Saturday, October 18, 2014

I took a trip traveling Southern England with my MIL this past June.  It was really her trip.  Her son didn't want her gallivanting halfway across the globe by herself so he volunteered me to go with her. I'd never been to Europe and jumped at the chance to tag along.  She was nice enough to accommodate both her son's wishes and my company on her excursion of a lifetime.

We started out in London, staying at Covent Garden Hotel.  This was way out of our price range, but my husband's twin brother is quite the jet setter and purchased the hotel reservation as her Mother's Day gift and I was lucky enough to benefit from it.  He made reservations there for the beginning and end of our travels. It was luxurious.

We spent two days in London exploring.  We visited the Tower of London, Big Ben, Buckingham Place (no tour though), Picadilly Circus, Trafalger Square, took "the tube", and walked along the river.  We saw too many things to list but we walked for two days straight and I have more pictures than I know what to do with! I learned quickly about my MIL's love affair with the Iced Latte.  This became a common theme each and every morning.  I don't drink coffee of any kind so it was in stark contrast to my usual morning routine.  But I absolutely love the aroma of coffee so it was all good!

Then we took a train to Canterbury to see the Canterbury Cathedral.  It was at this point that we realized a major flaw in our travel plans. My MIL had assumed we'd be able to find lockers to rent to store our luggage in, at the various stops we made in between hotels.  Due to terrorist bombings, there are no such accommodations. It was a bit absurd lugging our bags around with us, and we were fortunate enough to find people willing to break the rules and stow our bags while we took a quick tour here and there throughout our trip.  In fact, in our next stop, Dover, where we visited the white cliffs, my MIL actually got a marriage proposal (in jest) from the kind elderly rule-braking gentleman that allowed us to store our bags in his broom closet.  Getting to the cliffs required a bit of a hike, so thank goodness that little old man was smitten with my MIL or we'd have faced hiking with wheeled luggage.  That would have been a pretty funny comedy of errors, but I'm glad we were spared that proposition! The cliffs were beautiful and allowed us time to truly enjoy the  beautiful weather we had (the only rain I saw in England in my 12 days there was on the tarmac on-board my departing flight home which is pretty fortunate for Spring in England!).  It was amazing to see the cliffs across the channel in France.

Then back on the train to our next stop, Brighton, where we stayed for the night.  The hotel we stayed at was absolutely horrid.  It was so bad, I refused to use the shower (that's pretty bad).  We both agreed the best thing to do was to find a wonderful restaurant, a fine bottle of wine and enjoy ourselves until we simply didn't care about returning to our hotel room to embrace the oblivion of sleep, no matter what was crawling around on the floor and walls.  First thing in the morning we packed up and ate breakfast at the hotel recommended restaurant that was equally atrocious.  This was an after-bar breakfast sober-up dive.  The other patrons at 6am were still seriously inebriated and definitely still in Friday night party spirits, yelling and swearing and carrying on. Sitting there with my ultra-conservative MIL, while these guys created chaos all around us, was quite a laughable contrast. The breakfast consisted of bacon (a huge slab of ham) and eggs drowned by a can of pork beans. We had to pay before we were served. Yep! One of THOSE establishments. lol

Then we took the first train we could catch to Southampton. We took a boat to the Isle of Wight and saw the Needles. Wow, was that a hike!  But seeing how beautiful natural erosion can be was pretty impressive and well worth the expended effort.  This was also an old launch site for test missiles many years ago so we got to see the bunker associated with that too.  That night we walked to this great little restaurant in Southampton called The Olive Tree.  This was the best meal of the entire trip IMHO and my MIL and I enjoyed a bit too much wine.  So much so that my MIL forgot her coat on the back of her chair that night and we had to go back in the morning to fetch it.  Luckily it was still there.  I couldn't complain about this as I'd forgot my cell phone in a train depot bathroom and had to make a mad dash down the stairs and across the level (in the same style as OJ's commercial running through the airport) to retrieve my phone while my MIL sat on the departing training with mere minutes to spare before the train left without me. As luck would have it, I found my cell, a Note 3, so I'm very fortunate someone didn't lift it.  I ran back across the entire station, up to the platform level, through the turnstile, onto the train, and into my seat just before the train bell blared.  Since my MIL didn't have a phone and I have no way of getting in touch with her if we separated, this was a HUGE risk.  Luck doesn't even begin to cover it.

Speaking of luck, we did have a couple street punks try to scam my phone off the table while we enjoyed a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe in London on our second day.  Luckily my short-change artist training from my teenage cashier days kicked in and warning bells went off in my head when we were two-teamed by two boys.  I grabbed the first boys hand and sure enough my phone was already off the table and in his under the magazine he was purportedly trying to sell us. They ran off, without my $500 phone, thank heavens!

I was hurting pretty bad the day we headed out of Southampton.  I'd jumped back onto the bed while opening my laptop to look up the restaurant to call about the lost jacket and the bed (two twins pushed together) was not latched together and flew apart at the middle as both beds were on caster wheels.  I fell backward ass over teakettle, with quite some force, on the floor in between the two beds, landing onto the back of my head/neck with all my weight.  I struck my head on the metal bracket on the bed frame that hadn't been latched.  I saw stars to the point I thought I might pass out. Thankfully there was no blood, just an enormous goose egg on the back of my skull.  I checked my eyes for pin-point pupils and they seemed to be responding appropriately so I listened to my MIL's advice ("suck it up", I'm not joking) and we headed out to retrieve her jacket, eat breakfast and begin the next leg of our journey.

We took another train to Salisbury, on our way to visit Stonehenge which held an unexpected treat. We hadn't planned it intentionally, but the day before our visit was the Summer Solstice (a huge date for stone circles) and Stonehenge had been closed to the public for a large pre-purchased ticket event housing something like 35,000 attendees.  Apparently it was so crowded and noisy that the modern-day druids were unable to complete their holy ceremonies among the standing stones that day so they decided to do it on the following day (the day we visited).  I have video of the druids all dressed in white robs among the stone circle during their ceremony!  The rest of us were not allowed to get very close to the stones which was a bit disappointing but it makes sense with the thousands of people that were coming and going just on the day we were there.

We did have to lug our luggage around with us looking at the stones and on the ultra-cramped (think sardines in a can) commuter vans to and from the visitor center out to the stones.  It was a solid pain in the ass and I didn't have any patience left, being in the pain I was in.  I couldn't lift my bags or even turn my head without shooting pains down my spine and shoulder.  I used up my supply of Advil quickly and started taking my daily children's aspirin and used that up too.  I was miserable so I didn't have my usual patience for my MIL's lackluster sense of direction and near constant desire to ask other equally clueless tourists for directions to places unknown.  I would read a map, or a street sign and state the direction to go and she would invariably ask me, "Are you sure?"  I have a keen sense of direction and am skilled at map reading and rarely get lost.  I'm also typically very patient (well, except with people suffering from the Dunning Kruger Effect).  But due to my having reached my limit of discomfort and ability to be rough-and-tumble in the face of adversity, we ended up not speaking to one another for a time.  It was probably better that way. I needed compassion and wasn't seeing anything of the sort in my travel companion and I just might have bitch-slapped the next person that told me to "suck it up."

My MIL wanted to take a bus most of the trip but I really adored the passenger trains and had persuaded her to trains instead of buses up to that point.  However, she decided that we were going to take a bus from Salisbury to Bath instead of the train.  I can only speculate the timing of this decision with our falling out.  To my relief and delight (unfortunate but true, in my present state with a massive headache and back pain and no desire to sit on a stinky crowded bus for hours with a bunch of penny pinching tourists), the next stranger she asked for directions to the bus station told us that the Salisbury bus depot had burned down the year prior and wasn't replaced so the train was the only option to Bath.  I was never so thankful in my entire life.

And so it was back on the train heading to Bath. Bath was by far my favorite stop.  I could have stayed there the entire 12 days.  I didn't realize what "old" really was until I walked around Bath. In the U.S. "old" doesn't even touch upon what "old" means in Bath, or Europe as a whole for that matter. It was amazing and beautiful.. We took the afternoon and went our separate ways,  I took one of the double-decker open roof tour buses and then walked about to the areas that interested me while my MIL shopped for pants (she had forgotten to pack pants that she'd thought she'd packed and tried to find replacements and then prepped and mailed her postcards.)  We also took a boat tour and toured the Roman Baths. I tried to get in to enjoy the modern day baths too but didn't have enough time after a day exploring before they closed.  Poor planning on my part! We stayed two days and walked most of the older sections. For the first time, I found myself interested about history. I hope to return to Bath some day.

This was the mid-point of our trip and we'd planned to find and found a laundromat in Bath, but while I was off on my own, my MIL had talked to the gal at the hotel desk, who offered to launder our bag of dirty clothes for free!  Alas this ended up being too good to be true.  Apparently the heating element in their dryer was broken so our clothing ended up taking nearly the entire day to dry enough to bring back to us.  And she washed our whites with our darks, so my brand new $100 white lace Victoria's Secrets bra was returned a dingy gray.  I think one of my MILs shirts was actually ruined too.  Lesson learned.

Then we took a train to Stratford, where we wanted to take the Shakespeare tour and the tour of Ann Hathaway's cottage.  This town was set up quite inefficiently (total pet-peeve of mine).  There was little signage when exiting the train station about where things were and the visitor centre ended up being literally on the other side of town and there were no taxis to be found.  We had to walk all way the way across town with our luggage to find out that Ann Hathaway's cottage was back the way from which we came and then some, several miles past the train station.  We decide to skip the Shakespeare tour.  We walked all the way back, stored our luggage at the local grocery (near the train depot), in lockers intended for shopping carts for people visiting the adjoined coffee shop.  We then continued walking, without a map...what visitor centre doesn't give out maps? My MIL, in true fashion, asked all these people on the street, mostly school children, where Ann Hathaway's cottage was located.  They didn't know.  Well, one boy was quite excited about learning she had a cottage in Stratford but I think he thought we were talking about the modern day actress. lol  Finally the school children she kept asking told her to ask their "Miss" (their teacher) who was also walking along the sidewalk.  She didn't know who Ann Hathaway was either.  My MIL had a near meltdown at this revelation. LOL.  We finally did make it to the cottage and there were some lovely gardens there. The cottage had low beamed ceilings on the 2nd floor and I unfortunately hit the back of my head AGAIN in the upstairs of the cottage on a beam.  Not good.

I demanded (and paid for) a taxi back to town.  From there we took a local bus to Chipping Campden where we stayed the night at a Bed and Breakfast.  It was quaint and beautiful. There was another couple staying there who were doing a walking tour where you hire a tour company that takes your bags from BNB to BNB and you walk along a pre-defined path through woods and farm fields and formal paths from point to point.  It sounded like they were having a splendid time!  We ate at the Eight Bells which was clearly very old.  My MIL made google eyes the entire meal at some retired British actor that I'd never seen before who had a blonde trophy wife draped proudly on his elbow. lol We visited Hidcote gardens the next day which was simply overwhelming in its magnitude.

Back in Stratford by cab from Hidcote, we then took a train to Moreton-in-Marsh and then on to Oxford.  The hotel there seemed more like a frat house but it was near the locks so we were good. We met a lovely retired couple that gave us ride on their long boat to Oxford city centre. They were retired river tour guides and now I want very badly to tour England's water ways by long boat! We took a formal boat tour as well in which the boat operator/tour guide asked me to assist him by operating the locks while he controlled the boat.  It was very fun and a bit daunting as these are HUGE hydraulic piston locks that are clearly not meant to be operated by a novice.  He opened the first lock, and instructed me on my job and then got back on the boat and took it into the lock.  Then I closed the lock, walked over to the other side and opened the other lock after the lock filled.  It was great fun being trusted with something so important!  While in the city centre we did our best to hit all of Inspector Morse pubs. My MIL was mortified when I didn't know who Inspector Morse was and referred to him (in jest) as Inspector Gadget when I couldn't recall his name.  My husband still laughs about this faux pas.

Then we returned to London, attending the play Julius Caesar at the The Globe our final night, they were younger actors but they did an amazingly good job.  We ate again at the same restaurant where the hoodlums almost lifted my phone.  Both my MIL and I think we saw Brad Pitt that day but at different times.  The sides of his head were shaved which must have been for the movie "Fury."  I walked back to the hotel early to use the WIFI (most of the hotels we stayed at had spotty, if any, internet access, I even hung out at the golden arches in Bath to use WIFI to chat online with my husband) and begin downloading all my photos off my phone which was really experiencing lag issues with all the memory used up.  My MIL didn't bring a camera or a phone so I was deemed responsible for all photo taking but didn't really get the time to organize them or download them off my phone so I took the time when I found it.  Glad I did too because if I hadn't saved them on the cloud, they'd be lost today as my drive crashed last month!

As I mentioned earlier, it started raining while I was on board my flight home.  It was funny to think I'd brought all this wet weather gear and never had the need for any of it. No complaints there obviously!  Another happy thing was that same day flying out of Heathrow, they were experiencing a major failure of their checked baggage system and nearly everyone on my flight arrived sans their luggage.  I was never so happy to have acclimated to Jason's no-checked-baggage travel policy as I was that day. We weren't told about the luggage issue until we landed in Austin and passengers were losing their minds.  I just walked by them quietly and out the door to my waiting husband as the other passengers stood like an angry mob around the barren baggage carousel.  I did 12 days and 11 stops with a single rolled carry-on luggage and a computer bag.  How many chicks can say they could do that?  Oh, and I'm totally in love with packing cubes.  If I can find my photos of my pack job (they may have been lost with the drive failure), I'll do a blog entry on that too.

Things I learned from this trip. 1) look RIGHT when crossing the road, 2) make sure to familiarize yourself with the local currency BEFORE you get there (I looked like an idiot trying to differentiate all the different coins that first day!) 3) mushy peas are apparently a staple food? ICK! 4) it's appropriate to slather baked beans on nearly all breakfast fare? DOUBLE ICK! 5) ice cubes are on request ICE, PLEASE! 6) crisps not chips, chips not fries, biscuits not cookies, lemonade is NOT lemonade (it's water with lemon or something), bacon is NOT bacon (it's a slab of ham)  7) passenger trains are so under rated 8) long boats are like floating RVs 9) I need better luggage and 10) don't forget to bring plenty of change (local currency of course) for the public lavatories!  I remember my MIL standing in front of the turnstiles crossing her legs in near panic and some good samariton plugging the meter twice so my MIL could go pee.

I really loved the trip and I want to go back. I'm grateful that my MIL and I are still on good terms. We had the opportunity to get to know one another much better than we had. I'd only visited her with my husband twice before this trip.  I think my MIL had the impression that I was high maintenance and that I wouldn't be up for the roughing it travel style she prescribes to but I think we were actually very well matched in terms of our love for outdoors, walking, eating in outdoor cafes, and covering a lot of ground each and every day.  You definitely can't judge me by my cover.  I used to look like a barbie doll (not so much these days, age has its way with a person), but I changed my own oil (truck), installed my own wood floors, built my own computers, and used to work as a housekeeper cleaning hotel toilets when I was a teenager.  I'm not as delicate as I look.  I also think she may have thought I was materialistic, and maybe she still does.  True, now that I can afford it, I like nice things (a luxury vehicle, housekeepers, weekly massage), but they are not things that define me. I just figure I don't have children to inherit my wealth so I might as well enjoy it.  As the saying goes, "you can't take it with you."

At the end of our trip my MIL dubbed me "PathFinder" which made me laugh.  I was glad to see that she appreciated my sense of direction after all!

I don't know when I'll be back to England but I hope it happens. For next year, I just booked a trip to Scotland!

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