Letter from Felixstowe: Scotland, Either Way

Scotland, either way

Scotland, either way

Last week in the Scottish Highlands, we saw ‘YES’ banners everywhere. This week, back in Suffolk on a river cruise, we met a couple from Edinburgh, currently living in England. They said they were incensed they don’t have a vote in this week’s independence referendum and believe they were excluded because Scots living elsewhere in the UK would likely vote ‘NO.’

I think it’s fair to say most of our friends would prefer – overwhelmingly – to have Scotland remain in the UK.

As for me, American by birth and Australian by citizenship, I was raised to applaud and revere the USA’s fight for independence, with the Revolutionary War also named the War of Independence. It was of course a totally different situation and the countries are an ocean apart, but I think many people can appreciate a nation’s impulse and pride and yearning to be, and be seen as, independent.

In Australia, I witnessed the republic referendum in November 1999. During those years, which included the run-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, I was impressed over and over again by the country’s energy, capability, intelligence, optimism, beauty, and success on countless levels. Yet for various reasons, the referendum was defeated. A key voice in the ‘No’ campaign belonged to monarchists, and many of our Aussie friends valued the country’s connection to the monarchy and wanted it to continue.

In all the discussion around the Scotland referendum, I haven’t heard much about the monarchy (though we haven’t listened to all the debates).

The entire UK seems to have been electrified by today’s referendum. It’s a momentous time for everyone and either way, change will reverberate throughout the UK in months and years to come.

And either way, we’ll always love Scotland.

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Letter from Scotland: Five Highlights of the Highlands

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Visiting the Highlands in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, which occurs on 18 September, is quite an experience.

From the moment we arrived and noticed ‘YES’ banners posted on street poles lining Inverness’s main thoroughfare to a visit to Culloden Moor, the site of a historic battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army were defeated in bloody battle by English government forces, we’ve been struck by how vital and important the issue of Scottish independence is to the Highlands.

Even as this momentous question will be decided in next week’s vote, visiting the battlefield – and then Clava Cairns, a 4,000+ year-old burial site – has made me equally aware of how small we really are in the infinite sweep of history and time.

Small or not, I’m here this week, with Clive and his daughter Kylie, in a beautiful part of a beautiful country. I’ve enjoyed taking the back seat (most of the time) and our days have been active and full.

With still one day to go, my top five Highland highlights are:

1 The scenery. Sunny, cloudy or in-between, it’s fantastic. No doubt the Highlands are also gorgeous in winter, though we’re not sure we’d be brave enough to visit then.

2 Walking. Our walk along the footpath at the top of Aonoch Mor in the Nevis Range is probably my single favourite activity of this trip. (The gondola ride up and down is also terrific.) In Inverness itself, we enjoyed an evening walk along the River Ness riverside pathways and islands.

A Highland walk - Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

3 Boat ride down the Caledonian Canal into Loch Ness & a visit to what’s left of Urquhart Castle. I’m usually not a castle person, and despite the rampant ‘Nessie’ industry (similar to local souvenir-selling the world over), the views and setting are worth the trip.

4 Inverness Museum & Art Gallery. I can’t recommend this small, quality museum highly enough. The ground floor contains superb exhibits of Highlands natural history, geology, civilisations and languages. The first floor contains equally impressive exhibits on Highland history from the Jacobites to the 20th century.

5 Dores. This is a tiny town on the eastern shore of Loch Ness, with a historic inn where the waiter introduced us to Irn-Bru and Black Isle Blonde and the beach out back offers views down the length of the loch.

6 Bonus find: Nairn Bookshop. A fantastic independent bookshop in the charming harbour town of Nairn, on the Moray Firth 15 miles east of Inverness.

A Highland walk - view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Musical Flag-Waving and a Diamond Jubilee Exhibit in London

Waving the Union Jack at Royal Albert Hall


During our previous London interlude, while taking an escalator in the Underground, we noticed an advertising poster for the Royal Philharmonic ‘Classical Spectacular’  at Royal Albert Hall. The program included British sing-along, flag-waving favourites ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ as well as other classical gems. The performance date happened to be just two days before our next trip to Paris, and we also wanted to see a photography exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum,  ‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, a Diamond Jubliee Celebration’.

We loved the Philharmonic program, with my favourites being — in addition to the above-mentioned pieces — a rousing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’, which brought tears to my eyes, and the tenor Jesus Leon singing Nessun Dorma (twice, thanks to an enthusiastic request for an encore).

Victoria & Albert Museum garden, London

The V&A photography exhibit, a collection of intimate family portraits, provides a wonderful glimpse into the Queen as a young woman and mother. It’s an excellent complement to the exhibit we saw last month at Windsor Castle, ‘The Queen: 60 Photographs for 60 Years’. We also enjoyed viewing the V&A collection of painting and sketches by Suffolk artist John Constable.

Afterwards, coffee (of course!), in the sunlit museum garden.

Coffee in V&A Museum garden, London

As so often happens when we make the effort to take advantage of these kinds of activities, we’re reminded of how much this great city has to offer and how much more we hope to do here in the future.

Cheers for now and more soon from Paris.

London Interlude

Clive at Windsor Castle

London, always a great city, has a special buzz this year with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Olympics. We spent a couple days here en route to the U.S.

Walking for miles tops our list of favourite activities. No shopping this time, as we’re travelling light, but we gazed into many shop windows, enjoyed a browse at Waterstone’s, and admired the city’s great architecture. Sadly, unsightly tents and porta-loos still mar the area around St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

Tents around St. Paul's

Australia House, a grand building in London.

Australia House

We happened to be in London on Valentine’s Day. On an evening walk near our hotel, an intimate brasserie drew us in with its set-price menu, each copy tied in satin ribbon; complimentary flutes of Prosecco;  and a red rose and glowing candle on each table.

Usually we dine at home on Valentine’s Day, so lingering over a candlelight dinner in London was an extra-special treat.

Valentine's dinner in London

A classic black comedy, ‘The Ladykillers’ — tickets purchased at a discount booth in Leicester Square — entertained and amused us at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. 

A Day at the Castle

St. George's Chapel, WIndsor Castle

For the better part of a crisp, sunny day we explored the grounds and interior public areas of Windsor Castle, my first visit to the castle that’s been a home of the sovereign for over 900 years.

Many family groups were at the castle as it was half-term school holidays, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Boys and girls alike, including two groups of French schoolchildren, ooh-ed and aah-ed over Queen Mary’s dollhouse. My favourites were St. George’s Chapel and the wonderful exhibit ‘The Queen 60 Photographs for 60 Years’  in the Drawings Gallery.

In one of several gift shops on the castle grounds, we bought a Jubilee gift book for my mother, who loves the Queen and always reminds Clive of our family’s English ancestors.

Windsor Castle is trialling a simple café within the castle walls. After admiring the many grand rooms of the state apartments, we were ready to relax with the all-important coffee.

Coffee at Windsor Castle

We left Windsor Castle and London eager to return, as always — maybe next month, on our way to Paris. In the meantime, we’ve been having a great visit with my mother in the U.S. and will soon return to England.

Me at Windsor station

Cheers for now and more soon.

Our Very Own Bradshaw’s British Railway Handbook

Bradshaw's Railway Handbook

Felixstowe Suffolk UK

In today’s post, we received our copy of Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland, a facsimile of the Victorian guide by George Bradshaw, originally published in 1863.

Clive and I recently discovered and immediately became addicted to Series 3 of the BBC television travel series ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, presented by Michael Portillo, a former British Cabinet minister and the only man I’ve ever thought looks great in a pink jacket (not that I’ve seen that many men in pink jackets).

By a pleasant coincidence, in the first week of this series, Portillo travelled to our new home town of  Felixstowe as part of his journey in Suffolk.

'agriculture on the most improved principles' = Bradshaw on Suffolk

We’ve enjoyed the program no matter where Michael Portillo goes. The mix of scenery, history, and comparison to modern times is enthralling. We can’t wait to watch DVDs of Series 1 and 2.

In the meantime, Series 3 continues and we can peruse our lovely new guide. According to a recent article in the Oxford Times, the reprint jumped to number 6 on the amazon UK bestseller list as a result of the television series.

I have an uneasy relationship with my Kindle, but that’s a subject for a separate post. Today I’ll just say that for all the reading I do electronically, I still adore physical books.

Paging through Bradshaw's Railway Handbook

Cheers for now and more soon.

A Scilly Kind of Love

Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Clive and I recently had the privilege of visiting the Isles of Scilly, located 28 miles from the coast of Cornwall here in the United Kingdom.

From the Harbour at historic Hugh Town on the main island of St. Mary’s, to the white sand beaches, walking paths, and spectacular scenery of the other four inhabited islands, also known as ‘off-islands’ — Bryher, Tresco, St. Agnes, and St. Martin’s — we were dazzled. Along with Clive’s cousin and wife, who had been to ‘the Scillies’ before and like countless others had vowed to return, we fell in love with the place.

In the days and weeks ahead, I hope to share more about this magical part of England.  This trip also marked my introduction to Cornwall, home of St. Michael’s Mount (which we climbed), flavourful local ales (which we drank), and some of the best crab, creamy cheeses, and ice cream I’ve ever had (which, needless to say, we ate).

We’ve barely had time to unpack, do the laundry, and repack before we depart for Australia in two days, to visit family and friends. But the Isles of Scilly have cast their spell.

Tresco, Isles of Scilly

Cheers for now and more soon.

Hurricanes and Heathrow Pods

Pod transport to Terminal 5, Heathrow

Felixstowe Suffolk UK

Clive and I were supposed to arrive in New Jersey this past weekend. Thanks to Hurricane Irene, cancelled flights, and a multitude of family conversations and decisions, we never got there.

Amidst two days of tears and frustration, we did discover something new and cool: the transport pods to and from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and its Business Parking lot.

On prior travels, we had noticed these driverless, futuristic-looking little pods, moving on elevated tracks around Terminal 5. This time, we rode in them.

The Heathrow Pods

By Terminal 5 Parking Pod, Heathrow Airport

Clive discovered what we now call ‘Pod Parking’ via his usual great trip planning and Internet research, specifically when he looked at options for long-term parking.

Pod parking, or ‘Terminal 5 Business Parking’ as it is officially known, was easy to use. The cost was only £12/day because we booked ahead on the Internet, competitive with other long-term parking. We drove through the ‘Business Parking’ gate and our number (license) plate was read automatically. After parking in lot ‘B’, we walked a few steps to a waiting pod, followed instructions on the screen to open the door and start the ‘journey’, and enjoyed the 2-minute ride to Terminal 5.

The pods hold up to four people, maybe fewer if anyone has a huge suitcase. The only drawback we could think of might be if it were pouring rain, but even then, the distance from the pod station to the farthest parking space looked much less than the distance from a typical mall to spaces in the parking lot.

One of the Pods seen from the parking lot

As for the rest of our (non) trip, it just didn’t turn out the way we envisioned it would.

It Was Supposed to Be Different

Our cancelled five-day ‘weekend’ was supposed to have been a new-and-improved way to visit my mother and family in the U.S. Now that we’re settled, more or less, in England (our ‘Top Ten’ activities are still happening — see Parts 1-5 here and 6-10 here), our plan was to try a shorter visit, and presuming it worked, replicate the approach and visit more frequently in the future.

For this short trip, our intention was also to do nothing other than simply be with my mother, without the often-additional stress of holidays and/or birthdays and other large family events, which have become increasingly difficult for her to handle. We were excited to travel with only a backpack, as we recently did with Paris (we’re fortunate to be able to leave some clothes and toiletries at my mother’s). And we were looking forward to going to Heathrow the night before departure, to avoid early morning peak hour traffic — delays are not uncommon on London’s M25 ring road — and to having a relaxing evening before flying out the next morning.

It was all set.

What Happened Instead

Pods ready and waiting at Heathrow

We knew the situation was dicey, but hoped we’d arrive in New Jersey before Irene worked her way up the coast. We spent five hours on the M25 because it was the Friday afternoon of a bank holiday weekend (similar to Labor Day weekend in the U.S.), so it wasn’t quite the relaxing trip we’d hoped for. We listened to hurricane forecasts on BBC Radio 2, pondered our options, and reassured each other, ‘This is why we’re going the evening before — so we don’t have to worry about delays on flight day.’

After a long, mostly-awake overnight with many phone calls back and forth to my mother and son in the U.S. and Clive tracking flight status online, all flights were ultimately cancelled. Taking a Pod back to the parking lot was the only thing that made us smile. We felt very Jetsons and the track reminded me of the old New Jersey Palisades Park Wild Mouse ride — though the Pod is very smooth and calm.

Wild Mouse track? No, Heathrow Pod track

Regrouping

I’ve learned from experience that these things happen when you and your family are miles, and oceans, apart. We’re thankful we didn’t have a life-and-death situation, and that loved ones up and down the U.S. east coast are safe and well.

If nothing else, we are pleased to have discovered Pod Parking and to know it’s a cost-effective, easy-to-use option for future trips.

Now we’re regrouping and booking flights to the U.S. for a later date. In the immediate future is a trip to England’s Scilly Isles, about which we’re very excited. I hope storms stay away, since we’re taking a ferry from Penzance to the island of St Mary’s. No pod parking options for this one!

Clive at a Pod station

Cheers for now and stay well, everyone.

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