Saturday, September 02, 2006


Much to my disappointment, the Queen is on holidays at Balmoral, so no cuppa. However, it was quite exciting to walk up the road and find myself outside Buckingham Palace under the watchful eye of several dozen CCTV cameras. I tried to get some photos, but it was quite overcast so they probably won't come out too well.

I figured that, as areas go, this part of London was pretty safe, so I went for a walk inside St James' Park (an ark-free zone, for any G&S buffs) and wandered around Belgrave Square. Nothing like walking past a £23-million house to restore one's sense of perspective. St James' Park is home to a goodly population of very cute grey squirrels and also to a dozen residentially challenged gentlemen, who were setting up their cardboard boxes for the night as I strolled through. They were probably MI5 operatives in disguise. In fact, the squirrels probably had to have security clearance to live there too...

About 8pm I got sick of wandering around envying rich buggers, so I packed it in and went back to the hotel. It was getting cold anyway. I sat up for a while, drinking tea and trying to get London into a one-day sized chunk with the aid of the Lonely Planet.

Seeing even a millifraction of all there is to see in London in one day is impossible. My cunning plan was to catch a bus tour from the bus stop outside Victoria Station, which I duly did at about 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Londoners curse the Congestion Tax, but it works a treat - I experienced worse traffic trying to get from Thornbury to Blackburn today than I did going through Central London on this bus. Three cheers to the City of London and the Congestion Tax, say I!!

The tour started off with all the rich areas I'd walked through under the watchful eye of the police and the CCTV cameras the previous night. The tour guide explains that the police guard is to protect Margaret Thatcher. That would explain why so many police! We also got some anecdotes about various celebrities who lived in the area and the goss on how much they'd paid for their real estate.

My bus ticket includes several free walking tours and a boat cruise. Feeling a little self-conscious, I hop off to join the Royal London Walk. The Royal London Walk leaves from Trafalgar Square - I try for a pit stop before I start my wander. The first thing I noticed in my search (alas! Not a sign pointing to the Ladies) was a group of people in the most spectacular Indian costumes you can imagine, dancing away for all that they were worth. Trafalgar Square is obviously the location for part of a Bollywood spectacular. This kept me entertained for about five minutes because, being a film, they didn't ever get more than a few seconds into a routine before someone would start shouting and waving for them to stop. I've included a link to a webcam so you can see if they are still there ;-)(

I find the sign I'm looking for and start heading down a flight of stairs. On my trip down, I am disturbed to find traces of exploded pigeon everywhere - mostly feathers, with the odd other bit to add colour and variety. This does my head in - what on earth is going on? Does someone get up every morning and scatter popcorn laced with nitroglycerine all over the square to keep the pigeons in check? The mystery is solved when I look up toward the National Gallery and notice a young man with a falcon on one fist watching the shouting Bollywood director. The City of London is using biological pigeon controls (and an incredibly tame one to cope with all the crowds and the racket!).

Home comforts attended to, I join the walking tour. I am about half the age of the next youngest participant. The Royal London Walk goes past all the old royal and noble households around St James' Park. The tour guide is quite good, he gives quite a neat summary of the history associated with each palace. Then - goldmine!! Tuesday is Changing of the Guard day (they only change every second day - see The Changing of the Guard is a massive tourist attraction, so every second day several thousand people squish up against the railings at Buckingham Palace to see it happen. However, our bus tour operators have a better option. The tour guide takes us to St James' Palace (built by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn on the site of a leper hospital - an omen of things to come!!). The guard barracks are still at St James' Palace - the British are big on tradition, it doesn't matter that royalty no longer live in the Palace, that's where the guards started out guarding the King and they'll bloody well keep on guarding him there even though he's now a Queen who lives somewhere else. Wonderful thing, tradition. Love it.

Anyway, the guards who are currently on duty turn out for an inspection at St James' Palace, then they march to Buckingham Palace. We (sneaky little so-and-sos that we are) follow them. It's great, we have fantastic views and we get to parade along a main street with a police escort and a full brass band. When we get to Buckingham Palace, instead of joining the scrum at the gates to watch the guards stand to attention out the front, we nick across to the Wellington Barracks where the new guards are being inspected. We then follow them back to Buckingham Palace. All we miss (apparently) is the bit where they all stand to attention for about half an hour while the officers have a little chat and symbolically hand over the keys. Frankly, standing at the railings the odds are good we'd have missed that anyway.

Back to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery ( I don't have time to really properly go through it, but what the heck, it's free. I wander through the rooms in a daze with a highlights map in one hand. They have some truly unreal paintings, perhaps a bit of a bias towards religious themes, but I don't care (although I do start tuning out after the 10th Crucifixion or so).

That takes me through until lunchtime. Trafalgar Square is near enough to Picadilly and the West End, so I wander down there as the Lonely Planet says it's hard to go wrong for food in this area. They are right - I get a delicious Japanese meal at quite a reasonable price. Lots of theatres, lots of shows, what a bugger I can't stay for another night. Lots of another type of show, actually maybe a good thing that I'm not wandering around here after dark.

Back to Trafalgar Square and back on the bus. I hope to take in the Millenium Bridge and Dome, the National Museum and St Paul's. I start at St Paul's ( This is a good move, because from the dome walkway I can see the Millenium Bridge and the Dome and they are both rubbish. I much prefer the Cathedral. The crypt is very interesting, they've got all types buried down there - I walk over Sir Arthur Sullivan's resting place, then feel obliged to sing him a few bars of 'I hear the soft note' by way of apology. There's some bugger down there called Wren who obviously was from a non-English speaking background (to judge by his headstone [it's in Latin]), and any number of other famous people. I stand in the Whispering Gallery for a while, but no-one whispers, so that's a bit of a dud.

By the time I finish up there, it's after 3 p.m. - no time for museums! I get back on the bus and head off for the river cruise. The cruise departs from outside the Tower of London. Very nice I'm sure, but I don't have the time and it costs something like £14 to get in. The river cruise was time well spent - one of the crew provides a running commentary which I thought was superior to the bus tour's, but that's just my sense of humour. He points out a giant statue of an eagle, commemorating all the air force members who died in the two world wars. The head of the eagle points towards France, where the majority of them died. The other end of the eagle apparently points towards the Ministry of Defence. These facts are poetry to my soul, I only wish I could remember the whole commentary. We end up outside the Houses of Parliament, more photos.

From the Houses of Parliament, I catch a bus back to Victoria, past Marble Arch and all the flash hotels again - I wave to the guards, but none of the buggers remember me, not even the cute West African one.

Bless Luna and Simone again! The receptionist lets me have a quick shower before I head out to the airport. Of the journey, little to say. There is a direct train line to each of the major airports, which points out to me what a complete disgrace it is that we don't have one to Tullamarine. When I get to the airport, there are massive queues, although they don't seem to be doing very thorough searches.

I make my flight (only just) and spend the next 40 hours awake watching movies. We stop in Dubai for a couple of hours, I am pretty desparate, so I lie down on the terminal floor to try to nap. The airport staff use golf buggies to get around - stupid idea. I get onto another plane and manage to get through the rest of the journey without feeling too bad. That said, by the time I get off the plane, I've started to shake so this is probably not an experience I want to have too often. So what did I learn on my journey?

1. If you have a food allergy in the UK, you are stuffed. I could only find soy milk in three places and I don't recall seeing any other type of allergy-friendly food.

2. Mostly things made sense, but the things that didn't really didn't - for example the process involved in buying and selling property is truly wierd. For a description, find someone British, I still don't understand it or why anyone puts up with it.

3. I can't sleep in aeroplanes or youth-hostel type accommodation.

4. There are lots of really, really nice people in the UK who will majorly put themselves out to help tourists and expect nothing in return except thanks.

5. Only two people identified me as not English. Maybe they were just being kind to a poor Colonial lass by not drawing attention to her shortcomings?

Anyway, that's the end of the story. Hope you've enjoyed it, and that I'll get to show you all my photos soon!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Swindon and Avebury

Now for the exciting part! When we left our heroine, she and her luggage were travelling to Bristol. You'll be pleased to know that the train left on time and she arrived in Swindon about 7pm. One problem - she hadn't been able to contact the Swindon TIC to book a room.

Being an enterprising little soul, her first step was to cross the road. One hotel, closed. Her next step was to find a taxi driver and ask if he knew where there were any cheap hotels or B&Bs. The taxi driver took her to the Holiday Inn Express, which does rooms for £60 per night. This is where the drama begins. Unwilling to part with the cost of two week's groceries for fairly standard accommodation, our heroine takes her luggage and ventures forth looking for an alternative. It's the long weekend, so everything's jumping - the only thing is, none of the pubs do rooms.

Back to the station - this time, ask the staff if they know of anywhere. They do, there is another place across the road. All I can say about the Amethyst B&B is that I would have been a great deal safer sleeping on a bench at the station - I've never been inside a flophouse before, but I reckon this fits the description. I figured I was in strife when the receptionist showed every sign of being wasted - I made some excuse about not having enough money and did a runner.

This time, my cunning plan was to go back to the station and to ask if they had an overnight service to anywhere. I was happy enough to go up to Scotland and back if I could sleep safely during the trip!! The staff were total legends - they got on the phone and rang half a dozen places, finally sorting me out with the most gorgeous little B&B up in the Old Town, the Bradford Guest House, they even booked me a taxi. I filled out the customer service survey on the spot and named everyone there as total legends. They'd bloody better get a bonus for it!!

As if that weren't enough, the B&B was on the bus route to Avebury - I'd given up hope of getting there. To top it off, buses only run every two hours on Bank Holidays, so the B&B owners drafted their teenage daughter to drive me over. If a shop had been open, I'd have bought them a mixed dozen of Aussie wines, but it's Bank Holiday - so I gave them a £10 tip, they'd earned it.

Avebury (, for me, was even more magical than Stonehenge. Stonehenge is massive and awe-inspiring, but Avebury sort of sneaks up on you. The entire village is built within a stone circle. Over the years, some of the stones were broken up and quite a few were buried to save the locals' souls from nasty pagan thoughts - in the 1930s, Alexander Keiller realised that this was quite an interesting archaeological site and funded the excavations - in the end, he bought the entire site to preserve it. I walk around the village, which has a lot of lovely thatched Tudor cottages and a cute Saxon church, past stone after stone - the original builder seem to have had a boy/girl pattern in mind, but it's hard to tell as a lot of the stones have been destroyed. (Boy = tall, straight stone - Girl = rounded or diamond shaped stone).

Out of town, there are stone circles, a massive man-made hill and all sorts of interesting bits and pieces - unfortunately, I don't get to see all that, as I have to catch a train to London. However, I am more than happy to have had the experience of walking around a perfectly ordinary village through perfectly ordinary sheep pastures past bloody massive monolithic rocks. I note that some of the older buildings appear to include quite large rocks in their construction - no prizes for guessing where some of the missing pieces of the circle went to!!

Avebury is not the tourist trap that Stonehenge is - that has advantages, as the stones aren't fenced off and you can walk around freely, even touching them (although there are signs warning of erosion on some of the banks). I talk for a while with two women while their three-year-old charge stuffs a rubber ball into a hole in one of the stones. It also has disadvantages - in the womens' toilets, an angry visitor has written "One toilet, nothing is F*G open, you F*G stupid, Limey (etc, etc - just imagine lots of swearing) THIS PLACE SUCKS - STONEHENGE IS BETTER".

From Avebury back to Swindon, then a short trip to London, where I am staying at the Luna and Simone hotel. Again, love the Lonely Planet, I have really fallen on my feet - £40 for a single room with ensuite, right around the corner from Buckingham Palace. I'm just on my way up now to see if Her Majesty is home...

Wells... the town and the water source

Started this morning with the 10-minute tour of Wells Cathedral ( Wells Cathedral (and Wells generally) is worth taking the time to see if you're in the area. I didn't get much of a look inside as the locals were very inconsiderately trying to hold a service, but I did get a good look at the grounds. Of particular note - the Bishop's Palace, complete with moat and a swan trying to cadge handouts, and the Chain Bridge. The Bridge runs from the former monastery to the Cathedral - very cushy for the monks who could go to and from work over a nice, warm, dry bridge instead of slogging to and fro in the cold and the wet.

From Wells, I caught the bus to Glastonbury (, Mecca for all hippies, new agers and general counterculture types. The bus stopped right outside the ruined Abbey, so that was where I started my tour ( The ruins are very atmospheric - it is quite trippy seeing these amazing vaultings and pillars that just rear up into nowhere. It is also a bit sad - in one area, patches of tiles that have survived Henry VIII and centuries of neglect can be seen, protected under a wooden cover. Some of the walls are still stained faintly with the remains of vivid red and blue paint - grass grows along the tops of the walls and in the window frames. As a counterpoint to all this melancholy, some bright spark has set up Ye Mediaeval Faire in one of the relatively clear patches of ground. It includes a bagpiper - I give it a wide berth.

Glastonbury has soy milk!! It's only the second place outside of Buxton where I've been able to get it (the cafe staff at the Eden Project gave me some - they wouldn't make me a cappucino with it, but they were prepared to give me some in a little jug to go with my cafetierre). When I went to make my coffee, the girl in the cafe actually stopped me, saying "Do you know that's soy milk?". Even better, they do tasty vegan food - stuffed eggplant and a very decadent coffee cake. Fuelled by this repast, I walk up the Tor ( The views from the top are spectacular - for those who don't have the benefit of a Rainbow Cafe sugar hit, an entrepreneur sits outside the ruined tower with a supply of water, juice and chocolates. I'm surprised his stock hasn't blown away - it is incredibly windy up there, although the day has generally been warm and pleasant. I take lots of photos of the wonderful views and make the acquaintance of Beth the border collie puppy.

Back to town via the Chalice Well and gardens ( it being the long weekend, there is some sort of healing festival on. Call me a spoilsport, but I am not sure that it is entirely in keeping with the peaceful nature of the gardens to have it chock-full of tents, masseurs, Reiki practitioners and tarot readers. A few services would be nice, but I can barely walk five paces without tripping over somebody or running into a tent.

I escape the garden with a bottle of water from the Well and head off to the Museum of Rural Life ( The Museum is in the old Abbey Barn - when the Abbey was demolished, some sensible soul took it on as part of their farm and the Museum grounds were a working farm up until very recently. The Museum has several really good exhibitions of old farming tools and how they were used - in the courtyard, a gentleman sits with a boat and several photos. His speciality is fishing pre-WWII. Why pre-WWII? Because after WWII, all the locals realised there were much better ways to earn a quid than slogging through the mud with a load of fish traps and a maul, and they packed it in. The Museum also has a cradle-to-grave exhibition showing what rural life would have been like - it is based around the life of a real farm labourer in the area, and it's pretty shocking - I don't think anyone would see it and yearn for the good old days!!

I have a bit of time to kill before I catch the bus to Bristol, so I finish the day with some shopping and a trip to the Lake Village Museum ( The Museum isn't huge, but it's a nice little summary of the area's prehistory. Bit of excitement to end the day - but I'll save that for my next post. I'll end here with the image of me and the Giant Luggage piling onto a bus and driving off into the sunset...


Well, I can finally say that I've seen Buxton's older sibling - the resemblance is amazing, although Bath is a great deal larger ( Bath is the proud home of the Circus (a full circle, as opposed to Buxton's half-circular Crescent) and lots of Crescents, all of which are larger and grander (in a very elegant, understated way) than the Buxton one.

I started up at the Crescent with a tour of No. 1 ( This is a beautifully restored Georgian house, worth every penny I paid to get in. It is so popular, they have one tour guide in each room - they aren't in period dress as advertised, but they are very knowledgeable with a fund of useful little anecdotes ("The lady in that portrait over there - her aunt died of lead poisoning from using lead-based cosmetics" type of thing).

From the Crescent and the Circus, I work my way down to the Assembly Rooms and the Museum of Costume ( The Assembly Rooms aren't officially open. However, I am in luck - they are being cleaned so I manage to sneak a peep at the main rooms. They are very impressive, even with the chandeliers half-dismantled all over the floor. The Museum of Costume was definitely worth a look - I was very impressed to see how historically accurate all my costumes have been over the years!! Their feature show is The Corset and I have a giggle watching other (female!!) tourists trying to get themselves into and out of three replica corsets that have been put out to try on. I could have told them it requires at least two other people to get one of those darned things laced! Even more amusing - someone has devised one with snap clips, like you have on a backpack - the tourists can get this off and on without help, but it isn't quite in the spirit of the thing.

From the Assembly Rooms to Bath's most popular attraction - the old Roman Baths ( The Baths have been built over, excavated and generally messed about for over a millenium, so it's quite astonishing how well preserved they are. Unfortunately, they are also crowded. I was warned - the Lonely Planet clearly said "Do not go to the Roman Baths on a weekend or public holiday" and here I was trying my luck on both!! What that meant was that I joined a very, very long queue (luckily I bought a combined ticket at the Assembly Rooms, which saved a horrible wait at the entry). The queue shuffled down through the layers of the excavation, each of us with our audio guides glued to our ears. Eventually, we emerged at the bottom of the ramp to a stunning view of the baths. For the first few minutes, I tried to be polite, but basically the only way that anyone could see anything was by pushing through the crowd. The pusher then tried to read the signs and view the exhibits as fast as possible before someone pushed them out of the way in turn. The entrance fee included a free glass of spa water. It was lukewarm and quite strange in taste - I prefer St Anne's Well (Buxton) or the Chalice Well (Glastonbury).

The other baths have been converted at great expense into the Thermae Bath Spa, very exclusive. I didn't even bother to think about packing my swimmers but I did get some good photos of the buildings, which are the original Georgian spas.

I also got in a visit to the Victoria Gallery and Museum, courtesy of a short rain shower which put me off trying for a walk in the gardens along the river, and I did a quick once-around the Farmers' Market.

Those who are familiar with the character of spa towns - Bath is like a really big, really spekky Daylesford. The food there was superb, I got a lovely lunch at a place called 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' and I also found a proper Italian gelateria. The route from the 'Walrus' up to the Crescent took me along Gay Street and the route back to the Roman Baths took me past a hair salon which I thought had a most unfortunate name until I got close enough to see the very elaborate sign more clearly and realised it was actually called FOOF.

The bus journey to and from was largely uneventful, except for one thing. When I set out, I got on the bus after an elderly lady. She put her ticket into the machine (they have similar tickets to our Metcards), the machine buzzed and spat it straight back out again. "Oh that's funny" she said, "It's been doing that for ages now". I could clearly see over her shoulder that the ticket expired on 29th July, which would have accounted for her difficulty. I had visions of her travelling for a month on this ticket, wandering blissfully past the bus drivers with a bemused smile. This bus driver was made of sterner stuff and he sold her a valid ticket, while I struggled not to laugh in the background.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Shrewsbury is the other end of the Heart of Wales line ( It's a gorgeous little town with more than its fair share of Tudor houses and lovely old architecture. I get a room near the old Abbey. Most of the Abbey was demolished by Henry VIII, cantankerous old bugger that he was - I am much amused to see that the pulpit is still standing, it is now out in the middle of the TIC carpark. Originally the pulpit would have been in the refectory and one of the Benedictines would have read Improving Literature while the others ate their meals. I have some excellent photos of the Abbey church, the road and the pulpit on the other side - I hope! It appeals to my sense of humour.

The Lonely Planet has an excellent walking tour for Shrewsbury - I start at the Castle (pass on the Regimental Museum, the views from the Castle walls are free and they are stunning), cross the road to the Library (big statue of Darwin, Shrewsbury's most famous son) then head down to Dogpole and Wyle Cop, two very narrow, windy Tudor streets. Lots of houses here have plaques commemorating the fact that royalty stayed there at some point in the last 1000 years or so, or that some famous person (usually Charles Darwin) visited or used the building in some way.

I get around most of the notable houses with detours up Fish Lane and Grope Alley (more narrow, winding Tudor architecture - if I reach out both hands, I can touch the house walls on either side), then head back to the Market Square which has an elaborate sandstone shelter over it - again, it's hundreds of years old and it makes me dizzy to think about how many generations of people have hung out here.

Footnote: at Shrewsbury, I see my second grey squirrel and realise that my judgment of them may have been a bit hasty. When I went past St Mary's Church, I noticed a residentially challenged gentleman watching something - it turned out to be a very quiet grey squirrel trotting around the churchyard. They really are quite cute, although I've noticed that every single ad over here that features squirrels uses a red squirrel not a grey one.

From Shrewsbury to Wells - I am too smart to get sucked in to paying long weekend prices to stay in Bath!! I will catch the bus over from Wells in the morning. More transport chaos - this time the train is cancelled altogether. Two trainloads of people end up squashed into a two carriage service to Taunton, if you can imagine Met rush hour conditions on a rural service, that's what my trip was like.

On the way up to the B&B, I meet the owner's brother in law - it's a small world! The B&B is lovely, the owners have two cats, so obviously they are nice people and deserve to get on in the world. Off to Bath tomorrow...

Abertawe and the Heart of Wales

Having had most of the morning at Swansea/Abertawe, I can see where Dylan Thomas was coming from when he called it an 'ugly, lovely town'. The streetscapes swing between two extremes - there are the scenic seaside bits, with cute little hotels and fish-and-chip shops, then there are the university student housing bits. The Addams family would feel right at home in any of the student housing here - the gardens are overgrown, windows are rotting out and so forth - I search through my suitcase for appropriate black clothing and makeup, but the Goth look loses its effectiveness when teamed with a pair of bright blue thongs...

The Crescent Guest House is at the top of a massive hill on the opposite side of town to the railway station, so I get to walk through both 'zones' on the way there.

My morning in Abertawe starts with a walk along the beach (a proper beach, with sand - none of the British ton-of-rocks nonsense!) to the National Waterfront Museum ( The National Waterfront Museum is set up to showcase industrial Wales - it is very slick, with lots of multimedia displays and a bizarre conveyor belt of display cases, which puts me in mind of my last project before I headed out (an automated stock storage and distribution system).

Next door to the National Waterfront Museum is the Swansea Museum ( In the first room they have a display of fine china, a whale vertabrae, portraits of local notables and a grand piano. This is pretty typical - I like this museum much better than the Waterfront!!

The climax of the Swansea Museum (and indeed of the entire day) is their Egyptian collection. Someone has given the museum a massive collection of Egyptian bits and pieces including:

* mummified cats (three), ibises and baby crocodiles
* a mouse relinquary complete with mummified mouse
* about four dozen amulets with rather general labels (for e.g. 'birds')

The mouse relinquary is a bit of a highlight, not only has someone mummified poor Tibbles but they've considerately given the poor little pusskins something to play with in the afterlife... I wonder whether these were the equivalent of the VCE - a young embalmer starts out with mice, working their way up to cats and crocodiles until the happy day of graduation, when someone gives them a very big roll of bandages and someone's grandad to get cracking on...

The Dylan Thomas Centre ( is around the corner from the Swansea Museum. The centre has a theatre, a bookshop, a cafe and a display summarising Thomas' life and work.

After all this culture, I head up Wind Street past Salubrious Place and Salubrious Passage (much laughter here, Salubrious Passage opens into a backyard full of garbage bins) and back to the guest house.

The Heart of Wales train line runs from Swansea to Shrewsbury through some of the most stunning countryside you can imagine. Unfortunately, there are embankments and coppices along the railway line to conceal it from the public view, which spoils some of the scenery - but what I can see is stunning - rolling, green hills - terrified livestock fertilising same as the train goes past - beautiful little cottages... It was worth the trip, although there are some quite ordinary stretches where all I can see are oak trees and blackberries.

Shrewsbury next stop!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Alas, I never did find out the story of the regimental goat! After a peaceful, room-mate free sleep, I set out for a walk in Bute Park ( The gardens are lovely, winding along the banks of the River Taff in the shadow of Cardiff Castle.

After about an hour of wandering around the gardens, I cross the Animal Bridge (which has birds and animals carved all along the parapet, either climbing over it or landing on it) and head out to the National Gallery and Museum of Wales ( It takes me about three hours to get around everything - the place is quite well laid out, with a natural history section, an archaeology section and the gallery all flowing into each other very nicely.

After my wanderings, I'm happy to head back to the hostel and back to catch my train, with just a brief fossick in a couple of the arcades on the way back. Three places that deserve an honourable mention:

* Celtic Cauldron in the Castle Arcade - a lunchtime cafe that serves an interesting mix of vegetarian, Indian and traditional Welsh food. Vote of thanks for introducing me to Laverbread (oatmeal and seaweed cooked into a sort of patty) - quite tasty.

* Claire's Button Shop, also in the Castle Arcade - I hadn't realised that the humble button had so much going for it. This is the source of those souvenirs I have which are not of the teatowel persuasion...

* An unnamed shoe shop (which was either in the Castle Arcade or an arcade nearby). I didn't see the shop name, but the display rather caught my eye - it seems that a good percentage of their trade involves supplying footwear for those with rather specialised tastes. As well as the spikes/straps/buckles style of thing, they also had some sort-of-Docs that looked like they'd come straight off the set of Dr Who and - wait for it - a pair of green gumboots with kitten heels. I must admit, I nearly bought them.

Curiosity about the regimental goat unsatisfied, I made a couple of phone calls and found a room in Swansea (or Abertawe). Hint: if travelling in Wales, make sure you know both the Welsh and English names for your destination. Street signs, station timetables and announcements - everything here is bilingual. Certainly saved me a lot of grief when I looked at the station board and saw that the train to Abertawe left from platform three - if I'd waited until the sign changed to English, I probably would have missed the train! However, websites are usually in English ( - don't Google for Abertawe unless you can read Welsh!

Abertawe is currently undergoing a bit of a spruce-up, with the end result that I spend a lot of time detouring around great big holes in the pavement. I do get time to walk along the beach and grab a very nice Indian meal (hint no. 2 - Indian is the idiot-proof takeaway cuisine of the UK, sort of like Chinese in Australia. Must be those enormous Pakistani members...).

I've got tomorrow morning to take in a museum or gallery or two, then onto the Heart of Wales line in the afternoon and up to Shrewsbury!!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Croeso i Gaerdydd! (Welcome to Cardiff)

Got into Cardiff this morning bright and early, and went straight to the TIC. The Cardiff TIC have a £2 charge for booking a room (most TICs will book you in for free), but they don't charge if they don't make the booking. As they don't do bookings for hostels, I get a free referral to a place called Nos Da. I am not sure whether or not I want to know what that means in English!

Nos Da started life as a two star hotel - they are now trying to reinvent themselves as a five star hostel. They should be on a winner, they are directly opposite the Millenium Stadium (the Welsh answer to the Telstra Dome). Luckily, not too many people are aware of them yet and it looks like I have a four-bed dorm to myself! Hooray!!

On balance, I think that the private hostels have it all over the YHAs. The Bakewell YHA had a fully functioning shower the size of a phone box and two loos for all the female residents - Cambridge had an ensuite, but no hot water and the toilet didn't work - the toilets in Bristol YHA worked, but again no hot water and the shower was one room - all very well until you realised there was nowhere to put your shower things so that they didn't get showered with you!! On the other hand, both the private hostels where I've stayed have had comfortable ensuites, everything has worked and I've managed to get a room on my own both times. So I reckon I'm on a winner.

Once I'd dropped my things off, I went out to see Cardiff. My first stop was Cardiff Castle ( This has been tastefully redecorated in the Neo Gothic (or Victorian Hallucenogenic) style, every surface that could be painted was painted - the artist was not afraid of colour or of excess. The smoking room has painted birds on the green and red walls (delightful), stained glass windows showing the Norse gods and goddesses that the days of the week are named after (nice touch), the zodiac painted on the ceiling (maybe a little excessive?), sculptures of the God of Day and Goddess of Night in the corners (a touch over the top) and a massive granite fireplace carved and painted with scenes of love and an appropriate Latin motto about love conquering all (this is becoming silly!). The ladies (non-smokers all) had the Arab Room to repair to - all I'll say about that is it cost £4 million to do it up back in 1800-whenever and much of the money appears to have been spent on gold leaf. Gold leaf features prominently in most of the rooms - it is a relief to get to the Georgian sitting room. This is tastefully done in white and pale green with two cute little carved monkeys over the doors. The monkeys date back to the Middle Ages when the room was a monks' scriptorium. Someone brought back a couple of monkeys to the monastery as a thank you for a safe journey. Seems an odd thing to inflict as a present! But the monks were obviously impressed and had these carvings done.

Outside there is an owl and falconry barn (no gold leaf) - half a dozen birds sit quietly on their perches. One has a sign next to him - apparently his family is on pest control duty at the Millenium Stadium. Next door, there is an old Norman castle or most of a castle - it has excellent views over the city, but not a lot in the way of walls or rooms.

Cardiff has lots of little Victorian arcades with cool shops - I finally find some interesting souvenirs, which is a pity because I've already bought quite a bit of rubbish in absolute despair of finding anything worthwhile (hint: don't anyone buy any teatowels until after you see me).

I go down to Cardiff Bay via Bute Street ( According to the Lonely Planet, Bute St used to be quite rough, but the whole area has been cleaned up and is now undergoing a bit of a renaissance - sort of like St Kilda. Bute St still doesn't look anything much to me. I don't know what the UK equivalent of the Housing Commission is, but the loving traces of their jackboots are all along the street. To make things worse, someone has tried to liven the place up by putting colourful tiles in the pavement using 'ethnic motifs' (e.g. hands with henna paintings). I suspect that pictures of syringes, broken bottles and red lights might have more resonance for the locals. It is one mile from Cardiff CBD to the Bay, and it's amazing how many cheap, depressing, crappy houses you can fit into a mile if you put your mind to it. There are also a lot of young men who appear to be at a loss for an occupation. Luckily they don't see me as filling that need, although I notice after a while that the other women on the street are mostly:

(a) wearing headscarves
(b) walking quickly
(c) all of the above.

They'r also somewhat darker-complected than myself, so maybe that makes a difference. I catch a bus back to the station to avoid having to walk through the area again - I'd say it is safe enough in daylight if you keep an eye on your bag or wallet, but I'd never go down there of an evening.

Cardiff Bay is like a small Southbank. It's quite pretty, so I stroll around for a while looking at the shops. I'm tempted to eat there, but then think of the trip back - that's when I head for the nearest bus stop. Dinner this evening was sausages and mash at a place called the Goat Major. I don't have the full story yet, but it seems that the local army regiment has a billy goat as their mascot and the Goat Major is responsible for the care and feeding thereof. I don't know what it says about the regiment. We are a bunch of smelly, anti-social buggers who will eat anything that isn't nailed down, perhaps?

Tomorrow's agenda is a quick stop at the Museum (I really want to get the dope on this goat business! I think I know someone who would be a dab hand at looking after regimental goats) and on to Swansea for a day's sightseeing and a trip on the Heart of Wales train line.

Eden and Bristol

Monday's agenda was a trip to something called the Eden Project ( Basically, a team of people have carried out an amazing rehabilitation job on a worked out mine just outside St Austell (a small Cornish town with a brewery that produces something similar to Miller's - I'm not a huge fan). The old mine site is now a massive garden with two gigantic biomes (dome-shaped greenhouses) and a strong environmental education program.

St Austell's public transport is really good. The shuttle bus that usually takes tourists out to the site is broken down, so they incorporate the Project into a regular bus route - they dig out an old double-decker (complete with spiderwebs, to my delight) - whatever it takes to keep the service running.

When I get to the Project, I can see why. I had never thought of a mine rehab as a major tourist attraction, but this place is bigger than Ben Hur. It must make up at least half of the local economy. Luckily I bought a ticket at Salisbury - even with a pre-purchased ticket, I have to queue. The queue is much shorter than the one at the main entrance though - a mere 20 people or so.

Because it's raining, I start outside - I walk straight into a garden dedicated to the nine Celtic sacred trees, complete with willow bothy and labyrinth. The entire side of the mine workings has been terraced and set out in themed gardens. Most of them revolve around useful plants rather than religious ones - there are medicinal gardens, plants that can be woven or used for fibre, plants for brewing alcohol and edible plants.

The biomes are similar - one is a wet tropics environment and the other is a Mediterranean climate. To keep the kiddies amused, there are little houses appropriate to the area (a Malay longhouse, an African tukul, a whitewashed church steeple) - there are also exhibits on the history and uses of the different plants. For the adults, there are sculptures and paintings scattered about the gardens - they also have a World Music festival happening in the background.

The Core education centre has films, exhibits and hands-on experiments to bring people up to speed on social justice and environmental issues. The place is absolutely packed. I'm not sure how much of it people are taking on board, but it seems to suggest a very strong interest in these issues and a willingness to get involved.

One thing that disappointed me - the cafes serve pasties, ham and cheese baguettes and other standard fare. I was hoping they'd have taster plates to show off some of their exotic crops (I think I can safely say I would be the only visitor there who would have cooked quinoa or amaranth) - it seemed a missed opportunity to promote organically grown crops and drum up income for the Third World.

From St Austell, I tried to catch a train to Cardiff. More hassles and delays - I tried to ring to book a room from Plymouth station with no luck. Finally, I got off at Bristol, figuring I'd rather wander around looking for a room in daylight. I got a room straight up at the YHA, which was quite comfy - my room mates had their phones off and both of them had healthy bladders, so there were no disruptions. Tales from Cardiff to follow!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Crawling over a rocky mountain

Or, Two Days in Penzance (

My trip from Salisbury was an education in the shortcomings of British rail transport. Luckily I'd booked ahead from the Salisbury TIC, because I didn't get to Penzance until 10pm at night. A three hour train journey suddenly turned into a six hour marathon, and of course when I got to Penzance, I still had to find the bloody hotel.

Luckily that Friday night Penzance was full of very kind, very brave people who were prepared to talk to a swearing, sweaty, scruffy person with a giant suitcase. I found my hotel - the barman even carried the giant suitcase up three flights of stairs for me (I must have been looking pretty strung out). The Union Hotel is very cute and very comfortable. I have a little window seat in my room and nice old furniture - I sit on the window seat with a cuppa looking over the town having happy little fantasies about living here.

On day one, I try to hire a bike to ride to Land's End, but none are available. I decide to walk the Coast Path to see some of the attractions. The meaning of the line "We have come over rather difficult terrain" suddenly becomes clear. It is 12 miles to Land's End and only about 0.25 miles of that is flat and free of massive rocks.

The first leg is Penzance to Mousehole (mow-sel - I lose the path and end up walking along the road, which is about 1.5 cars wide. It is absolutely terrifying. There is no room for two lanes of traffic - cars take turns to pull over to the side of the road to let oncoming traffic through. While all this is going on, I assume a pose against the hedges reminiscent of the Crucifixion. I feel very, very relieved that I'm not on a bicycle!

I get to Paul and Mousehole without being run over. The church at Paul is very cute, but I'm short on film and I don't take photos (I'm regretting that now). I try to catch a bus on to Land's End, but it happens that there isn't one so I keep going. A kind lady in a souvenir shop directs me back to the Coast Path, so I feel confident that I can continue safely.

Here is where I need to explain some things about the coast of Cornwall. There are not too many beaches in the Aussie sense of the word. There are two other things though, one is dirty big rocks and the other is cliffs. The path goes over one and along the other. I try to cheer myself up by thinking that if I fall off the path, I won't know about it. It doesn't cheer me up very much.

The other thing I need to explain is that the map I've been given is slightly misleading. It shows a number of tourist attractions along the Coast Path. They aren't there and there is no way you can get off the path to get to them (or at least not any that I can see). I hike about seven miles from Mousehole to Penberth, about 0.05 miles of that is flat.

Now I've explained the downside, I need to add that the views are absolutely amazing. The cliffs, the ocean - I spend a fair bit of time taking photos (very carefully). I have a bit of a bad moment when I get to Penberth and realise that my knees are not up to climbing up or down any more steep rocky paths. Also, it's getting late and I need to catch a bus. So it's back to the road and the Stations of the Cross.

I miss the 5.30 bus back to Penzance, so I follow the road on to Porthcurno. Porthcurno is a tiny little village with an amazing outdoor theatre (the Minack Theatre - I'm too late for the tour and the performance is sold out, but I get a quick look at the grounds before I catch the bus back. All up, I've hiked about 12 miles. The bus trip back is an eye-opener - the bus is literally brushing along the hedges to either side. At one point, we meet a bus coming the other way and the bus I'm on has to back up until we can reverse into a farm gateway to let the other bus pass.

On day 2, I caught a bus to Land's End. On the bus, I strike up a conversation with a German woman who is also staying at the Union Hotel - she used to work in Britain in the 1960s and is horrified at how expensive everything has become. We get to Land's End - the conversation dies. Before us, a queue of cars, a bus park (full) and something that looks like a small-ish Disneyland ( We cringe.

Luckily, it isn't as bad as it looks at first sight. You can avoid the tourist trap and see dramatic ocean views, albeit in the company of large family groups and a gazillion tourists, ice creams in one hand and pasties in the other.

I try to catch a bus back to the Minack Theatre but miss it. The next bus goes to Penzance via St Ives - my German friend wants to go to St Ives, so I have company again. On impulse, I get off the bus at Marazion and take a ferry over to St Michael's Mount ( St Michael's Mount is an island in the bay - at low tide, you can walk out to it along a causeway (obviously you need to walk warily and briskly). The island has been a monastery, a fortress and now has a castle and stunning gardens. I wander around in a happy little fantasy only slightly marred by the presence of builders and scaffolding. The castle windows look out onto wild landscapes of cliffs and ocean - the castle interiors are elegant and cosy. I want one!!

From fantasy back to the real world - I need to catch the 6pm train to St Austell to make the next leg of my journey. I catch the ferry back, treading on the bronze footprint commemorating Queen Victoria's first step on the island on my way down the stairs. A short bus ride along the coast, five minutes to collect the giant suitcase, a bit of awkwardness when I interrupt a coupling couple (in a street leading to the harbour of all places!), and I'm on my way...

Crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle

The title of this post is a total lie - when I got to the bike hire place, I found it was cheaper to go on a bus tour than hire a bike. When I considered that the bikes had no locks, no baskets and no carry racks and observed that the sky was a rather ominous gray colour, it became a bit of a no-brainer. So on the bus I climbed and out I went to Stonehenge (

On the trip out, the guide pointed out a number of burial mounds. I'd have thought they were just leftover earthworks from dams, that's what an Aussie country upbringing does for you. We arrive at Stonehenge, which is about 100m away from three major highways. I am not sure whether to laugh or spin out. During the tour, the guide sets out all the theories about the why and how of Stonehenge's construction, including the theory that the stones were levitated into place by Atlanteans.

Way I figure it, the simple fact that the thing exists is magic enough for me. I walk around it twice and get some great photos - the passing traffic is not as intrusive as I expected. On the verge of the road, a small group of tight bastards try to get photos without stumping up the admission fee. Inside the fence, the tour guide pulls out two dowsing rods and gives us a basic demo of where the leylines are around the Henge. We must look a bit sceptical because he offers us a turn. I accept. Now, an explanation. The rods are two brass right angles, sort of like two largish Allen keys. To hold them, I curl my fingers around until they are nearly touching the heels of my hands (sort of like a Lego person) and the guide sits the short end of the rod down inside my palm. I can't move the things voluntarily without dropping them - the short ends are wedged against my palms and the long ends are balanced (precariously) across my fingers. I walk to and fro across the leyline, and the rods dutifully move in and out. It is a bit freaky, because I know that I'm not doing a darned thing but the rods are moving quite definitely in and out as I move around. Everyone else has to have a turn and we get quite an audience, despite the pouring rain.

Mystical experience over, we are dropped back at the Cathedral. I go in to see the Magna Carta and the frieze, which I missed because the tower tour went over time. It stops raining.

My tour includes a free bus trip to Old Sarum, a ruined castle just out of town ( As the weather has cleared up, I catch a bus. By the time I get to the ruins, it is raining again. I enjoy the ruins anyway, it is quite atmospheric out there - a bit creepy to think that these people built a massive castle, a cathedral and a whole township, and now there's nothing left except some walls, a mound and the latrine pits (can't think why no-one wanted to pinch the stone from them!). Rabbit holes dot the sides of the defensive earthworks and the locals walk their dogs across the ruins of the Cathedral. Old Sarum is apparently on the same leyline as Stonehenge and the Salisbury Cathedral - unfortunately, I don't have the wherewithal to do any more dowsing.

I contemplate catching the bus back and trying to take in a museum, but it's just too hard - I walk back to the B&B to collect my things, then on to the station to catch a train to Penzance!

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Today I travelled from Canterbury to Salisbury( This was much better than the journey from Cambridge to Canterbury because:

* I got a seat on the train
* I didn't have to travel from station to station on the Underground - I had to go from Waterloo East to Waterloo, which basically involves walking about 200m
* They had a buffet service on both trains
* Both trains ran express.

Funny that a couple of days ago when I was desperate enough to eat railway food, there wasn't any on offer - today, when I had a full English brekky so that I could avoid railway food, it was available in abundance.

The train trip was long but quite pleasant. I read a bit, looked out the window a bit, knitted some more of my shrug, then went back to looking out the window. The highlight of the trip: one of the stops en route to Salisbury was at Basingstoke. The little bit of it I could see from the train was pretty ordinary looking - I wasn't sure if Basinstoke was the cure for Margaret's madness or the cause!!

Salisbury is very pretty but they obviously don't have access to many cartographers. It takes me half an hour of wandering around the streets before I find the TIC, then it takes me another half an hour to find my way up to the B&B where I'm staying. In my wanderings, I encounter a very stressed gentleman who asks me where the bookie's shop is. I have no idea where anything is, I don't even know where we are (other than 'in Salisbury'). I hope he eventually found someone who could either tell him where to put a bet on or he found his way home.

Accommodation in Salisbury is on a par with hen's teeth. Luckily I got jack of wandering about and stopped for a quick bite of lunch before I went in to the TIC to see if they could do me a booking - it took over an hour for me to get everything sorted out. The girl rang seven places (steadily ascending in price) before she found me a room. I now have pretty much the same thing I had in Canterbury (single room, shared bathroom) at almost double the price. The B&B is late 1800s and although it is in much better repair than the Tudor Rose, I don't feel nearly as much at home here.

Because I was having so much strife with accommodation here, I booked ahead for the next few nights. I will be going to Penzance tomorrow to stay at the Union Hotel for two nights, then to St Austell (near the Eden Project). Prices are similar to Salisbury - maybe I should have told the Penzance TIC that I am an orphan...

I did manage to get in a bit of sightseeing before everything closed. The Church of St Thomas ( is on the way to the Cathedral. It isn't particularly exciting, except for the mediaeval Doom (a painting of the Last Judgement). It was whitewashed out (bloody Cromwell again!), but the whitewasher was obviously shagged out after a hard day smashing up statues with a crowbar and the Doom was recently restored. It's very impressive.

The Cathedral ( is open until 7pm in summer - I got there a bit before 5 and managed to nab the last spot on a tower tour. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to do much else, but the tour was absolutely unreal! We went through the ceilings, up into the bell tower and ended up right at the bottom of the spire looking out over the city. It was a nice change from tombs, stained glass and smashed-up statues - I'll nick back tomorrow to see the Magna Carta. The Cathedral are also the proud owners of a 13th Century clock which was worth a look - it still works! Bit of excitement for a dull day.

Tomorrow, I'm hiring a bike and riding out to Stonehenge - hopefully I'll get a chance to make a post before I have to hie me off down the coast to Cornwall (pieces of eight! pieces of eight!).