spring or summer you either have it on top of you, and swelter, or off of you, and freeze, or half on, in which case legs and feet are in a steam bath while torso and shoulders freeze - why people think they're so great is beyond me, but 3/4 of the B&Bs in England have them. The only time I have every appreciated one was in Nepal, above 10,000 feet where the temperature dropped to freezing at night and four inches of yak wool was very nice to have on top of me. Otherwise, give me the flexibility of a sheet and a couple of blankets any time, and forget about the "duvet," "comforter," or whatever you want to call it. End of rant.
It was a lovely morning for a walk, barely sunrise when I started out. The best route back up the ridge was along a narrow country highway with a 17% grade and two gentle curves, just enough to conceal walkers from on-coming cars. Even at 5:30 a.m. I knew there would be two or three, and I didn't like the odds. Fortunately, the previous afternoon I had noticed that it is possible to enter an open gate into a farmer's fallow field near the bottom of the hill, before the really dangerous part, and walk along a field road almost all the way to the top. I don't think it is actually a legal public access path, but my concern about half-groggy drivers going too fast for the road over-ruled my sense of the niceties. I was glad I did trespass - two cars and a delivery van passed along the roadway while I was climbing the hill, one going a reasonable speed but the other two going quite fast.
As on the first day, I made good time without actually hurrying; the lane is easy, enjoyable walking, the brisk morning air and a variety of songbirds all along the way were very invigorating. As nearly as I could estimate from the map it is about 21 miles from Ogburne St. George to Wantage, the last 2 1/2 miles along one of the dread highways. (English highways rarely have anything resembling a shoulder; tall grass and sometimes impenetrable hedges come right up to the pavement, rendering walking quite a hair-raising activity.) I walked about three hours before coming to a really nice place to stop, at Uffington Castle. After a 25 minute rest break (boots off, granola bar and banana) I walked down to where I could see some of the famous white horse, originally laid out by neolithic people, re-done in the 18th century and now maintained by the National Trust. Then I took off walking again, accompanied by birdsong all the way. Along this stretch I began to encounter the hordes of people I had expected on a fine summer Saturday - two groups of schoolchildren, several people with back-packs obviously doing part or all the Ridgeway, including a couple of quite large groups of adolescent girls and several smaller parties, and quite a few mountain bikers. For all that, I was still walking in solitude for over half the time even on this final leg of the walk. I reached the final "castle," on the hill above Wantage, about 11:30, 6 hours after leaving Ogburne St. George. This one is not as well maintained or accessed as the others, and is quite overgrown with thistles and nettles, so I had to search to find a patch of grass where I could sit, take off my boots, have lunch and relax a while before heading down to Wantage and back to M-K.
I had worried about walking along the motorway back to Wantage, but a paved country lane, not shown on my map, bordered the castle on the west and seemed to head down off the ridge. Reasoning that a paved lane must go somewhere (reasoning that has on a couple of occasions in England led me astray) I headed down it, and was pleased to find myself in the outskirts of a hamlet, which led me to a secondary road into Wantage. Better yet, about a quarter of a mile along the secondary road, just before it left the hamlet (and the sidewalk through the hamlet) I noticed a sign, "Walkway to Wantage." So my fears were for naught; I managed to get down off the Ridgeway and back into Wantage and the bus back to Oxford without walking even fifty yards along a busy highway. It was a very pleasant walk into Wantage, through some woods, along a field of almost-ripe barley, then along a boggy little area (fortunately the path was paved).
One last adventure with the British privatized transportation service, and with the apparent reticence of British officialdom. I made it to the bus station just as a bus pulled in with "Oxford" on the front. I asked the driver if he went to the Oxford bus station and he asked "which one" - which surprised me a bit, but I had noticed before the bizarre arrangement in Oxford - what I took to be the main bus station is 5 blocks from the train station (with no sign-posts), making it rather difficult to make connections to the smaller towns, so it didn't surprise me to learn that there were also multiple bus stations. I told him I wanted to catch the X-5 back to Milton-Keynes, and he said he didn't go there, but could drop me off nearby. So I paid the fare, got on the bus, and we started off. The bus began by going everywhere except Oxford - and I soon realized that it was a "local," and that there were other busses from Wantage that went much more directly to Oxford (and possibly some that went much closer to the main bus station). I have experienced this many times in England: If you ask an English person who is not in any sense a public official for directions, they often give very good directions. But ask any official, a bus driver, a person at the tourist information counter, train station ticket seller, anyone acting in an official capacity, and they will answer exactly the question you ask, not the question you would have asked had you known to ask it. I am sure, had I thought to ask the bus driver "is there another bus that will take me to the bus station?" or "Is there another bus that will go more directly to Oxford?" he would have given me exactly the information I needed.
At first I thought this was just bloody-mindedness. But on reflection, I think it may represent a kind of exaggerated reticence, a reluctance either to make assumptions about a client's actual intentions or to presume to inquire about the client's plans. In any event, I ended up having to walk five blocks through a narrow walled alley to the bus station and arrived just as the X-5 was leaving. I ended up waiting in the Oxford station for 45 minutes, but still got back to M-K in time to have a beer, take a bath, and get dinner more or less at my usual time.
It was a great little hike and a very nice way to close out my two months in England. Today (Sunday) is a day for doing laundry, packing, cleaning my room, and getting myself together; tomorrow first thing I go into London for a final day in London before heading to Amsterdam, then home.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 19 Polperro, on the Cornish coast

June 19 Polperro, on the Cornish coast
The visit to the Cornish coast involved a complex series of trains - express to Euston Station, walk a quarter mile to Euston Square underground station, underground to Paddington station, catch the southbound train there. It was jammed with people, mostly holiday-makers, including one guy in the seat next to me who tried to sleep the whole way and sprawled every which way. The train goes through some lovely rolling countryside, then along the coastline for a ways, with wind-carved red sandstone cliffs along the north side of the tracks. It passes through Plymouth, then stops at Liskeard, which is not actually on the coast. There I transferred to another train - just one long car, really. It is the oddest station I've ever seen - "Platform C" is at right angles to the other two platforms, and on the north side of the tracks (Polperro is to the south). Only a handful of others got on with me. The railcar headed off in the wrong direction for a mile or so, circled around under the main line, stopped while a switch was thrown, then went back south again, in effect a switchback that eventually carried it under the other track. It passed through a long, pretty canyon that reminded me of the pasturelands around Tillamook, stopped several times at little sidings, finally stopped at the end of the line, Looe, where I got off and started walking.
The coast trail goes for the first mile and a half through West Looe ("e" is silent - pronounce it like the Australian term for toilet) and along a drive next to the rocky beach before passing through a stile and heading gradually uphill through a pasture. Along the way I stopped at an ice cream stand and bought a black current ice cream cone - quite good. This section of coast really is quite spectacular; very like some sections of the Oregon coast except it is different rock, slate I think - tilted jagged-edged slabs making sharp angles against the horizon; none of the cliffs are very high but they are quite rugged, with pretty tide-pools at their feet and rolling pastureland above. The trail passes through the pastures and along the cliff edges; unfortunately it is often between six to ten foot hedges that totally block any possible view; but the rest of the time it affords quite lovely perspectives. Parts are dirt and might require hiking boots in winter, but I was glad I had just worn my lighter, more comfortable walking shoes. The steep parts all have either steps carved in the stone or made out of wood log segments with gravelled mud behind them - even the steep sections quite easy walking. I didn't really need my trekking poles, although they do make it somewhat easier on the really steep steps.
Polperro is a fairly old fishing village, with a still active fishing fleet but the fishermen's cottages are now very much outnumbered by tourist cottages and B&Bs. (Many "fishermen's cottages" are for seasonal rent; I wouldn't be surprised if many of the fishermen have moved into more modern houses up the hill.) The streets of the old town are extremely narrow and rather quaint; the whole is very picturesque. The tide range is quite wide - when I arrived all the boats that had not gone out were high and dry, on their sides on the mud bottom. After dinner I walked back down and they were all floating quite nicely in what looked like ten feet of water. My B&B is comfortable, but a full half mile up the road away from the harbor, which isn't very convenient. Not much view, but as I write this I am listening to some very pretty birdsong. Lots of seafood restaurants here - hard to choose. Last night I had a decent bouillabaise of local seafood; tempted by the local scallops but also considering the whole lobster for tonight. I'm not sure whether it is local or not - I think probably not. They had black current sorbet as well as some other good-sounding dishes but I wanted to taste the sorbet and I'm glad I did. Very intense flavor; it needed a scoop of vanilla ice cream to tame it I think. They served it with four or five raspberries and one sliced strawberries - the other berries were totally overwhelmed by the pungent black currents. I wish we could get them - I think LaJean could work out some very interesting things to do with them.
The waitresses told me about fireworks at "half ten" - Guy Fawkes' Day got rained out, and again on New Years', so they decided to use them to kick off their summer music festival. So I went back to the coast walk and climbed up to the cliff above the harbor - also above and across a spit of rock from the rocky promontory where they were to set them off. I misheard and thought the fireworks would start at ten, so I was quite early and, as the breeze sharpened, had to put up the hood on my windbreaker - but it was worth the wait.
When10:30 came a fishing boat entered the channel and hung there, right below the fireworks zone. The fireworks guys yelled at him and the spectators booed and finally after about 10 minutes he gave up and went back partway out to sea. Some of the fireworks were a bit ho-hum, but some was really pretty spectacular, especially going off right overhead. The most spectacular I think was not on purpose - a very big one, or maybe more than one, misfired and dropped in the water (right where that stupid boat skipper had wanted to be) and blew up under water. By being up on the cliff instead of down on the breakwater with most of the (smallish) crowd, I missed seeing the fireworks reflected in the water but got to see them erupting out of the water - a fair tradeoff. After a while the guy the festival had sent up to watch over the dozen or so of us on the cliff got nervous and shoed us back from the edge but it was still spectacular. Another neat effect - they had set up fireworks launch emplacements all over the broken craggy promontory, some behind the rocky peak so that when they went off it was like a volcano erupting. Way cool. A big difference from Portland - no amateur bottle rockets.
The trip started off with the oddest experience - I had ordered my ticket to London for next Monday and wanted to pick it up, since I will have a lot of luggage. There was a huge line at the ticket window and a much shorter one at the machine so I used the machine (which hasn't always worked with my chipless card). I stuck my card in the machine and, without asking for a ticket code, PIN, or anything, it read my card then spit out a ticket - a day return to London for that same day only, not the ticket I had ordered. The information guy swore I must have entered it wrong, and I did not have a printout of the confirmation e-mail, so I had to stand in the ticket window line after all (good thing I had allowed extra time for the walk to the train station). Sure enough, my confirmation code was indeed for June 28 and the many refunded the money from the one I didn't want. All I can think is that the previous customer must have begun the June 18 transaction but not completed it and not cleared it, so when I stuck the card in the machine completed his transaction. The web / ticket machine system is good when it works, but like all computerized systems maddening when it doesn't.

June 19.
Had a lovely day today. I had originally planned to take a vigorous walk, maybe 8 miles up the coast and back, but I decided to poke along instead, and just went maybe 4 miles and back, a total of maybe 8 miles, stopping at 3 or 4 places to sit on rocks or a grassy ledge and just listen to the ocean, the wind in the grass, seabirds, etc. Took quite a few pictures - very warm day, little wind, so there wasn't much surf but some of the views are quite spectacular anyway. After returning to the hotel for a bath I went back to the rocky promontory where they had fired off fireworks, clambered around on the rocks for a while, then found a couple of different pleasant places to sit, on the one side watching the extremely small waves, then over on the harbor side watching the other tourists - and on both sides listening to the gentle surf.
Went to a different restaurant, had scallops in butter and garlic. Good, but they put way too much butter in - the scallops were in over an inch of butter, floating on top of the scallop juice. The salad was as mediocre as most of the salads I've had in England, ditto the soft crusted, partly stale bread. For nearly 20 pounds I expected a bit better. After dinner I walked back over to the rocky promontory by the harbor mouth, but the wind had risen enough to make it too cool to sit there long so I returned to the hotel room, picking up a pint of local dark ale along the way.

Sunday evening
The walk back along the coast was lovely - already warm at 9:00, sea almost like glass. What a day to be riding the train all day!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

June 15 Royal Opera, Covent Gardens

I have long wanted to see a live performance of an opera by a world-class company, and England's Royal Opera is one of the best, so I bought a ticket to their performance of Marriage of Figaro. I had meetings in the morning and afternoon at the university, so I walked straight over to the train station, and arrived in London about 4:30, too late to consider visiting a gallery first, since the opera starts at 7 and they advise patrons to arrive a half hour early. I walked around a bit, found a nice little French bistro for supper. The evening started out well - Confit de Canard, a duck leg in plum and brandy sauce with properly cooked green beans and a kind of potato casserole, topped by a "traditional French cherry tart," actually more like what I would think of as a cobbler, very very good.
Covent Gardens Opera House is of course quite sumptuous, overwhelming even. My ticket was quite expensive - over $300, not anything I would do regularly. You can get cheaper tickets - the opera house has four levels of balconies. But my eyes are getting weak in dim light, and I decided to go for the complete experience. Along the same lines, I also pre-ordered a glass of champagne for the intermission.
Overall the performance itself was excellent. I didn't recognize the names of any of the singers, but probably a true opera fan would. Erwin Schrott asFigaro and Mariusz Kwiecien as the Count were both superb - rich, full voices, very nice styling. I felt that Annette Dasch as Countess Almaviva was also excellent, but the opera buffs sitting next to me didn't like the quality of her voice. Unfortunately the female lead, Susanna was very poorly cast, Eri Nakamura, who "is participating in the Jette Parke Young Artists Programme." She unfortunately is not "ready for prime time." She has a very nice, sweet voice, and I thought quite good control, but it is very thin and easily overwhelmed. Her voice often got lost in the orchestral accompaniment, and almost always got lost in the trios and quartets that Mozart loves to use. Singing a solo, with only a harpsichord for accompaniment, she projected well and was enjoyable to hear, but much of the delight of the opera is in the playful, lively trios and the weakness of her voice turned them into duets, a tricycle with one wheel missing. That was the one disappointment of the evening. The orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis was outstanding.
As Lynne predicted, wandering around the 2nd story bar with a glass of champagne during intermission was quite nice, and it rounded out the experience quite well. - well worth the 12 pounds.
Audience response was mixed; about 1/3 very enthusiastic, 1/3 tepid (including the elderly couple next to me, who are subscribers and have very exacting standards). As we were leaving after the performance, the old gentleman asked if I had plans for after the performance, and I think that was the prelude to an invitation, but the train schedule for returning to MK is a harsh taskmaster - I missed the 10:57 so caught the 11:24. I think there are two trains later than that - it would have had to be a very quick drink or I would have been looking for a hotel room in London. Too bad, they were an interesting and very knowledgeable couple and it would have been fun.
It was a great evening, and left me with an appetite for more. I hope I'm in a large city some time when the opera is performing one of my Verdi favorites.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

June 13 Conwy and Conwy Castle, Wales

June 13 Conwy and Conwy Castle

The B&B where I am staying, Gwynfynn, is quite nice, and my room, the "Violet Room," would be very roomy except - perhaps consistent with the name - it is badly over-decorated, with decorations that eat available space to no good purpose (chintzy little unusable stools and tables, glass bead flower arrangements, etc.). The bathroom is roomy and comfortable, and the bed is good; altogether it is a nice place. Conwy is loaded with B&Bs, only a few of which can be found in guidebooks and on the web - my hunch is that the rest do just fine with repeat business and word of mouth. It is a lovely little town and I would recommend it highly as a place for 2 or 3 days in Wales - much nicer to my taste than Caernarfon, although that village would also do nicely.
I got up three hours before breakfast, as usual, so had a cup of coffee in my room then took a long walk around the town wall - about half of it is in good enough repair to walk on - then down to the waterfront and over the bridge. I got several good pictures of the castle from the bridge and across the water. I came back to a very nice breakfast, then walked over to the castle for a slow tour and about a hundred more pictures, half of them repetitive (re-taking when no-one was in the way or the light looked better). It is a very interesting castle; some of the inner walls are fallen in and the wood-beam roofs are of course long gone, but enough of the inner walls are still standing that you can get a very good idea of it. It is a long castle, slightly irregular in shape. The main residence curves slightly around the right side; there are foundations along the left side where stables and the like were located. The castle was built with several towers, and smaller towers standing up above the towers. You can still see the ledges where beams were emplaced to support the floors, both in the main hall and in the towers. The castle is built of relatively soft stone; the arrow slots haver holes where grills were fitted to impede attackers from widening the slots enough to squeeze through.
I spent nearly two hours in the castle, bought a few things in the souvenir stand, and by the time I had reached a little coffee shop to get a light lunch it was beginning to rain. I had hoped to get a nice walk in the mountainous national park nearby, but by the time I had finished lunch it was raining hard enough to convince me that wouldn't be a lot of fun - I'd rather sit in the room and work on the laptop while listening to the gulls squawking outside. It looks likely to rain on and off all afternoon, then probably clear up for most of the week - but who knows? British weather is even more unreliable than Oregon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

June 12 Caernafon Castle, Wales

June 12 Caernafon Castle, Wales

After completing the conquest of Wales, Edward I built a string of castles to solidify his hold on the place. Two of them, Caernafon and Conwy, are close enough to visit in one trip and still in fairly good shape (Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in Caernafon, although they held the ceremony in the large courtyard because they were concerned about the condition of the Queen's Tower). Today I took the train to Conwy, dropped my pack at a nice B&B near the train station, then took a bus over to Caernafon. The castle is very impressive - like Carlisle Castle, it stands at one end of a wall that encircled the entire town at the time, and includes inner fortifications within a very large enclosed courtyard. The walls are quite thick, and the towers have double walls with passages on every level and arrow / gun slots for shooting through. The castle was falling apart and partially dismantled when it was rescued and largely restored in the 19th Century, but you can see in some of the pictures where a whole part of one tower is missing.
Both Caernafon and Conwy castles stand next to a river estuary, and in each case it had been dredged out for navigation, so the castles could be resupplied by water. And in both cases, the effect of standing on the battlements looking out over the bay, or the farms, is greatly enhanced by the cries of sea birds.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June 8 Hadrian's Wall and Carlisle

Today dawned as rainy as I expected, so I waited around for an hour, working on yesterday's pictures and waiting to see if it would ease off. It did ease off to a slow steady drizzle, which it maintained all day - varied from barely enough to need my rain pants to slight enough that I could have done without them - but it never got so warm that they were uncomfortable, so I didn't bother changing back and forth.
I set out at a good clip, and made pretty good time. I stopped briefly at Birdoswald Fort, which wasn't open yet but isn't fenced, so I was able to look it over. It is not large, but I took a couple of pictures. Its primary interest is the evidence that it represents a late period when the Roman Empire was breaking up and the army was giving way to a warlord system.
The hike from there to Landercost Priory is through pretty farmland, but much of the view was obscured by rain and mist; most of the wall is gone, but there are occasional bits still visible, along with the foundations of some of the turrets. I took pictures of a couple of these mainly because they were among the last artifacts of the wall that I saw on the hike.
Landercost Priory is quite interesting for several reasons. The oldest parts date back to the 11th century. After maintenance stopped during the reign of Henry VIII, it started falling apart; only one part of it was maintained as a parish church. It is the first example I have seen where a currently active church is attached to a ruin. It also played an important role in English history - Edward I installed his court there for nearly a year, then visited again just before he died. The still active part has some very good stained glass windows among other attractions. The ruined part includes some really good examples of stonework, and a couple of very old tombs. I took a picture of two tombstones from Knights Templar; the images of swords are the exact size of their actual swords.
In Carlisle, I immediately found a tea shop for lunch, and had a quite good baked potto stuffed with corned beef and some other goodies. Then I crossed under the highway to visit Carlisle Castle, which also has a long and colorful history. It was built in the 11th century on the site of a much earlier fort; the location at one time had considerable military significance, the more so given its proximity to the Scotch border, and the fact that Scotland contested control of the region up until it was incorporated into the UK. Mary spent some time here as Queen Elizabeth's "guest" before Elizabeth realized she needed to move her troublesome half sister farther south. The castle was besieged, taken and retaken numerous times; it was clearly built primarily for defense, not for comfort.
Most of the city walls were destroyed during the 19th century; part of what is still visible was incorporated into the local government buildings, across from the rail station; I took a couple of pictures to upload.
I also visited Carlisle Cathedral which, I am told, is the 2nd smallest cathedral in England, but boasts some very nice architecture and some lovely windows, as well as an old and beautiful wood-carved panel behind the main altar.
It was a good trip all in all, not at all what I had planned but a lot of fun.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Romans in the mist

June 5 York & Newcastle
Lynne took me and several others to York for a conference on metaphors and story-telling - I think York because of the successful metaphor workshop we (many of the same people) had 4 years ago, and the MetNet group has had other successful workshops there earlier. It was nice being in York again, although I retraced only a little of the sight-seeing I did the first time.
I had been planning to walk part of the 84 mile long Hadrian's Wall trail for some time, but the weather forecast for my projected walk (Saturday through Tuesday) had been looking worse and worse as the time approached. Friday morning the forecast talked of 80% chance of rain (not showers) with Thunderstorms on Sunday - I began to think of either cancelling outright or changing the trip, and actually called to see if I could rent a car, to just drive out on Saturday and see the principle sights. But when I checked again on Friday afternoon (after wasting an hour and a half trying to work out alternative plans and discovering that the rental cars were all booked) I checked the forecast again. Now it was talking about 60% chance of showers Saturday and Monday, showers late Sunday afternoon. I decided, with my rain gear, I could live with that. So the trip was on again.
This morning, I caught a 7:35 train to Newcastle. It is inconvenient - the hotel does not serve breakfast before 7, and there are always 2 or 3 large tour groups there, with all the group members lined up for breakfast right at 7, so I made sure I was there about 6:45 to get in before the crowd arrived. It was a good thing, too - a line formed at the juice bar that reached over 25 people long; if I hadn't got in first I probably wouldn't have got any breakfast at all.
I reached Newcastle at 8:40 and ran full-tilt into the one thing that consistently frustrates me about England - signs and information. There is no tourist information office at the train station; I asked the travel information people and they directed me to the city center - I picked up a little Newcastle brochure that had a map of downtown, and it also showed it. So I set off in that direction, couldn't see it anywhere, reached a point that I knew was too far, walked back a ways, asked a shopkeeper, who directed me to the metro station underground. There I found a bus ticket office - they said the tourist information office was back toward the train station where I'd just come from. They also gave me a bus schedule and told me there were only two buses a day serving stops along the wall until you get well past Heddon (I wanted a schedule in case the weather turns really really vile.) I walked back toward the train station, ran into a young chap who asked what I was looking for, and showed me right to the information office - on a side street, with only a small sign on the street. They sold me a badle needed map (which is impossible to get anywhere else except by ordering it on the web - and the supplier accepts only checks drawn on English banks) directed me to the river and at least informed me that the walk runs along the river clear through Gateshead - and that there is a tourist information office on the river also, incidentally just a couple of blocks from the train station. One of the problems is that people who don't do vigorous walking have a hard time understanding what it is I'm asking, or that anyone might actually want to walk farther than a mile or so at a time. And the walk along the wall is less well known than I thought it would be.
Finally on my way. The walk along the Tyne is actually quite nice - they've spiffied it up for both pedestrians and bikes, and it's quite pretty. As I was promised, there were lots of signs, including signs at places where you don't need them, e.g. where the trail turns and there is no possible alternative way to go. Then, after an hour and a half of walking or so, the trail turned away from the river and ascended a hill, ran through a meadow - to a place where at least 4 trails headed off in different directions. There, where a sign really was needed, desperately needed, there was no sign. (I have encountered that phenomenon all over England.) I followed a bike trail sign, which turned out to be wrong and led me off in the wrong direction, as a result of which I ended up walking most of the last 5 miles to Heddon along the sides of streets. And - most disgusting of all - contrary to what the bus information people had told me, there were bus stops all over the place and I encountered a city bus every 15 or 20 minutes; at least 5 lines serve the area to about a mile short of Heddon, and at least 3 go through Heddon itself. Since the suburbs of Newcastle reach almost to Heddon, had I known that I would have taken a bus either clear to Heddon or to the town just short of Heddon, and walked all the way to Wall, cutting a day off the trip. A day spent walking through the suburbs of Newcastle would not be much of a loss. I do think had I stuck to the trail I would have been walking through more greenway and fewer subdivisions - but it would still be pretty pure suburbia.
The Hadrian's Wall web site, and the brochures about the walk, are quite misleading. They treat Newcastle like a point on the map, not a city of around a million population that reaches out 10-15 miles in every direction. They imply that you are walking alongside the wall the whole way - in truth, the first bit of the wall I saw was just outside Heddon, near the end of the first day's walk. Much of it is broken down, and the first 20 miles or so is buried under accumulations of soil - one sign, next to a flat pasture, describes a Roman fort that is totally buried under the pasture. The only reason to walk the section I walked today would be if you have a trophy collector's mentality and want to be able to brag about walking the entire distance. I don't care about that, and am deliberately omitting the first 4 miles and last 11 miles of the trail. Although it was a pleasant enough day, given that the forecast is for rain most of my trip I'd much rather have spent my one clear sunny day on a later stage of the hike, where there is more of what I came to see.
One I got out of the greater Newcastle area and up on the ridge above the river valley, the countryside is actually quite beautiful. My room, a converted attic in a farmhouse, has a lovely view out over the rolling hills, pastures, and rapeseed fields. The owner, a retired teacher / farmer, is rather eccentric but very nice.

June 6, Wall
Nice walk today, but all I saw of Hadrian's wall was a little bit at the very end (actually beyond Wall), Chester's Fort, 1.5 miles beyond Wall, and a long section of the ditch that supplemented and in some sections apparently replaced the wall (it appears the wall actually never did stretch all the way coast to coast). I decided to walk over and see Chester's fort before signing in to my hotel because rain was threatening, and I was planning to leave before the fort would open at 9 a.m. I was glad I did - the excavated portions are quite interesting, and I took several dozen photos, a few of which I will upload. As I was finishing up, a few sprinkles were hitting my face, so I shouldered my pack and headed back toward the hotel. The rain seemed to be holding off so I detoured into a pasture to see a bit of wall with the foundation of an old "turret" (tower); the two pictures aren't very spectacular but it was interesting to see. By the time I reached the hotel it was raining hard enough that, had it been much farther, I would have stopped to put on rain jacket and put the fly on my pack.
Things I wish I had known continue: There is another hotel over a mile farther down the trail and right on the trail, George Hotel, in Chollerford. I think it is a bit more expensive but would have been much more convenient. Had I had the detail map when I was planning all this I would have known. And there is at least one stop four miles this side of Gilsland, so a 20 mile stretch is not difficult to avoid if you can get the information to plan it.
By the time I had dinner (a very nice roast lamb with veggies and Yorkshire pudding) and taken a bath it was raining quite steadily. I started rethinking my plan for the next day - if the rain continues, 20 miles would not be a lot fun, and one of the sites I really want to see, Vindolanda, is a mile or more off the trail, which would add two miles. Also, I'm a bit tired of just hiking along the edge of the highway, and it appears that the first six miles out of Chollerford have that quality. So - I decided to demonstrate my flexibility and good sense and change plans. I knew I might want to do this, so fortunately picked up a bus schedule in Newcastle. It turns out there is a bus that stops at the castle (1.5 miles from my hotel - 1/3 mile from the George, but oh, well) at 9:13, and will take me directly to Vindolanda. I can either catch another bus back to Housesteads, the other major site, or walk the two miles. Then I can walk from there to Gilsland, a total of only 10 or 11 miles, bringing the day's total walking to maybe 13-15 miles, much more appealing if it keeps raining. Much more appealing anyway. If it's really ugly I can catch another bus from Housesteads. Thinking ahead, the bus also stops at a village four or five miles this side of Gilsley, so if weather is ugly or it is getting late on Tuesday I can bail out there.
Monday morning: looking at the map again I realized it is 22 miles from Wall to Gilsland plus .75 off the trail to the B&B - 23 miles in all, much more than I want to do in one day, and that includes leaving out Vindolanda. The change in plans is definitely a good idea. I am finding 14-17 mile days to be just fine, but I'm good and tired at the end of that, and adding another 1.5 to 2 hours of walking might turn it from fun into a chore.

June 7, Gilsland

Vindolanda and Housesteads are both quite interesting and I was glad I scheduled them in. Unfortunately, the bus schedule is such that I was only able to spend an hour at Vindolanda, and would have liked to have spent at least another half hour. (The bus was late so I actually could have spent more time). It started raining when I reached Housesteads, but I managed to get some good photos anyway. It rained on and off all the way to Gilsland; I managed to get my rain pants off for only about 25 minutes the entire afternoon. Most of the way is either along sections of half-ruined wall or along sections where the wall is partially visible below the turf; some spectacular sections lie along the edge of sheer limestone cliffs; unfortunately the mixture of rain and mist made it impossible to get adequate pictures of these sections.
It really is quite an experience to walk the defensive line of the Roman Empire, to see the engineering and craftsmanship, the town planning that went into constructing the forts.
By the time dinner was ready, it had started raining fairly hard. I do not think I will walk more than half the distance to Carlisle tomorrow; the host tells me that the first 6 miles, culminating in a Saxon era priory, are the most interesting, and there is a handy bus from there to Carlisle. That is probably what I will do.