Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Weather and UK Travel

One of the main questions I get in my classes is: When is the best time to visit England? 

Oh, you folks that like to propose these kinds of loaded questions!  I live in Texas, and once told my English visitors to bring shorts and swimsuits for a March trip to Austin.  It turned out to be one of the coldest Marches I can recall!  So, the caveat to all that is:  I don’t control the weather!  It can change on a dime.  What I *can* do is offer my suggestions for determining the best time for you to travel.

You might think to yourself that July or August should be fantastic because those are typically the warmest months in an otherwise cold-weather country.  That could well be true, but you’ll be sharing your holiday with all the other Europeans who have July and August summer school holidays.  If this isn’t a problem for you, then you might consider those two months.

The other consideration for the summer months is that it’s peak season and could well cost you hundreds more in travel costs.  Lodging and transportation will definitely be more expensive.So, what *do* you do about this conundrum?

It’s fairly easy, I should think.  The first thing you do is to reference the historical weather for the part of England you are traveling to.  I typically go to Cumbria, so checking HERE, we find that the relative temperatures and rainfall in May and September are well within tolerable ranges.  Should be great weather for doing anything outdoors or in. 

The next thing I’d do is determine the events during those timeframes that might draw me to England.  That will help pick the initial travel dates.  This year, for instance, is the trooping of the color on June 11.  My trip is being planned for late May through mid-June.

The third consideration is cost.  Picking a shoulder season will be cheaper on the pocketbook and/or frequent flyer miles.  Booking well in advance will ensure you get the best seats for the cheapest frequent flyer miles.  My trip this year cost me 60,000 frequent flyer miles opposed to 70,000 or more. 

The cheapest seasons will be the off-seasons (the colder months).  Before you shake your head, this isn’t really a bad option!  If you see my notes from a trip to England in December one year, you may find tons of wonderful events and prices low enough to really make you smile.

So, you’ve picked your dates and you think you have it all planned.  What next?

About a week prior to flight, double-check the weather (and keep checking it) at your destination.  This will be your guideline for packing.  My trust in the ability of weathermen to accurately predict English weather is not extremely high, but it will give you an idea.

“Should I pack an umbrella?” I hear you ask. I wouldn’t.  Especially if you’re in a crowded city like London.  You’ll just poke someone’s eye out.  Besides, the winds pick up so much that a lot of times your “brolly” will just turn inside out and be of little use.  My suggestion is to bring a breathable, waterproof, unlined jacket with a hood (the hood is important!).  If you can find a jacket with a hood that has a bill on it, even better.  Next thing is to bring a fleece jacket so that if it gets cold, you can layer.

If you’re hiking, I suggest a headband that covers your ears as well as keeping the wind from whipping your hair in your face rather like THIS ONE.  You can even put your ponytail through it!

Make sure you bring things that are waterproof or water resistant.  I have several pairs of something similar to THIS
. I also have a few pairs of pants that convert from long to short length by unzipping the lower pants leg. 

Your shoes should also be waterproof and made of leather or man-made materials that are comfortable and durable.  If you plan on hiking, rather than carrying very heavy and space absorbing hiking boots and poles, I rent them from a local outdoor shop in England. 

he bottom line is, plan ahead.  Use common sense.  You’ll save time and money and – most importantly – you’ll enjoy your trip a lot more!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

I am writing about something I’ve not really touched on before.  Flight, flying, safety, and security.

When I was about five years old and living in California, I left my parents to fly across country to stay with my grandparents in Pennsylvania.  What a grand adventure!  The year was 1962.  People flew, but not as much as they do these days, and here I was… in flight!

In those days, children were given lots of attention.  I got a model of the airplane and stewardess wings to pin on my blouse… I even got to go into the cockpit and meet the captain!  But, those days of feeling relatively safe when flying seem like such a distant memory today.

My dad got his pilot’s license and we used to fly together from the mainland to Galveston Island and other points along the way.  I was never afraid to fly (except once, when my door flew open high above the planet!).  Dad just chuckled, reached over, and closed the door.  That’s how I saw flight.  At once fascinating and dangerous.

I wasn’t in fear of dying while in flight.  At least, I would not let the fear enter my thought processes.  As I grew older, I flew time and again.  Some of these times probably should have required more fear like the time my grandmother and I flew into a lightning storm at Atlanta.  Her hands in a death grip on my forearm.  “We’re going to die,” she said.  We didn’t.

I lived in England for several years, and flew back and forth over “the pond” several times without a thought to safety and security.

In 1986, I was working at NASA-JSC when the Challenger disaster occurred.  I was in the crowd that watched as Reagan gave his famous speech on site at NASA and I saw the missing man formation as it flew over the crowd. 

A lot of things changed with PanAm Flight 103.  In December 1988, Lockerbie, Scotland was hit by the falling debris of a jet airplane.  Two-hundred and fifty-nine people died onboard and eleven died on the ground.  We had never really considered a random bombing before then.   Until that time, we had mostly been afraid of hijackings as relates to terrorism, but everything was different now.  It was so easy to have smuggled a bomb onboard at the time. 

Later, we would find ourselves asking “Why” many times when it came to air disasters.  We watched as the twin towers fell in New York City and the Pentagon was attacked by terrorists using our own aircraft to their own, sick ends.  Does anyone recall that just a few short weeks later, a plane crashed into Queens, New York?  That air disaster, it seems, was not brought on by terrorists, but every bit as scary due to the timing of it all.

I became fascinated by things that go wrong with flights.  I wanted to know what went wrong, why, and how best to survive in case of a similar incident.  Thus began a visual bonanza watching documentary series’ on flight such as Air Disasters and Air Crash Investigations.

I saw how planes have been downed due to so many different causes: weather, pilot error, terrorist attack, faulty equipment, faulty design, poor maintenance…

And the one thing that struck me is that after almost every accident, planes were made safer due to the efforts of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  As maintenance errors were caught, new procedures were required.  As weather issues occurred, better equipment was implemented.  I still thought our safety seemed to be in their best interest.

But not always.  When it was found that a faulty design in the cargo door of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 caused the door to blow off and caused a near fatal crash of American Airlines Flight 96, the NTSB made several recommendations to remedy the problem.  But the FAA, whose job it is to implement the changes made a gentleman’s agreement with McDonnell Douglas that the changes could be implemented over time.  What really happened was that McDonnell Douglas made relatively small changes to the locking mechanism which, ultimately, cost the lives of 346 people flying on Turkish Airlines Flight 981 who weren’t as fortunate as AA Flight 96.  In the aftermath, the door finally did get the fix it needed.

After watching the documentaries I’ve seen, something really bothers me about the FAA.  They say that their mission is safety.  But, there is a double-edged sword there.  They want people to fly and to feel safe flying.  People don’t feel safe flying if a major problem is advertised about faulty aircraft parts or faulty design issues.  Also, the grounding of planes to fix problems seriously impacts the company bottom line – costing millions of dollars in lost revenue (aside from the actual fix).  So, the airline industry lobbies the FAA and the FAA makes a decision about whether or not to implement the fixes or to what extent the fixes should be.  The only real hero for the average flyer like you and me is the NTSB (and they are only called in to investigate an accident that already happened). 

I was flying back from England one year, and got caught in highly volatile turbulence for several hours.  I’ve flown a lot in my life, but never had experienced anything like this.  Bins flew open, people were screaming, and the plane plummeted and rose, plummeted and rose – like some huge, airborne rollercoaster.  I thought about the lives that had been lost and the Challenger crew as they "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."  And about airplanes that had crashed and people who survived and who didn’t.  We did land safely (as you can see), but not without much anxiety during flight!

I love travel, and I’m not afraid to board an airplane – even knowing that there is that possibility I might never reach my destination.  I guess that is true of any of us walking out the front door each morning to go to work.  If you live in fear, and let fear rule you, you are never going to fully live your life.  So, it is with eyes wide open that I’ll be boarding my flight this year.  Feeling all the things I do about flight:  wonderment, excitement, and adventure.  I would not give that up.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Monarchy Doesn't Wield Political Power... or Does It?

Someone in my work group yesterday made the comment that the British monarchy has no political power.  I tried to explain that there were some caveats to that, but the gentleman was very insistent.  I let it go, but wrote the following letter this morning to clarify.  I thought readers might find it interesting. Does British royalty wield any political power in England?  The answer on the surface is “no”.  They are a constitutional monarchy.  They don’t pass any laws, create any bills, declare war, or spend money on Britain’s infrastructure. 

here’s a big “however” in there, though.

he Queen meets weekly with the Prime Minister when they are both in London (in addition to other meetings throughout the year).  No written record is made of such meetings, and neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister discuss them. A daily report of parliamentary proceedings is delivered to the queen by the Parliamentary Whip. Each year at the opening of Parliament, the Queen addresses parliament and sets out the government’s agenda for the coming session, outlining proposed policies and legislation. Beyond that, the royal family has a lot of power and prestige in the country (as you would imagine).

If a royal lobbies for something, there’s a good likelihood it will be addressed.  Prince Charles has made himself a name by “meddling” in government affairs and writing to the Prime Minister and government officials over a period of time.  In fact, with the freedom of information act, it was asked that these letters be released.  A lot of time and money was spent on getting these letters to the public, and they finally were made public.  There’s an article here if you’re interested.
There’s a fine line between the monarchy and Parliament – not a definite one as you mentioned yesterday.  Parliament needs the support of the monarchy – especially in times of war (if you recall King George VI during WWII).  And, obviously the monarchy needs Parliament because the royal budget is set by them.  Also, during the time of Diana’s funeral, without Tony Blair’s intervention, there would have most likely been rioting and perhaps the toppling of the monarchy due to their seeming indifference to the public’s point of view.

The government is synergistic with the monarchy.  They are not two distant entities.

Just adding a link I found from YouTube on the subject.


The Queen Addressing Parliament

Thursday, March 17, 2016


I was thinking about what keeps us from our dreams.  The potholes, trapdoors, and gumption suckers.  I have a friend who I’ve known since I was in grade school.  She had traveled to Germany once in her life, but as time wore on, travel seems to have become more difficult.  So many things must be “right” for her to travel.  I’m not sure if it’s the fear of travel or the love of home that keeps her from traveling more.  In fact, I have her in my will to spread my ashes in England because the only way I’ll get her to travel with me is “over my dead body”!  We laugh about that, but it’s true.

Are you feeling tied to your seat?  Chained to your routine?

Fear of change always plays into inertia.  Change is viewed as a bad thing – I’ve seen this at my various jobs.  People are afraid to upgrade to new software because they are so comfortable with the way things have always been done!  The excuses start to come in as well.  “I’m too old to learn something new,” “what’s wrong with the way we’ve been doing it”, and “what if things start to crash”?  Behind inertia, you’ll always find fear of failure.

But, what if change is actually good?  What if the new software helps you do your job faster, more efficiently, and with better quality?  We bury ourselves under “what if’s” so often that we miss a rainbow of opportunities.

I travel a lot, and with travel comes a certain level of fear.  “What if the dogs aren’t taken care of?” “What if someone breaks into the house?” “What if the plane falls out of the sky?” “What if a terrorist bombs the subway?”  You get the picture.

I compartmentalize the what ifs, because the potential for change and the potential for fun and the potential for adventure are a part of what makes my life worth living.  If I sat on the couch all year watching soap operas, I become a part of the walking (or sitting) dead, and there are way too many of those out there!  The only life I’m sure I have is this one, and I don’t want to waste it!

So, ask yourself, “What are my ‘what ifs’”?  Acknowledge them, and then safely tuck them away.  If you weigh yourself down with too many of them, you will never get to live the life you were meant to.

My biggest fear is that I come to the end of my life not having lived it.  I think I shall put that in my “what if” compartment.

Now, go and find adventure.  I dare you!

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Worst/Best Things I’ve Eaten in the UK

Can I tell you the horror stories of my initiation into British food back in 1981? I have to laugh now about how naïve I really was! I honestly thought of England as, basically, another USA only with cooler accents.  And a Royal family.  Little did I know upon my first day in the UK that my dream was about to come to a screeching halt.

When asked if I wanted a sandwich for lunch at my B&B on that first day, I answered yes to a ham and cheese. As it turns out, that would be ham and cheese with no mayo… just a little sliver of butter. No juicy lettuce or tomato either. Just ham. And cheese.

Things didn’t get better when I was served baked beans on toast for breakfast. Oh, and they extolled the merits of Marmite, but don’t you believe them! Marmite is actually axle grease in a jar (ok, maybe it’s a yeast extract, but it looks and smells like axle grease!).

My apple pie didn’t come with ice cream, but had heavy cream poured over it. And when they talk about a delicacy called black pudding, don’t you touch it! It’s congealed blood!

Hamburgers and sausages were mixed with so much filler that you couldn’t taste the meat. And sandwiches didn’t have pickles – they had sliced cucumbers. English pickle is a nasty concoction sort of like a very vinegary chutney.

Thankfully, things have changed since those days. Now, there are gourmet English chefs like Jaimie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Heston Blumenthal. These folks appreciate good quality food and have done a lot to advance English cookery.

Another big advance (if you want to call it that) is the advent of more American franchises in the UK. You can hardly walk around a corner without seeing a Burger King, McDonalds, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. British tastes are changing and obesity rates are rising. (Apparently waistlines are proportionate to the amount of American food in your diet.)

However, if you get a Burger King burger, it actually *tastes* like a burger. That’s the tradeoff. Another trade-off is the loss of a cultural feel to England. You used to *know* what English food was. Now it’s just American food in England. The British are losing their culinary heredity. Like I said, good and bad.

For some of the very BEST things I’ve eaten in England, I have to say that the Battersea Pie Company makes an amazing Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The English also make some excellent fish n chips (if you don’t mind eating fried foods).

Another thing I loved about England were the afternoon teas.  I’m very up with tiny sandwiches and desserts.

My suggestion to travelers to the UK is to research a bit for the type of food you want to eat. If you want to try a good fish n chips shop, ask the locals on Trip Advisor forums to recommend one close to you. If you want a traditional Sunday Roast lunch, see what others are reviewing highly and put that on your list. And, for afternoon tea, you have your pick of so many wonderful tea rooms, it will be a hard choice. So, have your reservation in hand and your belt loosened! Culinary adventures abound in England – do your best make sure they are good ones. Bon appétit!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Things Stumbled Upon

You all know how much of a planner I am.  I actually have to plan spontaneous time into my schedule!  Still, I want to make sure you understand the difference between being well-planned and being too regimented.  I’ll give you a for instance.

In the late 80s, I planned a European vacation for myself and my (now) ex. It had so many highlights and timetables and small windows for error that we spent nearly the whole time worried about making the next time slot!  I never wanted to be tied to a schedule like that again.  So, these days when I plan, it’s with the knowledge that some parts of the plan will not happen (and that’s way ok with me!).  You never know what you’ll discover unawares when you least expect it.

One year, I traveled alone to the UK.  Now, one of the nice things about a BritRail pass is that you can take off whenever you like to wherever you like.  Having done about a minute’s research on Wales, I decided to do a spontaneous visit to Llandudno/Conwy.  I had no other idea of a plan in my head than that I would reach the rail station at Conwy.  Upon alighting the train, I went straight to the Visitor information centre and booked a room at a suggested B&B.  This began a magical couple of days where I visited places like the Great Orme and the Alice in Wonderland museum.  My B&B actually connected to the walls of Conwy Castle via a lush, green lawn.  I was in heaven!

So, what new stumbles await me this year?  Some of them are actually occurring during my trip planning.  Here’s what I mean.

I made plans for our trip months ago.  Only a few weeks back did I realize we would actually be in town for the Queen’s 90th and the Trooping of the Color.  I did a little digging, and found out you can be placed in a lottery for box seats to the event.  We’re waiting to hear that we got those seats! 

I was reading up on pubs and found that there are several very historic pubs in London that I might try.

Also, by happy accident, I learned that you can actually book a tour and afternoon tea at the Houses of Parliament.  We are booked and ready!

On my last trip to England, they had recently replaced the flooring in the Tower Bridge with a glass walkway.  Great way to see the Thames and to do something a little stomach churning at the same time!

Finally, I learned of a place called the Sky Garden which offers panoramic views of London for free (though you do have to book a time to come).  Why pay for the London Eye when you can do this for free?

As you can see, there are so many paths to think about when traveling.  And, sometimes, the best answer to what to do is to let your nose guide you.  You never know where you’ll end up!

Sky Garden, London

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Will He or Won’t He? An American’s Perspective on the English Monarchy

I have spent quite a bit of time studying the British monarchy.  It’s the crème de la crème of monarchies worldwide and has become quite a showcase for an entire culture.  Still, there are rumblings about what will happen with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

In January of 1649, Charles I was beheaded for treason and the country overthrown in favor of a republic.  And, though he may choose not to keep his given name when he takes over the throne, Charles Philip Arthur George may be facing a similar dilemma.  He’s just unpopular. 

The heir to the kingdom hasn’t helped his case with the highly publicized divorce to his wife, Princess Diana or by subsequently marrying his mistress.  Still, Charles, does keep trying.  He constantly lobbies (meddles with?) Parliament for causes that interest him.  Though, to his credit, of all the royals, he was the only one who correctly judged the mood of the people at Diana’s death by having her remains lie in state at St. James’ Palace and Kensington Palace. 

So, who is this man who would be king?  Is he as dense as the media seem to make him out to be?  Or is he a shrewd businessman who meddles way too much in public affairs?

The answer seems to be as convoluted as the question.  While Charles is the first heir apparent to earn a university degree, he’s been linked to bad personal decisions most of his life.  Like Edward VIII, he ended up marrying a divorcee, but unlike Edward, it is not in his mind to abdicate.  Even though Camilla’s popularity rating shows that 50% of the population don’t think she should be queen, her popularity is steadily rising.  In fact, some credit her with boosting Prince Charles’ own popularity in Britain. 

But, all this is smoke and mirrors.  Anyone can create a poll or declare the prince popular. Is Charles smart enough to be King?  Well, there are many sides to being a ruling monarch, and the current Queen Elizabeth never had a formal education.  She didn’t turn out badly. 

As far as business savvy and financial wealth, the Windsors are not only supported by a state income (the Queen gets $83.8 million per year), but there are numerous personal holdings that bring the Queen’s net worth up to about $425 million.  Prince Charles, according to sources, is worth about $210 million.  Much of this is provided from the Duchy of Cornwall and businesses surrounding it.  The Duchy is tax exempt, but Prince Charles voluntarily pays income tax and makes much of his personal income from the annual net surplus of the Duchy. This makes the Duchy a very lucrative business proposition for him!  In addition to the $25 million per annum state salary, Charles and wife Camilla are not doing badly.

But does a shrewd, wealthy, businessman who meddles in public affairs and has no emotional common sense belong on the throne of England? Let’s look at history.

Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, also had a long wait for the throne, and also made poor personal decisions (he was known in some circles as Edward the Caresser). Yet, as king, he was beloved and seen as diplomatic and even “laid back” after so many years of the haughty Queen Victoria.  Charles is not Edward, however.  A shy, retiring, and self-conscious man, Charles doesn’t have the charisma to pull off his princeship, so how will he ever be accepted as a viable king? 

It comes down to this:
  1. How beloved is the monarchy?  As an institution, it defines the entire British culture.  I don’t see the country voting it down.
  2. Is there a legal way to circumvent Charles ascending the throne?  Not unless laws are changed.  Though Charles doesn’t appear to be as popular as many of his predecessors, I don’t think he is unpopular enough for the courts to change the constitution over.
  3. Edward VII only lasted nine years as king due to ascending the throne at an advanced age. Even if/when Charles takes the throne, it is likely he won’t be there long.
When Cromwell died, the British people had had enough of a British republic and re-established the monarchy – though not to its former glory, at least to its former glamor.  Four-hundred years later, the memory is still alive.  The British people spoke once and said, “We want a monarchy!” Some traditions die hard, and the monarchy is steeped with tradition.

Finally, something I haven’t discussed yet is the popularity of the young royals, William and Kate, Harry, and the rest.  While the country would probably rather bypass Charles and go straight to William and Kate, I’m not sure how much William and Kate are invested in the monarchy.  My belief is that if William had his choice, he would give up the crown for a job in the Royal Air Force and remain a relative unknown with his wife and raising a family.  I think he will do his duty, but once QE II passes, we’ve probably seen the last of the truly dedicated monarchs.  Those to whom the monarchy means more than duty.  More than a crown and an annual income.  It is the very heart of an entire nation.