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!).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Canterbury tales

Part ye fyrst - mye daye ynn Cambrydge (trans: first bit - my day in Cambridge)

I think a reference to the Cambridge website sums the whole thing up - - as you can see, the whole town uses the academic website. That would be fair enough as the university and the town are pretty much the same thing.

I did a two hour walking tour of Cambridge and that was about enough for me. The tour started out at the Eagle, a Tudor pub with two claims to fame - one of the bars has a ceiling covered with graffitti courtesy of the WWII airmen stationed there and the gentlemen who discovered the structure of DNA used to drink there.

We then went around the colleges. The colleges either charge for admission or have big signs up telling tourists to bugger off in three or four different languages. The cost of the tour included admission to Kings College (, which was well worth a look. The Chapel was particularly lovely, it is one of the few buildings that wasn't completely trashed by Cromwell's mob during the Reformation. They did graffitti all over the walls, but this was cleverly covered with panelling - when the panelling was removed during some renovations in the 1970s, all the graffitti was exposed but by then it was old enough to be of historical interest.

I tried walking back to the hostel along the Cam, but the colleges seem to have appropriated it for private use. I end up walking beside something that looks a lot like an open drain, thanking God that the weather is still quite cold (I am now the proud owner of a trashy long-sleeved souvenir shirt labelled 'Cambridge', it makes me look like the last word in sad tourists). From the drain, I can look over the fields and gardens to the colleges. The Cam goes between the colleges and the fields, I get what I hope are some good shots of Kings College with punts and cows. The funny thing is, you can't actually see the river, all you can see are the upper half of the punters gliding past. At least, I thought it was funny, but thanks to my mates at the YHA, I'm so sleep-deprived, I'd laugh at anything.

One of my room-mates was a lovely Dutch lady called Anna-Mieke. I didn't introduce myself to the other two lassies when they came in at midnight making enough noise for an entire herd of elephants. Anna-Mieke had told me that they wouldn't turn the light on when they came in - they didn't, they opened the bloody curtains, leaving me lying full in the glare of the streetlight outside. They also received calls on their mobiles at odd hours of the night - I lay there, plotting to silence the phones for ever. Unfortunately, the toilet was blocked. I did have a second plan but couldn't work out which phone to insert into which arsehole - that put paid to plan B. Eventually, I gave up and went to breakfast.

Breakfast!! Wondrous revelation!! In Norwich, I had a little tanty in Boots, where I went to purchase Lactaid. Lactaid is a wonderful thing that prevents lactose intolerant reactions. The lass suggested I should go to a health food shop, which I took as a bit of an insult because in Australia, the chance of finding anything of therepeutic value in a health food shop is practically nil. However, this is furrin parts and things is different here. I am now the proud owner of a bottle of lactase tablets, which are doing very nicely thank you, although I do need to be careful not to overuse them.

Train travel - more wondrous revelations!! All I'll say about the trip is that I left Cambridge at 3:30 and didn't get to Canterbury until nearly 8pm. I also ended up at the opposite end of Canterbury to the YHA. This was God being kind to me. I was too stuffed to walk all the way through town and I ended up at the cutest B&B, a place called the Tudor Rose. It is a genuine Tudor building, with seriously dodgy floors and it is just adorable. I slept like a rock.

Before doing my rock impersonation, I managed to grab a delicious dinner at the Old Weaver's House (which is now a lovely pub) on the riverside - I was sitting next to the old ducking stool about two feet from the water's edge (two feet straight down) in a gorgeous garden. Canterbury makes much better use of its rivers than Cambridge - at least from the point of view of the public, I'm sure the students appreciate their river views very much.

Today, I went out to see the sights ( First stop, the Cathedral. Bit of damage from Henry VIII, bit more from Mr Cromwell and his mates. Just inside the door, they have a list of the Deans, starting in 800 or something like that. Their list of organists doesn't start until 1400, musicians have always been undervalued!! Love the Cathedral.

My next stop is the Roman Museum, which is very cute and user-friendly. They even have an area where you can handle the exhibits!! Next stop is the West Gate towers via the Greyfriars Hospital. That's Hospital as in a place for pilgrims to sleep, rather than a place for sick people. The Hospital still has eight units that are rented out to senior citizens. A couple of the units are built over the Stour River like a little bridge. That's where I want to live when I get old, they are soooo cute!! Actually, I need to be more specific - I want to live in the top floor one, because I bet you anything the bottom one is liable to flood. At present, you need to be a member of the congregation in good standing, which may present a problem, but hopefully old people will be a bit thin on the ground in forty years and I'll get a look-in.

The West Gate towers now straddle a main road - I have some excellent photos of a bulldozer and a double-decker bus going through the arch. The bus driver gets a round of applause, the gate is so narrow that he has to fold his mirrors in to make it through. It's very impressive.

From the West Gate, I come back to the CBD via the Royal Museum, Art Gallery and Buff's Museum - I also take in the Museum of Canterbury. You can get into all the Museums on one ticket and none of them take more than an hour or so to get through. The Museum of Canterbury is a bit slow at the start, as it covers a lot of the Roman Museum stuff - however, they make up for it by having a Middle Ages exhibit that includes genuine mediaeval poo. What more could you ask for?

Other impressions of Canterbury: it has a strong new-age counterculture (I'm writing this in a New Age/pagan book and gift shop). The entire CBD is car free, which rocks. There are heaps of street performers, some of whom are quite good. Basically, I'm in love with the place - I'd quite happily move in tomorrow if only I could.

I finish my day with a boat tour along the Stour. From the tour guide, I learn that the Romans made extensive alterations to the course of the river, which explains why it divides into two on the outskirts of town and also why it runs along the bottom of a two metre deep aquaduct. Gorgeous little houses line the edges of the aquaduct, our guide points out that these were once the cheapest houses in town because the river was so polluted. I suspect that the residents to either side went some way to causing the problem although no-one has a garderobe at the moment. Some of the houses do have doors that open out straight over the water, which might cause a problem if you were a bit absent-minded.

From the water, we have an excellent view of the Alchemist's Tower. This was built by a Victorian gentleman with far too much money and a bizarre sense of humour - people came from all over to meet the alchemist and of course there weren't no such animal. I guess it was something to get bums on seats once Henry VIII pulled down St Thomas' shrine.

One thing we don't have an excellent view of is the old mill, which burned down some time in the 19th century. One of the women in the boat recalls her grandmother telling her about the fire - at a guess, the lady is about 60 so that would put the fire about 120 years ago. An architect has built a very interesting modern interpretation of the mill's shape in a site nearby, but I don't feel like it's the same thing.

Here endeth the Canterbury tale!!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Norwich, Ely and Cambridge

I spent Sunday seeing the rest of Norwich sans small people. The walk into town from Tom and Cathy's was rather nice. The old railway line has been converted into a bike track and walking path, so I walked into town along this lovely shady path surrounded by trees and blackberries. Highlight of the walk was a father cycling past supporting his young daughter on her scooter, both of them cheerfully singing something that could have been a Top 10 hit or could have been 'The East is Red', I wasn't sure.

My first point of call was the Royal Arcade and the market - luckily none of the shops were open! From there, I looked in on the Forum and the Origins museum, but decided it was not for me - Origins would be great if you had a group of bored kids on a wet day, but I had neither of the above. Accordingly, I went along Elm Hill, a lovely old strip of shops ( Again, none of them were open so I saved hundreds of pounds.

Elm Hill opens out into the Tomblands, a funky little square with cafes, restaurants and the two gates to the Cathedral ( At a guess, I'd say the gates are each about three, maybe four, storeys high - and that's just the gates. I go through into the Cathedral complex, which is more or less in proportion to the gates. I spend a happy morning wandering around ooh-ing and aah-ing at all the old stuff and the Victorian add-ons. For me, the most notable feature about the Cathedral is the labyrinth in the Cloister courtyard (for those of you who aren't all that interested in prehistory or mythology, the labyrinth is a traditional Goddess symbol - not something you'd expect to find in a church of any denomination).

I finish my tour at about 1pm and wander back into Tomblands looking for lunch. At this point, I probably should explain that 'Tomblands' is actually from an old Saxon word meaning 'an empty space' - I'm not wandering around a cemetery. I quickly found that anywhere that was open on Sundays was also full, so I walked along the river a short way to the Adam and Eve ( This is one of the contenders for the title of England's Oldest Pub, apparently there has been a pub on the site since 1279 or thereabouts. I highly recommend it, my meal was lovely - everyone else's meals looked tasty too. From the pub, I headed back to the Dragon Hall museum (closed), the Bridewell museum (closed) and St Julian's Church (open!). St Julian's is a nice foil to the splendour of the Cathedral, it is very small and cosy. I sat in the anchorite's cell and tried to imagine spending my entire life here - it had a certain appeal, especially when I read in the tour guide that anchorites were allowed to keep cats!

What else can I say about Norwich and Norfolk? All the old buildings are made using the local flint, which gives a beautiful effect - some buildings combine flint and brick, others only use flint. All the fen towns have churchs, which apparently had to have different steeples so that the locals could find their way back to the correct village after a hard day's yakka in the fields. Whatever the reason, they look great.

Most of the land is near or under sea level, so I assume the locals are very nervous about global warming! It looks like extremely fertile countryside, I can't imagine what the poor sods thought when they first got a look at Australian soil. And they don't believe in working the same looney hours that we take for granted in Australia, many shops were closed on Sunday or only open from 10-4.

On Monday, Neil kindly gave me a lift to Ely ( - Susan decided to have a quiet day at home to give Lucy a chance to settle. We went around the Cathedral, which was certainly worth the trip - it has this amazing structure at the centre called The Octagon. The short story is that they had a stone tower in the centre, which fell down in the 1300s - it was replaced with this mammoth wooden eight sided thing that looks about 20 storeys high. Neil and I were both amused to see that one of the front towers has been 'mislaid' at some point in the Cathedral's history - one of the tour guides commented that there seem to be a number of houses in the town built of a stone very similar to the Cathedral's, funny about that. All goes to prove that the buggers really will steal anything that's not nailed down - no doubt their descendants all ended up in Australia trying to farm our crappy soil.

One thing that really breaks my heart about all the churches and cathedrals here is the amount of damage done by Cromwell's troops during the 1600s. Ely Cathedral is exquisitely carved with images of saints and angels - the Lady Chapel is beautiful enough to take my breath away (with the exception of a rather uninspiring recent statue) - and some devout little so-and-so with a chisel has carefully belted the lights out of every single one to ensure that we all stay virtuous. The rotten sods also whitewashed over the paintings - someone was slacking off that day, so some of the original paint work came through in one of the chapels and has been restored. I think it's rather nice, but I'm not sure what it would have looked like with the whole place tricked out in red, blue, green and assorted other colours.

After the tour, Neil dropped me off at the station, where I caught a train to Cambridge. So far, I've checked in at the local YHA and been shafted by the local Botanical Gardens - you have to pay £3 to get in. I didn't realise that they charged and was too embarrassed to turn around and nick off when I got to the ticket kiosk. I've also seen the market place and walked around the shops a bit. Tomorrow, I'm doing a walking tour which covers the main sites, then heading off to Canterbury via London (more cathedrals, yawn, yawn). Will keep you posted!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

And lo! It raineth

And on the fifth day, the Rushworth family and guest travelled from Kettleshume (outside Macclesfield) to Norwich. And God beheld them and sent rain upon them of all kinds, both light and heavy rain sent he unto them, and they were sorely p!d off.

Neil kindly collected me from Bakewell and drove me to the Rushworth family abode in Kettleshume. I spent a lot of my time there staring out of the window at the amazing Peak District landscapes, but did put in some small effort to loading the parental campervan and the rental car. We drove to Norwich via Chesterfield (at my insistence) so I could see the Crooked Spire. The St Marys and All Saints Parish Church in Chesterfield has the most amazing spire - no-one is quite sure how it ended up as it did, but the most likely explanation is that it was finished during the plague years by dodgy builders. How it has stayed up for so long is another mystery. I get several photos then have to dash back to the car - the traffic is foul, and we are running late. See for a bit more about the church.

We drive through Sherwood Forest. It is very pretty and picturesque, and unfortunately we get a lot of time to appreciate its good qualities because the traffic is truly appalling. We get caught up at roadworks, then have to wait simply ages to get around a roundabout.

Our lunch stop is at Clumber Park(, a stately home without an actual stately home. The house was demolished during the Depression because it was too expensive to run - then WWII came along, and the family never got around to building a replacement. The grounds are lovely, and we have a very nice picnic there.

Neil has plans to view the Lincoln Cathedral and the Boston Stump en route to Norwich. Unfortunately, between my detour and the hideous traffic, we don't get to Lincoln until after three pm. That gives us just enough time to look at the Cathedral ( We can see the Cathedral and the Castle from about two miles out, maybe further. The two buildings are absolutely massive, and have been strategically built on one of the few high places in the district. I can only imagine what the local peasantry thought seeing those buildings towering over them as they trudged into town with their produce. I certainly can't imagine what it would have been like trying to build something that size using only hand tools!!

We get into Norwich about eight pm. Today it rained, so we went to see the Castle. Norwich Castle and Museum is built conveniently close to the shops - I see some irony in having a shopping mall directly beside a historic Norman castle, but I suppose it's better than using the building as a prison, which it was until the 1800's. The castle is very interesting and excellent value for kids, with lots of interactive exhibits and things to do. Hopefully the weather will clear up and we can see a few more tourist attractions tomorrow. The plan is to go to Cambridge Sunday night or Monday morning, I'd better stop wasting Tom and Cathy's internet time on my blog and get on to finding a timetable...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bakewell Tart

Rehearsals Monday. Enough said. Had an extraordinarily good meal at Columbine Restaurant with some of the SavoyNet people - it is expensive, but worth every penny, the food was just superb.

On Tuesday, we got into the theatre. I wasn't entirely happy with my performance, but what can I say - if I'd had any more to give, I'd have given it - this was my lesson that I really, really need to take breaks more often. That said, the audience loved everything we did - they laughed in all the right places and applauded vigorously. Afterwards at the Festival Club, people came up and told me how much they'd enjoyed it - complete strangers I met in the street on Wednesday morning told me that they loved the show - the crowning moment came when I went to Bakewell on Wednesday afternoon, where I met someone who had seen the show and loved it (I was wearing the show T-shirt, which rather gave me away).

On Wednesday, I managed to catch up with Susan, Neil and Lucy, and meet Susan's parents. Susan's family are extraordinarily generous - they started out driving me around the countryside, then offered me a lift to Norwich, and now I've been offered an airbed in the spare room. So I guess tomorrow I'll be going to Norwich. It has been lovely having their company, it's sort of like having family holidays again (I should add at this point for the benefit of my family that there have been no bizarre disagreements or kiddy tantrums - Lucy is much better behaved than I was at her age!).

Wednesday morning we went to see Chatsworth, a stately home just outside Bakewell ( Bakewell is the second largest city in this area after Buxton. Its claim to fame is the invention of the Bakewell Pudding, a type of jam tart. In token of this, every second establishment in the CBD is a tea shop selling Bakewell Pudding and/or Bakewell Tart. Just so that tourists are aware that this delicacy is on offer, the tea shops are all called The (insert extra word here for legal reasons) Bakewell Pudding (or Tart) shop/tearooms/cafe. The word "Olde" also features prominently. Neil does an excellent line in Bakewell Tart double entendres, which keep us amused as we drive out to Chatsworth. It actually doesn't take that long to get to the Chatsworth grounds, which are massive and include two villages, one for current staff and one for retirees.

The house itself is unbelievably large and spectacular. I felt sorry for myself having to renovate my unit, but these people have been renovating and building extensions ever since they finished building in the 1500s. The Dukes have also been very busy in the gardening and landscaping department, the house is surrounded by some of the most outstanding gardens you could ever imagine. I wish I could post my photos! Try for some pictures and a brief history of the house.

This morning (Thursday) I woke up bright and early (largely because my roommates at the YHA have weak bladders) and went to have a look at the church before taking a bus to Eyam( The church in Bakewell is small and extremely old, with parts of the original Saxon church still about and a Norman (?) font. The church also has a register of all the clergy who have served there, which starts at 1200 and goes through to the present day.

Eyam is famous largely because about one-third of the population died there during the plague. When the locals realised that the plague had come to the village, they imposed a quarantine on themselves - this saved a lot of people in the neighbouring villages, but meant that a massive number of people in Eyam itself died. The museum has a map of the town - each house has little people drawn in red (died of plague), blue (died during the quarantine of other causes), green (survived) or yellow (unknown). Many of the houses are filled with little red figures. Also unnerving are the little plaques outside the original houses, commemorating the people (often entire families) who died there during the quarantine. I walk along the street reading the plaques for a while - it started to freak me out after about half a dozen houses, particularly when I realised that the other side of the street was the same. I can't begin to imagine what it would have been like spending a year in a self-enforced quarantine, watching your family die one by one. Apparently there is a very good novel called 'The Year of Wonders' that deals with the Eyam quarantine - I must keep an eye out for it.

In the afternoon, I met up with Susan's family and we went to Haddon Hall ( Haddon Hall looks exactly like a fairy-tale castle, except for the glass windows, which would rather impede anyone shooting from the bailey. I prefer it to Chatsworth, as it is more people-friendly - lots of lovely woodcarving and stonework, rooms that are roughly people-sized and lots of natural light.

I am almost at the end of my internet cafe credit, so I might end here and go to try to find out what has happened to my flight with this latest terrorist business.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Buxton - on the home stretch

Those of you who have been following this journal attentively will be amazed to know that I spent pretty much all day Saturday in rehearsal. Saturday night was the big Savoynet dinner at the Kwei Lin restaurant. The company was great (although through some error of judgement I ended up at the 'young' table). For the rest, all I'll say is that in Australia, you can't go too far wrong eating Chinese food. This does not necessarily apply in England.

After the meal, we kicked on at the Festival Club, where we were entertained by the Three Baritones and a performance of 'Cox and Box'. Unfortunately, I was sitting behind a pillar, so I missed most of the latter - the third entertainment for the evening was a sing-your-own 'Trial by Jury', which I decided to pass on.

This morning, there were no rehearsals, so I walked to King's Sterndale and back. The walk took me through Staden, Cowdale and King's Sterndale. Staden is two houses and a barn, plus cows and sheep. Cowdale has about eight houses and a telephone box - about the size of my home hamlet of Congupna, but with no caravan park or tiger snakes. Lots of cows though, it is well named.

English cows and sheep don't have the cargo cult mentality of their Aussie counterparts. When I cross my first stile, I expect to have an adoring fan club all the way across the field, but English cows simply look at you in a very superior sort of way or ignore you. The sheep also do a very good line in haughty stares - by the time I get to my third stile and my second farm, I am well on the way to having an inferiority complex.

At Kings Sterndale, the church is open and the service has just ended. I nip into the grounds to take some photos, and run into the childrens' treasure hunt coming the other way. The vicar invites me in to have a look around the church and gives me a short history of the building - apparently Kings Sterndale was largely financed by the Pickford family (owners of a famous removalist company - people who saw 'Iolanthe' might remember the line about Strephon being a "Parliamentary Pickford - he carries everything").

At Kings Sterndale, I meet a family walking their dogs. They have relatives in Canberra - I make appropriately sympathetic noises. They kindly offer me a cup of tea before I do the hardest part of the walk, but I've spent about half an hour talking and I'm not sure I'll make it back in time, so I pass.

They weren't joking about a hard part of the walk. To get to Kings Sterndale, you cross Duke's Drive and the railway line. You also cross them on the way back, but on the way back they are at the bottom of an extremely steep valley. I only slip once, naturally this is at the only patch of nettles on the downward descent. Luckily, my butt is only about half an inch off the ground and I am not allergic to nettles, so I make it down to the River Wye in pretty good nick. I regret not accepting the cup of tea though!!

The way back to Buxton takes me through Woo Dale, past Daisymere Farm and through the northern suburbs. Woo Dale is supposed to be a good spot for wildflowers - I assume from the state of the track that a large herd of cows has been through recently and eaten the lot as I don't see too many flowers of any kind. When I reach the town, I acquire a short-haired border collie and his owner. The dog knows a sucker when he sees one, and so I throw sticks for the dog right the length of the road into town. His owner has a bit of a chat as we stroll along - he has no relatives in Australia, which makes a refreshing change! We part ways near St John's Church - the dog trots off around the corner, leaving us behind. When I cross the road to go into town, I see that the dog has found a new admirer - he is sitting next to a woman, holding his stick and looking hopeful.

Lunch is a chicken and salad baguette on The Slopes. Some birds come along and help me to finish it. I have no idea what type of birds they are (there are two distinct species), but they are both very attractive. Beats hell out of feeding pigeons or seagulls.

This will be my last post for a while, as the internet cafe is closed Monday and I'll be in rehearsal all Tuesday. If I have some leftover credit, I'll pop in on Wednesday before I head off to Bakewell. Now would probably be a good time to say thanks to:

* the kind people at the Cyber Emporium internet cafe, who not only set me up with an internet account but who also told me how to get to Edinburgh from here

* the owners of 9 Green Lane, who have totally spoiled me for the past eight days. If you ignore the exchange rate, B&Bs are fantastic value. I paid £19 to stay in a six bed dormitory in Manchester, with a breakfast of white toast and black coffee. At 9 Green Lane, I'm paying £27 per night for my own room, lovely fresh linen, a spotless bathroom and as much breakfast as anyone could possibly want, all very tasty and nicely done thank you!

Friday, August 04, 2006

A Buxton weekend

The Lonely Planet says that the Old Sun Inn offers plain, good quality pub fare. It does. I got a pie with chips and peas, which doesn't sound very inspiring, but it was really well done - home made pastry, readily identifiable meat - chips weren't greasy - peas were nice and fresh - I was rapt. They had some quite tasty-sounding desserts too, but I couldn't have eaten them for quids, I was so full.

Yesterday, I wasn't called for rehearsal until 1:30, so I did the Buxton tour. My first stop was St Anne's Church, which is just up the road near the most amazing second hand bookshop (four storeys high, all crammed full of books - I am in love!). St Anne's is an ex-drovers' byre. During the Middle Ages, farmers would bring their cows, sheep and other miscellaneous livestock to town for sale and leave them overnight in the byre while they headed off down the pub. In 1625, some brave soul decided to clean the place up and consecrate it. The church is absolutely adorable, and I take heaps of photos. There is only one other tourist in the place, she comes from Sydney. We talk to the clergyman in charge - very pleasant way to pass the time and avoid going out in the rain. The clergyman (I'm not sure what denomination the church is, and it seems rude to ask) gives us a short history of the church. Apparently, St Anne's Church was originally situated near the mineral spring called St Anne's Well. When the Reformation occurred, a group of Cromwell's soldiers came to Buxton and demolished the church on the grounds that it promoted heathen practices - many people who were cured left offerings at the church, which wasn't in keeping with the Puritan ethic. The church has a Saxon font, a massive, weathered block of stone. Apparently a farmer was using it as a pig trough - he kindly donated it when the new church opened. The clergyman believes that the font may have been the font from the original church, salvaged after the soldiers had finished their demolition job. No proof either way, but it's a very plausible explanation.

I head up to the Market Place - there is a market here on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the rest of the time it's surrounded by supermarkets. There are more supermarket chains here than there are in Australia, and they try harder - they all seem to have a good range of organic stuff (mostly from NZ, which says a lot about Little Johnnie's trade and GE policies!) - and they seem very responsive to health issues. For example, Marks and Spencer have cut out all those revolting commercial fats that are so bad for you and I think Tesco's will follow suit later this year.

Anyway, that's the Market Square as I pass through - supermarkets and rain. The Town Hall is marked on my tourist map as an attraction, but at the moment it is covered in scaffolding so it isn't really very attractive!! The market cross in front of it is aged and weathered to a nub - it has been here for at least as long as there has been a settlement - it looks like it might even have been around for longer!!

I walk down Hall Bank past the Slopes, a cute little public garden which is nearly, but not quite, vertical. Hall Bank has lovely old Georgian houses, but so does everywhere else around here. From Hall Bank, it is on to the Opera House and St John's Church. St John's is the complete antithesis of St Anne's. I walk around the graveyard for a while, and have a slightly trippy moment when my camera flash suddenly goes off of its own accord (the camera was locked at the time). That will teach me to go walking over graves! St John's is hosting a flower festival - the signs say entry by donation, but when I get in, it turns out to be entry by purchasing a program. There's a bit of confusion and much embarrassment on my side when I wander in and make a donation, then refuse to buy a program thinking that it is extra. The flower festival is an interesting idea - the locals have made tableaux of flowers showing Buxton's history. All very well done, but not entirely my cup of tea. On my way out, to atone for the program business, I purchase a tombola ticket from a lovely lady with relatives in Melbourne ("they live in some unpronounceable suburb I've only ever seen written down"). It costs £1 per ticket and I win a £5 Woolworths voucher - God has obviously forgiven me.

From the church, I go up to the old hospital building (being converted to a university), the Palace Hotel (they aren't joking, the place is massive in a very tastefully done way) and the railway station. I come back via the Cavendish Arcade (world's largest secular stained glass ceiling - but alas, no public loos) and the old Baths (which are now an art gallery). A quick trip to St Anne's Well for some free mineral water, a dekka at some public memorials and I'm back at the other end of the road where I started. I round the tour off with a quick trot through the museum and art gallery, which are just a nice size to occupy a couple of hours.

And back to rehearsal again... I see my costumes for the first time. They are truly amazing. And more to the point, they fit almost perfectly. There are some hassles with my second act costume, but that is because I've been provided with genuine Victorian underwear - when I lose the pantalettes, the chemise and the corset, it fits quite well. Overall, rehearsals are going quite well. There are still a few things, which worries me - I'd like to be much better - but I guess I have to accept that there are some things I'll only get right when I have the real set to work on. At least, I hope so!!

After rehearsal, a group of us grab dinner at a tapas bar - very nice thank you, I'd never have thought of coming to Buxton for the tapas, but I'll certainly go back there any day. We then go on to the Southhampton G&S Society's production of 'The Grand Duke'. I've never seen the show before, and I think it's very good - it's a shame it isn't done more often. The group have updated it to World War II with a sort of Producers-meets-'Allo, 'allo look - I don't have a problem with it, but some people walk out. There are two lovely old things two seats behind me who talk right through the first act, and I want to throttle them. Luckily they don't come back for Act Two. Generally, the acting and singing are good - the costumes are very well done - all in all, I enjoyed myself. I'm too tired to go on to the cabaret afterwards... I walk home with a couple of the other Ruddygore people who are up my end of town.

At some bizarre hour, I get a phone call from Australia. One of the BNI people has either forgotten that I've gone to the UK, or they have something really important to tell me. I have no idea, as I can't access my voicemail. I ring the number (which I don't recognise) at about 6am when I realise that I'm not actually going to go back to sleep, in case it's important. The woman who answers the phone has no idea what the call was about, so the heck with it. If it is important, whoever it is can send me an e-mail. I did explain to her that I was in England, where it was 6am, that the phone call had cost me roughly $15 and that I wasn't overjoyed, so could she please not ask anyone to call me back.

At least I had plenty of time for a run. I went up to the Broad Walk, which runs alongside the Pavilion Gardens - it is a road, but it's closed to traffic and it's very pretty. As I jog along, plastic rain poncho flapping in the breeze, I scare the living daylights out of a couple of grey squirrels. For those of you who read and loved the story of Squirrel Nutkin - forget it!! Grey squirrels are manky little things that look like rats. I get up an amazing turn of speed until I realise what they are, then I double back for a look. If Beatrix Potter had had these little horrors for models, she would have written a story about boot-boys stealing cars and beating up old ladies. They don't appeal to me particularly. I find out later that grey squirrels are actually from America and they are pests - enough said! I get in a lap of the gardens before rehearsal and get back in exactly an hour.

I'm on my way home now with a selection of Marks & Spencer salads for tea, planning to spend a happy hour going over my words and music one more time. More news tomorrow!!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Buxton - day the third

After posting to my blog last night, I went to the Buxton Opera House to watch the Tokyo Theatre's production of 'The Mikado'. Someone has carefully translated the entire thing into Japanese (then translated some bits back so that we get at least some of the jokes).

On my way there, I hear an anonymous voice saying "But it's in Japanese - what if I don't know what's going on?" After a brief pause for reflection, the person realises that they will probably be able to follow the story regardless.

My impression - the voices are superb (well, they have brought their national opera company over), the costumes are outstanding and even though it is in Japanese (mostly), it is still very funny. Some familiar Japanese terms and helpful gestures make it clear (well, sort of) that the Mikado orders immoral young men to commit hari-kiri, instead of having them beheaded - in the Mikado's list of people deserving cruel and unusual punishment are:

* karaoke bar owners (I think most people got that one)
* sudoku puzzle writers (probably about half the audience got that one)
* hard-core pachinko players (it's only thanks to Clive James that I had any idea what the hell they were going on about, and even then I am not entirely sure).

The production was insanely popular. I decided to get a proper dinner as a treat (the local Co-op supermarket has been doing a roaring trade in salad sandwiches and I wanted a change). The Old Sun Inn doesn't open for meals until 6:30 - too late. I went up the hill a bit further to Firenze - it was packed. I tried The Pavilion (next door to the Opera House) - also packed. I tried The Clubhouse over the road - same story. I was wandering back to the main street, and found a coffee shop in the Old Courthouse building. The waitress seemed concerned and stressed that they only had panini. It was about 7pm, so I didn't see the problem. Unfortunately, I also nearly didn't see the panini - it was extremely tasty, but it was also about the same size as an Aussie chocolate eclair - not exactly a hearty meal. On the way home, I braved a hideous death from salmonella to buy a kebab. The kebab shop owner is a major fan of 'The Crocodile Hunter' and similar programs. I agree cheerfully with everything he says, as he appears to have a bullet scar on his shoulder. Nodding and smiling wins me a grade A kebab, so I have no complaints.

Everyone agrees the following day that their Katisha was actually very attractive, despite having gone to a great deal of effort to play it down - she had two of the most amazing kimono and one English line, where she summed up about seven lines of the original dialogue by announcing that she was 'as beautiful as the Princess Camilla'. The SavoyNet cast all agree that there is no contest, and several wondered why the hell Nanki-Poo bothered to run away.

More notes on the production are available at the Festival website ( - for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention parts of the plot, there is a summary available on the web (

It is still raining, it hasn't stopped since the night I arrived. This morning, I have rehearsals until about midday. I also help out pinning up costumes - pity the poor chorus members who receive something I've worked on!!

At about 2pm, I'm free, so I head off to do a bit of touristing. A bit further up Greens Lane, there is a famous cave, Poole's Cavern. A cave sounds warm and dry, so I head up there and do the tour. There are some very interesting rock formations, including one area where the rock formations are largely the result of industrial pollution... For more information, check out the link ( When I come out, the rain seems to be slacking off, so I go for a walk in the 100-acre wood (Grinlow Wood) that has been planted over the limeworks that used to surround the cavern. The wood is quite pretty - I climb up to the top of the old quarry, and find myself looking out over an excellent view and also a caravan park. One holiday maker is driving around in circles, I presume they are trying to work out the best site to build an Ark.

Naturally, when I am in an exposed spot with no shelter, it begins to rain harder. I go back into the 100-acre wood and try to find my way to Solomon's Tower ( This involves walking most of the way down the hill - did I mention that the 100-acre wood is on a 45-degree angle? - and back up again. When I get to the top, I encounter my first stile. Over the first stile is my first view of an old lime burning area. Those of you who know Bendigo will understand if I say 'green mullock heaps'. For the rest of you, there are a lot of holes in the ground. It actually makes me think of Tolkein and his hobbits - apparently lime-burners did live in the old kilns and in caves dug into the ash-heaps and so forth.

Where there are stiles, there are also cows. Very, very unhappy cows crowded under a tree. I'm not worried about them charging me, because they'd kill themselves falling into a pit if they did. I am worried about falling into a pit myself, so I try to pass the limeworks along the fence. The cows obviously prefer this option. I walk very carefully and watch the ground.

When I get to Solomon's Tower, I realise that this Grade II monument also provides excellent shelter for cows. I climb up the stairs for panoramic views of Buxton and rain. I climb down the stairs for panoramic views of fertilizer. Thank God it is not a hot summer. It begins to rain even more heavily, so I go back to the B&B. Tonight's festival offering is Iolanthe - I can live without another Iolanthe just yet, so I plan to get dinner at the Old Sun Inn, which is well recommended and just over the road from the internet cafe. Hopefully they have a fairly liberal dress policy, as my hiking boots are back at the B&B, soaking wet and covered in cow poo. I must add though, I'm rapt that I paid the money for proper boots - my feet stayed warm and dry right through, despite the fact that I was walking through little runnels of water pretty much all day. I am now resplendently clad in my only jumper, my workout pants and a pair of sandals. If they don't let me in, I plan to beg...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

And on the second day...

Behold! There were more rehearsals. Lots and lots more rehearsals... All of which, I may add, went extremely well. The downside is that the only part of Buxton I've really managed to see is the Trinity Hall where we're rehearsing.

I did get to make a quick run up to the shops to get some more clean socks, some runners and a pair of trakky daks. I have this bright idea that I might get time to go running before breakfast.

On Monday evening, I went to see a performance of HMS Pinafore by a group called Opera Della Luna. They made a number of changes to the original score, but I thought they came up with an excellent result - a nice blend of modern and traditional theatrical conventions - I enjoyed it immensely and plan to buy the video when it comes out. Their website will give you some idea of what they are about ( - think Bell Shakespeare without the nudity.

Tuesday I manage to get up and go running, more or less. Buxton is extremely hilly, so my morning run could more accurately be described as 'interval training' (where you work out intensely for a short time, then slack off, then build up again). I run whenever I hear a car approaching or see a pedestrian, and stagger along like a 90 year old when I think I'm unobserved. More rehearsals - it is pouring down rain, so I don't bother to go out during the break. Jill the Sandwich Angel provides snacks, fruit, drinks and sandwiches at the hall, so there's no need to brave the elements.

Impressions of Britain so far:

* There's plenty of good-quality fruit and veg available in summer. Ironically, quite a bit of it (particularly the organic stuff) comes from New Zealand. Bananas are much cheaper than they are in Australia (about 99p per kilogram, which is around $3).

* Lonely Planet reckons clothes are cheap. Not when you take account of the exchange rate, they bloody aren't!! I spend £5 for some socks and £75 for runners and two pairs of sports pants. When you work out that £1 = $3.40, that is the same or more as I'd pay for clothes in Australia.