May 27 – Bridges and sunshine (and Chihuahuas)

(Finally figured out why I couldn’t upload this earlier – had to buy some more space on the blogging site! Job done, and here we go!)

We didn’t have to be anywhere til a bit after 9, so definitely not a hectic start to the day. All we had to do was figure out how to buy a train ticket, I thought there was an all-day ticket covering all public transport, but seems I was looking for something that doesn’t exist, so, normal train ticket it was.

Our destination? Dalmeny. The reason? To go on a “three bridges cruise”, so I could get more Forth Railway Bridge photos, and a stop off at Inchcolm island. The company emailed me a few weeks ago to say sorry to island isn’t available, but, seems they’d changed their mind again and it was back on the table. Cool! The trip from train to dock was down, down, down and more down. I should’ve realised, with the train being at forth-bridge height and the pier being, of course, at sea level that it was inevitable we had to get from one to the other. There were a LOT of stairs down, and downhill streets and paths… all I which I knew were going to turn into uphill on the way back. Not cool!

So we boarded the boat, I got a bunch of bridge photos.

We also saw some seals. Cool!

Then we arrived at the island at 11:40, only then were we told we would be there for two hours. Not cool!

The island was nice, seeing the former Abbey of Inchcombe, more lovely ruins, and kinda interesting how dark is just have been inside, even on a sunny day like today. It was also nesting season so lots of angry gulls around if you were silly enough to get too close. Two hours is more than enough, even the 90 minutes it was meant to be, borders on excessive. But it’s not like we had to do anything other than wait. And a shout out to the rangers on site for being super enthusiastic and good for a chat! Plus there was ice-cream.

We made it on to the boat back, by this time the cloud had come over a bit and the wind had picked up, wow this 16 degrees is very very different from yesterday! Freezing! Of course sitting outside at the front of the boat didn’t help. We did to see more seals though.

But we sailed around the bridges again so of course time for a few more photos.

It was then that I started contemplating my nemesis – the trip back up to the train platform. Took forever with all the stairs stairs and stairs, but eventually made it, on to a dinky 2 car train and back to Edinburgh Waverley station in tons of time for our next booking:

Fifty quality minutes at the Edinburgh Chihuahua cafe. Yep, who needs a cat cafe when there’s a Chihuahua cafe? It was quite different to your average cat cafe. (For starters there weren’t any cats, lol). The way it worked was the 10 or so customers were welcomed in, assigned a lounge, told to sit down and given a bank to cover the knees. Then, you had to stay there, you weren’t allowed to get up without permission lest you scare the little doggies. The staff know all the dogs and their personalities so well, and were happily swapping dogs around between customers, in addition to letting the dogs decide who they wanted to lie on in any given moment. It was a surprisingly chill time, but you could tell the dogs know it was the last session of the day, some were a bit over it and heading to the exit door as son as they heard any of the staff in the general vicinity. It was very funny at the end, as a member of staff announced “Well folks…” as with those two words all the dogs leapt up and gathered in front of the door to their pen, knowing that their work day was over and they were all about be transported back to the owners home where they could roam free and not be annoyed by strangers. It was a fun way to spend a small part of the afternoon. It was also at this time we realised we spent way too much time in the sun, with our red faces reminding us to slip slop slap next time!

While walking through Edinburgh there was no mistaking that there was a Harry Styles concert on again tonight. It felt like every second person was wearing some extra sparkly or the uniform of cowboy hat, feather boa and heart-shaped glasses. There were little bits of feather all over the street, lots of people out for a fun evening tonight I’m sure.

Dinner was at the somewhat confusingly named “German Doner Kebab” – which was… a kebab shop, but they also did kebab meat in burgers, but we stuck with the regular kebab which was, well, a kebab, can’t go too wrong! The only bit where I went wrong is not taking a photo, but, we all know what a kebab looks like, right?

This pretty much concluded our last full day in Edinburgh. Tomorrow, we’re off to places new, but still spending almost the whole day in Edinburgh. And as luck would have it, our friends who live near Birmingham are going to be in the vicinity so we’ll having dinner with them tomorrow. Tops! Until then, time to hit publish, put on some more after sun stuff, and go to bed. Goodnight!

May 26 – Yay, more castles!

Today the cafe folk were a bit more awake – as were we, after a coffee.

It was another big bus day, not quite as big as yesterday, with both the bus and the length of the trip being shorter this time.

Today was a “Alnwick castle and English borders” tour – let’s get this straight right from the start, Alnwick rhymes with Panic. Not that we had to as we were there at the bus in plenty of time, unlike the last two folks that turned up literally as the driver was closing the doors to head off.

Only a few stops on this one, accompanied again by a lot of interesting history from our tour guide Tim. And due to some very high quality napping time I probably missed a whole bunch (yes, did the same yesterday too!)

Our first stop, which I didn’t even know about til we got there, was the lovely little town of Bamburgh, and Bamburgh Castle. A real surprise, it was quite pretty, and worth almost going a-over-t walking up a grassy hill to get some nice photos.

A quick stop there then it back on the bus to get to Alnwick and Alnwick Castle. First impressions weren’t awesome (don’t worry it gets better) – we started at the more “made the the kids” end with a fake tournament area, and a silly “dragon quest”, again probably great for the kids but nothing at all to do with the history of the castle.

Things then took a turn for the so-much-better once we started to wander the grounds. Found the bit where they filmed the “Harry learns how to fly a broom” scene from the first Harry Potter film. There were also lots of sheep which were fun to watch for a while.

The real impressive part was “The Staterooms” – as this is still an occupied castle, this is basically a large chunk of the living quarters that the Duke lives in, when in residence that is. I mean, you don’t own a massive castle as your only place of residence, right?! No photos were allowed inside, but it will come as no surprise that was all quite ornate, with a breathtaking library room, a mirror so large (for it’s time) that nobody knows how it was even made, let alone transported, and some one of a kind chandeliers (I guess that makes it 4 of a kind, but that’s it. Three are in use and the other one is the only source of spare parts). The Duke has written a book about the long long history of his family which I’m pretty sure I’ll never get around to reading, interesting though it would probably be.

We still had an hour to kill so wandered around the very pretty town of Alnwick. We had a sausage roll from the local Greggs, thanks to the rude lady for bothering to serve us at all. We wandered to more important places, i.e. one of the many ice cream shops in town. A good way to pass the time before it was time to get back on the bus.

Again, our driver drove and regaled us with history – and despite sleeping through much of it again, I released that all the tour guides must get given the same book of historical events to talk through, because we heard pretty much the exact same stories on our bus tour yesterday.

Our last stop was at a lovely little estate called The Hirsel, in the town of Coldstream (unguarded, might I add). This was the birth of the Labrador – so if you need a claim to fame, there you are. There were plenty of swans and ducks by the river, and yes I was secretly wishing someone would get a bit too close to get chased away by a swan, but no, everyone stayed calm.

The trip back to Edinburgh was a bit of a slog for the driver – everyone is piling into town because Harry Styles is playing in Edinburgh tonight, and despite being a different bus than yesterday, it was having the exact same aircon issue which was making things super warm. But at around half past 5 we pulled back into the bus station, after a nice day seeing the border lands – again there was tons of beautiful scenery, field and hedgerows all over the place, but again I didn’t take photos because it would all just be full of reflections from the bus windows. But I’ll hang on the memories as long as I can.

As it was so nearby we went straight to St. James Quarter for dinner again, this time to the kind-of-food-court-but-not-quite area – it finally made sense , you get your food from whichever stall, but when you sit down you can order drinks directly through a website and they bring them straight to the table. We had the most delicious ‘pulled pork hopper’ – a Sri Lankan dish of pulled pork (of course), delicious caramelised onion and other delicious bits served in a sort of crepe. Man it was tasty, a good choice! There were a suspiciously large number of people wearing extra sparkly clothes and wearing feather boas – I guess a lot of people were have a pre-Harry-Styles dinner here tonight.

Incredible Pulled Pork Hopper and Roti mini-melts. So tasty!

After that, back to the hotel for an earlier night – despite doing nothing much other than sitting in a bus, it’s still hard work! At least I’ll finish this below before 11PM (if the internet problems resolve themselves – I think Harry Styles has broken the internet!)

Tomorrow – another lovely Edinburgh day, and more time to try and forget that this is our second-last destination for this holiday.

May 25 – Is that really Nessie-sary?

Apologies, this might be a bit of a low-effort-blog-post-day. After going through all the photos, it’s already 10pm and I’m only starting writing about the day now.

We started the day by getting the impression once again that Edinburgh doesn’t do early morning. Although we did find a place open at 7am, I get the feeling the staff has had at least one coffee but could have had a few more, coz if they hadn’t I think they’d be shuffling around, hands outstretched, moaning “Braaaaiiiinzzz….” at people. Anyway, breakfast was served, albeit with the bare minimum amount of effort or enthusiasm.

I guess the enthusiasm had to be up to us, because this was a big day – well, a big day of getting on and off a bus a lot over for the next 12 hours. We met our tour guide Paul and all our new bus-friends, on to the bus we all squished and off we went.

The basic plan was to visit Loch Ness and the highlands, and a few other bits and bobs along the way. There was a lot of beautiful scenery, though most of the time I didn’t photos because the reflections from the windows pretty much ruined it. Perry took some amazing videos though as the scenery passed by:

First stop for the day was the delightfully named “Kilmahog”. Happy to say we didn’t witness any hog killing, but we did get to meet three lovely “Hairy Coos”, whose names I’ve already forgotten, which will be surely be embarrassing if I bump into them down the street while doing some shopping. They were lovely and keen to meet us busloads of tourists, which made sense once I saw the sign saying you could buy little bags of cow feed in the nearby shop.

Next stop was a photo opportunity around Glen Coe – near Corrour. Very popular with hikers, it was absolutely beautiful on a day like this, incredible scenery and beautifully green. In winter though it’s unforgivably bleak and dangerous to those foolish enough to venture out, you’d really have to know what you were doing. But for us, on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day, it was great! Just beautiful, and (apart from all the other busloads of tourists rushing by), quite peaceful.

Our tour guide/driver was a font of information, I should have been writing things down as I went as I’ve forgotten many of the interesting tales he had to tell us about Scotland and its (sometimes quite brutal) history. I did remember there about 31,000 Lochs across Scotland, and only one Lake. It’s still a Lake because it’s name after someone who ultimately betrayed Scotland, so he’s not worthy of being able to have a Loch named after him. (Why just just rename the loch after someone else, I don’t know).

The main focus of today’s trip was to reach Fort Augustus, the town at the edge of Loch Ness. It’s a little town, not that we got to see much of it as we had to head straight over to the boat for the Loch Ness cruise. Will we. Be the ones who finally get to see Nessie? Well, of course not. But this would have to be one of the strongest, longest running, and most well known marketing campaigns ever, so of course we had to come and sail the waters to see what we could see. The water itself is very dark, stained by the tannins of all the surrounding peat, so it really is difficult to see what is in there. Although years ago they found a British bomber sunk below the depths, which I’d never heard about before. Even more strange, after finally getting it to the surface, on a whim they gave it some power and electrics were still more or less working. Go figure! The tour guide reasoned that this is why you rarely see Nessie, she’s too busy at the bottom of the loch, repairing old planes. Hey, when it comes to Nessie I guess anything’s possible! We did get to see some mountain goats though, in an area which apparently has been left untouched for thousands of years (parts of the hills around the loch are so steep I’m not surprised it has been left untouched). Did we see Nessie though? I’ll let the photos tell the story. I’m sure they’re all 100% no photoshopped, at all.

On the way back, at the end of cruise, we also saw a very smart cow who decided to deal with the warm sunny day by taking a dip in the loch.

We then had a quick stop at the Commando monument – no, nothing about ditching your undies, this is dedicated to the commandos, the SAS, the Green Berets, the best of the best. Apparently some of their very rigorous training takes place out here in the wilds of the highlands. This was one of the rare days where Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, was actually visible – only happens about 50 days per year.

Due to the nice weather the driver made a few other little stops, one here at Lagan Dam (I think!).

There was also a more lengthy stop in the pretty town of Pitlochry, where we enjoyed some local Whisky flavoured ice cream, which was dare I say probably more delicious than most whiskys I’ve had.

The last stop though was one i really enjoyed – we had time and the weather was on our side so our guide stopped at a viewing platform for the three bridges – one of these of course being the beautiful and enormous Forth Rail Bridge. As lunch would have a train was going over it while where were there, so you can get a sense of scale of just how big it is. Seems an awful lot of bother just for two train tracks, in this day and age. But it’s so pretty, the world’s first cantilever bridge, and still working as well now as I did back when it opened in 1879. So it was great to see that – I dunno why but some time when I was a kid this bridge really caught my attention (might have been on Simon Townsend’s Wonder World, who knows) – so it was really nice to finally see it in the flesh. Well, metal.

Dinner was at a fast-food-Japanese (yes, that’s a thing now) near the bus station, after which is was a quick walk back to the hotel, do blog stuff, and then off to bed for another adventure tomorrow. As always, stay tuned! Sorry if this entry is a bit rough and full of errors, I’ve done even less proofreading than usual (and the usual isn’t much!)

May 24 – Let’s be posh and take tea on a yacht

Can I just start with saying how pretty is the view out the window of the hotel room at 9:30PM?

I’m starting to get the feeling that Edinburgh doesn’t really do early mornings. We had a thing to do in the morning so we thought we’d just have a nice early hotel breakfast then off we’d go. Breakfast starts at 8:30. As luck would have it that still just fitted in with our plans as long we ate quickly, but it seems this place runs on a quite civilised schedule. Just in case anyone out there is saying “oh please DO tell us about this amazing breakfast” – it was a little continental breakfast, some cheese, salami, fruit, cereal, toast, yoghurt, juice and of course coffee. No I didn’t have all of that, that’s just what was on offer.

Suitably (and quickly) breakfasted, we went back up to old old friends the the Hop on Hop off bus as it goes right past this morning’s destination – the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Queen’s home-away-from-home when at sea, we’ve probably all seen it on the telly at some stage as she took it around and around the world. It was launched in 1953, and after 44 years at sea was decommissioned in 1997, bringing to an end the tradition of royal yacht starting around 1650.

There was an audio guide that went along with the tour, explaining things in great detail, and I’m 99% sure it was voiced by David Tennant, which was nice. Of course there’s way too much detail to remember, and I’m sure Google can give you all the information you need to know. Some of things that surprised me a little was how un-lavish it mostly was. The Queen’s and Prince Phillip’s bedrooms were quite simply decorated, each with a standard sized single bed. There was only one double bed on the whole ship, installed at the request of Charles at the time of his marrying Diana.

Things did get a bit more fancy in the formal dining room which I think could sit around 59 guests. The table could take up to 3 hours to set, with each piece of cutlery placed and checked with a ruler (like, not the Queen, I mean a measuring stick with numbers on 😉 ) . There were about 220 staff on board, I’m not sure if that included the people needed to keep it going or also the Queen’s staff as well. But I can imagine it wouldn’t exactly have been cheap to operate.

It was a very interesting look into a bygone era. We had to be fancy and have a morning tea in the tea room which was, of course, quite lovely. It has taken over what was ‘the Royal deck’, now earning its keep to help with ongoing maintenance of the yacht. Tea was served in a silver teapot, of course, accompanied by a scone with jam and cream. I’m sure it was mandatory to stick one’s pinky finger out whilst drinking 🙂 From the tea room on board there was also a glimpse of the Forth Rail Bridge in the distance was a bit exciting. (A glimpse of a bridge is exciting? Yes. Sorry not sorry! )

Then it was back on the bus, past more and more beautiful old solid dependable buildings. We had a milkshake at Grassmarket, an area chock full of restaurants and one (fully booked out) cat cafe – but happily some of the cats like nothing better than to sleep in the windows.

We didn’t have tickets to visit Edinburgh castle itself, but that’s OK, I was more than happy to just stand in the carpark knowing that’s where the Edinburgh Tattoo happens every year. They’re currently busily re-installing the arena seating which really just clings on to the edge, you’d have to hope it’s really tied down well enough to stay put.

After that we wandered around more streets with more of the beautiful buildings, and then back down to the train station to check on a few things for Sunday where the schedule will get a bit weird – with a verrrry long gap between checking out of the hotel and moving on to the next destination.

Dinner was in a nearby huge mall, St. James Quarter. Delicious Greek food – looks a bit like a high tea.

That’s about it for another big day. An early start tomorrow – to the point where we had to double check that we could actually find somewhere that serves breakfast when we need it. We’re all set on that front, so ready for more fun and games tomorrow. See you then!

May 23 – Heading further North

When on holidays, it’s nice to have the occasional lazy start to the day. We had tons of time to get out of Airbnb in a suitably relaxed manner. What a wonderful little place it was – though I think if I only had an upstairs bathroom in real life that’d get old pretty quick. Especially one that is only about a metre across 🙂 Still, really cool to stay somewhere so ridiculously old, yet still holding together. It must have had so many different purposes over its 500 or so years, I wonder what will come next?

We got the bags down the stairs (yes, much easier than going up), jumped through all the hoops required to return the keys to the lockbox, and walked down Micklegate one last time to go to York station. (Once, according to the bus tour, the largest train station in the world, but not nowadays).

Breakfast was at Pret – a fresh ready-to-eat sandwich shop, more or less. Kinda wish they’d expand to Australia. It was during breakfast we noticed that there was actually a Lounge at the train station. As this is our second-last train trip, I splurged (not very much) for First Class tickets, and sure enough, that gets us access to the First Class lounge, with it’s cozy and warm inning fireplace (lol), free coffee and pastries – what’s not to like? A great way to spend some time since we left absolutely nothing to chance and arrived nearly 2 hours early.

One very comfy lounge visit later it was time to head to the platform. A couple of Lifts made it much easier to get across to the platform, no stairs once again, though perhaps there were some stares at the size of our luggage, which seems to be at least twice the size of everyone else’s. Mind you, I guess the locals aren’t going to be travelling around for six weeks.

The indicator boards were super informative, even showing us where we needed to stand to make sure we were in the right place for the carriage we were booked on. Very soon we were on board and in our very comfortable seats by the window, with a good sized table.

I am guessing this is a particularly comfortable train as when we got on, the first thing we heard where the loud snores of one of our fellow passengers, happily carrying on while we boarded and while the train took off once again. Very soon after leaving someone came around to check the tickets, and for the time, to also double check our ‘two together’ railcard (which gives us about 1/3rd off all train fares). It took me an embarrassingly long time to find the railcard in the train app, but, job done and all was well.

Not one minute later another person came through asking what we’d like for our (complementary) lunch. I guess they’re not kidding when they talk about first class! I opted for a chicken Caesar roll while Perry had a hot ‘hog roast’ roll.

Not one minute later (again), (yet) another person came through asking what we’d like to drink. Grand – it’s time for more railway tea!

I’m starting to wonder what may be next in the endless parade of staff. Maybe someone offering us free kittens to borrow to make the journey nicer, or comfy pillows, a turn-down service, but no that seems to be it for the moment, but certainly can’t fault the service.

There are only a few stops, first one is Northallerton. Snory man is still snoring. I get the feeling that shortly after lunch I shall be joining him in this unpleasant chorus. Meanwhile, the train, living up to its ‘Azuma’ name, is a-zooming along at a pretty steady 200km/h, past fields and fields of lush greenery.

Also don’t worry too much about our snoring friend – he woke up in time for his stop, what a shame we don’t get to enjoy his dulcet tones all the way to Edinburgh. Of course I was a second too late to get some of the lovely landscape of Durham, but if you wanted a less than exciting picture of the train station then hey, I’m your guy!

Next stop of note was Newcastle – here is a quite literal whistle-stop tour of some nice old buildings as we zoomed by.

One downside to the seat booking was that we’re on the wrong side of the train to get pictures of the bits where we travel right along the seaside. So let’s all just imagine it was really pretty. The occasional nap later and it was time already to get off the train – hello Edinburgh!

Again as luck would have it there was step-free access to get out of the station – which consisted of three or four lifts up and down and a lot of walkways, but eventually we were duly ejected on to Princes St – wher we very quick learned that Edinburgh is a busy place, at least, near the station. People everywhere going in every direction! But the GPS held true, guiding us to where we needed to be.

We were early to the hotel, but our room was ready which was nice, we were able to check in. There was a moment of concern when looking at the massive staircase going up three or four floors, but our room was on the first floor. Which, due to the crazy-high ceilings (so lovely) was more like the second floor. We’re old hands now at lugging bit fat suitcases up stairs so we made it without too much bother.

The room is very clean and tidy – at first I thought it was absolutely tiny, but the bathroom is almost as big as the room itself, plus a kind of alcove with hanging space and drawers. And the view, well, you don’t get a much nicer blogging station than this – the only trouble is it’s really distracting with that view!

As per standard holiday operating procedure, first port of call was the local hop-on-hop-off bus. The ones here have a few different routes, so we had a go at both the short one and the long one. First things I had learnt – Edinburgh is much bigger than I thought it would be, and also, much more hilly. It also has a number of surprising ‘bridges’ – not exactly bridges in the traditional sense, but the bus commentary would note that we were on a bridge, when it looked like we were just on a normal road, then it would say “now look to your left’.. and sure enough, there’s a gap where we can see this normal street is actually 50 metres above the streets below, and we are indeed on a huge bridge. Kind of like a much more grandiose version of where Enmore Rd meats King St at Newtown – it too is a bridge (over the train line), but doesn’t feel like one.

Just about every building in central Edinburgh is really trying to set an impression and prove something. It mostly looks early 20th century, and every building is projecting solidity, permanence, and even authority, with very strong stone architecture forcefully making itself known across the whole streetscape.

The long bus route went up close to the castle, where it looks like they’re in the process of building the stadium seating for the military tattoo that happens there every year. The street approaching the castle is also, well, tourist central, with shops ranging from the almost-cute “Thistle do nicely” to the trying-a-bit-too-hard, “Bonnie wee gifts!” to the outright tacky-as-all-shit, “The Princess Diana Memorial Tartan shop”.

The castle sure is an impressive sight perched up on its almost impenetrable crag. Great location, that I kinda don’t look forward to the long ascent up to it some time later.

But tour laps done, we thought we’d find an early dinner, and stumbled across a really nice pizza place with fresh sourdough pizzas, huge but deceptively light, and soooo delicious. No, we weren’t going to launch straight into haggis on day one.

After that it was back to the hotel to collapse. Despite this day consisting mostly of sitting on trains and buses, we’re pretty exhausted. Maybe it was bringing the luggage upstairs. So even though it’s barely 7:30, I think that’s about it for the day. More fun and adventures tomorrow!

May 22 – Vikings, walls, boats, and Shambles

Good morning! After a lovely night’s sleep it was time for our one and only full day in beautiful York. I know you’ll all be glad to know that all the washing was dry enough, so just for fun I put another load on this morning. We were out and about before the cafe below us opened, so went to a Caffe Nero, one of many all over the country.

First fun thing on the agenda today was Jorvik – the Viking Museum. I knew very little about York’s Viking history – but I guess this is why places like Jorvik exist. It was interesting to learn just how advanced the Viking city was, and to see the excavations of a few dwellings literally beneath our feet. Unexpectedly, things took a bit of a Titanic-museum turn, as we found ourselves boarding a ride that took us through ideas of what Jorvik itself would have looked like back in the day. It was very well done, some robots were in the ‘uncanny valley’ where you couldn’t be completely sure you weren’t staring at a person, until their movement betrayed their robot origins. It was very well done, anyway. In addition to that, they also had ‘smellivision’ – as you travelled through ancient Jorvik, you were assailed with various scents – some nice, like the wood fires burning inside the huts, to the less-than-nice pig pen, or left over animal parts. It added to the experience that’s for sure. Here are some pictures (but no smells).

The Viking history of York is something I’m going to have to read on some more because it was interesting – I never realised how advanced they were. Lots of dyed fabrics, vibrant clothes, fund and games, musical instruments, all sorts of cool stuff. Apparently in this part of the city they’ve excavated over 40,000 objects, including a few skeletons, each of which had a tale to tell showing history of disease and so forth. It was a relatively quick experience, about an hour, but packed full of interesting information.

Right nearby the museum was a cool shop I remember from our visit to London years ago – Flying Tiger. In a way, it’s a kind of mini-IKEA – in so far as you have to walk the maze from end to end, and it’s chock full of small-scale Scandinavian goodness. Of course I couldn’t buy much despite wanting to. We need one in Sydney!

We popped back to the room to hang out this morning’s load of washing, then on the the hop-on-hop-off down to Exhibition Square, which has the best bit of the walls which (mostly) surround the city, and as per yesterday’s commentary, this is the part with rails, as “it’s always nice to come home with the same number of people you set out with” 🙂

The city walls were interesting, interspersed with arrow slits and little fortifications along the way, and the chance to see into a whole bunch of peoples back gardens – they must really (not) love that. One thing that might seem silly is the “TV Birds” – you know how on all English TV you hear bird noise in the background and it’s different to ours in Australia – but it eventually struck me that yes we’re hearing the proper birds now. Lovely!

We descended the wall at (I think) Monk Bar, had some gelato to refresh, then set about exploring some of the streets around the place. As luck would have it we stumbled across a Cat Cafe. It looked very closed – but you to kind of stand at the window and wave so a staff number can safely let you in. So, why not, spent half an hour with some lovely sleepy kitties, it was nice especially being away from our own cat for a while now.

Next up, we found The Shambles – the famous street in York with the wobbliest buildings, some of which almost meet in the middle in their upper storeys. Being a lovely day, the place was of course swarming with tourists, and hey we were part of the problem, but it still nice to see it. For some reason the sweet shop was super-in-demand and had a queue of maybe around 50 people just waiting to get in, go figure. Apparently it is not named because the street does happen to look like a bit of a Shambles, but the name does kinda fit. A number of tourist operators strongly suggested visiting the York Minster to see the stained glass windows within – but, nah I’m not donating £18 to a church organisation that is no doubt packed to the rafters with wealth that they’re probably not spending on those that need it.

We stopped nearby for a late-ish lunch, a kind of roast-burger, and figured out that we should be able to make it in time to the cruise that up and down the River Ouse. Sure enough we were in time, it was nice to sit for a while and watch the world go by. There weren’t too many remarkable things to be seen, but was interesting to hear how often York floods and just how high the water can get – about 5 metres for one of their serious floods, which might not be huge in the grand scale of things, but enough to cause some trouble for many of the houses and pubs near the river. The only trouble I had was keeping my eyes open, I was kinda knackered by this stage, so a brief restorative nap did the world of good :). One the interesting things they pointed out was the number of little archways in the walled banks of the river – these used to lead directly to shop basements, or even a series of tunnels, to enable fast unloading of goods, must have been handy back in the day.

After the river cruise we had a brief wander around the York Museum Gardens, and it’s derelict St. Mary’s Abbey. As it was a warm (for England) day, there were plenty of people just lying on the grass enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon, and why not. Wonderful day for it.

Dinner tonight was at a Japanese restaurant, Ipfu. To be honest it was much better than I was expecting – really delicious, beautifully cooked and presented, it was really really good. Winner winner sushi/tempura dinner!

That’s pretty much it for our time in York. What a beautiful city it is. Richly steeped in so much history – visible, tangible, in-your-face history at pretty much every turn, and I love it. For example I figured this airbnb was old, but it didn’t take much digging at all to find out it was built in the early 16th century – that kinda blows my tiny little mind. Not to mention the street itself has been known to exist since at least the 12th century.

Time to finish the evening with the mundane stuff – trying to re-pack the suitcase, slightly dreading getting it down the stairs without falling down the same. At least it’s a short walk, mostly downhill, to the train station tomorrow, for our next destination. All aboard!

May 21 – Old York, Old York

Today started with a coffee and a delicious home-made cheese omelette. Yum! It was soon time however to start packing and get ready for our next destination. It was so nice staying with our friends, it had been a while since we’d seen them. And as a bonus they gave us a lift up to Derby to make our onward trip that much easier. It’s like, we went to Birmingham without ever actually going to Birmingham apart from the minutes we spent at the train station the other day. But it sounds like staying just that bit outside of Birmingham itself was a very good idea, and what can I say we’ve really enjoyed it.

I think I’ve learned a lesson with the trains I booked. I was recommended the “TrainPal” app because of the way it takes full advantage of Split Ticketing – where buying two tickets for the one train can work out cheaper than one end to end ticket, despite the trip itself being exactly the same. Makes sense, and it does work out to save money. However it doesn’t seem to have the ability to book seats or anything like that, so for most of the trips it’s down to chance if we end up with somewhere to sit or not. So in future it’s worth considering the trade off between split tickets and bookable seats. I’m sure there’ll be an app or website than manages both. We’ll know for next time.

Derby station

Anyway for today’s train, fortune was smiling upon us as we found pretty much the last two seats on the train, and, a good spot for the luggage. Sweet! I’m glad we put our luggage in the correct place (as far as I know). When the cafe / snack cart came through the attendant said quite sharply to someone else “no, that luggage can’t stay there it has to be moved immediately thank you!”

So, don’t cross a cafe cart attendant! 🙂

The trip was uneventful, the scenery was green and lovely, more and more fields the further we went along, interspersed with the occasional towns of terraces winding up hill and down dale. And considering we were heading into Yorkshire, I guess they really were dales 🙂 Of course there were also a few bigger places where greenery gave way to industry, like Sheffield.

Unlike the train from Holyhead to Birmingham, this train from Derby to York had a whole 4 cars. Or, in Uk station-speak, “This train is formed of 4 carriages”. We hoped for the best when it came to overcrowding, but the train gods had other plans. Apparently some other trains had been having issues through the day so our one was the first service that ended up leaving from Leeds. So of course once we got to Leeds, there was quite backlog of people trying to get places, and heap of them piled on, making things very busy once again. This train was air-conditioned though, so it wasn’t anywhere near as unpleasant as last time. To make sure we had time to retrieve our luggage (stored in the next carriage), we stood most of the way for the last 20 minutes of the journey, which was a bit interesting, but no dramas, we reached York, we managed to get both ourselves and the luggage off the train, and took in a big breath now we had plenty of breathing space 🙂

The next bonus, just like at Derby, York had full step-free access, making it a breeze to get out of the station with our bags. It was around 11:30 that we arrived, and it quite a warm day (or, in Dublin terms, a scorcher, at 20 degrees). There were still a few hours to go before we would be able to check in to our Airbnb, so I’d found a thing called ‘Radical Storage’ – a kind of Uberisation of luggage-looking-after. For a reasonable (ish) fee, the local newsagent across the road from the Airbnb was happy to store our luggage for a few hours. The only small downside I guess was it was a bit more than the sign we saw in the window saying “luggage storage £5” – but not to worry.

Is York an old city? I get the feeling it’s an old city.

With luggage duly stashed, it was time to go to the place that was my whole reason for wanting to see York in the first place. I promise I’m not a completely sad old desperate train nerd who wears an anorak and writes down train numbers as they pass by. But. I really did want to see the National Railyway Museum in York. A month or two back when I was doing all the planning, I booked York in, all sorted and settled, for Monday and Tuesday. Then, when I checked the National Railway Museum, guess which days it is closed? If you guessed Monday and Tuesday, congratulations, that’s right! But, not a problem, just a small adjustment to our train, which is why we arrived at 11:30 today, to give plenty of time to check it out. One thing I could do nothing about was the fact that like half of the museum is closed for refurbishment, but so be it, gives me an excuse to come back some other time, when they re-open that bit some time last next year.

One thing that hit us pretty quickly is just how damn pretty this town is. For example, this is at the start of the street on which we’re staying.

I was glad to make it to the museum, and even more glad to start off with a cold drink at their cafe. Phew. Then it was time to look at trains and stuff. No I don’t know every detail about every train, the two I did know about where the first ever Bullet Train (the only one outside of Japan), and, ‘Mallard’ – the world’s fastest steam train whose record has never been beaten…well, apart from every other kind of train pretty much made since. Still, 126mph for an old steam train isn’t too shabby. There was also a replica of ‘Rocket’ – kinda the first even steam train – there’s bound to be someone in an anorak who would dispute it, but, whatever. First steam train. I guess the only other thing here I didn’t expect is just how damn big some of those old steam engines are – for some of them just the wheels are even taller than I am, and then there’s rest of the engine on top, making some of them truly enormous, I didn’t realise how much bigger some of them were compared to today’s average commuter train. Anyway, here are too many photos.

The Railway Museum wasn’t far from York Railway Station, which wasn’t far from the the York Hop-on Hop-off bus. So of course we did that next to get the lay of the land. We waited a whole 5 minutes for the bus if that, juuuust enough time to buy the ticket online before presenting the ticket to the driver just it was loading the ‘done’ screen. The tour was lovely, here’s a time lapse of some parts, and some photos of other parts.

It was also one of the funniest commentaries I’ve heard in some time, let’s see if I can get a quick voice recording working:

We did a full loop on the bus and a bit more. A fun thing we learnt on the way: York has almost no streets, they’re all called Gates. The best of these is Whip-ma-whop-ma Gate, which is believed to basically translate to “neither one thing nor the other” street. It is tiny, with only three buildings. And it seems kinda fitting that those buildings are numbered 1, 1a, and 1 1/2 🙂

After hopping-off, we elected to grab a late lunch, by which time our Airbnb would be available to check in. It was a bit of quest to get the keys – ‘Go to the gate, then find the little gate, then enter the code, then go around the corner, then go to the box, then enter the other code, then double back, defeat the dragon, break the elder wand, deliver the plans to the Death Star, steal the idol, locate the Ark, throw the Ring back into the volcano’ (some of these may not be actual steps involved) – but before too long we had keys, then back to the newsagent to retrieve the luggage, then across the road to the Airbnb itself. By now lugging luggage up stairs is a punish, but we knew it was coming, and we got through it eventually. The place itself though is small but perfectly formed – a really lovely really old building. It’s two-story, the bedroom and bathroom are upstairs, but the suitcases are 100% staying on the lower level! It also has, joy of joys, a washing machine (though tiny) and no drier, so first thing we did was prioritise laundry that really needed doing, and see what happens after that (after ducking back to the newsagent to get laundry detergent). How fascinating, a blog about how we did our laundry. I know, this is the kind of riveting content you came here for! Here are some non-laundry pictures.

Important laundry tasks completed, it was time to stop chilling and start dinner-ing. On our brief wander around this afternoon, York seems to have approximately 10 thousand different eateries, so it wasn’t a great challenge to find somewhere tasty. We’re basically staying on top of a cafe so I’m sure breakfast and coffee won’t be an issue in the morning.

The trouble with too much choice for dinner meant it took a while before we found somewhere – but seeing bangers & mash on the menu at The Three Tuns did the trick and in we went. Apparently it was built some time in the 1500s and is known to have been a pub since at least the 1700s. I knew we’d picked a good place as son as we walked in – the music was all 80s/90s Brit pop – Madness, Shakespear’s Sister, all sorts of good stuff. Nice to hear! As for the bangers’n’mash – a picture speaks a thousand words, and no I couldn’t quite finish it. As the staff member who collected our plates said “Better to be overfed than underfed now isn’t it”. Good point!

After that, we stopped in at Sainsbury’s for a bit of ice cream and then back to the airbnb to pretty much collapse (and finish off the blog). Tomorrow’s a public holiday so fingers crossed the cafe downstairs is open for breakfast! You’ll find out all about it tomorrow, plus no doubt some other exciting updates on whether or not the washing has dried. See you then!

May 20 – Malls, markets, food, friends and sunshine

We had a nice leisurely start to the day, with our lovely hosts making us a very tasty breakfast of eggs on toast. And coffee – can’t forget the coffee!

First agenda item of the day – a stroll around McArthur Glen, a lovely and huge outdoor shopping mall near the town of Cannock. Of course, with luggage completely stuffed to the gills there was no hope of buying even half things that looked lovely, but I guess that’s one way to save money 🙂 It was a perfect spring day, not a cloud in the sky and it felt much warmer than the 15 degrees on the thermometer would have suggested. To me it feels a little brave to build such an outdoor mall in England, but there were also quite a few barrels around full of free umbrellas to borrow while you shop. Thankfully, not needed, as the sun continued to beat down upon us in a most in-English way 🙂

It seems we had impeccable timing when it came to visit Birmingham and its surrounds – at nearby Lichfield there is a big foodie market held a few time a year, and as luck would have it, today was one of those rare days when it was in town. Man, did it get popular! Every person and their dog (quite literally) were there to checkout the many many food trucks and produce stalls, with a surprising emphasis on drinks just as much as food. Vodka slushy stall? Sure! It’s in between the cider stall and the Limoncello+Prosecco stall. And much more besides. The food on offer was equally as diverse – from Currywurst to hotdogs to ‘Indian Style Fish and Chips’, you name it, you could probably get your hands on it. In the end we all settled on a Philly Cheesesteak, just the right balance of substantial but not-too-substantial. Delicious, and they went to great pains to make sure we knew the cheese sauces was specially imported from the US at great expense. :). Whatever it was, it worked a treat and lead one very tasty lunch. There was also one not-at-all-scary looking tall slide, looking like it was ready to throw kids off it shallow edges at tearing speed. We didn’t get to see it in action, but maybe that’s actually a good thing.

The environment in which it eat that lunch was also delightful – by the side of a canal of sorts, the ‘Minster Pool’, we sat, watching ducks come and go and play on the water. Apart from the 1000 people milling around behind us from one stall the next, it was really quite serene and a lovely place to stop for our bite to eat.

Of course we had to follow that up with a vodka slushie – perfect weather for it, and it didn’t disappoint. I’m sure if I lived close by I would have bought a ton of cheese, beautiful tasty olives of many varieties, dozens of flavours of fudge, all the good stuff you usually find at that these kind of events. The one way I could clearly tell I wasn’t in Australia though – there was no Gozleme stand! I’m sure in Australia it’s a legal requirement that as soon as three food stands pop up anywhere, one of them always has to be a Gozleme stand 🙂

Next it was back to the house just to chill for a bit and catch up with our friends, remember that yes, while on holidays, it is actually quite OK to just stop for a while and do, well, nothing! 🙂

For dinner we all went out to a lovely local restaurant, with food so nice I was too busy gobbling it up to take photos of it. Dessert was particularly good with a trio of baby chocolate fondant, creme brûlée, and a mango parfait kind of thing. Delish! Whilst they weren’t the fastest place ever, forgetting some of our meals at some point, the food was all tasty, high quality stuff, and the restaurant itself was in a nice spot with lovely decor. And after a few minutes drive back home safe and sound, ready to pack, for tomorrow we’re off again to our next destination. Nighty night!

May 19 – The one with the Friends

There was another one of those delightful early starts today – up around 5 to leave nothing to chance. Checking out of the hotel was super-fast, not even as much as a “was everything ok”. The experience had been slightly less than stellar, so maybe it would have been good to ask. There were no disasters, just that on the last day – the first time we’d put the ‘please make up my room’ note on the door, they didn’t. Like I’ve mentioned a few times it’s only a new place, so hopefully over time they sort their stuff out and they become as fancy as they look.

We only had a short walk to the bus stop. The big effort was before that – trying to squish everything back into the bags. I bought a sum total of two tiny espresso-size coffee cups – that’s it. Not sure how this has felt like an expansion of luggage by a few square metres 🙂

And that was about it for Dublin – at least we got to see a little bit of it, and learn a little of its history. Hopefully there’s lots of peaceful time ahead.

We caught a Stena Line ferry over to Dublin, so for the heck of it I booked the other one, Irish Ferries, for the trip back to Wales. The check in process was super simply, just ‘yeah throw your bags over there on the belt and go up the escalator’. Too easy. Just had time to smash a coffee at a little cafe in the terminal and next thing you know it was time to get on another bus to be taken over to the ferry. This time, the bus didn’t dump us inside the ferry itself, just near the front, so we walked in. Their signage was on point, before we knew it we were at the door to the Club Class lounge, where we paid a few extra bucks for some free snacks and drinks. We found seats, settled in, I grabbed a free glass of Apple juice, and … next minute it was already time to disembark!

This ride, on the ‘Swift’ did indeed live up to its name as it was all over in a little over two hours, and I slept through pretty much the whole way, too easy! The only trouble was I missed out on free snacks coz i was too busy snoozing. Still, what can I say, I had a really good sleep and woke up feeling pretty refreshed and ready to go.

When it was time to leave, this time it was a bit more of the ‘Greek approach’ where we were all corralled to the back of the ship while the crew rushed around tidying and vacuuming and getting things ready for the next load of passengers. It didn’t take long at all before we stepped off the board into to the fresh Wales air, and straight on to the bus for a crazy hellride to the station 🙂 OK that’s overstating it, I’d say the drivers was bored of doing to the same little rip over and over and chose to have a bit of fun with it. Arrivals couldn’t have been easier – in the door, the luggage was already going around on the conveyer belt, there were no customs, no border control, just straight on through and seconds later, here we are in Holyhead Wales.

The wonderful thing about Holyhead is that the port and the train station are directly connected, one right behind the other, so it was again no trouble getting to the station. We had an hour to wait, so time for a snack in the little cafe there.

Bang on time, the train arrived, a little two-carriage thing, ready to take us all the way to Birmingham. Time to relax and watch the fields and head grows and lovely little cottages whiz by. And despite being only two carriages, there was still a drinks and snacks trolley on board, so I had myself a lovely cup of tea.

Sure enough, a little more nap time ensued during the journey, but by about the time we hit Chester, things got busy. I think they’re enough passengers for a 4 carriage train, certainly enough suitcases! The last half hour or so became particularly cramped and crowded. Finally, only about 30 minutes after we were scheduled to, we arrived in Birmingham New Street, and were delighted to be reunited with a dear friend we’d not seen in nearly two years. We’re staying with these friends in their lovely home just outside of Birmingham, which is very kind of them.

We even enjoyed our first home cooked meal since the start of May, so that was a wonderful change as well. But now, it’s late, sure there are exciting things planned for tomorrow so I’ll leave it there, and see you all tomorrow.