Thursday, 28 July 2011

England - The first chocolate island

July 10-11

Hello everyone!

The United Kingdom is an island that is not connected to mainland Europe. Within its boundaries there is a main island, but there are also smaller islands under Westminster's jurisdiction. One of these is an island to the south called the Isle of Wight, and this was our next stop.

The island is within five miles of the south coast of England, so it is a short ferry ride to get there. Many people take their cars, but we opted to leave our bird-poo-stained Meriva behind in Portsmouth. To be a walk-on passenger is £16 return, but to take your car is £65. Significant. It isn't a particularly large island, and you can access most areas on buses, so there was little need for our monster truck.

The Isle of Wight is traditionally known as a Victorian holiday hotspot and, more recently, a large retirement island, and there were a significant number of elder citizens milling around the centre of the town we were staying in. Perhaps due to its clientele, the island is relatively expensive, especially when looking for accommodation. We ended up staying upstairs in a pub, and got lucky that the price had been slashed in half for that day to a mere £50.

We were staying on the north side of the island in a town called Cowes, which became the theme of many terrible jokes during our time here. Cowes becomes the focal point of the sailing world for a week in August, when Cowes Week sees ships of all shapes and sizes descending on its small port for largest sailing regatta of its kind in the world. We were a month early, but the Solent was still heaving with boats.

We had very little time here, but wanted to explore as much as possible. Our first afternoon was spent getting buses down to the far southwesterly tip of the island to find one of its natural attractions - the Needles. These are a row of three distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea, with a lighthouse at their far end. They were featured on a British TV programme as one of the natural wonders of southern England. They are intriguing, but not as spectacular as other natural places such as Durdle Door.

We had arrived on a Sunday and the Isle of Wight, like much of Britain, runs a reduced public transport service on Sundays. As a result we arrived at the Needles and its small theme park on the final bus visiting the area that day. With hindsight, we shouldn't have gone on a Sunday. The park wasn't open. The old Needles battery wasn't open. Luckily, the natural world is generally an open place so we were able to walk along the headland to get a sight of the rocks and the shore. On the way we walked past a garden with numerous quirky signs and gnomes. A Japanese duo walked through it to give it a closer inspection, but were given short shrift by an old lady who told them off for trespassing on her 'private property'. Bit strange.

Missing the bus meant we had to walk back to the nearest village to find another route home, in which time we could appreciate the beauty of the countryside. We walked past a very large herd of cows that seemed to moo louder when I took photos, and then a herd of Chinese tourists walking down towards the Needles as the sun was slowly descending. Quite how they were planning on getting back I had no idea.

We had seen more tourists elsewhere on our trip, but I was surprised once again by the number of German speakers we encountered. It may have seemed like a lot because Kristina pointed out each and every one. The strange thing about the Isle of Wight, however, was the number of foreign teenagers who were omnipresent. A gaggle of high-pitched foreign accents punctured the ambience of our bus ride around the east of the island. I can only assume they were there on some sort of school-related activity. Unless the Germans are planning another invasion...

Rowdy teenagers were one of the few aspects of society not covered by the model village in the picturesque village of Godshill. The model is 1/10 the size of the actual village, before expanding to encompass more of the island. There are dinosaurs on trains, men playing bowls, and female strippers on football pitches. Larger than life, this place.

One shop is was missing was nextdoor; the wonderful Chocolate Island. It was heavenly. The only reasons we spent less than £10 were due to insufficient funds and insufficient protection for the chocolate in the scorching sunshine. Lovingly described as the island's 'sweetest attraction', chocolates of all shapes, flavours and sizes were on display. As well as traditional favourites there were some rather eccentric flavours - garlic chocolate, anyone?

It would have been nice to stay longer on the Isle of Wight, but you need a decent amount of money in your pocket to do that. Besides, we had plenty more to see on the mainland; in particular, the gay capital of the UK...

Love you all


Monday, 25 July 2011

England - The first door in the sea

July 8-9

Hello everyone!

Summertime in the UK is an exciting time for its population. Like many places in the world, the end of July and August are when people decide that they want to escape the monotony and perhaps depression of their jobs. It is summer holiday season.

There are certain destinations that are hotspots of British tourism. Any island off the Spanish coast or the Greek mainland is always a popular getaway for the 18-30 crowd, and families often escape to the Iberian peninsula to the scores of holiday resorts there. Though people's tastes are becoming increasingly exotic - I know friends who have recently gone to Morocco and Croatia for a short holiday - it is always a safe bet to think that Zante, Ibiza and the Algarve will be filled with drunken British lobsters.

Less commonly visited are the holiday destinations that were frequented in the days before cheap air travel and package holidays abroad. The domestic tourism industry has changed significantly in the last fifty years. One of the bedrocks of British holidays for previous generations were charming seaside resorts, and on this trip we decided to go back in time to frequent one of the more popular destinations - Weymouth.

I have been here before, but have no recollection of it. My mum has enjoyed telling anyone that will listen over the past month that Weymouth possesses the first beach that I would step on without kicking up a massive fuss. The 2011 version of the beach does indeed have soft, dreamy sand, and the sand has been used to create some very impressive sculptures. The problem with it is that the wind whips it across the beach from right to left, leaving you with a sandy body and a newspaper that is very difficult to read without pages blowing away. I sound like an old man.

Indeed, the tourist industry is very much alive and kicking ironically because of an age group which wouldn't generally fit in to that particular phrase. Possibly due to memories from a different era, there are a significant number of pensioners ambling along Weymouth's promenade or napping in the old-fashioned deckchairs. What they weren't doing was frantically pedalling along the chilly waves, like some people were in pedalos. I wanted to jump into the water, but there were speedboats manned by security men who would shout at you if you even looked like you were going to be that guy. Madness.

The sunshine, as well as staying for a weekend, meant that Weymouth seemed quite busy. There was a seafood festival in the harbour...which we discovered one hour after eating lunch. Not a big problem when you're in an area of England famed for its fish 'n' chips. The nice weather also allowed us to indulge in another traditional British beach snack - whippy ice cream. With the flake, of course.

The relative bustle of Weymouth contrasted significantly with the two places visited immediately before it. We left you last time standing close to Stonehenge. From there it is a short drive to the city of Salisbury, a place famous for its cathedral. The cathedral has the tallest church spire in the U.K., which itself is fascinating due to it being noticeably crooked in comparison to the rest of the complex.

The cathedral also possesses one of the four remaining exemplifications of the original text of the 1215 Magna Carta, one of England's most famous Charters. Some of its clauses are still in effect today, such as the freedom of the English Church and a right to due process. It didn't include any references to scones, but they were a must in this traditional, quintessentially English city.

From there we drove down to the south coast to an amazing natural rock formation called Durdle Door. The rock has been eroded in a fairly unique way to create a natural limestone arch. It is a fascinating, incredible feature on a lovely stretch of the coast. Just a shame that so many people miss it, and British beach towns, to get their kicks on a rowdy Spanish coast.

Love you all


Friday, 22 July 2011

England - The first sight of Stonehenge

July 7-8

Hello everyone!

There are many methods of transport that I use when travelling. From boats across the West Sea to tuktuks hurtling through Sri Lankan lanes; slow elephants in Thailand to speedy trains in Europe. There are many ways of getting from A to B, but the majority have one common theme: I am never in control. Someone else is usually doing the driving.

Until now. To travel around the south of England we decided to rent a car. I was looking for something small, such as a Ford Fiesta. When we arrived to collect the car we were told that they had no such car available, and I was thus bumped up free of charge to the next category. We drove away - once I had returned into the office to ask how to turn the car on - in a Vauxhall Meriva. A rather large family car.

It was a nice enough car once I worked out how to use the handbrake (a button??), the headlights and the rear windscreen wipers. The latter were of particular importance in Wales, but the rain seemed to disappear as we crossed the Severn Bridge into the big country. Our first stop was one of historical importance, and one that most people know - Bath.

Bath is famous because of the landmarks left behind here by the Romans. The most famous are the Roman Baths, where folk used to wash themselves and hang out almost 2000 years ago. The temple was constructed in 60-70 AD and the bathing complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years. Thanks Wikipedia. They are very well-preserved, and also house many Roman artifacts found in the surrounding area.

Understandably, you're not allowed to use the baths for their original purpose. You're not really supposed to touch the water, but most people sneak a cheeky finger or two into the murky green liquid. It's pretty warm - I can imagine that it was very nice to take a dip in their after a hard day killing scores of Celts back in the day. The other point of note was the free audio guide - a contender for the most annoyingly enthusiastic woman's voice I've ever heard. Rather posh as well, possessing a hint of Liz Hurley about her.

Bath is a nice small city; quite quiet and very easy on the eye. The sun made a pleasant appearance, allowing us to stroll along the River Avon which stretches through the city. We were staying at the university slightly outside of the centre. The campus was rather busy due to the hundreds of people graduating, in addition to a bizarre number of Italian teenagers on a school trip.

I've been to Bath a few times before, but the place we visited the following morning was new for me. If many people have heard of Bath, then just about every person has heard of our next destination: Stonehenge.

The advantage of having a car is that we could visit more remote places that possess interesting facets of Britain. The number of tour buses in the car park, and lack of public transport on view, suggested that it is quite a difficult place to get to on the cheap. Being in a tour group would also mean paying the rather astronomical £8 entrance fee. That doesn't even allow you into the main area - you are fenced off on a path a fair distance from the stones. Those on a tighter budget peer through the fence on the side of the road, and don't pay the fee. From this base we were only about fifteen metres away from the people being led along the path.

For the record, Stonehenge is a very interesting place. For about 10 minutes. Being exposed in that wind isn't great fun, and it's not as if there is that much to see. What you do see, however, is amazing, and definitely worth a visit. Especially if you are zooming around in a Vauxhall Meriva.

Love you all