Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Capture the Castle

Like many Americans, I am a big fan of castles.  I love visiting them to marvel at their antiquity, learn about their history or simply to wander silent among the somber stones as I try to imagine what life was like for the people building and living in these massive monuments of rock.  I mean, no telly—not even ITV—and not a power shower in sight; it had to be tough going.
And so, during our stay in Warwickshire, a visit to Warwick Castle became a matter of some priority, especially as it was recommended by just about everyone.  On the appointed day we were, as is our habit, up and out early, arriving in Warwick just as the Council workers were finishing the day’s first latte and well before The Castle itself was due to open.
Warwick, we discovered, is a pleasant place, accessible, tidy and agreeably quiet.  There was not, however, a lot of diversion that early in the day so we had a second breakfast at Costa Coffee and waited for the castle gates to open.
At opening time, we made our way to the entrance of the castle and stood in the queue.  We didn’t have long to wait—we were third in line and there was no one behind us—but during that short time, vague misgivings began to nag us.  There was no sign telling us what the entrance fee was.  Instead, there was a colorful, cartoon-like menu above the ticket booths offering a confusing array of options; apparently, we were to select from a number of dubious exhibits—such as The Dungeon Experience (where we could be introduced to The Castrator), The Princess in the Tower (a la Sleeping Beauty), and other exhibits that appeared to be part of a weekend seminar on murder and mayhem—like some sort of medieval Chinese take-away menu.
When we got to the window, we told the woman we just wanted to see the castle, no frills, just the basic tour.  She smiled, rang it up and told me the price.  Fortunately, hearing the amount took my breath away so I was unable to utter the heartfelt “Fuck me!” that was straining to leap from the tip of my tongue.  At least now I knew why the woman was smiling.  But we were on holiday, so I paid up and we set out for the castle proper.  At the gate, we showed our ticket and entered something that looked like Disney meets Time Team.
To our left, a huge caldron—surrounded by implements of torture—bubbled with faux-steam under a swaying hangman’s noose, to our right a banner announced The Dreams of Battle Experience to deafening rock music and in the distance—as advertized—stood The Princess Tower, recommended for ages 8 to 14
“I think this is mainly for kids,” my wife observed.
Undaunted, we toured the inner grounds and mounted the steps leading to the walls and the towers.  While enjoying the views the ramparts afforded of the town, we heard sporadic shouting and, looking down, saw hoards of grammar school children massed outside of the gate, apparently being whipped into a medieval frenzy by one of the castle keepers.  Then they let them in.

We're under attack!  Quick, get the boiling oil!
This was obviously a big day for them all (which you might expect, seeing as how their parents had to remortgage their bungalows to afford the entrance fees) and they were well up for the occasion.  Many of the children (and adults) dressed in period costume and there was a general air of excitement tempered with the feeling (especially among the older children) that the excursion was the culmination of a series of learning experiences and that they might be expected to produce a report before the end of term.

Top: Princesses and their Princess mums; Bottom: a row of Knights.
I won’t go into boring detail about the rest of the visit (well, not any more than I already have) but I would like to cover the highlights, and lead off with this endorsement:
It didn’t suck as much as I thought it would.
The children, once they dispersed, headed to exhibits we weren’t venturing into, so the day did not disintegrate into a huge scrum as we had feared.  We soon wandered into the more modern portion of the castle for what looked like a waxwork tableau showing how the privileged classes lived back in the day (that day being 1898).  I expected it to be incredibly naff but it was, in fact, surprisingly fascinating.  The figures looked as nearly life-like as a dummy is capable of and the stores they told were genuinely interesting, intriguing and educational.
Back outside, we wandered around the back of the castle so I could get a peek at the largest siege engine in Europe, though I wondered exactly how hotly contested that title actually was; I expect there is not such a desperate a need for siege engines these days.  The device—called a trebuchet (pronounced “Catapult”)—was a fascinating contraction, and we arrived just in time for their daily demonstration.

The trebuchet in action.
After that, we agreed it was time to leave, but upon returning to the courtyard, we encountered a man with a huge eagle on his arm.  Intrigued, we waited, and witnessed an amazing bird show.

Man and Bird.
After that, we felt we really had taken in all that Warwick Castle had to offer us, so we returned to town to hunt down lunch.
Though Warwick Castle was not what we had expected, the kids seemed to enjoy it and—as noted earlier (and I really think they should make this their motto)—it didn’t suck as much as I thought it would.  Visit the website for more details:

I encountered one woman dressed as a jester and assumed her to be an employee who was forced to dress that way; after taking her photo I found out she was actually a teacher on a tour with her class who simply wanted to "get into the spirit."  I didn't feel it would be fair to put her photo up here, so I made an appropriate substitution. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Tupperware™ and Toilet Paper

We just returned from a couple days in Stratford-upon-Avon where we did the obligatory Shakespeare tour and visited a castle, but before I relate those adventures (they are planned for subsequent posts, so don’t be surprised if you never hear about them) I want to talk about the hotel and the weather.
The hotel we staying in was A) a bargain and B) a sign of the times.  My wife found the deal some months ago and we couldn’t believe how cheap it was to spend 5 days there—with meals included!  But times are hard and hotels—especially during their slack seasons (and really, who wants to visit Warwickshire is March)—need to do all they can to keep warm bodies in their beds, so we found the too-good-to-pass-up deal too good to pass up.
The hotel was three-star and, honestly, that turned out to be an advantage.  I’ve stayed in four-star hotels and, while I appreciate the additional luxury, there are significant advantages to basic service as long as you don’t mind missing out on a few unessential frills.  The rooms were comfortable and homey, the staff—with few notable exceptions—cheerful, attentive, eager to please and generally grateful to have a job that didn’t involve a hairnet and a name tag.
The food was good.  It was not exceptional, it was not artfully arranged on large square plates and it was not, more importantly, piled up so high we couldn’t finish it; there is little worse than spending your holiday in a chronic state of indigestion due to overindulgence.  We were served good food, hot and palatable, better than what we would get at home and we didn't have to do the cooking or the washing up.
The weather, too, was good.  Not brilliant, but then it wasn’t pissing down, either.  However, it was a bit dull.

Atmospheric, or like living inside of Tupperware?
My wife and I, always ready to look on the bright side, kept referring to it as “atmospheric” but in truth it was simple cold and grey, the kind of cold and grey that only Britain can produce.  For every day of our holiday, the sky was a smooth, unblemished expanse of grey that gave no hint of where the sun might be and which made 8 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon and 5 in the early evening all look identical.  It was disconcerting and, after a while, pretty boring; the kind of weather Bill Bryson eloquently described (and this is why he is a best-selling author and I am not) as “like living inside Tupperware™.”
But I’ll take boring over wet and windy any day so, with our inadequate outer garments, we gamely fulfilled our sightseeing quota, which I will cover in separate posts (if I get around to it).  So, for now, I’ll leave you with a few additional words about the hotel:
The difference between a three and four star establishment (and between the US and UK, for that matter) became painfully evident when a waitress dribbled my appetizer into my (full) wine glass.  She was suitably chagrined and apologized profusely but, when she removed my sullied wine glass, she returned with an empty one.  Hardly a like for like exchange; in the US, I’d have gotten a free drink, and likely a free entrĂ©e, as well.
The other difference was in the bathroom.  Levels of luxury are noted mostly by the little details; anyone can feed you and make sure you have clean linens, but folding your toilet paper end into a diamond, that is a mark of quality.  We didn’t get a diamond, just a point, but then of course we weren’t in a four star hotel, just a three star:

How to tell your hotel's star-rating by looking at the toilet paper

Friday, March 9, 2012

Britain On A Budget

I am so glad Jonathan and Jackie Thomas did not write this book ten years ago; if they had, I could have easily gone to England—as I had originally planned—and I would not have gone to Ireland, met my wife, moved to Britain and started this blog.  In fact, I am so grateful to them for not publishing it a decade ago, that I agreed to write a review.
Their book, 101 Budget Britain Travel Tips is an excellent resource and an attractive book, to boot.  I found myself wishing they would offer it as a hardback because of the stunning photographs in it (which allowed me to play the “I’ve been there” game) but a hardback book would be expensive and a pricey book of budget travel tips would be too ironic, even for Americans.
The content of the book is well laid-out, entertainingly presented and packed with useful information both on what to see and how to save money doing it.  The Thomas’ have been to Britain an average of once a year for the past ten years so they have a lot of experience—some of it gained the hard way—under their belts.  They also have an insatiable curiosity about Britain and have managed to discover interesting sights and activities off the hard-packed tourist trails that are diverting as well as economical (there are pedestrian paths that pass underneath the Thames; this I must see).
Also, interspersed among the pages are “The Top Ten Things to Do For Free in…” segments, which will provide you with free entertainment practically anywhere you end up.  These are handy for tourists, but also serve as a kick in the pants to people who live here—Britain is a beautiful and intriguing place; get out there and see it!
If you’re a bargain hunter, you’ll appreciate Jonathan and Jackie’s tips on how to get around economically, or cheaply, or even free.  Britain is expensive, make no mistake, but if you keep your wits about you, it isn’t hard to travel on a budget, and this book is filled with tips that will show you how to make sure your trip-of-a-lifetime will take your breath away merely due to the spectacular scenery and magnificent sights, and not when you see your next month’s bank statement.
Of course, it you really want to see Britain, the best way to go about it is to marry someone who lives here and go live with them.  If that idea doesn’t appeal to you, then I suggest you buy this book.  It will probably be cheaper in the long run, anyway.
About the Authors:Jonathan and Jackie Thomas are the founders of, a website for people who love Britain: British TV, Culture, History or Travel, they cover it all, and more.
Visit the site:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bright Eyes

I read Watership Down many years ago and was absolutely captivated by it.  I’m sure you all know the book I am speaking of—the one about the brave bunnies who set out from their doomed warren to found a new colony in order to provide a much-needed boost to Art Garfunkel’s career.

I’m not certain what prompted me to pick up a book about bunnies back then, other than the fact that we used to raise (and eat) rabbits, so I had more than a casual interest in them.  I expect I anticipated a pleasant, if somewhat bland, story, but it turned out to be a wonderful tale that was intensely interesting, surprisingly exciting and strangely disturbing all at the same time.

The bunnies, as you know, overcame some pretty horrific obstacles, and the story ended in a bloody, drawn out fight to the death.

But, it was only a story, all made up, with no basis in the real world.  Or was it?  Some weeks ago, I caught a snippet on the news (I generally avoid watching the news as it invariably ends up with me shouting at the telly; really, no good comes out of it) about an activist group protesting the council’s plan to put a housing development on Watership Down (which would provide an interesting symmetry as it was a housing development that resulted in the destruction of the original warren).
Anyway, this surprised me; not that locals were getting their knickers in a knot over the council’s plans (that happens all the time) but that Watership Down was a real place.
“Of course it is,” my wife told me when I queried her.  (I might also add that she said it with a total lack of chagrin at having failed to notify me of this important bit of intelligence during the past decade.)  Apparently it is common knowledge over here, but somehow ten years have gone by without it having come up in casual conversation.  Never mind; the fact was eventually revealed (and just in time, it seems) so I proposed that we spend Saturday driving up to the northern edges of Hampshire to have a wander around the bunny warrens before they disappeared for good.

The map led us to one of those idyllic areas where impossibly narrow roads sweep through verdant vistas and the air is rich with the scent of money.  The houses were large, the grounds well-tended, the security impressive.  The locals remained reclusive, however, though they probably give us a glance as we wandered across their security monitors and thought, “Bloody tourists!  Crawling around looking for that sodding rabbit hill that never existed.  It was a bloody book, you fools!  Well, at least they help us keep the Council at bay; otherwise we might have an estate filled with working class people nearby, and that simply wouldn’t do.”

Or something like that.
The actual Down itself was scenic and looked, well, like a Down.  I mean, really, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  The walk was pleasant, however, and took us past an ancient hill fort that was, unfortunately, fenced off so I couldn’t get any good photos of it.
It was nice to get out into the countryside again after a long and sedentary winter, and I was chuffed to bits at getting to see the real location of the made up story about the rabbits, and get a photo of it:

At least I think it’s the real thing; it was on the map but I might have been looking in the wrong direction.  As I said, they all pretty much look the same so, while I can be fairly certain that one of the green bumps I looked at was the true Watership Down, I cannot swear that this particular one is it, though the odds are favorable.
One thing I am certain of however, however; I didn’t see a single rabbit.