Ireland: Dublin

We only spent a day and a half in Dublin but we did a bunch of stuff!

We stayed at a pub/hostel that was a bit grotty but the location was great.

We visited the National Portrait Gallery.

Luke met an American lady who’d come to Dublin just to see this Caravaggio.

Jess went on a Viking bus/boat tour and a walking tour while Luke and I walked around town and then sat in a pub (just for something different). We did see the statue of Molly Malone.

Guess which bit you rub for luck?

Dublin has some shops with funny names. Also people in Ireland really love knitwear.

We also went to a comedy night – there is so much comedy in Dublin! If we’d known we might’ve booked tickets to something decent. As it was we saw three guys in a basement and they were ok. In the same pub there was a ukulele jam happening. People brought ukuleles and were given music books and all played along together. It was funny to watch.

Hrm… actually, we didn’t actually do all that much as there wasn’t much time. We enjoyed Dublin though and were looking forward to another fun ride on the ferry back. We ended up with the same kitchen crew as the way over and they remembered Jess was a vegetarian, which was pretty impressive. We slept a lot better as the sea was not as rough.

Next: driving through the Cotswolds and staying at Makeney Hall.

One Night In York

We caught a 5pm train from Edinburgh to York, which only takes about two hours, and arrived just as it was getting dark. I’d booked us a three person room at a place that was surprisingly cheap given how fancy the photos looked.

We soon found out why. Apart from our room being somewhat cramped and pokey, the floors out-creaked any nightingale floor I could imagine any ancient Chinese palace architect considering necessary. The whole place had a kind of shabby air but without the Fawlty Towers-ness that would’ve made it memorable. So when in York, avoid the Elmbank Hotel! Unless you’re on your own in which case creaky floors won’t be so much of an issue.

The following day we had to pick up our hire car but first we had time for a walk around York. First breakfast in a very cute and very old little tower by the river.

Apparently the building was first used as a place where dead bodies were hauled out of the river. This raised a lot of questions when I thought about it later.

Next was a bit of window shopping and actual shopping. This show shop was shut but it was amazing!

York is a university town so there was a plethora of hipster cafes and whatnot. York also has a famous cathedral and an area called The Shambles. Another one of those ‘Harry Potter inspiration’ stops. The Shambles and Diagon Alley look very similar.

We went early to get uncrowded photos. By lunchtime on Saturday there was barely room to move.

Speaking of lunch, we couldn’t eat in York without having Yorkshire puddings! Luke and I tried the newfangled Yorkshire pudding wraps.

Jess had the more traditional version.

Both were excellent.

A few last photos of York!

A yorkie in York!

A pretty mural in the hipster part of town .

luke appreciated the birthday gift Jess thoughtfully bought him.

Jess has a homing instinct for tea.

This shop looked cool but didn’t have anything good.

So old and wonky!

All in all, York is a pretty town with a few interesting bits. I’d been before and gone into Clifford’s tower etc so didn’t feel the need to go again. Next – we visit Harrogate!

A Day In The Cotswolds

Luke signed us up for a ‘Secret Cottage’ tour of the Cotswolds and so we arrived at Oxford station ready to catch a train to meet our group, only to find that, for the second time in a week, someone had been hit by a train and thrown the network into disarray. After hanging about for a bit a delayed train was rerouted and we jumped on and actually got to the meeting point a bit early.

We were met by two black vans and two drivers – ours was a local man named Jeremy who turned out to be an almost inexhaustible font of knowledge with a perfect BBC accent. He was the first (and probably the last) person I will ever hear using ‘one’ as an entirely unselfconscious personal pronoun.

Along with two girls from California who had arrived by the same train, we jumped in and were driven to a tiny village called Chastleton. There we admired a Jacobean manor which, up until quite recently, housed a lady who own 21 cats. Apparently the smell was quite something.

We also had a look in the church next door before heading around the corner to the ‘secret cottage’. The family who organise the tours live in the cottage and provide morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea throughout the day. Before eating we had a tour of the cottage.

Those mushroom shaped objects are ‘straddle stones’ used to elevate storage sheds so mice and rats couldn’t climb up.

It was originally three living spaces with families of up to 15 in each two room space. One room downstairs and one upstairs, reachable by a ladder. In winter the family pig and chickens would live inside too. These days it’s much nicer, with just four people living in the cottage rather than 45!

Morning tea was a delicious selection of biscuits and cakes.

On each excursion out we visited different villages in the Cotswolds and admired many thatched cottages and learned a great deal from Jeremy about the area’s history, geography, language, animals and social goings-on. For example, did you know that Patrick Stewart lives in the Cotswolds and writes many peeved letters to his local council about the shooting range near his property?

We visited Upper and Lower Slaughter – two gorgeous villages with rather dramatic names. However ‘slaugh’ meant ‘marsh’ in an old language, which makes it all less sinister. One of the villages is one of Britain’s ‘doubly thankful’ villages. This means that not one person was killed in either world war. Jeremy explained that the wars had quite devastating effects on some villages as all the young men would want to join the same regiment and so, if that regiment was in serious action, they could lose a generation in one blow.

We learned that while thatched roofs may be beautiful, they are also expensive. They cost about forty thousand pounds to restore (for a medium sized cottage) and a thatch last about 50 years. Some thatchers make signature animals along the roof line – often birds but sometimes cats, dogs and foxes.

Lunch!

The name ‘Cotswolds’ come from ‘cot’ meaning a fenced or enclosed space (from all the sheep pens) and ‘wold’ meaning ‘hills’.

A newly thatched cottage.

We saw a village named Great Tew that had been abandoned last century then revitalised when an heir to the estate had been found. It was a beautiful village filled with gorgeous buildings.

And a very cute pub!

Jeremy had worked as a geologist and as we walked through the village he found a brachiopod fossil!

It doesn’t look like much here but I could tell it was a shell, I promise!

He also had a little wallet of things he’d found while walking around the area, including a Roman coin. It’s the tiny blackened one.

Afternoon tea!

It was a lovely day. Not cheap, at £95, but it didn’t feel at all rushed and we had a very nice group of people to chat to, in fact four others from our group caught the same train back towards Oxford so we chatted the whole way. Lovely!

Blenheim Palace

I wanted to visit at least one grand house while in England and they don’t come much grander than Blenheim. Built in the 17th century by the Marlborough family, it is a vast building with extensive gardens and over 9000 acres of grounds. It is the only non-royal or non-episcopal palace in England and a UNESCO-listed building.

We arrived a little earlier than the building opened (the grounds open at 9, the building at 10:30) so we had a look around the gift shop.

Compared to the gift shops that spawn alongside Australian attractions, English gift shops of the National Trust variety are models of elegance and good taste. They sell hand-dyed silk scarves, embroidered cushions and cashmere cardigans – all at fairly outrageous prices, of course. There’s also mugs and tea towels but even these are fairly understated.

We availed ourselves of the ‘free’ (included in the somewhat steep entry price – although if you catch the bus there rather than drive you get 30% off which isn’t bad) audio guide and set around the interior. Well, some of it. As the Duke was in residence all the upstairs tours were not available. Still, what we saw was quite grand.

There was an exhibition of modern art sensitively interspersed between the historical artifacts. Did I say sensitively? I meant hideously. Despite this I managed to find a few angles that didn’t include all the bright blue paintings and statues.

As the palace was Winston Churchill’s birthplace there was an exhibition of his work and achievements that was very informative. I particularly enjoyed seeing his paintings.

We took a walk by the lake and rose garden on one side of the palace. The roses weren’t in their best condition but the few that were still out had a beautiful perfume.

Last, a walk to the pleasure gardens, which didn’t seem to actually have any gardens. There was a large playground and a butterfly house. As is always the case, the butterfly house was uncomfortably hot but also full of gorgeous butterflies that I could’ve spent all day photographing.

We lazily caught the 50p train back to the palace rather than walk, then headed out to the village of Woodstock, that sits right by one of the gates. The village is very pretty and full of tea shops and pubs. Below is the Bear Inn, which must look absolutely magnificent in autumn.

A good day out from Oxford, Blenheim is certainly interesting if you like history and old houses and whatnot. Googling the current Lord Marlborough was also very interesting – something of a jailbird whose father did not trust him not to squander the family fortune and so left a board of trustees to oversee his management of the estate. Apparently he was known for driving too fast around the local area in a pink sports car.

Next: a tour of the Cotswolds!

Oxford: Authors, Ancient History, and Artifacts.

We caught the bus from Cambridge to Oxford via Milton Keynes. There was a man on the bus who smelled so strongly of cigarette smoke that we had to move away from him. Still, at least he wasn’t cutting his toenails like the guy on the bus we caught to Heathrow a while back.

We arrived in Oxford around 1:30 and paid to leave our bags at the Oxford Backpackers. Four pounds per bag wasn’t a bad deal and the staff let us use the toilets too, which was nice of them.

We set off for a wander around town. Obviously I had to take a photo of this pub, almost next door to the school Ronnie Barker attended and named after one of the most famous Two Ronnies comedy sketches. We would’ve stopped in for a drink but it’s a Wetherspoons – urgh.

First stop was lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by the illustrious Inklings, who included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

It’s a smallish, dark and pokey pub that was heated to a startling temperature, but at the very back was a room that was less like a Saharan midday and had enough light to read the menu. We shared a chicken and chorizo pie that wasn’t half bad and left feeling fairly satisfied.

Next was a walk around the Natural History Museum. It looked a lot like the one in London but on a much smaller scale and was also free to enter.

There are a lot of interesting things to see. One of the exhibits that grabbed my attention were a gigantic wasp nest that was grown deliberately by some psychopath.

They had a good insect display with a few cases of live bugs including giant cockroaches. Another good section was a history of British culture with some great graphs showing immigration patterns across the centuries and one showed how different languages affected place names.

Our last stop was a Tolkien exhibition in the library that is opposite the Radcliffe Camera. Although it wasn’t large it did have a good number of original items on display and I thought the artwork was most interesting. Tolkien designed the dust jackets and illustrations for early editions – and drew all the maps of course. I had not known that he was born in South Africa, although his family moved back to England when he was three. Sadly photography wasn’t allowed so here’s a photo of the Radcliffe Camera instead.

We had a short walk through town before picking up our bags and heading to our Airbnb. As we booked this trip quite late we’d decided on just a room in an apartment. When we arrived the owners told us we’d have a continental breakfast provided every day – a nice surprise!

Next: Blenheim Palace.

Cycling around Colmar

Our main goal during our time in Colmar was to do some cycling through some scenic villages and Alsace vineyards as we’d not done any cycling on our previous travels. We also hoped we’d find a few nice restaurants and sample some local produce – wine being top of the list!

We hired two electric bikes from Lulu Cycles in Colmar. We’d originally planned to get normal bikes but a mother and her two daughters were returning some electric bikes when we went in and they strongly recommended them so we decided to give them a go.

Our first day of cycling followed a route that went through the villages of Turckheim, Katzenthal and Ammerschweir and ended up being a loop that was about 20kms.

I had problems on the first day with my bike as the pedals would lock if I tried to use the electric assistance going up hills – which is obviously when I most wanted it. Never having used an electric bike before and with neither of us being mechanically-minded we had no idea what was wrong and how we could fix it. I ended up having to push the bike up hills. Fortunately none of the hills were very big or very steep but it was quite annoying. It turned out, when we took it back, that I had the bike in the wrong gear, so on our second day I knew what to do and it was all fine.

Luke expresses his disapproval for my bike with a dirty look.

The villages around Colmar are all very picturesque. Some more so than others, of course. Each of the ones we visited on the first day was nice and we noticed that every church we came to had a shallow but large metal basket on the roof and in most of them were nesting storks. Andrew tells me that this solves the problem of storks nesting on chimneys and creating fire hazards!

We arrived in Kazenthal in time for lunch and the first restaurant we happened upon had a Michelin plate on the outside – a good sign!

A l’Agneau (don’t ask me to pronounce it) was delightful. They didn’t raise an eyebrow at our sweaty faces or rumpled cycling clothes, despite the fat that everyone else there looked like they had a special occasion happening. We choose a €28 three course lunch that also included an amuse bouche and petit fours. All the food was deliciously fresh and perfectly cooked with lovely presentation. The manner of the staff was also excellent – despite a low level of English they asked where we from and recommended other things to see in the area as well as recommending wines to match each course.

I don’t think I could pick my favourite course, every element was superb. After drinking and eating so much we both had a cappuccino before getting on the bikes to continue our ride. I rarely drink coffee but I have come to understand its value after a heavy meal!

Thankfully most of the remaining ride was downhill and fairly straightforward. One of the downsides of this sort of sight-seeing is having to stop frequently to check the map as we didn’t know the area. It would’ve been good to have some way of attaching my phone to the handlebars to use as a satnav. I also wouldn’t have minded a rear view mirror when we were on the roads so I could see cars and how far Luke was behind me.

Our second day of riding was even more successful. This time I had the gears+electrics worked out and after a brief attempt to use my headphones with google navigation so we wouldn’t have to stop so often, we were on our way, hurtling through corn fields and feeling the wind in our hair. Well.. except when google maps took us into muddy fields and knee-high grass.

Our second day took us through the villages of Herrlisheim-près-Colmar, Eguisheim, Wettolsheim and Wintzenheim. If you’re planning on visiting any villages around Colmar I strongly urge you to leave Eguisheim until last because anywhere you go after that looks a trifle dull.

Eguisheim is even prettier than Colmar and is made up of roads that are concentric circles.

It makes it a very pleasant place to wander around, even if it’s hard to know when to stop. It’s full of places to do wine tastings – we wished we had booked a night there so we could have taken advantage of it all.

We ended up eating at Au Vieux Porche, another Michelin-listed restaurant and almost, almost, as good as A l’Agneux. If anything was missing it was possibly the attentiveness of the service. There was no effort to engage us in any conversation and when we were ready to pay it took twenty minutes for the maitre d to come to our table. Otherwise the food was excellent and it was about the same price – nearly €90 for the two of us to have three courses each, wine pairings and coffee. My first ever espresso – predictably dreadful but with the desired effect of allowing me to continue riding without falling asleep on the bike.

Unfortunately the lighting was quite dim so my photos are a bit rubbish but believe me, it was all delicious! Well, except the coffee and that wasn’t their fault.

Although we hired the bikes for four days we only used them on two due to rain and hot weather and being lazy. We really enjoyed both days despite the few issues and it is definitely a lovely and accessible part of the world for riding if you’re not super experienced.

Here’s a few more photos from Eguisheim to finish off!