Friday, August 26, 2011

A feast followed by six hours at Heathrow

Feeling a bit worse for wear on Thursday morning, I made my way to a cafe around the corner I had passed quite a few times when going to the little supermarket. It's a bike shop and a cafe. A sign outside says, 'Have a coffee while we fix your bike.'

Then, passing Lady Stair's Close, I went to my final Fringe show, Translunar Paradise. It centres around an old man whose wife has died and his coming to terms with living without her. The story itself was a bit cliched, but what made it worth seeing were the masks. The actors who played the old man and his wife were young (in flashbacks they played younger, maskless versions of the characters) so most of the time they held 'old' masks in front of their faces. The masks were so detailed they actually seemed to change expression depending on how the actors were moving or the mood of the scene. There was no dialogue, only very clever accompaniment by an accordionist who actually played a big role in the show, sometimes holding a mask in front of an actor's face to free up their hands, singing, provide genius sound effects using only the accordian (my favourite was the sound of slow motion breathing). There's a trailer and a photo here, but neither really do the masks justice.

There's a lot of dance in the show and overall I thought it got a bit repetitive, some sequences were done numerous times with only slight variation or none at all, but it was a really beautiful production.

Then Ed and I had tea milshakes at a cute wee tea place on the way to my abode. I'd had a tea milkshake there the day before by accident (I walked in thinking it was a tea shop and was taken aback by opening the door and immediately having someone say, 'Table for one? Over here please' that I just sat down) and it was so yum.

For my last night in Edinburgh Lisa cooked a Scottish feast for Ed and I.

We had Scottish salmon. Followed by:

Haggis with mashed turnip and mashed potatoe (after trying my first ever haggis and liking it, I proceeded to follow Lisa and her partner Luke's lead and smother everything in cheese sauce and brown sauce, SO DELICIOUS) accompanied by Iron Bru. Looks like Fanta, tastes a bit like cough medicine. Apparently it outsells Coca Cola in Scotland.

Despite being absolutely full to the brim of hearty haggis and root vegetables, I managed to fit in a little bit of cranachan. A desert made with oats, cream, whiskey and berries. Lisa said its only the second time she's ever made it, the first was in New Zealand for her flatmates on Burns' night. It doesn't seem like it would be too difficult so I think I might have to try making it myself, it was really good.

I felt like I wouldn't need to eat for a week by the time I bid farwell to Ed, who is off to London on Monday, and then who knows where. I packed my bag - it's a squeeze but not too bad, lucky I left room for accumulating stuff (although it's actually only about 3kgs heavier than when I left Wellington) and set my alarm for 4.15am.

When the taxi I'd booked the night before pulled up at 5am, the driver asked, 'For 116 St Stephen Street? To the airport?' I felt like saying, 'Because you wouldn't want to confuse me with any of the hundred other people waiting on the footpath outside number 116 at 5am with a pack, would you?' The street was deserted.

Edinburgh Airport was packed and I stood in line for 45 minutes to check in. Helpfully the woman behind me kept saying, 'This is ridiculous, this line is hardly moving, they should have more staff on, what are they thinking? We're not going to make it.' Airports, such fun places...

Especially when you're now stuck at one for six hours. Currently two hours down, four to go.

My final verdict of my time in the UK: Cardiff still wins. I liked Edinburgh but I didn't love it. It's hard to know what it would be like outside of Fringe time - Luke said, 'Ten times more boring'. The Fringe was great but more expensive than I thought and the quality was much more varied than I expected. It was awesome being able to see so much stand-up comedy and puppetry though - two things we don't get so much of in New Zealand.

The traffic lights in the UK are strange. I'm not sure I'm convinced by this flashing yellow between red and green. Also, all the traffic stopping while pedestrians cross wastes time for everyone. Is it that difficult to turn after giving way to pedestrians who have the green man? 

The best thing about Scotland has to be Tunnock's Tea Cakes. Like Mallowpuffs but way better. The marshmellow is like eating a cloud.

Lisa kept saying it was a shame about the weather but it hadn't bothered me. It rained at least once a day but only for about an hour or so and it was nowhere near as cold as when I left Wellington. I'm hoping New Zealand is struck by a strange heatwave in the next 24 hours.

A yacht and a late night

Tuesday saw Ed and I venture to Leith, an area in Edinburgh. It's also the name of the river. Apparently there's a nice walk along the river from where I'm staying to the 'waterfront'. We did not manage to find it. Instead we went a strange, long way, not helped by Google maps. We saw such sights as:

The worst knitting graffiti ever

A post-apocolypse scrap yard

Actually quite a nice cafe with the most reasonably priced cups of tea and cake I've seen all week

Leith is like Newtown but much bigger and with more homeless people and dogs. The 'waterfront' is not that great, the part we went to used to be docks and old rail tracks still snake amongst all the cobblestones. In an apparent attempt to make it better, naturally, someone built a mall. You have to go into the mall to get to...

The Royal Yacht Britannia. We hadn't specifically planned to go the yacht but we realised we were close and it seemed like it would make the long walk to Leith worthwhile. I actually had a good time, mostly because the yacht is full of family photos of the Royal family and some of them are quite funny.

The yacht was launched in 1953, replacing a previous Royal yacht. The Queen and Prince Philip oversaw the decoration and went on to view the yacht as a home away from home. Surprisingly, the Queen had a single bed. As Ed pointed out, the bedrooms all looked like rooms from a very nice resthome.

The yacht is giant, it has a massive state dining room where the Queen entertained all sorts of dignitaries. The crew's quarters were less spacious - I definitely wouldn't want to be on the top bunk. My eagle eyes spotted the matching rugs that the Queen and Prince Philip had in their studies.

It seems they may have only visited New Zealand a couple of times, but the Queen and Prince Philip trod on it often.

The Yacht was decommissioned in 1997 and so fond of it was the Queen that she publicly shed a tear when disembarking for the last time. It is now a visitor attraction with the rooms on display all kept as they were when the Royal family used the yacht for overseas visits, holidays, and honeymoons. The honeymoon suite is the only bedroom with a double bed, Prince Charles had it brought on board especially for his honeymoon with Princess Diana. Everything is pretty dated and not at all lavish.

Every single clock on the yacht is stopped at one minute past three, the time when it was decommissioned.

We got the bus back to town and - strange fact of the day - busses in Edinburgh do not give change, so if you don't have the exact coins, too bad. That evening we went to another Australian comedian, Fiona O'Loughlin. Her show described her experience of alcoholism, including passing out on stage in front of hundreds of people, the night before she was due to make her Australian Dancing with the Stars debut. The show's producers wanted her to claim exhaustion, but to her credit she just told the truth. She was very good, a great storyteller, and her ending was very memorable...

Early in the afternoon on Wednesday I went to the second show in the Festival by Hannah Gadsby, although this was more of a comedy lecture about the representation of the Virgin Mary in art throughout time. It was very funny and informative, Hannah Gadsby is great.

I then went to the Scottish National Gallery where the best part was an exhibition called 'The Queen: Art and Image'. It showed photographs, paintings, and sculptures of/inspired by the Queen since her ascension to the throne. It was only a small exhibition, but more than anything it was interesting to see such thorough documentation of someone ageing over 60 years.

After going home and getting changed, I met Ed and the Wellington person we'd seen at the Forest on Sunday night, and the three of us had dinner at a Japanese BYO. I got a taxi because I was running late and it was so fun! I hadn't been in a Black cab before - they're giant; I chatted away to the driver, an older Scottish man who said, 'Aye' a lot. It was very bumpy though, the cobblestone roads must wear out tyres quickly.

We'd decided we'd try to go 'out' after a show we had tickets to see at 10pm. I have to admit I wasn't altogether sober when we got to the show, which actually may have made it better. It was called Table and was described as a 'triptych', each of the three scenes/sequences involving puppetry. I liked the first scene best, the puppet was amazing. He was reminiscent of a Japanese Bunraku puppet in that he was operated by three people in black. He had a cardboard head and a cloth body and he was so expressive. Puppetry is amazing when it's done well. The other two scenes were pretty strange and a bit long.The last was a story told entirely through pictures and the occasional word drawn onto plain white paper and pulled out of a briefcase. There were probably nearly a hundred, maybe even more, pieces of paper and three people pulling the pieces out and moving them around.

After the show we went to a bar and then down into Cowgate, one of the parts of the city under a bridge, to see if we could find somewhere to have a dance. We managed to find a place underground that was selling 2 pound Jaegerbombs and playing very remixed music. The music wasn't ideal but it was good enough and I didn't end up getting home until 3am.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sunday, Monday

On Sunday, after what felt like the first sleep in I've had in years, Ed and I met on the Royal Mile and ventured to The Castle. Despite having already been in Edinburgh for two weeks, Ed had very kindly waited for me to arrive to visit the Castle, quite admirable considering he admitted he had a fascination with castles when he was younger and this was his first real castle.

They might have gone to all sorts of lengths to keep invading forces out, but nothing can stop people scratching their names into wooden doors

The Castle is not cheap -15 pounds - and if it wasn't for the excellent views and lovely weather, I think I probably would have felt rather ripped off.

Maybe it was because I'd already been to Cardiff Castle, but while we spent about two hours walking around, I wasn't particularly blown away by anything. A lot of the buildings were built as military barracks and one now houses the National War Musuem.

St Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh but it seemed to be in the midst of a strange redecorating process. It turns out the stained glass windows, the nicest part of the tiny chapel, are actually from the 1920s.

We went down some stairs into dark, damp, dripping cellars where a strange soundtrack played intermittent noises that supposedly recalled 'The Black Dinner', in which the Governor of the Castle in 1440 invited some arch enemies around for dinner, presented them with a bull's head on a plate (which is apparently a signal of imminent death), and then had their heads chopped off.

The Honours of Scotland (basically the Crown jewels) were very sparkly, but no photos allowed there. Ed and I both agreed that it's hard to really appreciate the age of things - the crown we saw is 300 years older than the Treaty of Waitangi. But it still just looks like a very nice crown in a glass case.

After Versailles, most palaces don't really seem very palatial. We saw the tiny room in which Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI and some larger rooms that have recently been restored.

The walls of the Great Hall were covered in swords and what looked like pistol clocks. The Hall had little 'nooks' by each window, similar to another building in the Castle we'd been in. It seems the Scottish liked to sit by the window and have secret conversations.

The National War Memorial is big and sombre, some of the flags inside are so old they are threadbare. We had to lighten the mood on our way out with photos with the animals out the front.

After the Castle we went for a wander around some of the streets, saw Greyfriar's Bobby who sat near his master's grave in Greyfriar's churchyard every day until his own death.

For dinner we were lured into The Pink Olive by the promise of Sunday roast, only to sit down and find that the menu outside was the lunch menu and the roast of the day was no longer on the dinner menu. Apparently roasts are a Sunday lunch thing in the UK. So instead I had a salad with pickled eggs. I've never had pickled eggs before and I'm not sure whether they were pink because they were pickled or because we were at The Pink Olive.

That evening we went to Daniel Sloss' The Joker in the Spiegeltent. Alex, Ed and I saw Cabaret in a Spiegeltent in Auckland in December last year which was very similar. They are portable 'tents' with solid walls and booths around the edge inside as well as space for regular seating in front of the stage. Daniel Sloss is a bit of an up-and-coming comedy star in the UK, while in London I had seen him on a show called 9 Out of 10 Cats which is the British equivalent of TV3's 7 Days. He's only 20 and he milks his youth a bit, but he was very good. His show was really well structured, he had some clever jokes, and he seemed to be having a good time. A vast improvement on the two shows we'd seen the night before.

After the show we went to the Forest, which describes itself as 'a volunteer-run, collectively-owned, free arts and events space masquerading as a vegetarian café'. While sitting drinking cider and listening to a guy who Ed had seen working there the day before play Clash songs, complaining that it's actually quite hard to make friends with people, a guy we know from Wellington walked in and was then joined by some of his friends, so it was nice to talk to some new people.

On Monday afternoon I went to the highly recommended Anton's Uncles by Theatre Movement Bazaar at Bedlam Theatre, an old church that has been turned into a year-round theatre. Anton's Uncles has won the first of this year's three Fringe Review Outstanding Theatre Awards and I can see why. Based on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and using only the male characters, it is strongly movement based. It's almost like dance mixed with theatre and illustrates how simple movements executed with perfect, synchronised timing can be really effective. It was really nice to see some theatre after having seen three comedy shows of varying quality, although I have to admit I started to get a bit drowsy half way through...I loved it most when they started singing which also, thankfully, shook me out of my sleepiness for the rest of the show. The trailer for the show gives some idea of what it's like, although it makes it seem like it's entirely dance when actually there's a lot of dialogue. The music was really cool though.

Afterwards I met Ed (I managed to find my own way to the pub he was at with only one wrong turn, for some reason I'm finding parts of the Old Town really hard to navigate) and we went and got tickets for an Australian comedian I had seen a wee bit of at a female comedy gala in Wellington two years ago and really liked. She reminds me of someone we know so I managed to convince Ed to come along by saying, 'I'm going to see Hannah Gadsby, aka Charlotte Bradley, do you want to come?' I think he was glad he did because we both really enjoyed her set. She started by making a cup of tea for herself and one person from the audience, because you can't drink tea alone. She is very deadpan but so likeable and, among many other things, talked about growing up in a small town in Tasmania where her best friends were two 70 year olds - because they fed her biscuits and she didn't have to talk much, moving to Canberra where she realised her social skills left much to be desired as a result of hanging out with two 70 year olds for most of her young life, being afflicted with sleep paralysis, and confusing her local butcher because of the way she dresses (he kept calling her sir, so she started trying to act more femininely when she went in there which only resulted in him thinking she was a very camp gay man).

After Hannah Gadsby's Mrs Chuckles we returned to the Forest because they have giant meals for much more reasonable prices than other places in town. Money in Edinburgh just seems to disappear. Food seems more expensive and the shows are definitely not as cheap as I imagined. In the Wellington Fringe shows are between $14 and $18. Here, the cheapest shows are 9 pounds (which is about NZ$18), although we have been lucky with some two-for-one deals.

We then walked down into the New Town for a look around, but after a hot chocolate and a sit, decided to call it a day. Seeing as we were in my part of town, it only took me a few minutes to walk home, accompanied by a very pink sky.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Journey to the Fringe

On Saturday morning I opened the back door and saw one sandal sitting on its side in the middle of the courtyard (I had put the pair of them outside to air out over night). I was momentarily mystified, 'Why would a burglar only steal one shoe?' but then I remembered the fox that Chrissy and Piet had said sometimes visits the garden at night (when I heard this I was quite excited as I've never seen a fox before). Seeing as the one shoe in view was intact, I figured the fox must have just played around with them and the other would be somewhere in the garden similarly intact. I began a methodical comb of the small garden and saw the bottom of the shoe under a bush, I climbed into the bush only to find the fox had (very neatly, really) eaten the entire top of the shoe, including the buckle. I didn't even think about taking a photo at 7.15am, I just threw them in the bin. Surprisingly, I was more annoyed that I still hadn't actually seen a fox even though one had mauled my shoe.

I wish I could say that threw my whole morning but really it only wasted about 15 minutes and it's my own fault that I came to be rushing to catch my 11am train to Edinburgh. By 9am I was all packed, dressed, and ready to go, so I went down to Sainsbury's to get some thank you things to leave for Chrissy and Piet (they had gone camping for the weekend the day before). I had breakfast, checked my emails, and just before 10am went to close up my bag and leave. I realise now I had probably under-calculated how much time I needed to get to King's Cross anyway, but it didn't help that I went to attach my small backpack to the neatly packed big pack and it wouldn't happen. This resulted in a frantic rearranging and repacking of both bags and having to carry some presents in a separate shopping bag. That's right. Presents were my downfall.

Anyway, it was 10.15am by the time I got to the tube station down the road, bearing in mind I can only walk so fast carrying my pack, and of course, I had just missed the tube I needed. So I had to wait 7 minutes. This doesn't sound a long time but when tubes usually come every 4 or so minutes it seemed like a cruel trick. I then agonised through the four stops before King's Cross and when I finally go there tried to hurry to the overground part of the station but of course being Saturday morning it was packed, so moving fast wasn't really possible. Because I'd booked online, I had a booking reference but I still needed to go to the ticket counter to get my actual ticket. Naturally, the line was long when I got there and I had only fifteen minutes to go before the train left. Finally I was at the front and the ticket man was extremely efficient so I rushed to platform five (which was thankfully very close to the ticket office) and made it onto the train with just under five minutes to spare. When I sat down I felt like I'd just competed in the Olympic train marathon, but it was also quite satisfying, having been sure approximately 20 minutes earlier that I wouldn't make it (because I knew both the station and the ticket office would be packed), to have beaten the odds. I won't be making a habit of it though.

The train ride from London to Edinburgh was great. Some lovely scenery along the coast, lots of purple heather, and it was a bit of a shock to start seeing decent sized hills again. We went through a town called Dunbar which was cool because my great grandfather on my Mum's side had Dunbar in his name. I had a little sleep, listened to music, read my book, and the four and a half hours passed relatively quickly. I had been booked to stay at a hostel for the week (sharing a room with three others) but two weeks ago I got an email from a Scottish woman I worked with at PHARMAC for three months about five years ago. She had seen on Facebook that I was in the UK and said, 'You should come to Edinburgh, I have a spare room you're welcome to stay in.' I replied that I was indeed coming to Edinburgh and had booked a hostel. Being the lovely person that she is, Lisa told me to cancel the hostel if I hadn't already paid for it (which I hadn't) and come stay with her and her partner.

Lisa met me at the train and we walked to her house only fifteen minutes away from the station (my shoulders held up relatively well considering I was carrying a small house on my back) in the New Town. As we walked along one of the main streets she said, 'And there's the castle.' And so it was, on a giant rock right in the middle of everything. Much less castle-like than I expected, but much more central than I expected as well. It was really strange to be in a hilly city again after the flatness of London. It's amazing how quickly you get used to things.

She and Luke live on the top floor of an old apartment building (so I also had to climb four flights of stairs with the small house on my back), and their apartment is really nice (that's their front door from the stairs, the person who lives next door is into pot plants in a big way). Very light and airy with polished wooden floors. I have a whole room with a double futon bed and cute wee fireplace to myself. So much nicer than sharing bunk beds with strangers.

After sorting myself out, I went to meet Ed in town, at the Sir Walter Scott memorial which has a giant spire. There seem to be a lot of giant spires in the city. Lisa said it was the nicest day they'd had in ages so I needed to make the most of it while it lasted. I wondered why she was so eager to get rid of me, but when the clouds rolled in and the wind came up less than an hour after I'd left the house, I realised she'd had good reason. The weather does not last long in Edinburgh. Luckily I had had the foresight to take my merino top with me because it got pretty icy pretty quickly. Ed said no matter what the weather is like when you leave the house, you have to always take an umbrella and another layer or two.

We walked up into the Old Town, where the streets were packed with people. The Royal Mile, the Fringe hub, was shoulder to shoulder full, and crowds were already surging towards the castle for that evening's performance of the Tattoo. We managed to find a Middle Eastern restaurant that wasn't full (probably because they don't have a liquor license we realised after we'd sat down) and had dinner. When we emerged back into the street, we saw it had been raining. It rains at least once a day here. Someone handed us a flyer for a free (of course, nothing's free, they always ask for a donation at the end) comedy show just along the road and it sounded promising so we went in. I already write enough to complete a small novella so I'll try not to detail every show I go to. For 'No Less of a Man' all I will say is, it got off to a promising start but despite prefacing the show with, 'I was brought up surrounded by females', there ended up being a lot of stereotypical jokes about women. The funniest part was actually the drunk Scottish man in the audience who had some gems of unintentional wit. At one point he was talking to his friend and the comedian (who was Canadian) said, 'Hey, what are you guys talking about? You know you're not exactly whispering', and this deep Scottish voice replied, 'Dove for men.'

Ed then led us to one of the squares which have venues all around and inside them as well as beer gardens. On the way we got given a flyer by an Australian comedian who recognised we were New Zealanders. We had a bit of a chat to him and after we'd had a drink, we decided to go to his show that night. 'The New John Conway Experience' was definitely an experience. It was in the Billiard Room at The Assembly which is the old student union building of the university. I was almost asleep on my feet by the time we took our seats at 12.15am but I was well awake by the end. Flashing lights, random music (if he felt like his comedy was floundering he would push the 'emergency' button, a song would come on, and he would start dancing - not particularly well), a lot of interacting with the audience, and a lot of drinking from various cans and bottles. The few actual jokes he had written weren't that bad, but a lot of his set revolved around him talking to people in the audience and going off on tangents 'It's like you guys know what Fruche is or is it an Australian thing? Fruche is like the number one liquid in the world. What do you reckon the top ten liquids are? Let's list them...what about number seven? The sea? I like that. Eight? Blood? No.' He got more and more manic as the show went on and it ended with him inviting various people he'd talked to during the show up on stage where he made them run on the spot to music while green lights flashed. Again one of the best parts of the show was an audience member; at the very start of the show John Conway said, 'How are you guys all doing tonight? There are heaps more people here than I expected. Awesome. Hey man, how are you?' and this guy in the front row replied, 'I'm only here because there was nothing else starting sooner. So you'd be better to just crack on.' John Conway's response to this, after some initial incredulity and the audience member going on to say, 'I'm not trying to be funny, you should actually just get on with the show', was to start the whole show again from his entrance in which he announced himself and danced enthusiastically to German techno music.

After the show, I went home. It had been a very strange and slightly disheartening start to my Fringe experience.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tootle pip to London

On my last day in London (Friday), I met Hayley at Green Park station and we walked over to the entrance to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. We were a little bit later than planned but still over half an hour early. We were a bit surprised to find that already, the crowds looked like this:

We managed to get what we thought was a decent spot at the front right by the Palace and even managed to hold our ground when latecomers started trying to elbow their way through. When the new guard arrived and marched into the Palace grounds through the gate furtherest away from us, we thought, 'That's okay, surely the old guard will come back out the gates on our side and we'll get a better view then.' 45 minutes later, they didn't.

All in all, it was a pretty disappointing spectacle. It was so sporadic - first a small marching band, then nothing for a while, then some men on horses, then nothing for while, then the guards marching in, then nothing for a while, then music from inside the grounds, then nothing... They spent most of the time inside the Palace grounds which only the people right up against the Palace gates can see. The thing we enjoyed most really were the police on horses. They clearly have a 'say it firmly put politely the first time, firmer but still polite the second time, then just yell angrily the third time' policy. People can be so stupid and there's nothing like being in a crowd to illustrate that. It must be very frustrating, you tell people to do something for their own good, e.g. 'Cross now in front of the horse' and they do the complete opposite, then look surprised when they get yelled at because they're walking into traffic around the back of a horse.

After the non-event, we grabbed some lunch and sat in the park to eat it. Some pigeons started hanging around us and Hayley warned them that it probably wasn't such a good idea considering my recent pigeon eating experience.

We then hopped on an actual old fashioned double decker bus, they still have a few running on certain routes. It's cute because the driver is separate to the rest of the bus so there's still a ticket taker who announces each stop himself, rather than the newer buses where the tickets are all electronic and a recorded voice announces the stops.

A red phone box from inside a red double decker bus - all of the icons at once 

We got off past the Albert Memorial and walked all the way back to Harrods, stopping to admire Albert and the very detailed memorial.

Queen Victoria really liked him. Which is nice.

I wasn't too bothered about specifically going to Harrods during my time in London, but because we were close we had to go in.

It was awful. It is so tacky - the Egyptian escalators felt like being on a theme park ride and the Princess Diana and Dodi memorial fountain (which we came across by chance as we went too far on the escalators) had people crammed around it taking photos. Some people were putting on sombre faces to have their photo taken beside it, and some were smiling. It was very strange. It turned out that the money thrown into the fountain went to a charity for traumatised children, and because I hate all the tiny change you end up with in the UK because of their ridiculous 1p coins, I decided to lighten my wallet by throwing some of my change in. I didn't throw far enough and it bounced back at me. Fitting really.

We called into Harvey Nichols, where there were some of the funniest displays I've ever seen in a shop, before getting the tube to Redbridge, so I could see where Hayley and Gareth are living.

The house Hayley and Gareth are living in is huge and really nice. Their flatmates are all teachers so most are away on holiday at the moment.

They have a lounge suite that looks like jam rolls.

After a cup of tea we went back one stop to Wanstead. As you get further out of the city centre the interiors of the tube stations seem to get older, as in, they haven't been refurbished for years. I loved the mint green tiles of this one. We went to a pub for dinner which was really big and quite nice with such cheap food! I had to have mushy peas to properly end my London times, and because they are actually really yum. I think I'm going to try making them when I get home.

Granted, they don't look particularly appetising but then neither do normal peas.

Then it was back to Archway, to collapse into bed with my alarm set for 7am to give me enough time to pack and get sorted before getting to King's Cross for my train to Edinburgh at 11am. Sounds sensible doesn't it? Well, the next installment shall explain how I came to spend the most stressful 45 minutes in a long time from approximately 10.10am to 10.55am on Saturday morning. The precursor to which was discovering that I am too nice and have bought too many presents, and that a fox mauled my shoe.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cardiff calling

When I woke up on Thursday morning it was pouring with rain. I hadn't decided what I was going to do for the day but the weather made hopping on a train to Cardiff seem like a good idea (little did I know of Wales' reputation for rain). All I can say is, thank you the rain of Bath.


I have to admit, I was already positively predisposed to Wales thanks to the brilliant TV series Gavin & Stacey which I watched on DVD last year. The main female character and her family are Welsh and live in Barry; they are all great characters with the best accents. This was where I got the idea of going to Wales in the first place, and after realising how close it was to Bath it had been in the back of my mind as something to do before returning to London.

I knew I wouldn't really end up having very long there, because even though it's only just over an hour from Bath, I had already bought my return ticket to London so I had to go back to Bath and then on to London that evening. I started to wonder whether I'd made the right choice as we got closer to Cardiff and the rain got even heavier, but as soon as I saw signs in Welsh and English I was too excited to care about the weather. It might have been raining, but it was raining in WALES.

I got off the train, grabbed a map (which in the end I never used), and followed the sign to the city centre. I fulfilled a request for a child's All Black jersey as they're apparently much cheaper over here and the woman who served me had a Welsh accent. It was very exciting.

I wandered through a market and when I came out the other side I saw a little sign for 'St John's Tea Rooms'; I had a feeling I knew what it would be like so I went in. I was not disappointed. There were slices of cake for 40p on china plates, a cup of tea cost 60p, and there was a little menu with the sandwiches you could order.

I got a ham sandwich which came with a 'side of crisps' and a piece of orange. I sat in the tea rooms for about 45 minutes, had a second cup of tea, and listened to all the people's accents around me. I could have gone home then and been happy.

When I left the tea rooms it had magically stopped raining. I wandered along and came to the castle, but first I went into a little arcade opposite it.

(This can count as part of the 'Me in a Mirror' series, I'm in the second square from the right, down the bottom)

There were so many cool shops in the arcade. A button shop!

And a second-hand clothes shop you could hardly move in it was so packed with stuff. Great name too.

It was then over to the castle, where I walked along inside the exterior walls which were used as air raid shelters during WWII (it was pretty dim and a bit unnerving in there), climbed the 'keep' which was built on a 'motte', and had a look inside the mansion (which I initially thought was a church because the exterior is all gothic with a spire).

Inside the mansion was crazy, it was full of gold. The first room you see was where guests sometimes stayed...imagine sleeping in a room like that! Surely all that gold on the ceiling would keep you awake. Permanent sunlight.

The rest of the rooms were just as extreme.

Although the dining table is original and it seems pretty tame, the hole you can see in the middle is for a live grape vine, so maybe not so tame really.

After the castle I went and sent postcards proclaiming my love for Cardiff to various people, then visited the new little Cardiff musuem, housed in the old library. It was yet another very interactive museum so I really enjoyed it. My favourite thing was a doll's house that spun around and you could see into a different level on each side. Each level had two rooms illustrating a period of time, they showed how the interior of the house might have looked and what the occupants might have been doing in their time period. You could push a button for each level and the little wooden puppet dolls moved. In the late 1800s for example, the family were eating in the dining room while the maid was cleaning and the cook was rolling out pastry.

My favorite was the 1970s where big houses were divided into flats and more women began to live on their own. And what does a woman living on her own do? Hula hoop of course.

This model showed the docks of Cardiff. Around the edge of the model were pictures of and information about some of the important or interesting buildings, when you pushed a button next to each picture, the location of the building in the model lit up.

When I went to see if there was a comments book in the museum so I could write a note saying how great the museum was (because anyone who has ever applied for funding for anything knows that these things help and the museum seems very new with lots of potential), I found a beautifully tiled corridor. A sign said that back when the building that now houses the museum had first been erected it was Cardiff's first public library and a competition was held for designs to decorate the entrance hallway. The detailed tiles are the result of the winning entry.

However, Cardiff's population soon outgrew the library and when it was extended, the hallway fell into disuse so hardly anyone ever saw all the tile work. Sad.

While at the museum I watched part of a video about the history of some long standing local Cardiff businesses, one was Clarke's Pies. On my way out of the museum I asked where their shop was, apparently they don't have their own shop anymore, but they do supply to the indoor market. So I went back through the market on the hunt for a Clarke's pie. The man who served me when I bought one was so lovely, he told me all these things I should do and see in Cardiff...I had to admit that I unfortunately had to leave again in about an hour, but that I'd be back!

The pie was...interesting. The filling was yum (beef in a beer gravy) but the pastry was really thick and flakey. That's obviously their thing, but I don't know if it was mine.

I took my time on the way back to the train station, mainly because I was delaying leaving. I stopped at a jewellers in a lovely old corner shop in another arcade and bought a wee silver dragon necklace I'd seen on my way past the first time. It was a bit more expensive than some of more tacky looking ones in the Castle shop but I got such amazing service my choice was vindicated. I made friends with the assistant in the shop and we talked about the Edinburgh Fringe while the guy serving me cleaned the necklace, put it in a case, and then put it in a flash bag and tied it with a gold bow. All for 26 pounds. A bargain I tell you...I walked through the rest of the arcade and stopped for hot chocolate before finally dragging myself back to the train station.

I think I may have found one of the best hot chocolates in Cardiff. This is going to be very handy to know when I move there.

I can't quite say why I loved Cardiff so much, the accents were definitely a major factor. But also that it seems pretty unpretentious. There are really old buildings sandwiched in next to some quite ugly not so new ones (in the part I saw anyway), so it's not exactly the prettiest of cities, but the people I spoke to were the friendliest yet, there were lots of great little shops tucked away, it was busy but not crowded, and it's only two and a half hours from London.

I seriously considered buying a Welsh rugby jersey and lapsing my dislike of rugby just so I can come home and support Wales in the World Cup...think how many people that would annoy! The Welsh bar is just across the road from BATS Theatre in Wellington. It would be perfect.