We’re in Liverpool, home of the Beatles. Later today we have a tour of Beatles sights, but first, I’m seeing what else this city has going for it.
On my own, I visit Liverpool’s two cathedrals, first the Catholic and then the Anglican. The modern Catholic Cathedral looks like a circular spaceship, the altar in the center and chapels lining the outer edge. The Anglican is huge – the largest cathedral in Great Britain – and has a cafe inside. Both were begun around 1900 and both completed in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Each has a different vibe, but I can’t stay long because I don’t want to be late for the walking tour.
The walking tour is free, like the walking tour we took in Dublin. It’s a different company, but the same idea, offer free city tours to sell pub crawls and tours farther afield. However, this company has just started in Liverpool a week or so ago, so there are no other tours yet. In fact, the guide for this tour is the manager of the Liverpool and Dublin tour company, getting to know this area. I feel like I’ve come full circle, ending with a Dublin guy in Liverpool.
The tour is good, though, as we wind our way through the city. Like Dublin, it’s not a stunningly beautiful town, especially today in the blowing rain and 50degree weather. However, the stories are fantastic, like the descriptions of the memorial of the soccer stadium stampede and the “war buddy” memorial. The local paper suggested that in WWII volunteers from the same neighborhood sign up together and guys can fight side by side with their childhood mates. As you might imagine, that was all well and good until they started seeing their friends and neighbors die right in front of them. Today the military deliberately places people together from different parts of the country. It was interesting to chat with the guide and hear his plans to expand the business.
We also learned about the Liverpool Cultural Mascot, the Superlambanana. I don’t know what you call this phenomena – a city adopts an animal or some type of representational figure and places life-size sculptures of this figure, each painted or decorated differently depending on the artist or the location, all over the city. Norfolk has mermaids and I can’t remember the city that has cows. Anyway, Liverpool had a contest and ended up with Superlambanana – a tribute to the imports and exports that have crossed the harbor. Personally, I think it’s weird. A Japanese guy designed it, but the ones around town are decorated by local artists. Still weird.
I grab a bite to eat and head back to the hostel, where our Fab Four Beatles Tour guide will pick us up. We’re ready to go at 2:50pm, but at 3:10pm, no one has come. I ask the hostel staff to call (they made the reservation for me yesterday) and they said someone was on their way. I was really nervous, as we were leaving tomorrow and there was no time to reschedule or find another tour.
Finally, the big black cab of Fab Four rolls up, 20 minutes late. We meet Terry, who is actually the owner of the company, and who is a little peeved at the driver who did not show up. He’s going to make it right with us, though, and oh my goodness, did he ever! First we went to Ringo’s mom’s house (currently condemned), then the Empress Pub at the end of the street, which was on his first album cover. Then down Penny Lane, stopping to take photos (actually Terry commandeered my camera and took most of the photos on the tour) of the barbershop (a barber showing photograhs) and the shelter in the roundabout. During the drive, the appropriate songs are playing in the cab, which adds a lot to the experience.
We move on to the house where Paul McCartney grew up, then Strawberry Field (the s added just for the song – a former orphanage that John used to sneak into – his aunt told him they would hang him if he got caught… nothing to get hung about), then the childhood home of John Lennon. Terry fills us in on everything about their lives that has bled into their music. On to George’s house, and then to the church and meeting hall where John first met Paul. In the church’s graveyard is a headstone for Eleanor Rigby, although when John wrote that song it was years later and he claimed not to have remembered that name from there. He gave us a cd of the BBC interview where John talks about meeting Paul. Fabulous! But before we’re done, he throws in a visit to the hospital where John was born and showed us where they went to school. Wow. I thought I knew my Beatles trivia, but no.
After our return to the hostel, we go to the fancy pub at the Philharmonic next door for dinner. Anna and I get a look at the fancy men’s loo before we enjoy our last dinner out. After dinner, Morgan and I visit, but are mostly too late for an art gallery opening, then come back to the room to pack. We have to leave at 6am tomorrow morning.
However, the day is not done. During my city tour, I saw that there was a Beatles cover band playing at the Cavern Club, the pub where the Fab Four got their start. We leave a bit before 10pm to get down there. The place is packed when the band starts – the energy is high – they really sound like the Beatles! We start sitting, but not for long. After the first set, a bunch of the older folks leave and we get a better view. Admittedly, there are more older folks than younger, but everyone is getting into it. Jon is in filming heaven. After the second set, when even more people drift away and it is more apparent what he is doing, Jon becomes very, very popular. People are dancing right up to the camera and everyone is having a blast. We close the place down at midnight and don’t get back to the room until almost 1am. Yep, it was a Hard Day’s Night! (sorry, I had to say it!)
We’re off to Liverpool today, but since it’s only an hour and a half drive from here and we can’t check in until 2pm, we get to hang out in Conwy for a bit.
The first order of business is breakfast. Alan is there, of course, and his friend Ray. We chat and I enjoy their jocular banter (yes, jocular banter). Ray is President of British International Rescue & Search Dogs and tells us amazing tales of adventure and life-saving. Alan tells stories of his National Champion ski coach days, and before I know it, over an hour is past. Jon, Anna, and Morgan come down and Jon wants to film the guys as part of his documentary. I settle up with Alan and leave them to it. I’ve got a castle to tour!
I can see Castle Conwy from my bedroom window and I would like to learn more about it. Construction began in 1283 as part of King Edward I’s plan of surrounding Wales with “an iron ring of castles” filled with English to subdue the rebellious Welsh population. Beaumaris castle, which we visited yesterday, was the last one built. It was never finished. There are only a few explanatory signs, but I admit that I did get chills standing in the King’s chambers. Even though the place is in ruins, there is still a strong sense of history here.
I hike slowly back up the street to Llys Llwellen, find the kids, load the car, and it’s off to Liverpool (and my last day of driving on the left – hooray!!) Mrs. GPS takes us into town under the Mersey River and I drop luggage and kids at the hostel. We have a nice room (4 lower beds) with a bathroom, and the hostel is centrally located. Leaving the kids to their own devices, I head to the John Lennon International Airport to drop the car off and take the number 86 bus back. I know I’m in the right place when I see the yellow submarine. On the way back to the hostel, I’m checking out things to do. I look up, and there’s Penny Lane. Yep, it’s Liverpool.
I text Morgan and tell him that I’m not stopping back at the hostel but continuing down to the waterfront to catch the last hour of the Liverpool Museum, then, after that closes, the last hour of the Liverpool Tate Modern, right next door. We decide to meet for a nice dinner. Jon and Anna found some pork chops at the store and will be cooking in the hostel’s kitchen.
We make it to the restaurant just in time to get the early-bird menu: 25 pounds for three courses and a half carafe of wine. The food is organic, locally sourced, and there’s not a french fry in sight. Heavenly!
Back at the hostel, we make plans for tomorrow. There is a free 3-hour city tour at 11am, but I’m the only one who is interested in this. I want to take the kids on a Beatle-specific tour, and the hostel recommends the Fab Four Tour – 45pounds for all 4 of us for two hours in a private cab. Can’t beat that! We book that one for 3pm tomorrow, our last full day in Europe.
We have one full day in northern Wales to see all of the sights. What do we do? Woolen mills, botanical gardens, a mine, a national park, walks along the mountain stream, castles? So many choices!
Breakfast was with our host Alan, a former ski coach and fascinating fellow. After a bit, his buddy Ray joins the fray and, after chatting about the various options, there is a plan. To the mountains and end with a castle!
We’re heading to Mount Snowden, the highest point in the British Isles outside Scotland. It’s cloudy today, though, so it’s not clear that we will actually see the mountain. No worries, we go anyway. The drive up through green forest opens up to glacier-sculpted rocky valleys. First stop is the picturesque village of Betws-y-Coed for a short walk along a mountain stream. The smell of the pines and the blooming rhododendrons remind me of the forests in the Oregon coastal mountains. We get some chips to go on the way out.
Next stop is Beddgelert, translated as Gelert’s Grave. Gellert was a dog who belonged to Llywelyn the Great, a Prince of Wales. The story goes, Llywelyn, a new father, returns from hunting to find his infant son’s cradle turned over, the baby missing, and his dog, Gellert, greeting him anxiously. The dog’s mouth is smeared with blood. Llywelyn, jumping to conclusions, believes that the dog killed his son, so he draws his sword and kills the dog. As the dog is dying, Llywelyn hears the cries of his son, who is unharmed and safe under the cradle. Next to the boy is a dead wolf who had attacked the child but was killed by Gellert. Llywelyn is extremely remorseful and buries the dog with great ceremony. From that day forward, Llywelyn never smiled again. Sad story, but the setting is pretty. We continue walking down the stream and turn back after the steam train rumbles by.
Back on the road again, we do a quick drive-by of Caernarfon Castle and continue on to Beaumaris. We’re running a little late, so we only have 45 minutes to explore this 13th century castle, which is a shame, because it is so beautiful. Perfectly proportioned, complete with swans in the moat and a chapel with acoustics that make even my voice sound great.
Back to Conwy, we find Alan’s recommended pub and have an early dinner. Tomorrow, on to our last stop, Liverpool. We don’t have to leave until noon, so we can take it easy.
Today we go to Wales. I’m rather excited, because it’s my first visit there. We have a couple of rooms at a nice bed and breakfast in Conwy, a castle town in the north. My GPS says it will take about 4 hours if we barrel straight through, which means we should allow about 6 hours total. The plan is to leave at 9am so we can get to Conwy before dinner.
At breakfast, I ask the kids, “So, what do you know about Wales?”
Anna says, “Dr. Who!”
I ask, “Dr. Who?” And then she tells me Dr. Who, a BBC television show that features time travel and alien evasion which originally aired in 1963. After a run of 26 years, it went off the air, was a feature-length movie in 1996 and restarted again in 2005 to present. I had no idea. I also find out that there’s a particular city – Cardiff – where the show is set and turns out it is only 20 minutes off the GPS route. We must go there.
In about an hour, we roll into Cardiff. Anna doesn’t know exactly where the place she wants to go is, but she looks it up on my phone and gets directions. We end up at Mermaid Quay, a revitalized waterfront area overlooking Cardiff Bay. We park the car and walk past restaurants and shops to get to the square from the tv show. Unfortunately, there’s something blocking up the square, so we can’t really get the full effect. However, there’s a sign pointing to The Dr. Who Experience. We must check this out.
The Dr. Who Experience is part museum and part interactive adventure. Morgan and I are not fans, but Jon and Anna are extremely excited to be here. This is definitely a thing to do. Anna, wearing her Dr. Who t-shirt, got a nod from the woman taking us through. I learned quite a lot about the series, enjoyed the walk-through adventure (like the beginning of some of the rides at Busch Gardens – a movie screen and various moving parts to involve you in the story of flying in the time machine and encountering and escaping from the bad guys), as well as the museum. I’ve got to watch this when I get caught up back home.
On the way back, it occurred to me that I did not pay the parking in advance (I forget and want to pay when we leave, plus the sign is so small), so we hurry back to be sure we don’t have a parking ticket and then decide to head out of town while the traffic is light. Up the road a bit we find a small village and have a nice pub lunch. Then back on the road, we travel through the small towns of western England and eastern Wales, following Mrs. GPS through an innumerable number of roundabouts. Eventually we find Conwy (you recognize it by the castle!) and the Llys Llewellyn Bed and Breakfast. After a quick check-in, we head out to find some dinner. The pubs have stopped serving food, so we end up at the Indian restaurant. Jon and Anna have meat and chips, Morgan and I have curry and vindaloo. After dinner, Jon and Anna go back to the room while Morgan and I walk the walls of the town, enjoying the sunset.
Tomorrow, we explore Wales.
After a fantastic breakfast of sausages and doughnuts made by Jon and Anna, we head east today to see some ancient stones.
It’s a gorgeous day, and we drive through some very cute towns (too busy driving left and passing bicycles on these narrow roads to even instruct the Navigator to take a photo) toward Stonehenge and Avebury.
On the way, we stop at Wilton House, a 17th century mansion where Pride and Prejudice was filmed. It’s expensive to go in, however, and so we content ourselves with peering though the gate to the fine exterior.
When we get to Stonehenge, there is a traffic jam of busses, cars, and all sorts of people in the street. It’s easily seen right off the road, so we do a drive-by and Anna doesn’t even want to stop and take a picture through the fence. Even when you pay the admission fee, you can’t get close to the stones. We’ve all seen photos of Stonehenge and you know, the actual thing looks just like those photos through the fence. Onward!
Avebury is the Stonehenge that you can touch. A circle of huge stones 16 times the size of Stonehenge and built in 2800 BC, hundreds of years earlier line a 30 foot ditch (henge). There were once 600 stones in this huge circle, including a couple of temples in the middle. In the 14th century, the religiously paranoid locals buried these Pagan stones. In the 18th century some were dug up and used as building material. In modern times, more have been dug up and realigned to their believed original position. It takes about 45 minutes to walk all the way around, pausing to embrace these ancient sentinels and dodge the sheep on the trail.
After a nice lunch in the haunted Red Lion Pub, we head back to Axbridge. At Chedway, there is no internet, so I make my way down to The Lamb, have a nice drink, catch up on email and skype George, plot tomorrow’s route, and have a chat with Ray, the local character and the bartender who lives next door.
Tomorrow we go to Wales.
We are staying in Axbridge, this little town, because it is centrally located to two of the sights Jon and Anna want to see: Childe’s Tomb in Dartmoor to the west and the ancient stones of Stonehenge and Avebury to the east. According to Google Maps, it’s about an hour to an hour and a half ride each way to each destination. It also, as it turns out, is close to the home of my random Words With Friends opponent (and a worthy one she is, too!) Nicky.
Yes, I’m an addict to Words With Friends (Anybody want to play?? Look me up!! I’ll warn you, I’m pretty good – or very lucky!). A couple of months ago, tired of waiting for my current Friends to make a move (love you guys!), I opted to try a game with a random player. I got Nicky. After a bit of chatting, I found out that she lives near Glastonbury, which is near Axbridge. After more chatting (to make sure she wasn’t some, I don’t know, weirdo), I decided to reach out and see if she wanted to get together when I was there. (ref: Julie’s rules of travel) We made a plan to meet on the way home from Dartmoor. How cool is that?
So, I thought that we would go to see this Childe’s Tomb place, then have time to drive to Wells Cathedral for Evensong, then meet Nicky at the local watering hole, The Sheppey. Yeah, we can do that.
However, Childe’s Tomb was not on any map. We get to the edge of Dartmoor, hoping someone can tell us how to find the trail that leads to it. The ladies at the tourist office have never heard of it, but they send us to a place that can help us, about a half-hour drive away through the 356 square mile park. It’s really a nice drive, though (although the roads are a little narrow for my taste) and we stop for ice cream on the edge of the moors. The tourist office near the Dartmoor Prison says that there’s no marked trail leading to this Childe’s Tomb and it’s a couple of miles walk through the wilderness from where you can park.
We stop for a quick lunch, then go out to see if we can find it. We park and it’s just wilderness – weeds, rocks, and sheep – for miles in every direction. I’m not sure where to go to find this tomb, but we head off down a trail. After about 15 minutes, I personally have had enough, but the kids seem to be reveling in the starkness of this place. I readjust my sightseeing schedule and we head off across the moors. We found canals, cows, overprotective live sheep and a couple of dead ones. Ancient stone circles and a line of stones leading to it that I later found out date from the Bronze Age, maybe 3000 BC. Ancient crosses marking some ancient graves and a pile of rocks that made an excellent viewpoint. Over the hill there’s an abandoned farm on a stream. It’s been 4 hours with several miles under our feet and still no Childe’s Tomb. We’ve looped back closer to the car and decide to call it a day. Childe’s Tomb is still out there waiting, but I think in the search we made some even greater discoveries.
It’s almost 8pm when we reach The Sheppey and meet Nicky. She finds us a place to park along the narrow lane and we go in to meet her husband and some of the guys in her theater group. We hit it off right away. Unfortunately, the kids are starving (well, we all are) and the pub is closed for food. Nicky’s husband rustles up some potato chips and bread and olives, with some soda for Jon, juice for Anna, beer for Morgan and cider for me. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture! I was pretty tired by that time, though, we all were, and when it started to get dark, we had to go. Such a shame! Next time (because now I must attend the Glastonbury Festival – the Rolling Stones are performing this year!) I’ll stay longer.
Back to Chedway, the grocery is still open and we can get food. All is well.
Since our train isn’t until noon today, I give the kids the option of sleeping in and leaving at 11am or getting up early and visiting the British Library. The British Library has never been on my list of top ten things to do in London, but hey, it’s just down the street. We can there when it opens and spend about an hour there checking things out before going back to the Mansions, collecting our luggage, and walking the 15 minutes it takes to get to Paddington Station. I’m more than a little surprised when they take me up on the Library excursion and so all bags are packed and ready to go when we leave at 8am.
Who knew a bunch of books and papers could be so exciting? In one room you can find the original Magna Carta and a Gutenberg Bible, sheet music inked by Handel and the lyrics to “Strawberry Fields” handwritten by John Lennon, the wrong words crossed out to make room for the right words. There’s Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks in his backward mirror writing and the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, including Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Persuasion by Jane Austen, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. I can feel the presence of every person who created these works here and it’s magical. Wow. Upstairs there is a glass room housing many more valuable books. I love the juxtaposition of the “readers” sitting in front of it studying their laptops.
A quick taxi back to the apartment, and we grab our bags and roll on down to Paddington Station. A couple of months ago, I bought tickets for this train online – now I just have to transform my booking number into actual tickets. We each get two tickets for the one way journey. One to get from the station to the platform through the turnstile, and the other to show onboard. It takes us a bit to figure out which one is which, but we do, and we’re on the train. At the station, I suggest everyone get a bite to eat and a drink for the ride.
I would love to say I enjoyed the English countryside, but I can’t. Instead, I was using my iPhone (glad to have that data) to figure out what to do in Bath in about an hour. I knew there was a free tour, but when? iPhone says 2pm. How far is it from the car rental and when to they close? Gotta take a taxi. Where do we stow our bags? Youth hostel 3 blocks from train station for 3euros/bag. How long to drive to Axbridge where we are staying? About 1 hour. If we have time to eat, where can we eat gluten-free? Jamie Oliver has a restaurant there!
So when we got to Bath, I was set to go. We had about half an hour to drop our bags, find the tour beginning, and grab Anna a gluten-free snack before enjoying a marvelous walking tour through Bath given by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. Here’s a little bit about what we learned: the Romans were here and took advantage of the thermal waters and microclimate in this valley to create a prosperous town. Fast forward to the 900’s and the area is Anglo-Saxon. Kings are crowned in the Abbey and a wall is built. Fast forward to the 1700’s, a queen gets pregnant here, and Bath is rejuvenated by Georgian architects John Wood Sr. and Jr. Now it is the place to be for London society. The architecture reflects the times – the front of the buildings are lined with Bath Stone – a unique limestone found only in this area, but the rear of the buildings are made with the cheapest materials. Only the facades are important. We see the Bath Crescent homes and walk down the garden path from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Architecturally, at least, very little in this city has changed since Jane was here.
However, Bath is expensive, so we head back to the hostel, grab our bags and taxi out to the National Car Rental (city center – right!) location on the edge of town. This time, we get a small station wagon with a little bit more room. Morgan Navigator fires up the GPS and we’re on our way to Axbridge.
The tiny town of Axbridge is meant to be a respite after busy London and Bath. It has one square, one pub that serves food, one restaurant in a small inn, one grocery store, one pharmacy, one post office, one butcher, one church, and one graveyard. We meet Boss and Janet, the owners of the 18th century 3 bedroom cottage named Chedway (no number, or street address, just Chedway), and they give us instructions, tell us some stories, and leave the key.
We’re starving, so we head over to The Lamb and have a really nice dinner before stopping at the grocery (open til 10pm!) to get some breakfast supplies. Tomorrow we head out to Dartmoor in search of Childe’s Tomb.