An aside: The Fat Bastard Tour

We have dubbed this trip the “Fat Bastard Tour”. It’s all about being to eat whatever we want while we are here without worrying about the calories. This means that Stephen has had yummy full breakfasts of eggs, sausages, bacon and croissants every morning. I can’t quite manage that of course, but I’ve been able to eat some great low fat junk food, and feel like I’m eating pretty much round the clock. It’s great!

The fat bastard breakfast

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Day 12: Aberdeen – Edinburgh

We were up and out early this morning, with every intention of getting to Edinburgh by lunchtime. And once again, we were distracted by other interesting things along the way.

We stopped at Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven – a seaward fortified castle and abbey complex. It wasn’t open, but we got a great view of it from the steps that ran down to the water, and gave our legs a bit of a workout getting back up to the car afterward.

The next stop was at St Andrews, the home of golf. We stopped in to grab something to eat, and instead spent an hour looking at the abbey and castle there. They were really cool.

At one point in the 14th century, St Andrews Castle was under siege. The attackers could not get in through the front gate, so they concocted a plan to dig a tunnel under the front entrance of the castle and blow the gate up. The attackers tunneled through the solid rock for over a week before the people in the castle realised what they were up to and dug through from inside the castle walls to meet them in the middle. The guys inside the castle had to dig a couple of tunnels before they got the right spot. Through solid rock mind you. One imagines they had nothing much else to do, sieging being a long and boring business as it is.

Stephen heads down the tunnel, storming the castle!

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St Andrews itself is a lovely town – a seaside village with one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious universities. It felt every much like a university town, with lots of young people wandering around.

Eventually we made our way to Edinburgh, with plenty of time to have a poke around the castle before heading to the pub for dinner. The castle is surprisingly small really, but that’s in comparison to some of the huge castle complexes we saw in North Wales and Scotland. It’s kinda sad that most tourists don’t venture beyond Edinburgh into the north. Although Edinburgh is the most complete castle we’ve seen, it’s not the most magnificent. I think that would be a dead heat between Stirling and Chepstow in Wales. Now, they were castles!

The best thing about today was the weather. The sky was clear all day and the sun was warm. It was so nice to wander around in the warm sun and just soak it all in.

Mmmm…at the entrance to the inner bailey at Edinburgh Castle

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Day 11: Inverness – Aberdeen

The B&B had a gloriously comfy bed – the best we’ve slept in since we’ve been here, so it was hard to get up and at ’em, but we did. Had a lovely home-cooked brekkie and then tootled off to see Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.
The castle was great – standard fare for us now, but it was overrun with 50 or so Japanese teenagers, a little disconcerting. I was honestly gobsmacked at how they behaved – they were clambering all over the ruins, running around squealing and such. I wondered out loud to Stephen is they would treat their own cultural heritage in such a disrespectful way (I know, I sound old, but it really upset me).
I’m very aware that we are guests in this country, and most of the sites we have visited are actually sites of mass murder at one time or another. It gives an air of gravity to the place, and I want to act accordingly. In fact, at Culloden a plaque asks that guest be quiet as we are walking through a mass grave. It’s important to them, and the least I can do is respect that.
That said, we had a lovely day. We drove all the way around Loch Ness. It was stunningly beautiful. It was a mild day, and the drive was pleasant, if a little rural.
Once we got back to Inverness and managed to find a way into town that avoided the Inverness marathon that was taking place (!) we had some lunch at the Eastgate Shopping Mall, and then headed in the direction of Aberdeen.
We didn’t get too far before Stephen noticed a sign pointing to a Pictish hill fort some 8 miles off the highway. We went for it! It was cool, in a small seaside village, and quite famous it turns out. There aren’t many remains dating from pre-Roman Britain, so this site is quite precious. I was glad we stopped.
We eventually reached Aberdeen by about 6pm, and immediately went off in search of a laundromat. There were only two washers working, and a queue of people, so it took us a good couple of hours to get it all done. There is something about doing laundry when you’re traveling though – it’s a chance to relax and do nothing for awhile. I enjoyed it but was pleased to be done.

View of Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

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Day 10: Perth – Inverness

We popped along to Blair Castle in the morning before beginning the journey into the highlands. It was good to see another castle that’s been in continuous use since it was built in the 13th century. It was jam-packed with treasures representing every era since then.

The drive to Inverness was lovely. Very picturesque with rolling hills and babbling brooks and lots of little villages. We stopped for lunch at one such place. We wondered at what on earth these people all do with themselves all day. I’m guessing many people must commute to a nearby town or city for work.

We arrived in Inverness in the early afternoon, and went straight to Culloden Moor while the weather and light were still good.

Culloden is an amazing place. It was a battlefield – it tells the story of the last hand to hand battle fought on British soil, between the English and the Scots in 1746. It was the culmination of a series of skirmishes that formed the Jacobite Uprising – where Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to claim the Scottish crown on his father’s behalf (James III, exiled in France) and assert Scottish independence from the English. It was an unsuccessful battle for the Scots. In 60 minutes of fighting, approximately 1500 Scotsman died, and about 50 Redcoats. More than that though, the defeat of the Uprising lead to the decimation of the Scots as a people. To prevent another outburst, the English put down the Scots harshly – Gaelic, kilts and clan tartans were all banned, and Scots were cleared off their land in favor of English settlement. It’s a shameful part of English history, and so powerful to see the place it all begun and ended so dramatically.

We are staying in a cute and cosy little B&B tonight in Inverness – a contrast to the fancy place last night! It’s on the banks of the river Ness with a lovely river view out or bedroom window. Winner all round.

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Day 9: Glasgow – Perth

The main destination for today was Stirling. It has a castle, and the Wallace Monument, and was an important spot in the Scots war for independence (which started in c1100 and only really ended when they elected their own parliament in 1999).
Stirling Castle was amazing. Until the 1960s it was used by the army to store munitions and as a barracks. Since then, it has been carefully restored to its former c1500s glory. It was really good to be able to see a castle as it would have looked in the 16th century. We’ve seen a lot of ruins, and it takes imagination and a good deal of squinting to see them as they would have looked in their heyday. Stirling is bright and full of colour.

The resplendent King’s chamber

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They have a project, begun in 2001 and almost completed, to make seven huge tapestries for the Queen’s chambers. The originals of these are in the MoMA in New York City, and several weavers are working to faithfully replicate them. You can watch them work. Very cool.

One of the seven colourful tapestries hanging in the Queen’s chamber

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From the castle, we stopped by the Wallace Monument, completed in 1891 to remember William Wallace – the commoner who defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and started a fervent nationalist sentiment in Scotland that remains today. If you’ve seen the movie Braveheart, you know how the story of William Wallace ends.

William Wallace’s claymore. It stands 164cm tall. He must have been a large man!

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On our way to our hotel, we stopped in at Scone to see the chapel where Scottish kings and queens were traditionally crowned. It also contains a replica of the Stone of Scone, the original was brought to England by Edward I in 1296 as a spoil of war. It has crowned English monarchs ever since. It was returned to the Scots in 1996 and the original is now in Edinburgh castle (with a promise that the English can use it when they crown their kings and queens in the future).
Tonight we are staying in a very grand manor house, built in the mid-1800s. It’s lovely, with roaring fires, cosy couches and delicious food. Heaven.

It’s an unassuming little chapel, for such an important place

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Day 8: Penrith – Glasgow

We had intended to leave Penrith early and zip through to Glasgow to be there for the day, but instead had a leisurely morning and left the hotel around 9:30am.

The first stop for the day was Carlisle – to see the castle of course! Most of the castle complex was still shut down for the winter, but we were able to have a wander round and get a sense of it. This was a very important castle throughout its history – it housed Mary Queen of Scots when Elizabeth I decided she shouldn’t be allowed to roam around as she pleased. It was also important during the Jacobite uprising in the 1700s in Scotland – the castle held hundreds of Jacobean (Scots) prisoners captured by the English.

Carlisle Castle

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From Carlisle was a very picturesque and somewhat lengthy drive to Glasgow. We arrived in time for lunch, and so went for a wander around town. Glasgow is a big, bustling, ugly place. It’s a city of a million people, and suffers from all the problems of high density living – pollution, people, traffic. It also has high unemployment, and vast towering tenement blocks. It’s not an attractive place, and a stark contrast to the small villages we’ve spent most of our time so far.

It was nice to be able to wander in the hustle-and-bustle for a while – do a bit of window shopping, but we were well done by mid afternoon, and so spent the afternoon and evening lounging in the comfort of our hotel room. Room service, bliss.

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Day 7: Bangor – Penrith

Today was a little bit about castles, and mostly about driving.

We visited Conwy, Rhuddlan and Chester castles, and then drove from North Wales to the top of England. We will drive into Scotland tomorrow.

There will be less castles from now on – the English never got a long enough foothold in Scotland to build them! I’ve really enjoyed seeing the range of castles in England and Wales. They are each different, and each one gave us a little more information and how they were built and why they were important.

Penrith isn’t much of anywhere – half way between Manchester and Glasgow, just to break up the driving. The place we are staying at is lovely – a ye olde English pub with rooms above, full of character. And by character I mean it feels like it might fall over at any moment. But our room is great, well appointed with a huge king bed and warm and cosy.

The big news of the moment is the announcement of the next iPad. We arrived at our hotel in plenty of time to watch a live blog of the Apple event taking place in Cupertino. Its very exciting, since we will be here when the new device lands and hopefully we’ll be able to pick one up next week! I only have the iPad 1 so I’ve been waiting eagerly for this version to arrive – mine is just starting to get too old to be useful. Hurrah!

An example of an unrestored spiral staircase, and one that’s been fixed up. We’ve walked up a lot of these in the past few days. A LOT.

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Day 6: Bangor and around

Today was all about the castles. And you were thinking all the other days were about castles. It just gets betterer and betterer. We visited Dolbadarn, Caernarfon and Beaumaris.

The contrasts between all the castles is really interesting – some are really grand and obviously lived in, others are mainly there as fortifications. The castles in this area were all built around the same time, 1200-1350 and mainly as fortifications in the war between the English and the Welsh.

Dolbadarn is a Welsh castle, built to defend against the English invaders. There is not much of it left.

Caernarfon is huge and bristling with fortifications. It is very obviously designed for defense – the English built by Edward I as a stronghold against the local Welsh. It’s also the place where successive Princes of Wales have been invested, including Prince Charles.

What amazes me is that we are allowed to roam all over it, climbing to the tallest towers and into every little corner of the place.

Beaumaris is another English castle built by Edward I, but not finished. It’s appearance is less grand than some others because it doesn’t have the tall towers – they were never completed.

My legs ached at the end of the day from playing on these things all day, but it was so much fun! More again tomorrow!

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Day 5: Shrewsbury – Bangor

Today we weaved our way in and out of Wales and England as we travelled up the country to Bangor. The day can be summarised thus: a lot of driving and castles, interspersed with snacks.

The day had a feel of “we’re not in Kansas anymore” to it. Wales shares a border with England but has a very different vibe. The small towns seem wealthier and better kept, the people seem friendlier, and then there is this crazy language they speak. Welsh it impenetrable – I don’t see how anyone could learn it on their own. The words can’t be spoke phonetically as there are rules about consonant groups that are a mystery to me, and some of which have no equivalent English sound (LL for example).

At least while we at here we will have plenty of exposure to the language. The Welsh are very proud of their language and the government has made a serious effort to revive it from a gasping end. All public signs and announcements are in Welsh and English.

We started our morning in England at Acton Burnell Castle (not so interesting) and Ludlow Castle. Ludlow is another 12th century ruin, smaller than yesterday’s and more complete. Again we were able to roam all over it – climbing towers and checking out all the alleys and nooks. Fantastic!

Ludlow Castle

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An engineering marvel, but bloody hard to climb!

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The view from Montgomery Castle, a brief stop along the way

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The other highlight was Powys in Wales. It was first built in the 12th century, and unlike all the others, is not a ruin. It has enjoyed continual occupation for the past 850 or so years. It was really interesting to be able to walk through an undamaged castle with much of the original furniture and decoration intact (stuff ranging from 100-850 years old). It made the ruins we’ve seen make so much more sense.
The main wing of Powys Castle

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So we arrived at Bangor in the dark, happy at our days adventure – we are learning more and more about the construction and structure of castles with each passing day. Stephen reckons we will be able to build our own by the time we get home.

Day 4: Bath – Shrewsbury

I love Bath. It’s a lovely clean, up market town and it just looks so different from anywhere else. Since we’d arrived so late yesterday, we came back into town this morning for a second look around.

The Roman Baths were stunning, as usual. There was more archeology uncovered since last time I was there. It’s cool that the site is a work in progress – there’s always something new to discover.

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After the baths we popped in to the Pump House (a Georgian tea rooms, very posh) for an underwhelming coffee, and then went to the nearby Apple Store, just because we could. I got an adorable little charm for my Pandora bracelet, and then we headed out of Dodge – to Shrewsbury via Chepstow.

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Chepstow (in South Wales) exceeded my expectations. The 12th century Norman castle was amazing. It has a huge castle complex, and although a ruin, is really well presented. We were able to roam all over the buildings, going up and down towers, along the ramparts, through all the rooms. Totally awesome, we were like kids in a castle-store.

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Stepping out of the castle after a good hour and a half, we found a cute little pub for lunch, a lovely hot meal after a bitterly cold morning. It had been raining and started hailing just as we finished at the castle. Luckily the sleet didn’t start until we were in the cosy warmth of our car.

We drove back into England for our next stop – Ludlow. We arrived much too late to visit the castle and it was seriously cold, so we’d ditched for today and decided we’d have another look tomorrow.

Our hotel in Shrewsbury is comfy, cosy and well appointed (and by that I mean free wifi).