A trip to England to study and play
February 2004
Oh, the horror of having to wake up at 4 a.m. I hate it. But that's what time I had to wake up in order to have time to get ready and get to the airport for my flight at Bonn/Cologne airport. "They" say to get to the airport two hours before an international flight -- but after doing that at Bonn/Cologne three times for an early flight and sitting in a largely empty airport, with no place to check in, for an hour, I decided to sleep an extra 30 minutes. And even with that extra time, I still sat for almost an hour, with no where to check in and no one around...

Later, I arrived in the chaos of Heathrow at 7:30 British time. The guy at the immigration counter asked about the nature of my stay, and I said it was to take a class. He asked what kind of class. So I start blabbling about Organizational Management theory and then realize I'm blabbling and say, "I work at such-and-such and it's for my job." Got through no prob.

The first night, I was staying with an American friend living and working in London, and then heading up to my OU class the next day. My friend has so many visitors that she's written her own guide to how to get to her apartment, listing all of the various options and considerations. I opted for the cheapest option: the bus. I looked all over Heathrow for the friggin' buses and couldn't find them. I would ask people and they would send me one way, and then another. Finally, I'd had enough. The express train to King's Cross was easy to find, though more than twice as expensive. But it's what would get me downtown with no more frustrations. It was fabulous, actually: very quick, clean and comfortable.

I got to King's Cross and it was also a scene of chaos. Londoners love chaos. I maneuvered my way through the madness with my luggage and bags in tow (I had extra because of materials for the class) and finally found the exit for the taxis. The taxi line had about 100 people in it, stretched all the way down the block. I walked the long, long, long way to the back of the line, and after I had stood there about three minutes, I saw an official working his way down the line. He got to me and said, "You willin' to share a taxi, love?" Heck yeah! I jumped right to the front of the line, and shared a cab with two people, both Irish ex patriots, one of whom now lives in the states. They were fabulous. We were crowded, but happy to be on our way.

Then I got to the U.S. Embassy, where my friend works. And I have to say, it is really ugly, even if it didn't have all those concrete slabs in front of it. 1970s architecture was just a big honkin' mistake. The guard was, indeed, expecting me and my luggage -- I had been terrified that the sight of a dark haired, dark eyed girl lugging lots of stuff would set off all sorts of alarms. My friend came down -- let's call her Petunia -- to give me the key to her apartment. Then I got a bus, as directed by Petunia's excellent little guide pages, and went to her apartment. She lives TWO DOORS down from Abbey Roads studio! I walked by, trying not to gape, my heart racing at the thought of where I was. If you don't know this already -- I AM A HUGE BEATLES FAN. Those guys helped me survive adolescence in Kentucky (along with Star Wars). The front white wall was covered in graffiti honoring the Beatles. I wonder so much who was in the studios right at that moment... I kept waiting as I walked by for someone to rush out and grab me and say, "hey, can you sing the harmony part in 'Love Hurts' like Emmy Lou Harris, because we desperately need someone to sing it RIGHT NOW!" But that did not happen. I was so disappointed.

I got to walk across THE CROSSWALK several times. I waved at the Abbey Roads web cam -- did you see me?

I tried to sleep, as I had gotten so little sleep the night before and it wasn't even noon yet, but Petunia's Siberian Husky would have none of it: she kept starting to howl until I finally took her outside. We walked all the way to Regent's Park. Petunia's guide said that I should be prepared for people to stop me constantly regarding the dog, because most people had never seen such. Well, that was oh-so-true. It was fun stopping and talking to so many people. The neighborhood between Abbey Roads and Regents Park is fascinating, a mix of very expensive gated homes and old houses that, were they restored, would be breath-taking. One caught my eye in particular -- it was a partially-domed grand manor that was once the home of painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 - 1912) -- his name was posted outside. It had such a look of Harry Potter's wizard world about it, and as soon as we got back, I jotted down the name for later research. I didn't recognize that name when I first read it, but when I got back to Germany and googled him, I found out that Sir LAT had done some of my favorite paintings! In particular, Sappho and Alcaeus (I often look like this at the movies), A Favourite Custom (this was the first painting I saw of his), The Baths of Caracalla , The Favorite Poet , and Ninety-Four Degrees in the Shade . He often set his people against a background of greatly-idealized daily life in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, with very soft lighting and where everything in the painting looks touchable.

Meanwhile, back in London... The dog and I got home about 45 minutes later, and I watched The French Lieutenant's Woman , a movie I've seen so many times before... but I needed to unwind, and it's a nice movie to help with that. I dozed until it was time to go back to the embassy.

Now, you are asking -- WHY DIDN'T YOU DO MORE SITE-SEEING?! YOU HAD ALL DAY! Because one of the most important things I've learned about traveling is that rest is essential to later actually enjoying what you will see. Being exhausted and wandering around a city is no fun and, quite frankly, can be dangerous, as you aren't as sharp as you should be. And London is a city where you had better have your guard up, deary. Also, I believe that if I can only visit a place quickly, in a rush, in a blur, then it's really not worth it.

That evening, I got the bus back to the embassy (English buses don't do announcements like German buses, so I had to sit near the front of the bus and stare at every stop name). The embassy is a little scary inside -- there are all these photos of Sept. 11 2001 and, honestly, it was too much. It was way over the top. Plus, every picture of Dick Cheney looking so evil (cause, well, as we all know, he is) and every photo of George Bush looking like an idiot (cause, well, as we all know, he is), made me feel ashamed. It was all so political. There was no big map of the USA showing all the various states, no photos from the USA itself, showing our many, many natural environmental beauties and diverse peoples, the things that make the USA truly beautiful and unique -- just Dick, Bush, and 911.

The bar downstairs was nice though! I met a few staff, drank a pint of Guinness (my first of several on this trip), and then we went up to the floor where Petunia works. In one of the booths there are rows and rows of Celebrity Mug Shots -- John Cleese, Ewan MacGregor, Ali G.... an English woman who has worked at the Embassy for many, many years keeps copies of the famous folks who come to the Embassy for visas and puts them up in her booth. Quite a hall of fame! We went out to dinner, and then came home. I went to bed at 10 and was so exhausted that I didn't hear Petunia's sister come into the room, turn on the light, pack, go to bed at midnight, wake up at 3 a.m., and leave for her flight to Italy.

On Friday, I left with Petunia at 7 a.m. -- she had to drop her dog off at the kennel before she, too, headed for Italy. I walked across THE CROSSWALK again, and got on the bus to head for King's Cross. I got some breakfast at a bagel shop, got a train ticket that was five pounds cheaper than usual (with the horrible USA dollar/, and headed for platform six. The train was just about to leave. I got a great seat, and looked out at platform five -- platform 5 3/4 in fact, and as I was staring at the plain archway that, according to the books, if you run at full speed at, you get to the Hogwart's Express, two Japanese tourists came up and took pictures in front of it. I wonder how many times a day that happens!

The train ride was great but, then again, I love trains. It's my favorite way to travel. I stared outside most of the trip, watching the thick, colorless city become much-prettier English countryside. I'm so glad I remembered my sea bands -- on a train, I can read if I have them on. A little more than an hour later, I got to the city of Grantham. It's a good thing I had gotten plenty of money at Heathrow when I first arrived -- the ATM at the train station at Grantham was broken. Plus, I knew that the residential school included all meals, so I wasn't too worried. I got in a cab to head to Stoke Rochford Hall, which is an estate North of Grantham, where my classes would be. The cab driver told me that there was a very large concentration of Americans in Grantham. It turned out that it was the location of the University of Evansville's British campus. I nearly fell out of the cab. U of E is the big city across the river from my home town where I grew up in Kentucky. I had soooooooooooo wanted to go there, once upon a time, mostly because they had a British campus. But it was way, way too out of my price range. So, here I was almost 20 years later.

We finally got to the estate, and I felt like I had entered a Jane Austin novel. Stoke Rochford Hall is beautiful! I checked in, then had to walk more than a kilometer back the way I came to the residential halls, passing a massive obelisk that was built as a tribute to Sir Isaac Newton, who was born nearby. I stayed in Cringle Hall. Doesn't that sound incredibly British? My room was plain but clean -- similar to our room in Luxor, but with better bedding and just one bed, plus a sink and TV in the room. I was hours early, so I unpacked, and then went walking on the estate. There was a light rain, but it wasn't really, really cold. I found it very refreshing. At one point I sat down under a huge tree and just stared over at the manor in the distance, with the wild geesh and wild pheasants and beautiful stream in front. Everything was sooooo green. Most of the land around the estate was pasture or, ugh, golf course. It was the only time I had for walking around the estate in the day time, and I am so glad that I got to do it. It was like the calm before the storm....

School started at 2 p.m. that same day -- Friday. There were 60 people -- I was expecting 20 - 30. There were at least 10 people who weren't there. I am stunned that there are that many people in my class, since there are only three or four of us who post to our online community regularly, and maybe only as many reading. So, I talked up the online community *alot*, encouraging people to use it, talking about how helpful it is to completing TMAs and preparing for the exam, etc. We'll see how many people were motivated by my entreaties...

The first day, things seemed a bit unorganized. We were divided into groups of six and seven, and then engaged in various workshops and mock negotiations, which I won't go into now... as I doubt any of you are interested in mapping and modeling as it applies to development interventions.... Almost every session was lead by a different tutor or tutors, so I got to meet almost everyone associated with the distance courses I've been taking for more than a year.

On Saturday, we were given the afternoon off. I have no idea why. So I went with two students -- Michelle, a Canadian living in Italy and Ian, a Scotsman recently back from a gig in Saudi Arabia -- in a rental car and headed to Grantham. Our mission was to find an Internet cafe, because Stoke Rochford Hall will only reluctantly give you Internet access in one of their conference facilities, and even then, they charge 2 pounds 50 for 15 minutes. HELLO?! We found the library and, as we hadn't made an appointment (ah, the joys of community computing centers), we got a collective 30 minutes on a computer -- meaning we each got 10 minutes online. By then, it was time to turn around and rush back to Stoke Rochford Hall (it's about 20 minutes away). I just never dreamed that Internet access in a supposedly fully developed country would be so hard. Grantham strikes me as a very hard to maneuver town -- not a place that is easy to get around unless you have a car, and, even then, you can expect to fight for parking and entrance onto roads. There were lots of interesting restaurants though. It's the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. It's also the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher -- I mentioned this to a Brit at the school later and he said, "Oh, I do hope they have a museum and that they stuff her and put her in."

The bar that is on the way to the dining room was undergoing refurbishing, but the bar down in the catacombs was open, and I visited it each night I was at Stoke Rochford Hall -- and never once bought a drink for myself (people kept buying my drinks for me, bless 'em! That usually only happens when I'm back in the states!). I had a pint and a half of Guinness every night, but I just couldn't make it past 10 or 11. My head was always spinning by the end of the day, and I wanted to be fresh every day. So, no playing snooker until 3 a.m. with the guys. They all looked like hell the last morning by the way -- and one kinda smelled bad (don't worry, it wasn't you, Ian).

The last night, before dinner, I walked the grounds immediately around Stoke Rochford Hall. It was just so beautiful, with only the sounds of the wild birds around and on the water, and the crunch of pebbles as I walked. Again, I felt like I was in a Jane Austin novel. The manor is not that old -- it was built in the 1840s. But the site has been occupied since Neolithic periods. It was too dark to walk down the road and go to the small Abbey down the road -- I was disappointed that I never got to see it and the surrounding old graveyard up close.

The last day, I hung out until the last of the cabs, with the last four other students who were also not in any hurry for trains. I was talking with this Irish girl I had really liked, and told her I loved her ring. And she GAVE it to me! I kept saying, "No, no, you dont have to give it to me!" but she absolutely insisted. I had a really nice lapel pin from work, so I gave her that. We all went to the Grantham train station together at long last (the last cab took forever) and this guy I hadn't talked to at all told me I was going to have a real problem, once in London, getting from King's Cross to the Waterloo Station via the underground, and offered to chaperone me once we got to London, since he was going too. Thank GOODNESS he did!! Because otherwise, I'd still be in the London underground wandering around. I hope my underground guardian angel had a wonderful trip in England and gets that placement in the South Pacific he really wanted.

So, because of him, I made it through the maze of the underground, frequently switching trains, and then to Waterloo and to the train to Bournemouth, just seconds before it pulled out. I managed to get a seat facing forward (next to a tiny East Asian guy, reading the Koran and porn). The countryside, as usual, was lovely once we got out of the city. About two hours later, I was in Bournemouth. I called Louise, she picked me up, and I just sat drinking wine in her living room while her 12 year old daughter was in a whirlwind getting ready for an under-age disco. I learned long ago that it's best to stay out of a pre-teen's way on such occasions. We dashed out for take out chinese food, which was FANTASTIC. Why is it so much better in England? And, at last, I felt like I could relax.

The next day, we took Ambre and her friend with us to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. I thought it was incredible. There were lots of Victorian representations of ancient Egypt (why do I love those so much?), awesome artifacts from China and Japan during the Victorian era, and various other interesting things. I would loved to have stayed and looked at things a bit longer, but the girls were bored... we ate a tasty lunch at the new annex, and as we got back in the car, I almost killed Ambre, who I didn't know was standing in the doorway when I tried to close it. I really hurt her and felt awful for the rest of the day...

Bournemouth is a modern, lively seaside town, not old at all though (just 200 years old). I thought it would be like a beachside Bad Godesberg, but it's not at all -- there are lots of shops, lots of restaurants, some pretty walks, and lovely beaches and coves. I was enchanted.

I didn't buy much at the college bookstore where Louise lectures once a week -- I thought I would go a little crazy, but only a few things caught my eye. We went to ChristChurch, to see yet another old cathedral. I guess growing up in the U.S. with all our tiny little churches makes me so blown away by these HUGE stone creations. We had a long, lovely chat with two very old and very *charming* British war veterans -- now I know where people in the Southern U.S. get that charm. Then we went back to Bournemouth to visit the grave of Mary Shelly at St. Peter's Churchyard. Louise used to walk by it on her way to university every day, and would wish Mary good morning. So knowing Louise is as nuts as I am, I knew she wouldn't mind if I stood there and told Mary how much I had enjoyed Frankenstein, and that I hope she knew wherever she was what an impact that book continues to have, and thanks from women writers everywhere for being such a pioneer.

That night, we went out for Indian food (no, Mary did not join us). As for the food -- Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. It was beyond good. I just completely stopped talking to savor it -- therefore, you know it was good. I could not have been happier (unless the waiter had crawled under the table and given me a foot massage, but then I would have fallen asleep...). Oh, it was so good. Did I mention how good it was? We took everything for leftovers and ate it the next day. Heaven.

The next day, we went drove to Dorchester with Ambre in tow, to visit two sites at my suggestion, which Louise had never been to. I'd found them in Lonely Planet Britain. The first was Maiden Castle, which is actually a MASSIVE, and I mean a MASSIVE earthwork hill fort. It spans 3 miles and encloses nearly 20 hectares. The site has been inhabited since Neolithic times, but the first fort was build here around 800 B.C. I was way impressed. It took a long time to get over to the top and inner-most fort, and I ran along the top, taking in the beautiful view and watching paragliders fly alongside us. There is a mound many yards in the distance -- it's not been excavated, and it's completely closed off by a fence. There was nothing about it written anywhere on the site that I could find. I'd love to know what's in it. It's not as big as New Grange, but it was a respectable size, nonetheless.

We went into the cute town of Dorchester for lunch. I had wanted to go to the County Museum, to see the artifacts from the fort, but we didn't have time. Then we headed to the Cerne Giant. It's north of a picture-perfect little English village called Cerne Abbas. The Cerne Giant is a massive chalk figure that may be more than 2000 years old or may be just a few hundred years old -- no one knows for sure. Given his... endowments, I would say he's rather old, as the pre-Romans were so fascinated with genitalia in art works, and those of the last two hundred years were not... Google the Cerne Giant and you can see him wielding his large weapon for yourself. Louise was ecstatic -- she had never seen it, and said she would now take EVERYONE there.

We stopped for snacks on the way home and, at that moment, Louise's starter motor decided to poop out. She charmed the Peugeot guys into giving her a push start. We got home fine (she swears by her beat-up VW -- like much of the world, she believes German cars are the best) and ate our Indian food leftovers and watched the British music awards, then watched Contact . I had heard awful things about it, but I quite enjoyed it. The ending was a bit rushed and the dialogue often made me roll my eyes. But it was definitely worth seeing. Ambre and I also invented a sport: toe wrestling. If you win, you get to yell, "You've been toe'd!!!" Which we did frequently. Louise just watched us and shook her head.

The next day, we walked to Bournemouth while Louise's car was in the shop. We shopped, and we ate at a fantastic sea-side restaurant. The staff was sooooo nice, and I complemented them for having THREE different kinds of quality Kentucky bourbon on their shelves (none of which I drank, however). I had a pasta dish with fennel, lemon and clams that curled my toes, it was so good. Louise had a crab salad, which came with a complete, fully-intact crab. We drank red wine and were feeling a bit tipsy as we tried to crack open various parts of the crab. Ambre was completely disgusted and kept saying so, in that way that only a 12 year old can. I cracked one of the legs and tiny pieces of crab went flying everywhere -- on the wall, and on Ambre. She sat there with her hands waving, making loud whiney sounds while Louise and I almost fell off our chairs laughing. We were hysterical. We kept making jokes about that crab all day.

I got to see the newspaper where Louise works -- inside, for the most part, it looks like any newspaper offices. But the art deco architecture is lovely. My favorite part was the staff's wall-of-kitsch; Louise's contribution was a Pope John Paul paper dolls book.

She also took me to the New Forest, which I didn't get to see much of due to lack of time and daylight, but what I did see, I loved. Outside of Scotland, it's the largest area of relatively natural vegetation in Britain. It was really too cold to explore, but we got out of the car at one point and ran out into the moors, yelling "Heathcliff!!!" It's full of wild ponies, who pretty much go anywhere they want. I would definitely like to go back and have a good, long hike or horse ride through it.

That night, we ate KFC and watched Moulin Rouge , which, I must admit... I LOVED IT!! What a feast for the eyes! I thought it was *incredibly* clever, and no more silly as far as stories go then classic operas. I loved it so much that I'm thinking of buying the DVD. Oh, how I wish I had seen it on the big screen... Louise and I made a vow, right then and there, that if Ewan McGregor ever did a live show, we would be there.

And the next day, my last day, a Friday, Louise took me to the bus stop for my 10 a.m. coach to Heathrow. I cried on the bus. I had had such a great time. Such a relaxing time. Such a welcoming time. With a wonderful friend. The ride was lovely, and the bus only half full. It arrived at Heathrow right on time -- right at the bus terminal that I couldn't find when I had arrived at Heathrow eight days earlier. I was three hours early, but between lunch, check in, and recovering from check in, it was the perfect amount of time.

I need to see more of England. I really do.

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