Monday, January 6, 2014

Travel Journal: Southern England, 2013

England: Expansive countryside and small towns steeped in history
(View overlooking Avbury)
Sunday, 12/15/13
The beginning of my journey to England felt more like a surprise than countless less-important events I’ve spent hours planning for. Working hard from 8-5 daily, pulled thinly across dozens of small projects from 5pm-11 or later, I hardly noticed as the trip I’d known about for months and dreamed about for years was happening! I half-heartedly packed the night before, finished packing the day of, and was suddenly at the airport with my girlfriend Kaitlin, and her brothers Avery and Keegan at 1pm. In a flash we were in Atlanta, purchasing extremely expensive food ($9 burrito?!), exchanging dollars for pounds (the currency), and getting on the plane for London by around 4:30pm.

The flight was uncomfortable and memorable for all the wrong reasons. We tried to sleep during the flight but general discomfort prevented me from getting more than a few minutes in. I watched Despicable Me 2 (Thanks for the recommendation Sergey!), RIPD (basically MIB 4), and Kick Ass 2 in sync with Kaitlin for most of the 8 hour flight, until at last I thought sheer exhaustion would help me sleep… But the moment I fell asleep someone who will remain nameless woke me up to inform me that I needed to buckle up while the flight was in motion. I was not surprised to see Keegan, Kaitlin, and Avery also having an equally difficult time falling asleep as the people in front of them decided to lean back just enough to be a nuisance. There were small amenities on the flight, like two meals, but flying with Korean Air has spoiled me.

When we landed and got off the airplane in London (now 6:15am on Monday) the hallways we walked through immediately reminded me of an ethnically diverse Death Star corridor. Basically picture women in burkas, Indian men, and the occasional Caucasian British family trudging silently through long windowless white hallways complete with warnings of “CCTV” (the government actually monitors the daily activities of England through 100,000’s of cameras!), posters of people with fancy titles welcoming us to London (like the "Beefeater”), and giant circular discs overhead that dampened sound. It took us about an hour to get through the checkpoints and by 7:30 we were with Keegan, Kaitlin, and Avery’s father in the parking lot, heading towards our home for the next two weeks, somewhere south of London. It only took me moments to catch my first glimpse of the local wildlife.

The elusive London Pigeon
As the sun lazily rose higher and higher, the sleep deprivation started to leave us; I was able to form complete sentences again and make observations on our environment. The first bit, the really disorienting part, was the fact that we were driving on the opposite side of the road than I’m used to. Other changes I did not expect to see were the plethora  of lights at each intersection indicating which lanes can operate, the number of roundabouts, the fact that lights turn red to yellow to green to let you know you’re about to move, the smaller size of the cars and trucks in England compared to the US, the fact that gas is measured in pounds per liter (as opposed to dollars per gallon), that red phone booths still exist, that the red post office boxes featured in Mr. Bean exist, that police boxes still exist, that restrooms are called toilets, light switches face the opposite direction to indicate being on and off, there are switches to turn power outlets on and off, and the spelling on just about everything is a letter or two different than how it’d be in the states. The buildings we passed were a fair mix of very modern, 20-50 years old, or incredibly old by American standards (150+yrs). There were also lots of random patches of forest and grazing land for sheep or horses that are dominant throughout the areas of the country we visited throughout our journey.
First impressions of England
When we arrived in Camberley roughly an hour later, checked in, and took naps for a few hours. It took me about 20 minutes after the nap to regain control over my cognitive functions again, and we decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. It was beautiful but very cold. I think it was around 1 or 2pm but the sun was far obscured behind the clouds and not offering much more light than a stormy day in Florida. I quickly learned over the next few days that the sun in England never gets very high in the sky, or very bright, and it sets by about 3:30pm in December, giving the constant illusion of the hours before sunset, or a perpetually rainy day. Still, it was a very beautiful walk through a forest of brightly colored leaves. We passed a few statues, cannons of historical significance, the royal academy, and returned in under an hour for some tea.

Walk in the woods near Camberley
The rest of the evening was relaxed. We walked into town, walked around town, and had dinner with a drink at a pub called The Carpenter’s Arms. The downtown areas we walked through (and subsequent mall) were really pleasant because of the prominence of unique shops, as opposed to corporate chains. That made a lot of the downtown area I'd normally have avoided worth walking through. For instance, they had a gaming store that was selling the new God of War for 4 pounds! For someone who’s grown accustomed to their “local branch” of Gamestop (generally identical to every other branch) this is kind of a weird that they’d sell a used AAA title for anything less than $20-$50, despite being used. Heck, a used copy of the new Batman game was 20 pounds (easily $40-$50 at Gamestop)!  I felt like I was actually getting a good deal here… Good prices weren't limited to video games though as the clothing stores offered 5 pound belts. The rest of the evening was spent walking by one-off restaurants and other specialty stores like the “Holiday Card” store we passed! We went to sleep early that night because we had big plans for the following day.

Both pictures above taken within a mile of each other
The next day we woke up early to drive to Avbury and Silbury Hill. It took us two or so hours of driving through the beautiful English countryside (which actually looks nothing like southern California, despite what Austin Powers would have you believe) to reach our first stop, a pub called “Who’d A Thought It” in Wadworth. The pub was bought by a couple a few years ago and in addition to friendly service their food was phenomenal. They were generous in food portions, vegan-friendly when asked, and had an active fireplace in the room that kept us warm! I’ve never had pomegranate seeds added to a SIDE before, and really I can’t stress how good everything tasted, even the chips (what we call French Fries in the US)!

The Who'd a Thought It,
Great food! Great times!
Silbury Hill
Awhile later we visited the mole-hills and sheep that guard Silbury Hill. Silbury Hill, which many dismiss as simply a giant mound of dirt, was the largest man-made structure in all of Europe until the Industrial Revolution, which is really interesting when you learn that it was made well before the Bronze Age! It took over 2 million man-hours to make and was constructed in about 2 years. Think about that for a moment. Some people who predate the inventions of the shovel and bucket made a 25 acre wide mountain!  No one really knows the reasons behind why they made it but a number of hippies and new-age folk believe it has something to do with aliens. I’d personally like to believe, due to its close proximity of other burial mounds, that it has something to do with a deceased leader who was so amazing that they built it in his or her honor… But to date they’re never really found anything under Silbury Hill except the remains of other people (and a horse) that were buried there long after it was built.

Stones at Avbury...
Are kind of close to the road in places
The stones were brought here from hundreds of miles away...
without the invention of the wheel!
The Avbury Stone Circles are historically similar to Silbury Hill in that they are massive feats of the pre-bronze age man. Hundreds of giant boulders, each about 10’ in height, were dragged miles away from their origin to be arranged into a series of circles at Avbury. There’s also a giant 20’+ deep by ~1 mile diameter, man-made ditch that surrounds the site, which was made before the boulders were brought there. Many of the boulders were destroyed by the Romans to end pagan rituals (through a process of heating them up and pouring cold water on them, causing them to shatter), but it’s been restored within the last 150 years to have dragon’s teeth-like stones added to mark where the stones that were destroyed would have been. Again, many attribute the man-made work to aliens, or druids, but after looking through extensive research on the topic it seems highly unlikely and unnecessary to involve the interstellar in its construction, or a people who lived long after it was built. When we arrived I was surprised to find that the small town that was built around/within the stone circles hundreds of years ago still existed as residentially populated structures. More surprisingly still was the close proximity to well-used roads that are literally mere feet from the stones! Though passing incredibly characterful trees and giant boulders arranged in ritualistic circles was exciting in person, there’s really not much more for me to describe beyond their historical significance. There was a church, a graveyard, a gift shop (where I made my first purchase in England and learned that Pounds are not PP), and the Avbury Mansion, with each room recently modified to resemble how it would have looked over the course of its many owners. I’d have more on that topic but the sun had already set by the time we reached the mansion and it was closed.

The church at Avbury... Located just past the gift shop
After visiting both sites we went back home for dinner and watched an enjoyable movie on Netflix. The following day, for me, was a brief tour of Reading University, followed by dinner and catching up on work I’d fallen behind on.

Big Ben
Best use of my camera's Panoramic feature
The next day we woke up early and were prepared to depart for depart for London by 8:30am. We were slow leaving the house because someone forgot to shower (important on an hour-long train ride), and wound up taking the 9:30 train to London-Waterloo. We arrived at the Waterloo Station a bit before 11am, passed the Nelson Mandela statue (with hundreds of fresh flowers as he’d just died), and were suddenly overlooking one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen, the London sky rise. We saw the Thames River, Big Ben, Parliament, statues of generals I’d learned about through, the Boudica statue, the London Dungeon (which we sadly didn’t have time to stop at), some huge churches, some very old buildings, countless pubs, China Town, the National Gallery, a giant blue rooster statue, the Cavalry Museum (guarded by the unmoving men in metal hats), and countless other things that are each worth of their own paragraph of description but that I simply can’t remember.

Boudica: One of the only people to burn down a city...
and have a statue of her likeness erected in that same city
Church with a Statue of George V
Parliament is MASSIVE
Lots of huge churches with detailed architecture
A Harry Potter-esque mark I discovered on a historical monument
Lion statues and a Giant Blue Rooster
The National Gallery
The Sherlock Holmes Pub
We stopped for lunch at the “West End's best known pub” Norman’s Coach and Horses, which had really great vegan/vegetarian food, and then went to the market. We saw the Apple store (which was built inside the shell of a much older building), and the various stalls that made up the marketplace. It was decorated for Christmas and an energetic 6 piece string band was performing stellar renditions of Mozart & the theme from Laurence of Arabia. Kaitlin, Keegan, and I backtracked to the National Gallery (which encourages donations but offers free admission), browsed the first floor, and caught up with everyone else. I don’t have much to comment on about the National Gallery, beyond that it was a beautiful building with many pieces of art I’d purchased in the game Assassin’s Creed 2 that I could recognize. We were planning to stop at the Sherlock Holmes Pub but it was at standing room only, so we instead opted to check out the stalls set up along the Thames River for Christmas and get ourselves German beer, hot dogs, and roasted chestnuts. We also picked up a few Rackham lithographs from a book salesman before heading back by train. It was long dark by this time, 5pm, and it felt like it was much later than it actually was.

The Christmas Village (picture taken earlier in the day)
When we returned home we watched some British TV (which is either really good, or really really bad depending on the show. There’s no middle ground here.), beat the game Papers, Please, and fell asleep pretty quickly. The next day was spent indoors catching up on work, finishing various projects, and briefly shopping in Camberley. This was the day I learned that no one in England accepts credit cards without an RFID chip. The day concluded with some Fallout (the original) and Munchkin, while eating German chocolates and homemade bread.

Downtown Reading
The following day we left by about noon-thirty and took a train to Reading to catch a football (soccer) game, Reading vs Wingham. It was a fairly cold and rainy day but the town of Reading was charming and did a good job of distracting us from how cold we were. We took a red double-decker bus and arrived at the stadium by about 2pm, an hour before the game. We hit up the “official gift shop”, the food court (which wasn’t too expensive), and found our seats (in the second row!). We watched the teams warm up while lazily nursing hot chocolate and tea, eating pizza and hot dogs, and by the time the game started it was still raining lightly like it had been for most of the day.

My first Football Match!

It was incredibly enjoyable to watch a professional football game. I could see during the practice how much control the players seemed to have over the ball in fair conditions, and as the weather worsened and rain fell in a sort of spiral pattern due to strong winds (hitting players and spectators from three or four directions at once), even these talented individuals had a difficult time directing the ball once it left the ground. I seem to enjoy soccer/football because it’s a continuous game, one that I personally enjoy playing, and because the rules are easy to follow. I also really enjoyed how energetic the crowd was with their chanting, yelling, booing, loud cursing, and general enthusiasm.

The weather turned on us...
Wingham won the game, and we quickly shuffled through the busy streets back to the bus. It was cold, windy, and raining. We spent a few more hours in the Reading downtown area picking up last minute Christmas gifts, exploring the mall, and trying to find a place to eat. We were declined admission to a pub because one of the large men outside insisted that “no Reading fans” would be admitted to pub that night (he’d seen an Official Reading scarf one of us had bought), and everywhere we walked seemed to be closing or unfairly expensive, like the 5 pound Five Guys Burgers and Fries burgers. While making purchases at the mall I almost avoided making a fool of myself with English coins, a talent I’d acquired the moment I had two coins that were the same color but of different value. We finally got burritos and took the train back home to play more Munchkin until the wee hours of the morning.

Sunday, 12/22/13

The next day was another work day for the most part, despite being a Sunday. I learned that purchasing goods before 10:30am on a Sunday is illegal in at least some parts of England, particularly where we were. We caught tea with old family friends in the early afternoon and went for a walk on a public footpath, the walk my host family used to take to get to school when they’d lived in England. It wound through some woods, a rugby field, and also bordered a few back yards. We passed some berries that one of us verified were poisonous, some mushrooms, and the old school, which everyone insisted had been bigger in years past. I took a moment to introspectively wonder when walking half a mile to school started to seem unsafe, or when parents started to fear letting their kids walk distances through woods like that on their own. Probably somewhere in the late 90’s… I spent awhile longer pondering how the first humans had to manually test which berries were poisonous and which were not and how much fun that probably wasn't... We spent the evening working, playing games, and watching a silly action film that wasn’t intended to be silly, Olympus Has Fallen.

The Royal Academy
The following day we walked to the movie theater and saw the Desolation of Smaug, which was very enjoyable. I learned that English movie theaters have assigned seating, which was interesting, and that they have more commercials than American theaters, which I didn’t think was possible. Their movie theater also offered free Wi-Fi, which seemed odd to me.
We had dinner at home and enjoyed Christmas Eve day, Christmas, and Boxing Day at the house. We took a few walks through the woods and trails nearby during those days and got a lot accomplished. I also beat Fallout while Keegan beat The Last of Us. The weather wasn’t particularly good outside most of the time and strong winds upwards of 80 or 90mph knocked out power for much of southern England (not us though), and caused destruction we would see the effects of for the following few days. In the back yard of the house an old apple tree had toppled from strong winds on Boxing Day eve. I was very amused to see that the British weathermen didn’t seem to care all that much and dismissed what Florida would be in terror of with the dismissive comment “it’ll be rainy with winds of up to 90 miles an hour. Probably a good day to stay indoors if you can help it.”

The road to Stonehenge...

Was very cold and windy...
But certainly worth the journey!
After Boxing Day we took a trip to Stonehenge. Apparently located next to a highway (which always has a traffic jam due to people slowing down to take pictures), even on a cold windy day it took us awhile to traverse the traffic and get to the tourist center. The museum they have on site is really phenomenal, offering insight into Stonehenge’s construction, use, significance, and into the lives of the people who built it. It also explains how various misconceptions came into being, starting with the false belief that Romans built it, later delving into another false belief that Druids built it, and explaining how modern cults suddenly renamed themselves to be “druids” after druids were again given credit to its construction so they’d be allowed to hold ceremonies there (involving fake beards apparently). It’s a pretty interesting story. They also dispelled the myth that Stonehenge was perfectly aligned with the stars or setting sun, because at some point in history a “historian” manipulated his data to try to make this claim. Because the line for the buses to Stonehenge (located about a mile from the tourist center) was long, we opted to walk to Stonehenge, trekking through the beautiful countryside of England. Notably we saw sheep, crows, other birds, and ancient stone markers indicating how far London was.

My best photo of Stonehenge...
I want to use this as album art or something.
Stonehenge itself was phenomenal. Again, a huge site created from massive stones before the invention of the crane or trebuchet, constructed using a rope system and series of niches carved into the rocks. Braving winds almost powerful enough to knock us over as we walked around Stonehenge, taking dozens of pictures, and dodging the photos of other tourists. You can’t get within Stonehenge anymore (without reservation, after hours) but we were able to see it pretty well from the distance we were at. Avery was constantly asked to take photos of people, using their cameras, seemingly because he looked respectable in his Army jacket. It was so windy that we watched a bird give up on flying to walk to its destination because s/he couldn’t fly against the wind. 

The view overlooking Salisbury 
Old Sarum
After Stonehenge, we went to see Old Sarum, an Iron Age hill fort. Old Sarum still has a few walls intact, and it’s clearly visible where the old church used to stand, but what I found most enjoyable about the site (as the sun began to set at around 3pm) was the sunset view overlooking Salisbury. Walking the footpaths located next to a steep hill was the one of the best views I've seen. I think this was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip to England, in part due to the visual effects the setting sun had, but as cold as it was I’m not sure we could have remained on the site much longer than we did. I should mention here that almost everyone at the site seemed to have a dog or two. We also noticed that the bathrooms at old Sarum are built into the ground like hobbit holes with multi-colored glass ceilings. 

The London Skyline and the Thames River
The following day Kaitlin and I decided that we wanted to go back to London. We planned our journey using the train timetables and Google Maps, and departed to catch the 8:18am train to Ascot. From Ascot, at 8:40am, we departed to Waterloo and arrived in London by 9:30am, passing a gigantic building boasting the logo of the sister company to the one I work for. Spiffy. We walked across the Waterloo bridge towards our destination and passed a number of unique shops, including a bookstore that boasted an antiquities section (books over 100 years old). The most interesting book there, an journal outlining an expedition to one of the remote corners of the Earth featured in a Lovecraft novel, was also the most expensive and I couldn’t afford it. Later, we tried to get a picture next to a phone booth, but a number of pornographic stickers placed on the insides of all of them prevented us from doing so. We also passed an “obscure” book shop across from the British Museum, then opted to check out the impressive looking British Museum, which was also free to the public (though donations of 5 pounds are encouraged).

The British Museum is phenomenal
The British Museum is massive. Each room contains at least one piece I'd travel a great distance to a remote museum to see... I could probably write a series of blog posts just about the things I saw there, but instead I’ll just post pictures with an explanation of why certain things are significant. If you ever go there, I recommend eating before you get to the museum, bringing more food, bringing water, and never having to go to the bathroom ever, because the lines are huge and things are a bit pricey. I think my favorite parts of the museum were the Greek buildings they reconstructed, the Mesopotamian tablets and structures, and the Egyptian sections. I also greatly enjoyed seeing reconstructions of the Korean Traditional building, which resembled the Traditional Korea House I’d visitedduring the summer, and being able to say “I’ve been there!” That's actually something I didn't expect, that one of the most comical things for me while going through the British Museum was being able to recognize many historical pieces that belonged to sites I’ve visited over the years THAT WEREN'T AT THE SITES THEY WERE FOUND AT WHICH I WAS VISITING! For instance, when I was in Egypt they told us that an obelisk, some mummies, and some statues were at the British Museum, and when I was in Greece and Italy they told me that many statues I wanted to see were at the British Museum. It's hard to describe the feeling of seeing them...  I suppose it was a very real reminder that England was a world-conquering empire throughout history. The best indication of this was a book in a gift shop I saw titled Countries We’ve Conquered.

The Crystal Skull!
An Easter Island Statue!
I childishly laughed when I read this and looked up to see...
Something that didn't meet my childish expectations... 
"Dragon Discovers Wasabi"
My title is fake but it's hundred year old china from China.
Emaciated Buddha... It not as happy as well-fed Buddha
Chapter 100 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead!
A depiction of Ramses II winning a battle I'm pretty sure he historically lost...
Ramses II: Master of Propaganda!
In a 30' room, there are wall to wall depictions
of King Sargon hunting lions
Clay Tablets of things like Gilgamesh's Flood Story, a list of Synonyms,
Treaties, the Meaning of certain Names, etc. 
A "World Map"
Better Picture of the above "World Map"
An early instrument
Another Instrument found in a room with a bunch of
dead people who were probably murdered...
A colorful pillar that in theory matched a temple
This clearly inspired a level in God of War II
A Citole
The most beautiful instrument I've ever seen
A ceremonial shield
The Cyrus Scroll...
Largely important because Cyrus The Great was pretty awesome
A Map of the Palace of Minos.
The place the Minotaur was supposed to be beneath!
After the British Museum we stopped for Indian food, took the half-hour walk back to the other side of the Thames, passed a Mr. Bean impersonator, and got in line for the London Dungeon. For those who have never heard of the London Dungeon, located next to the London Eye (a giant Ferris wheel constructed for the year 2000 special event, that the loved so much, they kept running), is kind of like Halloween Horror Nights, or Hallowscream, or any other haunted house event but better. It’s one part ride, one part play, historically accurate, and very educational. There are actors who guide you through jumps, scares, mazes, boat rides, rats, odd smells, and a bunch of other things I don’t want to spoil for you.  It’s not for the weak of heart or small children, but it’s a lot of fun and well put together. Even the restrooms offer amusement, as the urinals in the men’s room all have bloody guillotines in front of them. My only possible complaint would be the lines to get into the lines to get into the lines to get into the London Dungeon. Still, it was an hour long series of lines in exchange for a good 90 minutes of non-stop fun, and when compared to the hour-long waits at Disney or Universal for a mere 3 minute ride I really can’t complain that much.

We got in line for the Dungeon as the sun was setting, at about 3:00pm, and left at about 5:30pm, just in time to catch the 5:50pm train to Ascot, and the subsequent train to Camberley. We watched some more British TV, ate dinner at home, and checked out how many 3DS Street Passed we’d acquired. It was a good day.

Sunday, 12/29/13
Saville Garden
We spent part of the next day with friends, walking through the nearby Botanical Gardens, polo fields, and public footpaths. It was muddy, windy, cold, but very pleasant. It was a true experience of the fall/winter season that doesn’t exist in Florida. Kaitlin and I were still pretty tired from all the standing and walking from the day before but still found the walk enjoyable. Getting to and from the gardens was a bit of a hassle because the roads leading there were effectively one and a half lane wide, with people parked on the side of the road at various points. After the day’s walk we were pretty hungry and went through three taverns in search of food, all of which either didn’t serve food or only served food earlier in the day. The final tavern we ate at, a chain pub, had okay food and a very uninformed/rude wait staff. The quote of the evening was something like “Yeah, the mac and cheese is vegan.” We got back early, worked more, and woke up the next morning in time for the 10am Monday siren.

The 10am Monday siren is sort of like an air-raid siren, but softer, and belongs to the local mad-house to inform the inmates that it’s time to get inside. If that’s not creepy enough the siren is almost melodic, just quiet enough for you to question if you’ve really heard it to begin with, and muted by the strong rain and winds. This weekly event is to creepy for me to make up and is a real thing in Camberley. We stayed indoors for the day, did more work, and prepared for the journey home on New Year’s Eve. The trip home was uneventful, so I’ll simply say it was mediocre, filled with crying babies and more in-flight movies.

Old Sarum
My first trip to England was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.  It was quite surprising at times, too. For instance, I’ve heard that people in England are not the most friendly and was happy to see that it's not true. I also didn’t expect us to pass as many manors, castles, and giant green fields as we did while driving, or for the sun to be as absent as it was. England was full of pleasant surprises like the Who’d A Thought It pub, the London Eye, Old Sarum, the Avbury Stone Circles, or the experience of a Reading football game. If I lived closer I'd try to be a regular and maybe even a legit sports fan for the team. We only really got to see the south side of England and I feel that there’s much more to be explored! I will certainly go back to England to explore more of its wonders, and will remember this trip for the rest of my life.

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