Sunday, May 26, 2013

England/Scotland 2013

May 1

Well, today’s the day! I’ve waited for it and planned it all year. 

I’m going to England!

I got up today, showered and did a final pack, tossed everything in the car and said goodbye to the dogs.  Then headed to a half day of work.  Afterwards, it was a quick drive to Houston (where I stayed with mom for a night).

May 2

In the morning, we went out for breakfast at IHOP and had the worst waitress ever (seriously, who doesn’t know what iced tea is in Texas???).  She was just not customer service oriented, methinks.  After 30 minutes, she had not put our order in and was still asking us questions!  But, didn’t want to ruin the mood of the day, so we said a not so fond farewell (after getting free breakfasts for having had so much trouble with the service). I helped mom pump some gas into her car – got some in mine as well – and it was off to the George Bush International Airport!

Dropped the car off at FastPark on Will Clayton Parkway and voila! I was there, through the check point (after TSA checked my box of grits thoroughly!!!), and waiting for my flight.

I began talking with a lady who was off to visit a boyfriend in Scotland when I got a phone call.  It was ADT security saying my front door was breached!  I quickly dialed the house sitter (no answer).  I began panicking… I called a neighbor two doors down to check for me (indeed, the door had been opened, but nothing looked amiss).

However, when they closed and locked the door, it set the alarm off AGAIN… so I had to call ADT to let them know what was going on.  Contacted another neighbor to check where I thought the house sitter may have gone (she had gone there), and she went off to fix the situation.  I was just able to take my seat as everything leveled out.

And then we sat for an hour on the tarmac!  Some luggage snafu or something.  Finally, the airplane was all set, and we took off across the Atlantic!

May 3

Made it into Glasgow around 8:30 local time.  Takeaway from this trip: Glasgow airport is MUCH easier to enter than Heathrow!  I may begin entering the country there rather than London – though it IS a longer flight with a stop in between.

I went to the car rental desk.  It seems Enterprise has the worst front desk service of all the rental car agencies.  When I entered, Enterprise had a short line and there were long lines everywhere else.  I still hadn’t gotten to the front desk before all the other car agencies had taken care of all their customers!  I’m not sure what the issue was.  However, I got my car an hour later and set off for Keswick, Cumbria.

The amazing piece of this is that I felt right at home driving stick shift, on the left, and on the wrong side of the road!  My GPS got me where I needed to be in about 2.5 hours.

I AM IN KESWICK!  Land of my dreams. Home of cold, wet, and lovely!

I found my B&B, said my warm hello’s to the landlady at Goodwin House, and she took me to my favorite room (#6 at the top of the stairs).  The views from this room are amazing!

After a lovely shower (with very little water pressure), I felt rejuvenated and took off for town to get some things I had rented for my hike from George Fisher. George Fisher’s is a super outdoor gear shop in Keswick (which has MANY gear shops).  From them, I was able to rent boots and hiking poles.  Stopped by Boots (pharmacy) to pick up some toiletries and dropped everything off at the B&B.

By that time, I was supposed to get my butt over to the Dog and Gun pub (a place that is frequented by hikers who have dogs with them).  While waiting, I realized I was hungry, and picked up a cornish pasty (tasty in a bland sort of way).  It went down a treat since I was so hungry, though.  Then it was off to the Dog and Gun!

The meeting was lovely.  Initially, I ran into Chris Drake and Fudge Labrador (his very large dog!).  What warm-hearted people the English are! 

Fudge and I hittin' the bar

I sat down with a pear cidre (Stella Artois – highly recommend) and chatted until Ray Bradshaw and Bross showed up.  Bross is the most gigantic German Shepherd dog I have ever seen!  He seemed to dwarf poor Fudge in the pub!  Then came Dawn Sharples and Don Dawber with Kimmi and Buddy (two medium sized dogs).  The place was all doggy and cozy and happy! 

Finally, my friend Sarn arrived and we were all chatting as if we’d known each other all our lives.

I handed out some stateside gifts (some dog bandanas, collapsible dog watering bowls, and tshirts for the hikers). Dawn proceeded to do the dance of the seven veils with the dog bandanas! I thought I was gonna die laughing!!! What a hoot she is.

Don, Dawn, and Sarn at the Dog and Gun

I lamented my non-working cell phone (a special purchase I’d made before leaving the states).  It *should* have worked overseas and never did.  Dawn and Sandra did all they could to get it going, and I was just thinking I’d have to do without.

We went on to discuss plans for the hike.  Meeting round the corner from the pub by the post box in Thackthwaite (gotta love directions in England!).   I was so exhausted by then, but so happy to be in the company of all these good people.

I headed off for my nice, warm bed at the B&B and slept like a baby until 1 am when I stopped to journal this blog a bit.  I never feel more like I belong on this planet than when I’m in this town, in this room, surrounded by thoughts of friendship and the sounds of people as they walk home to their B&Bs from the pub.

May 4

I am in awe of today.  For all my trepidations and anxiety about the trip, it all melted in one glorious day on the fells.  Sarn and I met for breakfast at 8:15.  Sarn had found an extra SIM card and we were able to use it in my regular stateside phone so that I finally got connected!  Thank you Sarn!!!

After breakfast, we went to look for our ride (Amanda).  Couldn’t find her,  so we called Dawn.  Dawn told us to hang on because Amanda’s call was coming through to her… and then Sarn noticed the lady in front of us was on her cell phone!  Yep, it was Amanda. J Amanda is a great person with the sweetest border collie (Maggie).  Maggie is one of Kimmi’s best friends!  We rollicked over the hills talking about travels and hiking and such.

When we arrived at Thackthwaite (at the post box by the hedge), Ray, Dawn, Don, Chris, and another couple (Stephen and Jennifer) were waiting.  But no Rob (who was also supposed to be there. Cell reception is bad at best in the Lake district due to all the surrounding mountains… but when we finally got through to Rob, it seems he went to another Thackthwaite in another county! LOL  We laughed about that and decided to wait for him.  Chris was hard pressed for time because he had to work that day.  Even so, he still waited with us for Rob (who showed up in about an hour).

Motley Crue
Rob has a gorgeous spaniel named Holly who is too hyper for words.  In a snap, she was scrambling through mud and mire – happily zinging up and down the fells.  The hike began with everyone slogging through bog and mire uphill to the sounds of a Texan wheezing in the background.  It was a gentle slope, really, but to me – it was Everest!  Being out of shape and used to sea level (and warm weather) played a lot into it.  Still, I was amazed that I got to the top at all!  There were some highland cows (hairy coos) in the pasture, and we got a few pictures of them.  Highland cows seem very docile.  In our country, you would never go in a pasture with bulls!!!

Hairy Coos

The thing I noticed most about the hike (aside from the stunning views) was how kind all the experienced hikers were to me.  Rob (one of the most experienced of our group) hung back to help and encourage me.  Stephen too.  As well as Dawn and the others.  I am so grateful for their kindness to an inexperienced fellswalker.

Even Kimmi and Buddy are helping the Texan up the big hill!

The only time I was ever in the lead!

At one point we had to say a sad farewell to Chris who had to return and go to work.  Chris was truly a joy to meet.  I was so sorry that he didn’t get to stay for the summit or the pub visit afterward… L

When we finally made it to the top… GLORIOUS is all I can say.  The weather had cleared up and you could see for miles.  We snapped all sorts of pictures and made our way to the non-windy side of the mountain for a butty.  A butty is just a sandwich.  We all had a few treats in our day packs and tossed a few to the dogs as well.  None of the dogs seemed a bit tired (well, except maybe Buddy – our senior dog).  All of them were happy as clams though.

We made it!

Ray Bradshaw is an artist, and caught the hilltop in pastel – I plan to buy this as soon as he’s back from his trip to France!

Ray's painting

Afterward, half of us went down to the pub and the other half walked across to summit another peak called Fellbarrow.  I was in the party that went to the pub.  The Kirkstile Inn is also frequented by hikers, and though the day was a bit chilly, we nabbed a few outdoor tables and proceeded to drink, laugh, and put a last, happy spin to the day.  Lesley Ritchie joined us along with her significant other.  She had been unable to join us on the walk due to doing something horrible to her foot which caused her to wear one of those “boots” and hobble around on crutches.  Still, the jokes flew, the dogs rested, and everyone was in good spirits.
Pub Crue!

 All good things must come to an end, though, and with a heavy heart I said goodbye to each in turn. L

Amanda drove us back and with final goodbyes, Sarn and I went into the B&B to drop off our hiking gear and head out for fish n chips.

Marion, the B&B landlady, had recommended a place called the Kingfisher.  We had the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten!  Just wonderful.  Had to drop by a pub on the way home for Sarn to get a drink and then back to the B&B.  On the way, I showed her St. John’s church yard where I pray and meditate sometimes. Gorgeous and peaceful.

We chatted a bit then headed off to our rooms.  I journaled a bit and wrote some post cards.  Flipped the TV on for some background noise and BBC4 was playing the entire video of Queen live (one of my favorite all-time bands).  Does it get any better than this?

I don’t think so.

May 5

Overcast, cool, drizzle… but I love it.  Got up and walked into town to get cash from the ATM.  The smell of crusty bread coming from Greggs wafts into the streets. Nothing is open, so I find myself interesting pictures to take. 

Feeling so at home and at peace here.  Trying not to turn the TV on at all.

Passed by St. John’s again and got a gorgeous pic of daffodils in the courtyard.

Nearly breakfast time, then off to the Dales!  I hope to find some interesting vendors at the Wine and Food Festival.

Sarn wasn’t well, so I left on my own after breakfast and took off for Leyburn.  It was a much longer drive than I recall from before.  And it was on back roads, but I managed pretty well.

The Festival of Food and Drink was very twee (sweet).  There was a huge tent with everything from wool to sausages.  Another with wine, lager, and such.  It was a nice day for it and I picked up a few items – then headed back to Keswick.

Had to look up what a Creche was!

I hadn’t had lunch, so I went into Keswick and tried a Sunday roast.  As many of  you know, I am pescetarian… so this was a big deal for me to eat a meal with red meat.  It was ok.  The meat was very tough.  The Yorkshire pudding, though, was awesome!

Sunday Roast - not recommended for Pescetarians!

On the way home, I picked up a slice of lemon cake and headed to St. Johns for some meditation… when my cell phone rang.  It was Don and Dawn!  They were at the Dog and Gun and asked if Sarn and I wanted to meet them.  I rang Sarn and we both trekked over to the Dog and Gun for some final fun chat.  It was loud and hard to hear (very crowded) – still, it was great to see my two dear friends again and Kimmi!  Buddy was asleep in the car.

After a little while, we said our goodbyes and Sarn went in search of dinner.  We ended up at the Packhorse Inn where she ate and I had my lemon cake.  I had to beg off early and ended up in my room, but unable to sleep!  My phone kept me busy for a while, but I finally crashed around 10 pm or so. 

May 6

Got up at normal time (around 6:30) and soooo tired.  I didn’t want to do anything but sleep, but I showered and got ready and headed to breakfast with Sarn.  She decided to go home in the morning, so after she departed I went into town to do some shopping.  Lunch was a fruit scone and hot tea.  After my fill of shopping, I came back and unpacked all the goods and looked out the window.  Gorgeous weather!!!  So, at around 2 pm, I headed out to climb up Latrigg (a fell I had climbed before).

I walked a very long way and veered off to a shorter path a lady had indicated.  I did get up very high, but just couldn’t find the summit!  Due to exhaustion and the lateness of the day, I decided to go back downhill. 

I did get some great pics .
Where's the summit?
Oh well… time to turn around
After the hike, I went to a Mexican food place in Keswick (you heard me right!).  Here is their version of a chimichanga meal:

Salsa's vegetarian chimichanga

It was actually very tasty and healthier than our version for sure!

Went home and slept like a baby that night.

May 7

Greg and Kim were due at noon, so after breakfast, I went to do some laundry.  Again, this year, I met Aussies who gave me a great tip for a musical in London (the Book of Mormon).  I may try to see it.

Came home, still tired, so I crashed for a bit.

Woke up, went into town to the ATM and (since the weather was still grand) went to St. Johns.  I got some great pics and video of it!  

Kim called to say they were running late, so I told Greg to get his butt in gear!  Fearfully, he rushed – making it only an hour late.  By then, I’d gotten my egg mayonnaise sandwich and chips. 

Feeling better with the last day of good weather here, we headed to Buttermere for a final walk around the lake.

Me and Kimbo on a fabulous day at Buttermere

It was a fabulous walk which ended at the Fish Inn.  Greg and I ordered scampi and chips (fries).  Brilliant day, good food, good friends!  Couldn’t ask for more.  They also turned me onto a drink called J2O.  If you’re there, it’s wonderful!  Orange and passion fruit drink in a bottle.  Yum!

We headed back to Keswick where I was dropped off, and we made plans to meet the next morning to head to Yorkshire.  I’m looking forward to it!  But, until then, I’ll relax and watch some (gasp) TV!!!

May 8

Another lovely day – though it started out raining.  Kim & Greg were actually early!  Greg drove and we headed out for the moors and dales.  We dropped off my rental car in Penrith on the way.

Greg had sorted out back roads that took us through Hawes & Leyburn, but I asked if we could take a more direct route.  I also mentioned that a friend needed something for his garden, and so began the Quest of the Garden Gnome.

It seems that these articles are usually readily available in garden centres across England, but at each one, we were told they were out!

We ended up going right by Menwith Hill Station at one point (a base where Rich and I used to work).  I carefully took some photos.  The weather was still foggy, so they didn’t show much.  

Golf Balls at MHS

Entry sign for contractors

Afterward, we carefully made our way down the B6451 to Dacre Banks where I got a picture of a townhouse Rich and I used to live in.  Then, on our way through towns I recalled like Summerbridge and Burnt Yates.  Finally, we ended up in Ripon where I showed them my house there and the fields where I used to walk my dog. It was surreal to realize how much time had slipped by between then and now.

House at Dacre Banks
House in Ripon

At Ripon, we made one last Garden Centre stop and voila! There was the gnome.  It is on its way from England now in a package Kim put together for me. J

The weather got progressively better as we entered the town.

Found a car park in a part of town that didn’t even exist when I lived there.  We decided to pick up lunch at the Royal Oak Pub.  Probably the best meal I had eaten so far – and very exotic!  It was a fig and goat cheese sandwich.  It consisted of a fila dough base (toasted), sweet carmelized onions, a layer of figs drizzled with honey, and goat cheese!  It was so amazing I got the recipe (and have since lost it).  Here is a similar one – but way too much bread.  Use the fila dough and make it an open faced sandwich.  It gives it a nice crunch, and makes for a more healthy sandwich.

It was getting late, so I suggested skipping the James Herriot museum in Thirsk and going on to Kilburn.  Kilburn was lovely as ever, and the Mouseman as expensive as ever!  Even so, I bought a bowl and Kim and Greg explored the town.

Mouseman wood carver

Afterward, we climbed the white horse cliff for some magnificent views. 

White Horse Cliff

Greg risked life and limb to get me a rock from the horse as a souvenir (silly guy).

Careful, Greg!
We all piled in and Kim made good time back to Keswick where they got French fries for dinner and I got a small haddock from a fish n chips place.  We ate on the cold steps of a closed shop and then headed back to my B&B promising to meet up the next day.  Here’s the menu from the fish n chips shop.  I thought it was pretty interesting! 

English menu stuff

I went to St. Johns to spend some time thanking God for all the blessings this week.  Great friends, great weather, great B&B, great food, laughs, and memories.

Afterward, I went back to the B&B to begin the sadness of packing.  I am always heartbroken to leave the lakes.

May 9

Up early and groggy, but got in a shower and headed to the launderette a little after 7.  My clothes are happily spinning as my last day begins.  Kim and Greg will pick me up at 11 to go see Hadrian’s Wall, but before that, I’ll need to return my rental gear to George Fisher and forward Ray’s prints (I bought some prints from Ray).

I’m planning to walk town to Derwentwater and will find a place for Dad’s QSL (ham radio) greeting card.  One mission on this trip was to take dad with me to England.  I brought something of his to leave behind.

After that, I’ll pack and head out.

Cruel fate that put me on American soil rather than English! 

Went back to the B&B and had breakfast of poached eggs and toast then headed to town and meandered over to the market.  Picked up a gift for Tammy there.  Stopped by Love the Lakes, but the owner (Sean) wasn’t there.  Chatted with his wife for a bit and bought some earrings.

Headed over to St. John’s.  It had drizzled all morning and without really thinking about it, I took Dad’s QSL card, wrote on the back, and tacked it to their prayer board.  Perfect!

St. John's Keswick

Then, down to Derwentwater for a few pics.  The jazz fest was just getting underway.  I went back by Hope Garden, through the market, and got some pounds to give Kim for shipping my trinkets back to the states for me.

As I rounded the corner to the B&B, there they were!  We packed all my luggage into their car and off we went to Hadrian’s Wall.

It wasn’t far to the Birdoswald Roman Fort where Kim promptly made herself at home.

Kim at the Roman Fort

They took our money and there wasn’t as much to see as we would’ve liked.  Still, we got some great pics of the wall.

Hadrian's Wall

We also wanted to see the Roman Army museum, so we headed out, but instantly thought we should get some lunch.  We went to a nearby farm shop.

There were some *really* strange people there.  Well, just not extremely outgoing and friendly.  They reminded me of the banjo players from the movie “Deliverance.”  However, I had the MOST lovely quiche just out of the oven.  That and the hot tea helped us get over the cold and wet of the day.  But then, back out in it again! 

Yummy quiche

The Roman Army Museum was much better than the last place we visited.  I’d say the gift shop was better at the first place, but there was more to see at this one.  We did the tour and 20-minute movie and were on our way (quite early) to catch my train in Penrith.  Ah well… worse things could happen.  I had to re-purchase a ticket to get on an earlier train:

Takeaway – don’t pre-purchase tickets from Penrith!

I’m writing on my journey to Glasgow.  I hope I can board the sleeper early!  In any case, I’ll get a bite to eat and tour the station.  Until then!

I boarded the sleeper at 10:40 and slept like a baby.  Not sure I’d do it again, but that box got ticked.

May 10

I arrived at the Best Western by 8 am and was not met happily by Mila, the front desk clerk.  She informed me it would take an hour to get my room ready, so I waited and was in my room by 9 am.

They gave me a really nice room one flight up and overlooking the back garden (ask for Room #9).  It was quiet and had a full bath.  The room was nice and roomy and I could breathe easily.  Chiswick is probably one of my favorite places in the London area and very near tube stops and Kew Gardens.

Just a few flowers at a stoplight in Chiswick

Anyway, I showered (but then the tub drain wouldn’t work).  They had to come in and fix it – and then the drain wouldn’t shut! It remained open. 

I called up and ordered tickets to the matinee of “Once” the next day and then headed out.

My main reason for being in London was shopping and seeing a show.  Nothing more.  In retrospect, I could’ve done without London this trip, but I made the best of it. 

First, I went to Harrod’s to look for doilies for a co-worker.  They didn’t have the ones he wanted, so I went to the basement café for a small sandwich and coke (which cost me 10 pounds).

After that, I left to go to Baker Street and the Beatles store where I got some nice socks for my (now) ex-boss Shelly and her boss, Caitlyn.

Finally, I went to Fortnum and Mason for my strawberry tea.  While there, I got my friend Michael a lovely tea towel and had myself a spot o’ tea at their Parlour restaurant.  I had a piece of cake and an iced tea that just plain tasted funky.  12 pounds. :/

Tea at Fortnum and Mason

I headed out afterward to find “Past Times” (a souvenir shop), but that trip was a bust as the building was being demolished and rebuilt into (probably) condos or more shops!

It was mid-afternoon by then, and I was tired – so I got on the tube and headed back to the hotel.  After chilling a bit, I headed out to Sainsbury’s local (not far away) and picked up an egg mayonnaise sandwich for dinner.  Watched a little TV, and slept well – ready for the next day!

May 11

I headed out early (it takes a long time to get to central London from Chiswick – two tube stops).  And ended up in Piccadilly Circus trying to find a hop on hop off bus.  I KNEW I’d seen them there before!

Sure enough, I saw a billet at the newsagents for the hop on hop off bus and asked how long til the next bus.  Not long, he said.  They’d been running already this morning and the stop was just over there – not far.

So, I bought my ticket and off I went in search of the bus stop. 

And I walked. And walked.  All the way back to Leicester Square!  But finally found the stop which said there were no tours for another 45 minutes!  Blimey!

Ah well, I walked and window shopped.  The English don’t want to get up TOO early, yanno. J  So there weren’t may places open. 

The HOHO Bus (hehe) was ok.  I spent 28 pounds on a trip that would’ve taken me over a lot of London I really wasn’t interested in and included a water taxi down the Thames (which I didn’t have time for).  So, maybe it would have been worth it otherwise.

Instead, I dutifully put on the headphones and listened to the pre-recorded commentary of the places I was seeing. 

As it was, I got to see all the highlights as well as the Shard.  I was happy, and after looking at the bus map, decided to hop off and re-visit a couple of stops.

The Shard
One thing I didn’t realize was how close Covent Garden was to St. Pauls!  I went to Covent Garden and was instantly hit with the things that make it what it is.  Street performers and odd scenes!  I showed up to loud music and women swimming in a see-through tank.  Something advertising Nivea products.  And the guy on a mile high unicycle who juggles (that seems a standard here).  I dove into the Jubilee market to see if I could find something for my friends who had special requests, and found a unique London t-shirt for my friend Priscila. 

Nivea swim tank
There were all sorts of odd arts – kind of reminiscent of South Congress (SoCo) in Austin.  But, after a quick browse, I took off for other parts of the city. 

I remembered St. Paul’s so well from Princess Diana’s wedding.  I walked up the steps and thought to myself… in another place and time… I would be standing right next to her.  Cruel fate that made earth time linear!

Looking down the street toward St. Paul's

I went in and admired the architecture, the ceilings and the stained glass.  There was a service and I was able to join for a few minutes (which was lovely).  I saw Horatio Nelson’s tomb and several others before taking off for lunch and the matinee show of “Once.”

Once was really nice.  A good solid show with great music.  I was happy with my choice of show this year and will try the Book of Mormon some other time when tickets are NOT $175!!!

I was heading home when someone told me I should check out Kew Gardens.  It was a nice day, so I braved figuring out the bus system and headed over.  It was a longer trip than I thought it would be, and when I got there, they wanted 18 GBP for entry!  The place was only open for 1.5 more hours, so I declined and headed back to the room to pack my luggage.

London this time was a whirlwind – probably should’ve just stayed in Keswick or perhaps gone to York.  Notes for next time. 

May 12

Sunday morning, I left early to catch the 9 am train from Kings Cross.  Kings cross has way modernized since I last recall it.  There is a shops level and interesting modern architecture.  I recall it as an old, dingy railway – but it really does look nice now. 

Notes: Be sure to bring 30p if you have to use the loo – otherwise you will be left out in the cold like this lady!

You need “P” to pee!
The train ride was pretty cool.  I got on a quiet car sitting opposite a lady from Cypress.  She said things weren’t as bad as the media made them out to be.  We talked nearly the whole trip to Edinburgh and she pointed out some cool things for me to take pictures of (like Lindisfarne and Newcastle’s bridges).

We parted ways at Waverley station in Edinburgh and I caught a taxi driven by a VERY lively Scotsman who asked if his glasses looked too femine. LOL. 

Anywho, I was dropped at a monstrosity of a modern hotel called Novotel Edinburgh Centre.  Modern in the UK is mostly about cubes, lack of decorating, and bare necessities.  Still my room was nice enough, though there was ZERO wi-fi in the rooms.  To connect, we had to come down to the lobby!  What a pain.

It was mid-afternoon though – and I was hungry and in the land o’ haggis!  Where does a pescetarian go??? Luckily, around the corner, down the hill and around another corner was Hula (a fruit juice and healthy food bar).

I had a panini full of bell peppers and red peppers… peppers are not my favorite thing, but it was food and I was able to get a nice fruit smoothie (called a Betty Ford – not sure why!) to douse the pepper taste in my mouth.

Veggie panini

I’ll just take a moment to say I’ve noted that throughout my trip I was not overall impressed (sorry British friends) by the quality of food!  I think it’s gotten better since the 80s when I first came over (more variety, for sure) but it’s all starch and carbs!  If there is a way to combine the two, they’ll do it (for instance, a french fry sandwich called a “chip butty”)!

Unless you just get salads, the lack of color in a typical English meal is astonishing.  I guess I am used to the wide variety of healthy food readily available in Austin.

And I *still* love fish n chips.  Yes, I do… but gosh… I can’t eat them every night!  English and Scottish dishes seem to typically feature meat, potatoes, and other tuberous plants (like turnips or carrots).  Bread in some form is also usually present.  There’s not a lot of fresh fruit and veg unless you go to the grocery store!

Anyway, I came back to the hotel to attend the welcome reception and found out (guess what) that dinner was provided!  That hadn’t been stated in the brochure.  Oh well… we boarded the bus and headed out to the restaurant.

Our tour bus -  only 2 weeks old!
When we got to the restaurant, it was all just more of the meat and potatoes thing (and haggis, of course).  I am glad I had something healthy instead. 

We talked about the tour and I had a little dessert.  Met some really nice people.  It was fortuitous that I accidentally got seated next to my travel buddy for the duration (Kay).  She was just awesome and fun and excited about travel…I truly enjoyed having her on the trip.

Also at the table was Ted from Winchester.  Ted was an 82 year old widower who was just so funny and such a character.  I sat next to him on the bus for the duration of our tour. Quite a sweetheart, he was. 

Hi Ted!

We all came back after the reception, and Kay asked about a swimming pool.  I hadn’t even thought about that!  Sure enough there was a lovely pool and hot tub at the hotel.  Wow… I’ll have to check next time and bring my swim suit with me if we have that.

May 13

I was tired anyway, so I went to bed early.  Slept til about 2 am, got up, and since there was no wifi, I got dressed and went down to the lobby to facebook and txt some friends.

Came back up, slept, and first thing in the morning, the rest of the group went out for a tour of the Royal Mile.  I’ve done that tour so many times I decided to just chillax in Edinburgh by my self.  Good choice, I think. :)

Looking up to Edinburgh Castle

So, I went down to Princes Street and went into Marks and Spencers to buy an umbrella (I usually don’t recommend them for this country, but I had no shelter from the intermittent rain).  Sat in their café for awhile using their wifi to chat, and then went to tour the Edinburgh offices of my company.

The Accenture office in Edinburgh is so tiny!  It’s mainly just a room of hotel desks for consultants in the city.  Most employees work on contract sites rather than the Accenture office.  But, I was met by an affable young lady named Adrienne Findlay who seemed in charge of managing the shop.  She introduced me to an IT guy named Paul.  They talked to me for about five minutes about working in the UK… and that was pretty much it!  I enjoyed meeting them.  I found out there is an Accenture tartan and that I could have gotten one if they’d had any!  But they didn’t, so note to self: Write Adrienne to see if I can get one!

Went back to Princes Street to do some more shopping.  I went all the way back to the Royal Mile to see if there was a whiskey shop that shipped.  They used to, but it seems they don’t anymore!  Anywho, there was an exhibit called the Scotch Whiskey Experience.  There’s a museum attached (which I didn’t go to), but attached is the largest retail store for scotch whiskey I’d ever seen!  I was amazed at all the bottles, brands, and sample bottles!  Still, I didn’t get much because they didn’t ship either.  I did pick up a single shot bottle of a new (to me) scotch called Glen Garioche.  It was pretty strong (as I found out later) and not really to my liking, but have no fear! I was on an intrepid journey to find THE scotch for me (and later in the trip I did!).

I went up and down the Royal Mile searching for gifts for friends, but most of the shops carry very low end, souvenir-y things.  I like a *tad* more quality.  I bought a bunch of key chains… so I left.

Now, as another aside note, I must talk about the weather.  I have never seen anything like it in my life!  I was told later you can experience all four seasons in one day in Scotland, and it’s true!  I woke up this morning to a day that was clear as a bell, then five minutes later, there was driving rain coming in sideways and gale force winds.  Five minutes later – no wind and clear as a bell!  This happened all… day… long!

I went in between being dry and wet all day!  At one point, right around lunch, the rain began pouring in earnest, and I dove into this lovely LITTLE café I’d seen.  I was glad I did.  They had one of the better meals I’d had in Scotland.  It was called the Craig andTail.  I had a cheese and tomato toasty (cheese and tomato on toast) with a fresh side salad and something called Cranachan for dessert!  I am now hooked on Cranachan it was that good.

I started back for my hotel after that.  Everything is NOT close to anything in Edinburgh. J  I had to walk through Grassmarket, then make a left, then walk all the way down til you get to the hotel.  From Princes Street it seemed like it was a mile and a half to two miles.  Anyway, I dropped off my purchases at the hotel and got on some more suitable clothing than what I’d visited Accenture in.  So I got my hiking clothes on and decided to go out and in search of a book for my new friend Stephen McGuigan on the origins of his family (turns out he comes from a line of bandits!).  Which totally seems incongruous with sweet Stephen.  I plan to mail the book to him when I get to Pitlochery.

It just amazed me that in Edinburgh wifi and phone reception is so spotty.  I had much better reception in Keswick than I did in Edinburgh! 

So, I picked up my billfold and daypack, went back down to Grassmarket, back to the Royal Mile, and down to Princes Street in search of the little book.  Just as I got to Princes Street (and to the right next to Waverley Station) is Princes Market.  I noticed a souvenir shop just at the entrance called Glen Eagles which looked not TOO cheesy.    So, I went in and sure enough – they had some nice enough gifts plus golf stuff for my golfer friends.

Actually found the book for Stephen in a newsagent shop just outside the mall… so it was time to return home.  The long, arduous walk to the hotel.  On the way, I stopped at a Whiskey store and got three small bottles of Deanston scotch for my friends in the U.S. Afterward, it was Sainsbury’s for an egg mayonnaise sandwich, sparkling apple juice, and fruit croissant.  That was dinner. 

And then began the wait for the laundry I had dropped off at the front desk that morning.  This was our last night in Edinburgh, I was exhausted, and still had to pack!  The laundry finally showed up at 9 PM!!! I was livid, but packed anyway and fell into a coma/sleep.

May 14

We loaded onto the bus early and traveled across the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews.  There, we visited St. Andrews Cathedral long enough for some photos and then parked by the Golf Course and 18thhole.

I liked St. Andrews.  It’s a quaint town.  A university town (Kate Middleton and Prince William met at school here).  I would’ve liked to have spent more time, but that was – alas – not to be. I ran to the various shops (pro shop and town shop).  Attempted to mail Stephen’s book from the post office, but the line was too long, so I had to make a run for it back to the bus. 

Our next stop was Pitlochery.  I’d visited Pitlochery once before on a tour and liked it.  The town is small and really resembles Keswick in a lot of ways.  Quaint shops geared toward tourists.  Lots of pretty scenery.

Shop at Pitlochry
At this point, one of the “Extra” tours we could take was to Blair Castle.  I really didn’t want to spend my time touring a castle when I could shop! J  Besides, I wanted a break from the rush rush of the trip, so I opted for a free couple of hours in town.  I quickly mailed Stephen’s little book and took off for some serious shopping! I found a lovely set of earrings for mom at one of the shops and bought myself a backpack/dufflebag/carryon at 70% off from one of the shops.  My souvenirs were piling up!

At the appointed time, I was at the bus and we took off to pick up the folks from Blair Castle.  There was some consternation as the tour there hadn’t quite finished, but the tour clients were rushed out and onto the bus as we had another extra tour to do at 5 pm.  THAT tour was the only one I paid extra to do and that was to watch the sheepdog demo at a local farm.  Our tour bus dropped us off at the farm while taking the others on to the local hotel.

The sheepdog demo was one of the best things I did all trip long.  There were batches of puppies – just a few weeks old for us to hold and little lambs to bottle feed.  Not only that, but we saw some of the most amazing work a dog can do.  Herd sheep.  Each dog had its own set of whistles.  Each dog took its job seriously – even one lame and one completely blind dog!  All worked in harmony and the sheep were very well herded by the time we left. 

After a wonderful (though cold) time out at the farm, we left for the Gaskmore Hotel in Laggan. 

Gaskmore Hotel - Hi Kay!  (See Bonnie in the upper window waving???)
The hotel was worn and old, but located on a beautiful perch overlooking pastures and mountains.  The dining area had stunning views across with large windows.  The family that ran the place was great, and the rooms were roomy enough.  However, we found out later there was no water pressure, very limited wifi connectivity, and it seemed a bit of stinginess on the cleaning and toiletries.  However, the bar area was cozy and firelit and I spent a couple of nights cheerily drinking scotch and talking to people.

May 15

Kay and I got up early for a morning walk, and glad we did because the countryside at Laggan is gorgeous! We came to a small church (Church of Scotland) and talked with two local people who were out walking their dogs.

On the way back, we came across a farmer feeding his sheep in a field, and I took this picture:

Feeding time in a Laggan pasture

After a hearty breakfast, we took a long trip to the Isle of Skye.  The sights from the bus were breathtaking!
Water like glass

Our first stop was Fort Augustus– a quaint little town near Loch Ness!

On their way to Loch Ness!
I liked this little town and put it on my “would like to see again” list.

Heading onward toward Skye, I began to realize just how remote this place must’ve seemed to travelers in bygone centuries.  As it was, we had the luxury of a bridge and a ferry.  It didn’t seem very inviting to me, but it has a lovely museum (supposedly) to the Clan McDonald.  As usual, we were rushed and since there was only 30 minutes after lunch, I snapped a few shots of the outside.

Clan Donald Visitor Centre
We had a little time to shop and look around before, once again, boarding our bus for “home.”

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by Loch Lomond and some of the folks went on a lake cruise.  The bus stopped at the Glenfinnan monument which commemorated the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Jacobite standard in 1745.

Dinner was at the hotel that night, and I went into the bar to try some scotch.  Dalwhinnie is a town located nearby, so I took a shot.  It was wonderful (for scotch).  So I had another and became pleasantly (and quietly) snockered. 

The bartender asked where I was from and I mentioned Austin, Tx.  He told me he’d gone to SxSW almost annually.  So, I asked if he was a musician.  Turns out he was a guitar technician.  For the Beatles.  And the Who!!!

He showed me George Harrison’s biography with an autograph made out to him.  I asked if he’d gone to see the guru with the Beatles and he said he had.

“What’d you think?” I asked him.

“It was a load of crap,” was the response! LOL

And that was how I spent my last night at the hotel.

In the mornings for both days, Kay and I had gotten up early and walked.  We came up to the small town of Laggan and the River Spey (where I assume Speyside Scotch is made). We got some great pictures of the sheep farms and local scenery, though walking on the busy road had its moments of scariness!

May 16

Kay and I got up and walked again today.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know the assembly time of the group, or we would have walked a LOT longer!  As it was, we returned about 30 minutes before everyone was meeting for breakfast. 

Our first stop was the Commando Memorial near Fort William which had great views of Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Great Britain).

Kay and I at the Commando Memorial
This was just a quick photo stop.  Next up was Fort William.  This little town was quaint, had some cute shops, and was right on the canal.  It’s also on my list of “to be explored further.”

And then there was Glencoe.  Its history is well-worth a read.  To give a synopsis: In 1692, Campbell-lead troops joined the McDonalds and were given food and shelter by them.  Campbell captain gets orders to kill the entire McDonald clan and begins opening fire on the McDonalds – killing 38 and driving the rest into the inhospitable hills (during winter in February) where 40 more died of exposure.  The Vale of Weeping is where the remnants of the McDonalds fled.

It was a sobering thought as we listened to the bagpipes and looked up into the hills.

We left from there for the final entry to Glasgow.  On the way to the Hotel, we visited Glasgow Cathedral, home to the patron St. Mungo and dedicated to the patron saint of Glasgow (as well as its founder).

Glasgow Cathedral
We were exhausted by the time we hit Glasgow.  I was very glad I hadn’t gotten the “extra” dinner that night so I could just relax.  I ended up at a nice pub across the street and had my final fish n chips fix.

May 17

Kay and I got up early and began walking around Glasgow.  We found some lovely gardens and enjoyed the decent weather as we walked among the manicured lawns and gorgeous statues.

Not to be left to our own devices, however, the group tour began its last leg.  We took to the road just after lunch and went to visit Stirling Castle – one of the most famous fortresses in Scotland.  From the parapets we could see the William Wallace monument and the statue of Robert the Bruce.  The castle, itself, was imposing and architecturally interesting.  I need to read up more on Scottish history for sure!

Sterling Castle

From Sterling Castle, we went to the Glengoyne Whiskey Distillery where I learned oh so much about whiskey and scotch.  What I recall is that the reason older scotch is so expensive is that after more years pass, more whiskey has evaporated from the casks, leaving very little alcohol. The flavor of the wood cask and the filler liquid they treat the cask with prior to adding the scotch (things like brandy, wine, or sherry) create the final taste of the scotch.  Tres cool!

Glengoyne Distillery

That night, we traveled along the back roads to a VERY lovely part of Scotland that I will revisit called the Trossachs National Park (and especially Loch Ard).  Here we had our "Be My Guest" dinner at a farm house run by a father and son.  It was a *wonderful* evening filled with music, laughter, and good food!  Then, we got to pet dogs and lambs before heading back to the hotel.

Video of some of the fun.

Maria and one of the sheepdogs

May 18

The trip home was one filled with sadness.  I had bonded again, as I always do, with this land of flowers, greenery, nature, culture, history, and retail!  I spent time with wonderful friends (both old and new) and saw sights I'd never seen before.  Every trip I take is a success, but this one more so, I think.

At any rate, I was up early to meet the 6:30 am shuttle to Glasgow airport.  Hopped on my flight and sat next to a music video producer named Roy.  I asked him if he produced anything I might have seen.

"Maybe," he said.  "Do you know who Patty Griffin is?" he asked.

"No, sorry."

"How about Robert Plant?  That's her boyfriend."


I got home and looked up the video he had talked about and was totally blown away.

Youtube Video by Roy Taylor - Ohio

Our plan landed in Newark, I caught the final leg for Houston, and was finally on Texas soil.  Three more hours of driving, and I was home around 9 pm to three very mom-sick puppy kids who will always and forever be my heart on the outside.

I would like to ask any of my tour buddies on the Trafalgar Tour to please correct my timeline if it's incorrect.  I rebuilt it to the best of my ability to recollect days and times of visits.

I will bow out now and leave you with some video streams that Greg took of our trip in the Lake District.  He is a phenomenal artist, and the videos were very well done.  Thanks, Greg!  And thank you friends who gave me a "best vacation ever" experience!

Greg's videos:
My video: