high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer Vacation Part III: Great Britain By Train (or, The Sheep Lovers Tour Package Deluxe)

So big.  So Ben.
As I noted in my previous post, getting into France ended up being far less involved than anticipated.  Therefore, as Jen and I embarked on the "British leg" of the trip, we expected a fairly similar experience, departing Jen's apartment on the way to Gare du Nord international station with thoughts of how easy everything would be once we were back amongst fellow English-speakers.  The first step in traveling from Paris to the UK was to take the "Chunnel," which is the nickname for the most popular way of traveling between the two countries, formed by combining the word "Channel" (that is, the English Channel) with the word "funnel."  Thanks to advances in transportation technology, travelers now have the ability to cross the English Channel by means of a specially designed funnel-like transporter.  You simply step up to a swirling vortex of water, created by high-powered fans on both the British and French shores, hold your breath, and step in.  Voila!  Or, once you pop out on the other side and need to quickly change tongues, There you are!  Nothing to it, right?  That's what we thought...

Let me first say that there have to be thousands, if not millions of tourists who travel from Paris to London each year.  There may even be some people who make the journey as a daily commute, if they are rich enough and want to live in one city but have their job in the other.  At the very least - the very least - businesspeople must frequently make the journey between these two major metropolitan areas.  But judging from the reception we got, you would think that Jolly Old England had a massive problem with vagrants coming across via Eurostar (the transportation company that operates one of the Chunnel portals).  Vagrants with lots of expendable cash with which to purchase tickets, apparently.  There is the usual security, including metal detectors, scanning machines for bags, secret passwords, etc, but then we hit the real roadblock, which was the border security agent.  For a few moments I honestly thought we were going to have to turn back and regroup, or if all else failed, create a diversion.  After passing all the initial security and determining that we weren't carrying weapons or posing an imminent threat, the border security agent wanted to know where we were going.  No, I'm not talking about "tourist attractions," or "Wales," or even "the Holiday Inn in northwest London."  She wanted a specific address.  She wanted details.

I was utterly unprepared for this.  Our first overnight stop was going to be at a bed & breakfast in Wales, but I hadn't actually written down the address for the place.  You may think this is foolish, but truly, it would be pointless to write down an address for finding your way in the Welsh countryside.  I hadn't even been to the country yet and I knew this.  You have to navigate by landmarks, and the names of farms, and things like that (more on this later).  So, in response to the security agent's queries, the best I could do was "Well, we're traveling around Wales for a few days.  We're staying at a B&B somewhere off the A490 tonight.  It's in Welshpool.  Uh....it's on a farm, you know?"  No, she didn't know.  And she was not pleased.  This puzzles me, because again, there have to be thousands, if not millions of tourists, and probably next to none of them are going to stay at one address the whole time.  So what's the point?  Furthermore, if you were really up to no good, you wouldn't give the freaking address where you were staying!!!  In fact, rather than giving no address, you would serve yourself well to give a fake address, so then when the coppers show up to bust you at the fake address, you've already thrown them off the trail.  Maybe this security procedure is for the safety of tourists, so the government can know your expected whereabouts and rescue you if needed, but it seems pretty useless from my perspective.

Professor Moriarty.  Matching wits with Robert Downey Jr.
in a theater near you....this Christmas!
In retrospect, I totally should have given a fake address.  What address you ask?  Why, 221B Baker Street, of course!  And if the security agent lashed out with a British-sounding retort like "Oh, wise chappy are ya' luv?" I could have honestly said "Well, that's where I'm going."  Because we were.  And we did.  And the Sherlock Holmes museum was overpriced (like everything) but a totally worthwhile part of the trip!

Eventually we got through security, as the border agent reluctantly stamped our tickets and waved us on.    Then it was off to London and Wales!

London was pretty cool.  In fact, it was only in the mid-60s.  Plus it rained off and on all day, so I feel like we got the real London touring experience.  We visited the usual suspects, like Big Ben and Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Scotland Yard, and Westminster Abbey.  While the structures themselves were impressive and nice to look at, the Abbey probably contained the single most interesting visual treat, which was this....

Yes!  Nothing says "church" like the Goblin King coming out of the grave to slay some souls!  It was totally awesome to be unsuspectingly confronted with this visage.  Jen explained some things to me about these old churches, like how they functioned back in the day and how in many ways they function the same way now.  But regardless of the other goings-on in the church, it seems there's a good chance that parents occasionally bring their kids for a service.  And no doubt in the middle of the service little Johnny is begging his mom to let him go play with the Goblin King.  Another strong Christian soldier in training!  What was the Abbey thinking, putting Goblin King sculptures in the church that little kids will think are cool, thus turning them to the dark side right from the start?!  If you're going to do that kind of thing, you at least have to throw in a Jesus sculpture, with the Savior wielding a mace or something.

Rolling green hillsides
After touring London, we boarded the train for Wales.  Traveling by train through the British countryside is quite pleasant, with lots of rolling green hillsides, sheep, rolling green hillsides, sheep, and sheep.  Fact: there are more sheep than people in Wales.  While this could be cause for concern over a potential sheep uprising, the truth is that sheep are placid creatures, desiring only to graze, make some noises at each other randomly, and probably not get shorn.  They only accomplish two of these three objectives, but even their failure to accomplish the third is not reason enough for them to uprise.  And in fact, they couldn't, because sheep are notoriously dumb.  That is, unless they're just acting dumb, in which case they've really pulled the wool over our eyes!  Yes!!!  For the win!!!

The bed & breakfast hosts for our time in Wales were exceedingly polite, helpful, generous, friendly, and spoke with great accents.  This was the kind of hospitality we were expecting at the start of the trip!  At the first bed & breakfast, we walked up a long country road to get to the house (amongst a herd of sheep of course) and were treated to fine accommodations, including a luxurious, soft bed, and a shower with a start/stop button.  Yes, just like the start/stop buttons that some cars have now!  Rather than the typical primitive shower controls, this shower had the start/stop button as well as dials to control both the temperature of the water and the force of the spray.  I would have stayed in the shower for a long time, utterly engrossed in these features, but there was more sheep-viewing to be done.

The B&B owner no longer farmed the land or tended the sheep, but in Wales you can never totally separate yourself from the fluffy creatures.  At breakfast the next morning we overheard the owner talking to another guest about one especially cold spell the previous winter when one of the sheep, being a stupid animal, as previously noted, wandered into a pond and ended up freezing solid in it.  According to the owner, it took a sledgehammer to crack it out!  Yes, our B&B owner apparently spent one frigid morning swinging a sledgehammer to break a frozen sheep out of a pond.  Ladies and gentlemen....the Welsh countryside!

We left the B&B that morning to go find some castles.  There was one castle in particular in this town that we wanted to find, and so we asked the B&B owner how to get there.  At this point I'd like you to recall the line from earlier in this post about how you navigate in Wales by landmarks, not addresses.  Did the B&B owner give us directions by naming different streets and their respective turns?  No, of course not.  He told us to look for a particular landmark in the center of town.  However, the directions were even less specific than you might expect.  In Wales, as we found, a standard method of giving directions is to utilize the phrase "It will become apparent."  You know, you just go down the road, see the big church/farm/clock tower, and the rest will become apparent!  We thanked the B&B owner for his hospitality and excellent directions and set off once again.  Unfortunately, I would discover later, I made off with the key to our room.  But no problem!  While visiting the castle we asked if there was some way to call the B&B owner, and while they didn't have a number, one person knew where the farm was (using her knowledge of various other farms and landmarks), and promised to return the key, displaying classic English friendliness.  Delightful!

Passing UK border security: Like the modern day equivalent
of scaling a castle wall with burning tar being poured on you
Traveling by train is really a great way to see England and Wales, in my humble opinion, because you get to places reasonably quickly, you can sit back and relax (or even sleep) rather than trying to navigate around in a car, obviously you don't have to park, and on top of it all, you can have the classic movie-scene experience of running to catch a train!  Jen and I got progressively closer to missing our trains as the trip went on, not intentionally, but just because we were engaged in seeing things while at the same time getting more and more used to the process of finding the right train platform and boarding.  First it happened in Shrewsbury, then in Cardiff, and finally in London, where we were catching the train....er.....spiraling vortex on our way back to Paris.  It was closest in London, and we felt the most pressure there, as missing our ride would mean spending the night in London and having to purchase new travel tickets, both of which would be unexpected and rather substantial expenses.  But our saving grace was the French, who really expedited things.  Because you see, in stark contrast to the British, they couldn't care less where we were going to be staying in their country :-)

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