London Diary – Aurora Borealis Remains a Mystery!

Nov 16 – 20, 2016 Iceland

I set my heart on the Northern Lights and we put in an intense effort searching for it, out every night for four consecutive nights and up to 2am in grueling chill each night, a broken wide-angle-lens to boot. At the end, it remains elusive.

In spite of that, Iceland is definitely worth the trip. At first glance, Iceland’s landscape appears familiar, snowcapped mountains and more snow everywhere, like that of Alaska or Norway. But that is probably where the similarity stops. Iceland seems to be covered in rocks everywhere, earthy soil surface is almost nowhere to be seen, and all grounds are not only rocky but rough and jagged. As a result, there are few trees or vegetation around, what is there is mostly brown this time of the year. In spite of that, its surrounding at large is far from gaunt or bleak. The dramatic backdrop of the mountains and the glowing snow have done the magic.

Although its temperature dips no more than several degrees below freezing, constant wind makes it a harsh environment. Our Whale Watching Tour booked with Special Tours was cancelled twice due to strong wind and at the end we never got to do it since we were out of time for rescheduling. As one tour guide put it, the wind is too much for even wind turbines.

But those who live here have somehow made it work. Around 350,000 people call Iceland home, in towns along the coast since the hinter lands are too difficult to populate, and 2/3 live in and near capital Reykjavik.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik, meaning smoky bay in Icelandic, is a scenic and vibrant city. The short day, cold and windy weather however made it difficult to be out for long and we were not able to visit as much as we’d like to.

We did make it to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church in the shape of a space shuttle, which I’d highly recommend. It is architecturally intriguing and its tower offers the best panoramic views in town. The day we went up the tower, the wind was so intense, a loud howling of the wind whirled back and forth in the observation area. Not an environment to take your time and cruise around; I lasted maybe 10 minutes before having to retreat into the covered landing.

We stayed at Alda Hotel on Laugavegur, an excellently central and convenient location, right next to many shops and restaurants. It is a few blocks to Hallgrimskirkja and not far from other attractions. It makes a difference if it means you do not have to walk far to get to the restaurants in that harsh wind and chill.

Here are some restaurants we tried. Old Iceland is pricy but serves top notch food, 73 Restaurant is good overall, both good choices for dinner and right across from one aother. Svartar Kaffid touts itself as the best soup in town, and they are right on. Noodle Station is delicious too. Both offer simple menu and reasonable price.

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Secret Lagoon

What Iceland does have in abundance are its thermal energy sources.

If I had not been that interested beforehand, after a couple of days in Iceland in all that coldness, nothing seemed more tantalizing than a natural thermal bath. Several people and internet had recommended Blue Lagoon, so we called, alas, it was fully booked. Luckily we found Secret Lagoon with Sterna Travel, which we had not heard of before.

Secret Lagoon is 1.25 hours east of Reykjavik. Our first time out of Reykjavik in day time and with the sun shining, it was a nice ride through some great scenery. Secret Lagoon might be a newer, smaller and lesser known location, its natural bath was as refreshing and restoring as I’d expect of any, a peaceful and scenic surrounding to boot. Colorful sunset for the journey back completed the half day outing beautifully.

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Golden Circle

The day for Golden Circle Tour came, we were picked up at our hotel, dropped off at Gray Line’s Bus Terminal, and a whole bus load of us set off. The weather beautiful and the sites stunning, it was a day of great experience including stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, and Icelandic horse park, Fakasel.

Thingvellir National Park, 40km northeast of Reykjavik, is a valley surrounded by amazing panoramic views. Moreover, it’s geologically important as the boundary between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the historic place where the national parliament of Iceland was established in 930AD, and number one tourist attraction in Iceland.

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Gullfoss Waterfall, located in the canyon of the river Hvita, is quite breathtaking; it roars and pushes on with tremendous force, its mist so wide and thick, it appears as if there is another waterfall on opposite side.

Recommended by our guide, we tried the lamb soup at the café for lunch. It is a hearty soup with lots vegies and chunks of tender lamb, great with bread and butter. Better yet, you can go back for more, no extra charge. One bowl was plenty for me though. The café is connected with a large shop with lots goodies and souvenirs.

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Geysir geothermal area includes multiple hot springs of varying sizes. In the center is the largest that also erupts quite often, about every 10 minutes.

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The stop at Fakasel was short. At around 6:30pm it was already dark, only a few horses remained outside in the paddocks, some did get to pat on the horses. I realized that we had been to this spot twice before on previous Northern Lights tours, when we had visited the restaurant and shop on site but had had no idea they were part of a horse park. The park is obviously a location used by the many Northern Lights tours.

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More on Northern Lights

The week before we arrived, there had been bad storms and “no one had come out for Northern Lights” according to one of our guides. Much better weather the week we were there and the tour resumed. But it was obviously not good enough, and no sighting of Northern Lights on our first night in Iceland. Luckily, Gary Line allows rescheduling of tours if there is no sighting of Northern Lights, for up to two years.

We rescheduled not once, not twice, but thrice, 4 tours all together. Every time, a mini bus picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at Gray Line’s sales office near Harpa, where we were issued tickets before going to board a bus nearby. Every night’s routine was similar but the locations varied. The company monitors the weather condition and communicates the info to their drivers and guides. The last two nights we fortuitously ended up with the same driver and guide duo, Dory and Darren. Darren is a great guide, knowledgeable, funny and speaks perfect English with an American accent.

One night, we were taken to a spot where there is a church – its name I forgot, the riches church in Iceland according to our guide. And the guide from a different bus put up a little concert at the church playing some instrument solo.

Every night, our guide talked about the science behind the phenomenon of Northern Lights. Amount of solar activity and visibility of the sky are the keys to witnessing it, while humans are so much better in monitoring and predicting the conditions, alas, none of it is in the control of human’s hands. And the condition can change fast in Iceland too. We’d arrive at a location with clear sky, but it’d cloud up soon afterwards, and we’d have to move on to a different location.

The guides all gave tips for taking photos of Northern Lights. So I put their tips and advice I found on internet beforehand into practice and as long as I could stand the freezing outdoor, had fun with my camera, trying and getting a hang of shooting the night sky with manually programmed ISO, shutter speed, aperture and time exposure techniques, something I had never bothered with before.

Camera lenses are more sensitive than human eyes indeed. Later when going through my photos, I noticed on one photo what seemed to be Northern Lights, albeit a tiny spot!

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A few practical tips

Dress warmly. Pack heavy duty warm jacket and gloves, hat, scarf and/or ski mask to cover your face too. Layer appropriately so you can be comfortable inside and out. While it is freezing outside, the indoors can be hot. As you go about, in and out of places and between activities, there will be lots bundling up and stripping off layers, again and again.

Take into consideration that Iceland has become more expensive. Some said price has almost doubled in a year’s time.

Good luck if you are out hunting for Northern Light!

London Diary: An American tragedy!

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Nov 9, 2016

I can not stop crying since I woke up at 7:30am Greenwich time.
I woke up to a nightmare that is a reality, a farcical comedy that has turned tragedy.
Tear continuously streaming down my face, I have literally been crying a river.
So has the London sky, and my windows stained with sad tears.
8 years ago, a great thing happened in America, a first black president who is a kind, intelligent and decent human being.
Today America is handing its helm to a petty hearted, mean and thuggish bully who has no sense of shame, takes credit for everything but takes responsibility for nothing.
My heart is in extreme agony.
I am in mourning, mourning the death of American greatness for at least the next four years.

London Diary – Cornwall Never fails to Excite me !

Oct 20, 2016

A year ago today I arrived in London.
Today I am taking a road trip to Cornwall. Yes Cornwall again!

Oct 20-23, 2016

After about 6 hours on the road, we reached Land’s End Hotel in the early evening. Our journey had seen clouds and sunshine in alternation but luckily the rest of the evening was perfect, a lovely welcome back to Cornwall indeed. Cornwall never fails to excite me. Once we pulled into the hotel parking lot on the ocean side, we were surrounded by stunning views that made my heart leapt. Literally pulled on by the force of nature, I jumped out of the car and started toward the cliff. From then on, our visit was a feast to the wild Cornish beauty.

Land’s End

South west tip of England, Land’s End’s enduring attraction is its beautiful surrounding, Atlantic Ocean, rugged rocky cliff, jagged rock towers, light house and promontory afar. Icing on the cake are a small visitor center with shop, restaurant, playground and amusement for children and Land’s End Hotel with view that few others can rival, making it a lovely place to stay, for day trip or base for walks to Sennen Cove or Porthcurno in the other direction. We booked a premier double with sea view, which we were very happy with, to make it sweeter, a nice surprise awaited when we checked in, we were given a 3 for 2 deal.

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St Michael’s Mount

In France there is Mont Saint-Michel, in Cornwall, there is St Michael’s Mount, 30 minutes east of Land’s End and south of Marazion, a nice little seaside town.

It is no wonder that I had at a time mistaken St Michael’s Mount for Mont Saint-Michel. Although St Michael’s Mount is smaller, the images are strikingly similar, both of conical shapes, and they were historically linked at one point, both belonging to the same Benedictine religious order, having been awarded to the Benedictines in 12th century by Edward the confessor. The island and church was however confiscated by Henry VIII like many other monasteries in the 16th century. Until the St Aubyn family purchased it from the crown in 17th century and it has been the family’s primary residence for 12th generations. Currently National Trust co-own and manage the island and castle.

It is a fantastic visit. The castle is grand and the interior is rich.  As you climb up by foot, you are surrounded by lovely views that change by every turn and a beautiful garden by the rocky seashore located on south east side of the island can be seen from the Sun Terrace.

Little chat with the guides, we discovered that the St Aubyn family also owns properties outside the island including some in Marazion. While the only way to get up to the castle is by foot, there is an underground tram entered from the harbor that is used to carry things up and down between the castle and the harbor.

As it was the only option, we left our car at a seaside car park at Marazion, which has a stunning view of the little island. A causeway links the island with the mainland, but tide was high at around 10:30am, and we had to take the ferry. Leaving the island at 1:30pm, the tide was low enough to clear up the causeway, with the exception of several feet in the center that was still covered by a shallow puddle. A little more than 5 minute, but it was a fun walk; kids of all ages were making the most of it.

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Porthcurno

Porthcurno is a village on the coast south east of Land’s End. A couple of the main attractions we visited are Minack Theater and Porthcurno beach. Minack Theater is a divine outdoor theater carved out on the face of the cliff with a stunning view to Porthcuno beach and Logan Rock promontory. The beach is one of the beautiful locations featured in BBC TV series Poldark.

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A Beautiful Walk to Sennen Cove

Sennen Cove is a seaside village north east of Land’s End. The foot path by the cliff linking Land’s End and Sennen cove is 1.5 mile and according to the hotel staff a 30 minute walk. It took us 3 times as long. With beautiful views at every turn the walk was exhilarating! Around midway, you’d also find the remains of a ship wreck.

Something very cool happened that day too. We spotted from afar someone climbing the cliff near the Coast Guard’s lookout. She, with a long ponytail, was navigating nimbly and quickly through the rocks. She beat us in reaching the lookout tower but we caught up with her and realized the pony tail had misled us. It was a boy, probably in his late teens. He was about to ride away on his bike and helmet, which was the only protection he was wearing while scaling the rocks. I commented what he did was very impressive. He replied he grew up in this area, was used to that sort of thing and today he was out exploring. Just exploring by scaling the rocks, couldn’t be more casual for him.

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Levant Mine and Botallack Mines

Copper and tin mining was an important part of Cornish economy during 18th to 19th century and a number of mines dotted its coast. You can still see a number of chimney stacks tower over the landscape driving around the right spot.

I learnt of these mines for they are the filming locations of BBC show Poldark. BTW I was a fan before the episode that aired on Sunday Oct 23rd. What happens in that episode however greatly disappointed me. Captain Poldark is no longer one in my list of literary heroes.

Nonetheless I am glad I visited these mines for it was more treat to the beautiful coastal scenery and an interesting lesson in Cornish mining history.

Levant Mine is substantial in size and located between St Just and Pendeen, 9 miles north of Land’s End. It was a joint venture and the investors certainly struck gold, eventually having their investment grown more than a thousand folds. It is a National Trust property. Visitors can roam about the ground free but the underground part of the museum is closed that day, albeit a Saturday. Geevor Mine next door appears substantial in size, not a National Trust property and also entirely closed that day.

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Closer to St Just are more mines at Botallack including Wheal Crowns Mine, Grambler in Poldark, and Wheal Owels, Wheal Leisure in Poldark. Botallack is National Trust property. There is a small office building with café and toilets available. Visit is free to all and you can get a map for self guided tour.  Some of the remaining structures were narrow tunnels, a few small kids were crawling through them.

The most striking is Wheal Crowns. Its building is a typical mine engine house like others. It is the location that gives it the stunning edge. The best view of both of these mines is on a terrace towering over the sea. The path to it, as narrow as a sheep’s intestine, is a precarious one; one misstep could cause one to tumble down the dizzying height of the cliff. Fortunately, it isn’t too long, we made it forth and back safely.

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Pendeen Light House

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Cape Cornwall

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Lizzard Point and Kynance Cove

Last day in Cornwall worked out most efficiently and happily. We visited Lizzard Point, Kynance Cove, and had a nice, big meal at Top House, a pub in the cute little village, Lizzard Village, before leaving around 4pm.

Lizzard Point is the Most Southerly Point in England, about 30 miles south east of Land’s End. Leaving Land’s End on a regular day, little did I know it’d be the most intensely windy spot I’d ever been to. As soon as we reached the parking lot next to a light house, I felt the strong wind. But most intense was when walking the short cliff path between the light house and the café and being around the café. My skin was pulling away from my face, my hair was slashing my face left and right, there was fine grits in the air, at times I had to hold on to something to steady myself and even doors of shop and café were rattling. I wonder how those little buildings had withstood the intense wind year after year.

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Kynance Cove is a dramatically beautiful cove with fine sandy beach and interesting rocks. There is also a café right by the cove.

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Both Lizzard Point and Kynance Cove are National Trust property. The foot path on the cliff top between both points should be beautiful. But at more than 5 miles long we did not have time to cover it. Luckily National Trust has parking lot at either end, making it possible for us to visit both points. Parking is free to members. Otherwise it is £3.

London Diary – Autumn Amble Highgate to Stoke Newington

Oct 2, 2016

It was a perfect autumn day for an autumn amble.

The walk started out of Highgate, which is known to be a nice suburb, but we got no more than a glimpse of its High Street on the way to Highgate Station where we met the group. From there we quickly tuned on to Parkland Walk, which is a local nature reserve converted from a former railway. The railroad track has been gone and replaced by dirt and gravel pavement. Overall it is a narrow long strip of wooded path and the branches so thick, we were shielded from the bright sun most of the way.

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The walk became more interesting after that. Finsbury Park is a nice big park. New River is a manmade waterway opened in 17th century to supply London with fresh water. Woodbury Down is new neighborhood of modern apartment buildings with great view of New River, West and East Reservoirs and London. Clissold Park is beautiful. Finally, the walk ended at Stoke Newington.

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London Diary – Autumn Amble City Hall to Canary Wharf, Fortuitous River Cruise and Decorative Art and Textile Fair at Battersea Park.

Oct 1, 2016

London offers free guided walks throughout the city 3 weekends a year, Winter Wander in January, Spring into Summer in May, and this weekend’s Autumn Amble. There are a number of choices on each of the weekend days, all great opportunity to explore London. Not only new comers but long time Londoners participate as well. We’ve got ourselves on the email list and received invitation to sign up weeks before the walk. This time I choose City Hall to Canary Wharf for Saturday and Highgate to Stoke Newington for Sunday.

City Hall is south of River Thames across from Tower of London and Canary Wharf is further to the east. It is a great route, half of the time we were right by the river, the other half we had to go around buildings that are right on the river.

Both City Hall area and Canary Wharf are highlights of London. In between are many less known but still interesting spots. Among many others are old wharfs that have been converted into flat buildings, St Catherine’s Dock and Marina, St John’s Church, Wapping Wall that is a lucky spot with fantastic views to both The City and Canary Wharf, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant Narrow near end of Regent Canal, and many pubs along the way, of which, Prospect of Whitby from 1520 is the oldest on the river Thames.

The weather was however not so lovely. It rained on and off. Luckily it didn’t go too hard at us and we were able to carry on with umbrellas, rain coats and jackets.  The sky was as grey as lead but chose to clear up just as the walk was coming to an end.

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We had dim sum at Royal China right at the wharf. It was very good, no wonder that place was fully packed. To return to the city center, we decided to try the ferry boat Thames Clippers instead of tubes or buses. By then, the weather had turned around 360 degrees, and the ferry ride from Canary Wharf to Westminster turned out a fantastic river cruise.

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There was one more program for the day, Decorative Art and Textile Fair at Battersea Park. Antique, design and art fairs and trade shows that take place in London come in great numbers and quality. Imagine the endless opportunity for decorators and shoppers. Impressed by a few others, ADFL, LAPADA and Masterpiece, I wanted to check out this one too. Not to mention I’d been given an invitation that would admit two, more than happy to make good use of it indeed. It was nice, lots beautiful things to see. The fair ran a shuttle bus between the park and Sloane Square, which is close to Knight Bridge and Harrods. We ended the eventful day with a dinner at a pub nearby, Antelope.

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London Diary – Jane Austen Festival in Bath!

Sep 12, 2016

It is not officially autumn yet, but it is unmistakably palpable, cooling spells, leaves on the streets, schools starting last week and it seemed all the sudden it is starting to get dark at 8 not 10. It is at such turn of the season Bath welcomes its annual Jane Austen Festival. We were there for its opening over the past weekend. Three times in Bath, I like it better each time. In fact, it is becoming my favorite of all cities.

Beautifully situated along River Avon and over the hills on its banks, Bath is a prefect union of town and country. From architectural delights in the heart of the city, Bath Abbey, Roman Bath, Pump Room, Guild Hall, Putney Bridge, Royal Crescent, The Circus, The Assembly Room, to its average honey colored sand stone buildings and houses, to Queens Square, Victoria Park and Parade Garden, Bath is lovely to behold. Drive up to Alexandra Park south of the river, a breath taking view of Bath awaits. Fox and Hound north of the city is a popular pub with lovely view and great food. From that outward, Bath is surrounded with that typical, delightful Cotswold country side.

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Making it extra fun for me is Jane Austen Festival, which is a 10 days event and each day is filled with a range of programs. The costume parade is one of the highlights and officially commences the festival. The first time we went to the festival in 2014, there were more than 500 people participated in the costume parade, a record breaking year and a spectacular parade. The weather was less than perfect this time. But despite the rain, more than 300 people participated in the parade. We again were observers of the parade, next year I have a mind to go back in costume.

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Other events we did included pre festival get together, Jane Austen afternoon tea at Pump Room, a festival fayre at Assembly room, where you find Regency costumes and accessories for sale, and a 20 minute, comical version of Pride and Prejudice performance. My favourite was Austen Undone, a brilliant 90 minute program that seamlessly fitting together a walking tour with storytelling. The story is a spinoff of Austen characters, plots and humor. We got to watch it unfold live on the streets of Bath. Hilarious!

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Icing on the cake are the many fun places to shop, a few special mentions, Barlett Antique Center near Assembly Room, Mallory and Miles Mann (jewelry) near Bath Abbey, Alexandra May (costume jewelry) near Royal Crescent, Milsom Place, market at Guild Hall and monthly Artisan Market at Green Park Station.

London Diary – Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall

After Haworth, further north we journeyed.

The famous Lake District is as beautiful up close as it is on paper. After a brief visit and lunch break at Cartmel village, we headed up to Bowness on Windermere, where we based for this visit. From there, we visited Beatrix Porter’s house museum, Hill Top Farm, William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere, his last home, Rydal Mount in Rydall, and the town of Keswick. While the towns and villages are lovely from the ground, the best views are to be had higher up. There are different options, we did a couple of hikes, one in Grasmere from Whitemoss car park and another route in Keswick, both walks were tremendously rewarding. Last but not least, Hadrian’s Wall. It was a memorable experience following part of the epic Roman route and stepping way back into history.

Cartmel Village

Have you tried or heard of Cartmel sticky pudding? It is vastly different from the traditional Christmas pudding. While I am not crazy about Christmas pudding I love sticky pudding. So Cartmel I went and discovered much more there. The tiny village is charming and steep in history. Its ancient Priory, founded in 1188 by William Marshal, the “Earl Marshal”, is evocatively beautiful. Paying the church a visit is a must. Do also stop by Cartmel Village shop for simple but delicious lunch or all kind of flavors to take home including sticky pudding in various flavors, toffee and chocolate, etc.

 

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Bowness on Windermere

Bowness is touristy but also picturesque and convenient with many shops and restaurants. The pier is a pretty spot and popular area where you can catch one of the variety of lake cruises. We stayed at Blenheim Lodge in a quiet residential area on top of the hill with a lovely view of Lake Windermere, the largest lake in Lake District. The B&B is housed in a charming former Victoria house and very clean. Next door is a unique house featured in TV show Grand Design.

 

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Hill Top Farm

Beatrix Potter’s house in Near Sawrey is now a museum. The village is tiny and its neighbor Far Sawrey a few minutes away is equally diminutive. It’s a small house too, for such a famous person, which makes it even more interesting as the birth place of the imaginary world created there that has fascinated the world. The garden is wonderful. Seek out the old English roses and smell the lovely scent, divinely fragrant.

 

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Grasmere, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount

Grasmere is a lovely, tranquil village by Lake Grasmere, where William Wordsworth lived for many years in Dove Cottage. The cottage is a low ceiling, small house with tiny rooms, which however did not in any way prevent the great poet from being prolific, it is where the famous quote came about, “Plain living and high thinking.”

William Wordsworth penned his praise for Grasmere and/or the cottage as “loveliest spot that man hadth ever found”. The cottage is near the lake but its view is currently obstructed by the buildings that had gone up between it and the lake. Only a sliver of the lake can still be seen nowadays from the garden in the back.

The entrance fee includes a guided tour of the cottage and a self guided visit to the separate museum next door. Our guide was a young woman from New Zealand, who studied in US and was at the time working as an intern at the house museum.

The roses at the cottage is also a variety of lovely fragrance.

 

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William Wordsworth’s next home is Rydal Mount in Rydal, a village a few minutes away. It is a more substantial house with a sprawling and lovely garden.

 

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Whitemoss car park is located north or Rydal Water and between Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount. From there we hiked up to the hill south of Rydal Water, then continued on westward until it peaked at south end of Lake Grasmere, where the view is stunning. You can return to the car park via the same route or descend to the lake shore and return along River Rothay. It is an easy and enjoyable walk, with plenty of fox gloves in your company along the way and maybe a deer as well.

 

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Keswick and Latrigg

Keswick is a lovely town in a picturesque setting and also known as home to Coleridge and Sotheby. We found out however Greta Hall, Coolerdige’s former home, is not open to public. A kind man overhearing us at the Info Center pointed out the direction of the house. We drove by accordingly but couldn’t see much of it.

There are more to be explored. Of the numerous viewpoints in Lake District, many take strenuous efforts. Latrigg, as one of the lowest fells, is a relatively easy to take on, and offers one of the best views in the area.

It is just under two miles from town park by the river to the peak and the path goes through some lovely woods but the climb up is quite steep especially as it gets close to the top. The view along the way is rewarding though and it builds up like a crescendo to a stunning view of Keswick and Derwentwater at the summit. The day turned chilly and it was very windy at the summit on that day, some people were paragliding, which was fun to watch, but we did not take the rest of the circular route, returning to town via same route instead.

Here is one guide for the route:

http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/171792/kw-nu_latrigg_walk_4a-2-10.pdf

 

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Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was the Roman demarcation for its frontier on British Isle, running about 85 miles long from Bowness-on-Solway on the west to Wallsend on the east. We chose a few spots to visit.

Lanercost Priory. An old monastery beautiful even in ruin.

 

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Walltown Crags. A long stretch of what is left of the wall remains at this site and the open country views are spectacular, you can see miles and miles out, all the way to Scotland.

 

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Cawfield Roman Wall is near a village with two sign posts, Once Brewed or Twice Brewed, depending on which direction you are approaching it. You can see a long stretch of the wall here.

Housesteads Roman Fort. It is an amazing site. Along with a museum in a separate building, it brings vividly to life stories of the soldiers, officers, their families and villagers and their lives within and outside the fort, once again proving how incredibly powerful, far reaching and methodical the Romans were.

 

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London Diary – Readers I’ve been to Haworth!

Haworth, West Yorkshire.

A tongue in cheek attempt at a fantastic opening line. It might not have done the trick but fans of Bronte might have understood the allusion to the famous line in Jane Eyre, “Readers, I married him.”

A steadfast fan of Jane Eyre, the stories of the Bronte sisters fascinate me. In this year that is Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday, my wish came true, I made my way to Haworth, Yorkshire over Bronte Society’s annual conference weekend in June.

There were interesting activities during the four day conference. We attended annual lecture, participated in a lively debate on two of Charlotte’s novels, Jane Eyre and Shelly, where the actress Maxine Peake was invited as a presenter, and played a fun trivia game.

The visit to the Bronte Parsonage Museum was memorable. The parsonage on the hill top, the parish church, separated from the parsonage by the grave yard, and a simple, smaller stone building, which used to be a school where Charlotte had taught, would have made the Bronte’s most intimate surroundings. It was very touching to be there, feeling close to the talent and spirits that have inspired so many.

The historic part of Haworth village sloping up to the parsonage and parish church has been well preserved and is atmospherically charming, cobble stoned street, lime stone buildings of Yorkshire characteristic housing shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels.

My other favorite part was walking the Bronte country, following the sisters’ footsteps, through Haworth Moor, beyond Bronte Water Fall and Bridge, all the way to Top Withen. The path starts from the parsonage and quickly enters Haworth Moor with nice view of another village across a narrow, deep valley. After the passing of a few more large sheep farms and houses, there is not much else between man and nature. Most visitors stop their journey at the bridge. We continued on.

The surrounding after the waterfall and bridge becomes more and more desolate and wild. Top Within is a vague speck on the hilltop yonder. There are few trees. Counterintuitively, the vast openness made that two miles appear infinitely distant. But eventually, that tiny speck came into focus. There it was, the ruin of a stone farm house standing next to a lonely, tall sycamore. That was Top Within, the locale that was the inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Height, the tale of a tragic, violent love story.

Since Haworth was fully booked, we stayed in Hebden Bridge, a small town 20 minutes south of Haworth. Hebden Bridge is a village on steep hill surrounded by fantastic view. Almost everywhere in Hebden Bridge, you can see a picturesque hill top village and its soaring church spire across the valley. Having been tantalized by it for days, we one day drove out searching for it. After climbing some steep streets, we stumbled across it, Heptonstall, a small village on steeper and higher hill.

The drive between Hebden Bridge and Haworth passes through some dramatic scenery. As it draws close, Haworth appears as a postcard picture on a hill.

It was the Brontes who had drawn me to this part of the country. In turn, it opened my eyes to a landscape that is like none others, and I discovered what had in part helped shape the sisters into who they were.

This part of west Yorkshire is arduously hilly, its scenery alternates between expansive, open, undulating land and steep, narrow valleys. Under thick clouds, it is bleak and dramatic all at once. When the shrouding veil is lifted by shining sun and all is clearly discernible, it is stunningly beautiful. Fog you’d often encounter is a phenomenon. It might be thick and dense on the road you are driving through, or wispy twists hanging in the narrow valleys. In either form it adds an intriguing mystery to the already unusual landscape, on the other hand, it could seem eerie to unfamiliar eyes. And that could be in part its enduring appeal.

 

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Harewood House

Harewood House is an hour north east of Haworth. It is where Lost in Austen was filmed as Mr. Darcy’s Pembley. The house is grand and beautiful. Its banquet room is breathtaking. Many staterooms feature ornately decorated ceilings. Designed by Capability Brown, its ground, lake and garden are tremendous and lovely. Its terrace in the back of the house, famously featured in Lost in Austen, is as romantic and gorgeous.

To make the visit interesting, we discovered its royal connection. Harewood became home to Princess Mary, QEII’s aunt, after she married Viscount Lascelles. The Chinese wall paper in Princess Mary’s former bedroom is beautiful, also her collection of Asian porcelains and figurines. Current Dowager countess lives upstairs of the house, her son, current and 8th Earl, and his wife however do not live in the house. According to a staff member, the Earl joked that it is too difficult to carry grocery up the stairs at the house. There are family photos including those with William and Kate in one stateroom. While having tea on the terrace, I thought I saw the Earl at another table having what seemed a business meeting with a couple.

Harewood is also where on its hall you’d find a life sized portrait of Lady Worsley, befitting to the character and scandal.

 

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London Diary – Summer in Cold Climate

Aug 9, 2016

Summer this year has been vastly different from other places I had lived. Except a few days in the 80s and one day in the low 90s, London has been breezy and a cool 70 on average. Things otherwise have been bustling, lots coming and going. Among others, we’ve vacationed in June in the north to west Yorkshire and Lake District, more on that later, my sister and one of my nieces visited, and my son finally finished his summer schools and made his way to London more than a week ago.

With him we’ve gone to Paris last week, via Eurostar through the Channels, an easy train ride under 2.5 hours from London’s St Pancras to Paris’ Gare de Nord, and unexpectedly only about .5 hour in the Channel.

They say 3 times is a charm, it was true, albeit a few hiccups. Staying, and being in Latin Quarter for the first time, we were close to many interesting spots, on the next block to Pantheon, Church of Saint Etienne du Mont and Saborne University, minutes to Luxembourg Garden, Church of Saint Sulpice, Church of Saint Severin, River Seine, Notre Dame, and although further St Invalide and Eiffel Tower are also within walking distance. A block away, the old, narrow streets in Latin Quarter around Rue de la Huchette are bustling with touristy souvenir shops and restaurants where you easily find variety of options for meals. Just west of Latin Quarter is a quieter neighborhood St Germain des Pres, where you find interesting boutique shops. I’ve got jewelry and accessory in mind and quickly fell in love with the chic and elegant French design. I see future shopping trips coming up :o)

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I found myself comparing ‘Pari’ with London. Roads in Paris are wider in general and there are a great number of broad boulevards throughout the city. There even greater number of grand buildings gracing well planned and neatly organized city blocks, which appeal to the methodical side of my brain.  I especially enjoyed the river front, lined with beautiful buildings, decorated by bridges and monuments, it is picturesque and lovely. To name a few, check out Pont de Invalides, its golden statues and the lofty esplanade leading up to Les Invalides with its tremendous golden dome. The area around Pont de la Concorde is another vast, open promenade where the vista stretches from National assembly on the south of the river, Place de la Concorde on the north to a beautiful Greek temple north east of the square.

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It took this one more visit to fully appreciate the clever line up of these attractions, The Louvre, Jardin Tuileries, Place de Concorde, (where dominating its center is an obelisk which I learnt to be called Cleopatra’s Needle by some), Champs Elysees, Arch of Triumph that is the center of a star shaped block and Grande Arche in La Defense that is a resplendent modern district far west of the river.

Another highlight is Basilica of Sacred Heart on the hill of Montmartre. It is a stunning building and site with great panoramic views of London. Greater views await if you climb the 300 steps to its soaring dome. After a visit to the basilica, go to the market nearby, grab a meal or have a portrait or caricature made by one of the many artists there, about 30 minutes and €20 each person.

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Previously I had traveled mostly by Metro, but I enjoyed it much better going around in buses this time. We bought packs of 10 single ticket that works for both the metro and bus. Many people went around on bikes. You find these bikes conveniently located throughout the neighborhoods and you rent them with a credit card from the machines. So we gave that a try. Weather was fine mostly, at mid-80s, it was hot in the sun. I got my wish, I liked the feel of the summer sun burning on my skin, but interestingly I was also quite relieved when I returned to cooler and breezy London.

Overall, it was the most enjoyable of the three visits. But I can’t pretend that all was the same. There were a few incidents.

#1, At Notre Dame, first time we went on Aug 3rd, it was cordoned off by a number of police and machine gun toting soldiers. Few minutes later, a loud bang shot through the air. My husband’s theory, police blew up a suspicious package. We could not find any report about it on internet.

#2, At Eiffel Tower. After going through security to enter the fenced area, waiting in long line for tickets and going through security a second time before entering the elevator to go up, we got to the second level where the views are rewarding. More waiting however at second level to get up to the summit, an hour later we were finally close to getting our turn with only a dozen or so people before us, when the line suddenly stopped moving and people in front of us were turning around instead. Puzzled, we gathered from other tourists that the elevators to go up had been stopped due to ‘security reason’. A staff member subsequently came over and in raw English told tourists to get down to the ground. Momentary chaos ensued and tourists thronged around the elevator to go down. Announcement was made minutes later in multiple languages that the tower is closed due to security concern and tourists were directed to use the stairs instead. Once on the ground, everyone had to queue up again to have their bags checked before being allowed to exit. We later found out from a couple on the bus that there was another similar evacuation earlier that day.

#3, Pick pockets. I had read about it on the paper before. This time we were given warnings at least three times, by a French man we talked to on a bus, concierge at the hotel and another French man we talked to at the bike stop. As if to illustrate their points, I had a close encounter with a thief on the Metro train. Luckily, I unknowingly foiled his plot and although my small shoulder bag, which I usually wear in front of me, was unzipped, nothing was removed from it.

It is unfortunate that bad things happened. But I am glad to see tourism in Paris thriving as ever. Don’t hold yourself back. But being mindful and prepared helps.

A tip about shopping. Most shops close on Sundays, including big department stores such as Printemps and Gallery Lafayette. Many stores on Champs Elysees open on Sundays but some don’t. 4 Temps, a shopping mall at La Defense, and La Valle, an outlet shopping mall south east of Paris, each 45 to 60 minutes away from central Paris, do however remain open.

London Diary – Henley Regatta

Jun 29, 2016

Henley Regatta is one of top events in the scheme of rowing competition, held annually at the picturesque village Henley on Thames. This year it runs from Wed to Sat this week when teams from the world, including many teams from US, Harvard, Yale, Columbia to name a few, row against each other. It is an exciting sport all right. But it is the social aspect of it that makes it a very English experience.

As it was demonstrated by the daylong program yesterday, which was the first day of event, the Brits surely knows how to live the high life. Watching from one of the river front boxes at Phillis Court, a private club right at the end of the race, guests were treated to noshes and continuous flow of spirits, coffee, tea and Danish pastries for breakfast, champagne and bar snack not long after, Pimm’s (one of those things with a firm British mark on it) heralding lunch, 3 course lunch served in a separate dining room with plenty of wine, then more tea, coffee or champagne continued in the river front box.

There was watching of the sport of course, but it seemed that for most guests, of our group anyway, there was more social going on, along with the people watching. The hats were fabulous and you might have guessed that there is a strict dress code for the club, skirts only for ladies and they have to be just sitting on the knees or below, not an inch higher or you’d be turned out. Gentlemen have to wear suits or blazers/sport jackets with chinos and ties/cravats. All was part of the fascinating experience.

Only thing I would have like to change was the weather, it was so cold few could stay out for long, not what you would hope for a summer day, is it. Anna from Rusia who has lived in England for more than 16 years said there is no summer in England, that one weekend in May was probably all the summer we’d get for the year. If she was correct then English summer had finished before it even started. In any case, it is not going to stop the fun is it.

P.S. I tried Pimm’s first time yesterday, it is a delightful sweet and fruity drink. It is made by mixing Pimm’s into lemonade and flavored and garnished with fruits. Although Pims’s is heavy at 25%, the mixed drink tasted however very light and I figured there can’t be too much Pimm’s in it right. But I was warned. The English likes their Pimm’s, one said, it is more likely there is more Pimm’s in there than it tastes.