Thursday, February 21, 2013

British Isles

This is going to be a long one, folks. Before the break, I have a couple of more convenient link/note dumps.

Photo Albums

NOTE: There are more photos in these albums than are included in the post.

  1. England
  2. Wales
  3. Ireland
  4. Going home

Related Posts

  1. On the Way to the British Isles: The first leg of this trip.
  2. The Way Home: The return trip.

Travel Notes

  • People here tend to avoid each other less than in Seattle, but I was primarily in the English countryside.
  • Pubs are common in rural England similar to how fast food eateries are common in rural America.
  • The roads here are rather narrow and often without markings. Passing spots are frequent. People park on the sides of roads and effectively take up travel lanes.
  • On that note: the knee-jerk reaction to travel isn't the car; people consider walking and other forms of transport seriously. 'Normal' people cycle on the side of major routes in some areas.
  • Mixer taps aren't very common, especially in older houses and buildings.
  • England looks small on maps, but it is still quite a long ways via ground transport.
  • Small shops (corner stores, butcher shops) are quite common here.
  • Brick houses are everywhere.
  • Pretty much no mobile phone reception in many areas. 3G is like finding gold. It's difficult to use a lot of data without being able to ever get a significant amount of instantaneous bandwidth.
  • Public transport (trains) is regarded as terrible by residents, but they haven't seen how bad it is in Seattle.
  • (Unpaved) byways and bridleways crisscross the landscape.
  • Traffic signals indicate when they are about to go from red to green.
  • Both beans and potatoes are popular here. Yum.
  • Baguettes seem to be a bit more common in the UK and Ireland than the US.
  • Doors often open with the keys alone, rather than being unlocked then opened with a knob or handle.
  • There are a lot of sheep in Wales.
  • Drivers in Ireland are scary.
  • It's very windy in Wales and Ireland.
  • Dublin is a lovely city.
  • Waiting staff don't get tips, but get better wages. Service standards are a bit lower.
  • People tend to have electric kettles rather than coffee makers, even if they drink coffee.
  • Tea is more often offered there than in the US (where coffee is king), but there is typically a very limited variety of tea (almost always black teabags).
  • The general attitude is that of begrudging acceptance rather than forcing things to change to one's liking.
  • Throughout my trip, my 'universal' AC travel adapter hadn't been working very well: I had to wiggle it to get it to work when in the UK, and it wouldn't work at all in Ireland, despite them sharing outlets. I'll have to get a UK→US adapter for when I travel to the British Isles again.
  • The UK keyboard layout is a bit different, and the double-quote is further away from the home row than the @ symbol.
  • HORSE MEAT SCANDAL EVERYWHERE.

My original intent for this trip was to hike The Ridgeway, but that ended up being a very minor part of the trip.

England

Day 1: London to Streatley

To London Paddington

The first order of business was to obtain a SIM card for my phone so I wouldn't be without mobile connectivity, which was pretty easy since there were vending machines at the airport. I had to add some more money onto the prepaid card, but since I didn't have a UK postcode, I had to make use of a stall closer to the ground transport area.

Next up was getting on the Piccadilly Line to head downtown, but as I found out, service was split and required the use of a free bus bridge. It was slower, but I did eventually make it to where I would start my first cycle leg: to London Paddington Station. As usual, I did get lost a few times, especially since I was dealing with unfamiliar traffic, but I made it. There were plenty of little nice bits of bicycle infrastructure along the way, too.

Unfortunately, I did find out that the airline did damage my folding bicycle: its front fender and head tube were the main issues, but I was able to work with them.

The stress from both the foreign traffic and the issues caused by the damage on my bicycle really got to me.

I talked with a couple others who were also headed the same way, mainly about technology.

Once at Goring, I rode toward one of the B&Bs on my list, since it was getting to be a bit late for me. I ended up staying at a pub known as The Bull at Streatley.


Day 2: The Ridgeway

The next morning, I started to make my way toward The Ridgeway, which involved traversing over various levels of pavement before hitting what was little more than mud. I still pushed my bicycle through the mud and snow.

It didn't really get any better as I trudged ahead.

After a while, mud and snow started getting caked beneath my bicycle's fenders, preventing its wheels from turning. Periodically, I had to pick the stuff out, but it just kept getting back under there. So eventually, I gave up and took to the road, stopping at Wantage for food.

I had a sandwich at the butcher's place, with the chicken freshly cooked behind the counter. He also brought out tea, since I "looked cold." Afterwards, I went to an adjacent café in search of WiFi, but ended up my first taste of jacket potatoes with beans and completely forgot about WiFi.

I dropped by the Uffington White Horse next, but there wasn't really much to be seen due to the snow. Interestingly, there was a sort of snow line here: up on the hill it was snowy, but the roads and ground around it were just wet. The ride really wasn't so bad, especially since traffic was light in what was pretty much the middle of nowhere.

After heading down to the center of Uffington, I began to scope out places to sleep. Fox and Hounds was the first one along the way, but I checked out Norton House. The small shop/post office next door told me that the place was closed, but the Chalkstone Cottage nearby would offer a much cheaper bed and breakfast than Foxes and Hounds, so I headed there. (The stay only cost me £35, which was quite good!)

It was really nice to sit by a fire and drink some tea after all the cold. (The owner here also said I "looked cold.") The owner mentioned how she didn't understand why Americans drive to go only a few blocks from home to the shop.


Day 3: Swindon to Holyhead

Using the power of my OSM-equipped GPS, I headed straight for Swindon to catch the train. I was done with the mud and snow. My route included a number of major and minor highways, and I came across several other cyclists along the way, from highly-reflective individuals to 'normal-looking' people. I did have a bunch of trouble with my bicycle's dérailleur (contrasted with its hub gear) which required numerous adjustments on the side of the road. Again, the ride wasn't bad at all, though it was a bit unnerving riding on the A routes and the larger roundabouts.

Once in Swindon, which reminded me a lot of Tacoma, I finally came across data service I could use. There were many narrow streets and alleys, and some questionable-looking shacks which may or may not have been in use.

I saw alcoholic stuff in the train station, which seemed rather strange to me since this sort of thing wouldn't fly in Seattle.

From that point, I was pretty much just riding the train to Holyhead, with a transfer at Cardiff.

Wales

At Cardiff, I didn't really go much beyond a few blocks from the train station. Lunch here was a baguette at a café, though I did see a frut stand trying to sell a number of things (I already was packing fruit). I also noticed a number of shops catering to 'adult interests.'

My Kindle's batteries had been annoying on this entire trip, and this leg was no exception: I didn't have much in the way of entertainment beyond the landscape. The trip just kept going on and on, and became really boring once it became too dark to see outside. I barely was able to see as I crossed the famous Britannia Bridge.

At the end of this ride, I really felt like a poor person.

No places in the area were open, and hauling 70 pounds (folding bike and everything) really limited my movement. I made for the local Travelodge as recommended by one of the bars. This bar (The George Hotel) and a number of others in the area were listed as 'accommodations' in Google Maps, which really confused me.

I ended up getting Chinese food from pretty much the only open restaurant and taking it to a bar to have a hard cider with it. The next few days had me getting cold sandwiches from the local grocery store for food.

Travelodge may not have been a particularly good place, but anything helps when you're feeling like you're at the end of your rope.


Day 4: Holyhead

My original goal was to go cycling about the island (and potentially visit a friend of a friend), but the winds and rain dissuaded me. Those involved in this original goal can be found in this tweet:

Instead, I went and explored the city a bit, since I had been on the move continuously on my trip until then; it was really getting to me, and I needed a rest. But first, I went to an "Internet café" to spend a few minutes online. I also set up the Twitter-SMS bridge with my UK number.

After walking about a bit, I found my umbrella to not be of much use due to the wind whipping it about, so I stopped by a small charity shop to pick up a wooly hat.

After doing so, I set about on the longest part of my walk, which involved climbing up the hill upon which Holyhead is situated, and winding around through the streets. There was a park or something at the top of the hill with horse poop scattered about (I had no idea what to make of this). Unfortunately, the rain started getting to my camera after a while.

After stressing out over the issues with my camera, and eventually getting it to work again, I headed back to that same shop to get some wool gloves, since my cycling gloves are either not warm enough (one pair) or too bulky (the other pair).

With that, I headed back to the motel to try to sort out the mess with my camera.

(The above tweet about duct tape actually took place around this time, but it made more sense to put up there.)

I first tried a local hardware shop, but they only had masking tape (can you imagine that?); at the cashier's suggestion, I went to a Wilkinsons a little ways away, which entailed braving the traffic and weather again.

Next up: I went to the local grocery store to get a sandwich. I had a nasty slide on some brick parking near the motel on the return trip, though. At least I didn't fall.

After a day of all this, I really needed this. When you're dealing with these sorts of days, it really does help.


After eating, I had a rousing round of thought.



Day 5: Holyhead to Dublin

I started this day off by heading over to the ferry port, but found out that the run I had targeted doesn't carry foot passengers. Thus, I got out my folding bicycle and rode around a bit, seeing some familiar sights.

At the end of this, an old gent invited me to sit and have tea in front of a café. We chatted a bit, and as it turns out, he was doing lumberjack and other manual work in Germany for years until he got a stroke from it. During our conversation, he mentioned how he was forcing himself to reach out and talk to others for his own benefit, which I admired. I also liked how he resented people who sat in front of the television, watching it all day, especially into their twilight years. His cigarettes didn't bother me as much as the ones I've found others smoking here, but they were hand-rolled and unfiltered. (The café is actually called "The Hungry Bees Café," but the name changed within the past few months.) Some kids went by, and apparently one of them let the air out of the tires of another one's bicycle via the valve. The kid just threw it down and ran off in a huff, so I filled the tire back up with my portable pump and left it there until he came back to grab it.

I saw the same kid in the train station next to the ferry port a bit later, when I on my way to the ferry.

From this point on, I was on roaming: first off on "maritime" service from Vodafone UK (the provider of my SIM card), and later because apparently Vodafone UK and Vodafone Ireland are somehow separate. I also didn't take too well to the ferry, but after exchanging my Pounds for Euros I was able to get some food.

Ireland

Once in Dublin, I took the bus to the central city (during that ride, I noticed all sorts of tiny bascule bridges across little canals branching from the river which divides Dublin), then unpacked my bike and rode to Temple Bar and the hostel where I would be staying. A coworker of mine made the reservation, but I covered the cost of it. I'm glad he chose this one, though. (I noted that it wasn't really much different from the Travelodge 'quality'-wise.)

After dropping my stuff off, I wandered around a bit and snapped photos. I got a close look at the bicycles the city provides for rent, too, but the album for up-close details on them. Aside from those, there were bicycles everywhere! Blocks and blocks of multi-story buildings, stretching for miles!

There were some interesting bits of culture, included a guy handing out cards for redemption of sins or something like that.

Also, real-time bus arrival signs were all over the place!

Since my accommodations included a free drink, I went to eat at the bar.

I finished the day up by wandering around some more, but it was too dark to take good photos while a little buzzed. I got a great look at what a real old city looked like, and it definitely changed my views on what Seattle is.



Day 6: Dublin, Guinness, Then to Galway

Since breakfast was at 08:00 and I was up hours earlier, I did some early-morning riding through Dublin. I noticed a few folks riding along the tram tracks, which I would never do.

Later, at breakfast I started talking to a young Japanese woman. We discussed things like music, starting with UTAU and Vocaloid and progressing to stuff more popular. We exited the common room so I could play music on my phone using Google Play, since I had uploaded a bunch of it to there ages ago. (It also turned out that she lives in the same prefecture as some of my relatives in Japan.) We then agreed to walk about the city and see sights, with her leading the way.

We wandered from the hostel to Queen of Tarts, then to Christ Church Cathedral, and eventually to the Guinness Brewery, all the while discussing all sorts of things, mainly focusing on history. I also showed her what my camera's macro lens can do. Her love of knowledge, learning, culture, and history was quite refreshing; I felt like we had many tihngs we could teach each other. Heck, she chose Dublin specifically for the local authors. Along the way, we also stopped at a candy shop and bought candy for each other, while I commented on the familiar music being played outside despite not having seen the play with which it is associated.

We then went through the brewery tour, which talked about the brewing process and the history of the company itself. (I explained to her about the similarities between beer brewing, bread baking, and what was involved in the production of vinegar.) In the end, we both ended up with about a pint of beer in our systems.

For the return trip, since walking would make me miss my train, I got us a ride on one of the horsedrawn carriages sitting outside of the brewery. We talked about visiting each other's hometowns so we could show each other around.

Since we still had a bit of time before needing to head to the train station, we hung out around a nearby courtyard.

I sprung for a taxi to the station since we only had so much time total together before I had to leave, and we said goodbye as she headed to a bookstore to procure books by authors local to Dublin.

And off to Galway I went, to be picked up by the coworker mentioned above. He was kind enough to let me stay at his place. (He lives in a house on a golf course.)

While on the train, I chatted a bit with some other passengers.


I just watched some television with them and took a couple of photos while there that evening. See the album for the photos.


Day 7: Galway

My stay in Galway primarily consisted of riding around with said coworker and his wife while we traveled between various photogenic locations, from beaches, to Salthill, to Downtown Galway. On this trip, I learned about Ireland's economy collapse resulting in banks failing, hotels closing, and unemployment.

Salthill was a sort of tourist area, and was big back before traveling abroad became the primary way to vacation away from home. There were casinos (though laws limited the level of gambling relative to that in, say, Las Vegas), restaurants, vacant hotels, and whatnot.

There was a kitten adoption event in a large pet shop near Galway, but we didn't get back in time to see it, but we did get to see the other animals.

After the short sojourn there, we headed for downtown Galway, which was much older than Salthill and the shopping center (as expected). I searched for a ring for a certain someone while there, and did find one. It was pretty much the only intended souvenir on this trip.

Lastly, we back to Oranmore for pizza to bring home, and while waiting I snapped the last photos of Galway on my trip.

Before dinner, however, he taught me a little bit on how to play golf, and I did some putting around as practice.


Day 8: To the Airport

Said coworker called a taxi for me in the morning since their car has issues in cold weather, and I was dropped off at the bus station downtown. The original intent was to ride Citylink to the airport, but I ended up catching Gobus instead as it was a little cheaper and would get me to the airport earlier.


I got to the airport about a half-hour than originally intended, but that gave me extra time to take care of VAT and customs stuff. I learned that I had not forgotten my water bottle when airport security noticed that I had too large of a liquid in my bag.


And lastly, some parting words, which reflect my thoughts as I was waiting to board:

(I do realize that I did use the taxi a couple times, but I really had no time to explore then.)

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