Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 6 Exeter, Top and Bottom (May 30, Thursday)

We got up to overcast and a forcast of more showers in Bristol, so we reviewed our plan (which had some built in flexibility) and decided to head straight for Exeter, where the forecast was for pretty much sun all day.  (One of the nice things about England is the forecast can change over quite small distances.)  We arrived in Exeter in brilliant sunshine and walked into the center of the city.  

The town center sits up on a hill, with a lovely cathedral and quite a bit of the city walls still intact.   The main shopping district was heavily rebuilt after WW2, but a subsequent remodeling made it quite a bit more attractive. 

We walked up the main street, were charmed by the Riddle Sculpture-

- and made our way to the tour office for Exeter's underground tunnels (underground tunnels and other such mazelike constructions being of enduring interest to us).  The earlier tours were full, so we got a reservation for an afternoon tour and then went to see the cathedral. 

Exeter Cathedral has the standard cross shape.  It was originally built in Norman times but the only remaining parts of the old Norman cathedral are the two square towers.  The rest of the cathedral was built in a span of only 80 years in the 1300s and is remarkably consistent in early English Gothic style.  (Apparently, during a crucial period when the trend was for ripping things out, they had a bishop who put his foot down and insisted on retaining the original screen, only opening an archway through it.) It has amazing vaulted ceilings:

We took the cathedral tour and learned a good deal (there are many more photos in the slideshow at the end).  One detail that charmed us was the door to the bell tower:

See the dark shadow at the bottom of the door, slightly to the right of center?  That is a cat door for the cathedral cat, who liked to hunt in the bell tower.  They don't have a current cat, the guide told us, because naturally when the last bishop retired, he wanted to take his cat with him.   But no doubt some future cat will appreciate it. 
By then it was lunchtime, so we checked out a local farmer's market (very worthy, but not selling ready-to-eat food) and opted for bakeshop which sold us hot pasties, which we took and ate out on the cathedral close.  It was beautiful and sunny and the area was full of people enjoying the weather.  There were a couple of gentlemen sitting with two dogs just downwind of us, and once the dogs got a whiff of pasty on the air, we had their complete attention until the food was gone.  (Their owners cruelly and unfeelingly prevented them from ambling over to try and have a taste for themselves.  We were just as happy for that!)
Then it was time for our tour of the medieval tunnels. They were built to house water pipes, let still leave them accessible for maintenance (for some reason, the residents had disliked having their yards dug up every time they needed to fix a leak).  It's not certain whether this was a big help in maintenance- certainly people could get to the pipes, but the pipes were sealed with tallow and fat, and rats apparently ate at the joins, possibly causing more leaks.  Also during various civil disturbances in later years the lead pipes were stolen to melt down for bullets.    About half the tunnels were the original medieval constructions to bring water to the cathedral, and the rest were added in Georgian times to bring more water for the town.   There was remodeling down over the years to increase capacity, until Exeter finally built a modern water treatment plant  and discontinued use of the tunnels altogether.

Walking through the tunnels was a rather eerie experience- you could hear the street traffic overhead, and the tunnels were very narrow and cramped.  It was quite sobering to realize that they had been used as air raid shelters in WWII, and that 300 people had been crammed into a space too narrow to walk through without turning sideways.
After the tour, we walked around and followed signs down to the river front, where the river Ex flows through Exeter.
What was once small storage areas cut into the cliff have been turned into shops, and there were a number of people hanging around cafes, eating ice cream and playing on the river.   As so many waterways do in England, the Ex had walking paths on both banks, so we crossed and strolled upriver to the next bridge and then returned on the opposite side, enjoying the scenery. 

After a certain amount of wandering around and dithering, we settled on a burger place in the student-y part of town for dinner and some more gentle strolling before returning to our hotel to fall over.  (This was about the time this trip diary started to become more of an outline and less of a narrative--so many sights to see, so little time!)

Today's slideshow had many more cathedral pictures, as well as some of our wanderings about Exeter.  Look for photos of the city walls, which can be traced through the present day city, as well as the remnants of old buildings preserved amongst the modern.

rfholly's Day 6 album on Photobucket

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Day 5 Brunel's Bristol (May 29, Wed)

The sun found us in Bristol.
Bristol proved to be a city that we liked much more than we'd expected.   It's managed to reconcile its current role with its manufacturing history much more gracefully than Birmingham, the other major industrial city we've visited in Britain.   We walked around and got our bearings before heading up to our first stop. 

The forecast the night before was for all-day overcast, but we walked up to Clifton in quite pleasant sunshine the next morning.  It was a fair climb to the cliff above the Avon River Gorge- 

It may look steep- but it's still steeper than it looks!
-but the views and the bridge were worth it.  Clifton is the home of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by the famous Victorian engineer, I.K Brunel. 

The bridge is extremely striking, set high up over the gorge.   There were a number of designs submitted for the bridge, but Brunel's won by having the right combination of strength, cost and style.  The bridge was abandoned halfway through- the contractors went bankrupt and additional money could not be raised, but after Brunel's death the bridge was completed in his honor.   On time, and on budget, no less.  The visitor center lists the repairs that have been made over the years and they are surprisingly small for a bridge that will have its 150th birthday next year, and still supports regular automotive traffic.

View down the gorge to Bristol from the bridge.
After walking around the bridge and seeing the visitors center, we followed a path further up the hill.    A group of small children, closely supervised by their parents, were engaged in sliding down the hill on the seat of their pants, evidently a traditional local pastime judging by the high polish put on the rocks by generations of children's bottoms.  (It looks wet, but it's not- that's just the light reflecting off polished rock.)

The park and tower at the top of the cliff turned out to be the site of yet another ancient hill fort, and the access point to a cave that led to the bridge viewing platform we had spotted halfway up the cliff.   We bypassed the cave (the admission fee was a bit steep) but enjoyed the walk around the park, which had more fine views of the bridge, as well as informative plaques (and we do love our informative plaques!) talking about the rare plants that grow in the gorge- including some unique to that area and found nowhere else.

From there we headed down to the M-Shed, a new museum about the city of Bristol, where we attacked and defeated generous plates of bangers and mash.  Thus fortified, we left the museum for later and went on to visit the nearby SS Great Britain, the great Brunel iron ship. 

The story of the ship is quite incredible. First launched in 1843, its iron hull proved incredibly strong, and its design very adaptable.  It started as a luxury cruise ship, steam with assisting sail. It was later refit for the Australian immigrant trade, where it took thousands of Britons to a new home Down Under.  In that period, it was primarily a sailing ship, with steam to assist.  Later, they pulled the engines out completely, and left it purely a sailing vessel, a cargo carrier of excellent capacity, and yet nearly as fast as a tea clipper. 
In 1933, after 84 years of service, it was damaged in a storm and made port in the Falkland Islands, only to have the owners decide it was uneconomical to repair.  It was scuttled in a shallow bay, where it became known to Falklanders as a good place to go for a picnic, or to find enormous mussels growing on the hull.
Over the years, there were several people who looked at salvage, and in 1970, an effort was finally made.  The hull above the waterline was intact, but below the waterline it was sadly rusted, in places holed or only a millimeter thick. The crack was patched with plywood and mattresses donated by the Falklander community, and the boat successfully towed over a submersible pontoon, which was refloated and took the Britain out of the water for the 8000 mile tow home.  The voyage itself was quite a tale, and as the ship neared the coast of the UK, it picked up an escort of ships and pleasure boats, which escorted it to the Avonmouth.  Now the SS Great Britain needed to be refloated, because the pontoon was too large to be brought into the river.  Some repairs were made to the hull, to permit the short trip, and then they needed to wait for a high tide...which came on the original launch date of the ship, 127 years later.  The ship was floated up the river before thousands of cheering spectators, was turned, and then backed gently into the original drydock where she was built, now her permanent home. 
The presentation of the ship was just as interesting as its story.  They've laid a glass floor all around the ship at the waterline, and run a few inches of water over it, to make it look like the ship is docked, but then you walk down underneath the surface and can walk around the dry dock and look at the hull under the waterline.
The piping you see is sending a flow of dehumidified air over the hull, to keep it from corroding any more than it already has.   We also walked around the excellent museum, and then toured the boat, which has had different parts restored to its appearance from different eras of the ship's working life.
The forward saloon.
From the Great Britain, we went to the M-Shed, which is a museum of Bristol life, and quite interesting.  Bristol was of course a busy seaport, and there was a quite candid exhibit talking about the role of Bristol in the slave trade.  We liked the extent to which it celebrated their long history of manufacturing, and the exhibits of present day manufacturing in Bristol.  We managed to see most of the displays before the staff started locking doors and giving us expectant looks. 

Though it had been dry most of the day, it now started a bit of on and off drizzle, so we walked back to the hotel for a bit, and when the rain stopped a bit later went out for Indian food.

Today's slideshow is quite long- I hope you like bridge pictures!

rfholly's Day 5 album on Photobucket

Day 4 Counting the Counties: Dorset and Somerset (Tue., May 28)

We awakened to more water coming of the sky- only light drizzle, but enough to make walking less attractive.  Fortunately having seen the forecast, we had put off a planned visit to the Dorchester County Museum- only a few doors from our hotel- to the morning.   We checked out and went up to the museum, and passed an enjoyable visit learning about the history of Dorset.  One of the best exhibits there was a reconstruction of the Roman conquest of the hill fort of Maiden Castle by the Roman general Vespasian.  An archeologist narrated a harrowing tale, based on Roman records and archeological evidence, of the brutal attack.   The defenders were cut down with multiple sword strokes and buried in a mass grave at the site.  They found piles of sling bullets that the defenders never got to use in the fort.

From there, we broke out the rain ponchos and walked to the other train station in Dorchester- the one we hadn't used up until now- and got a train headed northwest.   We planned to finish up in Bristol, but the trip would have taken a good chunk of the afternoon, and it continued wet, so we opted to change at Castle Cary and catch another train so we could make a stop in Taunton, the 'county town' of Somerset.  We'd also hoped to get some lunch at Castle Cary, and at first thought we were doomed- it was a very small station.  But right outside the gate, a cheerful gentleman had set up a little food cart and was selling sandwiches and panini along with hot drinks, and so we had piping hot sandwiches while we waited for the train to Taunton.  Once in Taunton, we considered trying to visit one of our planned Somerset destinations, but it was still drizzling, and the timing didn't work well for buses, so we decided instead to check out the Somerset County Museum, which proved excellent fun.
View out the window of the Somerset county museum
The Somerset folk don't think small, they started the account of their part of the country millions of years ago, and illustrated the ages with a fine collection of fossil remains.  They had a really magnificent plesiosaur, a sea creature who likely was related to sea turtles.  We progressed through the Iron Age and the Roman conquest.  We also especially admired a magnificent Roman mosaic, very large and nearly complete, illustrating a story of the Aeneid, Aeneas' conquest of Queen Dido.  The picture of Dido and Aeneas going off hunting is quite evocative- Aeneas clearly does not have his mind on hunting game!
They brought up the story to the present with video of Somerset inhabitants pursuing traditional farming and cider-making trades and talking about their love for their place in the world. 
After the museum, we headed back to the train station, to complete our travels for the day.  We arrived in Bristol, with it still drizzling, and sampled a popular British institution called Nando's for dinner- we enjoyed the spicy chicken in South African/Mozambiquian peri-peri sauce very much.

Bristol has a nice old train station too.  I didn't take a lot
of photos this day because the camera was
tucked under my rain poncho away from the wet.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Day 3 Bournemouth, Corfe Castle and Swanage, ( Monday Bank Holiday, May 27)

Our third day, we had planned on another early start, but it turned out, I wasn't feeling well in the AM.  JT walked off to see Maiden Castle, a pre-Roman hill-fort outside Dorchester,  while I got some more sleep, and he took some lovely photos.
On his return, I was feeling better, and we took the train to Bournemouth.   

Bournemouth was rather a surprise- JT said it reminded him of Waikiki- lots of modern tall hotels, with a vast sweep of beach in front of them.  Bournemouth sits on a cliff beside the harbor so we walked down a long switch-backed trail to get down to the waterfront.  The wind was very strong and chilly.  There were intrepid English beachgoers out on the sand...but it was noticeable that the only ones actually sunbathing were the ones with windbreaks so they could huddle in their lee.   And only a few children were doing more than wading in the water.
We walked along the beachfront to the pier, and I got a sandwich.   JT found nothing that interested him, and we turned back to the train station, to move along to our planned coast walk.  Serendipitously, however, we found street fair with food, and JT was able to get an intriguing spicy meat and rice dish which was much more to his taste.  
Back at the station, we took a train to the charming small village of Wareham, where we found a tourist information point at the local library, with a helpful librarian who found us trail maps and gave us useful local knowledge about buses.  We bought bus tickets to Swanage (another seacoast town) and back, but got off to see the stunning ruins of Corfe Castle, which was blown up by Parliamentarian forces in the English Civil war.  The force of the blast has left the ruins at crazy angles- it's an eerie off-kilter sight.
We walked round the outside of the castle, but the day was getting later and the castle was filled with people hosting a dog show, so we bypassed the tour and picked up the Purbeck trail, a hiking trail that led to the coast.
The scenery was fantastic, but we lost the trail and emerged on the road to Kingston.  We walked into Kingston on the road, which was rather harrowing (since it was one of the narrow sort with heavy traffic and no shoulders), and took a much quieter road out of the town down toward the sea.    We passed more fields of sheep and finally picked up the coast path within sight of the sea.  
At that point I was forced to admit that I was running out of steam, between having felt unwell in the morning and only eaten lightly.   We took the coast path along as far as Worth Matravers, where I finished the food I had with me, and then crossed along the hilltop road to Langton Matravers, and took the bus the rest of the way to Swanage.    The view along the hilltops was amazing.
We were both disappointed not to get more walking in, and I must give JT superior husband points here, as he was very supportive.
Swanage proved to be another charming seaside village, but already on the point of closing down.  
We had a snack and some hot chocolate in a coffeeshop and returned to Wareham for dinner, where I encountered (and defeated, with some assistance from JT) a club sandwich of inordinate size.   We again returned late to Dorchester and most uncharacteristically the sky dripped on us on the way back to our hotel.  We were somewhat nonplussed, as we have rarely had this experience in England.
And here are more photos:
rfholly's Day 3 album on Photobucket

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day 2 Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast (Sun., May 26)

Our second day, we walked around Dorchester, taking in the sights.  Dorchester is the 'county town' for Dorset and home to the county museum, which we planned to see another day.  We stopped to check out the ruins of their Roman villa. 
The areas under the cover are the mosaic floors, which were in less than ideal condition, as last year they had trouble with the site flooding.  Apparently they are working on improving drainage, after which the mosaics will be cleaned and restored.   It must have been been quite a comfortable small residence though- they had a hypocaust (under-floor heating), and ample space.

We finished our mini-tour of Dorchester by walking down to the river, (the Frome) which neatly separates the town from the countryside.

Then it was time to head back and get out train for Weymouth.  We found it a pleasant seaside town clearly devoted to the tourist trade.  The beach quite exactly fit the descriptions I'd read of English beaches, complete with bathing huts.  Despite the cool temperatures, the sun (and the Bank Holiday weekend) had the English out in droves.
They quite sensibly (given that they were at the beach when it was sixty degrees with a stiff breeze) erected tents and windbreaks to stretch out behind and soak up the sun.We had a lovely walk around the city, up through a hillside wild garden that we quite admired, and to Nothe Fort.

The estuary was filled with boats, and it was clear that the the beach was not the only happening part of the town. 

Following our initial survey, we settled on a restaurant which gave us each a gargantuan ploughman's lunch, complete with half an apple, pickled onion and chutney.   We then returned to the town center to take the Jurassic Coast bus along to Lyme Regis. 

I'm sure that the Jurassic Coast bus is named for the route, however it must be said that this is not a fast bus.  Not that the driver wasn't doing his best, I hasten to assure you.  When the road allowed, he fairly hurtled along.  It was a double decker, and we were riding on the top deck for the truly staggering views.  However the road wound through many villages, often with sections of one-lane road.  Or sections that we effete Americans would consider one-lane road, but which the English considered two lane, and parked on the sides of nevertheless. 

Thanks to the height of the bus and the narrowness of the streets we were able to make a quite detailed survey of roof construction techniques along the south coast- slate and stone predominated, with occasional tile and thatch.  And despite the winding narrow bits, the suicidal drivers of smaller vehicles and the occasional building overhanging the street, the bus driver deftly wound his way betwixt and between the obstacles and brought us safely to Lyme Regis. 

We had particularly wanted to see Lyme Regis, because it was the home of Mary Anning, of fossil-hunting fame.  Depite the near-crippling handicaps of being poor, working class, and female, she became the best known fossil-hunter of all time, and met with many of the gentlemen collectors of the era, and was well-known and respected among them.  We visited the small museum which had a good deal about Mary Anning, as well as other local figures and the history of the area. 
One of the most intriguing bits of local history was the story of the Bindon Landslip of 1839, when a large chunk of the coast subsided.   Visitors flooded to see it, and the locals apparently leapt into action to take advantage of the sudden tourist attraction, including one creative farmer who, having lost a wheat field into the landslip, made a considerable event of the harvesting of the wheat, including selling samples of it attached to a printed certificate guaranteeing it as being genuinely harvested from the lost field. 
From Lyme Regis, we walked a short ways out of town on the South Coast Path, enjoying a rather rough path that wound through woods, and along the coast for stunning views and then diving back inland.

There was a short detour at one point because of a recent (fortunately small) landslip.   The woods were filled with wildflowers in profusion.

We were told later in the trip that the spring had been so cold and wet that everything was running a month late, including the bluebells- which we were fortunate enough to see everywhere. 

We turned inland once our map showed we were running out of options for alternative routes (and our watches told us we needed to turn around to catch the bus back), and we walked  more wooded path, and then crossed a farmer's field full of sheep.  The sheep were quite blase about passing hikers, though this lamb was curious enough to pick his head up from a nap.

We emerged onto paved round and walked to the center of town along quiet lanes filled with charming houses, each with its own patch of garden, often walled or surrounded by hedges. 

We returned via the Jurassic bus, disembarking in Weymouth to find the hordes of beachgoers dispersed, the waterfront all-but-deserted, and the sidewalks quite firmly rolled up.  (This explained a lot about our visit on the last trip to Deal, on the Channel coast- apparently, seaside towns do not stay open late.)  We did find a quite nice Italian restaurant and then caught the train back to Dorchester.  (It was at this point not at all clear what Dorchester looked like when it was open, as we had left early and come back late.)

More photos:
rfholly's Day 2 album on Photobucket

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Day 1 Planes, Trains and Drains (Sat, May 25)

We landed at Heathrow on a pleasant sunny spring morning.  I was feeling surprisingly good- I'd managed to shift my schedule earlier during the week, got extra rest, and by having an early dinner Friday, eschewing caffeine and catching a late flight, I tricked my system into sleeping virtually the whole flight.   With five hours of sleep, I was feeling considerably more chipper than during past trips. 

As is our wont, we took the Heathrow express into Paddington, admired the station (the statue of Paddington bear was sporting a cheery yellow striped scarf, no doubt the gift of an admirer), and took a turn about the neighborhood, and  found some lunch. 

From there, we strolled in the direction of the New London Architecture Centre, where they were having an exhibition called Planes, Trains and Drains, on urban planning for London and the surrounding areas.   They'd evidently used the hosting of the London Olympic Games to achieve a number of infrastructure improvements, and the scope (plans that would require revision and extension in 2031 were 'short term') was very impressive.  In particular the recognition that improving transport would require not only changes to the transport network, but to foot and car traffic areas in the areas that were getting better service.

They had an impressive model of the city of London:

And are devoting considerable effort toto low rise urban development and increased density.   They're also in the process of updating the amazing Victorian sewer system (developed by Joseph Bazalgette) and already carrying much more than the capacity it was designed for.   (If you're starting to wonder about people who are so enthused about drainage, all I can tell you is that we're both engineers. Using technology to solve problems excites us.)

From there we went back out into the brilliant sunshine and walked up to Kings Cross to see the new renovation there.  It had been featured in the exhibition we'd just seen, and the station had been thoroughly torn apart during our last visit, so we were quite curious. It proved spectacular- they've roofed over a bunch of open areas, keeping the existing station facade, but adapting it into an extensive area of shops and restaurants, a bit similarly to the design of the huge covered courtyard of the British Museum. 

And the British museum was where we headed next.  We were disappointed to find that the Ice Age exhibition (one of two current special exhibitions) was sold out, but not so disappointed we were willing to throw money at the problem (we could likely have gotten in by becoming museum members...which we would have happily done, were we able to visit more often than once every few years).    Instead we walked through the exhibition on the Enlightenment, which was rather apt given how much of the early part of our trip involves the naturalists and collectors of the Enlightenment.

After the museum, some more strolling took us to Busaba Eathai (a longtime favorite of ours) for dinner, and then to Waterloo station to catch the train down to Dorchester, where we were staying for the first few days of our trip.

Here are a few more photos from our first day in London:
rfholly's Day 1 album on Photobucket