Why so many castles?

Stephen and I have travelled around the UK on holiday three times now, and each time we have structured our trip around visits to castles, abbeys and other ancient monuments.

The main reason for this is simply that we both love history and get immense enjoyment from being physically present in this history. It’s just magic being able to walk around a castle and imagine what it would have been like to be a labourer carefully placing stones. We marvel at walking in the same rooms as Kings and Queens and heroes from the past.

There are also side-benefits of this approach to travel.

Culture: we are often visiting sites that are off the beaten track and out of the way. We go through (and stay in) small villages as well as big cities, which we find is slower, less stressful and more likely to lead to interactions with locals. There is nothing like popping into the local establishment, sitting down with a baked potato and eavesdropping.

Exercise: visiting castles means climbing, since fortifications are typically on top of hills. It’s great to break a 2-3 hour drive with a good trek up a hill, usually combined with hundreds of spiralling steps.

Nature: a lot of the locations we visited are out on peninsulas or in out of the way places. We get to walk through some beautiful countryside and enjoy amazing views. And because it’s winter, some lovely sunsets (at 4.15pm!).

History: we get to learn a lot about a place by reading about the sites we visit. The UK historical societies provide really good interpretative guides and panels, and we do some of our own research on the areas we visit. We’ve learned a lot about the history of the region, and it’s really brought to life when you are standing on a city wall, walking through a cobbled street, viewing a village from a castle tower.

Connecting the dots: visiting one important site teaches you about that place, but visiting lots of places all over the UK, Ireland and Iceland has allowed us to connect the stories together. The same people appear in the stories but from different points of view – the invader and the invaded.

Slowing down: It’s not a fast way to travel – we have been here almost 5 weeks and needed every minute! We’ve covered a lot of ground – by car, bus, train and plane. it’s quite slow (veering off on side quests constantly) but it’s a lot of fun to be spontaneous.

The good news is that after three visits (technically six for me), I feel like seen everything I need to in the UK. Now I’m thinking about the next round of trips … maybe Scandinavia to connect up the Viking part of the story. Better start saving!

Impressions of Iceland

When we travelled in 2015, I wrote a daily blog about our trip. It was a lot of effort, and I didn’t feel like repeating this time. Instead, I’m doing a quick top five each day on Instagram. Much easier! But I felt compelled to write down my thoughts about Iceland. It was a “bucket-list” country for both Stephen and I – on our must-see list. In the back of my mind, I was a bit worried I might be disappointed. I was not…

What a place! We arrived from Edinburgh via London-Birmingham-Manchester, so immediately experienced the culture shock of being in a country about the same size as the South Island, but with only 360,000 residents. We jumped off the airport bus in the mid-afternoon to a quiet, clean and empty village square. 

In many ways, Iceland has a European vibe, but it also looks and feels a lot like New Zealand – it’s a small, remote island. And like New Zealand, Iceland sits between two tectonic plates that are slowly moving away from each other. Volcanoes, hot springs, mud pools, geysers and earthquakes are the norm here. 

We based ourselves in Reykjavík, and had four days to really take it all in. It was nice to be able to wander around and really absorb the place. Lots of things stood out…

  • At this time of year, the sun rises at about 9am and sets around 5pm. It’s really weird to be eating breakfast at 8am with the sun still firmly asleep. To compensate, the streets and buildings are brightly lit – it makes for a pretty morning stroll. 
  • The days were pleasantly sunny, but still cold of course. The sun had no warmth, and at midday, was barely over the horizon. By the middle of winter, there will be only four hours of daylight each day. 
  • Everyone speaks English in Iceland. Like, everyone. We didn’t come across anyone who didn’t have perfect English, and with very little accent. And most of the street and shop signs are also in English – they are effectively a bilingual country. 
  • This might be in part due to the vast number of tourists visiting  each year. This year, they’ve had two million guests – imagine that! That’s the equivalent of New Zealand having 25 million visitors every year (we had 3.8 million in 2018).
  • Although they are inundated with tourists every year, the locals don’t seem annoyed about sharing their resources with the visitors – everyone we met was super helpful and friendly. 
  • They have fairly good infrastructure to support the influx of guests from what we could see. The public transport is really good – heaps of buses going all over the island, and the government is considering putting in electric trains. There is a lot of building underway – mostly high density hotels to support the growing demand.
  • While we were there we saw workers laying pipes on the roads and a quick google told us that they are under-road heating pipes. They have had these for around 10 years – the heated roads and footpaths means they don’t need to clear the roads when it snows, and makes it safe when it’s frosty. What a genius idea! And it’s eco-friendly too, since Iceland uses 100% renewable energy. 
  • It certainly isn’t a cheap country to visit, with food and accommodation being very expensive compared with European countries. Understandable though, when you think about how remote it is.
  • They grow fruits and vegetables all year round, in glasshouses kept warm with geothermal energy, which also enriches the soil. Smart people!

I was completely charmed by Iceland, – like I said, it certainly did not disappoint.

And just because I found them interesting, here are a few fun facts we learned along the way:

  • Before the tourism boom started in 2010, Iceland was having a tough time – it was hit hard by the global financial crisis and its banking system collapsed in 2008, necessitating an IMF-funded bailout. 
  • The reason for the tourism boom seems to be the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air traffic all over Europe closing air traffic in 20 countries and affecting 10 million people. The Icelandic tourism office swung into action, and the charm offensive paid off, with tourist numbers increasing every year since 2011 (from less than 500,000 to over 2 million last year).  
  • If you want to know how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, just say “hey you forgot your yoghurt” really quickly and you’ll be close. Apparently.
  • Iceland was settled by Vikings almost 1000 years ago, and they have the oldest legislature in the world – founded in 930. 
  • The Icelandic language has had very little influence from other languages over the past 1000 years, because of the remoteness of the country. Modern Icelanders can read ancient Norse texts more readily than people from Norway or Denmark.
  • The remoteness also makes Icelanders one of the most genetically homogeneous populations in the world, since they haven’t had the same co-mingling as the rest of us. Everyone’s your cousin!
  • A recent genetic survey found that 80% of men are of Norse origin, but only 40% of the woman – the remainder are Gaelic. The probable explanation for this is that when they were settling the country, the Vikings stopped in Ireland and picked up slaves – mostly women. So the majority of Icelandic women are descendants of Irish slaves. 

Next stop, Ireland…

Visiting the Art Deco capital of New Zealand

I achieved two bucket list items this weekend – visiting Napier and seeing one of my favourite bands live. 

I've wanted to visit Napier for the longest time, but have just never managed to get there – so many places, so little time! Years ago, I read about Napier's distinctive Art Deco buildings and wanted to go see their magnificence in person. After the Canterbury earthquakes, my interest was renewed – how does a city that's been flattened by an earthquake look after it rebuilds? 

The majority of Napier city buildings were destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent fire in 1931. The rebuild started almost immediately, and took place at the height of the Art Deco period. And 85 years later, it still contains 140 of the original 165 buildings built during this period. That's a remarkable achievement in itself – the city has ensured that the buildings have been carefully preserved – they are so colourful and interesting! 

We took a great walking tour of the city – we purchased a pamphlet from the Art Deco centre and meandered our way around, reading about the buildings' history as we walked. It was a very well-done tour that would benefit from becoming more digital – an audio tour, or even QR codes on buildings would be fun. 

One aspect of the building decoration that I found really interesting is the prevalence of Egyptian motifs. In the pamphelt, this is explained by the fact that Tutankhamen's tomb had been discovered in 1922, and interest in ancient Egypt was high.  If you look at some of the patterns on buildings, you can certainly see the influence. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Napier – it absolutely lived up to my expectations. 

11. The best trip of my life

It’s hard to pick one, they have all been so good! My two top all time favourite would have to be the Capitals Tour I did in 2007-8 with Megan and Jo – we went to England, Scotland, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and LA. It was epic and fun!

Then in 2011 for our honeymoon, Stephen and I went to England and Scotland. We spent three weeks wandering around castles, churches and abbeys. It was a year after the big quake and life at home was hard work, so it was amazing just to be out of Christchurch and the daily grind of post-quake life.

For both trips the thing that stands out is that we had not made specific plans for where we were going before we left. We booked the first couple of nights accommodation only, and then just wandered where we fancied. In 2007 this was a big leap of faith, but once I’d done it once, I don’t think I’d want to do it differently. It’s such a great way to travel – going where you want, when you want. If you get tired you can set down for a few days, and if you get bored, just move on.

Stephen and I have started planning the next big one – probably for 2018. It will be better than ever!

Day 25: Singapore – home

The first leg was very uneventful – I was very much focused on my Game of Thrones marathon, and was pleased to get through seven episodes in between snacking and napping.

We had a three-hour stop over in Singapore which was really only enough time to look at some shops, have a snack and then get back on the plane.

The second leg was a bit harder – it was an older plane with NO Game of Thrones!! So I amused myself with a couple of movies.

We arrived home around 10.30am and I pretty much went straight to bed. And then (of course!) we went to the ice rink that evening – it was the Women’s League final and Bronwen’s team was playing. They lost, but it was a great game!

Now to recover from the jetlag…

 

It’s the little things…

Jeez, it’s been ages. Two months. I think about blogging all the time, in fact just yesterday. I think of something to say, or about something that just happened, and then I post it on Facebook and Twitter and move on. Social media is easy and blogging takes time and effort. Sad but true.

Anyway, I did something momentous (for me) today – my first lone roadie. I drove from Palmerston North to Wellington. In a rental car. In the dark. And the rain. It took just over two hours. It might not seem like a big deal if you drive all the time, but it is huge for me. The idea of that much speed for that much time scares me. There were bridges! There was one bridge with a curve, and up hill, and a BUS coming the other way. That one made me sweat a bit. And I drove all the way through Wellington city and out the other side to drop off the car.

When I got my driver licence in 2011 (on my 39th birthday), it gave me this amazing sense of freedom. It made so many things possible that were just difficult to do before … imagine going to hockey on the bus, argh. A couple of weeks ago I thought about driving to Timaru. I’d need to bring Stephen along, I thought to myself. I can’t drive myself, I thought. There are bridges. And it’s a long way! So now I know I can. That’s really cool.

Cruisin’

Bucket list item, ticked off.

We went on a cruise March 31st – April 11. It was … interesting.

The wedding was lovely, and such a good idea – it was low-key and just right for Kim and Shelley. I love the idea of being able to avoid all the palaver of the wedding organisation. Though, organising everyone onto the ship must have been a mission!

It took me a few days to unwind once we set sail – work had been really busy and stressful. It felt weird to go from 100% busy to 0%. Nothing to do, no schedule, no appointments. So of course, once I got over the shock of that, I began structuring things around me – breakfast, gym, yoga, Downtown Abbey. Lunch, lounging, trivia, ballroom dancing, Downtown Abbey. Dinner, Downtown Abbey. We watched a lot of Downtown Abbey – all four seasons in fact.

I coped with the seasickness much better than I expected, thanks to Scopoderm patches. I put one on as soon as I felt queasy and then hardly thought about it again. The side effects were a bit interesting, but blurry vision and a rash were much better than the alternative.

After three very looooong days at sea, we arrived in Vanuatu and stopped for two nights at Santo and Champagne Bay. It was great to get off the ship, but I was surprised to find that it made me feel sick. Once back on board (or in the water) I felt fine. Weird!

Next stop was Port Vila – not really a swimming island, so we had a quick look around, went for a boat-taxi ride and then spent the day in the pool on board.

Next was Mystery Island (stunning!) for swimming, and then the last shore day was Isle of Pines (also gorgeous!).

I was happy to see land again after the last three sea days. I was ready for something different! I missed skating! We had a nice relaxing last day in Sydney before flying home for a long weekend.

All in all, it was an interesting experience. I’m not sure I’d want to do another cruise but I enjoyed the enforced relaxation part (I need that). I did start to feel a little cooped-up with nowhere to go – I think if I did another I would prefer to cruise to somewhere and then get off the ship for a few days. And since I’m not really that into beaches and such, preferably the somewhere would involve cities. It was fun hanging out with my family, and to meet Shelley’s family. The food was awesome. The weather was amazing. And of course I am always happy sharing adventures with my best friend.

Enjoying some sun and sand at the Isle of Pines
Enjoying some sun and sand at the Isle of Pines

 

Day 21: Hampton Court Palace, and home

We decided to use our last day in London exploring Hampton Court Palace, 30 minutes from London central by train. This was the palace Henry VIII and his various wives, and the Edward VI (the boy king), William III of Orange and Mary II (England’s only co-regents), and Charles I and II. After this, Hampton Court fell out of favor as a royal palace and they lived elsewhere.

It’s a big place and very well preserved, but so different from the other royal dwellings we’ve seen – they’ve all been huge castles. The palace is quite dainty by comparison.
It was a lovely spring day in London today, so nice to just wander around and soak it all in before we went to Heathrow for the long journey home. We’ve had a great time, but we are definitely ready for home – family, familiarity and a comfy bed!

Inspired

After work last night, I met up with Gerard in Auckland city and we went for a walk around Britomart. I’d only heard of Britomart as a transport centre. And until recently, Gerard explained, the area was an urban ghetto – lots of empty and derelict buildings, a place nobody would want to go. Not so now. The area has recently undergone an amazing transformation.

Pop-up shops

I am truly impressed with this newly built shopping spot – it’s funky and attractive and makes really good use of space. It’s right in the middle of sky-scraper city, and yet the main square was roomy and light with grass and trees and warm sun and lots of people. The buildings are a mix of high-, mid- and low-rise and of old and new. The newest are a set of temporary shops that are described on the website as ‘pop-up shops’.

It inspired me. I imagine that the rubble that is Christchurch could grow into something like this.  It was vibrant and alive, full of people, but still functional – a transport centre flowing with traffic.

We need this. We need to rebuild a functioning, functional inner city that people want to work and live in. Until now I really only had a vague picture of what was possible. Now I’ve seen the reality of what we can have. I cross my fingers that those who are rebuilding my place have seen what I saw.

Because standing amongst the glass and brick and cobbles and people, I felt real hope for the first time in almost a year.

Honeymoon update

We’ve done most of the planning and organising for our honeymoon now – as much as we are going to.

We have:

  • Booked, paid for and picked up our tickets. Actually, there is no tickets. In this modern digital age, we’ve been issued an itinerary and we don’t need a ticket to travel. So much easier, since it’s one less thing to worry about forgetting to bring!
  • Booked and paid for our rental car – we are picking up a car at Heathrow when we arrive and using it for 3 weeks.
  • Booked a transit hotel in Singapore for our 6-hour stop over. This hotel is such a great idea! We can have a shower, a lie-down, grab something to eat and even work out in their gym if we want.
  • Booked our first night’s accommodation in Brighton. We are staying at the grand-looking Royal Albion Hotel on the beach front.
  • Been buying GBP while the going is good. I have a OneSmart card that gives a good rate and means that when we are in the UK we are spending in the local currency (so no conversion charges for every purchase). We’ve set aside all the money we need for the trip – now we just need to save for the luxuries.

Now all we have to do is wait for February 29th to roll around!