Monthly Archives: October 2015

Daytrip to Oxford

After we returned from Leeds Castle, Alberta and I met up with our other friend, Bonnie. We took the train to Oxford.

I just love the expressions these stones have.

 

The English Bridge of Sighs.

The Bodleian Library. It was closed, so we only saw the outside.

 

We got a late start, so we didn’t get as much time in Oxford as I would have liked. Ideally, I would have taken at least a couple of days. It’s a beautiful place, and all the colleges had gorgeous architecture.

There was only one college I was truly interested in, though: Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis lived and worked. Lewis is on the very short list of people who I consider to be a personal hero. And he’s probably the person who has done the most toward forming my creativity and imagination.  I feel incredibly sorry for anyone who didn’t have the experience of reading the Narnia books as a child – and then again, as an adult.  I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve read the series. It would total in the hundreds, I’m sure, and I still re-read them on regular basis. They are incredible works of genius.

 

The place did not disappoint. Besides the obvious beauty, I could almost feel the memory of Lewis’ presence there.

The highlight of the entire trip to Oxford – and indeed, almost of my entire month-long trip – was walking Addison’s Walk.

You leave the college through black iron gates, and follow a path alongside the canal.  This is where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis walked and talked.  This is where, I have no doubt, Narnia was born.

There are seats to rest awhile and think. In wood,

and stone,

and if you’re a duck, there is a house for you upon the canal, safe from foxes.

Being here, walking here, was one of the five best moments of the whole trip.

The chapel at Magdalen was beautiful too, but I especially loved this stained glass window.

Afterwards, we had the best fish & chips I’ve eaten anywhere (the batter was super crispy!) at a place called The Four Candlesticks.

(Bonnie took this picture of Alberta and I, as well as the following color pictures. Alberta took the b&w picture of me on Addison’s Walk.)

 

Oxford is on my list of places I’d like to revisit someday. Only next time, I’ll stay over at least one night, so I can wake up early and go out walking. That’s the magical time to visit a city like this…early, when it’s just you and a few locals.

 

Leeds Castle & Owls

In the morning, I took a backstage tour of The Royal Opera House. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but if you’re ever in London, I highly recommend it. Fascinating tour – they do absolutely everything on site, from creating the costumes from scratch, to making sets and props, to ballet class, to…well. Let’s just say that complex is HUGE. All these massive underground levels, each painted a different color so people won’t get lost quite so frequently. Here’s a video showing how the amazing stage works. It’s just so cool.

I wish we had been able to see more of the costume department, but I did get to see the dyeing/distressing room, with its massive vats of dye and their newest machine – one that can print any design on any fabric. It was cool.

Next, I met my friend Alberta at Victoria Station, and we traveled together to Leeds Castle. They have a B&B in the old stable, and it’s so beautiful. Quite luxurious!

The view out the window was so pretty.

The time I spent at Leeds Castle was really the only bad weather I had, during the entire trip. It rained pretty much the entire two days. Sometimes just a drizzle, other times a complete downpour. It was still lovely.

The gardens around the stables were spectacular, even though it was September, and a bit past the garden prime time. Lots of espaliered fruit trees, too…including pears.

There were acres of land to wander in, and I wish the weather had been finer so I would have.

There were also tons of birds, everywhere. Wild birds, like falcons and owls, and tame birds.

There were peahens there – although oddly, not a single peacock that we ever saw. And the peahens had chicks! So cute. I wish I’d been able to get a better pic.

Since we were “living” there, we had free access to all parts of the grounds, and also to the castle itself.

Though it had obviously been completely redone since her day, I loved that Queen Catherine of Aragon once lived here, and slept in this very room. It’s always fascinating to walk through the same places where these historical people I’ve read about all my life once walked, and touch the same stone walls that once they touched.

This room was my favorite, though. I think you can guess why!

It had the nicest little window seat nooks for reading in.

But what I really came to Leeds Castle for was their Owl Experiences. The night/morning before, it poured. Poured. I was very freaked out that they would have to cancel on me. But by ten o’clock, the weather had cleared to a sporadic drizzle, and we were good to go.

I met my falconer, Reece, and he introduced me to all 26 birds of prey Leeds has – not just the owls.

I love how the UK falconry laws work. The birds are not captured wild, like in the States. They are captive-bred, and the falconer gets the chicks when they are just a few days old. He brings them home, into his house with him, and bonds/imprints with them. Reece said that the first time he brought an Owl chick home, he was still living with his parents, and they were a little concerned about having an owl living with them. He left the chick in her cage while he went out to run an errand, and told them: “You can take her out if you want, or just leave her alone.”  He came home to find his dad asleep on the couch in front of the tv…with the owl cuddled into his neck, also asleep. After that, they had no problem with owls!

This is Coco. She’s still a baby herself, and the youngest owl they currently have.

Coco didn’t yet know how to fly to her handler’s glove, but she was perfectly happy to sit on my glove, and have her head scratched. She was so unbelievably soft and sweet! When I petted her, she would just close her eyes in complete happiness.

I flew about six different owls during the Experience. One was very tiny.

But the other owls ranged in size all the way up to an Eagle Owl. (My thanks to Alberta, for taking these next photographs!)

Even the largest of the owls, though, was super light when they landed on my glove. And they all liked to be petted and even snuggled.

This was one of those experiences that is so worth the money. And it’s one that’s impossible to do in the States. Our laws regarding birds of prey (and all birds, really) are draconian, and the reasons why are outdated.  Do you know that you cannot legally possess a single bird feather that you might find while walking down the street? No, that’s illegal, unless it’s a feather from a pigeon, a starling, or a couple other birds. I’ve heard of people who have rescued a baby crow, only to have the crow taken away from them and killed by the State.  People who abuse animals should be more harshly punished than they are, but people who care for animals properly shouldn’t be punished for keeping an “illegal” animal. And those who say owls don’t make good companions because they don’t like human contact, well, that’s just stupid. And proven wrong in the first five second of my owl experience. Keeping an owl shouldn’t be any different than keeping, say, a horse. Both are animals that require money, experience, specialized care, and could be dangerous if mishandled. Let’s just ban all the animals! And if you want to spend a couple of hours in an adorable time-suck, just go onto YouTube and search for pet owls.

Okay, ranting on the stupid US laws aside, this was one of the best days I’ve had, and will be a treasured memory. And if I ever go back to the UK, I’m totally doing it again.

London: Highgate Cemetery & St. James Park

The flight from Seattle to Iceland is only 7.5 hours, and from Iceland to London is 2.5. Breaking the flight up as I did (taking advantage of Icelandair’s free stopover program) made it MUCH more bearable than a non-stop flight straight to London. Plus, on both these legs, I was lucky enough to have the seat next to me vacant! I barely had any jet lag at all, because having the empty seat to spread out onto meant I was able to sleep really well.

I dropped off my bags at my hotel, and got my Oyster card for the Underground, and went immediately to Highgate Cemetery.  By the way, if you’re planning to visit London, whatever you do, don’t fall for those “tourist Oyster cards” you can buy ahead of time. They cost you so much more money. An regular Oyster card is completely free – you pay only the amount you load onto the card. It’s super easy to get from the automated machines, as well. That “tourist” version is totally a scam!

I’ve always loved old cemeteries. They are so beautiful.  And Highgate is one of the best.

It is unbelievably crammed with graves. And there are modern ones, as well. They still accept new burials – though it will cost you, if you plan on burying anything other than ashes.

You can only go into the really old side with a guided tour. There are apparently many dangerous areas, with holes and drop-offs, and toppling headstones.

It’s legal to be buried anywhere in England – our guide put his mother in her beloved backyard garden. And did not tell the new owners when he sold the house. And many people do put their ashes here, in Highgate. I can see why. There is a peace here.

These are the broad “main” paths we were allowed to walk on. There are tons and tons of smaller paths, many of those choked by vegetation and graves. They just pile the graves in, wherever they find any spare bit of room.

There are mausoleums as well. This one was built to resemble ancient Egypt, during the Victorian craze for all things Egyptian. It was not very popular, though, because while Victorians might have been fascinated with Egypt, they didn’t feel it was quite properly Christian to be buried there.

We were taken inside the one of the largest mausoleums, but weren’t allowed to take photographs. I was glad I had a little penlight with me, because I was able to study all the little details on the caskets. They were rotting apart, but you could still see how beautifully decorated they were.  On top of the mausoleum, are the Highgate beehives. Yes, they make their own honey here.  Life and death.

Some of the older stones leaned against each other. I imagined they had grown into a friendship, over the years.

Trees had grown up through others, draping them with roots.

There were so many beautiful little details.

After Highgate, I went to St. James Park.

I was hoping to see the flock of tame pelicans they have there, but the pelicans were sleeping across the lake.

There were lots of other waterbirds, though. More varieties of duck than I can put a name to, and Toulouse geese, and my favorite, the swans. They were friendly, and people were feeding them by hand.

Last of all, I took in a little of the Hammersmith Vintage Textile Fair. I found many, many things I couldn’t afford; I wanted everything I saw, really. I ended up with part of a Victorian beaded sleeve, in black, and a narrow yard of embroidered fabric.. Someday, it will be the perfect thing for a costume!

After all of that, I was so worn out that I curled up in my hotel room and ordered Takeaway.  I used just-eat.uk, and it was brilliant. Just put in your postcode, and it brings up a list of all the Takeaway places in your area that deliver, and their menus. You pick what you want, and either pay with a card or say you’ll pay in cash, and in about 40mins, it shows up at your door.  Lovely. I had the best wonton soup I’ve ever had!

Iceland II

I was beyond lucky when I visited Iceland. The weather was perfect, and out of all the various tour companies available, I somehow stumbled onto the perfect one: Iceland Horizons. Small, friendly, and intensely informative. If you’re going to Iceland, book with these guys.  Our guide, David, make sure we stopped frequently at interesting sites, and tailored each stop to our interests and the weather – putting off, for instance, a planned visit to a waterfall until later in the day when the rainbows would be visible.

While I was in Iceland, I rode Icelandic horses…a particular dream of mine.

My horse’s name was Bangsi, pronounced like ‘bouncy’. It means teddy bear in Icelandic, and that’s what he was. When we stopped for a break, instead of wandering away to graze like many of the horses, he leaned up against me and coaxed me into scratching his chin and face. Not that it took much coaxing!

Icelandic horses have more than three gaits – in addition to the trot, they can also tolt. A tolt is considerably faster than a walk, but smooth as butter. If I ever get a horse of my own, I’ll be very tempted to get an Icelandic!

After the horse ride, I took a bus tour of three major natural attractions.  The first, Geysir, was mildly interesting at best. I guess Geisers just aren’t my thing. I did like how the ground in the surrounding areas was so filled with hot steam, and it had a rather wonderful smell of sulfer.

The water in Iceland is just so plentiful. There’s zero reason to ever buy bottled water here. The water from the tap is completely pure, and if you’re used to the taste of chemically “purified” water in the States, the difference is astounding. Hot water flows almost instantly from the taps, too, and it (unlike the cold taps) carries a trace of sulfer. That only makes sense since it comes straight from the hot springs. I love the tap water in Iceland. I missed it so much when I went on to the UK, and the water temperature, quality, and pressure was highly variable and uncertain.

After Geysir, we went to Gullfoss waterfall, which I believe is the the largest waterfall in Europe? It definitely seemed to be. When you approach, there’s nothing but  a rainbow, arching out of a hole in the ground.

Then you get closer, and wowza.

There were stairs down to it, and a winding walkway, and every turn you made just brought you to a different, amazing view.

I took video, but it’s honestly impossible to film. There are so many levels, and you can’t see the entire waterfall from any one place.

After Gullfoss, it was on to Thingvellir National Park. Here is the only place in the world where you can actually see the shifting of the earth’s crust. It is part of fissure zone, situated on the teutonic plate boundaries of the mid-Atlantic ridge.

I’ve never been that much into geology, but there is something amazing about standing here.

Thingvellir is beautiful, too. The light is incredible.

You can see some pretty amazing former volcanic activity. These rock walls were formed by volcanoes, but I thought they looked like something from Game of Thrones.

My last day in Reykjavik, I treated myself to some local delicacies. I tried the Puffin and Whale menu. Puffin (in the below picture) is actually really, really good…if you like smoked salmon. That’s pretty much exactly what it tastes like. It has the look and texture of something closer to beef, though.

Whale…well, if I hadn’t known it was whale, I would have thought by the look and taste it was a beef steak! It did have a slightly different flavor, but if I hadn’t been looking for it, I’m not sure I’d have noticed.

The other thing I ate a lot of while I was in Iceland was Skyr. It’s sort of like yogurt, only thicker, with a slightly…sheepish…flavor. It was good, especially the blueberry! I had it every day for breakfast, and sometimes at dinner, too. And frozen Skyr? Delicious!

Would I ever go back to Iceland? Yes. But only if I had a big budget for food, and if I planned to travel outside of Reykjavik.  One more thing, if you’re ever in Iceland, buy a Lopapeysa – an Icelandic wool sweater. The wool from these very specialized sheep is very different from other wool, and completely amazing. Once I put mine on, I never wanted to take it off. Light, incredibly warm, and so cozy, they are the world’s most perfect sweater.  The shop I bought mine from does mail order, and I just know I’ll be collecting several more!

Also, whoever designed the Icelandair safety videos is a genius.

Iceland, September 2015

I made it home from my month-long travels of Iceland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Venice. I took something like 5,000 photos, a small fraction of which I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks as I sort through them all and blog about my trip.

Iceland was not even on my radar as a place to visit when I began planning this trip, but after hearing about Icelandair’s free stopover program, I decided to take three days here.

Reykjavik is a very modern place. Up until the 1950s, most of Iceland’s very small population lived in primitive sod houses, and would definitely have qualified as a third world country. But when the technology boom hit the world, Iceland prospered, and became the third richest country in the world – ahead even of the USA.

Reykjavik was a puzzle to me. So friendly, and full of rainbows, trolls, and…graffiti?

The whole city is covered in graffiti. Literally, the whole city.  Not just the sketchy areas, but the nice upscale buildings and houses. It was very jarring. Add to that the modern nature of it, and how very expensive everything was – including food – and I was not really a fan. If I ever return to Iceland, I’m spending as little time as possible in Reykjavik.

But the history here is the land, itself.  And what a land.

It is literally a land of ice and fire. The whole country is a mass of active volcanoes, and they have so much natural power from water and air, that they run their heaters full blast all winter long, and just open a few windows to regulate the temperature. Hot showers here are HOT, and plentiful.  The land steams, continually, from breaks in the earth. Driving, you see all these puffs of white vapor rising from the ground.

 

There is only variety of horse, and only one variety of sheep in Iceland, and these animals have perfectly adapted to life here. The sheep wander the hills and fields at will, eating Icelandic blueberries and flavoring their flesh into the best-tasting lamb in the world. Seriously. I was never much a fan of lamb until I tasted Icelandic lamb. Yum.

The beaches are black sand and basalt columns, and beyond gorgeous.

It’s a wild land, an overpowering land, and I admire the type of person who is able to make their home here. It wouldn’t be me. Last winter they had gale force winds almost every day for months…wind so strong it would pick up stones and smash them through your car windows. One tourist, driving against advice, had all the windows in his vehicle broken out, and by the time he made it back to his B&B, he was sitting in snow up to his waist.

I couldn’t be happy under those conditions. But I did love the land.

And the wild, lonely black beaches.

And how amazing it is to drive past volcanoes that could erupt at any moment, to see waterfalls, and glaciers.

And rainbows. Everywhere, rainbows.