London Calling

So I’m way behind on this post, I know… London was a little crazy and I was a bit lazy by the end of my trip…

I was also sick of typing on my phone or iPad… I should have brought a keyboard for sure, so I ended up waiting until I got home to my laptop.

So I arrived in London on Sunday, the 23rd. I took the train from Wales to Paddington Station, which was cool, but kind of confusing to navigate. The stations I’d encountered before this were mostly in small towns… London is obviously a different beast.

 

It took about to 20 minutes to get to my hotel, which I thought was adorable, in Kensington. It was in a townhouse sort of location on a residential street, mixed in with some other hotels. My room, while cheap, was kind of a closet in the basement – clean, but very, very limited on space. But it’s London. Next time I think I will definitely look into doing an Airbnb – I was looking through listings and you can get a whole studio apartment for about the same per night.

 


That night I went and explored Hyde Park a bit and settled in for the evening in my closet, I mean, room.

 

 

The next day I went on kind of an extensive walking tour of London, which was a bad idea. I definitely should have taken the Tube or other public transportation to get around, because, at the end of the day, I was exhausted, my feet were sore and the only thing I got to kind of see in the way that I wanted to was the Tower of London – and even that I had to leave because they were closing for the night.

I walked past Buckingham Palace and Shakespeare’s Globe, I went across the Tower Bridge, I saw Big Ben from a distance and I spent a lot of time marching through random areas of the city and finally taking a taxi back to the hotel. So my recommendation is to not do that. I didn’t see much at all of what I wanted to see and only made myself very cranky.

The Tower of London was actually really cool, and I wish I could have spent more time there. If you’re not sure, it’s more of a castle and less of a tower, but it was considered to be very secure and a great place to keep your important prisoners, make your coinage and store your crown jewels, which are still housed there today. I did get to see those, which was exciting. Also, the actual tower housed an armory that had a very cool display of armor and detailed the other uses of the complex. Sadly, I wasn’t able to see a whole lot more, because they were closing.

The following day, Tuesday, I went out to Stonehenge, which is about an hour and a half out of London. I got there early enough in the day that I didn’t have to wait a terribly long time for a ticket, and there’s a very well done exhibit that you can look at before you go out and see the stones. This is helpful because it gives you some context, so you’re not just staring at some rocks.

It was a gorgeous day and I opted to tromp through the path in a farmer’s field rather than taking the shuttle bus from the exhibition area. There were some very not impressed sheep and cattle, but I enjoyed seeing the landscape and imagining what it used to be like.

Thanks to the gorgeous weather, I got some awesome pictures and I was very excited about that.

On Wednesday, my last full day in London, it was kind of rainy and dreary, and I needed to reorganize and repack for the trip home, so I stuck fairly close to the hotel, instead of running off across London to try and see the things I had missed. I did, however, walk over to Kensington Palace, which was only about a 25-minute walk from the Starbucks by my hotel. Yes, I am that girl.

I was able to buy a ticket on my phone, though they said it could be sold out, and when I got there, they simply printed it off and let me in. There weren’t a lot of people there, which was a little surprising considering they had an exhibit of Princess Diana’s clothes on display. But I was able to walk through the state rooms that are open to the public and see several areas where kings and queens have resided, notably Queen Victoria, who was born and raised there.

Currently, Prince William and Kate live there, as well as Prince Harry. Sadly, I did not catch sight of any of them and I assume the public area of the building is very far from where their residence is located.

Finally, on Thursday, I took a cab to London Heathrow, really, really early because I wasn’t sure how long security would take and I heard there were extra measures for passengers going to the US.

Getting through security was actually really simple and there was no line at all. The terminal kind of resembled a shopping mall and I spent my last pounds sterling on a book in the book store I found there. I grabbed food and went to the gate, and there it got a little more stressful – it was more than 30 minutes until boarding, but as soon as I got there, they called for passengers to Charlotte. They had the seating area blocked off and you had to scan your boarding pass and then they checked a list for your name before you were allowed in. If you were on the list, you had to go through further screening off to the side.

I expected to go through the normal boarding process from there with announcements and zones and whatnot, but they just loaded us all on to buses and we went to the plane and boarded first come first serve. So I ended up on the plane an hour early. And then we sat for another hour after we were supposed to leave. But it really wasn’t that bad. There was no wifi, which was a little disappointing because I had planned to do this blog entry among other things on the 9-hour flight, but I am happy to say I survived the whole thing with zero connectivity.

We arrived back in Charlotte just a little late, and it took about an hour to get through customs and get my luggage. Then it was surprisingly easy to get a Lyft from the arrivals area and get home.

My internal clock is all sorts of messed up and I spent most of yesterday trying not to sleep at weird times and listening to the cat tell me how disappointed she was in me for abandoning her like that.

 

Now I guess it’s back to real life and looking for a job! Sidenote: if you’re interested in hiring me, please feel free to reach out – find me on Twitter at @Jen_Hebert or check out my online resume here.

I’m unsure whether or not I’ll keep up the blog as I go through the rest of the summer looking for a job, because my life is a bit boring, but I do plan on at least doing a “Trip in Review” sort of post here sometime soon, so keep an eye out!

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Dear Mom…

Dear Mom, 

I finally made it to Wales and the Morgan family home like we talked about when I first started getting into the family tree. 

We always said we’d come someday, well I guess someday is now. I never expected to get here alone, but things don’t always work out the way you think they will, I guess. 


Tredegar House is amazing. You would have loved to go through it and hear all the stories about the family. 

Let me tell you a little about it…

Right now the house is being restored, so it’s covered in plastic and scaffolding. Apparently 300 year old roofs tend to be leaky. I bought some postcards that show what it looks like without its raincoat. 



But the part that’s open for visitors is really cool. I told the volunteers that you were a Morgan and they helped me find our ancestor on the family tree. He’s the brother of the one who remodeled the house into what it is today. 

The planks on the floor of this room are all 40 feet long and are assumed to have come from the same tree. The each span the entire length of the room.

The downstairs “dining room” is covered with carvings in oak, which was unusual at the time, suggesting that a shipbuilder was the artist since they would be used to working in oak.



The guides said that according to local legend, the Morgans were likely the chieftains of a Celtic clan that built a nearby hill fort before the Romans and then the English took over. They believe the name Tredegar means “place near the hill fort” in Welsh. 

Mom, they said the Morgans were good people, beloved by their servants and tenants, that they believed they were “of the people and of the land.” They weren’t landed gentry to begin with, they were commoners and self made. They didn’t get a title until after our branch split off, but they were incredibly wealthy until the last two heirs sort of spent it all on… well on things like bathtubs full of champagne… and betting on horses. 

A recreation of Evan Morgan’s bathroom from the 1920s.


Some of them were a little quirky. But at least they were interesting. And at one time they owned 90,000 acres. The entire county almost. 

The house was great to see, but I think my favorite thing was the grounds. Tredegar Park is spectacular, with a small lake and a walking trail and ginormous trees and convenient benches. 



And dogs. So many dogs. It seemed like everyone was out walking their dogs in the park today. I felt slightly out of place without one… 

Also on the grounds is a cafe and a gift shop and… a second hand bookstore. Yes, I bought a book, among other things. 


I didn’t think I was going to be able to see it because this morning it was raining so hard I couldn’t see the hotel parking lot, much less walk a mile to get there. But by the time I finished breakfast at the cafe next door it was clear. 


You would have appreciated the stables, you come by your love of horses honestly – the stables were nearly as nice as the house. 

The stables.


I spent all day there trying to soak it in. You would have enjoyed all of it. The guides said the Morgan women were strong ladies. Clearly you came by that as well. 

It was an awesome day. The only thing that would have made it better is if you were here to see it with me. 

Love, 

Jenny 

Notes From the Train

I didn’t manage an entry last night, because to be perfectly honest, I got to the hotel, ate dinner and immediately passed out. 

Yesterday I left Dublin on the ferry, which although I was nervous about it, was a remarkably easy process, then I caught a train from Holyhead (pronounced Holly-head), Wales to Chester, England where my hotel was for the night, I could have gotten an earlier train and gone straight through to my destination – Newport, Wales, but I really wasn’t sure about timing and didn’t want to find myself rushing in a panic trying to collect my luggage and find a train. Plus, I was tired and needed a short day. 

My view on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead.

I also could have flown and not wasted the better part of two days on the ferry and the train… but I wanted to see some of the country and not just skip over it and only see my departure point and final stop. Sometimes it really is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination.

I shouldn’t have worried. When the ferry arrived in Holyhead, I disembarked via a shuttle bus to the terminal, picked up my luggage immediately off the conveyor belt and walked to the other side of the small building, which was the train station. So I had a little extra time to wait, but there were seats and wifi and plenty of people watching. 

Traveling by ferry and train has actually been a great experience – I’d done the ferry before as part of a tour group, but never by myself and I’d never traveled much by train. But the U.K. has a fantastic train network and it is SO EASY. Especially if you have a smartphone. I downloaded an app (Trainline) and I’m able to look up where I need to go and purchase tickets right from my phone. I can track the train and see if it’s delayed and what time it will arrive and what platform to go to – which is helpful if the departure board is all in Welsh… it just makes the whole experience less stressful for a newbie and I imagine far more convenient for people who use it all the time. 

Trainline app

View from the train from Holyhead to Chester.


When you show up to the station, there’s plenty of people to ask where you’re going and what to do, and everyone has been very nice. You can buy a general ticket – any open seat or purchase a reserved seat. I opted for a general seat because I wasn’t traveling at a busy time and also I’m cheap. I was a little worried about my luggage – wondering how that would work, but each car has a little luggage rack and you just stick your bags on and take a seat. 

Holyhead train station


I imagine each station is different, but the small ones I went through were easy to navigate.

When I got to Chester, my hotel was about 10 minutes away, so I took a cab from the station – I could have taken the bus, but I didn’t feel like trying it with a suitcase and all. The hotel was a little Holiday Inn with a restaurant- it was in a business park, a bit far from everything, so I decided to just eat there and have an early night. My original plan was to take the bus or a taxi back into town and explore a little, but I decided an early night was not a bad thing and had a very good pizza and cider in the hotel restaurant. 

This morning I got a cab from the hotel back to the station – really only a few pounds more than the bus and much quicker, had a coffee and a muffin and got on the train, easy as that. My next stop is Newport, Wales and the ancient home of the Morgan family – Mom’s maiden name was Morgan, and I traced the family tree all the way back there. It sounds like they were quite the bunch and I’m excited to see Tredegar House, which is now owned and operated by the National Trust. 

Morgan family ancestor

A Little Legend For You… 

Whoever said Ireland was cold and rainy was clearly lying to keep people away… This morning, we embarked on the bus to visit the Giant’s Causeway, a natural rock formation with an interesting mythology. And it was gorgeous. Sunny and near 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 21 Celsius.. I’m learning slowly since literally no one but the US uses Fahrenheit). 


The unique basalt rock formations are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption and erosion. If I knew anything about geology, I might be all to explain it, but I don’t and also it’s boring, so I’ll just tell you the myth instead, because after all, this is Ireland… 


So, the story begins in ancient Ireland, when giants still walked the land. One of these was the Irish hero Finn MacCool (obviously a heroic name, right?). He lived with his wife near the coast in Northern Ireland and starred in many other Irish stories. 

In this story, Finn hears about a Scottish giant across the Irish Sea, Benandonner, and Benandonner insults him and challenges him to fight, so Finn builds the Giant’s Causeway across the sea to Scotland, but when he sees the other giant, who is much larger, he turns around and runs home, but not before Benandonner sees him and gives chase. 

Not wanting to fight a losing battle, Finn tells his wife what happened and she springs into action, dressing him as a baby and putting him to bed. Soon, Benandonner is on their doorstep and she invites him in, saying that her husband is out. She tells him to set his spear down next to her husband’s and points to a giant oak tree and then tells him she was just about to feed the baby, but Finn should be back soon. Benandonner sees Finn, dressed as the baby, and becomes terrified of how large the father of such a huge baby must be. He jumps up and runs home across the causeway, destroying it as he goes, and leaving what remains today. 

Other rock formations near the causeway are reportedly the giant’s boot, his chimneys and his giant sleeping camel, among others. 

It’s really an incredible sight, especially on such a beautiful day, and I probably could have spent days there instead of just the two hours allotted for that stop. 

After that, we headed for Belfast and the Titanic Experience, which was cool because it’s near where the Titanic was actually built, but the exhibit was a little disappointing, and definitely didn’t fill the entire three hours we had there. 


Following that, a local guide joined us aboard the bus and gave us a tour of the city, which was interesting given the historical context and today’s current events. We saw (and signed) the Peace Wall that still separates the Loyalist and Nationalist neighborhoods with gates that close at 8:30 p.m. and we also saw many of the other murals that decorate the city, some with political messages and some more lighthearted. 

After we checked into the hotel, I set off on a mission of my own, to find the sister school of my alma mater, Queen’s University of Charlotte, The Queen’s University of Belfast. It was only a 15 minute walk from the hotel and the campus was really beautiful. 

The streets of Belfast are clean and I felt perfectly safe walking through them by myself – it’s hard to imagine that there has only been peace here for less than 20 years. The economic development is incredible with construction and restoration everywhere. 

Tomorrow is the last day of my tour before I continue on my own for a week. I’m both excited and a little nervous. I’m not sure the tour model is for me, because I really like to book my own accommodations and set my own schedule – ask my former drivers, who I’m fairly sure called me the “schedule nazi” when they thought I wasn’t listening… 

Exploring the Aran Islands…

So today went on a day trip from Galway to the Aran Islands (really we just visited the largest of the three, Inishmore). 


We hopped on the bus and drove about an hour to the ferry port, where we crossed some fairly choppy seas on a small ferry to get to the island.


After we got there, we had the option of renting bikes or hiring a tour van or taking a horse and carriage around the island. I opted for the bike, which may have been a poor life choice, since prior to the short bike tour the other day, I hadn’t really ridden a bike in about 15 years. 

The weather was authentically Irish, but the island was still beautiful. The ocean was a gorgeous blue-green/gray mix that was just spectacular. We were also able to see some seals in the water just offshore. 

Seal sticking its head out of the water

All along the road we were on were small pastures fenced by stone walls, some with cows or horses, providing a picturesque landscape. 


We biked around through the small settlement- only about 1,200 people live on the islands and the language is primarily Gaelic. 


We had a bite to eat from the local grocery store – there are also some pubs and restaurants in the small village, but I was excited to find a Dr Pepper. 

After lunch we took off to the other end of the island and biked out to see some castle ruins and a very old cemetery with a small church built in the 8th century. 


We also saw several of these tiny houses in people’s yards and we were told they are leprechaun houses, although this cat seemed to think that it was his. 


We finally made our way back to the village and decided to check out some of the shops, which showcased another item the island is famous for – wool knit sweaters

Lastly, here is a photo of one of the locals with his horse and carriage because he is wearing a Red Sox hat and I clearly have found my people. 

Hairy Coos and Glasgow

So today was kind of a travel day… we left our fabulous castle kind of late and headed to Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. 

We did make two pit stops on the way there – one to see some “hairy coos,” AKA Highland cows. These are a sort of unofficial mascot of the Scottish highlands. They’re hairy and adorable and they love carrots and selfies. Well… carrots anyway. (And no, for those who know me, I do not have the baby cow in my luggage now. They wouldn’t let me bring it on the bus…) 

The second stop was at Stirling, and the William Wallace monument. This was at the top of the hill and we hiked up in a bit of drizzle, and then climbed a whole lot of stairs (246 of them in a lovely narrow spiral staircase), but the view from the top is amazing.


 Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit Stirling Castle today, but we did have lunch in Stirling and we went on to Glasgow where we had a free afternoon, where I did a little shopping and sightseeing, including this famous statue

Statue of the Duke of Wellington


Tomorrow, we move on to Dublin and I am incredibly excited for Ireland!! 

Edinburgh Etc… 

Edinburgh Castle

Today was an absolutely gorgeous day. As you can see, it was sunny and nice and pleasantly sort of warm. It was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit with a perfect breeze, which the locals said was the best weather they’ve had in weeks. We started the day with a guided tour of Edinburgh Castle – one of the perks of going on a group tour like Contiki is having that sort of thing prearranged and included. Our tour guide was named Sabella and she was both informative and highly entertaining.

One of the anecdotes she told us was about how in medieval Edinburgh, there was incredibly poor sanitation and the streets were very narrow, so everyone drank alcohol all the time because the water would kill you, so, often drunk people were walking the streets. Well, there was no indoor plumbing and nowhere to empty your chamber pot except out the window into the street below. People would call a warning before they dumped it, but the drunker you were, the more likely you were to stop and look up instead of dodging… Hence the term… “Shitfaced.”

I have no idea how true that is and I promise she was much better at telling the story, but she did give an amazing tour of the castle.

 

Edinburgh Castle has some incredible history, and is a great site to visit – my photos really don’t give it justice. We were also able to see the Scottish Crown Jewels, although no photos were allowed.

Next, I went with a small group to eat lunch and do some shopping, but then my solitary tendencies kicked in and I decided to do some exploring on my own. I’m not sure how many of you are Harry Potter fans, but if you are, I’m sure you’re aware that J.K. Rowling wrote all of the books here in Edinburgh, so supposedly many of the local sites were inspiration for the books and I set out to find at least one – in Greyfriars Kirkyard, there are several names familiar to Harry Potter readers including a Tom Riddell (Tom Riddle) and a McGonagall. There is also a school located nearby that was said to have inspired Hogwarts. Plus, the architecture. Look at it. It looks straight out of the movies.

 

Tom Riddell’s gravestone

Outside Greyfriars Kirkyard, there is a little statue of a dog, called Greyfriars Bobby. If you want to read the story, it’s here, but maybe get some tissues first.

Greyfriars Bobby

 

Lastly, today they gave us a bus ticket that was good all day and the public transportation here is AMAZING. It’s clean and safe and the buses have wifi! It was great and very easy to get from place to place. I still walked more than five miles, but I also took the bus several times and I wish we had something similar back home.

View from the upper deck of a double decker public bus

I finished up the day with some souvenir shopping and then took the bus back to the hotel for a group dinner. Tomorrow we take the tour bus up to St. Andrews and then we go for a cruise on Loch Ness! Maybe I’ll have some photos of Nessie for you tomorrow night!