Today we had to cover the most distance of any of our driving days – 185 miles/300 km (4 hours driving time). We set out for what Jeff thought was a “driving day.” Once we were on the way, I mentioned “a quick stop on the way” (Housesteads Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall). According to Wikipedia, Housesteads “was an auxiliary fort on Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman province of Britannia.” Hadrian’s wall was a “defensive fortification in Roman Britain.” Built beginning in AD 122 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and abandoned in the 4th century, its purpose is believed to have been to mark the northern reaches of the Roman Empire and prevent the “barbarians from the north” from invading. Our quick stop took close to two hours, but it was well worth it. Although the fort was in ruins, there was an short informative movie that helped us all visualize what it would have looked like.
Along the northern edge, we were able to stand up on the wall and gaze at the peacefully grazing sheep on the rolling hills toward Scotland. I didn’t see any barbarians, but what do I know?
Read about Housesteads here.
Read about Hadrian’s Wall here.
We were all parched (or is it peckish?) so we attempted to find a place to eat. Hahaha. There was nothing for miles and miles and miles except tiny roads with randomly placed traffic circles that kept us constantly wondering which direction we were traveling. Tommi (the Sat-Nav) directed us right to a closed road on the main artery to our destination. We followed the “diversion” signs to discover that the road was closed because of a cycling race. As we we happening along, we thought we had come upon a major accident because there were several police cars and motorcycles blocking the road. As we waited, we saw motorcycles clearing the roadway. Next, the pace cars buzz by followed by a massive clump of cyclists and then a dozen support vehicles each loaded with a roof full of bikes. The whole procession passed in about three minutes. Then, the police re-opened the road and we were on our way. It was pretty neat to be tooling along out in the middle of nowhere (we were actually in the middle of Northumberland National Park) and to have a little show appear and then disappear just like nothing ever happened.
We travelled several more miles and finally crossed the border into Scotland. The landscape changed quite dramatically. In England, there were mostly rocky rolling hills covered with sheep. As we passed onto Scotland, the landscape became more mountainous with forests and low lying brush filled valleys (also with sheep). The roads did not improve either. As it was Sunday, there was a lot of traffic, particularly motorcycles, horse trailers and “caravans” (motorhomes). We had a few brushes with terrifying oncoming traffic, but we survived.
Not long after crossing into Scotland, we finally found a place (a gardening store of all places) to stop and have a quick bite before continuing on to Edinburgh.
Upon arriving in Edinburgh, we discovered that the hotel had “no car access.” Not what I had hoped for at the end of a long day, but we found a parking garage several blocks away and we schlepped ALL of our treasures to the hotel (it took two trips) to check-in. After settling in, we set out on foot to find a proper dinner. We found a place called “The Filling Station” that was supposed to be “American” food. Tiring of Steak and Ale Pie and the sorts, we happily settled in for cheeseburgers before calling it a night.
I had a hard time sleeping. Edinburgh is at 55 degrees N latitude making the days especially long this time of year. The sun did not set until just past 10 and then rose again around 4:30 in the morning. The sky never did go completely dark. It was magical in its own way.
After breakfast, we started out the day with a drive up to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm. Beatrix bought the house and its 36 acre farm after the success of her first few books. She went on to buy several more houses and farms in the area, leaving them to the National Trust when she died. She did a great deal to preserve the natural beauty of the surrounding area. She was also a sheep farmer. Read about it here. (Who knew?)
I enjoyed the house and gardens very much. The girls and I were able to look around her house and the surrounding homes and gardens to see several of the scenes that she used in the illustrations of her stories. Although the house had no written information, as she requested it be left just as she had left it (right down to a fire in the fireplace and fresh flowers throughout the house), the docents were talkative and and enjoyed sharing bits and pieces of Beatrix’s world with us. We found Tom Kitten’s gate, Mr. McGregor’s garden and even an egg laid by Jemima Puddle-duck in the rhubarb patch.
From Hilltop, we walked a few hundred yards down the narrow road so the girls could play on a nearby playground. Then, we made our way through the Skinner maze back toward our home base.
The roads today were even crazier than yesterday because, being Saturday, there was a lot more traffic that was going a lot faster down an even narrower road bordered by illusive rock walls disguised by greenery. I watched the car ahead of us as its driver side mirror whizzed by the opposing traffic with centimeters to spare. At one point, we had an abrupt meeting with a tour bus (see day 15 photos) that could have ended badly, but was mostly just entertaining at this point (we’re seasoned now).
Along the way, we happened by a random neighborhood pub in the middle of nowhere so we stopped in for a pint and some lunch. When we got back to town, Jeff took the girls “crazy” golfing (mini golf) and I explored the little town. We met up for a dip in the hotel pool and happened upon some pleasant conversation with a local woman and her young daughter in the hot tub. It was interesting to compare info (for example, the kids don’t let out for summer until July 27th here). After the pool, we cleaned up and set out for a nice long walk to Lake Windermere, the nearest lake. On the way back from the lake, we happened upon another local pub and had a nice dinner while listening to some live local music. It was another great day.
Tomorrow we’re off to Scotland!
Jeff set out for a dentist first thing in the morning to get his broken tooth fixed. His journey was successful and he made it back to the hotel just as the kids and I were heading down for breakfast.
After filling our bellies, we loaded up the car and set out for “The Lake District” of CumbriaCounty and its picture perfect rolling hills and lakes that were once home to Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth. As the weather was absolutely dreadful (again) and hiking was out of the question, we decided to take the advice of Rick Steves and set out on a “car hiking” route. Rick says, “this hour-long drive which includes Newlands Valley, Buttermere, Honister Pass and Borrowdale gives you the best scenery you’ll find in the North Lake District.” I’m not sure what kind of formula-one race car he was driving, but this loop took us several hours to complete. He was right about the scenery, though. The best way I can describe it is the road to Hana (the whole loop) with two-way traffic (on one lane, of course), in what appears to be several driveways all linked together in a contiguous chain though an enormous free-range sheep farm/hedge maze. It was like a life sized Skinner rat maze with sheep obstacles and a beautiful view.
Jeff says this entire trip has been like a “two week defensive driving test.” (I’m not sure if he is going to pass.) Although he says, “I’m an excellent driver” (just like Rain Man). At the midway point on our driving tour, we stopped into the Honister Slate Mine which produces its “famous” and “best” Westmorland green slate. We all enjoyed trekking deep into the hillside to see inside this working mine and to hear about the process of slate mining.
At the next “town” over, we stopped into the cafe/ice cream shop for some mid-afternoon tea before we continued on our “hike.” A few miles down the road, we reached Newlands Pass. From the road we could see a waterfall, so we pulled off and walked a few hundred yards to get a closer look. The wind and rain almost blew is off the mountainside, but it was nice to get out for some fresh air and to commune with the sheep. “Mind the poo” became the phase of the day.
To cap off our scenic drive, we diverged a bit and went off the beaten track that even “Tommie” our Sat-Nav couldn’t find… the Castlerigg Stone Circles. Catlerigg is one of the earliest stone circles in Europe. It was constructed by Bronze Age people possibly for use in solstice celebrations. To the casual observer, (read: the Wilson family) it looks like a large sheep pasture with a bunch of big rocks thrown in the middle. Jeff and I walked around the stones and waited for a mystical feeling (that never came) and the kids tried to catch (and pet) the sheep (while “minding the poo”). We finished up the day with a fabulous Italian dinner in Keswick.
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 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.
Our flights went off without a hitch. We had heard about delays due to security at the airport, so we arrived with plenty of time to spare. My plan to knock the kids (and myself) out with Melatonin did not go as planned so by the time we had arrived in London, (10 hours flying and 1 hour layover in Reykjavik) Kai and I were going on almost no sleep.
We arrived in London on Saturday just in time for the annual Trooping the Colours celebrations for the Queen (to celebrate her April birthday). We missed the parades and pageantry but we did get to see the flyovers by several RAF aircraft and (I think) the queen in her helicopter with two escorts. It was pretty neat to see the planes, but was a bit unnerving until we realized it was a celebration and London was not under attack.
After weaving all through London because of road closures due to the celebration, we made it to our hotel and checked in. After a bit of rest (but still no sleep for Kai or me) and some dinner at our hotel restaurant, we wandered out to explore. We stumbled upon a nice walking path along the South Bank. It was robust with Saturday evening happenings, which we enjoyed taking in. Our walk landed us in Trafalgar Square near a tube station, so we hopped aboard for an adventure to find Kings Cross Station and platform 9 3/4. There was an official queue and shop selling souvenirs, so the girls took advantage of the props for a fun photo op. By 9:30 we were all ready to crash, so we headed back to the room and crashed hard.