Sunday, March 21, 2010

Burford: "I can't believe I found boots!"

Strange title, I know, but bear with me: Tea was so excited about this find... Words fail me, to be honest. But, alas, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The forecast for the weekend was dismal indeed, but, lo and behold, Sunday dawned clear, blue and beautiful -- yes, dear readers, my earlier comment about uncannily accurate forecasts has since been proven wrong; so very wrong -- so we stuck our noses in our many books on English walks and decided on one near Burford and Fulbrook.

The landscape around there is really quite something: you can be walking past hills of golden hay one moment, through rolling green hills speckled with white stones like so much confetti the next, followed by flat fields, the tree line well in the distance. As we struggled to figure out just which tree line was the 'copse' referred to in our book, it all seemed like a mirage around us, never getting any closer. We put it down to the carb-laden Thai feast of the previous evening, courtesy of Tea and Miranda's cooking adventure. (I just got to plow through the spoils. Woo hoo!) Luckily we got a second wind shortly thereafter.

St. Oswald's Church
Then it was through Paynes Farm -- where I got to pet a horse! (I was gonna give him my apple, but it was still early days at that point; what if my second wind started to fail me?) and, later, some of the most beautiful, lush valleys we've seen; we keep thinking we won't be able to top the previous week's walk, but there's always something. Another highlight was St Oswald’s Church in Widford. Unfortunately it was closed -- an extremely odd thing, according to a disgusted local we met; we'll definitely have to go back -- but even its exterior was very impressive.

In the Royal Oak
Back in Burford, we were lucky that the first pub we happened upon -- The Royal Oak -- was the town's only entry in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide (I'd forgot to bring it). And rightly so! Tea enjoyed some fabulous toffee cake and a tea (with lots of extra hot water -- nice touch!) while I had a pint of Wadworth's 6X and one of Henry's Original IPA. The place was dripping with character, including the bartender's collection of cups, mugs and steins hanging from hooks in the rafters; you couldn't see the end of them! But the best part by far were the two dogs hangin' out there; one but a puppy. We got to rub him lots before some folks came and bought peanuts; Tea's seriously thinkin' about carryin' a pocketful of dog treats in the future to compete.

Shopping was on the agenda after those refreshments: Burford has some beautiful shops, including lovely china shops, and, getting to the subject of this post, outdoor-wear shops. It was outside one of the latter that Tea spied some wellies; but not just any wellies: these had plenty of extra room up near the calf, a failing that had prevented her from finding a good fit up 'til that moment. And then there's the hiking boot design... Suffice to say that she was over the moon, and ready to try them out on a second hike right then and there!

Behind St. John the Baptist
As we were heading back to the car, we noticed St. John the Baptist Church and had to take a closer look. Unfortunately, it too was closed -- this time for organ practice -- but, again, its exterior was well worth a look. Then it was for home, and, luckily, we made it just as Miranda was getting back from her day in Avebury. So we fired up the Thai leftovers, and repeated the delicious feast of the previous evening. Good times!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The united, but disparate, kingdom

We'd anticipated some adjustments with living over here, and failed to grasp a whole bunch more (as regular readers will no doubt know), but one of the stranger ones -- for me, anyway -- is the causes for celebration (or lack thereof). Those of you who remember my confusion over the silent passing of Robbie Burns' Day -- Burns Night here -- probably assumed I'd get the point, and, oh, I don't know, expect very little of Saint Patrick's Day. Well, I'm a bit thick like that, I guess, 'cause I get up today, throw on my green, and express genuine surprise when the day passes unmarked, on the radio, at work, etc.

Now, I'm sure there'll be plenty of celebrations this evening, but you have to understand that the town is in the grips of the event of the year right now: the Cheltenham Festival. Many, many Irish visitors make the trip over for the week, which usually coincidences with Saint Patrick's Day, apparently -- so many, that I've heard it said that some pubs can sell enough champagne and Guinness this week to pay their operating costs for the rest of the year. But the pints raised to Ireland's patron saint outside that contingent are few and far between, I've been told. Again, why does this surprise me?

I guess I'm still wrestling with just how significant the Scottish, Irish and Welsh roots are to the way I grew up in Newfoundland and Maritimes. As I said on that occasion this year, Robbie Burns' Day wasn't celebrated when I was growing up, but it was a grand occasion amongst my circle of friends back in Ottawa, thanks to Joe's pride in his Scottish heritage (and his love of whisky, it must be said). Even with this shining discrepancy in my past, though, it's slow to sink in.

In my defence, a friend was saying today that even the day set aside to celebrate England's patron saint, Saint George, isn't enthusiastically observed. (That remains to be seen, of course, next month.) It's a provincial holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador, something I'd completely forgotten about until reading a bit for this post. (Someone from back home'll probably comment now, wondering how I could forget the Saint George's Day parades or something. :-P ) Apparently, Saint David's Day, for the patron saint of Wales, is even a bigger deal here -- although not by much.

Well, that's what's been kickin' around the old noggin' today, as I watch our quiet little town turned upside down in pursuit of the Gold Cup and other laurels.

PS: To those offended by my sweeping generalities and blatant inaccuracies regarding your kingdom, did you really expect better from a colonist? ;-)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bibury: sleepy wee lambs and a bit o' the sacrilege

Arlington Row in Bibury
We took it easy this morning -- havin' a lie in, as they'd say here -- listening to the area getting ready for the Gold Cup race week, and reading in the sunshine. I've just started The World According To Garp -- I save up Irving's novels as treats for myself, afraid to waste them by reading too many back to back -- and Tea must've read two or three books in the time it took me to finish Waterland.

After a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans -- the best part, according to Tea -- and toast, we set out for Bibury, one of the most beautiful towns in the Cotswolds, popular opinion has it. Well, it didn't disappoint, from the much-photographed cottages of Arlington Row to the fields filled with sleepy wee lambs.

The Keepers Arms
We'd planned to stop in Coln St. Aldwyn, at the halfway point of the walk, but got turned about and end up in Quenington. Well, The Keepers Arms soon fixed us up, with a pint of the 'sacrilege' -- half 'n' half of St. Austell's Tribute and Butcombe Bitter, a travesty in the eyes of CAMRA members I'm sure, hence its nickname -- and some fish 'n' chips. The bartender called us brave for sitting outside, 'til Tea told him we were Canadian, to which he replied, "Oh, it's tropical then." This set us up as the butt of a few jokes when we did eventually go inside to eat.

See why we get lost? :-)
We almost got lost (again) on the way back, coming upon the path we'd taken to Quenington. We thought about taking that 'safe' path back to Bibury, but in the end we backtracked to where we thought we'd gone wrong, and so got to take in a picturesque old mill and the Bibury Court Hotel beside it -- pictures really can't do that place justice.

Check out our Best of March 2010 album for more pictures from the day.
The Bibury Court Hotel
Snow drops and crocuses

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dublin: visit to a sister colony

On the streets of Dublin
On a bit of a whim, we took last Thursday and Friday off and went to Dublin. It's something we're thinking about doing more regularly, this extended long weekend away; it's enough time to see a lot without eating up all our leave. The traveling was some of our easiest to date: a quick train ride to Birmingham, a short tram to Birmingham airport and a Ryanair flight right to Dublin. It's worlds away from the travel days we used to dread back home; we got back on Sunday afternoon, still in high spirits, and watched that fantastic nail-biter of a hockey game to boot.

In the Gravity Bar
We stayed at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin. It's about twenty minutes from the airport, close to everything, with a great atmosphere. The staff were really friendly and the room had all the little extras you forget you love: turn-down service with chocolates, an antique radio playing local music as we entered (once the key was inserted in the wall switch -- I really like that idea), free newspapers, etc. And the breakfast, while extra at our rate, was well worth the price: traditional Irish breads, lots of spreads, cheese, fruit, and you could get a hot breakfast too; I went for the porridge with brown sugar and Irish whiskey a few mornings in a row. Yum! Speaking of whiskey, the bar has been recognized for its excellent selection, and included a daily recommended selection in the newsletter that was left as part of the turn-down service (just like a cruise, we both remarked).

In Dublin Castle
We spent most of the first day getting our bearings: we picked up the Dublin passes Tea had ordered for us on-line -- well worth it, incidentally, as most of the tours I'll mention here are free with it -- at the tourist information centre and then got on one of those hop-on-and-off bus tours; happily, it wasn't one of those audio ones, as both guys we had throughout the day had us in stitches. I really did feel like I was back in Newfoundland for a lot of the trip, and no more so than when a cabbie or tour guide was in the middle of a great story.

Along the Liffey
We finished that day off with a tour of the Guinness Storehouse. I'd recommend that tour to anyone; it's so well done, with whole floors dedicated to the John Gilroy ads, for example. And, of course, there's the tasting room, and the free pint at the Gravity Bar up top. They say that pint has been brewed no more than five days ago, and you really can taste the difference. Even Tea loved it! The restaurant is amazing too, by the way; we both had the beef and Guinness stew, which was absolutely delicious. We decided to walk back to the hotel along the river Liffey, which runs through the city; it really is a beautiful stretch of the place.

Tasting at the Old Jameson distillery
We slept in a bit on Friday and headed to the old Jameson distillery for a tour later in the morning. I actually enjoyed this one a bit more than the Guinness one. The replicas of the equipment used when it was a working distillery, the amazing bar, and the multilingual tour guides -- one of the other tours that was in the bar with us at the end was a French group, and the guide's accent was perfect! -- combined to edge out the Guinness one, for me. Thanks to Tea, I knew to put my hand up right away when the call for tasting volunteers went out. They sit you in front of a measure of Johnnie Walker Black Label, one of J. D., and one of Jameson and ask you to pick your favourite. Believe it or not, I'd never had J. D. before that moment, and found the woody, flowery notes in it to be... really odd, to be honest; I can see why some people don't drink it straight. Anyway, you get a certificate with your name on it afterwards, and it's just a lot of fun; I was up there with men and women from Sweden, France, Norway, the U.K. and Spain; those moments remind you just how different these vacations are -- when's the last time you weren't surrounded by Americans on vacation?

The food emporium
After that, we tracked down the food emporium that Tea had read about: well, they had all sorts of tasty cuisine there, but we couldn't get the fish and chips that we'd smelled as we came in out of our heads. It was so good! And the coffee shop there is excellent too -- can't comment on whether it's the best in Dublin, though. (A claim we'd read during our research.) Then it was off to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. This was a highlight for Tea for a number of reasons, including the academic tour group that we tagged along with through the main exhibition and the breath-taking Long Room; it was truly humbling, being in the presence of those books, and all that human history.

In St. Patrick's Cathedral
Saturday morning was spent on a couple of tours: first up was St. Patrick's Cathedral, a truly awesome sight, inside and out. Jonathan Swift was a Dean there, so amongst the many exhibits is a bust of him. Then we went on a fantastic tour of Dublin Castle; our guide was very well informed and entertaining -- something you often fail to appreciate 'til you've had a mediocre or poor one. The many viceroys throughout the colony's history, including Thomas de Grey, Second Earl de Grey, brought to mind the similarities in our two countries' pasts (even though the De Greys were no relation to the Earls Grey, including our Albert Grey).

It was down to the Temple Bar area after that, which we'd walked through before, but hadn't spent any time in. There was great live music, even in the middle of the afternoon, so we enjoyed a few pints over some cribbage. Then we finished up the trip at an excellent Thai restaurant, of all places, later that evening.