UK/Ireland Trip 2012- Part One: Arriving

UK/Ireland Trip 2012

August 19-31

Ten years ago, I had the fortune to, for the first time in my life, leave my native shores and see a whole other country: Scotland. In August 2002 I spent 11 days with friends, exploring Edinburgh and surrounding environs during the Fringe Festival, billed as the world’s largest arts festival. It was amazing and mind-blowing: not only for the incredible energy and creativity of the festival itself (and all the other festivals going on at the same time), but also because I saw with my own eyes that there really is a great big world out there. It’s one thing to know it intellectually; it’s another thing to understand that at a gut and personal level.

I also have strong roots in this part of the world: Scotland was home to some of my ancestors. There is also a LOT of Irish in me (and some English, too, as I found out during this trip), so the UK and Ireland hold an immense ancestral connection for me. (I’ve also got some Norwegian in me, but alas did not make it there this trip!)

Ever since my original trip I’ve wanted to go back to Edinburgh- and see Ireland as well. This year I finally got to fulfill that dream. I had worked extremely hard for many, many months to finish my third book “The Artist’s Guide to Drawing Animals”. By the end of my work on the book, I had managed to save enough money and vacation time to reward myself with another trip to Edinburgh. I love that city and wanted to see the Fringe Festival again, so that meant my trip would be in August. I wanted to finally see Ireland. And, being a geek and a BBC Sherlock fan, as soon as I realized I’d be going through a London airport anyway I decided I’d finally see London as well (with 221B Baker Street high on my list)! It would be the first time I’d been able to travel out of the country since my 2002 trip. (A side note: I had also considered Japan for this trip, but the tragic disasters that hit there in spring 2011 meant that all the tours I had wanted to take weren’t even operating when I started planning my trip. And given that I don’t speak the language I figure a tour is the way to go there. Happily, things have improved there and now the tours I’m interested in are back in operation, but that may have to be my next big trip!)

No one I asked was able to come along on the trip with me, so I went alone. If you know me, you know that once I make up my mind about going on an adventure, I’m going to do it. Most of it was “self-guided”, but I did take a few tours. I don’t know if I could have done this without the internet- that’s how I got most of my info. Some people I know who have been out there gave me some good advice also, which was helpful. (Thanks Uncle David!) I used mostly public transportation for the trip. (I decided not to deal with trying to drive “on the wrong side of the road” this trip- maybe I’ll tackle that next time!)

August 19th: I drive to Vegas, leave the 4runner at the airport, and head out!

The view over the Colorado River (probably Lake Mead):

I was on Virgin Atlantic for the nonstop flight to London. There was a guy in my seat row at the beginning of the flight but he quickly disappeared to be with his friends behind us somewhere. So I had the 3 seats all to myself, which did at least allow me to attempt to sleep that night. It was NOT comfortable, but I think I actually fell asleep as some point. When we finally landed in London Gatwick Airport 10 hours later, it was Monday August 20 (we lost a day traversing time zones)!

Upon entering London, some of the first things that strike me as different were (not surprisingly) the British accents, the cars on the “wrong” side of the road, and the wonderful, wonderful cool summer weather. Yes, you heard (read) me correctly. Throughout this whole trip, I was reveling in the fact that it was cool, even raining at times, and I needed to wear a scarf and a sweater- in the summer! Most people looked at me like I was crazy when I said that, but when you’ve been dealing with over 100 degree temperatures all summer (and you hate heat) the cool British weather was a delight.

Horley: the English town I stayed in the first night:

They're driving on the wrong side of the road!!!!! XD

After I checked into the hotel, I headed out to see Horley and catch a train to London!

Waiting for the train

The other thing that England is not (at least stereotypically) well known for, and yet I loved, was the food! The English seem to be breaking away from the “bad food” stereotype I was familiar with in earlier times, but I like their food, even the packaged snacks! I fell in love with “Digestives” on my last trip to Scotland and wasted no time in snarfing them down as soon as I got to the airport in London. (They are a kind of mildly sweet cookie that seem common throughout the UK. Naturally, they’re quite good with tea. :) ) During this trip I also discovered Honeybuns’ Congo Bars (sadly I only ate one and then couldn’t find it again!) and indulged on several tasty almond pastries from Cuisine de France (an Irish company, go fig). I also ate as many almond croissants as I could find during this trip. The odd thing about all this? I’m allergic to wheat (flour)- in the USA. I haven’t had an almond croissant in years (and I love those). I don’t know if British wheat products are made from a different species than American wheat or if it’s something about the pesticides or processing of US flour. Or perhaps it’s because UK wheat is not genetically modified? Whatever the case, eating any wheat products in the US gives me a headache and heat in my head and neck. Eating most UK wheat products? No problem! (With a few exceptions- I didn’t do so well with a few breads, but was able to eat others.) Thus, this was a food vacation for me as well, as I was able to eat food I haven’t been able to enjoy in years- including those delectable croissants! (I can also eat wheat products from several other countries, including Japan and Belgium.) Just being able to eat these things again made the trip worth it right there!

As I posted in Facebook my 1st night in London, I went to see Wicked. It was great! I had fun seeing the familiar characters come to life- with a twist. However, without going into spoilers, I did feel the ending was a bit …lacking? I was expecting a little bit more to be resolved than actually was. Maybe I’ll just need to read the book (which I have).

I was at Victoria Station and just loved the whole atmosphere. Something else I love about Britain is the books and MAGAZINES! I went to many WH Smith bookstores. They’re at about every airport and large train station. English magazines, unlike most American magazines, have tons of extras included! I got a Doctor Who magazine with a great (and big) 2-sided poster (DALEKS!), a video game magazine with several neat posters and stickers, and wanted to get so much more (but I was trying to save $ and not to lug too many magazines around). There are a ton of art and photography magazines which all have DVDs included so you can watch demos, download digital brushes, try programs, etc. (I buy one here at home: Imagine FX, so I refrained from buying it in the UK.) And kid’s magazines have all kinds of cool plastic toys included.

Victoria Station: Note the Cuisine de France! I took this pic before I even “discovered” them!

However, there is one thing I did not love. At all. Pay-for-use toilets. NO. JUST NO. Do not want. Victoria Station was the only place I encountered this at, but it left me wondering: what do people do if they have to go RIGHT NOW and don’t have any spare change? And you can forget toilet seat covers- I don’t think I ever saw one on my entire trip! The toilets were definitely a bit of culture shock for me, especially the pay-for-use ones. :O

There was a LOT of advertising regarding the Olympics. (This one says “Avoid Long Delays During the Games”.) I deliberately avoided London during the main part of the Olympics, and it turns out I wasn’t alone! Tourism actually DROPPED during the Olympics because so many people stayed away to avoid the crowds! Tourism (and crowds) actually picked up about the time I arrived! D’oh! ;)

Olympics ad

Next: Buckingham Palace and a whole lotta birds!