Of Cream Teas and Buses

Southern England – March 2009

Spring 2009. Take one French woman, enthralled by the idea of cream teas, and one Englishman from the grim North who refuses to admit there might actually *be* life South of the A40, and set them astray for a week touring the high points of Southern England, and this is what happens.

The remit was quite simple – find something interesting. Apparently this was achieved … 😉

Day 0 : Time (clock of the wallet) …

Day 1 : Waving to the baby-eating bishop

Day 2 : The Christians and the Pagans

Day 3 : Subverting Archaeologists the Prehistoric Way

Day 4 : It is not always easier to destroy than to create …

Day 5 : … there’s such an obvious song reference I can use that I’m not even going to mention it …

Day 6 : Maybe Admiral Nelson created the World?

Day 7 : Dwarves, Goths, and Transvestites – a typical day in London really!

Day 0: Friday 20 March –
Time (clock of the wallet) …

So, not the most organised of people, me. The upshot of today’s adventure is – never travel across country on a Friday, especially not by train, in England.

I had pre-booked train tickets – Nottingham to Birmingham, then Birmingham to Bristol – as it was cheaper to do that *and* split the journey than to buy one ticket to cover the whole route. (I’m very well-practiced at this; it’s amazing how much a saving you can make. Even on the same trains as the through-ticket. Because the pricing policies are weird and I’m bloody-minded and patient enough to work it all out!). However, this of course relies on getting to the station on time to pick them up *and* catch the train …

… the bus from my house to Kirkby station didn’t turn up (I say this was unfortunate, my friend Sarah insists that this was only to be expected and it’s not the most reliable bus in the world), so I had to catch a taxi to get to Nottingham in time. Then, en route the back way (because “it’ll be quicker”), we were stuck behind a tractor for virtually the whole path to Nuthall. Once I got to the station, there was a queue for the cashpoint to get money out to *pay* for said taxi. And if that wasn’t all, there was finally a big queue at the machine to pick up the tickets, due to it being a Friday lunchtime and all the students were making their way back home … ended up being about 10 minutes late for the train, which, unlike the bus, departed on time. Meh.

The nice lady at Nottingham station said that I could try having a word with the guard on the next train(s) to see if my (time-specific) tickets were still valid, and she wrote me a note to that effect (fortunately trains on both routes are pretty regular). The guard on the first train actually seemed a bit surprised by the question, but was most appreciative that I asked rather than just assume it would be fine, and he let me on okay. Presumably this happens quite a lot – in any case my argument was ultimately ‘I couldn’t get the train I wanted because of the queues in Nottingham station, therefore it’s your fault for resource issues.’. I didn’t phrase it quite like that though!!

The railway official on the platform at Birmingham New Street also told me it was fine, but it would mean that I wouldn’t have a seat guaranteed. Yeh, he wasn’t kidding. Packed to the rafters the train was, and I ended up standing the whole way (about 1hr 40). Interestingly however, this meant that the guard never came through to *check* the tickets so I needn’t have bothered asking the chap on the station!

The train was also late getting into Bristol, so I didn’t have much time to grab anything to eat before catching the airport coach to Anne-Laure at the airport, so in a way it all kind of balanced out both in time (I wasn’t late) and money (the extra money I paid for the taxi would have been the same as what I might have spent in Wetherspoons). It did mean I hadn’t eaten much all day though!

The rest of the day’s travel went fine, however, and was considerably less interesting. Anne-Laure was one of the last people to appear off the plane, so I ended up lurking in Bristol airport for quite some considerable time. As airports go, Bristol’s one of the smaller ones – apart from one shop and a small cafe, there’s not a great deal to do. It is, however, still more interesting than her home airport of Toulouse! From the airport we got back on the airport coach to Bristol, then a train to Cheltenham to meet up with my uncle to spend the night at his place in the Forest of Dean. Via the Chinese takeaway. Much needed filling food, at last!

Day 1: Saturday 21 March –
Waving to the baby-eating bishop

Early start, had pre-booked tickets from Gloucester to Bath. Interestingly the train passed through Bristol, thus meaning I’d been through or to Bristol Temple Meads three times in the space of 14 hours. Or maybe that’s not interesting at all. Heh.

Train had a reasonably large contingent of young-ish tourists, who all promptly departed at Bath! We wandered through the city, taking a few pictures, before we arrived at our first point of call – the Roman Baths.

Now, although the foundations are genuine, quite a bit of what’s there is actually merely a representation of what *used* to be there. Plus they never rebuilt the roof so much of it is open-air and it wouldn’t normally have been.
That said, it’s a pretty impressive site, covering a deceptively large area, built on two levels. It’s not currently capable of being used for its required purpose … something to do with Health & Safety and the higher-than-recommended levels of certain substances, like iron and lead, and strange disease-causing bacteria … 😀

After the Roman Baths was Bath Abbey. Not a cathedral, the home of the bishop, as that’s in Wells. And Bath’s a city irrespective of this as a city is an administrative area that’s been given a charter by the monarch, not necessarily one that has a cathedral. Although in the old days the two were usually synonymous.

I have an interest sometimes in the esoteric, unusual, and symbolic … Bath Abbey gave me a memorial to the founder of New South Wales, amongst other things. We also descended into the Crypt of Bath Abbey and walked through a whole history of the Abbey itself, and how it fitted in to the ongoing religious conflicts in the British Isles throughout history.

After lunch, we walked around the streets of Bath, visiting such places as Pulteney Bridge … and Royal Crescent. We also looked around the Bath Postal Museum which was a small but pretty interesting look through the history of the UK postal service – Bath was the origin of the first ever stamped envelope -, but always failed to get to any Post Offices of our own as they were closed …

(We did manage to avoid any connection with Jane Austen, who seems to have been quite a big name round here … )

A bus trip across the North East Somerset countryside brought us to Wells, one of the smallest ‘cities’ in England (*), with nice architecture, a cathedral, and, er … it’s a very *nice* cathedral though 🙂 With a very weird clock that tells the time in an odd and convoluted way. And has jousting model knights! We also walked down Vicar’s Close, very pretty but can’t help but feel it must be rather expensive!

Wells city centre isn’t terribly interesting; consisting as it does of one street. We thus took the decision, based on the time and the fact we still had lots of it left, that we could eat in Glastonbury, so we took the bus there …

… and the hotel we were in was a good 15-20 minute walk out of the town centre! It doesn’t look that far on the map … :p

Despite this we walked *back* into Glastonbury town centre (very small, more-or-less one street!) to seek out a pub that was recommended to us by the hotel that did good food. At the other end of the street, and beyond. Nice pub though. 🙂

(* the smallest city by population in England is the City of London, which doesn’t count.)

Day 2: Sunday 22 March –
The Christians and the Pagans

AnneLaure is much more of a morning person than I am, so was actually *awake* when the sun rose on the morning of the Spring Equinox. [of all the times to be in a place like Glastonbury!]. However we didn’t traipse up Glastonbury Tor (518 feet; 158m high) until around 10am. Breakfast came first – a nice guesthouse-cooked full-English affair.

The guesthouse was pretty much at the bottom of the Tor (‘tor’ being the local word for hill), so we wandered down a couple of country lanes (we didn’t have a torch so it would have been rather tricky in the dark anyway) before coming to the gateway to the path that would take us up the tor. It wasn’t too steep but it was quite long (it was evident from the top just how flat Somerset *is*!) – on our way up we were passed by a female jogger who didn’t seem too daunted by it!

At the top of the hill stands the ruins of St Michael’s Tower, part of a church that was abolished during the reign of Henry VIII. When we got there, a group of 20somethings was already there with bottles of wine, assume they’d been there *for* the sunrise and were just now winding down.

We stayed up there for a while, admiring the view, before heading down a path in the opposite direction, towards Glastonbury, and coming upon the Chalice Well and Living Sanctuary. There’s actually more there than just the well – there’s a whole quiet garden area with lots of little pretty alcoves in the trees, and pools of water with apparent healing properties and the like. Quite spiritual …

Glastonbury itself is a town rich in religion. These days it’s considered to be the centre of New Age religions, and certainly the shops and the businesses/adverts seem to reflect that – crystals, reflexology, meditation (when I was looking for hotels I noted at least three ‘spiritual retreat’ like hotels where you could get head massages when you booked in!). However historically it’s one of the most Christian places in the country – Glastonbury Abbey was one of the most important monasteries and religious centres in the country, and it’s believed to be the place that Joseph of Aramathea went on his travels, possibly with a younger Jesus Christ in tow. The ‘Glastonbury Thorn’, a hawthorn bush said to flower specifically at Christmas, was said to have resulted from Joseph planting his walking stick in the ground.

Then there’s the whole King Arthur aspect as well … Glastonbury Abbey is the site of King Arthur’s tomb, which is either a) proof that the whole of the West Country was once the territory of a native Celtic king called Arthur who fought off the advancing Anglo-Saxons and was laid to rest in the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury Tor being so high and the surrounding countryside was marshy, ‘isle’ was correct terminology, cf Ely), or b) after burning down, the monks needed some extra finance to rebuild and needed to attract pilgrims/tourists. You decide … :p

… and then there’s ley lines as well (you can get *maps* of these from any good Glastonbury shop!). … peculiar place!

The many cafés in Glastonbury cater more for the spiritual. Pretty much every single high-street eating establishment is vegetarian, the ‘v’ on the menus indicating Vegan options (we had lunch in one just down one of the alleyways – the Rainbows End Café). Pretty much every other shop is one selling jewellery, spell books, incense, tarot cards, etc. I think it would drive me mad to *live* there but as a place to visit for a day or two it’s certainly worth a look-in. ‘Community’; many of the houses even have been given mythical/spiritual names, referring to elves, witches, and the like.

We had a good look round the town, visiting virtually every single shop, and I’m thinking I know at least 10 other people on my LiveJournal friends list who might appreciate this place. Maybe I surround myself with ‘alternative’ types?! lol …

Anyhoo we had an evening meal at the Galatea café on the high street (slow service but good food and we weren’t in any hurry), before heading back to the hotel. Stayed up for a while to let the owners know we needed an early breakfast – busy day of travelling ahead.

Day 3: Monday 23 March –
Subverting Archaeologists the Prehistoric Way

Early start, so after breakfast walked back into Glastonbury (much harder with the backpacks!) and caught the first of our buses (the 8.33 to Shepton Mallet). Which went right past the guesthouse but previous research had shown the distinct lack of bus stops on the road …

We were one of the few people *on* the bus, partly because of the time of day and partly I suppose because Shepton Mallet isn’t that interesting. Except for its silly name. And it’s the home of Babycham. We didn’t stay long there; windy, grey, insignificant place, and anyway we’d planned to have a mid-morning drink in the next town …

… We stayed an hour in Frome (pronounced ‘Frume’ for no discernable reason). We didn’t *have* to; we could have caught a bus out within 5 minutes of arriving, but I’d already researched that the town was filled with nice buildings and picturesque town streets. And AnneLaure was finally able to get to a Post Office and send some postcards!

There’s not actually much *in* Frome; it’s just a small English country town, it just happens to have a high proportion of listed buildings, for some reason. It’s not one of those places that’s on any tourist map, but if you’re passing through it’s nice to pop by and have a look.

We had a hot chocolate in a back-street café and took a few pictures of the town, before catching the next of our buses, a small bumpy bus to Warminster. We only had half an hour here so we spent it wandering slowly up and down the (long) high street looking at the shops. We didn’t have time to walk back down to the Minster itself, although the saint it’s dedicated to (Saint Denys) would re-appear later in our journey …

The final bus took us into the city of Salisbury; having left Glastonbury at 8.30am we’d arrived just after 1pm – a distance of around 50 miles. The first thing we did was head to the guesthouse we were staying in (the Rokeby Guest House) – again further than we’d imagined, but once we got there they told us of a quicker route. And gave us a map. Which helped. Heh.

Salisbury’s in a pretty convenient location, being quite central for a number of places. Although Avebury was a little too far in the wrong direction, there’s a pretty good alternative just outside Amesbury, so we headed up to a small obscure pile of stones in the middle of nowhere on a specified tour bus, with piped commentary and recorded information.

There weren’t too many people on our bus, only about 8 or 10 or so. Stonehenge itself had a reasonable number of people (a place like that isn’t ever going to be empty!), but I think the bulk of the crowds had either already left or were about to (certainly there was a whole horde of people about to *board* our bus). It was mid-afternoon, March (so out-of-season), grey with patchy showers.

The interesting thing about Stonehenge is that no-one knows really what it’s for, or even exactly how it was built. Even to the extent that both giants and aliens have been said to have been involved somewhere along the line. I think it would be really cool to subscribe to a more … ‘subversive’ point of view (“hey, that ice sheet a few thousand years ago left these big stones here, why don’t we do something with them and really confuse archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time!”).

Going round the place it was really windy and a bit bleak – assuming that the English weather hasn’t changed much over the last few thousand years it must have been bitterly hard work to set up and maintain this place. They don’t let you go and walk through the stones any more, for fear of eroding them even more than they already have been (except by special arrangement). They *do* open them, under police protection, to neo-Pagans at Equinoxes and Solstices, which is odd since, despite all the myths around it, it was never designed to be a druidical holy site with reverberations at specific times of the year. [Although interestingly, some new research suggests that it did have unusual lighting properties at the *Winter* solstice].

But basically, it’s a pile of stones by the side of the road :p

It being out-of-season, we didn’t leave in time to visit Old Sarum, the site of the former city of Salisbury, abandoned due to the sort of arguments you get when politics and religion share the same space (it was a very small site, and lacked water, so people kept getting in the way of each other. When the ‘people’ included the government and its rivals in the church … !) so they moved two miles down the hill to where the (almost five) rivers were … hindsight doesn’t necessarily suggest this was 100% a *good* thing as rivers tend to flood, but …

We returned into Salisbury and had a wander around the city centre, passing by the very nice church of St Thomas and St Edmund, wherein there is this mural which had been lost for centuries – painted over – until rediscovered and retouched. There’s also this sundial in the neighbourhood, which is quite … depressive really …

The main religious site in Salisbury of course is the cathedral, with the largest spire of any cathedral in the country. And it is quite an imposing and impressive building, standing as it does in large grounds inside Cathedral Close, a walled-off and exclusive section of the city that has been home to such people as ex-Prime Ministers. We didn’t get there in time to see a copy of the Magna Carta though, but that’s no big deal as it’s only a big book and I’ve seen the copy at Lincoln Cathedral already … we did have a good wander around the main part of the cathedral though.

Food this evening was merely Pizza Hut, but we made up for it by visiting two reasonably nice pubs, including The Chough on the Market Square, notable for being one of the few pubs operated by The Hidden Brewery, who serve some decent beer … 🙂 It’s an old coaching house and inside it feels very cool and eerie, somehow!

Went back to the hotel and had a relaxing evening – AnneLaure enjoying the quaint Victorian bathtub in our room!

Day 4: Tuesday 24 March –
It is not always easier to destroy than to create …

Following *another* very hearty guesthouse breakfast, we were on our way again. However there were still bits of Salisbury to see.

Just by the cathedral, located in the very exclusive ‘Cathedral Close’ area, is the “Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum”, somewhere that is larger than it looks on the outside! The bulk of the museum is devoted to archaeological information and items sourced from Stonehenge and the surrounding area, including a whole section on a couple of the major archaeologists who worked on it. They also have some artwork and culture referencing the whole Stonehenge phenomenon, including cartoons, artwork, and newspaper articles on the clashes between police and the public.

Salisbury is still a market town, and this morning the Market Square was filled with stallholders and local artisans selling their wares – particular attention was given to the local alcohol makers who were producing fruit liqueurs (though it’s a bit early to contemplate this at 10am!). The market square in Salisbury is pretty big and given that it was pretty much full that shows you how many people were there.

We’d initially planned to take a trip to Winchester via the town of Romsey, but by the time we were finished at the museum and our amble round the city, we were conveniently in time for the direct bus to Winchester. It was due to take a little over an hour and a half, and went through lots of small villages (as most of these buses on this trip had done – they don’t believe in a straight run from A to B if they can go through C D G and Q if they can!).

I’d never been to Winchester. I’ve been through it on the train, and in a previous life I had a penpal there, but I’d never set foot in the place. Odd little city; the vast bulk of it appears to be built along one very long main street. Similarly to Salisbury, the architecture reflected the historical nature of the city (indeed at one point it was the Capital Of England – or at least of what was deemed to be England at the time …).

We had a nice lunch in a pub just off the high street, and then went in search of the one thing that Winchester is most noted for – yes, *another* Cathedral! Whereas Salisbury was tall, this one was *long* – the longest overall length of any Gothic Cathedral in Europe. The cathedral was also unique in that, while every other cathedral en route (and indeed most in the country) are free to enter but suggest that you give sizeable donations, Winchester is actually *obligatory* payment. It never used to be, but apparently not enough people were donating to be able to afford the upkeep. Surprisingly, customer numbers haven’t dropped that much …

Three of the more interesting facets of the cathedral that we noted were :
* it is the burial site of Jane Austen. Yep, we can’t seem to avoid her …
* In the early part of the 20th century, there were issues noted with the cathedral’s foundations being built in soft peat, and it was slowly sinking into the water table. The resulting water damage this was causing was threatening the whole structure. So they employed a diver to go down and stabilise the structure; this took several years of diving in complete darkness to secure the foundations with concrete. There’s a whole dedication to him in the cathedral.
* Kind of opposite this dedication, there’s the shrine to Saint Swithun, one of the first bishops of Winchester and about whom there’s an interesting bit of folklore. Legend has it (*) that he requested to be buried outside his cathedral, but his bones were moved inside when it was felt he deserved a more spiritual home. Expressing his displeasure, he made it rain for 40 days to prevent the move happening. Even today, July 15th is still said to be an indication on how good the summer’s going to be – kind of like a British Groundhog Day.

Winchester also hosts Winchester “Castle” – a Great Hall which holds a very good representation of King Arthur’s Round Table. [There are certain people you can’t escape from round here – he’s one of them!]. Except that it was closed for some council event. Meh.

Left Winchester by train (woo!) to the NE Southampton suburb of … St Denys. I’ve got a couple of friends there and they *insisted* that we stay with them if we were passing through. Unbeknownst to us (and, to be fair, to them as well), we’d end up having to help them with the housework …

… or more specifically, with a sofa. Seems they’d been given a couple of decent leather sofas and they needed to get rid of their old set. They were fully functional, but about 30 years old and smelt a bit. Their initial idea was to have donated them somewhere but they were having logistic issues getting them out the door. We ended up spending about an hour and a half dismantling them, or, to be precise, sawing them in half and hitting them with hammers. Conclusion – furniture was much better made in the old days!!

The rest of the night was spent eating fish & chips from the chippy, then in a local pub, before going back to theirs and sorting out exactly where we’d be spending tomorrow night …


(* ie – it’s a load of bollocks but it brings in the pilgrims/tourists)

Day 5: Wednesday 25 March –
Ticket to Ryde. There, I lied :p

Relatively early start today, left before Richard and Kirsty did [and they had *work* to go to!). Wandered down to the local railway station to take the 7-minute journey to Southampton Central, then walked through a couple of retail parks until we reached the dockside.
[as an aside, it’s eerie how a retail park feels before any of the shops are open. Completely empty, and yet should be packed with people. Like the end of the world …]

Anyhoo. Wandered past the memorial to the Mayflower (thus we’d passed a dedication to the first major lasting European settlements to both Australia and North America on this journey!), and then to the ferry terminal for our speedy passenger ferry to the Isle of Wight, one of the few counties of England to which I’d never been.

First stop, (West) Cowes, a quaint little town with no open cafés at 9am to have breakfast in. We wandered down to the chain bridge that links West and East Cowes, only to find that it wasn’t open anyway. We ambled back through Cowes before catching a local bus to Newport – the capital of the island.

We didn’t do much in Newport, apart from have breakfast at a backstreet café. We’d have had cream cakes there but they were yesterdays and were advised not to touch them, so we had sandwiches instead. And a hot chocolate. We seem to *run* on hot chocolate! Breakfast having been eaten, we took a couple of mile walk to what remains of Carisbrooke Castle.

It’s built on top of a hill; this is especially relevant if you’re walking to it. Having said which, the surrounds are pretty scenic, being filled with rolling hillsides. The castle is surrounded by ramparts which you can walk around, and inside some of the buildings are in pretty good nick. They’re actually renovating part of it so you can’t walk all the way around the walls.

It was a royal residence in the past, although in King Charles I‘s case, this wasn’t a *voluntary* residence … there’s actually a memorial to him within the castle itself, in the form of the ‘Church of St.Nicholas in Castro’, which also seems to serve as a memorial to a couple of war regiments.

The castle also contains a small museum (with a dodgy door in that confuses everyone!), that contains information about the castle, Kind Charles’ bedchamber during his imprisonment, and a small collection of Victorian toys, games, and trinkets. While we were there, there was a tour party from a school also going round. They may or may not have been French; at a number of points on the journey – but especially today – we seemed to be surrounded by hordes of French schoolchildren.

The other notable thing the castle had was a well. Sunk because previously obtaining water this high up had proved to be a problem, this well is pretty deep (it takes about 5 seconds for a coin dropped from the top to hit the water level at the bottom). Although previously operated by humans, the lifting of the bucket has, for a long time, been done by donkeys – they walk along a huge wheel and the turning of this wheel brings the bucket up. Nowadays the donkeys do 10 minutes of work a day to demonstrate this to the public, and spend the rest of the time gambolling about in the grounds. An easy life, really!

We left the castle, wandered through the quaint village of Carisbrooke, and caught a bus back to Newport. We then changed buses to catch the onward connection to the seaside resort of Ryde. The main street of Ryde is on a very long hill that goes down to the shoreline, at which point it reaches Ryde Pier – one of the longest Piers in the country. It was incredibly windy when we got here, so much so in fact that the catamaran services to Portsmouth were being delayed due to high seas.

We had lunch in a Tex-Mex restaurant/bar almost on the water’s edge (we didn’t fancy walking up the hill!), before catching the catamaran to the mainland. Being a seaside resort, Ryde doesn’t have much to interest the consumer out-of-season, but imagine it would be quite packed in the height of summer.

It was still incredibly windy when we reached Southsea, 10 minutes later. We were actually running a bit later than anticipated, due to the weather conditions, so we weren’t able to wander inside the rather bizarre-looking Portsmouth Cathedral, tho we did take pictures of it. We were headed to the Historic Dockyard, wherein there lie lots of naval history, and ships. By the time we got there however, we didn’t have time to see very much at all before it closed. Fortunately the tickets were valid for a year from date of purchase …

… we *did* manage to see the Mary Rose, a famous and impressive Tudor Warship, whose sinking was both embarrassing and the possible cause of a bit of a cover-up, as it was deemed ‘not particularly politically expedient’ to suggest that a warship like that could be sunk so close to the English shore by French guns. Anyhoo, nowadays, having been raised in 1982, it has become possibly the world’s most expensive piece of rotting wood, needing to be kept ‘wet’ and at an ambient temperature so it doesn’t all fall apart … it looks quite impressive actually, for what it is. And apparently they’re going to take it away for 3 years to fix it even better so if you’re going to see it, you have until September 2009 …

Several of the buildings in the Historic Dockyard complex come under the banner of the “Royal Naval Museum”. We managed to have a look around the ‘Victory Museum’ part today, a series of exhibits devoted to the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar. Portsmouth and Southsea appear to have a bit of an obsession with him, actually, as there’s a statue to him not far outside the centre of Southsea, that we walked past on our way there.

After wandering around the Mary Rose shop, we headed off to grab some shopping and some food, but not before taking a tour up the Spinnaker Tower – a large modern tower, designed to look like a sail (hence the name), from where you can take in good views of Portsmouth and the surrounding area. It was designed and built with the Millennium celebrations in mind, and was completed and opened in 2005 (*). The tower also has the largest (strengthened!!) glass floor in Europe, which is very eerie to stand on – even though you know it’s just a floor!

We had our evening meal in a pub in the nearby Gunwharf Quays shopping complex, before catching the train over to Fratton where we’d booked a cheap hotel. An Etap, for the record. Cheap hotel chains like that tend to always be in really out-the-way places, usually industrial parks …


(* this is fairly standard for British architecture, cf Wembley Stadium.
When the Olympic Games were handed to Greece in 2004, there were constant fears that the stadia wouldn’t be ready to host it, due to the apparent lax nature of Greek workers. Apart from the odd lick of paint and a few tweaks, they were ready. The same jokes and comments are being made about the British Olympic Site in 2012, which at the time of writing … doesn’t seem to have started to be built yet. You’ve got 3 years, lads!!)

Day 6: Thursday 26 March –
Maybe Admiral Nelson created the World?

Today was mostly spent in Portsmouth.

When we got up it was raining (boo!), so we caught a bus into the centre of Portsmouth. AnneLaure had arranged to meet one of her friends back in Fratton, but she was running a bit late so we took the opportunity to do a bit of ‘shopping’ – that is to say we spent about 45 minutes in a bookshop! :p Around 10am, she got a text saying that her friend was on her way home now, so we wandered back towards her house – not too far from where the hotel was really; at least in a similar direction.

I left her there before heading back to Portsmouth city centre, to have a look around. I grabbed some breakfast (a pasty and a drink) before heading back towards the seafront/dockyard area, although taking a couple of detours to examine some parkland and memorials. I’ve been to Portsmouth quite often, but never on my own – my ex-housemate Phil’s parents lived in Southsea for years so I went down with him to visit them a few times, plus I have a sometime penpal in nearby Havant.

One place I *did* have to pop into though was the Creation Museum. This might well be the only one of its kind in the UK, and it was free entry. Yep, a museum dedicated to Creationism. I kid you not. Their main arguments appear to be :
* since scientists themselves can’t prove that evolution has really occurred, then it didn’t. RIP Darwinism.
* since some fossils are identical to modern-day creatures and plants, evolution hasn’t occurred, because otherwise they would have changed/developed.
* it has been proved that humanity came from one man and one woman (*).
* rock sediment has been proven to be laid rapidly and not over millions of years (**).

I’ll leave it for you to decide how to refute these arguments …

Met up with AnneLaure again at Portsmouth Harbour station and we went back to the Historic Dockyard to complete our tour – having much more time at our disposal. We didn’t need to get back to Southampton until 5pm so there was no rush; thus extolling the benefits of yearly-valid tickets. Indeed it does suggest you take almost a full day to look round everything.

The Mary Rose museum housed interesting artefacts about and from the ship itself, as well as going into detail about what the ship was, and the history of how they found it and eventually raised it. They also had some interactive exhibits around life at the time, and how easy (or hard) it was to wield a couple of the weapons of the age.

We did a tour of HMS Victory, technically still an active ship in the Royal Navy – tho the chances of it going to sea again are “pretty slim”. Out-of-season you can only get on it with a guided tour, but they’re always pretty interesting. Had a lot of issues with my height – 18th century ships were not designed for tall people. That said, some of the officers serving on it at the time were even taller than I am! The ship was a veteran of several naval conflicts but is most well-known for being the ship on which Admiral Nelson led the British fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar, and being the location of his death. It’s actually a pretty big ship, although would have been pretty crowded as lots of men served on it.

We followed this up by visiting another part of the Naval Museum, this one partly dedicated to Nelson himself, and all about who he was, how he was, what he looked like, and memorabilia surrounding him. Did I say ‘obsessed’ earlier? LOL. The other part of this building of the museum was about Napoleonic-era shipping in general.

Other parts of the Historic Dockyard we visited included the Dockyard Apprentice museum – an exhibition on what it was like to *work* in a dockyard, and all the trades associated with building a ship like HMS Victory, and *another* ship, the 1860 HMS Warrior, an incredibly impressive Victorian warship that unfortunately was deemed obsolete by technology only a decade after being built, and later served as an oil jetty in SE Wales before being restored.

By this point we were getting weary of ships, so we wandered back to the railway station and caught a train back to St Denys. Met up with Richard and Kirsty who took us to small but very nice oriental/tapas (yep, interesting combo!) restaurant, then going to their local pub before having a lazy evening, sorting out tomorrow evening’s entertainment …


* this is true. It has. Adam and Eve. However it has *also* been proved that they lived over one hundred thousand years apart …
** again true, it occurs after tsunamis, earthquakes, and other major land-wrenching events. But these are exceptions rather than necessities.

– Day 7: Friday 27 March –
Dwarves, Goths, and Transvestites – a typical day in London really!

Got up at the same time as Kirsty and Richard, but they were running late so they trusted us to lock up before heading off. Got the train from St Denys to Southampton Central again, but this time we stayed there for a train back out again – the tickets for which I’d booked long in advance.

It’s weird, we spent two nights in Southampton but we never actually went round the city centre, only passing through it when necessary. Part of the reason for this, and confirmed with Kirsty, is that despite being one if the UK’s larger and most notable places, there isn’t really all that much of interest in Southampton – certainly it doesn’t sell itself well.

Anyway. Took the train to Reading (which passed through Winchester, even feel like you’re going in a loop?!), and from there caught the connecting service to Slough. Not the most impressive place in the world, famous in popculture for two things – being the setting for the vastly overrated sitcom The Office, and for being the disparaging subject of a John Betjeman poem, though to be fair it’s not Slough specifically that’s the target, but rather what Slough would *become* if people industrialised it. And to be fair, having taken a bus through it, he’s probably right …
[as an aside, the reason this route was chosen was because of a distinct lack of available accommodation in Brighton for one night. Lots of B&Bs were available in Brighton but they only accepted two night bookings for the Weekends.]

Our end destination was Beaconsfield, a small market town on the edge of London. In and of itself, it’s not the most interesting place, and wouldn’t feature on most tourist itineraries. However, the town is the home of the Bekonscot Model Village, a very large collection of (mostly 1930s) buildings, scenes, events, and lifestyles, all scaled down into little model format. AnneLaure had previously pointed it out as a place she’d like to go, but at the time I thought it was going to be a bit awkward and out-the-way to get there, so it was a pleasant surprise to her when we got there (I hadn’t told her that’s where we were going!).

And some of the detail is absolutely amazing; the shops represented often have punning names, there are little things like a child tripping and falling down a hill, some of the buildings are faithful replicas of buildings that had really previously stood in Beaconsfield, including the home of Enid Blyton … there’s a large model railway running through the whole place … there’s a representation of an airfield, coal mine, harbour, most sports and games, brownies, nurses, archaeological digs, a white horse … pretty much everything and anything in British culture is there! We actually went round twice, just to make sure we hadn’t missed all the obvious things!

For once, I actually took more photos than AnneLaure did! A handful can be found from here, that will hopefully give you an example of the sorts of things that are there.

After Bekonscot, we took a train into Marylebone in Central London, dumped our bags at the luggage office at Victoria Station (because we’d be *leaving* from Victoria), and then had a wander round London itself. AnneLaure wanted to eat and shop for something cheesy for a friend; an idea suddenly occurred to me and we took a tube to Camden Town, the ‘subculture’ area of London, well-known amongst creative, goth, indie, hippie, and subversive types. And several people on my friends list would *love* it there!! Surprisingly, I’d never been before …

We ate at one of the many food stalls in a large cooked-food-market type place, and had a look around a lot of the shops there. Lots of music and political t-shirts for sale, including one I hadn’t seen before (black, with white writing ; “No, I’m not on f***ing Facebook!”, which I thought was quite cool. Didn’t buy it though …). Some of the architecture in the area was quite interesting and impressive, and seemed a quite fun place, if it wasn’t so freakin *busy*!

After sating ourselves with alternative culture, we headed back into the city centre, wandered down Oxford Street (oh look, another bookshop!), before having a quick drink in a pub near to Leicester Square. We sat outside, and on the sidestreet next to us were sort-of tuk-tuk drivers who constantly were beeping their horns!

The pub was very close to the Palace Theatre, on Shaftsbury Avenue. I’d figured that since we were in London on a Friday night with no pressing need to get away early evening, we could go to see a West End Theatre show. Finances dictated I couldn’t buy tickets until after I’d got paid, which was only on 24th. By this time, of course, many of the shows had sold out or only had expensive tickets left. AnneLaure didn’t mind what we saw but when we were at Kirsty/Richard’s place, she’d gone online and managed to find cheap tickets to see … Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a film that she loves and for which we could get cheap tickets. We were up in the Gods with a slightly restricted view of part of the stage but that didn’t really matter.

Because we were so high up, and we got there before the doors opened, we didn’t see if many people were ‘dressed up accordingly’ in the stalls or anywhere, but we imagined that there’d be a good dose of camp in the auditorium. It was a pretty cool performance, very impressive actually, and pretty funny. I’ve never seen the film – always meant to but never quite got round to it. And Australian humour appeals to me, as does the Australian attitude (I read the Bill Bryson ‘Down Under’ travelogue earlier this year and it reinforced by liking for the place). If only it wasn’t so freakin *hot* !!! LOL.

And it had Jason Donovan in it. In drag. And virtually the first thing he did at the start was strip off to his knickers. Which caused an audience reaction! He’s cool.

Following the performance, we caught a bus to Victoria, got our bags (as the luggage place closed at midnight) then wandered around trying to find a restaurant that was still open. We ended up in an Italian restaurant not far from Victoria station, which was quite nice, if the service was a bit slow. We went back to Victoria, and got a train to Gatwick Airport, where we didn’t do much for the next few hours while we waited for our flight to Toulouse (due to leave at 7.20am!).