As I crawled across London in morning peak hour traffic to pick up Ali I had a few thoughts rolling around in my head. Though we both had the free time, was mid-December a crazy time of year to attempt a road trip through England, Wales and Scotland? Were we intending to cover so much of the UK in a week that we wouldn’t actually see anything at all between the driving? Would it be easy to travel as a pair when we had previously only been on a small group trip together, or would things be different since we had last seen each other in the more exotic setting of Casablanca? After all, so much could have changed in three days.
On getting to the terrace house in North-West London where she had been staying and helping her bring her bags down and out onto the street, I pointed the remote electronic key at the black Porsche Boxster parked immediately outside and apologised that our sporty black number lacked much boot space. Sadly the remote unlocked a car of the same colour parked immediately behind it, the very car I had arrived in, a compact and infinitely cheaper and more sensible Hyundai Getz. Glamorous it wasn’t, but it did what we wanted with good service and without complaint – unlike the staff of the car hire branch I rented it from. They were without exception incredibly abrupt and rude, and I had a protracted disagreement with them about the amount of free included mileage that carried on for over two months. Suffice to say I’ll never be a future customer of Thrifty Wimbledon ever again.
Without much trouble we slipped out of London and headed north-west for Oxford along the M40. Oxford was a great place to spend some time strolling the streets and grabbing a spot of lunch. On my previous visit here on the very last day of my first European trip in 2000 I had enjoyed a fantastic summer afternoon with two mates from home at a pub called the Head of the River, sitting outside on the banks of the Thames casually watching the punts go by. And if you’d told me I’d be able to do it all again in mid-December (minus the river traffic), I’d have said you were crazy. The locals sitting inside clearly thought the same as Ali and I sat out with our pints in the beer garden alone, but it was a surprisingly mild afternoon and it took a good while before the chill got too much.
It was dark as we crossed into Wales and found a central hostel in its capital. Cardiff was a huge surprise – I expected a drab, depressing coal-mining port but the city centre was clean, classy and vibrant. Even more surprising were the Christmas lights and decorations hanging up in the streets. After having been in Muslim countries for the previous two months I had missed all those unnecessarily early reminders that Christmas was on its way and, now it had caught me unawares, I was filled with a little bit of that Christmas magic that had long disappeared with my childhood. Being in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year for the very first time added to it, as we came across an ice-skating rink, drank hot mulled wine and basked in the glow of living some of those White Christmas stereotypes that seemed so familiar from books, TV and movies but at the same time were still totally foreign in our Australian Christmases.
The bulky outline of Millennium Stadium was obvious just across the other side of the River Taff from our hostel as we set out into the city on foot, though I was a little sorry I never got to see its predecessor, Cardiff Arms Park, in all its former glory.
One old site that has not been replaced is Cardiff Castle, and we spent most of the morning doing a tour of the interior and wandering its grounds. Castles have to be one of my favourite things about Europe. Grand, ornate cathedrals don’t do it for me, old Roman ruins don’t usually do it for me, but exploring around grey, crumbling stone turrets and walls set behind a wide moat never fails to arouse my interest. So on leaving Cardiff we very soon stopped at the nearby town of Caerphilly, the site of Wales’ largest castle built in the thirteenth century. Even now its monstrous size still conveyed a foreboding air of impenetrability to two would-be marauders brandishing cameras, and the grey, drizzly conditions and lack of other visitors only added to the haunting atmosphere.
I very much enjoyed the afternoon, driving along rural roads through the very heart of Wales. The narrow by-ways, wet weather and occasional loose sheep made for an interesting drive as we wound around the hills of Snowdonia National Park, through unpronounceable villages like Trawsfynydd, Penrhyndeudraeth, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Dolwyddelan and Betws-y-Coed. Well after dark we made it to the north-west corner of Wales for the obligatory photo-stop at the train station at the mother of all tongue-twisters, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which at 58 characters is impressive but still 27 letters short of New Zealand’s Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. Trying to pronounce the town name was about the most time consuming thing to do there, so we very soon headed east along the Welsh north coast and back into England, crossing under the Mersey River and into Liverpool.
We were in the 2008 European City of Culture, if the billboards trumpeting this on every street corner were to be believed. But isn’t that slightly premature? How on earth do those making the pronouncement know that in four years time Liverpool deserves a title like that? Or is there no more to it than the major cities on the continent sharing the title between themselves every year as a way of fostering a nice, cosy European Union love-fest of harmony and co-operation? Or, like for the Olympics, whose selection committee coffers do you have to fill to bribe your way to it? It just seems odd that a city renowned mostly for rock and roll music and soccer clubs could ever compete culturally with such classical influences showcased in Florence or Rome. But then those were the exact things that had attracted us here in the first place, so perhaps I needn’t be so dismissive. Just because a bogan like me can identify with something doesn’t mean it can’t also be regarded as ‘culture’ by the more refined set. So while Ali headed out to Albert Dock for the Beatles Story museum, I took off for Anfield Road.
Liverpool Football Club: A soccer club of monumental proportions, massively successful in English and European competitions, a now glamorous institution in a traditionally working class city, a club that has suffered the tragedies of deaths of its supporters through stadium overcrowding, an icon saddled with a bandwagon full of fans the world over who’ve never set foot inside their home ground – let alone the city. When Liverpool won the 1984 European Cup an easily influenced six year old boy living far, far away who had just started playing the sport jumped on that crowded bandwagon, and I have been on it ever since. Seeing a match at Anfield is one of my life dreams, but for now I had to make do with a stadium tour.
The tour covered all the expected facilities like the museum, the media broadcast area, the change-rooms, the players’ tunnel with its proud “This is Anfield” sign to intimidate visiting teams, and finished up by sitting behind the goal at the Kop end of the ground.
While there I learnt something that interested me no end: Liverpool and their fierce local rivals Everton, situated just across the other side of Stanley Park, can never host home games on the same day as it would put impossible strain on the city’s police force. The reason for this was clear to see as I wandered the streets immediately bounding the ground, where the conjoined terraced houses had sheets of metal across all doors and windows. I had thought that soccer related violence had improved greatly since the 1990’s, but perhaps I was wrong, and it was a gloomy thing to see.
Ali and I then drove the thirty miles east along the M62 to Manchester, spending the afternoon taking in its central landmarks like St Peter’s Square and Piccadilly Gardens.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, we took a day out in Manchester,
But we all fall down ‘coz there’s not enough hours in a day.
Whippin’ Piccadilly by Gomez.
For a long established European city I was astounded how much of the central district comprised modern shiny glass office buildings and shopping centres, only to later read that an IRA bomb in 1996 kind of made all that new architecture rather necessary. A simple reminder that terrorism was just as common in recent history before September 11, 2001 as after, regardless of what certain governments have whipped up to try and instil fear of this “new” risk as a justification for invading other countries.
When the rain set in we took cover in the Manchester Art Gallery for the last hour it was open, and I could have stayed there much longer. The kids section was great fun, and a temporary exhibit highlighting real stories of the fast declining standard of life in Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe was thought-provoking and rather troubling. Unfortunately as there are no oil supplies to be gained there, this form of terror continues unabated without international intervention.
Back in Liverpool, we spent the evening in a couple of pubs around Mathew Street and the Cavern Club, getting the full appreciation of the Beatles cashing-in that is going on in the city. I wonder how much more cultured this milking could possibly be come 2008.
Another considerable period in the car beckoned, leaving a wet and overcast Liverpool behind for the snow-topped hills of the Lake District and on into Scotland.
I’ve never heard a bad word about Edinburgh as a visitor destination and I was incredibly excited about getting there. And even from my first impressions I was not disappointed. The handsome Georgian sandstone terraces of the West End built around stately crescents oozed charm, and then there were the glimpses of Edinburgh Castle, proudly sitting atop Princes Street Gardens in the very middle of the city, a stunning centrepiece set between the Old and New towns. As darkness hit we drove across to Arthur’s Seat to take in the vista of the city spread out around the brilliantly lit castle and the expansive darkness of the Firth of Forth. I was smitten.
The morning sky was beautifully clear, the air was dry and crisp and not even slipping on the icy footpaths could dampen our high spirits as we enjoyed our one and only full day in a single place for the week.
Edinburgh Castle was the natural place to start. At the front gate I thought the £9.50 admission price to be a bit steep (though after four and a half months non-stop travel my Australian savings had dwindled rather badly, and the UK is a bad place to be haemorrhaging cash), but we easily spent half a day there so I guess that translates into reasonable value for money. The content of the tour guide’s commentary was very interesting, though the delivery was overly melodramatic and his gags were clearly scripted and never spontaneous, as if he was a walking cassette player and someone had pressed Play.
Happily we nosed around the Great Hall, the palace containing the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish War Museum and the prison. The French soldiers locked up here during the Napoleonic War had kept themselves entertained by producing forged Bank of Scotland notes, and I wondered if this was just the start of a bourgeoning counterfeiting industry that was still alive and well today. In addition to the Bank of England notes I had brought with me, in Scotland I had already been given three completely different styles of ten pound notes for change, one issued by the Bank of Scotland, one by the Royal Bank of Scotland and one by the Clydesdale Bank. Someone could easily have given me one issued by the Hahajusttryandpayforsomethingusingthisyoustupiddumbtourist Bank and I wouldn’t have known any difference. But with a name like that maybe it could be legal tender in Wales.
From the castle we tried to avoid more ice while walking down to Princes Street and then continued up to Calton Hill and Regent Gardens, where we poked around a very creepy cemetery – the perfect place for a midnight ghost tour. After a bit of a stickybeak at the Queen’s Scottish residence of Holyroodhouse, we made the most of the remaining daylight walking the length of the Royal Mile through the Old Town back to the castle, stopping by the Heart of Midlothian.
Our evening was low-key but fun as we visited a couple of pubs around Rose Street in the New Town, then we returned to the converted church that was our hostel – which unfortunately was very noisy as the cheaply assembled internal walls were about as thick as tissue paper.
A long day of driving beckoned, which we felt was necessary in order to get some appreciation of the rugged Scottish landscape. After scraping the ice off the car’s windscreen we crossed the Firth of Forth parallel to the iconic Forth Rail Bridge and across to St Andrews. Though we were again under a clear blue sky the idea of a round of golf at the Old Course didn’t seem ideal – we’d surely have died of exposure.
Through Dundee and Perth we then turned northwards and threaded between the Monadhliath and Cairngrom mountains. We kept an eye on the car’s outside temperature gauge with great interest as it dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, eventually bottoming out at 13 degrees. At -10.5 degrees Celsius this was easily the lowest temperatures either Ali or I had faced, and we so quickly pulled over and got out of the car to experience what it felt like. It was a little nippy to say the least, though the long-haired cattle grazing in the snow beside the road didn’t seem to mind.
The sun was permanently in our eyes as it plotted its course steadily sideways across the horizon, barely, timidly even, above it. Being only three days out from the winter solstice it set not long after we had lunch and a brisk amble in Inverness, where the shallow and swiftly moving water of the River Ness was probably no colder than the air.
In the last of the daylight we tracked along the western edge of the 23 mile long but very narrow Loch Ness. Previously I had wondered if the monster myth had been a creative attempt to get tourists to come to an otherwise unremarkable place (a tactic similar to the creation of a ridiculously long name for a certain nondescript village in North-West Wales), but, Nessie or no Nessie, the Loch was an incredible sight to behold, set beneath hills of heather and a dusting of snow, and the ruins of Urquhart Castle at its edge.
It seemed a never ending drive in the dark from Fort William to Glasgow and then back to Edinburgh. It had been a very, very long day and we were very glad to be out of the car, but I think it was worth it. After this taster one day I hope to come back and see the Highlands properly.
The sky was extremely grey, and it rained non-stop from the exact point at which we crossed back into England. The gloominess seemed to pervade our moods as well, as the navigator (yours truly) found it a little tough to direct Ali out of Edinburgh, and a wrong turn after stopping for petrol in Newcastle cost us more time. Even the mildly annoying habit of the car radio skipping from our CDs to a radio station for a few minutes every half hour of its own accord, presumably in an attempt to pick up the news or traffic updates but only ever succeeding in giving us a twice hourly dose of the 20th anniversary re-release of a new Band Aid generation singing Feed the World, became a huge source of discontent.
Things didn’t improve in Leeds either, where Ali wanted to quickly grab a gift at the Hard Rock Cafe to complement her earlier purchases in Cardiff and Edinburgh, but we became frustrated with the pre-Christmas lunch-time rush in the city centre, the heavy traffic, the complicated one way street system and a succession of completely full multi-storey car parks.
With the dicey conditions making for a slippery drive down the M1, I left Ali not far outside Nottingham, where she was to spend Christmas with her relatives. It hadn’t been an easy day together, a rather sorry way to finish off an otherwise great week, and I dare say at this point we were both relieved to see the back of each other.
I was to stay the night with my good mate Jon and his girlfriend Jen in their new house outside Milton Keynes, but I had desperately wanted to get there via Norfolk to see the small village near the Queen’s estate at Sandringham where my Grandad had been born. It looked close enough on the map, but my south-easterly progress was terribly slow and I got almost nowhere before nightfall. Even without all the delays earlier in the day it was probably an overly optimistic idea, so, bitterly disappointed and not sure when I’d next get the chance to go, I soon gave up and made directly for Milton Keynes, where I enjoyed some great company and a fantastic home cooked meal.
It was now only a few days before Hobart saw the yearly return of a most popular and jolly fellow from afar, someone bringing gifts and very partial to fruit mince pies. And then only a couple more before Santa came. I needed to be up very early the next morning to return the car, sort through the worldly goods I had acquired since August and high-tail it to Heathrow because, unlike Santa, I didn’t have a sleigh.