Wow. It's been a big week, and there is LOTS to tell. In fact, so much that I don't think that I can get it done in one blog, so check back throughout the week for updates.
Where to start...
Thursday - Monday, my friend Pam was here from Austria. You can see pictures and hear her side of our visit at her site, nerdseyeview.com. I highly recommend her blog...there's even a handy link just to the right of this entry. Pam and I have good wandering energy together. We can move with no agenda and make a day of exploring everything from art to grocery stores. She laughs at all my really dumb jokes, she's my ukulele idol, and she is excellent company.
I can't tell you how much I was anticipating her arrival. See, Pam is married to a kind-hearted handsome Austrian, and since his job keeps him in Cowtown, Austria except when he's on holiday, Pam spends 3 months or so there every winter. This means that, in addition to all of the fundamental things we have in common, we are also both living far from home in foreign lands. We've both been DYING for a chance to share frustrations and secret jokes about our temporary homes. Pretty much from the moment I picked her up at the train station until I dropped her off four days later, we were talking, exploring, eating, or sleeping. Turns out the Austrians haven't mastered laundry or quality temperature control on your shower, either. There are many things to dislike about modern America, but I tell you...there are a lot of things we're doing right, especially if it involves cleaning, hygiene, or electricity. And in like manner, there are some wonderful things to be said about European countries. Somehow, venting with someone who is in the throes of a love/hate relationship with an adopted homeland makes it possible to be honest about both the good and the bad. It did both of us a lot of good to get it out of our system.
But, lest you think all we did was whine about plumbing and appliances, let's move on to exploring part.
Thursday was just dinner....took her to the Indian restaurant in a church in Stony Stratford, and while the setting is unbelievable the food was just so so. If you're next on the guest list, I won't be taking you there.
Friday we slept in a bit, then headed out to Warwick. Warwick is about an hour north of here, and has one of the best medieval castles in England as well as lots of tudor architecture and fun little shops to explore. The drive there is beautiful...windy little roads through the countryside, hedgerows and sheep galore. The best thing about England is that it totally looks like England. If you've ever seen a Merchant Ivory or Jane Austin-based film, or even if you read a picture book about England in elementary school, well, that picture in your head is exactly what England looks like. Close your eyes...picture it...you're practically here. It's quite comforting and very very cool.
As with most castles, Warwick is on a hill so it has a good vantage point of the surrounding area. It's pretty amazing, actually. Once you've walked up from the parking, you enter a little stableyard/coachhouse area with the ticket booth and a little restaurant. It was a cold, rainy day, so once we got our tickets we went into the restaurant for a cuppa and looked at our guidebook to prepare.
Warwick Castle is huge...it's got a dried up moat and a drawbridge and a set of spiky gates that can be dropped to protect you or to gore intruders on their way in. There are blocky looking towers and ramparts around the castle, and you can totally picture medieval knights pouring boiling oil down on surly visitors. It looks like the set for Monty Python's Holy Grail...this place goes back as far as the 11th century. It's absolutely crazy.
Once you're inside, you stand in a big yard. You can work the circle, or you can go chronologically. We elected to start chronologically and went first to the dungeons and torture chamber, which date to the 13th and 14th century. Talk about grisly, nasty and frightening. There were hanging stockades on the wall, and if you figure that most people were probably 5 ft to 5ft5 and looked down the wall, you'll notice that the bricks are worn from rubbing (much like steps that are 600 years old wear into little treads)...and you're still about 4 feet off the floor. There are etchings in the walls that were made by prisoners. There's a hole in a little alcove that's about a yard deep/wide. They used to put people in the hole and never come back for them. Upstairs, they've got a little display of spanish inquisition tools like the rack and a spike boot and a stretchy nasty chair thing. Pam speculated on whether people KNEW how much life sucked, or whether they just figured it had to be this way. It's really quite unsettling.
Oh. And the best part about the Dungeon/Torture chamber area? The sign outside the door that says, "Torture Chamber Unsuitable for Wheelchair Users." (don't believe me? See picture here.)
So then we moved on the the prettier parts of the castle. We did the walk around the ramparts and the towers, which involved something like 600 steps, most of which are tiny and winding in almost dark tower hallways. Smokers and the unfit beware...it'll wind you something fierce, and once you start, you have to finish. That being said, I did just fine and the views are spectacular.
The castle is owned by Madame Toussaud's, which means they've put some interpretive wax figure displays in parts to help you picture everyday life. (Thankfully, they haven't branded the castle literature, though...no Key Arena or Enron Park for the British.) There's a section set in the 14th century area that depicts castle dwellers preparing for battle. There are fake cats with moving tales and fake kids that have creepy disembodied giggles and lots of homely peasants. (There's even a wax horse poo under the backside of the horse in it's battle colors.) I will say though, if MT's interpretations are to be believed, the chin didn't disappear from the British male until at least the 15th century.
There's also a wax vignette in the Victorian chambers, depicting a royal weekend hosted by Daisy, Lady Warwick from the early 20th century. There's a wax version of young Winston Churchill, a wax Vanderbilt woman who married royalty, and a wax Prince of Wales (who was supposedly Daisy's lover) who supposedly was a distant, ineffective father. Not sure the officals know that the interpretive guide near him is speculating that this quality is still present in modern royals, but it's a pretty funny conversation to have mid tour. My favourite character in this section was the giantess/opera singer standing by the grand piano. Her name was Clara Butt, and she was supposedly the big thing of her day (figuratively and literally.) Clara was almost 7 feet tall and, frankly, looks like a man, but I haven't had time to check for the truth on the internet yet.
When we left the castle, we wandered the streets of Warwick. Lots of Tudor houses...not the kind you find in the suburbs that have 8 bedrooms and 5 baths and a great room for fun family times, but the kind that leans because it's been there so damn long. There is an unbelievable hospital in this town that was built by one of Elizabeth I's lovers, Sir Robert Dudley. It was built as a retirement hospital for soldiers and their wives, and is still in use today. We were thinking about taking the tour but were too crabby to pay for another thing, so instead we killed a half an hour with some charming old gents in the visitor center who told us stories and gave us advice. (Both live in the hospital now, and I think they were happy to have pretty young things stop in so they didn't have to talk to each other anymore.) They were making fun of each other and telling jokes, and for a minute we thought they'd ask us around to their side of the counter for tea or something. But once they found out that we were taking the M40 back towards Milton Keynes, they insisted we get on the road. It's mid-term break, and they didn't want us queued up in the traffic.
Stopped at the grocery store on the way home. Pam was gobsmacked by the sheer size of it all, what since her closest grocer of even modest size is an hour away. Here are some pictures of things that made us giggle there. (look at the four bottom pictures)
Okay. I'm exhausted. I'll put the next installment in tomorrow...and there's a real-life royalty encounter coming, so be sure to tune in....