Friday, August 1, 2014

Edinburgh & The Lake District with Mom'n'Tom

Song of the Day: Lost in the Light, Bahamas

London Stuff: Slide your mouse over the pictures to see areal shots of London then and now.


Landed in London on July 7th, exhausted. Woke the next morning and boarded a train to Edinburgh. Exhausted. 

We met Mom'n'Tom at a converted warehouse that's now the site of some dope flats. M'n'T had booked this place through Air b'n'b (I showed them the site about a year ago) - the lady that owns it spends five months out of the year on a cruise ship as the head of HR (quite a gig for an HR rep).

She calls her flat The Butterfly House, for good reason. She started collecting these butterfly encasings (?) on her first cruise and has since added to the collection bit by bit. Even some of the furniture has butterfly print.

The front room.

Tom prepping dinner for the evening.

We went out that afternoon for an aimless walk around town. None of us knew what we were looking for - we just knew we wanted to get out and stretch our legs. We took a short bus ride into town only knowing that MOMA would like to eventually hit The Royal Mile.

What's that? ... I dunno, seems cool. Let's go that way.

Kenz wanted to stop in the graveyard, naturally.
Viewing downtown from the graveyard. 
We took a footpath down toward The Royal Mile

MOMA saw the 'Deep Fried Mars Bars' and had to try one, to her disappointment. 

Dipped in batter.

She took a picture of it - the picture was better than the taste. 

We eventually made it.
The Royal Mile runs right through historic Old Town in Edinburgh, connecting the city's (arguably) two most famous landmarks - Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle (more on that later). Up and down the Mile is a cyclical procession of shops devoted to whiskey, kilts, cashmere, and whiskey. And kilts. And pubs.

Street performers.

We took about half an hour to tour inside St. Giles' Cathedral, which had some of the coolest wooden carvings I've seen since moving over here. 

We eventually made it over to the home/headquarters of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society for a much-needed coffee and rest. As you may or may not know, the Fringe is the world's largest arts festival. It's happening in August - we were split on whether or not we were happy to have been missing it. On the one hand, we'd be missing out on a tremendous amount of art and culture. On the other hand, we'd be missing out on millions of other folks walking around on the already crowded streets. 

Pretty sweet headquarters.

MOMA & Kenz grabbed up a bunch of brochures and the four of us tried (and failed) to plan out the next few days.

Looking east down the Royal Mile.
We called it an early night and came home at about 8pm. It stays light even later this far north - Kenz could read her book on the balcony until 10pm quite easily.

The view from our balcony.

MOMA lectured me on the potential for improving the feng shui of the house as Tom cooked.

Kenz took a shower and ruined a towel with her recently-dyed hair.


The folks are avid bloggers whenever they travel.
The next morning, I woke to a healthy dose of envy as I prepared myself a delicious cup of espresso. I made a mental note to purchase one of these once we're back in the States. 

Kenz did her own morning routine: Diet Coke, American Spirits, and a good book.
Before long, it was time for us to head out to The Palace of Hollyrood House. Now, I've gotten an email or two in the past few weeks suggesting that I may do well to cut down the word count on these blog posts. For those interested in a historical context, visit the wiki here. Everyone else, come with me.

We're stoked for a full day of walking, picture taking, and bickering over directions.

Outside the Palace is one of the many "Queen's Gallery" sites. We toured the Gallery (the exhibits rotate - this site featured royal fashion over the years...snooze), the Palace Gardens, and finally the Palace itself.

We love a good audio guide.

Creepy baby.

Gone huntin'

The Palace

Our Garden tour guide.

Telling stories about statues.

The remains of the Abbey in the background.

Pretty decent day for a backyard stroll.

The Queen hosts an annual garden party here. We'd just missed it, but got to see folks taking down the tents and whatnot. The above photos are of the remaining facade of the Abbey that once stood here. The plan (by some king) was to extend the palace further back, but he ran out of money. Luckily for everyone else, the failed extension meant that the remains of the Abbey weren't destroyed. You can see the small remains on the ground in the above photo - they look like little walls in the grass. 

You can see them here, too.

Thistle is the national symbol of Scotland - you can ready why here.

The backside of the palace - not a bad place to spend one week out of the year if you're the Queen.
I want unicorns on my front door.

I dared Kenz to ring the doorbell.
We couldn't take pictures inside the Palace, but we got a few in the remains of the Abbey.

Afterward, we strolled back up the Royal Mile for a vegetarian-friendly lunch and some laughs. Kenz, enthusiast that she is, had booked us tickets for a 'ghost tour' that evening. It was her one thing that she had to do while we were there, because "it's, like, one of the most haunted cities in the world." So, after lunch, we strolled around a bit more and then found a bookstore to kill some time. M'n'T are professionals when it comes to killing time - I would've never thought to find a bookstore and read on a comfortable couch for an hour. 

They read books on the upcoming referendum for Scottish independence. 

Kenz had been reading the first in Follet's Century Trilogy and I cracked open Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 
Eventually, however, it was time. Time for Kenz to become a 13 year-old fangirl. Time for MOMA and I to get scared. And time for Tom to do what he does best - simply go alone with our absurdity. The ghost tour was about to begin. 

Kenz can hardly contain herself.

I have about ten more pictures of her face.

This whole thing seems like a racket to me. The ghost tour company claims to take its guests to the sites of some of "the most documented" locations of paranormal activity, but the company is owned by an author who writes exclusively about these locations - and does so in a historical fiction genre. Now, I'm not saying there's no such thing as ghosts (maybe I am), but isn't it a conflict of interest (or ethics, at least) for the guy who writes all the (fictional) books about these places to say these are the most documented places? Whatever. On the tour we went.

Descending into the caverns underneath the bridge.

We went into some caverns where the most poverty-stricken of 19th century Edinburgh residents lived. The tour guide, while stopping us at various "rooms," told us about what life would've been like down there during that time, finishing each anecdote with, "and you can imagine why there would be lots of restless souls down here." Sometimes she altered her angle, telling various stories of previous tours wherein someone had been possessed or 'felt a presence' or whatever. I wasn't having any of it, but I was still nervous - despite acting "above it," I'm still scared of the dark...

We eventually emerged from underground and walked over to a graveyard to find the site of the MacKenzie Poltergeist - apparently "the most active poltergeist in the world."

Tom looks skeptical. 

The backstory includes the Covenanters Rebellion.

Kenz, deep into it.

Entering the site of the poltergeist. 

We had to stand here as our guide told more anecdotes.
I mean, it was fun in a tour-guide-learn-about-Edinburgh kinda way. I didn't see any ghosts or anything, but I got to learn about the Covenanters, see the gravesite that has Tom Riddle's tombstone, and enjoy a fun walk with the family.

Some young lady seems to have the same hairstyle as Kenz.

Smiling selfies in graveyards!


The next morning, Kenz and I got up and out of the flat early in order to hike to the top of Arthur's Seat. Standing at 251 meters, the mountain/hill promised good panoramic views of Edinburgh.

It was still a bit early for Kenz.

On the right are the remains of St. Anthony's Chapel - a 15th century chapel devoted to serving the local leper colony.

It was nice to take a break at the chapel, but we still had a long way to go.

Kenz wore sandals and was happy to take a few breaks.

Holyrood Palace

Love locks

We made it!

St. Anthony's Chapel

Headed back down.

Kenz was measurably happier once we'd completed the hike.

The one thing Tom wanted to do while in Edinburgh was to get to the National Museum of Scotland, which had been recommended by every local, tour book, and online guide. We'd kept putting it off, saying "we'll get there." Well, on our last day in town, the union that staffs much of the public attractions went on strike. Whoops!

Strike selfie!

Exterior of the new section of the museum.
We decided to stroll around for a bit on our way to Edinburgh Castle. MOMA fell in love with the story of the Greyfriars Bobby, which was a Policeman's dog that sat by the man's grave for seven years after he had passed away. The locals fed the dog, but the dog (allegedly) never left the gravesite. We took a few turns down old streets, gazed through windows, visited the National Library, toured the WWI exhibit they had on, had coffee in the library's cafe, discussed the run-up to WWI, had a false start with a "free" tour, and eventually made our way to the castle.

About that "free" tour: we'd seen the sign for it on our first day and thought it'd be a fun thing to do. Luckily, we thought, we'd landed right on site as the tour was beginning. We stopped and began to listen to our tour guide tell us all about some of the known history of Edinburgh. This is pretty cool, we thought, and he's in costume - not so bad.

But then he instructed us to follow him into the church directly behind us. OK, sure, we thought, maybe we'll be learning about the history of this church. As soon as we entered, we knew something was up. Not only was there a throng of folks holding pamphlets about the state of our everlasting souls, but there were countless leaflets in the pews, asking Why Jesus? We sat there as our guide lectured us on how every advancement in modern culture, science, and politics was a result of devout Christianity.

Note the leaflet on the bottom right.
I wasn't sure whether or not I was the only one picking up on this (not so subtle) evangelism. To my relief, Mom, Tom, and Kenz all went left as the tour group went right upon exiting the church for the continuation of the tour. We all shared a laugh and proceeded up the Royal Mile to find Edinburgh Castle. (Again, for those interested in more history, click the link in the previous sentence).

Castle selfie.

The Castle hosts the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a three-week long extravaganza of honor, music, and tradition. We were a week early (again with the timing - a week late for the Queen, a week early for the Tattoo, and two weeks early for Fringe - yet still there were tons of folks around).

They'd set up the bleachers for the event just outside the castle.

Love a good tour guide!

This man's hat: Older than Dirt.
We followed our tour guide around for an hour, listening to the confusing and varied history of Scotland and learning about the castle itself (the only way it had ever been taken was by siege, not attack). MOMA was near a conniption fit trying to piece together the chronological history of the country - we weren't much help. She eventually gave up.

These flowers can't be sustained by the ground underneath - they're planted for one week out of the year. You guessed it - for the Queen. 

Sweet gargoyles.
We went to tour the Crown Jewels. Like those in the Tower of London, these cannot be photographed, but they have a much better exhibition in the run-up to the room that houses the jewels (which are older than those in the Tower).

I mean, I say it's a better exhibition, but it may not be for everyone.

Really, it's just a bunch of mannequins telling a story.

But mannequins can be cool.
The neat thing about this castle is that each room is its own exhibit. We spent another two hours on site and hadn't gone into every room.

The Great Hall was built by shipbuilders - the ceiling is like the bottom of a boat - from 1503. 

No nails, no screws - just wood.

Cemetery for Soldiers' Dogs.

Arthur's Seat in the background.

Landscape selfie!

The model in this room is from 1830-something. 

Our tour guide noted that there were two statues in front of the castle:

Standing outside are two statues. One for Robert the Bruce and the other for William Wallace. Really, though, they're just for the tourists. Neither of those guys stepped foot inside this castle. In fact, Robert the Bruce ordered it to be destroyed. Granted, that was so the English couldn't use it if they succeeded at invading the country. 

Just for the tourists. 

MOMA tried to get this employee to explain the entirety of Scottish history to her.

The Scott Monument (Bill Bryson calls it a 'Victorian Rocket Ship'.
After the castle, we did what we do best: eat and laugh.

M'n'T recounting a story that had them in laughter-induced tears. 

Whiskey flavored condoms in the bathroom.
We stopped by Princes Street to get a closer look at the Scott Monument before heading home for the night. To learn more about Sir Walter Scott, click here.

Back at the flat, we turned on a documentary about WWI because none of us had been satisfied with our own answers about how/why The Great War had started. Kenz and I promptly fell asleep.

The next morning began with a three-hour car ride to the Lake District. I'll go ahead and say it now:

I've been hiding my contempt for the English countryside pretty well for the past three years. I'm not sure if it's my American-ness or the fact that I grew up at the food of the Smokey Mountains, but I've not been impressed with the "beauty" of the rolling, sheep-speckled hills, the old, stone walls, and the almost fluorescent green of the landscape outside London. Furthermore, I've often inwardly scoffed at folks who say it's just so amazing and absolutely beautiful. Each time I've stood at the foot of some road and looked out onto the landscape, I've felt like I'm missing something. Maybe it's me, I think, and maybe I'm an asshole. But, really, it just makes me pine for the Appalachians.

I say all this because the Lake District made me eat. my. words. The Lake District is just so amazing. It is absolutely beautiful. The pictures below do not do it justice. If you're planning a trip to this island, do yourself and favor and visit this region.

Kenz and I were relegated to the backseat like a bunch of adolescents. 

Navigator and driver. 
The place we'd be staying was just two miles outside Cockermouth. We stopped in town to grab some lunch before checking in and unpacking. Lunch was at a legit Mediterranean restaurant - the owner had just recently opened for business and stopped to talk with us for about fifteen minutes. Her story was as good as the food; she was a Canadian who had fallen in love with a Brit from Cockermouth, claimed to love outdoor activities (which is basically everything in the Lake District), got married, moved here, admitted to not really enjoying "walking up hills", wanted to open her own restaurant, but spent the next twenty years as a family counsellor (that which she had been doing in Canada). When her dad passed, she found out that he'd left her a sum of money - enough for her to open this place; she named the cash register after him and is now, finally, living her dream. Her husband is happy to walk the hills on his own!

MOMA wanted to get a picture of the cash register for her own blog.

Tennessee represent!
We arrived at yet another Air b'n'b stop, yet this one was a tad different. In fact, I was amazed that MOMA had booked it. The tagline for the place was something along the lines of "proving that luxury and sustainability can coexist." We arrived to find the owner of the property out back, in her garden, picking a veggie box for us.

Lettuce of some type as big as my head.
Everything seemed to be fine as we unpacked our bags and took a seat on the back porch to relax for a bit. We oohed and aahed at the landscape, the "lazy" cows (MOMA was obsessed with the fact that the cows laid down in the fields - same thing as New Zealand! These cows are lazy!), and began to read our respective books.

Lazy. Get a job. 

But, eventually, MOMA began to read the guidebook for staying in the house. After a few chuckles to herself, she began to read aloud. All the things. From the encouragement to not use the dryer to the fact that we were supposed to separate our egg shells from the rest of our food waste to what types of food waste go in which compost bins to which recycled materials go into which recycling bins. It was nearly too much for her - if you want us to do all this sorting, you should come over and sort it yourself!

Her head's about to explode.
And then we heard the cows. We weren't sure what was happening just yet, but we got the feeling they weren't lazy anymore...

What's going on?
And then it happened. Nature. Nature happened. I started hooping and hollering so loud that Kenz and MOMA shushed me for fear that I'd get us kicked out of our house. The event went on for hours - the 'ol boy never seemed to have succeeded, but not for lack of effort.

We had a recommendation from our server at lunch to get to the Kirkstile Inn in Loweswater for dinner that evening. The place had been serving up delicious meals for 400 years - surely they were doing something right. Getting there, however, was a different story. MOMA was driving, Tom was navigating, and Kenz and I were laughing our butts off in the back seat. The more narrow the roads got, the more animated MOMA got. To her credit, we were driving on windy little backroads only wide enough to fit one car. In order to let someone pass, we had to pull off into the ditches, grass, and/or walls. It was thirty minutes of hilarious terror. MOMA's knuckles were still white when our entrees came.

But the scenery was gorgeous.

Not what I expected from an inn/pub - smoked trout with caper sauce on a bed of wasabi mash.

Some sort of pear salad with cheese (not mine).

Half-eaten pork belly roast with mash, gravy, and blood pudding balls (and applesauce for the pork).

Kenz convinced the bartender to give her dessert in a makeshift 'takeaway' container - an emptied ice cream tub.

Award certificates.
I strolled around outside for a few minutes before we got back in the car - this time, Tom would be driving us home and I would be navigating. MOMA insisted on sitting in the back seat.

We stayed up for a while, chatting and reading. Well, some of us did...


Our last morning began in much the same way as every other morning had:

We headed down to Keswick for the day. The plan was to take a stroll around Derwent Water, see a few of the sites along the shore, ride a boat around the lake, and then finish the evening with some dinner and a play. MOMA had done her research before arriving and had booked us tickets to see a play about a man living with and caring for his elderly mother (allegedly a comedy) at the Theatre by the Lake, which happened to be right beside Derwent. We all hoped that the rain would hold off. And that Keswick wouldn't be too crowded - apparently Keswick is home to a two-week Evangelical Christian revival that sees about 15k visitors (that's why MOMA couldn't book anything in this town).

Finally out of the car and ready to walk.

Friar's Crag was the first destination (we didn't really know what we were doing). 

But Tom had a book from the house - Lake District Walks with Kids (seemed appropriate).

The view from Friar's Crag - it took all of ten minutes to get here. 

So we decided to abandon the book and just keep walking around the perimeter of the lake.

This was a sculpture dedicated to the Royal Trust volunteers (think National Park volunteers).

Kenz skipped rocks for a solid ten minutes. We joined her. It was grand. 

Tom kept his nose in the book for half the walk - I wondered if he even saw anything. 
We weren't sure whether or not we'd have the time to take the boat, but we wound up catching the last departure. Excited, we piled up in the very front of the boat. We hadn't given much thought to the wind on the water...

We got the good seats! didn't take long to realize that the wind would kick up little smatterings of waves along the bow. Not only was it already cold outside, but the water was that much colder. After about ten minutes up front, the four of us sulked toward the back, wet.

Kenz wasn't having any of it. 

We passed the theatre on our way out to find some dinner - I snapped a picture of the poster but wasn't any closer to finding out whether or not this little Lake District regional theatre was going to be putting on a good show. The fact that this was the "world premiere" of the play wasn't doing much for my confidence.

Keswick is a quaint little town, filled with municipal parks, small restaurants, and countless outdoor stores.

"Apparently the Evangelicals go to bed early!" - MOMA, noting our luck in finding a good restaurant with no wait.

Well, it hadn't rained, we hadn't been run out of town by the visitors - now was the time to brace ourselves and hope that the last event of the day wasn't a disaster. 

Again, my confidence wasn't helped by the fact that we weren't in the main theatre - we were in the 100-seat theatre upstairs...and Kenz and I were the youngest in the audience by about 20 years. It reminded me of the Flat Rock Playhouse in Hendersonville, the retiree-supported theatre next to the summer camp I used to attend. 

To my/our surprise, the show was as well performed as it was well written. We all laughed heartily, experienced some significant emotional roller coaster rides, and left absolutely satisfied. It was a perfect day. 

I cooked a final breakfast the next morning, but it was much earlier than usual. I'd been concerned about getting to the train station on time - I was unfamiliar with the area, how busy the train station would be, knew I needed to pick up my tickets upon arrival, and had opted for the 'single fare' prices, which meant I'd have to pay for an entirely new set of tickets if we missed our specified train. I don't do well with travel itself, and the only way to put my mind at ease is to be early. I mean - some of it was for good reason: Kenz would be graduating the next day and we were in a pretty freaking isolated part of the world - I didn't know whether or not we'd get out if we hadn't caught that train! 

Well, wouldn't you know - we got to the train station at 10am, exactly when I wanted to be there (one hour before departure). 

Methinks this isn't a busy train station.

There were hardly any cars in the parking lot. 
We killed time by walking across the street to see Penrith Castle - a site where Richard III once lived, which wasn't so bad considering Richard III is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, meaning I was mildly interested in this castle. 

A castle right across the street from the McDonald's. No big deal.

Finally, however, it was time to say goodbye. Mom'n'Tom would spend one more night in the luxurious sustainable house before heading on to the rest of their two-month tour (you can follow it here) as Kenz and I returned to London to see her graduate and welcome the last of our guests. More on that next week. 

Final family selfie!

It's never easy to say goodbye. We thoroughly enjoyed having M'n'T in London for eight days as well as touring some of the rest of this island for another five. Once Kenz and I got back to our flat, we both wished we had more time to galavant around with them. Alas, visitor season waits for no one - the show must go on! 

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend!