Monday, August 3, 2015

8 days in England

I raced down Buckingham Palace Road, a 12kg backpack bouncing awkwardly behind me as the cold rain plastered my hair to my scalp. Holding onto the five extra kgs strapped to my front, I careened down the endless departures lounge at Victoria Coach Station, praying desperately that my Eurolines ticket out of London would still be valid.
Stomp, stomp, stomp... Squish squish squish

My soaked shoes announced my arrival and as the end of the line disappeared into the bus, I just about managed to change into dry footwear, dump my backpack in the hold and grab a seat. I caught my breath and looked back at the last week that had all but whizzed by in a flash of pubs, sloping grasslands, achingly polite language and a glimpse of some of the world's most iconic structures.

Tower Bridge, London

Chester – raspberries & races
Full English breakfast
My first experience of England was right out of the little handbook of stereotypes. Yoghurt and raspberries went down the hatch before fancy fasteners of feathers and ribbons were strapped on and heels clicked towards the race track in Chester, a town 270 kms north of London. We smiled, shook hands and sipped on beer, huddled under colourful umbrellas in the Dee Stand. 'There they come!' ...and there they went, horses thundering down the track, out of sight in barely a flash and lost in the overwhelming drama of the races.
It's a long drawn tradition that is more of a social event than a sport, women trying to outbest each other in surviving the longest with the least cover in 10 degrees C and everyone enjoying multiple tastings of the local brew. And yes, there’s betting. Generally anyone who wins buys the rest a beer, so in the end, everyone wins!
Chester, though a small town, is quite popular on race day. The main thoroughfare is alive with all kinds of shops, and buskers keep the central square bright and spirited. There are ruins of an old wall dating back to Roman times in 70AD designed to keep out invaders. The circuit around the city was completed in medieval times and forms a walkway peppered with interesting historical sites.

Wales – mountains & meadows
Chester beautifully complements the quiet, village life of Betws-y-Coed in Wales. Here, in the west of the United Kingdom, the resolutely tongue twisting words feel out of place in the simplicity of life. Satisfying full English breakfasts (complete with black pudding and bangers), steaming pots of tea, and crisp morning air are ideal energy boosters before a long trek along the River Llugwy and the Gwydyr Forest without a soul in sight.
House made with slate in Betws-y-Coed
Ardent hikers with a good sense of direction take a short bus ride to the nearby village of Llanberis at the foot of Mount Snowdon to climb the tallest peak in Wales. On cloudy days, it’s hard to see the path, so greenhorns – like me – opt for the train ride instead. There’s the National Slate Museum offering glimpses into the mining and production of Britain’s peculiar grey construction material.
A hot Cornish pasty and cup of jo keeps the heart from standing still when you see a man jauntily ride down the street on his horse wearing jeans and a t-shirt like it’s the height of summer in 1965.

Mount Snowdon
Liverpool – Beatles & Beer-battered fish
Fish and chips
Liverpool is starkly different. It resounds with modernisation and the whipping noise of the wind as you take the ferry across the River Mersey. You’re already singing ‘Penny Lane’ as you step off the dock and head straight for the Beatles museum.
Located at Albert Dock and Pier Head, the Beatles Story takes fans on a journey through the lives, times, culture and music of the Fab Four. With its replicas of famous pubs from the Beatles’ era, videos of fan hysteria, memorabilia, and recorded audio conversations of people closely connected with one of the most famous bands in music history, the museum – and its Fab 4D family entertainment video – brings the beat group to life for hardcore fans and regular tourists.
A greasy meal washed down with beer is ideal to warm you up against the chilly wind, but I will sadly admit that my first meal of fish and chips in England will be my last. Served traditionally in newsprint, this beer battered chunk of haddock or cod served with an enormous pile of thick chips and boiled peas was a long-standing stock meal among the masses. That is, until chicken tikka masala took over! As a Goan, it was glaringly evident that the meal would have had a more satisfying effect had it been one of our tastier local morsels, even bereft of any condiments. The chips, however, were delicious.

Diaries at Portobello Market
London – mementos & memories
Further south in London, a walk down the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill is an adventure in shopping. Everything from cheap clothes to vintage fashion, farmers’ produce and gourmet cupcakes, overpriced curios and deliriously beautiful antiques lie wedged one among the other, eagerly waiting to be hunted out.
To be blessed with bright blue skies with about 16 hours of sunshine in England on an eight-day vacation is nothing short of a miracle. It’s only natural then to take a walk through London’s giant breaths of fresh air. All through Hyde Park – past Kensington Palace where the young royal couple and their two babies live – you discover how much wonderful weather means to the ordinary Brit.
Big Ben
Families and friends make it a picnic, there are games played, dogs walked and even horses trotted. Ducks and swans greedily snap up nibbles put down by warm-hearted tourists. Buckingham Palace and The Mall suddenly emerge on the other side, stately and prim. If you’re lucky, as I was, the Queen might zip by in her Land Rover as she arrives from Windsor Palace to Buckingham right before the changing of the guard.
Soon Westminster Abbey and Big Ben loom into view, and further down across the bridge, you see the overpriced but beautiful London Eye. Just there, we stopped for a drink of Pimm’s at the Udderbelly Festival, marked by a giant upside down purple cow and dozens upon dozens of picnic tables filled with sunshine and summer drink lovers.
We passed Shawn the Sheep statues, some of the 100 painted, each by a different artist to be auctioned at the end of summer. Ahead rose the 200 foot tall Tower Bridge, one of England’s most iconic symbols and an engineering marvel during its construction in the late 1800s.
Shawn the Sheep statue for charity
Other important structures include The Shard skyscraper, the Millennium Bridge known as the ‘Wobbly Bridge’ before its modifications, St Katharine Docks, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Museum and the new Crossrail Roof Garden at Canary Wharf.
Rain might have marred the following day, but didn’t deter a visit to the Emirates Stadium in Holloway with a chance glimpse of Arsenal legend Charlie George, and a nip to the pub at Covent Garden to warm up and say cheers to a lovely time.

That night, as the bus rumbled towards the white cliffs of Dover to cross the English Channel towards France, I thought about all that had transpired over the past eight days. The UK was so much more than I imagined it would be, and if you played it right, not nearly as expensive at all.

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