October 31, 2007
So yes, I went to England and Scotland, and now I have the pictures to prove it. The primary objective of this trip (what? you don’t set objectives for your vacations?) was to see the little town in Scotland where it’s possible that some of Mr. Karen’s paternal ancestors lived once upon a time. Dale and Joan (Mr. Karen’s parents, you may remember) had tried to get there on a trip they took nine years ago, but it proved impossible to do because they were on a package tour and had limited control over their schedule and transportation. When we first started talking about this trip, I thought we’d spend the whole time in Scotland, which was fine with me since I’d never been there. We ended up flying into London, though, and driving up to Scotland and back, as Dale and Joan decided to book a tour with a week each in London and Paris (but this one gave them a lot of free time).
Dale and Joan connected in Detroit, so we were all on the same overnight flight to London on Saturday evening. This was my first experience with the personal video system Northwest has on some of their planes now, and I liked it. I’d prepared for the trip by loading up my iPod with plenty of new material but I didn’t end up using it at all, since I was able to watch movies and play games on the screen on the seatback in front of me when I wasn’t reading. I did try to sleep some, but it was hard. Between the beverage service, duty free sales pitch, meal service, passing out of immigration forms, and snack service, it felt like there was almost always something going on to keep me from dozing off. I did put in my earplugs and strap on my sleep mask for a couple hours, but even then I could hear the binging and bonging of the flight attendant call bells, so I didn’t feel particularly rested when we arrived.
It wasn’t as hard to stay awake that first day as I remember it being the only other time I went to England, probably because we kept ourselves busy doing stuff after we checked into the hotel. (Mr. Karen and I did, anyway; Dale and Joan elected to crash at the hotel the rest of the day.) We took the Underground to Oxford Circus (note: not a real circus) and browsed in John Lewis and Monsoon and Liberty. We tried to visit a little yarn shop near Carnaby Street that I’d printed off a map to, but it was shut, with a note on the door saying they’d be open as usual the next day. At the shops that were open, I didn’t see anything I just had to have, even though the department stores did have yarn and fabric. I didn’t start to feel sleepy until we were at dinner. Next time, I think I’ll go for fast food that first night to avoid those lulls between courses and waiting for the check.
Monday morning we joined Dale and Joan’s tour and got bused around some of the major sights in London. We stopped at St. Paul’s Cathedral and at Buckingham Palace, were we got to see the first part of the changing of the guard. We drove by a lot of stuff, including the giant Miami Dolphin placed in Trafalgar Square to publicize the then-upcoming NFL game in Wembley Stadium. In the afternoon, the four of us went on our own to the London Eye. It wasn’t an ideal day for it, since it was hazy and threatening rain, but it was our only opportunity on the trip so we took it. We ended up getting off the Eye just as rush hour was getting started, so rather than braving the Underground back to the hotel just then we visited the Dali Universe nearby. There’s a lot more there than just the melting clocks; I liked it. By the time we got done touring the art and made our way back to Waterloo Station, the worst of the rush had passed.
Tuesday Mr. Karen and I picked up the rental car then picked up Dale and Joan at the hotel and drove to Scotland. Mr. did the hard part, getting us out of London and onto the motorway. We saw many, many sheep, a fair few cows, including some crossing over the motorway on their own bridge, and a wind farm. I did some driving, too, including getting to our first hotel in Scotland after sunset. Hello, roundabouts. It wasn’t too hard getting used to shifting with my left hand; I only banged my knuckles on the door a couple times before I learned. The hotel, a B & B in a house built in 1850-ish, was very charming and comfortable.
Wednesday we made it to the little town that was the focus of the trip. We wandered the cemetery and found no relatives there, then had lunch in one of the two pubs in town. We’d meant to stop at the shop across the street after lunch, but it closed at 2:30 so that didn’t work out. Then it was onto our second hotel in Scotland, which was quite possibly the worst I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms were rundown and dark and we didn’t even have top sheets, just thin comforters I’m not convinced got washed between guests. (It wasn’t a duvet, so it’s not like they could take the cover off and launder that, either.) The bathroom window handle in one of our rooms was broken and Mr. Karen had to use his Leatherman to get the window closed. I’m just glad we were there mid-week, since the brochure said that on Fridays they have amateur pole dancing contests in the bar–the bar that sits at the bottom of the stairs up to the rooms. Klassy. I was so ready to leave that when Mr. Karen jostled me and woke me accidentally I was up and out of bed and about to turn on the shower when he told me it was only quarter to five and not time to get up yet. I, not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, was very disappointed to hear that.
Breakfast was included in the room rate so we went down the restaurant Thursday morning. The waitress we had was the only good thing about our stay. She entertained us with stories, attempted to talk us out of going to Edinburgh (too Anglicized, among other things), plied us with brochures about local sights, and went outside to pick us sprigs of heather, both purple and white. I’m still not ever going back to that hotel, though. On the way out of town, we stopped at the local castle, the grounds of which are a park (though the building is closed to the public), then took a drive up to the southern edge of the Highlands, where I was delighted to see the Highland cattle I’d heard so much about. They are mighty attractive animals. We made a stop at the Scotland Wool Center that was mostly a huge shop but did have a quartet of actual live sheep to look at. I bought some handspun yarn of indeterminate fiber content and I was happy.
Getting to our hotel in Edinburgh proved to be a major hassle. The travel agent had printed us a map that turned out to show the hotel on the wrong side of the street and in the wrong block. (Note to self: Mappy.com is not to be trusted. GoogleMaps knows exactly where this hotel is. And where the car park is.) Not that it mattered much, since there was no way to drive up to the front of the hotel anyway, that part of the street being reserved for buses and taxis only. We had to park a half mile away and walk, mostly uphill, which was okay for me and Mr. Karen but no so much for Dale and Joan. After checking in, Mr. and I walked as fast as we could to the nearest yarn shop, getting there just as they closed. Unlike the knitting shop in Driggs, Idaho, earlier this year, this shop took pity on a poor traveler and stayed open a bit late so I could make a purchase. They even searched their backstock and retrieved more balls of a particular shade of tweed I liked. Bless you, McAree Brothers.
Like many older European hotels, the one in Edinburgh asked us to leave our room keys at the desk when we went out, so Mr. Karen and I did, only to come back from our stroll around town to find that they’d let another guest check into our room even though we’d already been in it and left things up there. Seems to me the appropriate thing for them to do would be upgrade us to a nicer room on a higher floor with a better view, but instead they moved us to a room due to be renovated with a view of the building across the side street instead of the pretty park along the front. The wallpaper and drapes were dingy and I was most unhappy. The offered us a bottle of wine in compensation, but since we had to get up early and drive back to London the next day, that did us no good. It took a vanilla milkshake from McDonald’s to cheer me up (I should have asked the hotel to pay for that, I guess).
Friday we spent the entire day driving back to London. We were pressed for time, so made only two short stops the whole day and still ended up getting to the car rental place only twenty minutes before they closed. We’d hoped to be able to spend a couple hours exploring Edinburgh before we left, but the rental place closing at 6 made that impossible. I wish I’d insisted on following through on my idea of taking the train up and back and renting a car in Scotland; the hotel in Edinburgh was right across from the train station.
Saturday morning I put Mr. and his parents on the bus to the train station so they could go to Paris, then made my way to the airport. That journey proved just a bit more complex than I’d planned, as maintenance work on the Underground had the line I wanted to take to Victoria Station completely shut down and my second choice shut down in the area I needed it most. I ended up having to take three different lines, but I got where I was going and found the Gatwick Express train with no trouble. I had lots of time to spend at the airport and ended up buying myself a big treat–a purple patent leather purse from Harrod’s duty free. I justified it by saying it was about one tenth the price of ones I’d admired at Liberty.
The flight back went pretty quickly even though it was an hour longer than the one there due to headwinds. I didn’t even miss my knitting too much (I’d read conflicting reports of whether the needles were okay going from the UK so didn’t want to risk it even though I’d had no trouble on the US to UK leg). Getting through immigration in Detroit was the hardest part of the trip home. They were doing a shift change just as our plane got there (because how could they know, since the airlines don’t publish schedules–oh wait, yes they do), so there were no lanes open for US citizens at all and no one who seemed to know where or when there might be. The whole experience was an impressive demonstration of inefficiency. Gatwick Airport handled the lines much better. So does pretty much any Wendy’s, for that matter. The only plus was that I had plenty of time to watch the cute contraband-sniffing beagle nosing people’s bags.
I got home to find the house had not burned down and the electricity had not gone out and no one had painted misspelled insults on the garage door, so I was happy. Since then I’ve been trying to catch up with sleep and life and I might just manage to do both someday.