In case you missed it, to catch up on the first week of our trip, please read the first of these two blog entries: Escapades inIreland and the UK with Calhoun (Part One of Two Blog Entries).
This blog entry documents the second half of my summer trip with Mathew Calhoun last year In Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK). During this leg of our two-week adventure in August, we explored England and Wales.
After our time in Ireland, we boarded a 6:00 am flight to Liverpool, England, via RyanAir, arriving at the airport shortly after 3:00 am. Multiple locals advised us to arrive on time due to a shortage of workers and thousands of visitors traveling through the Dublin airport.
Of all the places we visited on this trip, Liverpool was my favorite area. Some features of Liverpool shared common traits with London, however, Liverpool possessed its own identity and rich history. Since we arrived so early in the day, Matthew and I explored much of the city. Our first landmarks included stops at St. Luke's Bombed Out Church and the Liverpool Cathedral. St Luke's Church was air raided by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. Ironically, the church foundation and walls still stood erect, everything except for the roof. The edifice was open-air, and the architecture possessed its own unique charm. In addition to some statues, gardens with several blooming roses surrounded the grounds.
Next, the Liverpool Cathedral seemed like its own country. It was massive both inside and outside! The church exhibited some large-scale artworks by Peter Walker. While Walker's pieces were quite interesting, I found the display of these pieces to be a little odd inside the structures of a holy place. It made the church feel touristy rather than reverent. For a small donation, Mathew and I climbed two elevators and several steps to reach the summit of the bell tower, where the views of Liverpool appeared spectacular. The clear skies presented the ideal imagery for a panoramic photograph. You could also observe the other known landmarks of the city from high above.
Mathew and I ventured to find the Beatles statue, near the Albert Docks. The famous English boy band was from Liverpool. Mathew was intrigued by the narrative of how this known trio emerged with a clear mark on history. In addition to the Beatles, Liverpool possesses a strong past as a port town, shipping trade goods all over the world. While commerce still seems rampant through Liverpool, it appears reduced compared to past levels in the city’s maritime history. The Albert Docks consists of elegant restaurants, souvenir stores, art galleries, several museums (all free to enter), and a spectacular view of the waterways. We then visited The Cavern Club and Mathew Street, where the Beatles played close to three hundred times. Resembling an underground cave, The Cavern plays music around the clock. Mid-afternoon, we grabbed a few beers and enjoyed the live music. For quick viewing of the local sites, we rode in a twenty-four-hour drop-off/pick-up bus meant to route visitors to the tourist attractions throughout the city. After a full day of activities, we ate dinner at MADRE Liverpool. This Mexican establishment maintained a flare of American Tex-Mex spice.
We stayed one night in the Posh Pad Apartments. Rather than a traditional hotel room, we occupied a spacious, clean apartment with a kitchen, dining area, and den. For the rate, it was an exceptional stay! The rates for every activity and accommodation in Liverpool were a fraction of the price of our time in London. Ian, the driver and entrepreneur of MADD Day Out Beatles Tours, chauffeured us around for approximately three and a half hours to visit many historical sites of the band around Liverpool. These sites included the childhood homes of each band member and Strawberry Fields. After the excellent tour ride with Ian, we made one last stop at the Maritime Museum at the Albert Docks. The museum showed two immense exhibits of the famous shipwrecks, the RSS Titanic and the RSS Lusitania. The Titanic ship was designed in the Albion House, the previous headquarters of The White Star Line. This company was known for building state-of-the-art cargo and passenger ships.
After we visited the naval museum, Mathew and I caught a train from Liverpool, England to Bangor, Wales. In Bangor, we ate dinner at the Wood Fired Shack, a pleasant pizza eatery for those with casual travel wear. The restaurant was nestled next to ancient churches and castles. Near the town square (close to the restaurant) was a large, abandoned cathedral. It seemed out-of-place that this landmark stood empty in the middle of a noteworthy Wales town. It still functions to some degree, yet it resembled a barren warehouse without stored products. A university administration building was just beyond this church on a hill overlooking the town. This campus structure resembled a modern castle. While appearing somewhat like a ghost town, Bangor possessed its own appeal.
Our trail guide eventually picked us up at the restaurant in her caravan, which could comfortably sit 10-12 people with her larger groups. We stayed in a private room at Totters Hostel in Caernarfon during our first night in Wales. This accommodation was clean and comfortable. The building was previously a residence that the owner now turned into a hostel. Most of the town stood within the walls of the historic and still-standing Caernarfon Castle. In other words, the town was the castle. The town sat on the edge of a body of water. The surrounding hills of the countryside made for a picturesque image of what medieval times might have looked like. Shortly after arriving at Totters, we ventured to the Black Boy Inn, another local establishment. The Welsh pub within this inn felt like a scene in a movie. The inn was built circa 1522 and is still family-owned. Multiple theories exist as to why the name fits the inn. One story relates to a black navigational buoy in the nearby harbor. According to another account, a known black boy was brought on a ship into the country through the nearby waterside and worked several years at the inn.
Over three days, we planned to complete the Welsh 3000s in Snowdonia National Park. This hike encompassed fifteen summits of mountains over 3000 feet, covering approximately thirty-two miles. For the trek, we hired a private guiding company that offered a glamping experience with mattresses and a circus-sized tent for two nights during the hike. We covered eighteen miles on the first day, thus finishing most of the hike on our first day.
Our main guide was concerned with making good time, however sometimes overlooked our enjoyment of the actual hiking experience (breathing, absorbing the moment, and marveling at the scenery). This adventure was my first time in the national parks of Wales, and I sought to gaze at the majesty of these green mountains. This creation appreciation mentality is not an approach I typically rush through.
To better enjoy these junctures and maybe because I was a little annoyed with our guide, I asked if I could take an alternate shorter route the next day with some waterfalls (not just hills, rocks, and goats). There is not a wide selection of wildlife in Snowdonia National Park, literally birds, bugs, and goats. Mathew and I split up for most of the second day of our hike, and he completed the middle section of the full trail route.
On the final day, due to rain conditions (and for safety reasons), the guide suggested that we start at 1:00 pm and hike into the evening. This delay permitted us to revisit Caenarfon and tour the inside of the castle. Of the many castles and architectural wonders we visited, this site was the most impressive with the well-maintained grounds and the museum collection. All aspects and parts of the castle were open for exploration. Some castles in the UK have limited viewings with residents still living in the structures. I also had some extra time for light shopping near the town square.
I again decided to take another alternate route that mounted the last three peaks on the trek the third day. Mathew took a path that required several hours of free climbing, bouldering, and generally some unsafe situations that involved risks. In some places, Mathew was free climbing without a rope and a harness.
To carry mountaineering gear and physically climb in Wales, this qualification necessitates a license our leading guide did not possess. However, there were sections of the trek that would have been safer with rope, a harness, and some other climbing essentials. If you seek to hike the Welsh 3000s route, check your guide's credentials. Make sure they are certified in both trail guiding and rock climbing with the right gear.
We all finished the last portion of our trek at the summit of Snowdonia. Upon later reflection, Mathew and I could have self-guided the last three peaks, stayed in the town of Snowdonia, and had a similar quality experience for a fraction of the price for a guide. It depends on what you seek to do with your time while visiting the UK.
I covered about twenty-five miles of the trails in the Welsh 3000s. Mathew covered the entire thirty-two miles, crossing all included summits. We stayed the last night of our trip at the Royal Hotel Victoria Snowdonia, which was a splendid choice after three long days of hiking. The beds felt like cushioned heavenly clouds, and the warmth of mountain water in a real shower brought new meaning to missing these first-world luxuries. The breakfast we had the following day was pristine! For a moderate price, we had many choices for a traditional Welsh morning cuisine.
With five days remaining in our trip, we went to London. Riding the train from Wales to London was problematic because it was overcrowded and operationally unsafe. People stood in every available space, even between cars next to the bathrooms and doors to get on and off the train. Many of the train operators were said to be on strike for unknown reasons, which made the journey very uncomfortable. Clean and fluid transportation was a challenge throughout the UK. On the other hand, public transportation in Ireland was smooth and much less expensive than in the UK.
Because of the constant train delays, we arrived at our hotel, Melbourne House, much later than expected. Melbourne House was in the Westminster neighborhood, central to all the major sites in London. It was sweltering in London when we visited, and the humidity remained throughout the late evening and early morning. The heat made it a little hard to sleep each night.
Once settled in, Mathew’s immediate question sunk in, “What would you like to do?” In less than an hour, Back to the Future, The Musical, would set the stage and begin with a memorable performance. I really wanted to go to the play; however, Mathew and I delayed buying tickets, knowing and expecting the multiple issues with transportation in the UK. In other words, we did not want to purchase tickets and miss the play due to these unnecessary delays. We decided to grab a quick taxi to see if we could buy tickets and catch the play a few minutes before it started. We were successful in doing so! And it provided for a fascinating first evening in London!
I love the three movies that make up the Back to the Future trilogy with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd! Both characters in the musical played the depicted movie characters with precision and personality. The same Huey Lewis and the News tunes on the movie soundtrack resounded on the stage with a strong presence of special effects and dance numbers from the cast. The historic Adelphi Theater provided a beautiful backdrop for the DMC DeLorean time machine to appear as if flying just above the audience and under the ceiling of the building. The flux capacitor abilities impressed the audience of science fiction fans!
For our first full day in London, we stopped at the London Eye, the world-famous cantilevered observation wheel. It is the tallest of its kind in Europe. The wheel moves very slowly, so individuals take advantage of the views and vistas from various high points. Groups of people stand or sit in a large glass room that looks like a pill of medicine. Several of these glass caravans on the Ferris wheel rotate through the entire wheel. The London Eye sits in an area on the Thames River called the Southbank Centre. There are some green spaces and other smaller tourist attractions here as well. During our walk to the London Eye, we stopped to admire Big Ben (nickname for the Great Bell of the Great Clock of Westminster at the north end of the Palace of Westminster) and Westminster Abbey Church. The Great Clock of Westminster resembles a historic tower with a noticeable clock at the top of the building, viewable from miles around.
Our next stop was the Charles Dickens House and Museum. Of course, as many book lovers know, Charles Dickens is the author of The Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and many other literary texts. I marveled at how many words Dickens could write in a short period. I enjoyed seeing one of his main writing desks and learning about the Dickens family. Mathew desired to see a Champion League soccer game (more popularly known as football in Europe). The home team, West Hamn United F. C., was playing Manchester City F. C.
The game served to mark a task off my personal bucket list. It was one of those luxuries you do once to say you did it. West Hamn played their games in the London Games Olympic Stadium, which was an impressive building on its own. I am not a steady soccer fan, yet I was still surprised at how cynical West Hamn fans were towards their team. I partially expected an electric environment with cheers from the crowd, however, the fans could have been more enthusiastic. At the time, Manchester City was one of the best teams in the league, and maybe fans knew they lost the game before it even started.
Perhaps on a more exciting note, Mathew and I planned to visit Stonehenge, Oxford University, and Windsor Castle the next day. Stonehenge was the famous circle inlay of stones in the middle of nowhere. Imagine fields for miles. In the middle of these fields, there stand rocks as large as modern buildings. Since the stones are approximately 5,000 years old, historians wonder how the stones were moved to the present-day location. Many explanations also exist for why the structures were created in historic times. First, many people have been buried at Stonehenge and near the circle of grandiose rocks. So, it could be a burial site. Second, some findings suggest Stonehenge was used for ceremonial purposes in medieval eras with royalty, knights, and celebrations for other individual achievements. Third, many theorized astronomical purposes exist for the grounds, such as tracking the movement of the moon, sun, and planets. Some have even claimed the stones possess supernatural powers, perhaps once used for spiritual purposes in life and death rituals. Regardless of the reason for its existence, Stonehenge was magical! While some visitors only notice large rocks in the middle of the field, I see a landmark built for wonderous purposes (and maybe some tragedies) through many ages for those who lived there.
Windsor Castle limited what sections visitors were previewed to as one of the royal residential sites. No photographs were allowed within the castle. So, viewing the few rooms experienced seemed minimal for the hours one could really spend touring the buildings. One part of the castle included an impressive weapons collection – spears, knives, swords, javelins, and multiple sets of armor for combat. This collection was pristine, well-maintained, and shiny.
Oxford University was made up of several colleges within the system, however, these smaller colleges were not limited to only specific majors like higher education in the United States. They operated as their own mini colleges, integrated into the overall Oxford University as an institution. The mini campuses were stunning, but many were closed to the general public. Walking around the campus, you could get an overall picture of how the university operated. Several scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed in the buildings and on the campus.
I visited the Winston Churchill War Rooms on our last day in London. These underground bunkers served as a historical landmark where Churchill spent most of his time as commander-in-chief during World War II. The Germans constantly bombed London throughout the war, and Churchill remained protected in these chambers from the constant bombardment. Now a museum, the tour of the facility presented a unique lens into the experiences of London citizens at the time. I cannot imagine living in this heated environment, fearing for my life daily. I walked through Hyde Park and St. James's Park to appreciate the natural scenery amidst the city. I stopped by to peak through the gates of Buckingham Palace, the home and administrative center for the British royal family. The surrounding gardens and gates of Buckingham Palace looked heavenly, literally some parts with statues of angels and trumpets. I walked across Tower Bridge and toured the inside workings of the draw bridge. Depending on the ship coming through on the Thames River, the bridge still operates to open up and down. Then boats can go through while cars wait on each end. At the top of Tower Bridge were glass floors that you could look down through and see the river below. Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894. It was designed by Horace Jones and engineered by John Wolfe Barry. The mechanical operations of the bridge were an impressive feat for these men at the time of its creation. Once across the bridge, I walked by the Tower of London (different from Tower Bridge), a historic castle built by William the Conqueror. Between 1100 and 1952, part of this structure was utilized as a prison.
The stunning architecture, scenery, and history are magnificent in London! London is truly one of the greatest cities in the world! You must visit this city in person to fathom its illustriousness.
The original intent of our trip was to celebrate my fortieth birthday with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I would say we did that. For a birthday gift, Mathew surprised me with tickets to the play, Les Misérables. The play was much different from what I remember and closer to the book's plot than the movies. It was a wonderful last night to a spectacular experience!
I was away from my family for about two and a half weeks while visiting these previous sites with Mathew. While Annabelle is only two and half years of age and Jace is now eight months old, taking them on longer trips is logistically more challenging. Rather than travel solo, I prefer to share these golden moments with my family. So, I look forward to sharing these international travels with the kids as they get older.
In my many adventures, I have learned that life is not necessarily gratifying if one focuses on how much money or stuff a person accumulates. Instead, I enjoy the key moments I can revisit with family and friends, sharing these experiences with those I love. If you wait for your "maybe one-day" timeframe, you may realize that day never comes for you to seize the moment and live out some of your dreams. I encourage you to live out some of your heart’s desires today! Do not wait! Because one day, it may be too late to do so.
(The inside of the Liverpool Cathedral is breathtaking!)
(Looking up at the London Eye from the bottom of the wheel.)
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