As fine travel adventurers are wont to do, this story begins with the consumption of beer in an establishment dedicated to beer drinkers everywhere. As we three sat, downing a few pints of ale, conversation drifted from a nearby table, occasionally interrupting our inebriated musings..."airfare price war"..."roundtrip to London"..."under $350"...
We? You ask. Yes, 'twas I, Bill "Quantity, not Quality" Fisher, and my good compatriots, Dan "Cuban" Rowley and Tom "Hubcap" Collins. We three stared through the haze of beer and cigar smoke and mulled the prospects for a March trip to the U.K., including St. Patrick's Day in Éire, land of the proud Irish and Guinness Stout.
Thus it was that several weeks later we found ourselves, severely overpacked and on the way to Houston, first stop in a trip quarter-way round the world.
Our first stop was the distinguished Gatwick airport. I mention our destination for it was here, this innocuous seeming strip of land in the outskirts of London, where Dan made arrangements for us to assume transportation for our journey in the form of a right-hand drive, left-hand stick shift blue Ford Escort, a.k.a. death trap on wheels.
It's true they say the English drive on the wrong side (left side) of the road. It's not ektually true, mind you, but they do say that. The reality, evident in this candid photo above, shows that the English actually drive in the middle of the road, because oftentimes there's only one lane!
Sleep deprived, driving on the wrong side of the road, and frantically trying to survive dozens of roundabouts while attempting to grind 1st gear out of existence was probably not the best beginning to our adventure. However, it certainly got the blood racing and kept us very, very awake. The adrenaline rush of each successful roundabout adventure, the thrill of each truck zipping past us with careless disregard for our lives, and the attempt at on-the-fly navigation....Ahhh, those were moments! Some would say bonding experiences. It was the Keystone Cops come alive again, no doubt, and out-of-control hysterical laughter filled the cabin of the car.
"Roundabouts?" You ask. Evil beasties to the uninitiated driver. Imagine a swirling whirlpool with up to six jets spraying water into the stream in a tortured Möbius strip of pain. Instead of the whirlpool, we have blacktop; instead of water, we have cars. As far as we can tell, the rules are similar to the new Ultimate Fighting Bloodsport Octagon Championship, with every man for himself and only one survivor shall exit.
What exactly possessed us to attempt such suicidal driving with "Turbo" Dan at the helm within minutes of our arrival? Uhhh, Legoland.
You're reading correctly. Unfortunately, after all the work and death-defying feats it took to find the frigging kid's paradise, the park was still closed for off-season and we are without images to present you of this sad occassion.
We feel this may be the finest of the bunch, so stop here if you are sensitive or under 15 years of age.
This photo is a classic educational opportunity as we learned exactly why it was, as it were, necessary to install signs warning of geriatric crossings.
"Elderly People" indeed.
Having thoroughly enjoyed our own wit, it was time to show the lads back home we were truly in England proper. Hence the classic, yet ever-popular telephone booth shot:
Having failed in our quest to visit the largest ball of Legos® we realized that we were near a somewhat lesser-known attraction: Windsor Castle. Also known as the largest castle in Britain. Our modeling agent was ill, so stand-ins Dan and Tom give us that natural, lived-in feel (Tom did express embarrassment regarding the matching coats, he'd thought Dan was wearing pink today).
For those stalwarts asking for further proof of our location, we offer the Union Jack, flying proudly over a tower of Windsor.
After enjoying a fine lunch and our first pints of the real stuff, English Ale and Guinness that is to say, we noticed the day waning and leapt back into the batmobile for the ride to Bath. Having given forth a heroic first driving effort, Dan was relegated to the back seat to rest his nerves. I, brave BilFish, stepped up to the plate. Tom would anchor our almost Italian-style driving team beginning the following day.
Arriving in Bath at dusk, we opened the handy Rick Steve's U.K. guide to ascertain where we should stay for the eve (our first in this fair land). Tired from a long flight and longer drive, we were looking forward to unpacking, putting up our feet in the local, and getting some rest. Fate had other plans.
It could quaintly be said I received extensive driving practice. Or, we could lambaste Mr. "Steve" for his hideous directions and a hand-drawn map. Or, we could mention our hostess, "Miss Directions" of the Bathhurst Guest House, who couldn't help us find the way to her own dwelling, despite our suspicion she was native to the city! Anyway, after two hours of driving in one-way circles around Bath we were unpacking and so on. Despite this spirit-draining tour of the local countryside, we enjoyed one (1) pint each of the Good Stuff at the Huntsman and retired to bed for a long winter's collapse.
In reparation for traditional English direction skills, our hostess served us the first of what would be a tradition we wouldn't mind transplanting across the Pond, a Full English Breakfast. This feast normally would include two eggs, toast, bacon, ham, sausage, white and black pudding, orange juice, hot tea and coffee, and the occasional biscuit, preceded by Mueslï or other cereal and milk.
She also provided good conversation and an interesting insight into the Irish Conflict. Her take was that the war is to a certain extent perpetuated by the fact that if peace reigned, there would be a lot of out-of-work terrorists prowling the land, queueing in the unemployment office, and generally wreaking havoc. It was best, both sides felt, to keep themselves in money and jobs the old fashioned way...conflict.
Dan "Coffee" Rowley continued his tradition of, well, coffee instead of joining Tom and myself in our "going native" efforts of tea-drinking. Our next stop was to taste the waters in the legendary Bath Pump House, serving tea and a small spring of natural Bath mineral water from a fountain in the middle of the restaurant. Tom and I partook of this somewhat sulfurous adventure whilst Dan looked on askance at our derring-do attitude. Coffee anyone?
|Having demonstrated our willingness to try anything, we left to do up Bath proper.
First we tagged along while a colorful local tour guide showed us the river flowing through Bath and the unique and interesting bridge spanning the waters.
|Next we were on to the baths, the naturally occurring hot springs originally developed by the Romans during their control of the area some 2,000 years prior.
Here resides the largest Roman Bath with original Roman plumbing still handling water flow and architecture still visible as the bottom layer of the building seen here.
In the photo below, I am crouching near the edge of the baths, standing on original Roman retaining structures.
Locals were thrilled by my respect for the ruins.
In yet another pool where, much later in historical perspective, Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen spent hours each morning. Near as we could tell, they scummed up the surface of the water with intense amount of make-up that melted from their faces into the hot water. This caused somewhat disgusting layers of "Bath mantles" to form where their necks and shoulders sat on the surface of the water of the hot springs. Mmmm, bath mantles. That says clean. And royalty.
A trip to Bath certainly isn't complete without a few shots of the creatively named Bath Abbey. This shot above left reflects the majesty and presence in the front facade of the Abbey. We can see from the close-up (above, right) of one of the ladders found on either side of the cathedral (err, Abbey) façade that the artists had a devil of a time considering how to portray angels climbing down a ladder from Heaven to Earth without presenting the certainly blasphemous notion that the angels were, ahem, falling from Heaven...
Recent government pollution control efforts are bringing buildings throughout Bath back to their natural brilliant bright "Bath stone" look as seen in the above image of the Abbey front. Contrast this to how parts of the Abbey looked previously with a view 'round the corner in back of the Abbey.
Okay, then, we'd had enough of landmarks and such for one afternoon, it was time for more important undertakings. Just off the main square in Bath Dan located the first tobacconist we'd come across. It was here that another dream was fulfilled...For the owner, more money for her children's education; for Dan, the purchase of some genuine Romeo y Julieta Havana, Cuba cigars, and soon after at lunch, the first sweet puffs of Cuban elegance. Realizing it was late afternoon and time to press forward, we returned to the trusty Escort where Tom would take the wheel for the first time.
And what do you know, with Tom driving and Dan navigating we soon found ourselves in another country of all places! Wales, to be exact. Thanks guys.
No sooner seen then acted upon, we stopped for our first visit to a Tafarn, the Welsh's idea of a good tavern. In this case, my mobster bookend enforcers have posed in front of the Market Tafarn.
We missed the local sheep auction, more's the pity. However, another cigar was put to the torch and darts were unerringly thrown in the general direction of the board. Needless to add, more beers were consumed as navigation accuracy and relaxation aids.
What was to happen next is difficult in the extreme to describe. Without pictures (which we were too afraid to shoot) words must suffice.
We made good time for some time and then, as darkness fell, we entered Pontardawe. You may know it as The Twilight Zone. First, we went to the Pontardawe Inn, the inn that wasn't an Inn... where we then inquired about a hot meal and were told by the Spanish chef, Ignatio, that he didn't serve dinner.
Ahhh, an Inn that wasn't an inn, a Chef that wasn't a chef. Makes sense.
The bartender was kind enough to point out that the inauspiciously named Black Knight down the way both had rooms for the evening and served dinner late. While we enjoyed a pint and wondered at the oddness of the locals the bartender offered to show us over to the Black Knight, which was on his way home.
Further, one of the locals drinking at the bar offered to call ahead to warn, errr, reserve rooms for us at the other inn.
Excellent! Things were looking up. Soon we found ourselves trundling along back country roads with a miscellaneous barkeep in our European "car" over to the dimly lit Black Knight, where we were beginning to have reservations of another sort entirely.
"Run Away, Run Away from the Black Knight"
Intrepid adventurers all, we followed him to the front of the inn to find that while we apparently had reservations, and the sign said "OPEN," the doors were locked. Seeing no one immediately willing to come down and unlock for us we slinked away into the night, away from the Inn that takes reservations, but where you can't check in, and away from the odd, mysterious Pontardawe of Wales.
Which presented something of a problem because, while we were making good time, we were now really hungry, it was late, and we were definitely freaked out by the locals there. Somewhat further up the road salvation lay in the warmth and brightness of the Swan Inn in Swansea (which also wasn't an inn).
We enjoyed a thankfully uneventful meal whilst Dan tried to figure out why there appeared to be one large bar in the place which connected two totally separate tavern rooms. Apparently he figured it out. His brow uncreased and a certain calmness befell him. Coulda been the beer.
Having assuaged our hunger, we now found ourselves in the classic tale of all travelers... There's never a !#!$!@@$ hotel or bed and breakfast when you need one!
Luckily, the U.K. has a great system of Travelodges for highway-system travelers such as ourselves. Unfortunately, we soon found that they opened about five minutes on the hour "for your convenience" and sought lodgings elsewhere, finally terminating our search (gratefully) in an expensive, clean and sparse hotel somewhere in the middle of some small city in Wales. We enjoyed TFI Friday on the telly and later watched a magician eat several times his recommended daily allowance of Marlboros & Camels, swallowing upwards of 50 cigarettes at a time to our glued-to-the-tv disgust.