Sunday, January 29, 2012

20 Dec 2011 Dover and the White Cliffs

We took a train out to Dover ( Priory ), a 2 hour ride from Victoria. In order to ride cheap, we took the 9.30am train and only managed to reach Dover terminus at almost noon.

Buses cost 2 GBP per person from station to east pier so we opted for the cheaper option, the white cliff taxi. From the pier, we hiked up the white cliff where the national heritage trust is and had a simple lunch at its cafe.
Winter flowers on the white cliffs of Dover
Where we had lunch.Dover port was below the cliff.
We walked beyond the café's carpark, where a panaromic view of the chalky white cliff met us, still resplendent  in the low sun. I was shivering from fear of heights though I know any kind of mistake will just land me at the Saxon walk, a grassy walkway 10 m down, instead of the sea. The chalk on the floor has yet to dry from the previous day's rain and our shoes became muddy and sticky from the clay and chalk.
Dover town and castle in the distance.It was recently decommissioned from duty
Nearing 3pm when the sun was nowhere to be seen, we retraced our path down the cliffs, now made shorter by familiarity. We called for a taxi to town, where we posted a card to ourselves. With the help from the town's tourist staff, we trekked back to Dover priory and by 5pm, was homebound to London.
Dover has lots of this beautiful plant

19 Dec 2011 Mon Cambridge

Cambridge station.A future Cambridge student surveys the platform.
If there is one summary I can make of old England, it would have to be 'education'. It was the country of choice of further education, with most of my friends landing in Sheffield. When Pat did his sabbatical studies in Imperial, I thought it was moving a notch upwards in academic society. But of course,  the best British education would come from  Oxford and Cambridge, the latter's namesake the suffering of thousands every year in their school leaving exam.

We took the 8.30 am train from Liverpool, a very long ride from Gloucester Rd Station ( 26 GBP offpeak, return with F&F railpass ). It chugged for almost 2 hours, calling at every port until it terminated at Cambridge. Unlike Oxford, the town center was located quite a distance away and in what felt like -5C, I had no mood to walk towards town. Almost everyone hopped up Citi 1 to the town center and the kindly driver even alerted everyone when we were there.

Christ Church College, Cambridge
Cambridge university town is a bigger town, with some its most famous colleges located along the river Cam. The beautiful façade of the most famous colleges, Kings College, Trinity college and the magnificant St John's College were enough to inspire any Cambridge uni wannabe.
Because we were at the punter part of the boat,we had his legs in most of our pics

We grabbed a hot spud breakfast from the market square and plonked down 25 GBP for a punt session on the river, a discount haggled from Pat ( a rare feat, not the discount but the bargaining ! ) Together with 9 other people, we punted under the Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge, with the ducks for accompany alongside our boat. The colleges, which were all out of bounds to the public, could only be admired from the river ,which is public space. The buildings were left intact, and forms a wonderful  heritage in the minds of those who walked past its halls. I could now understand why Harry Potter was shot and filmed in these beautiful grounds.

Lunch was a greasy affair at the Eagle Pub, made famous because the discovery of DNA was announced there. Other than H's crabcakes, Pat and my greasy lunch of beef wrap and steak pie were non-events.
Our lunch place, were the discovery of DNA was announced

Whipple museum offered free admission and has a big collection of exhibits that detailed the history of science. Besides, it offered respite to the icy rain  and we stayed a good hour inside.
Whipple museum was our refuge from the biting cold
The urgent task of buying souvenirs became pressing near sunset . We ended up with some 'authentic' Cambridge Ts and caps for 40GBP !

Citi 7 bus took us to the train station and it felt as if the entire busload were offloaded there too. We even managed to catch the 5.21 pm train back to Liverpool London, a 2 hour exhausting ride south.

Cambridge today offered a teaser into what life would be like living among the  erudite . Had it not been for the rain and dank weather, it would be a great visit !

Saturday, January 28, 2012

18 Dec 2011 - London city

Spitalfields market

After the whirlwind day trips out of  London, I decided we needed train respite and spent a leisurely day in London city itself.

First, it was off to Spitalfields for breakfast, located off Liverpool station. Spitalfields market has been upgraded and seemed to have lost its former charm, though facilities are improved.  In fact, it was very neatly confined to a covered area we walked around the compound to verify that we were at the right place.

At Spitalfields, we had egg bacon in bap, a simple but surprising delightful breakfast at a corner café, Square Pie. Pat had his second English breakfast in this holiday.

There was nothing much I liked to see in Spitalfields though H loved the creative products by vendors. We ventured to Petticoat Lane, an open market similar to People's Park, selling very cheap clothing. There was nothing I fancied as well. We made our way towards the Thames; it was a very long walk in the bright and cold morning and the near zero temperature  almost knocked me off my senses.

London Tower - Jail and execution grounds for the high profile prisoners in ancient days

Eventually we reached The Tower of London and the festive mood of Sunday returned, encouraged by the enormous number of tourists  around the Tower of London. There was a last minute change of plans as we were appalled at the paying crowd, ushered by Beefeaters to tour  the Tower. Instead, we took in the sun and beautiful surroundings ( Tower and Tower Bridge ) in our leisurely pace, spending almost 4 hours in the vicinity and generally fooling around taking trick photos. I was thankful at not getting the prepaid railpass that would give a 2for1 discount to the Tower - the visit was virtually impossible with such a crowd.

After dropping by Katherine's docks and envying the toys of  the big boys, we crossed the Tower Bridge and marveled at its towering structure looming above us. Over at the wharves, we explored back alleys peppered with quaint buildings, refurbished warehouses  turned apartments and took in the city view from the  perspective of the wharves.

London Bridge
Now almost 3 pm, we hit east towards the 'real' London Bridge, which was feted in the nursery rhyme. It s beauty was nowhere like Tower Bridge and I suspect the author of 'London Bridge' must have mixed up with 'Tower Bridge'.

Fish stall at Borough's

A little way south of London Bridge, we reached Borough Market. It would have been closed on Sundays except that it was near Christmas and the stall owners were all out to grab a bit of the shopping pie before the biggest holiday of the year.  It was one hour towards closing but it did not prevent us from buying  fleur de sel , 2 pies , 2 cheesecakes and a big lunch for ourselves.  It seemed like we were all out to make the best use of the time there.
London retiring for the day

It was almost sundown by 4 pm, but we pushed our weary feet towards Monument, across the Thames, where we caught a tube back to Gloucester Rd.

Friday, January 27, 2012

17 Dec 2011 - Canterbury, Kent

Frosty Canterbury

8:22 am. We took the South Eastern train from Victoria to Canterbury East, a 1.5 hour ride, into south east of England into Canterbury, the mecca of the church of England in Kent.
Canterybury Cathedral as seen from near the train station

This was one of the coldest day of our visit ( -1 C ) , and road surface and plants were covered with a layer of frost. Luckily I packed beanies and gloves, which made our walking in the frigid cold slightly bearable. The cold would have set our visit plans awry had it not been for prior  tips from TA advisors, who suggested that the most efficient way to the famous Cathedral is to cross the overhead bridge immediately outside the station and walk along the city walls flanking Dane John Gardens.

Canterbury was bustling with activities , with the morning market ( my favorite kind of place ) rand shopping malls in full swing. We  saw  a group of carolers signing carols outside the Cathedral.
Man of sorrow in the crypt

Admission to the Cathedral was quite costly , at almost 30 GBP for us. The Cathedral grounds was a far cry for the weekend madness,  a place of total tranquil peace and quiet. We spent almost 2 hours in the Cathedral and erudite curators gave history lessons. We saw the place where Thomas Beckett was murdered and indirectly caused the reconciliation between state and church by King Henry II. The crypt was just as interesting, and I spied a tomb deprived of heads of its cherubims and angels because the Protestant government then was clearing the church of graven images, as according to the second commandment.
Scones at Tiny Tim's
We left the very handsome church and walked over to St Margaret St for tea cum lunch at Tiny Tim's Tearoom . Pat had the ploughman's lunch, which a huge piece of cheddar and H had a similar plate of Leicester cheese burger. I had the traditional tea sandwiches, which I must admit tasted very much as they look. Still, it was a big meal and a happy one with tea, scones and pudding. That was how serious we were to combine tea and lunch in one go.

Canterbury calls it a day.
After lunch, we walked around town, which was very small. By 4 pm, the overbearing cold was too much for us and we decided to call it a day and caught a train back to London.

16 Dec 2011 - from Edinburgh back to London

Waverly station
Despite what most said about the dank weather in Edinburgh, it was 2 wonderfully dry and mild days  and our last day in Edinburgh was no different. We checked out of Travelodge Central very early,  in case bad weather and unforeseen traveling circumstances should derail our trip south to London. Thankfully, it was all systems go and we even managed to have a little breakfast at Edinburgh train station.

Mascot,Mr G, goes back to London with us
We took the 8.30am East Coast train with prebooked table seats at coach D, seats 13,15,16. Our southbound trip was made by advanced booking online. Both ways, I managed to get us  table seats with a view of the sea. For that, I congratulated myself on my foresight.

We pulled into London Kings Cross at 1pm and intended to get H a 7 day travelcard for 13.80. This would cut down the hassle of buying a card every day and give us savings of a couple of pounds. Unfortunately,  either the London Underground has scrapped this scheme or something, because such travelcards were not available to kids. In the end, we had to purchase a day pass for her like before.

Albert Memorial,one of my least favorite
We unloaded our luggage, filled to the brim with souvenirs from Edinburgh, at the apartment and proceeded to Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial which were very near our apartment. It was a mammoth, gaudy memorial, painted in ugly gold that 'took our breathe away', marring the beautiful Kensington Gardens. Many tourists did not think so and cameras snapped away happily at the towering structure that declared Queen Victoria's love to her dead consort.

Put up by one of those crazy Imperial College Physics nerd
We walked down via Exhibition Rd to South Kensington Station as Pat traced the path where he walked to Imperial College. Works and gaffs of fun loving Physics students , probably from Imperial, were everywhere with spoof notices such as "looking for boson, contact Higgs at Cern" found near the college premises and tickled H pink.

Big Ben
At Westminster, we snapped pictures of Big Ben at the Parliament, as did the scores of tourists. The bobbies stood watch nearby and most of the tourists used either Big Ben or the Bobbies as backdrop for their 'been-there' photos. We caught  the evensong at Westminster Abbey, a ritualistic but touching choral services with readings from the OT and NT. Little Westminster choir boys sang while the visitors prayed or meditated. It was a rather interesting experience for us, especially when we had never stepped into an Anglican Church before.

Now 6pm, the evening had turned freezing, more so than Edinburgh ! Satisfied with the many photos of Parliament and the Abbey, we made our way back to our apartment at Gloucester Rd, but not after we had 'raided' Waitrose of dinner stuff.

15 Dec 2011 Edinburgh Castle , Edinburgh U and Surgeon's Hall

Edinburgh as seen from the castle
9am.  Edinburgh Castle greeted us  in all its morning glory, rising from volcanic rocks from its base. From the castle grounds ,we saw the sea and enjoyed the sun rising from the distant bay, visible for where we were standing.

We  managed to visit  a weaving and mill hall located at the corner. I was hypnotized by the weaving machines and to seal the memories of an interesting visit, bought a big 100% lambswool scarf ( Mcclaren Clan )  for 19.90 GBP that is woven in the premises.

Lunch was café food  at Deacon's Café. Hubby and I had Scottish smoked salmon sandwiches, H , cheddar cheese sandwich, basically a heap of a  mound of extremely creamy cheddar cheese held between 2 slices of bread. Tomato soup and carrot cake were similarly delicious ( 30 GBP ) .

Edinburgh is paved with cobbles along the Royal Mile
We walked southwards seeking out the student admissions office of the University of Edinburgh, located at George Square.  I took a copy of the prospectus for HF , who is interested in studying veterinary medicine. H was just as excited, checking out admission criteria for medical studies.

Edinburgh U situated at St George Square
After  Nicholson Square, we visited the Surgeon's Hall and spent more than 2 hours going through medical exhibits and reading the stories of distinguished medical personalities.   H was fixated with the displays, taking notes and making sketches.
Old Surgeon's Hall

We had an afternoon tea break at Coffee House located along High St.  Compared to Deacon's Café, the carrot cake was moist and they enhanced the flavor by adding coconut cream in the cheese frosting. Sublime tasting and the coffee was full flavored as well.
There was still an hour or so of sunlight and we walked along High St again, checking out stores and taking in everything on this last night in Edinburgh. By 5pm, we were back in Travelodge, laden with many packs of Scottish shortbread  and  even a box of whisky.

Haggis with oat cakes.The reputation is bigger than the cake itself
It was 6pm, but the early sunset made it felt like it had been night for a long time. Our hunger, obviously activated by the lack by daylight, needed   attention. Dinner was steps off Travelodge at a  pub called Whiski, which provided much prompter service and nice food even if it was a tad more expensive than The Tass. Patrick had haggis, the must-eat in Scotland. It was a mash of sheep lungs and other meats perched on a mound of mashed potato, decorated with 2 oat cakes. Taste wise, the haggis was not as gamely as feared and the sauce was too thick. H had herby sausage and mash but the caramelized onions was her favorite part of the dish. I had battered haddock, freshly caught, with lots of peas and chips. Admittedly, the batter though light, did not stay crispy as long as that served in Tass. Overall, the service was cheerful and prompt, a far cry from our first pub meal in Edinburgh.

Then it was back to pack up for an early departure the next morning. 

14 Dec Wed - Edinburgh

Northward to Edinburgh

Edinburgh, here we come ! We had an early departure, which was a feat considering the tiring previous night ( music can be serious business ) . Despite bad weather forecasts of wind and gales in the west of the UK, we departed on time from London at 8.00 am from Kings Cross Station. I had made advanced booking with the East Coast Railways and enjoyed hefty discounts with the Family and Friends Railcard ( 77 GBP return/advance with F&F railcard ) .
Travelodge Central  is  near Waverly and the end of the Royal Mile
We reached Edinburgh at 12.25pm in a very dark Waverly Station because it was under  a year long 'refurbishment'. A kind gentleman gave directions to our hotel but we made a pit stop at The Tass, a local pub opposite the more famous 'World's End'. After a heavy meal of pub food ( fish and chips, pie and burgers ), we tried our luck for an early check in at Travelodge Central at St Mary St. Travelodge ( 62 GBP triple for  2 nights, special online rate ) . The  minimum service hotel, was not able to receive us because we were an hour too early ( 10 GBP extra for early checkin ) so we walked along the Royal Mile, with our little lime green luggage in tow.
The sea can be seen from the high end of the Royal Mile
St Gile's was our first 'port of call' . We saw parishers setting up a big Christmas tree but did not stay to witness their success in erecting it. After depositing our luggage back inTravelodge, we walked towards Canongate. By now, it was sundown. From the fare grounds of the Edinburgh castle we saw the new town across the old town bustling with activities  and lights from the night market. Beyond in the dark, a  string of street  lights dotted the outline of the bay  beyond.
Travelodge Central provides endless shopping bliss
It seemed that all the crowds of the Old Town in the day had gravitated over to the New Town by sunset. We found a food path that led us from Canongate , past the Scotland National Gallery and into an  street of modern shops and malls. We lingered  between the night market filled with the sweet smell of gluhwine  and smoky sausages. It was more walking to the west end of Princes St before heading to High St via the extreme steep Cockburn St.

Old Town is ghost town when sun sets
It may be just 6 pm, but the wintry blustery winds and extreme cold made it necessary to seek refuge, this time in Gordon's trattoria along the Royal Mile. We stuffed ourselves with pasta carbonara, artichoke risotto and foccacia pizza con mozzarella ( 46 GBP ) , a meal more suitable for 6 than just the 3 of us. Scottish food was excellent and ameliorated the fact that our dinner was not as local as we would have liked.
Fairgrounds located over the new town, as seen from the elevated old town

Beware diminishing waistlines with sumptious food in Edinburgh
Finally , regarding our room at Travelodge Central. We stayed at room 134, a triple room  on the first floor. The room was very clean, with workable heater, though the tap was not working quite properly. Pat  fixed the shower control so that we could have a shower instead of a bath. There was no phone connection to the conceirge, nor in-built clock but the TV provided many channels that entertained with news, reality shows and dramas. We brought our toiletries since it was not provided but apart from that, it was a place just as good as those  in KL, if not even better. If I had a choice, I would go for another room that did not have a spot light immediately outside the window that was on the entire night, illuminating the hotel's carpark.
Travelodge Central was unglam but facilities adequate and very clean

13 Dec Tuesday - Imperial College revisited and Mitsuko Uchida at Barbican Center

Imperial College revisited :
Although our apartment was only steps from Imperial College, we had yet to visit the campus. It held fond memories for Patrick who did his sabbatical in 2004 and so I thought a visit was  long overdue. Friends who did their PHds have moved on but the vibrancy of this excellent place of learning is very evident, with plenty of Asian ( China mainly ) students striding very purposefully to their lecture halls. We went to the students co-op and bought many  Tshirts. The one for Elroy said " when I grow up, I want to graduate from Imperial".

Tate Britian at Pimlico :
Patrick has never  visited  Tate Britain despite his long stay here previously so we made our first museum visit to here. I remembered this place, specifically for its  John Turner line drawings and Constable's landscape pictures. A couple of paintings captivated me :  "An iron forge ", " Day at the Derby",  "Mother and Son" and a painting of a royal lady were some that were so lifelike and well executed. Even contemporary sculptures " Eye" , "Woman" , "The left handed ( hare ) drummer " excited me !

On the Thames
Millenium ferry to Tate Modern :
After lunch at the museum café, we took a Millenium ferry to Tate Britain 4 km down the Thames. Being Oyster card and Travelcard holders, we enjoyed  30% discount , an expensive ride that we would otherwise not have taken ( 4.50 / 1.50 GBP ) . The NW end of the Thames glowed with the last light of the wintry day, a sight to behold. We cruised past Westminster, London Eye, London Bridge and many landmarks. It was refreshing to see the  famous landmarks from a different point of view.

Millenium Bridge to St Paul:
Tate Modern's old angular power house façade was undeniably ugly but it was popular with young people. We saw a 'live art installation'  propelling from the top of the Tate down, with camera crews interviewing some 'celebrity' at the end of the tether. I wondered what the 'installation's' artistic message was.

In the Tate, we bought 2 George Orwell books ( 'Books vs Cigarettes', 'The decline of the English murder' )  , a surprise find. Then it was northwards past the Millenium Bridge to capture the last of London by daylight on camera. St Paul's cathedral greeted us at the other end , together with a bunch of  picketers  who had been camping out in front  of the cathedral since September.

Barbican Center - Concert by London Symphony Orchestra and concerto by Mitsuko Uchida:
It was a long walk to the Barbican Center from St Paul, since the area around was not built in a grid, making navigation difficult. At long last, we reached the Barbican and I decided against  a pub dinner after getting the concert tickets. It was a wise move, because we had a sumptuous and leisurely dinner at the Foodhall and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

The London Symphony Orchestra played Haydn and Neilson. I found Haydn delightful but H preferred the more sophisticated piece by Neilson. When it was time for Uchida to finish off the evening, she delighted the full house with Beethoven's "Emperor". At quiet times in the first movement, the LSO swamped Uchida but she recovered fast enough to take command. The second movement went seamlessly to the third movement ,with Mitsuko Uchida leading a strong  and energetic entry.  Cleary she was enjoying herself and her personality shown , especially towards the last moment when 'in cahoots with the timpanist' came to a grand finale with the LSO. Conductor Sir Colin Davis was perched on  a little high chair, precariously conducting the LSO. Had it been for the energetic Lan Shui, he would probably have toppled halfway  through the first movement.

It was almost 10 pm when we finished and 11 pm when we were back. What started off as an easy day began to build into a crescendo as we prepare for a 2-day trip north to Edinburgh tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

12 Dec 2011 Monday - Oxford

We took the 9.21 am train from Paddington to Oxford ( 26 GBP return / offpeak with F&F railpass ) , a 50 min train ride west of London. Despite weather warnings, Oxford was resplendent in glorious sunshine and vibrant with the youthful energy of young people in the little college town. It was odd to see among Victorian buildings, lots of Chinese and the occasional  Singapore accented English could be heard if we listened hard enough.

We walked from the train station to the main thoroughfare at George Street. I decided to ditch plans of the free tours by and opted to snoop around town, since we were already hungry and could not bear the thought of following a walking tour on empty stomachs. We went up the cupola of the Sheldonian theatre, the graduation hall built by Christopher Wren, located opposite the Bodlein College. ( 2.50 / 1 GBP ) It offered a nice view of Oxford's dreaming spires even  though Sheldonian is not the tallest in town. The only disappointment is that it is not an open air viewing gallery.

We had our first pub lunch at the touristy White Horse, opposite the theatre. English food of toad-in-the-hole, meat pie and vegetable  quiche were pretty good and not as salty as I feared. We had carbohydrate overload, with mash and crispy chips. The bill came up to a hefty 30 GBP ; I should have tried the quieter but cheaper ( ? )  Kings Arms.

Radcliff Camera
Then it was time for  a walk around the town center. We visited the Radcliff Camera, Bodlein library premises, both stunning places of learning which made me envy those who studied there. Down Catte St, w e turned to High St and took in the grand facade of Christ Church college. Now at 3pm, we decided against a paid  visit to Christ Church College. Instead we looked at the cows grazing across the college , then looped around Merton Grove and Magpie Lane before ending back at High St. Mr G guest starred in photo shoots in front of the Christchurch Cathedral.

Christ Church College
Past Corpus Christi, we rejoined High St and made a short vi sit to the Covered Market ,where we had our second cupcake this holiday ( the first at Covent Garden ). It was pretty good at a decent price of 1.60GBP. Down Cornmarket St, we traced  our steps back to George St and visited miles of Blackwell books and music, Oxford stores, by the end of which we were proud owners of 2 huge bags of cloths, T shirts and books.

Oxford is not a place for mush heads
For the Oxford finale, we had tea and scones with clotted cream at Coffee Republic. It was not the greatest English tea experience but nevertheless our first, despite our many visits to the country. The cream was rich and scones milky . What would make the experience complete would be Wedgewood chinaware and loose leaf tea instead of bags.

As scheduled, we took the 5.31 pm train from Oxford to London's Paddington, an uneventful hour ride. We wound up the day, dinning at home after carting 15 GBP worth of dinner stuff from Waitrose.