Friday, 27 March 2015

March in England

Oh how I love having clothes drying on the line outside again.  It’s been at least four long months since I’ve been able to dry clothes outside and I am sick of hanging things over the radiators inside our house.  By the middle of March, the weather is nice (sometimes anyway) and the days are long enough once again to let Mother Nature dry our clothing.  A gently breeze, sunshine and a temperature hovering around 50 degrees F is all it takes.  This is the perfect day for drying clothes. 

March 18 - birthday night.  Eric turned the big 4-2 today.  He’s like a fine bottle of wine – gets better with age.  The girls were so excited to celebrate his birthday.  

Leah made gift certificates for him (how he actually redeems them and for what I haven’t figured out yet), and Ellie presented him with a big bar of Cadbury chocolate that she bought for him on her recent school field trip to the chocolate factory.  Somehow our sugar girl managed to save that bar for her daddy for over three weeks.  Truly a display of love.

Eric got himself a birthday present – a big box of good Belgium beer.  He has nearly gone through his beer collection from our trip to Belgium last October.  He enjoys Belgium beer a lot.  Can you tell?  Luckily for me, he ordered a box of Belgium fruit beer as well, which is my new favorite.   

Along with the flavors we have already tried, the box contained a few new interesting varieties – mango (which I can’t wait to try), ninkeberry (what the heck is a nickeberry?), coconut (interesting), and banana (whaaaaat?).  I’m not sure about banana flavored beer.  I will keep you posted.    

One rainy Saturday in the beginning of March we decided to visit the botanical gardens in Birmingham.  Before we headed to the gardens, we grabbed some lunch in Birmingham.  We've been hungry for some good old American food and look what we found!  Perfect.  

There are some glasshouses at the botanical garden and being inside a hot, steamy room full of lush, green tropical plants sounded great as winter wasn’t ready to leave England yet.  We brought umbrellas and did walk around outside as well.   

We had the place to ourselves – go figure.  There was an aviary full of colorful birds.  Leah became fast friends with this beautiful white parakeet.   

When we approached his cage, he was sitting high up on a branch but as soon as he saw Leah, using his beak and claws he climbed his way down to her level to look her right in the eyes.  She loved it!  She loves animals and didn’t want to leave him.  As we walked away, he started squawking.  I think he sensed something about her too.  

Life isn’t all relaxation and travel for us however.  Leah spent one Saturday afternoon working on a big school project that was due that following week.  She had to write a story about a dragon, complete with a rough draft that she needed to neatly copy onto lined paper, as well as doing three illustrations of the story.  She worked on it almost everyday after school for two weeks, plus this Saturday afternoon.  

Friday, March 20.  It’s 9:30 in the morning.  When we walked to school this morning it was a bright sunny day.  The sun is still out, the sky clear of clouds, but the day is getting dimmer and dimmer.  We are experiencing around a 90% eclipse of the sun.  My normally sun filled dining room where I sit and type this feels more like the evening as the sun is about to dip below the horizon. I join my neighbors outside with a couple sheets of paper, one with a tiny pinhole in it.  When I hold the two sheets up together, the sun shines through the pinhole to the second sheet, but instead of a perfectly round circle of light, I see a sliver that looks more like a quarter moon.  The dog across the street is staring up at the sun.  Does he sense something happening?  We are lucky to be experiencing this.  We are living in England after all and England isn’t exactly known for it’s bright sunny weather so to get a perfect morning to view an eclipse is a rare treat indeed.

I was walking back home from dropping the girls off at school the other morning with my neighbor and she starts to tell me about taking her daughter, who goes to school with Ellie and Leah, to see Richard III that past weekend.  As she went on and on about having to stand in line and worrying that her daughter would get bored and antsy but how important she felt it was to see this, I was wracking my brain to try and figure out what the heck she was talking about.  She was relaying this weekend outing to me in such a casual manner that I felt I should really know what she’s talking about but frankly, I had no idea.  They went to see Richard III???  Did she mean the Shakespeare play?  No, her daughter seems too young for that.  There isn’t any present royalty named Richard, is there?  There’s Phillip, and Charles, and William and Harry of course.  And little George.  But I really don’t think there is a Richard III right now. 
Finally, I decided I had to ask, even if I sounded like a big idiot. 
“What do you mean you went to see Richard III this weekend?”
“Didn’t you know?  They found him buried under a parking lot of a grocery store in Leicester,” she said.  "No one knew where he was buried for the past 500 years but they finally found him."
I stifled the laugh that almost involuntarily sprang from my mouth.  Was I really walking home from dropping my kids off at school having a conversation about a King whose body has been missing for over 5 centuries recently being found under a parking lot not far from where we currently live?  Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. 

It's not that I really found this funny.  It's just that to my American brain this all just sounded a bit, well, to be honest, absurd.  I mean, when was the last time the remains of a 500 year old King were found under a parking lot in Indiana?  Uhhhh, let me see - never!  After I regained my composure, I headed home and immediately got on the computer.  I typed in Richard III and there it was, the entire store, and let me tell you - Richard III's history reads like a good Ken Follett novel.  His brother, King Edward IV, died in 1483.  The King’s 12-year-old son Edward V was first in line to succeed him.  Being that he was so young, Richard III, his uncle, was declared Lord Protector of the realm putting him in charge of protecting and escorting the young future King in his travels.  Edward V’s coronation day was set, but before it happened, his father’s marriage to his mother was declared invalid and suddenly, he found himself no longer in the running for King.  But guess who was next in line?  Richard III became King and interestingly enough, his brother’s sons were never seen again.  It was suspected that they were murdered at Richard III’s instructions.  

Richard III’s reign didn’t last long however as there were two rebellions against him over the next two years.  The first he survived, but the second he didn’t.  He died at the Battle of Bosworth field in Leicestershire having only reigned as King for two short years.   He was buried without much ceremony and somehow over the course of the past 500 years the exact location of his burial was lost, only to be rediscovered again in 2013 under a car park in Leicester.  There was some debate as to where Richard III's final resting place should be as he died in Leicestershire but was from Yorkshire, but finally it was decided that he would be forever interned in Leicester Cathedral.  On March 22, my neighbor took her daughter to see his procession through Leicestershire to Leicester Cathedral and that is what she meant by going to see Richard III.  Leicestershire is what we Americans would consider the county that we live in here in England so this all happened very close to home.  And that is just another typical day in England.

Looking forward, we’ll be in England for the birth of royal baby no. 2 who is expected to arrive in mid to late April.  I hope he or she doesn’t decide to come early because Ellie and Leah have a two-week break from school that starts today and we are about to do some traveling.  That means I won’t be posting on the blog for a couple of weeks.  Where are we going you ask?  Well, as this is the end of my blog post, I’ll use this opportunity to give you a little hint.  See you in two weeks.  Arrivederci!


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

A Beautiful Late Winter Day in the Peak District

A week before the start of spring.   
A beautiful, sunny Saturday.   
The temperature in the mid 50s.   
A lunch is packed.   
Along with some water bottles.   
It’s time for a hike in the Peak District. 

We don’t have far to go.  The Peak District lies mostly in northern Derbyshire, an hour and a half drive from home.  We are heading to a quant little village called Castleton.   

The village of Castleton sitting below it's once mighty castle.
Castleton is a great base for exploring the Peak District with plenty of pubs, shops and beautiful stone buildings, and it has a castle, or the remains of one anyway.  But at one time, the castle looked like this.

It’s called Peveril Castle and it dates back a 1000 years.  

It’s a steep hike up a narrow trail to get to the remains that sit on the side of the hill as if it’s ready to slip down into the village below. 

After exploring the ruins, we head off into the hills of the Peak District.  The Peak District was the first national park in the UK.  It’s large rolling green hills are crisscrossed with stone walls

and dotted with sheep and farm fields.

There are trees, but for the most part, the area we are visiting is quite barren, beautiful in it’s simplicity.  Rocky crags jut out from the valley here and there. 

We follow the valley up, 

and up, (Do sheep charge? I don't think so but I really don't want to find out the hard way.  Well, no way around them in this narrow, rocky valley, so I guess we'll find out.)

and up, (The hiking directions say to follow the rock wall on your right.  Check!)

stopping here and there to explore and play.  

We scramble over a stone wall, up one side

and down the other. 

Finally we reach the top of the hill.  It’s windy, so we use the beautiful stone walls as a wind break and find a place to sit and enjoy our lunch.  We are a hungry bunch after hiking uphill for a couple of hours so lunch doesn’t take long. 

We meant to take a circular route, following the valley up into the high hills but following a different path back down to Castleton.  We got lost.  Well, maybe lost isn’t the correct word because we knew how to get back to the car.  We just couldn’t figure out exactly where our directions were pointing us to go.  There are trails everywhere, heading off across fields, down narrow dirt farm lanes, and through other valleys.  Which path to follow is not always apparent, especially when there are 6 or 7 different options.  Keep the stone wall to your right the directions say.  But there are stone walls everywhere.  Which one are we suppose to keep to our right?  Head diagonally across the field the directions continue.  Hmm.  We could go diagonally across a field in about twelve different directions from here.

We trekked on for awhile, guessing which direction we were to go, but the further we walked, the less confident we became that we were following the correct path.  It was getting late and we didn't have much time left on our parking sticker.  If we didn't get back to the car soon and plug some more coins into the park and display machine, we risked getting a hefty parking ticket.  Finally, we decided to just turn around and go back the way we came.  

Retracing our steps back down through the valley wasn’t so bad because you get the chance to take in the scenery from a different perspective and notice things you missed on the way up.   

 We pass beneath what is left of Peveril Castle again sitting high on it's bluff.

And we made it back to the car just in time to plug in a few more coins so we could enjoy a beverage in one of the local pubs before heading heading home.  

That was our hike in the Peak District.  Barren but beautiful.  And that is just another Saturday in England.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A Trip to Starbucks in England

It’s 10:55 am and I am sitting in a Starbucks in England having a cappuccino.  I’m heading to Ikea to pick up a couple of end tables that we need for our house, but I got distracted by the TK Maxx store (same store as TJ Maxx but in the UK it’s a K and not a J) and another home goods type store, so I needed a little pick me up before heading into the behemoth that is Ikea. 

Starbucks is packed.  Luckily, one table opens up just as I get my coffee.  As I settle in and start sipping the frothy mix, I look around.  I am the only person sitting at a table by myself.  Everyone else in the coffee shop is sitting with at least one other person.  There is no computer or Ipad in sight.  The only cell phone I see is sitting quietly on a table between it’s two companions but it doesn’t get touched the entire time I am there.  I do not see a single to go cup, only real ceramic mugs. 

Everyone in Starbucks is here to enjoy the company and the coffee and that is all.  They drink from real coffee mugs as they chat away about this or that.  No one is working, talking on their cell phone, or just stopping in to grab a quick coffee before heading off to the next thing on their busy schedule.  The only cell phone that I see get used is my own as I snap the picture below.  This is a typical coffee shop in Europe.      

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Great London Walkabout

My favorite way to experience a city is on foot.  To walk and see and feel the heartbeat of the city as life happens around you.  My mind clears.  I’m not focused on anything in particular, but yet I notice everything - the colors, the sounds, the smells, the buildings, the trees, the people.  For a moment I feel as if I am part of this great city.  I feel as if it has welcomed me with open arms and is sharing it’s beauty, it’s energy, it’s pulse with me for a short time.  I’m not naïve.  There’s a lot I don’t see.  Not everything is good here.  I don’t see the everyday life struggles going on behind closed doors but I know they are there.  I can only see the façade of this great city and feel the energy of it, and for now that is enough.  It’s overwhelming, yet serene.  It’s bustling, yet calming.  It’s full of strangers, yet feels so warm and welcoming.  That is what it feels to wander the streets of London. 

The Great Walkabout
Saturday was going to be a day of sightseeing in London.  The night before, back in the hotel, we planned out our route.  The next morning, we put on good walking shoes, I stuffed a couple of water bottles into my purse, and we jumped onto the Underground heading towards Buckingham Palace, principle residence and primary workplace of the monarchy of the United Kingdom.  We weren’t the only people who came to see Buckingham Palace this day.  

We had planned our arrival at Buckingham well.  Shortly after we got there, the Guard Band that precedes the Changing of the Guard ceremony came marching down the street.

Their band uniforms have an eerie resemblance to the uniforms of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards at her castle.

The band was followed a short time later by the guards themselves on horseback.   

This procession marched down the street in their brilliant red uniforms, passing right in front of us and disappearing behind the gates of Buckingham Palace where the actual changing of the guards would take place. 

We turned around and headed through St. James Park, another one of the eight Royal Parks in London, towards Westminster Abbey just a couple of blocks away.   

Westminster Abbey is steeped in British history, being the site of many royal weddings (the most recent Prince William and Princess Kate's), funerals (Princess Diana’s funeral was held here), and coronations of British and English monarchs.  It’s the burial site of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Geoffrey Chaucer among other notable figures.  We didn’t go inside the great Abbey.  Eric and I have been inside before and the girls, well let’s just say visiting another church in Europe isn’t high on their list of things to do.  Someday, when they are older, if they come back to London, they will appreciate it more and they can visit it then. 

Off in the distance we could see Big Ben.  We headed behind Westminster Abbey where the Palace of Westminster sits on the banks of the River Thames, also known as the House of Parliament.   

This magnificently ornate building is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the British Parliament.  

It’s impossible to fit this enormous building into one photo from such close range.

And attached to the House of Parliament is one of the most iconic images of London - Big Ben.  Did you know that Big Ben isn’t actually the clock but the bell inside the clock?  Neither did I.   

We crossed the mighty River Thames.  It is possible to get the entire House of Parliament building in one frame from the other side of the River.

Just on the other side of the river sits the London Eye, also known as the Millennium Wheel because, you guessed it, it was formally opened on December 31, 1999.  It’s the tallest ferris wheel in Europe and when it was constructed back in 1999, it was the tallest in the world.  I can attest to its size.  It is tall!  Scary tall, and I’m not afraid of heights.  Each air-conditioned capsule holds 25 people who are free to walk around inside and look at the spectacular view it gives of London.  We didn’t ride on the great ferris wheel.  Given the size, the girls were very hesitant, the lines were very long, and the tickets are expensive.  I would have enjoyed it, but not with a child who was freaked out and crying the entire time because they wanted off.  We’ve had this happen on rides before.  Maybe next time. 

We were going to follow the River Thames towards the beautiful Tower Bridge, another iconic symbol of London.  There is a wonderful walkway that follows along the banks of the River that would take us right there.  We couldn’t see the Tower Bridge at this point.  It was around the bend in the River and then down a ways.  I hadn’t realized how far of a walk it would be having failed to look up that little piece of information when we were planning our walkabout.  But ignorance is bliss right?  And we love to walk so off we went.  

It wasn’t a dull walk mind you.  We were in London after all.  The scenery along the River Thames is beautiful and we had plenty of entertainment from all sorts of street performers.  

This lady in gold is heading home after her shift is over.  Or maybe to her next performing location.  Her act is to stand perfectly still as if she was a statue on a box.  Her costume was magnificent and if it weren’t for the eerily human eyes peering out of her head under the gold makeup, she would have truly been a statue. 

Lunch!  A hot dog and a bag of chips.  Very American I know, but easy to eat while you walk and take in the sights.  Not the cuisine we would normally do, but we were all hungry and didn’t really feel like sitting down inside for a meal just yet. 

Another performer, or maybe a sand artist is a better description.  His work was amazing, but this is England and it was sad to think that at any moment the skies could open and wash this beautiful sculpture away. 

The Millennium Bridge.  As we walked past it, the Harry Potter fan in me could see death eaters whizzing under the bridge causing it to fall apart and drop into the river below as they left a trail of death and destruction in their wake upon orders from their master, Lord Voldemort.  In reality, the Bridge opened in June 2000 but didn’t stay open for long as there were reports of an uncomfortable swaying motion as you crossed the bridge.  After only two days, the Bridge was closed for modifications to eliminate the wobble.  It wouldn’t reopen for two more years.

We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre which sits just off the banks of the River Thames.  The original Globe Theatre was built by Shakespeare’s playing company back in 1599.  The Theatre you see today is a reconstruct which opened in 1997 close to the site of the original theatre. 

Another street performer – a dancing boy.  No, just kidding.  The real act is the gentleman playing the tuba which flames shot out of every now and again.  Now how does he do that?  The little boy who didn’t look tall enough to be walking – he was just a spectator passing by who seemed to really like the tuba music and decided to join the act and show off his dancing ability.  Together they drew quite the crowd and laughs.

Finally we made it to our destination – the great Tower Bridge, completed in 1894.  What a majestic bridge this is.  As we approached, we were treated to the sight of the drawbridge located between the two towers being raised to let a sailboat pass.  This stopped traffic for a long time and in London, there is a lot of traffic.   As it went back down, we made our way to the bridge to cross over on foot. which is a much faster way to cross this bridge. 

Just on the other side of the River Thames sits the Tower of London.  It looks more like a fortress than a tower to me, but that is the name.  The Tower of London dates back to 1066 and throughout it’s very long history has served as a royal residence, a prison, its been besieged several times as its control is important to the control of the entire country, and currently it houses the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.   We had hoped to get inside to see the Crown Jewels among other things but it was not to be.  By the time we arrived after our long walk, it was mid afternoon and the Tower would only be open for a couple more hours.  We were told the line to see the Crown Jewels was almost two hours long and for the steep price of admission, it wasn’t quite worth it on that day.  Oh well, we still thoroughly enjoyed our walk along the Thames. 

We grabbed some delicious warm roasted almonds from a street vendor to snack on and decided to head towards St. Paul’s Cathedral which would take us through the business district of London.  As we started our walk towards the Cathedral, we passed this pub.  Oh I just love the names of the pubs here in England!  Not sure this one sounds very appetizing though. 

London is full of amazing and interesting skyscrapers.  This unique building which looks as if it is either broken or not completed at the top is called The Shard.  I don’t think I need to explain why.  

We actually passed it on our walk along the south bank of the Thames but since I am sharing skyscrapers with you here, I thought this was a more appropriate place for the photo.

The Leadenhall Building – also know as “the Cheesegrater.” 

This is by far one of the coolest buildings I have ever seen.  We called it The Egg, but in London it is know as The Gherkin.  A gherkin is a specific type of small pickled cucumber.  I bet the building process was a wonder to watch as this unique example of contemporary architecture took shape in the London skyline.

And this one we never figured out.  Is it some kind of a heating/cooling system running all these huge buildings in the heart of London, or is it a piece of contemporary architecture intended to look like the mechanical innards of one of these great skyscrapers but actually filled with offices or apartments?  In London, it could be either.

There were all sorts of beautiful buildings we passed as we wandered the streets of the business district, 

and there were plenty of places to sit and rest our weary feet while Eric ran around taking photo after photo after photo.  

Finally, after nearly six miles of walking, we made it to St. Paul’s Cathedral.   

This great Cathedral was the site of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, held funerals for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and survived bombings during World War II.  Again, we did not go inside.  Eric and I were in this beautiful church many years ago, climbing 528 stairs to stand atop of the great dome for a view of London from above.  You have to pay an admission fee to get inside of the Cathedral, and after six miles of walking, we knew the girls would not be interested in climbing 528 stairs with us again no matter how beautiful the view is.  

By now, it was late afternoon and there had been very little whining despite the long trek we had made that day around London.  Eric had been on his best behavior so a treat was in order.

Just kidding.  The girls had been real troopers all day so we ducked into a cozy pub for a bit of a rest and some refreshments. 

We had dinner reservations at an Indian joint in Soho so we jumped back onto the Underground and headed down a quiet side street to the Masala Zone where we enjoyed curries, naan, chutneys and a few things I’m not quite sure what they were but they tasted great.

As we left the restaurant, we ran into a surprise just down the street and let me tell you, it is a strange feeling when you are on a different continent and run into something out of the blue that instantly brings you a little taste of home, figuratively speaking of course (thought I needed to add that since we had just left a restaurant).  Can you tell what store this is?  

How about now?   

To some of you, this will mean nothing.  But for me, I grew up visiting the city of Red Wing, Minnesota that sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river on a regular basis, home of the great made in the USA work boot - Red Wing Shoes.  In fact, we drive through Red Wing all the time when we are traveling to visit Eric’s brother and his family.   My sister works for the Red Wing school district.  So I have known the Red Wing Shoe brand my entire life and you can imagine my surprise when we ran into this store, a meer two blocks off of Regent Street, one of the most popular shopping streets in London where they usually sell shoes that look like this.

This is expensive real estate.  Who knew Red Wing work boots are a fashion statement!

This was our last night in London so we strolled the streets taking in the lights,

passed by a double-decker party bus filled with colorful balloons and complete with a DJ in the front who was pumping out tunes for the entire street to dance to,

stopped at Hamleys Toy Store, a five-floor world of fun complete with kind of creepy life-sized Lego replicas of Prince William and Princess Kate at their wedding, alongside Prince Harry and Prince Charles (this is probably the closest we will ever actually get to royalty so I will take it - oh and sorry for the photo quality - this was taken with the camera on my phone),

and at last, we found ourselves back in the middle of bustling Piccadilly Circus. 

It was late, but we weren’t quite done yet.  There was one more stop on the Underground to make.  We wanted to see Big Ben at night and it did not disappoint. 

And across the River Thames was the spectacular sight of the great London Eye lit up in red.  Now we were done.  Time to head back to the hotel.  What a great day in London.  I don’t know if we will make it back again during our two year stay here in England.  We have so many places yet to visit.  Oh, wait – I have to come back.  I never got my I LOVE LONDON t-shirt.  I can’t buy an I LOVE LONDON t-shirt anywhere but in London, right?