For Christmas, I wanted to go on a day trip to London to see some favorite sites and a play that was starring some actors I’d had a longtime interest in.

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That’s the nice thing about living on the train line to London—one hour and you’re in the heart of things

We poked around the British Museum for a while, particularly my favorite Assyrian exhibits.

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I really like the detail and emotion in the lion's face

I really like the detail and emotion in the lion’s face

I booked a reservation at the newly renovated Court Restaurant to have lunch which was great as always.

bread and artichokes to start

bread and artichokes to start

We went by Harrods which was absolutely mobbed but fun as an anthropological insight on humans and marketing. I had an unfortunate moment as the thing I’d been waiting to get myself for Christmas had gone out of stock while I was waiting so I need to make another expedition later on with different goals. (Definitely a First World problem, but I’d been looking forward to it a lot and spent some extensive time picking the present out online because I never got myself a birthday gift before and this was going to be it finally.)

We walked around Covent Garden after that and wound up at Wagamama, an Asian noodle bar (I think that’s how you’d describe it) for dinner before the play.

vegetarian pad thai

vegetarian pad thai

"Ginny...did you leave your bok choy lying out?"

“Ginny…did you leave your bok choy lying out?”

The day before my employee had asked me very casually which theater our play was going to be in (the Gielgud) because there had been a huge accident at the Apollo the night before in which the ceiling collapsed in the middle of a performance and lots of people were injured (though no deaths).

Gielgud ceiling completely intact

Gielgud ceiling completely intact

Fortunately that wasn’t the Gielgud though so our tickets didn’t go to waste, thank God. I’d gotten third row seats on the aisle for Bear because he gets very cramped and uncomfortable in theater seats especially without enough leg room. Aisle was definitely the right call!

From the third row -- you could practically count pores on actors

From the third row — you could practically count pores on actors

The show was really good although, hard to believe, even darker than the original Patricia Highsmith novel. We’ve seen several different kinds of shows (a mystery and two musicals) but this was the first straight up drama and the acting was really excellent:

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Laurence Fox (of the acting Fox family, Inspector Lewis), Jack Huston (descended from John, Walter and Anjelica, Boardwalk Empire),

Laurence Fox (of the acting Fox family, Inspector Lewis) and Jack Huston (descended from John, Walter and Anjelica, Boardwalk Empire),

Miranda Raison (MI-5/Spooks) with Laurence Fox

Miranda Raison (MI-5/Spooks) with Laurence Fox

MyAnna Buring (The Descent, Ripper Street, Downton Abbey)

MyAnna Buring (The Descent, Ripper Street, Downton Abbey)

Imogen Stubbs (something of an obsession of mine since 1995—Anna Lee, A Summer Story, 12th Night, Jack and Sarah, on stage as Desdemona in Othello with Ian McKellan as Iago and eight zillion other productions)

Imogen Stubbs (something of an obsession of mine since 1995—Anna Lee, A Summer Story, 12th Night, Jack and Sarah, on stage as Desdemona in Othello with Ian McKellan as Iago and eight zillion other productions)

(l-r) Jack Huston, Imogen Stubbs, , Miranda Raison, Laurence Fox, MyAnna Buring

(l-r) Jack Huston, Imogen Stubbs, Christian McKay, Miranda Raison, Laurence Fox, MyAnna Buring

So I’m still on the question for my Christmas present, which is actually my birthday present from August that I never got, but I’ll find it in the end and maybe it’ll mean another trip to London. 🙂

This week has been the end (mostly) of a very long saga of accounting issues stretching back to April. Apparently getting yourself set up the first time for a tax cycle in the UK is a lot more complex than you might imagine, but it all got filed on Thursday. We may still have one more thing to dispute later on if HMRC (the UK version of the IRS) decides to press it, but that might not come up. I cannot stress enough the cumulative building stress that I was under and the relief that I felt when we got the final email from the accountants saying everything was filed and, by the way, Merry Christmas.

One thing to know though, before skipping along to the travelogue, is that I do not recover instantly from stress. While in no way does this compare with the experience of an Iraqi vet, in the same way that you can’t expect a returning soldier to simply kick their heels up and pop open a cold one because they’re out of the trenches now, neither can I go frolicking through the fields with daffodils and kittens. I tried to explain this to Bear, between unpredictable emotional outbursts, and it went something like this:

Bear: But it’s OK, why are you crying? It’s over!

Me: <sniff> Why did Tom Hanks break down at the end of Captain Phillips once the Navy SEALs rescued him and he was finally safe?

Bear: Because he wanted another Oscar?

I had somewhat calmed down by Saturday thanks to two trips to the movies to see Frozen and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, and Bear planned a trip up to York to see some spots we had missed. I really like York a lot and was trying to look forward to it and ended up napping most of the way until we arrived.

Byland Abbey is a really extensive Cistercian abbey in the Yorkshire moors that, like many, has fallen into ruins thanks to Henry VIII, but what’s left is still impressive.

Unusual rose window at the end, an influence of Gothic architecture

Unusual rose window at the end, an influence of Gothic architecture

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Ammonite fossils are commonly found in Yorkshire and we found this one in the stones used for the building

Ammonite fossils are commonly found in Yorkshire and we found this one in the stones used for the building

The window was fairly whole until the late 1800s when the circular frame collapsed.

The window was fairly whole until the late 1800s when the circular frame collapsed.

We had tried to find Helmsley Castle last year when we first came to Yorkshire but it’s oddly located off the main square with absolutely not one single sign pointing to it. Given how freaking large the complex is, that’s pretty amazing.

Helmsley Castle

Helmsley Castle

Leona would be very disappointed in the state of the moat

Leona would be very disappointed in the state of the moat

Bridge over one of the two moats

Bridge over one of the two moats

Museum inside

Museum inside

Monks still active today!

Monks still active today!

The East Tower

The East Tower

View of the Helmsley town from the castle hill

View of the Helmsley town from the castle hill

We talked to the guys at Helmsley about the Jorvik Center in York which we haven’t been to and we’re on the fence about it. It looks kinda cheesy in some of the pictures and we have a firm rule against mannequins, but reputable people keep telling us it was a good experience (including an archaeologist at Creswell Crags who sounded exactly like Jane Horrocks, which is a little terrifying). The guys said it was a little dated but that the collections were really good so we think we’ll break down and do it.

Around the corner from the castle, there was an amazing bakery (Auntie Anne’s Bakery) that had won some awards and we picked up scones and some cranberry cookies with tea. Scones are generally very dry and even hard, but these were light and beautifully fluffy, almost like Southern biscuits. I nearly cried.

To get to the next site, we took the off road through the moors and on some single track roads which led to some really nice scenic spots while eating scones and cookies and getting crumbs basically everywhere.

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The next stop, Mount Grace Priory, was a two in one with a manor house from the 1800s that was part of an abbey that was still accessible. The driving force behind the house was a man named Lowthian Bell who was a follower of the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement started by William Morris, and much of the house was decorated/designed through Morris’ company.

The house portion

The house portion

Admittedly, not the best lit photo of the priory ruins

Admittedly, not the best lit photo of the priory ruins

Honest to God English holly (no sign of ivy)

Honest to God English holly (no sign of ivy)

Bell also built a recreation of a monk’s cell as it would have been for the Carthusian monks who founded the abbey. There weren’t many Carthusian houses in England as the order were hermits, which is not to say that they were ascetics. The restoration/recreation of the cell was really nice and comfortable and each one had its own latrine and running water in addition to private chambers and being part of a cloistered area with its own tiny gardens.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

This sculpture is of a Madonna but in a very different pose. The plaque contained a statement from the artist detailing his vision of her as strong and determined, offering up her child, the Christ, up to heaven even as she received him, and it’s interesting to see how her posture forms a cross. It was supposed to combine the nativity, the annunciation and the crucifixion all in one.

We headed in to York and had dinner at the best restaurant in York (IMHO), La Rustique, which is an amazing French place with actual French waitstaff. I know this not only because of the accent but because of how nice they are to us. Go for the set menu of starter, entree and dessert for just 15 pounds and you get amazing food, like Bear’s seafood linguini.

Seafood linguini

Seafood linguini

We made a good stab at visiting Howden Minster on the way back south but it was already pitch black by then (which happens at 4:30 p.m. now) and while we found it, it was so dark I nearly twisted my ankle just walking through the graveyard. Cue the spooky music, it would’ve been a perfect setting for a horror movie. (I’ve seen pictures online though and it’s absolutely amazing so we’re not claiming that one yet until we go back by daylight.)

I was still really tired from the week and, frankly, the last eight months since the accounting stuff started in April, so we have a deal that tomorrow I’m going to go to the movies all day courtesy of the Cineworld Unlimited card. We’re on track to get a Cineworld theater of our own in St. Neots in mid-February, just about two months from now. Since the project has undergone some bizarre setbacks so far, including being built 88 cm off the blueprints which resulted in a woman who shall not be named protesting that it was too close to her house and getting the entire structure torn down so they had to start over again, I’m not making plans just yet, but I am excited. However, this week the News Crier had a story about how a worker at the site was crushed between an earth mover and a wall (I guess he didn’t see it coming?) and has serious injuries to his pelvis (not a good area in general), so who knows what that will mean for the opening. My co-worker Sheila says that after all my anxious monitoring of the progress that they should let me cut the ribbon. I don’t know about all that, but I certainly plan to be there for it.

Blenheim Palace

At this point we’re starting to have seen pretty much all reasonable sites of historical interest, so we’re having to research to find new weekend expedition destinations. We’d been over near Oxford in the summer and spotted Blenheim Palace but also spotted the ticket price which suggested it was more than a 30 minute stopover, so we went back this weekend.

We had hoped to go with our friend Elaine to see the place and all the Christmas decorations but there was a last minute change as she had to play hostess, and if I were one of Joe’s mates coming over for the party, I would definitely appreciate her presence and help in dishing up pizza and working the video projector in the shed. (I still want a shed…)

Not a butcher's shop

Not a butcher’s shop

Bear had gotten the impression that Winston Churchhill was the son of a shopkeeper who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and was completely working class. This, apparently, is not the case. The Palace, the only residence with that designation which isn’t occupied by royalty in the country, was built in the early 1700s by Churchill’s ancestors, the Dukes of Marlborough (and in particular the first Duchess, Sarah, who is described as “cantankerous but capable of great charm”).

Nor a bakery

Nor a bakery

The style is English Baroque which was only around for a very brief time. I can’t say I’m much on architectural history but there was a lot of drama and conflict and at one point Capability Brown was brought in to help with damming up a river to create a lake.

That's' maybe a third of the original bridge

That’s’ maybe a third of the original bridge

There’s a subplot here about how you can exchange your day ticket for an annual pass at no charge once you get inside and they take your picture for the photo ID. My theory is that at 21 pounds for a single day they have to give you something so you don’t feel yourself being scalped. Instead you think, “Ooo, I’ve got a whole year and if I just come back two more times, this will be really cheap!”

I think it was a chapel...

I think it was a chapel…

The house/palace was in full Christmas decor as a Dickensian Christmas and they had a group of a capella carolers in the main area which, except for the large number of featured children, were really nice. I have a violent aversion to children’s choirs. There’s something about the pitch of their voices that’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, although obviously that’s a personal issue as the Vienna Boys’ Choir is internationally renowned and technically proficient. I had been hoping to listen more to the carols but after four that opened with two verses of kids piping along I had to flee.

No sugar plum fairies in sight

No sugar plum fairies in sight

Slap a wreath on

Slap a wreath on

The house itself was as ornate in some ways as Versailles and you could even see the room where Churchill had been born. Thankfully no one saw a need for a mannequin diorama of the event.

The long library room designed by Christopher Wren with a pipe organ at one end

The long library room designed by Christopher Wren with a pipe organ at one end

“…a Welte automatic player was added in 1931 … This remained in use for some time: the Duke of the time is said to have frequently sat at the organ bench and pretended to play the organ to his guests and they would applaud at the end. This practice is said to have been halted abruptly when the player started before the Duke had reached the organ.” — Blenheim Palace article

Yep, it's a palace

Yep, it’s a palace

There was an exhibition about Churchill’s life also which I wasn’t completely sure about. Some of it was interesting and new to me, but overall it didn’t feel as though it had been recently curated. I know that’s tacky of me but I can’t help noticing these things when I go to exhibitions and the captions on photos are obviously printed on paper, cut out and sort of glued in place it seems and you wonder if anyone has met a decent graphic designer recently.

The one stunning thing I discovered was a connection between Churchill and the founder of Hallmark greeting cards. Apparently he was a painter on the side and they used some of his designs for cards. I guess if politics don’t work out, you just do what you can to get by.

Waterfront Cafe in the white tents

Waterfront Cafe in the white tents

We had lunch overlooking some gardens at the Waterfront (very original) cafe where Bear had a chicken curry and I had a vegetarian risotto…with chicken and chorizo. Awesome. I love this country. We walked around the gardens after lunch and spent some time photographing the grounds.

Italian Garden

Italian Garden

Pretty tree. I miss pretty trees.

Pretty tree. I miss pretty trees.

We’re going to very cautiously try some limited blogging. The reasons this has fallen off are numerous:

1) too busy
2) exhausted
3) writing about the traveling that makes me exhausted makes me even more exhausted and cranky as well
4) I lost the use of my regular camera back in March and I really dislike the substitutes I’m working with. An iPod and a cell phone aren’t the same thing and I despise spending an hour doing nothing but re-sizing photos to upload to a website with limited space.

What we’ve been up to since June:

  • a week in the Lake and Peak District
  • trip to Ireland
  • Bear played tour guide with friends from America for about 3 weeks
  • college friends from America came for about two weeks
  • long Birthday weekend on the Jurassic Coast
  • went to London several times including a show (We Will Rock You)
  • a week in Cornwall
  • family from American came for 10 days which included 4 days in Paris

Geez, I got tired just typing that.

Bear kindly made breakfast and wisely brought a Diet Coke along as well. I was dragging after a kind of long work week but it had ended really well and we went to see Catching Fire on Friday night for our Nando’s date. (The movie was really excellent, btw.)

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He had picked out some sites around Shropshire that we hadn’t hit on previous trips and it’s easy to talk me into going to Shrewsbury. First, we went to Wall to see the Roman site of an encampment that had been an outpost there. It was a wall. As in, you find the Roman baths in Bath and the wall in…Wall.

Wall

Wall

On the way back to the car pack, I spotted a library in a phone booth. Really.

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Then we made a quick stop at the White Lady Priory which is like a related site to the bigger Boscobel House.

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When Charles II made an ill advised attempt in 1551 to reclaim his throne (his father Charles I having been executed in 1549 during the English Civil War, thanks Cromwell), he lost big at the Battle of Worcester and had to hide out before escaping back to France.

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The first place he hid was at the White Ladies Priory and then moved over to Boscobel House which was owned by a family of Catholic sympathizers. (It seems not very many people liked Cromwell as he canceled Christmas, literally). Fortunately, for Charles II to blend in, the Penderel family were all very tall as he was.

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We signed up for the tour of the house after some confusion about when it started. They said 11:30, I checked my watch and said, Oh, 5 minutes, great, and they said, no, 47 minutes. Turns out, that’s precisely how long the tour takes. Not sure why they thought  the duration was what I meant, but there you go–welcome to England.

Gardens

Gardens

We also got to see the famous Royal Oak which Charles II hid in for a day as a part of his escape attempt while the soldiers and dogs were searching for him below. The oak has suffered recently, having been struck by lightning in 2000, so Prince Charles came back to help plant a sapling from an acorn of the original oak and it’s growing well.

Royal Oak

Royal Oak

After a snack and some drinks, we headed over to Lilleshall Abbey another Augustinian abbey where Bear climbed to the top of a tower without telling me and scared the crap out of me.

Lillehall Abbey

Lilleshall Abbey

Bear in the tower, all is clear

Bear in the tower, all is clear

View from the tower

View from the tower

Moreton Corbet Castle was next, and it did deserve the castle title at one point although it looked more like a decimated manor house.

The most interesting thing at the castle

The most interesting thing at the castle

We stopped by Haughmond Abbey which is completely sealed at this time of year, but that didn’t stop us from going to Buildwas Abbey (also in Shropshire) so we’re getting credit for that one.

At that point, food seemed like a good idea so we headed into Shrewsbury which is a surprisingly good place to find food. However, you also have to pay for parking and all I had was a paper ten pound note which won’t help you when you have to go to pay and display.

A note about Pay and Display. That’s the term for putting money in a meter, getting a paper ticket, putting it on your dash, then inevitably having a misunderstanding and getting a ticket later. If I were crazy enough to permanently move to this country, I would open a strip club and call it Pay and Display. I’m so serious. The girls would dress like cops and meter maids. You think I’m joking.

We were turned away from several restaurants at 3 p.m., places with several open tables, and finally got tired or walking around and feeling cold and hungry. The last waiter was nice about it and said it was because the kitchen was slammed with simultaneous orders, but I wasn’t very impressed with their management. He was being cheerful and laughing, but said, “Well, there’s a McDonald’s one street over” which sort of snapped something and I said, “We’ve been here two years and haven’t eaten in one yet so I think we’ll keep holding on.” Just because you’re American doesn’t mean you want to eat at McDonald’s.

We wound up at the Loch Fyne Seafood Grill which seemed delighted to see us, promised “there would be room at the inn” and found a window table right away.

However, we did have a small revelation, besides that you just have to keep walking and asking and asking to find anywhere to eat. Like British drivers who do not move over when you’re trying to merge on to the highway, British diners do not believe it’s their responsibility to scoot their chairs up to let you through to your adjoining table, even when the hostess is there and asking them to do so. The woman in question simply stared at me uncomprehending and didn’t budge. We’re just lucky I could go on tip toe and squeeze behind her and then she still stared at me like she had no idea what I was up to. Bear’s theory is that when you’re from a tiny island, then you don’t have much space but you really feel protective and want to retain it. We’ve had this happen also in Waitrose when people simply block entire aisles with their carts and look at you like you’re the crazy one for trying to ease by them.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to catch up with the backlog of photos or that I want to since it makes me tired just to look at, but at least here’s proof that we’re not dead. 🙂

Just exhausted. Ever since Bear went back to America in March, I’ve been pretty overwhelmed with work and other details and didn’t get out and travel much. He’s back safely now and we’ve had some adventures since but I haven’t had the time to write them up, nor the energy I’m afraid. But never fear, we’re still alive and well!

Recent trips:

  • Shropshire
  • a week in the Vezere Valley in the Dordogne region of France
  • Pink in concert at the O2
  • a week in Bucharest, Romania (work conference)
  • Oxfordshire/Glouchestershire
  • The Lake District
  • a week in the Peak District (holiday cottage and hiking)

We are not dead. I promise.

Bear is in America at the moment, roaming around like the free creature he is, and I’m working and on foot after hours which means no exotic travels. I do have some backlog to post, but for some reason it’s not as much fun to do it without Bear here.

Upcoming adventures will be amazing though! We have a week in France at a converted monastery, visiting caves with prehistoric paintings and exploring along rivers, then I’m off to Romania for a conference, plus a major concert at the O2 in London so stay tuned.

Munk

Plans had been underway for a while to have a James Bond Skyfall party at Elaine and Jon’s house in the shed (which makes it sound tiny and dark but it’s really, really nice) with the projector and the theater sound system…and snacks and drinks and couches and blankets. It’s sort of like Heaven except for the part where you have to get up and leave (although apparently it is possible to join the family by stealthily, over a period of time, forgetting to go home).

This is what Tesco used to promote the sale of Skyfall. It scared the crap out of me.

This is what Tesco used to promote the sale of Skyfall. It scared the crap out of me.

They also had a table in the lobby area promoting paintball for weekend parties, stag (bachelor) parties and hen (bachelorette) parties. I had no idea the average UK citizen would be comfortable with a gun shaped object.

They also had a table in the lobby area promoting paintball for weekend parties, stag (bachelor) nights and hen (bachelorette) nights. I really didn’t think that would fly in the UK.

Of course, this is the company that brought you horse meat burgers and lasagna (not on purpose).

Of course, this is the company that brought you horse meat burgers and lasagna (not on purpose).

I had brought my Mom’s Praline Brownies to the Avengers party in the summer, so it was requested that I bring them again which I was all too happy to do as it’s an incredible recipe and shockingly easy to make. Since it was requested, and I’m not one to keep a good recipe to myself, here you go:

Mom’s Praline Brownies

1 package of brownie mix in a box (any kind, fudgy ones are good)
3/4 cup (175 ml) light brown sugar (like muscavado)
3/4 cup (175 ml) chopped pecans (walnuts will do in a pinch, but it’s not a praline without pecans)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) butter/margarine

Mix up the brownie mix according to whatever the box tells you to do. Spread it in the pan (whatever is recommended by the box). Melt the butter in the microwave in a bowl. Add the brown sugar and mix up it up with a fork so the butter soaks in. Add the chopped pecans and mix it up using your fingers. Drop/spread the nut/sugar/butter mixture evenly all over the top of the brownies. Bake according to the box’s directions.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s all that’s involved. Stand back and wait for your taste buds to implode.

(not my photo, but that's exactly what they look like)

(not my photo, but that’s exactly what they look like)

So we came with two pans in hand to debate which was the best Bond, watch the movie, applaud the return of the classic Aston Martin, sniffle a little for Judy Dench’s transition as M, and eat an entire pan of brownies in the first two hours.

The second pan got boxed up and sent down to Elaine's daughter Bryony at university in Cornwall and promptly eaten by her friends Ginny and

The second pan got boxed up and sent down to Elaine’s daughter Bryony at university in Cornwall and promptly eaten by her friends Ginny and Miranda. Quote, “The brownies went down like a storm.”

Meredith had passed on watching with us (“Oh, Daniel Craig,” she said politely, “he’s not my Bond.”) but came back afterwards to the shed to hang around afterwards, watching funny YouTube videos, including some of Pink’s greatest live performances (the 2010 Grammys, naturally), the Miss Congeniality trailer, and this amazing male circus acrobat who also does a pole dancing routine (clothed) that has to be seen to be believed.

Some really funny remarks came out of the night as well:

<group chorusing>: What happens at the police station, stays at the police station.
Meredith: Well, ‘cept for the criminals. They tend to let them out, don’t they?

Elaine: I used to like some Lady Gaga, but I can’t now really.
Me: Why is that?
Elaine: Well, my Mum goes to a seniors activity class–Jon calls it Grannycize–and apparently they used one of her songs for a routine, so we were in the car one day and Lady Gaga came on and Mum says, “Oh, I quite like this” and starts doing her hands in the air–rah Rah, ra-ah-ah, ra rah.”
Me: I think…I think that would traumatize me too.

Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah Roma, roma, ma Gaga, ooh la la

Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah Roma, roma, ma Gaga, ooh la la

The only down side was that I was having so much fun that I walked off and left my purse in the shed and Elaine had to bring it to me the next day. Even that turned out to be a really fantastic thing though because Bear had decided that it was time to get new skillets for the kitchen because we had basically cooked the heck out of the two that we had been using for the last year. It takes nothing to talk me into a field trip to IKEA, which we mentioned to Elaine when I called about the purse, and she asked if she could come along, so we all piled in the car and headed off to Milton Keynes, the land of roundabouts.

Elaine found lots of things she didn’t realize she needed, which of course is the danger of IKEA.

Octopus shaped clothesline hangers to get your socks dry

Octopus shaped clothesline hangers to get your socks dry

Why get one when you can have one in each color?

Why get one when you can have one in each color?

We also had to stop by the drink machine to see if it would be giving us some free items as it usually does.

There's always one jumper, just waiting for you to hip check the machine to help it along the path it's already chosen.

There’s always one jumper, just waiting for you to hip check the machine to help it along the path it’s already chosen.

Bear also had to re-visit one of his many sites of shame which we can’t talk about publicly, but if you want the whole story please feel free to email me privately.

It's a story worth hearing--you really should ask.

It’s a story worth hearing–you really should ask.

And of course a quick stop by the Swedish food mart. My friend Kristina pointed out once that the food at IKEA is sort of like what aliens would come up with if they decided to be sneaky and try to re-create human food.

Entire tubes of fish paste--exactly what I wanted to snag for a snack on the ride home.

Entire tubes of fish paste–exactly what I wanted to snag for a snack on the ride home.

I wanted to stop by a store nearby which is supposed to be a kind of UK equivalent to Gap/OldNavy (sort of) and then we realized Elaine had never been to Nandos so we dragged her over to the one in the Xscape center for dinner and  a really nice time visiting and chatting (we got the low down on the difference between a Pikey, a Gypsy, and a Traveller), and then we conscripted her to help us check the tire pressure and get air in the rear tire to be ready for our Saturday expedition.

All in all, a really amazingly fun start to the weekend–I can’t believe how blessed we’ve been to meet such nice people who are really very tolerant of us and completely willing to go along with our last minute plans.

And look what we found in the bag when we got home. (Cats make the perfect accessory to any room.)

And look what we found in the bag when we got home. (Cats make the perfect accessory to any room.)

Picking up from Stokesay Castle and the first half of the day, we went over to Mortimer’s Castle, Wigmore, which had been really extensive back in the day. The Mortimer family had been intertwined with the royal family at the height of their power, with Roger Mortimer having an affair with Isabella, mother of Edward III. (Edward didn’t take too kindly to this, despite Isabella’s famous plea, “Not poor Mortimer!”)

It's like an arch for hobbits.

It’s like an arch for hobbits.

There’s quite a hike along a muddy public footpath to reach the castle ruins, but the views are really nice and it was a nice day, despite the mud.

This is just begging for some kind of Gothic painting with a knight on a solitary quest.

This is just begging for some kind of Gothic painting with a knight on a solitary quest.

The area has also been designated as a wildlife area and we spotted a rabbit enjoying the sun by a thicket. He pulled back a bit into the thorny bramble, but was happy enough to stay close while we passed by.

The view of the surrounding countryside was commanding and you could easily see why it was a good spot for a castle.

The view of the surrounding countryside was commanding and you could easily see why it was a good spot for a castle.

Next, Bear had set a course to Edvin Loach Church and he did very well in getting us there despite the best efforts of the road signs.

Before

Before

After (You're welcome)

After (You’re welcome)

The church dated from the 1100s and the old structure had mostly collapsed.

Probably not holding services this week. Or the next.

Probably not holding services this week. Or the next.

But the "new" church seemed to be up to the task.

But the “new” church seemed to be up to the task.

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No name on this grave marker, just "God is Love"

No name on this grave marker, just “God is Love”

My stomach voted it was time for lunch so we ducked into the Worcester Nando’s (first time at this one) before going to the final big stop of the day, Whitley Court and Gardens.

We hadn’t quite realized just how large an undertaking Whitley was from the brochure and were a little blown away by the extent of the gardens leading up to the extravagant Italian style palace.

You're guided along a path by a lake leading up to the kiosk where they offer you an audio tour and look a little sad if you don't take it.

You’re guided along a path by a lake leading up to the kiosk where they offer you an audio tour and look a little sad if you don’t take it.

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The roof, windows and most walls were gone, giving it an open air Lincoln Memorial kind of feeling, but it was flat out gorgeous.

This is the small fountain. The small one. As in, there's a bigger one around the corner.

This is the small fountain. The small one. As in, there’s a bigger one around the corner.

The biggest freaking fountain I've seen since Trevi in Rome, and the house ain't that small either.

The biggest freaking fountain I’ve seen since Trevi in Rome, and the house ain’t that small either.

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The lady who got our tickets had said that we should check out the church as well because it was “quite nice”. I never know how to take “quite nice” here in England. Often it means “well, it’s OK if there’s nothing else on television” but in this case it meant “incredibly gorgeous, drop your jaw at the door, sit down in a pew and thank Jesus you woke up that morning.”

Just try to breathe while standing in front of that.

Just try to breathe while standing in front of that.

I picked this photo especially because Bear is in it. He likes to walk into my shots. I stop to take a photo and he keeps sailing. I got tired of asking him to move out of the way.

I picked this photo especially because Bear is in it. He likes to walk into my shots. I stop to take a photo and he keeps sailing. I got tired of asking him to move out of the way.

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We made it out by 4 p.m. closing time because, as we’ve established, English people are like trolls except it’s the dark that turns them into stone. Must be home under cover! For us though, that meant it was time to dash home so we could let Juliet out, who had been such a good, patient kitty all day, so she could still get a little play time in the garden on Prison Day.

Thank God you're home. I've been sitting on this step all day.

Thank God you’re home. I’ve been sitting on this step all day.

After our spontaneous expedition to IKEA the night before with Elaine, we kept to our plans to get up early and head out to explore some spots below Oxford that had prehistoric and archaeological significance, which I admit are my favorite kind.

For some reason I woke up humming several recurring bars from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, which isn’t quite as strange as it sounds since a) I was raised on a fair amount of Joan Baez folk music and b) we had been talking about race relations and the Old South last night with Elaine at Nandos. I couldn’t shake it though and kept humming them so I finally cracked out the iPad and played it through the stereo, which led to a brief but spirited discussion of if the original version by The Band was better because at least they sounded like they could be Civil War vets. (I come squarely down on the side of Baez’s superior, soaring soprano.)

I also found an original version of “Diamonds and Rust” as well as a duet recorded in the 90s of Baez singing with Mary Chapin Carpenter. You never know what’s lurking in your iPad. Somehow that discussion led to debating what the most distinctive bass line in rock music is and Bear sort of lost that one (he said Eric Clapton’s “The Badge”) to me (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) because he couldn’t hum his choice, but he could hum “The Chain”, so obviously “The Chain” was the most distinctive.

We found the Roman amphitheatre in Cirencester very easily thanks to Uma the sat nav and there was a Scout troop nearby with a nice little car park. Since it was 8 a.m., no one was there. Why? Because the English are not so fond of early rising as I have discovered. They don’t even like to keep the stores open particularly long. Our local coffee shops (Costa and Cafe Nero, very respectable chains) close at 6 o’clock sharp. Stores close at 6 too. Even Waitrose doesn’t really like to stay open. Gas stations/garages aren’t open in the morning, so if you’re going on an expedition, best fuel up the day before because it could be 8 a.m. or 9 before you find an open gas station.

At any rate, the amphitheatre itself is just the earthworks now, but it was the second largest in England at one time, capable of holding 8,000.

8,000 people -- Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights, Roman style

Bear did not however re-enact his “Are you not entertained?” speech which he did in the Chester arena.

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Next we headed to the Rodmarton Long Barrow, which Bear was a little unsure of locating at first. “I took satellite photos,” he said grimly. “We’ll see.” This never bodes well, but on this occasion there was actually a clear sign out by the roadway, which is something of a novelty with things like barrows and neolithic sites.

This will be going in my Blair Witch portfolio.

This will be going in my Blair Witch portfolio.

What a novel thought--putting a sign out by the road so you know there's something hiding in the field.

What a novel thought–putting a sign out by the road so you know there’s something hiding in the field.

Last year, Bear had surprised me on one of our excursions by locating some of the famous white horse chalk carvings in the hills through Wiltshire and he drove us by several of them which you can see from quite a distance. They’re really striking, very beautiful and unusual. The banners of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings have an emblem very similar to the Wiltshire horses, which I can’t think is an accident.

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Today we went to the Uffington White Horse which is one of the largest and most famous of the cut chalk carvings. It’s believed to be over 3,000 years old.

(aerial view...I'm not that tall)

(aerial view…I’m not that tall)

We were allowed to drive most of the way up to the  carving, which was fortunate since it was lightly snowing that day, and then we hiked the remainder.

I was standing right by the eye! I was standing RIGHT BY THE EYE!!!!

I was standing right by the eye! I was standing RIGHT BY THE EYE!!!!

Traditionally, every seven years during a fair held on White Horse Hill, they would scour and touch up the horse by repairing the chalk filled pits, but it needs more frequent attention now. (Bear helped by removing some trash from part of what I think was the horse’s mane).

Two other sites were connected to the Uffington Horse, so we hiked a little further up and visited Uffington Castle, which is an Iron Age hill fort that was built on the remnants of a Bronze Age fort. The Romans occupied it at one point (isn’t that just like them?) and left some artifacts as well.

See that concrete post? See those sheep all pointed towards it?

See that concrete post? See those sheep all pointed towards it? That’s how it works with these prehistoric religious sites. The rabbits run the stone circles like at the Ring of Brodgar and the sheep run the square/rectangular stuff, like Maeshowe.

Down the edge of White Horse Hill, which is part of the edge of the Berkshire Downs, you can see Dragon Hill which is the site according to legend where St. George battled and slew the dragon. The leveled off cap is chalk white and no grass grows there, which is where the dragon’s blood spilled.

Dragon Hill

Dragon Hill below the lines of the White Horse — that little bald spot is where the dragon’s blood spilled when George slew the dragon.

There was some minor confusion about how to reach Wayland’s Smithy, the next site which was less than a mile away, since we kept seeing signs that said the Ridgeway was closed to motor traffic, but Bear still managed to get us very close.

As it turned out, Wayland’s Smithy was a very popular site and we saw no less than 14 people either there, on their way back form or on their way going to the smithy. The site is a relatively famous long barrow, built just a few centuries after the one at West Kennet by Avebury which we had visited last year. While there, I overheard a man telling his son that the legend was that you would bring your horse and some money and leave the horse tied up at the Smithy, and that when you returned the next day, the money would be gone and your horse would be shoed courtesy of the Saxon god Wayland.

Blair Witch comes to the Berkshires.

Blair Witch comes to the Berkshires.

When they called it a "long barrow", they weren't kidding.

When they called it a “long barrow”, they weren’t kidding.

On the way to Donnington Castle, I looked up this mysterious Ridgeway which turned out to be extremely interesting. It’s sort of like a prehistoric Appalachian Trail that used to connect the southern coast in Dorset to the Wash area in Norfolk and peoples would migrate along the route and traders used it as well. It runs past some of the most important Bronze Age sacred sites in England, including Avebury, the White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy.

Donnington Castle is most demolished at this point (thanks, Civil War!), but the gatehouse is still standing and very impressive.

Donnington Castle

Donnington Castle

Walking up the hill took a little effort on the heels of White Horse Hill, so I decided that it could count for one of my cardio sessions for the week.

View over Donnington

View over Donnington

Secretly, we've decided we're French (the food, the food) so I got the hat to prove it.

Secretly, we’ve decided we’re French (the food, the food) so I got the hat to prove it. Yes, that’s snow flakes on my glasses.

Bear had planned a stop at a Roman site next, in keeping with the predominantly pre-BC theme of the day. It was a little confusing though as nothing at Silchester seemed to be above ground.

Seriously--there used to be a gigantic Roman town there, but it was abandoned and not re-purposed into a new town. It's all under there. Somewhere.

Seriously–there used to be a gigantic Roman town there, but it was abandoned and not re-purposed into a new town. It’s all under there. Somewhere.

There has been excavation there ongoing since the 1890s though it was a little hard to tell exactly what they had found, and since it was still steadily snowing, we decided that was fine and went on to lunch.

This is where the excavation is taking place. Just not right now.

This is where the excavation is taking place. Just not right now.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to park on Festival Way in Basingstoke, but it’s an experience to be experienced. So to speak. I for one am all for plentiful parking, something that England is sorely in need of, and this place has it in spades. The trick is actually finding your way out of the parking garage. Eventually we fought our way through Debenhams (shoot me if I ever have to work in a department store) and found the Nandos only to learn it was a 20 minute wait for a table. There was a tapas restaurant next door and although I generally am not a fan of Spanish culture, life, fashion, cinema, etc, I do really really really like tapas. (Put olives, cheese and tomatoes in anything and I’m yours.) So I dropped about twice the usual amount but it was for a really good cause!

All kinds of tapas goodness--a Spanish frittata, vegetarian cassoulet, some sort of roasted chicken thighs for Bear, roasted garlic mayo, red pepper sauce...

All kinds of tapas goodness–a Spanish frittata, vegetarian cassoulet, some sort of roasted chicken thighs for Bear, roasted garlic mayo, red pepper sauce…

We had no idea where the car park ticket payment machine was, so we decided to follow some young women with children, but as it turned out they didn’t know either and had been planning to follow us. Thankfully we figured this out in the elevator on the way to the car before we blindly chased our tails. (It’s in parking area C, btw.)

On to Farnham Castle where Bear learned several things, primarily that he was really, really cold. I said it was his own fault for having continued to lose weight and all that essential insulation. We also learned that Farnham Castle has been around since pre-Norman Invasion times and managed to stay in the middle of things but not get completely knocked over, which is a little difficult to pull off. Elizabeth I came and stayed at Farnham for an extended period, possibly to avoid an assassination threat, which right there makes you pretty special as a castle.

All really civilized castles need a good garden to go with them.

All really civilized castles need a good garden to go with them.

the inner keep, of which there were several apparently (some destroyed and others rebuilt on the same foundation)

The interior of the keep, of which there were several apparently (some destroyed and others rebuilt on the same foundation)

Waverley Abbey was nearby, so we managed to squeeze in one more for the day, thus setting a personal best record for most number of English Heritage sites in a single day.

I kind of want this in my backyard. It's not enough that I have a river, now I want a bridge.

I kind of want this in my backyard. It’s not enough that I have a river, now I want a bridge.

The abbey was the first Cistercian abbey founded in England in 1128 and is settled on a really beautiful little stretch of flat pastureland, currently maintained by some placid looking, very large cows. Waverly House (no idea what it is) is located opposite a canal/stream.

Waverley House

Waverley House

Apparently Sir Walter Scott used Waverley Abbey as the inspiration for his novel Waverley, however when I got back to the car and looked it up on Wikipedia, I found that Wikipedia itself disputed this and mentioned that the sign at the entrance had it wrong. Sir Walter Scott probably named his hero after the brand of pen he used to write the novel and not a random abbey.

We'll say he's there for scale and not that he wandered into the picture.

We’ll say he’s there for scale and not that he wandered into the picture.

Gorgeous tree.

Gorgeous tree

If the trunk were teeth though, it would need braces.

If the trunk were teeth though, it would need braces.

But even more interesting to the geek in me was learning that the Waverley Abbey site had been used as a location for the film 28 Days Later for a scene.

Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecross from The Dark Knight) and Selene (Naomie Harris, the new MIss Moneypenny from Skyfall) walking in front of the exact same tree.

Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow from The Dark Knight) and Selene (Naomie Harris, the new Miss Moneypenny from Skyfall) walking in front of the exact same tree.

Since we had brought that movie with us from America, we quickly made  a deal– to pull it out as soon as we got home, put in our 10 pins on the English Heritage map, then put dinner on the table and watch a really fine action-horror movie, one that marked the mainstream breakthrough of the post-apocalyptic zombie survival scenario (followed by the equally awesome 28 Weeks Later). And then I promptly discovered that the movie I actually had was 28 Days with Sandra Bullock, and not 28 Days Later with Cillian Murphy. (My copy is actually somewhere in my storage shed in America.) Sigh.

7 hours, 311 miles, 10 sits, a whole lotta fun

7 hours, 311 miles, 41.5 mpg, 10 sites, a whole lotta fun

Bear had concerns that I would be able to make it up in time for our early departure, which seems very odd to me. I start work every day at 6 a.m. so getting up all of 20 minutes earlier than usual is hardly what I would call cause for concern. Nevertheless, three alarms were set, warnings were given and all went like clockwork. Juliet even got a little outside time in the garden, which she chose to spend huddled despondently on the sidewalk leading to the gate, AKA “the Path of Righteousness”.

Bear had planned the trip, so it was a surprise for me as we went westward through Coventry and Birmingham (most famous, to me at least, as the town where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up).  Along the way, I learned all kinds of interesting things from Bear, most of which need to be fact checked. 1) The Romans were like the Oakland Raiders compared to the other tribes which were like high school football teams (sounds true). 2) Nicky Minaj is either Bahamian or Panamanian (she’s from Trinidad). 3) Alicia Keys played an assassin a movie and had a much larger butt back then (she did play an assassin in Smokin’ Aces but I’m not in a position to evaluate her butt).

You want to tell her that her butt is too big?

You want to tell her that her butt is too big?

The highlight of the drive was my discovering that Bear had switched our thermoses by accident and he spent 30 minutes drinking my tea before I sipped out of my own thermos and found it was a giant mocha coffee (not what I had in mind). “I thought there wasn’t enough sweetener,” he said in a perplexed tone. How in the world you can’t tell the difference between Lady Grey tea and a Nescafe mochachino is beyond me.

Our first stop was at a remote stone circle, Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, southwest of Shrewsbury, just a few miles east of the Welsh border. We had to go off-road a little which might sound difficult to do in a Mercedes. It is.

I don't always go off-road, but when I do, I do it in a Mercedes E-320 sedan with positronic supershift.

I don’t always go off-road, but when I do, I do it in a Mercedes E-320 sedan with positronic supershift.

The sheep farm had some nice roads in place though so we got fairly close before having to park and hoof it up the last hill crest.

For some reason this reminds me of the "One Tin Soldier" song

For some reason this reminds me of the “One Tin Soldier” song

But it doesn't really hold up when there are a few other stones still left.

But it doesn’t really hold up when there are a few other stones still left.

We also spotted a man on an ATV herding sheep, which is something like herding cats but with more wool involved.

Next was Clun Castle on the Welsh Borderlands. It’s unusual because the keep, build in the 1200s, is set into the side of the earthworks mound actually instead of sitting on the crest.

The car park was by a nice little river which formed part of the natural moat.

The car park was by a nice little river which formed part of the natural moat.

The hill is surrounded by a natural moat made out of a good sized stream and you have to hike up a fairly steep rocky path to come up and actually see the remnants of the castle.

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Clun Castle was constructed just before 1300 and went into disuse sometime in the early 1500s. For once this had nothing to do with Henry VIII.

Don't worry, you're safe -- his jeans look like they're pulled up from here.

Don’t worry, you’re safe — his jeans look like they’re pulled up from here.

The best part of climbing around the ruins though was the fact that Bear’s jeans are completely falling off him and he could only make it about 200 yards before they would work down to mid-thigh (once making it to his knees). OK, not everyone will find that as interesting as I do.

Looking out onto the Welsh borderlands

Looking out onto the Welsh borderlands

The second best part of Clun Castle was a 24 hour public toilet. You simply cannot take anything for granted in England. I travel with a roll of toilet paper just in case we have to make a dive behind a hedge row. (These are often referred to as privet hedges which makes me wonder if there’s a connection to the term privvy. But then, as my professor Jared Klein was fond of saying, “Etymology is the science where the vowels count for nothing and the consonants for very little.”)

We had been to the area before when retracing a lot of the action from the Brother Cadfael books, which I adore. John likes them too, having seen the TV movie adaptations with Derek Jacoby, but has trouble remembering things and keeps referring to him as Brother Cadbury.

Note: Clun Castle is not related to the Cluniac monks or, sadly, to George Clooney.

Stokesay Castle was next , which is really more of a fortified manor house, but had some great historical information and was very well set up and presented.

Not sure who picked the color for the gatehouse. I'm sure it's authentic.

Not sure who picked the color for the gatehouse. I’m sure it’s authentic.

After some discussion in the car park about whether or not we were actually supposed to pay or not (as it turns out, you pay and get refunded at the ticket office).

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The interior of the great hall complete with window seats, an octagonal hearth stone.

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Upper solar with windows to peer down into the great hall to keep an eye on the festivities.

Back in the gift shop, I spotted some books from the Horrible Histories series. Recently, the author Terry Deary made some unfortunate remarks in The Guardian about libraries and that there was no longer any need for them, they were irrelevant, and his logic stemmed from the fact that he makes only 6 p per book and that fee is capped off eventually when it lends through a library versus 30 p with no cap when the book sells. His exact quote was that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”. “If I sold the book I’d get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000.”

And even more terrifying, the authors opinions about libraries and historians.

And even more terrifying, the authors opinions about libraries and historians.

Or. Or, Mr. Deary, today’s kids could all go on a torrent and just rip it for free off the ‘net. I’m sure they know how.

And then Dr. Marc Morris, an author who is an actual historian and knows his stuff, got involved.

Dear Terry DearyI’ve just started reading your book, Stormin’ Normans. I’m only up to page 10, I’m afraid, but then I’m a slow reader.You describe the site of William the Conqueror’s first battle, Val-es-Dunes, as being ‘on the Norman border with France’. It’s actually just outside Caen, nowhere near the French border.

You say that William died a year after 1085, i.e. 1086. He actually died in 1087.You say that Henry I’s only son died in 1119. The correct date is 1120.You say that William’s queen, Matilda, was only 127cm tall. This is a modern myth caused by misreporting. The French archaeologists who examined her partial remains actually concluded she was 152cm (about 5’).

You say William was buried in a cathedral he founded in Caen. There is no cathedral in Caen. William founded an abbey.

I’ll get back to you again when I’ve finished the rest of the book. But in the meantime, I can’t help wondering: do you think you should have spent more time in the library?

best wishes
Dr Marc Morris

Thank you, Dr. Morris. In case anyone is wondering, Terry Deary has posted some follow up remarks which only dug the hole that much deeper.

“I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.”

Wow. Apparently he hasn’t been to the Leroy Collins Leon County Public Library anytime since 1993. But then he was quoted in 2010 as saying that historians are “nearly as seedy and devious as politicians” so maybe he didn’t want to be mistaken for one by going to a library to do research?

That’s a shame — I had been planning on giving a set of his books to my godson for his birthday, so that’s 60 p per book that Mr. Deary will not be seeing, although I doubt he’s losing sleep over it.

But not to let that put a damper on the day, I left the gift shop unencumbered and we headed on to the second half of the day. To be continued…