Archive for December, 2013

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. 🙂

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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.

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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.

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