Monday, May 6, 2013

Ruth's UK Visit Comes to an End

By Ruth Richter

Where should I begin with our week in Scotland?!  We left the Lake District with it raining fairly hard and the wind was blowing by the time we hit the Scottish border.  We’d taken the “M” Road to get to Scotland but soon veered off onto an “A” Road in order to visit several villages, including Dumfries, where Ken and Bonnie’s ancestors were from.  We found a local cemetery and walked around it for awhile in the rain and mucky ground, but we did find Patterson tombstones.
By the time we left there, they had agreed they’d done enough of visiting ancestral villages and were ready to head on past Glasgow and Edinburgh to the self-catering apartment we’d reserved called East Turret in Comrie.  On our way there, we ran into a snow storm with the snow coming down rather hard but at least the traffic on the “M” Road kept the highway from icing over.  By the time we hit the outskirts of Glasgow we had driven out of the snow and it was rain again which we were all thankful for.
We had assumed that Comrie was a very small village with no amenities so we’d stopped to purchase some groceries in the larger town of Crieff.  Since everyone we’d talked with had asked us why we were staying in such an odd, out-of-the-way place, we were somewhat prepared to be disappointed with our choice, but financially, it was a good option ($383. for seven nights divided four ways).  Up to that point, in our driving in Scotland, we had been under-whelmed with what we’d seen, but much to our surprise and delight about 20 miles before arriving at East Turret, the countryside became rolling, the hills were covered in green grass, and it was all quite lovely.
We easily found East Turret, thank goodness to very clear directions we’d been given, because it was definitely a hidden driveway into the property. Ken knew where to find the key and, other than going into a freezing cold apartment, we were all quite enchanted with our accommodations.  We climbed a winding stairway to get to the first floor apartment (the Brits define what we’d call a second floor as the first floor and the first floor as the ground floor), and entered a very spacious two-bedroom apartment with a large living/dining area, big bedrooms, very nice bathroom, and a very tiny but more than adequate kitchen even including the inevitable washer-dryer combination machine, and a tiny dishwasher as well.  AND much to our joy, we had a fireplace as well.
The surrounding grounds of this estate were awash in wildlife, first and foremost, many, many, and then some more pheasants. They were just everywhere. There were deer, fox, and others that Ken saw on a walk he took almost immediately. There were interesting ruins we all walked to on another day; this was our best self-catering setup yet and, since we were staying seven nights that was wonderful. Once we got the heat going and warmed up in the place, we were very cozy there the whole week. The building we were in had been built in 1910 for the workers on the estate to be housed in. They had some mighty nice accommodations and must have counted their blessings.
The next morning we were leisurely in getting started and planned to drive to Perth (if you see Marla Patterson, ask her to pronounce it for you; she speaks excellent Scottish!) where we attended the LDS church there shortly after noon that day. It was a first experience for me, but not for my traveling companions. From there we drove to the city of Stirling and went through Stirling Castle. The castle itself is a wonderful ancient stone building perched high up on a bluff. In their interest in making sure the Scottish children know the history of their land, unfortunately for my tastes, they’ve made lots of displays that are directed toward children and so the rooms were not furnished as they might have been even 100 years ago, but rather have modern displays that relate the historic nature of the place. For me, a little of that goes a long way. However, the views on the ramparts from that height out over the plains was simply fantastic and, while it was very cold, it was a decent enough day to stand out there and really soak it up from every angle, and never mind, Ken had disappeared on us [again].  One can always find a warm gift shop to await a member of your party.
The next day, Monday, we were going to Edinburgh to tour Edinburgh Castle, again perched on a high bluff, and again full of displays and such but hard to envision how the castle would have been in the olden days. Bonnie was meeting a friend she’d corresponded with for some time but never met, and we all trailed along to have lunch with them. Unfortunately, between the castle tour and the lengthy lunch, our day had gotten away from us, and we saw very little of Edinburgh itself … other than walking the length of the Royal Mile and then some. I anxiously peered at many shops as we hustled past them and wished we had more time to have a look.  BUT I’m not much for spending time in large cities when I travel, so basically I was happy to get out of the city that day.
Coming back that evening when we were near our cottage, Marla suddenly shouted, “I just saw a white kangaroo.”
  We all thought maybe she’d lost it, but Ken dutifully found a place to turn around and back we went to see what it was that Marla had really seen. It was, indeed, an albino kangaroo or more likely wallaby who was somewhat overfed so in some ways looked like a very large white rabbit.  This was on the property of a wild animal enclosure and presumably had many odd and unusual animals. We never got to see more of the place, but the white kangaroo was quite a treat especially since he was sitting in a patch of snow and blending in quite well.
Tuesday made up for our negative experience in Edinburgh.  Someone had told us to go to Pitlochry which we had elected to do. On the way we stopped in an absolutely gorgeous little village called Killin; there was a river running through the town with majestic falls and lots of rugged rocks (a lot like we see in Idaho in some places). 

We stopped at Castle Menzies which was a very different looking castle but a beautiful building; unfortunately, it wasn’t yet open for the season’s tours.  (Note:  many places in Great Britain are only open during certain months and likely the months of January, February, and March will be the months they choose to be closed.

On the way to Pitlochry, we came upon the village of Dull which is paired with the town of Boring, Oregon.  If you’ve met the nice lady who works for the Salvation Army and spends time in Garden Valley, you’ll know that she lives in Boring, Oregon.  She loved it when I told her about going through Dull and indicated Boring was … well, dull!  (Many European countries do this pairing thing and, while it isn’t always with cities in the U.S., it often is.  They sometimes get clever with the pairings obviously.  When we were traveling in New Zealand in the early 2000s, we went through the town of Clinton and the road sign for the next town was Gore … but they hadn’t even planned that one!)
When we arrived in Pitlochry, we immediately could see it was a great little town to visit and gift shopping was going to be enjoyable.  As had become our pattern, we were hitting all the charity shops we could find.  One of them that we walked in had the very teapot that Marla was looking for, with the Churchill saying, “Be Calm and Carry on.”  For the grand total of eight pounds she had what we’d all been looking for. 
This had been one of our best days, a nice amount of driving, taking off on a side road when we felt like it, enjoying the scenery and taking many pictures.
Loch Lomond was on our schedule for the next day and off we went with snow falling like crazy but not sticking.  Another nice little town we stopped in, Callander, was a good shopping area; I was able to pick up a couple of little things commemorating Rob Roy who was from that area – and then could bring them back to give to a friend at our church who holds that same name.
As we drove that day, I continued to puzzle over why people rave about Scotland so much, especially in comparison with the Lake District or Wales, both of which to me have prettier villages and more enticing scenery.  I am willing to concede that it was too early in the year and thus the brownness of everything made it less attractive.
We were beginning to wonder why we never saw any pubs … anywhere.  We never really did find any true pub and that puzzlement didn’t get answered.  Pubs, for me, are definitely the best choice of places to eat and usually have some excellent atmosphere; folks are friendly and like to chat with the foreigners so the fact that we found none in Scotland was a very big disappointment.
Determined to find the beauty of Scotland, we headed to Glencoe and on to the Island of Skye the next day for what we knew would be a very long driving day … and it was. 

Castle Eilean Donan
We’d been told that Glencoe was a beautiful area; my conclusion after driving there and seeing that area was that I could have seen the same thing had I stayed at home in Idaho, most of it looked more like the area around Sun Valley than our pine covered mountains in the Garden Valley area.  We were in the very heart of the Highlands and it just wasn’t calling me at all. I think my traveling companions somewhat felt the same way, perhaps less so, however.
We drove almost 400 miles that day averaging about 40 miles per hour so you can see we were on the road for a very long day, but Ken said we averaged 48 miles per gallon!  We enjoyed a stop at an “antique” store soon after crossing over onto the Island of Skye.  There were broken dishes sitting everywhere outside and the shop was jammed full of a hodge podge of “junk.”  I did manage to pick up two nice little blue and white plates at a price I was willing to pay.  We saw several little whitewashed cottage with thatched roofs and a netting with stones hanging off the netting in order to keep the thatched roof on in the high winds.
I’d heard that the Falkirk Wheel was of interest, but had wondered since I’m not at all mechanically inclined.  Pictures I’d looked at on the internet didn’t make any sense to me at all, and all I knew was that it was a type of modern “lock” allowing boats to come and go from one water level of canal to another.  We decided to drive to the town of Falkirk where the wheel is located and take a look at it.  It was another miserable weather day snowing and sleeting.  When we got to the Falkirk Wheel, happily we could watch the whole process from inside a building with great big windows allowing us to view the wheel as it worked. 
Basically, it’s a big device that fills with water, the boat slides into it when the door is opened, and then the wheel slowly turns and rises, to a significant height, and deposits the boat in a canal some 20-30 feet up in the air.  At this point, it’s more of a tourist oddity than anything that is serving a useful purpose, but it was quite fascinating to watch the process.  If you’re really interested in how it works, I suggest you google it and read all about the wheel since my description hardly does it justice.
It was our last night in Scotland, and it was clean out the refrigerator night of whatever was left because we could take none of it with us.  We had an oddball dinner, all of which was yummy good.  Several things we discovered in our travels that we really liked a lot to eat was a type of syrup we put on pancakes and it had a very rich honey taste; it’s been around in Great Britain for hundreds of years so I guess they like it too.  We also tried balsamic syrup on salads since the Brits don’t always “dress” them and when we asked for something, that’s what we got. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s quite delicious. Since coming home, I’ve managed to find a similar item called balsamic glaze and am trying it on salads.  It’s low in calories! We also all love the English white cheddar cheese; I buy it at Costco and it’s as good from there, but usually they only have an Irish brand.  Marla and I loved crumpets and were having them for breakfast as well as with a cup of tea at the end of a day’s outing.  And Ken was bound and determined to try every sweet roll or donut-like item he saw; who knew he had such a sweet tooth!
Saturday, March 23rd, was to be a huge driving day for us, all the way from Comrie in Scotland to Maidenhead just outside London.  Ken had calculated it to be around 440 miles. We woke up to the wind howling and icy sleety snow coming down.  My nervous weather nature kicked in big time, but we set off at around 7 a.m., drove in lots of wind and occasional snowstorm-type weather. It wasn’t anything too bad for an Idaho driver used to much worse conditions and Ken was mostly calm and cool, but the wind was blowing so hard that it was very tiring for him to tightly grip the wheel mostly the whole day long.
At this point we discovered a couple of things about our car we’d not figured out before.  One was that when you have the windshield wipers on intermittent and you pass a semi-truck who splashes up a huge amount of slush on you, the windshield wipers on the car kicked into high automatically.  We thought this quite a nifty perk on the car.  Then as we drove along in and out of lots and lots of bad weather, we were listening to BBC, and much like our NPR stations, they’d be interviewing someone, and all of a sudden cutting in was a weather report specific for the area we were driving in which was very helpful for us to know what to expect in the coming miles.  Whether this was something the BBC was doing or it was a “service” on the car, we didn’t know but enjoyed the timely updates.
The day actually sped by as we were traveling almost exclusively the “M” roads and could clip along quickly in spite of the weather conditions.  We arrived in Maidenhead before 3 p.m., easily found the Bridge Cottage B&B where we were staying.  This B&B was near the Thames River and after a long, tense day of driving, a walk alongside the river was most enjoyable.
Our final day in Great Britain was spent in London after we took a short train ride into the city.  Our plan was to ride one of the tourist double-decker buses, but it was terribly cold and difficult to stand being on the second level of the open air bus where the views were wonderful of all the historic buildings.  We did the best we could, but it was probably the coldest, most miserable day we’d had on the whole trip.  There is a tremendous amount to see in London, but I’ve never been able to endure being there to see it all since I have an aversion to large, overcrowded cities. 
Our B&B was more than adequate, and we had two lovely breakfasts there the two nights we stayed including on the second morning when I requested scrambled eggs which they place on pieces of toast noting that my toast had been cut into a perfect shape of an Easter bunny which was the next Sunday.
Our flight didn’t leave until noon so we had a relatively lazy Monday morning before heading to the airport which was only a bit more than a half hour away.
Once again, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself in Great Britain, in spite of “the worst weather England’s had in 50 years” which we were told so often. This is a wonderful country to visit, but probably not for everyone. 
I’d recommend a good guide book to study prior to leaving on your trip; I had Rick Steves’ Great Britain Tour Guide but was less than thrilled with it.  I also had “Back Roads of Great Britain” which is very readable and while we (you never know on the back roads what you might come across, and on this day we met these people who were obviously going English hunting) never completely followed a tour outlined in the book, it pointed out many stops that we’d not have found on our own, especially on the back roads which are not always signed like the major highways would be for the tourist things to do.  We also had the National Trust Handbook which is very helpful to find places of interest, tells you the times and dates the places are open, lets you know if they have dining facilities, gives a brief description of each place.  It is easy enough to research any place you hear about on the internet, like the Falkirk Wheel, and then print out that information if you want to. Having an iPad or other such device would likely be very handy to research as you go; just remember, you’ll need a converter plug and/or an adapter because Great Britain uses 220 current as opposed to our 110.
If you want more details or are planning a trip to Great Britain (or, hey, other places in the world; I’ve traveled quite a lot!), feel free to call me or ask questions when you see me.  As any intrepid traveler, I love to talk about MY travels and MY experiences!  Thanks for reading on and on … it’s always fun for me to put it all into words and remember it all over again!


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