Archive for the ‘UK’ category

Gateway to England.

November 25, 2008

The smallest places sometimes turn out to be the most interesting, Dover is one of those places.

A fairly small town known mainly for ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and the ferry which runs from there to France, Dover has a surprisingly deep history that when you really think about it, isn’t all that surprising at all. Dover has throughout history been seen as the gateway to England, a location of high strategic value because of it’s closeness to France and the mainland. Indeed throughout history there is evidence of Dover and the nearby lands being held by Normans and Romans alike, the Romans who established a post there evidence of which can still be seen today in the ancient Roman lighthouse (Now part of a small church in the Dover Castle courtyard being used as a bell-tower!) and painted house ruins. There is the mighty Castle of Dover, which withstood the might of France’s fury during the first Baron’s War, as well as a series of elaborate defences built during the Napoleonic era to stand guard from Napoleon himself. Even remains from the big ones, World War 1 and especially 2, where Dover earned the name Hellfire Corner from the constant artillery bombardments and for its strategic importance.

There can be no denying Dover has alot of history for such a small town, and indeed, it turned into one of the most interesting places I’d visit in the UK. High praise for a place my friend and I had only gone to as a way to get to France… I confess If you’d asked me about Dover before, I’d likely have replied something along the lines of ‘I think I’ve heard of it, somewhere in UK right?’. So see, travel *is* educational!

Being a smallish town Dover isn’t hard to navigate, and finding where you want to go is no real trouble. Travelling by foot I got to see most everything there was to see with ease. For starters if the weather is nice, there’s a shady little path next to an old graveyard that leads up towards the Napoleonic ruins. It’s an uneven but wide path of well worn concrete, strewn with leaves and twigs from the rich green bough overhead. On one side is an old moss-covered wall that separates you from the local graveyard, to the other side a similar wall but with gardens rather than mossy tombstones. Ascending the stairs itself is a bit of an ambient experience, and when you suddenly find yourself leaving that shady stairway and blinking in the bright sun as the pathway opens into the hilltops open field, I for one couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the experience. It’s always the little things I enjoy most. Following the now dirt path you’ll eventually come across the overgrown ruins of a part of the old Napoleonic fortifications, the Drop Reboubt, which is built deep into the hill itself. A vast trench built of brick and mortar, strewn with narrow slits to rain down death upon those who’d be foolish enough to try and take the position, now overgrown and left to fall to disuse and decay. There’s a certain mood to the place, a certain peaceful sort of melancholy. No flashy tour groups or fancy fixups here, just the remains as they were left so very long ago. You don’t see that much, not really. It’s clear however that at least a few people care however, as the path was cleared and the area tended, a quick good search brings up the Western Heights Preservation society, who I wish luck!

Another amazing sight is the Castle which sits of the opposite hill. Unlike the Napoleonic fort, the Castle is a well tended and staffed tourist sight which could be seen as either a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective on these things.

Con: It costs money and there are annoying tourists everywhere (Not really a fair statement considering I WAS a tourist as well, but hey, my journal!).

Pro: Everything is well maintained with information available to sate curiosity, as well as more areas open to you (Never saw inside the Napoleonic fort! Closed but for a few rare tours.) .

Personally I enjoyed Dover Castle a helluva lot, despite the miserable weather that swept in while visiting. But hell, misty grey rainy weather adds style to these old places. Sure, you’re wet and cold, but you’re wet and cold while staring up at massive stone walls that seem to all but gleam menacingly back at you, or wet and cold while walking slowly through the underground tunnels, the faint eery sound of drip, drip, dripping accompanying you as you walk unsteadily forward. Plus cold and wet keeps the other tourists to a minimum! The grounds are quite large and contain quite a few sights to see, Dover Castle itself has been more or less redone as a sort of semi-interactive light show meant to replay some of the castles history, namely the events leading up to and during the siege it survived. Surprisingly neat lightshow, but not the best I’d see during my trip. The real joy is just wandering the vast grounds that the castle admission fee gives you access to.

Also of note are the WW2 wartime tunnels you can also enjoy, although with a guide now as they don’t allow random wanderers for fear of people getting lost in the vast labyrinth tunnels. Not the same tunnels as the picture above I should also add, the hill is riddled with the tunnels from various era, some open to wander, some only with a guide, and many closed off entirely. It was an interesting tour and certainly worth the fee if you’re into military history and the like, but in truth I can’t think of much worth describing here. Although an interesting experience, nothing in particular springs to mind as amazing…

But ancient military ruins aside, there’s something else of fame in the Dover area. The white cliffs. And they are magnificent indeed. It was wet and rainy on the day when I saw the white cliffs, and honestly more than a little dangerous considering how slick the mud soaked ground was and how close many of the trails run along these vast falls, but it was worth it! The wind tugging at your clothes and that sharp sting of cold wet wind against your exposed skin, the sheer exhilaration as you walk triumphantly along the empty paths, your only companions the gentle swaying sound of grass and the lapping of distant water against the rocky shore. Beautiful. Cold, wet, and likely a bit dangerous, but beautiful all the same.

Dover was one of my favourite surprises. For a town I’d only meant to stop at for a night, the two days spent there were adventurous and fun. Whether it was learning the local tales of one-time conflict, or walking along famed paths or along forgotten ruins, it was all enjoyable. Defiantly a place I would like to visit again.

Loch Ness

November 12, 2008

I’m walking along a small paved path, to one side a lightly wooded hill where horses graze lazily on long, green grass. To the other side lay a green meadow sloping gentle downward with small groups of sheep wandering about baahing quietly. Further down the path I can see a vast expanse of crystaline blue water, sheets of white and grey mist rolling across its surface and drifting skyward. It is serene and beautiful, relaxing beyond words. Other than the occasional sound of a vehicle as it passes by, you’re left with the gentle rustle of the wind and grass, the baying of distant animals, and the beauty of the sight before you. I am of course talking about Loch Ness, Scotland, easily one of the most peaceful and serene places I’ve visited…

Which leads to what happened next. This is where the distant figure walking down the path in my direction became clear, and the experience of walking alongside the Loch of legend took a further turn towards the unreal. A man, clearly drunk, wobbling to and fro as he stumbles down the lonesome pathway wearing what could only be described as full stereotypical Highland regalia, complete with kilt, codpiece and silly green beret (With one of those red puffs on the top no less!). Nearly falling over, he asks (In a ridiculously thick highland accent I might add!) where the nearest pub is. I shrug and honestly can’t give any reply other than the town of Drumnadrochit further down the path, where I’d caught a bus from Inverness to in order to get to Loch Ness in the first place. His responce, and I’m only guessing here because the Highland accent is not one easily deciphered by those unnused to it, is something along the lines of “That pisshole ain’t worth a damn.” and with a further ‘thanks’ he wanders off down the lonely pathway towards an uncertain future, where I like to imagine he finally found a drink and someone to share it with because, despite his drunkeness, he seemed a nice enough guy.

Now I can only presume he was a member of a wandering band of bagpipe players that got seperated from his companions through a strange and undoubtedly hilarious series of events which ultimately lead to him getting drunk in a pub in Drumnadrochit and later getting kicked out (Thus the hostility you see?) and that my encounter with him was only a tiny milestone in an epic journey that would span the breath and width of Scotland as he searched for both the perfect brew and to reunite with his bagpipe playing allies. Or he could just been some confused drunk idiot dressed like that on a bet who got lost from a tour group, but that’s somehow less epic and I prefer my take on his story! Whatever the reason it turned into one of the most odd and, to hell with wordiness, damn cool experiences ever. I mean seriously, wandering along Loch Ness and encountering a drunken scot wearing the full outfit right down to the knee-socks and shoes who’s asking where the nearest pub is? Damn, that’s the stuff you expect in a movie or two but not to actually have happen. It couldn’t have been any more Scottish unless there’d also been fluffy sheep grazing nearby, oh wait, THERE WAS! cooooool!

Needless to say by this point I really enjoyed visiting the Loch Ness area of northern Scotland. To get there I took the train to the town of Inverness, a nice enough place itself although most my time was spent elsewhere or sleeping. And from Inverness took a bus to the town of Drumnadochit, which isn’t really a town so much a collection of Loch Ness related shops, restaurants and pubs from what I saw, and from there you can follow a paved path the rest of the way to the Loch itself. There’s a tourism center (Close when I was there.) and some castle ruins (Also closed to the public while I was there, go figure.) at the end of that pathway, but the real pleasure I found was the simple joy of walking there. The scenery is beautiful beyond words, the grass was green, the weather perfect, it was all very relaxing and peaceful.

For the most part after visiting Loch Ness the next few days would be spent mostly sitting in trains staring at the view passing by and talking to my friend about various gooblygork and whozamawuzits out of boredom. The view was fantastic to be sure and Scotland is extremely pleasant, but after staring at the thousandth line of trees and shrubs that obscure your view, it tends to grow a bit wearisome. In the next two days I’d also briefly visit both Glasgow and Nottingham, but neither to the degree that I’d feel comfortable writing much about them seeing as I did little more than sleep there. Seemed nice enough however and I wouldn’t mind exploring them more thoroughly in the future, Nottingham especially seemed quite nice. But that’s for later, my next real stop would be Dover allllll the way in southern England (Now you know why I spent so much time on the train, getting from northern Scotland to Dover.) which turned out to be surprisingly interesting but which I’ll write about later.

Edinburgh oh Edinburgh.

October 27, 2008

Truth: Edinburgh is the only place ever in which I have seen a bagpipe busker in full plaid regalia, complete with an overturned red wool hat in front of him for change. I am still unsure whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Edinburgh is an interesting city. The initial arrival from the train station is a bit disorienting and it certainly didn’t help that like everywhere else I’ve visited I’d done zero research before visiting other than to look up the name of a decent hostel, but uppon climbing up from the dank underground station and into the dim grey of a typically overcast day all was forgiven as Edinburgh easily has one of the most impressive first views possible. The train station being situated right next to the Edinburgh castle and a beautiful park in what once was the castles moat.

Edinburgh is a tourist city, or at least that’s how it feels. Walking down the main historical street you’re faced with dozens of buskers and street performers all competing for attention alongside the many tour group operations. However unlike many other touristy cities, Edinburgh has a nice vibe to it and neither plays the preening beauty act nor the vicious money trap scheme on you, atleast not right away or openly. Indeed it struck me as a city that took some pride in itself, the type that like to show off certainly but at the least is not an ass about it. The streets are enjoyable to walk down and the buildings well kept, the areas clean and the people friendly enough. Small monuments for one thing or another dot seemingly every corner and almost every location has some sort of story. For example my friend and I were sitting in a cafe for a break when we noticed the signs proudly proclaiming THIS to be the amazingfantabulous cafe where the author of Harry Potter would often relax (It was alright, bit crowded and loud for my tastes!). And a small statue of a dog in front of a bar named Bobby’s Bar would later be revealed to have an elaborate tale of a puppies love and endurance (Ever watched the show Futurama? If no, shame on you, it’s an excellent show. If yes, remember the episode with Fry’s dog? This was the real life inspiration for that story.). A statue of a man on a horse would be revealed to be a local joke with a humorous tale of its own. A heart shaped series of tiles on the ground another (Don’t stand there!). And so on and so on. It’s exhausting but extremely entertaining.

How I heard all these stories was a simple matter of joining up with one of the local free walking tour groups, which of all things was led by an American student there for a study program. Nice person mind you, but when you’re being told the local history by a girl with a distinctly New Yorkish accent, it’s a bit disorienting. Still, hard to complain when it was free eh, and it’s not like she did a bad job at all. Far from it! It’s just there are certain expectations you have with these things, what can I say? Besides, I later got my wish of a thick Scottish accent describing locations as later that day I would sign up for an Underground Vault tour after my interest was caught by the previous guide (The New York one!) noting the cities historical underground system of inter-connected basements as we wandered along.

Before I jump to that though I’ll finish with the above ground though. The touristy historical city is extremely concentrated into a single area where the buildings are usually round 5 stories-ish tall with one main avenue called the Royal Mile and various smaller tight twisty streets branching off to the sides. This street leads right up a steep hill to the castle itself, which is one of those castles that is posed dramatically on the peak of a steep hill with cliffs all round I presume for for tourism purposes as it makes for one helluva picture. I unfortunately never went *in* the castle seeing as I’m cheap and it was expensive, but to make up for that I explored the area around it plenty and spent a fair bit of time in its moat-turned-garden which while not especially big is easily one of the most beautifully green parks I’ve ever seen. I was told this was because the moat had been notorious as a dumping ground for crap (literal crap!) which over the years made the soil extremely well fertilized, go figure. Nice shops in that area if you’ve the money to spend. It was all very enjoyable and scenic.

Of course one can only wander the streets so long knowing that there’s the potential for even COOLER streets underneath that may or may not be haunted by ghosts and such depending on who you’re talking to. But honestly, how neat is that? Not only is there the photo-friendly dramatic ‘castle on a cliff’ stereotype but they’ve even got haunted underground passages? How many more cool stereotype UK tourist sights can you have in one city? Naturally I had to see the underground so tours were signed up for and walking was done, this time led by a young woman with an appropriately Scottish accent and in appropriately historical ye-olden style dress. Many of the places we saw with her as lead were the same as the ones I’d seen earlier, and often the same stories (Although there were differences in the tales every here and there.) and eventually this led to the underground, which of all things was reached by going UP in in an apartment building? HUH? I’m still uncertain of how exactly that worked.

This famous ‘haunted underground city’ as it turns out is in truth like I mentioned earlier, more a series of inter-connected basements and tunnels than anything. Much of it has been bricked off over the years and sealed shut and it’s only in recent times that people have taken to exploring the place. It came into being when the city was getting extremely crowded and the local merchants and the like were searching for extra room to store silly things like food and people, and someone eventually came up with the idea “If we can’t go up or out anymore, why not go down?” and the underground was born. All in all it was an interesting experience to see and certainly worth seeing if you’re in Edinburgh, but it was hardly the epic experience I’m sure you were expecting me to say it was with all this build up. No, in truth picture a series of very old underground vaults lined with grey stone, now picture it being extremely dark and spooky with the occasional drip-drip-dripping of water here and there and only the guides flashlight to show the way. Not particularly much to see as it was a barren series of rooms for the most, but the surprisingly enthusiastic and charismatic guide (Who had a scottish accent need I remind you!) who told various tales of sadness and woe certainly made it entertaining. It all ended with one of those ‘Boo!’ gotcha moments which I absolutely despise because it breaks the ambiance the guide had to create, but everything leading up to that was golden. Is it genuinely haunted down there? I doubt it honestly, but I’m the skeptical type who thinks “Damn it would be cool if ghosts were real!” all while disbelieving everything thrown at me out of silly logic and so forth. It was certainly dark enough there to make a creepy vibe, no doubt, but a series of empty underground rooms is still just a series of empty underground rooms regardless of whether they’re creepy or not, and untill I see myself a transparent ghost right outta ghostbusters staring me down personally, I’m likely to continue to believe that the mind plays nasty tricks on people in places like that and that’s likely all these tales of ghostly gooblies is.

After underground, Hostel, bunk, sleep, off to next city next day. Edinburgh condensed into one days packed walking journey. Personally I’d love to go back there some time, of all the cities in the UK besides London, I’d have to say Edinburgh left the best impression. It’s a beautiful city filled with all sorts of little stories tucked away all over the place, a gem of a place for people like myself that enjoy hearing these little local tales and legends.

The Castles of old and Newcastle.

October 6, 2008

After York I went to Newcastle, which honestly wasn’t all that impressive of a place really. Nothing particularly wrong with it there, I just found the overall experience to be fairly dull and muted. Boring. Fortunately Newcastle does have a neat castle, go figure, which I got to explore at budget prices and where most of my day in Newcastle was spent.

There’s just something extremely fascinating about castles, these massive stone juggernauts that even today stand as the pinnacle of medieval might and power. When you think of kings, of emperors, queens and lords, that all ties in with the image of the Castle, a majestic stone structure that’s built to weather the toughest of blows whether it be nature or our fellow man dealing them. It’s easy when you stand at the base of these structures to picture the sheer power these would have bestowed to the lords over the people, its size and construction is built for intimidation and military prowess. Dramatics aside, there’s also the sense of age and time that accompanies the castles of old. You see, Canada was established well past the castle era, and although Quebec sports an impressive set of early defenses, for the most part our bastions of might in the past were wooden fortress and the earth itself, torn up to form walls of mud and wood to hold back the cannons of the enemy. None of those forts really exist anymore and time has washed clear the bloodstains of the colonial era, other than the occasional monument or a cheesy recreation, there’s nothing left.

Not so with Europe. Those massive stone castles stand as a sort of testament to mans violent past. Built solely for defence, lacking almost any sense of comfort or style, such as the one in Newcastle which was designed in the Norman style. Tight corridors and narrow flights of spinal stairs, large bare stone rooms, minimal windows to keep the defence of the structure rigid. These buildings were built to withstand it all, and many have, even the test of time.

In Newcastle I believe the price was 50p to wander the bare building, large and empty. It was a rainy day at the time, and to enter onto the premise I walked under the old Black Gates, the remains of the original outer castle walls that would have once surrounded the area, now only the massive stone gatehouse long ago stained black from wear remains. Drawbridge down and wooden planks dark and damp from the water, this long structure stands out amidst the modern industrial surroundings and the heightened train tracks next to it, an ancient monolith of the past. You pass through the old gates and follow the path under the train tacks and towards the castle proper which lies just on the opposite side, another strange monolith from the past as the huge stone structure sits by itself in a parking lot, train tracks on one side, city buildings on another, and on another the last remains of the walls remain, now having been converted to a small park that leads towards the river and into more industrial land.

Up the flight of stone stairs and into the structure you’re faced with the small novelty gift shop and a small wooden booth where a bored but kindly older man sells you a ticket. In one direction lay a bare stone room where a series of pictures have been set up to list some of the castles history as well as another smaller display listing the various ghostly happening that have occurred there and a few notable people and encounters there because of those encounters, doorways lead into the castle proper. The building is built like a box, with a large central room in the middle surrounded by staircase in the corners and various smaller hallways and rooms, one unfortunate stone stairway leading up into a flat stone wall for whatever reason, the original castle builders having left it unfinished for unclear reasons. Up leads to the main hall, often used as an exhibit for various local functions, and further up to the roof where you’re allowed to wander at will. By this time the rain had begun to clear luckily and while the sky was still appropriately darkened for proper medieval ambiance lighting (Thank you Newcastle) I was able to get a stunning view. Heading deeper into the castle towards its base you’re faced with inter-connected large stone rooms, one a small chapel and another gated off to prevent people from falling down the large pit it seems to lead into. A prison I presume. What’s especially noticable here is the way the stonework is built from various different types and eras, pieces having been reused, moved, rebuilt and switched around over the years. So you’ll see an appropriately worm smooth stone from who knows when sitting atop a seemingly freshly carved stone from only a few hundred years ago. Another reminder of those castles long past.

Other than the occasional plaque with a few words of history written on them or stone monuments propped up against the walls, the place is barren and empty. No fancy showmanship for touristy delight, it hasn’t been prettied up or decorated for the most part, although a few rooms do contain some threadbare displays. And for me that’s what made Newcastle a unique and entertaining experience. The place was all but empty when I was there so no large crowds or the yelling of bored tourists, it wasn’t decorated with silly out of place childrens displays. Just the castle, here and now. See it, enjoy it, soak up the ambiance and enjoy. Very cool.

Newcastle was not my favourite city by any means, the fact that all I’ve spoken about this entire entry are castles, largely in general terms, speaks a lot of how barren I found the rest of the city, but there was nothing wrong with it either. Unlike Manchester there was no sense of disliking the place… I just couldn’t find much entertainment. There’s probably plenty to see if you knew where to look and all, but as a one-day traveller there’s only so much information open to you and so many places you can get to with limited means, aka walking. Still, nice experience and an impressive castle which gave me an excuse to rant about how damn cool the things are.

After this was Edinburgh, and another excuse to rant about medieval worksmanship, but that’s for the next entry.

York

September 30, 2008

To start, York was much smaller than I’d expected. Perhaps it was the fame of the name York, Yorkie, Yorkshire, Yorkminster and New York just to name a few examples, but somehow I expected something far more grand and huge from the city. I was impressed, certainly, Yorkminster was easily the biggest cathedral I’d seen up to that point and even now stands as one of the largest and most impressive in the world, but other than that the emphasis of York seemed more on small and quaint than anything. York is fairly spread out with a very focused inner core leading into a massive suburban small-town style sprawl, and that inner core rather than being the business laden skyscraper-center you’d generally expect from a big-name cities core, was actually itself a little slice of well preserved history still snugly wrapped in ye olden walls and with twisting leaning streets abound.

And that’s the most interesting aspect of York, the historic core. Walking down a small-town style street you’re faced with the ancient gates of the old wall when approaching the core, the walking path even heading through the old foot gate at the side while the street runs through the gatehouse proper. Inside you’re walking on the uneven cobbles of the past and buildings from an age long gone, or at least buildings made to look like they’re from such an era. Other than a few larger streets for vehicles the vast majority of the traffic is pedestrian through tight, twisty streets with old wooden buildings looming overhead towards each side. Most prominent and easy to find landmark is without a doubt the massive Yorkminster Cathedral, easily one of the most large and magnificent cathedrals you’ll ever see.

Yorkminster. Damn impressive. A huge cathedral of gothic design, looming over the nearby houses and business with a sort of majestic might. Carving adorn every square inch of the building it seems, with gargoyles sitting on ledges and statues of kings and queens lost passed seemingly everywhere. The stained glass windows are absolutely massive, almost beyond compare, and the central tower is hollow allowing people on the ground level to stare up and up and truly understand the sheer scale of it all. Choirs sing regularly there to help set the mood and occasionally the organ with blast its rich deep tones into the silence. That said being such a big name comes with a price, both literally and not. Tourists bustling here and there kinda ruin the mood (I was one, so I shouldn’t complain, but still!) and the usual quiet murmur of the church is replaced with babbling sightseers and annoying children. As for literal price, this is the ONLY cathedral during all my travels where you had to pay for entrance, a fact that still stings now. Oh sure, it’s impressive, and other cathedral and church usually charge for seeing the crypts and relics, but Yorkminster was the only which charged simply for entering the place. Not cool. Despite my complaints if you’ve got the money its certainly worth it if you’re into those kinda buildings like I am. Still…. charging to enter a church? Ouch.

For other sights York Castle was a bit disappointing, essentially just the empty shell of the keep remains sitting upon a small hill, scenic to be sure and neat enough, except that they charge you to enter it despite being essentially a ruin with a few standing walls. Cardiff Castle is the same, the Norman keep that is, except that’s counted as part of a fee for entry that also includes a plethora of other things. Ah Well! To make up for it I rather enjoyed the cheesy Jorvik-Viking-Center they have, which to say the least was not at all what you’d expect from a historical museum and exhibit. I refuse to give it away since I was so pleasantly surprised myself, but lets just say rides were involved. Weeeeeeee!

Nah, the main sight in York is the city center itself, its classical buildings and narrow streets, the massive cathedrals and ancient walls and ruins. The entire thing melds together to form a sort of York experience that’s not unlike stepping into the past… a past where peasants walk by listening to Ipods and there are cars on the streets and computers for sale in the windows, but still, the past! I enjoyed York a fair bit to be sure and would have to suggest it to anyone who’s touring the UK like I was. It’s not the biggest or most gaudy city, but its got a certain charm and a nice vibe to it that most others only dream of achieving.

Industrial age duel

September 23, 2008

After Wales it was Manchester, which bluntly put failed to impress. Manchester has this ‘dirty, mean, rude, industrial age sports hooligans city’ theme going there. Unfortunately I’m not much a fan of that vibe, so simply put I ditched the place and went to Birmingham instead.

Birmingham, when you read its history, oughta be alot like Manchester as they’re both industrial cities, both big, both in the same rough area. So why can I safely say that I enjoyed Birmingham a fair bit while I loathe Manchester? Well, going from looks alone and my limited impressions gleaned from walking throughout the cities, Birmingham has developed into a fresh modern commercial city while Manchester seems a bit stuck in the industrial age. Yes yes, I know I’m undoubtedly wrong and people could give all sorts of reasons Manchester is a vibrant community of loving cute kitten equivalents, but I’ll be blunt here: On average during my trip a place has one day to impress me, after that I’d be off to another location. Manchester failed to do anything but make me dislike the city. Birmingham on the other hand I left with very positive impressions.

Birmingham was a nice, modern style city that if anything reminded me of Calgary. What I did find odd though was the local cathedral, which was a fairly new church really with some nice stained glass windows but otherwise unremarkable. No, it wasn’t the cathedral itself so much as the extremely casual atmosphere of the people as during work lunch break all the business men and women sat and relaxed in the church yard, some leaning back casually against old tombstones as they talked with friends and ate their lunch. During my travels I found that for the most part the churches tended to be either ultra touristy or quiet, conservative places. Graveyards dedicated to the occasional sightseers and tourists as well as the down-on-their-luck type looking for a quiet place to relax and sleep as well as wandering herds of goth kids. Other than that deserted. Not so with Birmingham where, in the economic areas anyway, they were treated with a sort of park atmosphere.

Again, first impressions are everything, and it that respect Birmingham was one of the best. The main train station opens up into the central part of town, very clean place and well maintained, right next to the major shopping area and within easy walking of the museum and other cultural landmarks. Very nice museum too I might add.

What else can I say? Manchester, bleh, Birmingham, yay! On to the next location..

Of Wales general, Romans and Castles.

September 16, 2008

Next destination was Sawnsea, smallish coastal town told to have some extremely beautiful view which I unfortunately I never got a chance to see. Cloudy, rainy, generally English weather put a halt to any plans of coastal exploration. Fortunately the Bed & Breakfast which I stayed at was, quite literally, right across from the beach and a beautiful view all its own so at the very least I can say I got a taste of that stunning view. Town itself was a bit of a surly place, although to be fair that may have just been the weather, and without that much worth seeing. They have a castle there, as just about any town in Wales does, but it’s little more than large ruins at this point. Strangely beautiful sight in itself really, to someone who’s not used to having ruins just sitting around in parks, but not worth going out of your way to see. Other than that… not much.

Swansea was more of a base than anything however, and it was from Swansea that bus were taken to some smaller towns which weren’t reachable via walking or train. First destination was a small town by the name of Caerleon, home to the remains of some remarkably intact roman ruins which is what my friend and I went there to see. What we got was much, much more. You see, we were lucky enough to have arrived just when the local ‘military extravaganza’ or something of the like was happening. It was great! Small local festival where, sitting on the remains of an ancient roman amphitheater I got to watch enthusiastic people reenact gladiator combat in full armour.

Picture if you will sitting on a small circular ridge, grassy hills where the seats of this ancient amphitheater once was. There are booths and tents set up along to one side and an old wall on the other, covered in moss and vines. People are milling around, smiling, laughing, some simply there for the sights and sounds and others dressed in roman era costumes, acting the part. In one tent a man dressed as an archer explains the various uses for different arrow head types, in another a man and his wife work together to put together some period foods. And it wasn`t simply the people who were part of the fair in costume either, here and there a man or woman bring their own costumes, children run around waving wooden swords in kilts and furs. It was all very ambient. And the feature of the event was the gladiator show, where very enthusiastic if not professional actors beat the hell outta each other for the crowds amusement with roman style weapons and dress. Naturally no one was really hurt aside from the occasional bruise and cut, it was choreographed and improved fighting with fake blood and many `sword under the armpit`last gasps. But who cares when it was so much fun to watch and enjoy.

Eventually all good things must come to an end and I left Caerleon extremely happy. Next target: Caerphilly. Home to one of the largest castles in UK. The town itself was pleasant, larger than Caerleon and very quaint, but let us be honest, I was there for the castle and what a castle it is. I’m going to do the ‘picture this’ scenario again, so bear with me.

You walk down a narrow street, the street heading downward on a bit of a slope. Near the end, it curves suddenly and as you follow the road. To your left there is a gap in the buildings and a small stone wall along the walkway, and there you see it, a small field and park, a pond, and the castle itself, a massive stone structure covered by vines and streaks of wear and tear grudge. The water is blue, the grass green, and the castle walls a dark grey. Soon you realize that pond is actually the massive castles moat, ducks swimming idly along atop the water and the occasional fisherman sitting on the shoreline. And the walls… the walls are massive. It’s all extremely scenic.

There are multiple walls circling the main inner courtyard, huge towers to either side of you as you walk across the drawbridge and through the gateway (After a small fee at the ticket office naturally, but it wasn’t very much at all and without a doubt worth it if you’re like me and dig this stuff.). It is, all in all, a very impressive experience. My understanding is that there were few, if any, real battles over the castle really for the simple reason that no one wanted to try and take it by force, but there are still some signs of conflict. One of the inner towers is jagged and torn, leaning precariously to the side and a giant rip down its side leaving its insides exposed. Nevertheless, real conflict aside, it’s extremely easy to picture armies fighting along the walls, massive siege engines at work and childish war fantasies aplenty. Luckily, I’m not the only one who felt this way obviously as there are a series of medieval siege weapons set up just inside the main wall for awesome reasons. Trebuchets, catapults and ballista, oh my! there’s isn’t really anything ‘in’ the castle to see as there’s no real central keep (No need, the original castle designers thought. No one will get this far. They were right!) and so you’re essentially wandering the deserted ruins which does feature the occasional sign and exhibit, but for the most part is empty, which just makes it all the more a haunting historical experience.

I very much enjoyed my time in Wales, after Caerphilly castle I would return to Swansea for another nights rest and be off northward the next morning, but I Wales is certainly a very pleasant experience which even after the other places I would see on this trip I still look on very fondly. Someday I’ve no doubt I’ll travel there again to explore more thoroughly than simply the south-eastern corner.