We had another lie-in today and then walked over to Morrison’s grocery store for some picnic supplies. We walked to the far side of town to the city park and had a picnic lunch and let the girls play on the playground. After lunch, we drove up to Llanberis to take the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the summit of Mt. Snowdon (3,xxx? feet) in Snowdonia National Park. The train took us 5 miles to the summit through rocky fields full of fluffy grazing sheep. The tracks criss-crossed over the hiking trail that was swamped with hikers of all ages out for the day. We were lucky to have a warm-ish sunny day. The views were breath-taking and took in sights as far away as parts of England, Ireland and Scotland. Along the journey, we saw some Blackhawk helicopters from RAF Valley (where Prince William is stationed) running training maneuvers through the rolling hills. After the return train trip, we ventured back to town, had dinner at the hotel and called it a day.
Today I learned that the big blue lines on our road map are not rivers, but “motorways” the biggest of the roads that we’ll be traveling. Discovering that has been extremely helpful for navigational purposes.
The weather was dreadful, but we spent 5 hours touring the Cadbury Factory on the outskirts of Birmingham, so it’s all good. The Cadbury brothers figured out how to make yummy chocolate (not bitter) by mixing it with milk and their best selling product the “dairy milk” bar was born. “Cadbury World” had several Disney-style exhibits walking visitors through the history of chocolate. There was also…the history of the factory “Bournville” (that opened in 1904), a wonky kiddy ride reminiscent of the Winnie the Pooh ride at Disneyland and a factory tour. The factory wasn’t functional today because it’s Sunday, but we did get to walk through and see the machinery and read a bit about how it all works. There were also informative videos showing how their most popular products are made. Cadbury is the #1 chocolate maker in all of Britain and there are more varieties of chocolate bars than you could ever imagine. I went a little crazy in the gift shop. Surrounding the factory is the “town” that was created for the workers that came to work at the factory, including a school, housing and recreation, such as a swimming pool and cricket pitch. These things were all built to improve working conditions for workers during the Industrial Revolution. After the inside tours, Jeff and I were exhausted so we let the kids play on the playground for a bit, saw a magic/clown show and hit the road.
We decided to change plans slightly and drive 165 miles northwest to Caenarfon, Wales (pronounced: kar-narv-on). I was starving because we hadn’t eaten a meal yet, but Jeff made us drive three hours to the hotel before we could eat. He said it was “hunger strike” payback for the “death marches” of previous days. The drive to Caenarfon was beautiful. Jeff said that the roads were as narrow as the roads to Hana that threaten to void your rental contract, but “fun to drive.” (For the record – we went the whole way around the Hana loop and the car rental company was none the wiser.) As soon as we crossed into Wales and out of the hustle and bustle of Birmingham, we were surrounded by idyllic sheep dotted rolling hills. We had to pass through the “mountains” (highest peak 3,560 ft) and slope down to the sea. We were all excited to see the water again. After checking in to the hotel, we had a lovely dinner and packed it in for the night.
We got up and got moving today. After a short walk into Stratford-upon-Avon for some pastries and tea, we took a “short” drive (12 miles) to Warwick Castle. I’ve finally figured out that English traffic math is roughly Port Orchard traffic time TIMES TWO. In other words, every journey takes about twice as long as you think it should. Now I understand why BillBryson said in his “Notes from a Small Island” something like ~ If you want to go anywhere in Britain, you should’ve left last week.
Warwick castle is a “medieval castle developed from an original built by William the Conqueror in 1068.” It later became an 18th and 19th century residence. It is now run by the largest theme park operator in Britain (they also own the London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and the London Aquarium), making it a genuine castle with theme park twist. It was perfect for the kids. There was a princess tower with stories and dress-up, interactive exhibits on the Victorian era at the castle (Queen Victoria’s son Edward partied here with his mistresses) and preparing for medieval battle, a trebuchet demonstration (cool!), a birds of prey show, and a medieval warrior weapons show demonstrating the various weapons of 12th century knights (with hunky knights- always a plus). There was also a peacock garden with at least a dozen peacocks just chillin’ in a baby hedge maze in front of a giant glass conservatory building. We were also able to climb 530 or so more steps up the castle towers and around the embattlements. I am so glad we found more stairs! Jeff said after the stairs at St. Paul’s that these were “baby easy.” We outlasted most of the cars in the parking lot again and made our way back to Stratford-upon-Avon to find some dinner. After an authentically British dinner (and gin!) in a 17th century inn, we walked back to the hotel and we were all in bed by 9. Tomorrow, we’re off to Cadbury World!
We slept-in today and caught breakfast just before the restaurant closed for mid-day. We headed 12 miles (35 minutes) up the road to Blenheim Palace. Blenheim Palace is “a monumental country house situated in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England, residence of the dukes of Marlborough. It is the only non-royal non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace.” http://www.blenheimpalace.com/.
They were having a garden show that would have sent Grandma Donna over the moon. We parked on the edge of a field that was dotted with giant oak trees that seemed to stretch for miles and wandered through the stalls of vendors selling plants and garden accoutrements until we found the palace. We went on the tours available through the house, including an exhibit on WinstonChurchill, who happened to be born here because his mother was here at a fete when she went into labor with little Winston. The lavishly decorated palace was in Kiki’s words “boring….boring…boring.” Jeff commented that Donald Trump must’ve used their designer. We had some lunch in one of the palace gardens and then wandered the never-ending grounds. There were several gardens and massive amounts of wide open delicately manicured lawn. Jeff LOVED the lawn. After wandering for three and a half hours, we took the little train to the “pleasure garden.” The kids squealed with delight while running through the gardenmaze (until Kai got lost) and playing on the playground. Kiki finally had changed her tune and screamed “this is fun!” Phew. After checking out the butterfly house, an intensely hot and humid greenhouse filled with fluttering butterflies and exotic tropical plants, we headed out to find where we’d left the car. We outlasted almost the entire field full of cars (five and a half hours)!
Another 20 miles up the road (1 hour 20 minutes), we went for an evening visit at Mary Arden’sFarm, the house where William Shakespeare’s mother grew up. During the day it is a working farm with several hands-on exhibits demonstrating farm life during the time of the the Tudors (16th century). On this particular evening they had an event to celebrate midsummer’s night, a night when the fairies come out to play tricks on people, that coincides with the Summer Solstice/the feast of St. John the Baptist. The girls made fairies, listened to a fairy story told by a woman in Tudor-era clothing and then went on a fairy hunt. A giant parade of children wandered through the farm, finding a “fairy tunnel” (a very cool tunnel made of growing willow branches) that led to the fairy world. In the center of the forest they found the mischievous fairies being watched over by Oberon, the fairy king. The parade moved on to a recently vacated cow pasture (complete with manure) for a massive bonfire to ward off the evil spirits that are said to hang around with the turning of the season. Some of the Tudor ladies ran and jumped a portion of the fire to cleanse themselves of impurities. After the fire, we were led back to the courtyard to witness a traditional medieval Midsummer night’s feast as eaten by 20 or more costumed villagers. I found the entire experience fascinating. From there, we found our hotel in Stratford-Upon-Avon, had a bite to eat and headed up to the room. Jeff took a walk and stumbled into a pub for a spot of Whiskey while I tried to get the wired kids to sleep.
Jeff didn’t sleep well last night worrying about picking up the car and then having to drive it. He was out the door by seven to come back and sweep us out of our London home by 8. We pulled away from the curb right on schedule, headed 20 miles north to Leavesden for the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour. Using my Port Orchard traffic math skills, I estimated that it would take around a half an hour to make it to our scheduled 10 am arrival time. Good thing Jeff had the foresight to leave early, because it took us one hour and twenty minutes to get to the “freeway” on the north side of town (8 miles). We made it to the studio with two minutes to spare. The studio was fantastic. There was something for all of us to enjoy, from the actual sets (indoor and outdoor) used in the movies to props and costumes. There were also exhibits on costumes and wigs, prop dressing, special effects, visual effects, art conception and (the piece de resistance) the room-sized scale model of Hogwarts that was used in all of the flyover scenes of the castle. We even got to sample some butterbeer! No wonder Hermione always wanted to head to the Three Broomsticks . It was de-lish!
From Leavesden, we travelled northwest for Great Missenden to visit the quaint but entertaining and informative Roald Dahl Museum. I enjoyed reading all about one of my favorite children’s author and the kids enjoyed the interactive exhibits. The town was adorable too, situated in the Chiltern Hills of Hertfordshire. We hadn’t had a meal yet, so we stopped in a local sweets shop and then hit the road for Oxford. After checking into the hotel and eating a proper meal we set out to find a “laundrette.” Jeff drove me in to Oxford and dropped me at the place the hotel suggested. Aaarrrgghh. There was no change machine so I schlepped all four bags of laundry to what I though was the bank, but turned out to be the sports book with a bunch of guys smoking cigars and watching a wall of TVs. After sorting the clothes and stuffing them into the machines, I discovered that the soap vending machine was out of order. I started the washers and ran across the street for soap and fabric softener but by the time I got back the cycles had finished. Oh, well. I was alone for an hour and that’s worth something. The serial killer that I kept expecting to arrive never did, so it’s all good. I now have a renewed thankfulness for my washer and dryer at home.
Today was quite the adventure in the driving department. Jeff likened it it to “driving down the McGee’s driveway with 2-way traffic at 70 mph.” I think it was more “life-sized” Autopia with oncoming traffic, no bumper bars and some massive trucks thrown in (but only on blind corners). We dubbed it Grand Torrismo UK. There were lots of things thrown in for difficulty: NO stop signs- only traffic circles (lots of traffic circles), tractors, two way streets that are (Jeff’s words) “1.3 lanes wide,” pedestrians and cyclists with no indication that they are aware of any traffic, hedges or trees right up to the edge of the road so that it seems like you are in the bottom of a hole or a never-ending tunnel, obscure street names and non-existent road signs. It was terrifying and comical at the same time.
Jeff went off on his own and took in the “Tower Bridge Experience” where he got to walk out on the upper span of the bridge and then went down under the bridge to see the steam engines that power the lifting mechanisms that power the drawbridge. From there he took a Thamesriver cruise to Greenwich. In Greenwich, he went to the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum where he saw the Cutty Sark and the prime meridian and the historical telescopes that were used to map the stars along the meridian. After returning from his cruise, he went to iron out things for picking up our car in the morning and then came back to the local neighborhood for some Indian fare.
Meanwhile, the girls and I rode the tube across town to Harrod’s department store. It was HUGE!! We slept so late that we had missed breakfast at the hotel, so the first priority was food! While trying to figure out where we were going, we met Anna Faris in the “lift.” When I told her I recognized her (I didn’t remember her name until after we went our separate ways) she said, “Are you from Edmonds?” Anyway, she went on to the Terrace Restaurant, while we stumbled quite accidentally upon the Disney Cafe. Lucky me.
The kids were over the moon excited and they ate assorted Mickey shaped food items before we wandered on to find the massive toy department…and then (most importantly) the books before finally ending up in the fascinating Food Hall. OMG! Every sort of food you could ever imagine was right there at our fingertips. The girls settled upon donuts and juice, which we happily took out to the sidewalk to eat. We had spent three hours exploring the store and needed to get going to head to another part of the city.
Just before four, we arrived at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Kiki loved posing with EVERY figure. The kids only recognized maybe 1/3 of the people, but I had fun watching people and taking photos. We decided to skip the hall of horrors after the haunted London hell walk earlier in the week. There was a fun “History of London” ride and a pretty cool “4D” Marvel Superheros movie. Kai screamed through that. Fun times.
We made a quick stop in Piccadilly Circus for McDonalds (of all things) and then headed back to Blackfriars to get some shut eye and pack up our things. We leave London in the morning (and both Jeff and I have insomnia).
We got up early today and rode the tube across town to get on the “hop-on hop-off” tour around the town. We got on by Buckingham Palace with the intention of riding the entire loop and arriving back at BuckinghamPalace for the “changing of the guard.”
The bus tour took us around all of central London and had an interesting commentary on many landmarks. The kids enjoyed the special kids commentary, which kept them entertained about 90% of the time. Traffic was fairly heavy today, so we didn’t make it the around the entire loop before we abandoned the bus and hot footed off to Buckingham Palace to try to catch the changing of the guard. I think that is where all of the tourists in town were at that given moment. We didn’t make it up against the gates to see them handing off the keys, but we did see the band and horses and marching foot guards with their big black “bearskin” hats. From there we went on a wild goose chase (not literally) for lunch and then headed for WestminsterAbbey.
The girls enjoyed a scavenger hunt for trivia question answers with the promise of a free chocolate coin prize if they completed the questions. (They did it!) We were even able to borrow monk costumes for the girls to wear for some photo ops in the abbey gardens and cloisters. My favorite part was the tomb where Queen Elizabeth I was buried with her half-sister (and rival) Queen Mary. From Westminster we decided to head back to the hotel for a little downtime in the room and some dinner at the hotel. After some rest, we walked up to the West End to take in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Royal Drury Theatre. It was FABULOUS!!! Both girls loved it (maybe even as much as Jeff and I).