Thursday and Friday, August 12 and 13
It's certainly nice to be off; I'm worn out. Left work around four out of sheer tedium and went home to kill some time showering and fidgeting. Larry called just before six saying that the re- org was being announced, that Steve Price was ecstatic, Pam Flaherty will stay on in NY losing her marketing role, and Bob Selander is high and dry holding TTI and little else. No clarity on BCI. I told Larry to get busy and fix things.
Then to the airport. BA176 left on time at 9pm with every teensy-weensy seat filled. Out came my earplugs and mask, And I slept through until approach. We had some excitement -- they aborted our landing when "another aircraft was slow getting off the runway." Sharp and sudden ascent, quick rolling up of the wheels, and a steep climb. And we'd gotten down quite close. Well, all was well. We went around again and came back for a perfect landing.
I grabbed a quick breakfast at Heathrow , then tubed to Covent Garden and walked to the Stand Palace. Miraculously my room was ready. Tiny, but quiet and neat. I dumped everything, then headed back to Covent Garden to get an African bag at the market, then lunch on the upstairs terrace of the main market building. A glorious, clear, sunshiny day. Maybe in the high 70s. After lunch I toddled off to get tickets for Sunset Boulevard, then to Leicester Square for tickets to Juno and the Paycock. Back for a (welcome} nap and simple dinner at the hotel. Juno and the Paycock was superb, if gloomy. It's a Gate Theatre (Dublin} production with Anita Reeves, Niall Buggy, and Mark Lambert. Simply terrific. Back to hotel by I1pm to collapse happily.
Saturday, August 14
Slept in until 9ish then had a lazy breakfast. Another beautiful day. I started off with a browse through Harrods. Startlingly heavy security presence keeping the door areas clear, asking that all large bags be checked, small bags carried by hand. (What's so scary about backpacks?} Strolled a bit, and sat for a while in Hyde Park to soak in sun.
Walked past the Horse Guards at Whitehall -- hi guys -- then went to the matinee of Sunset Boulevard. Fun. Patti Lupone is great, all force and belting. He co-lead was more of a pretty boy, Kevin Anderson. A fabulous set: three stories (it seems} of Hollywood-Moorish palazzo that rises like an elevator to show the lower set at stage level. Lupone, by the way must be in terrific shape. Her role seems to be mostly racing up and down the staircase. That plus two songs. (Quite a lot for recent Lloyd-Webber.} Shortly into the performance they had to break off. Technical difficulties. Took about ten minutes to get back on track. So much for the computer age.
Back to the hotel to clean up, then Italian dinner and on to see Travels with My Aunt. a clear adaptation of Graham Greene. All roles split among four men: Simon Cadell, Richard Kane, Christopher Gee, and William Gaunt. Clever, but I got the picture and left at the interval to head back for some sleep.
Sunday, August 15
Up at nine or so which meant too long a wait for breakfast, so I headed to mass at Corpus Christi up the street. You'd miss it easily -- flat, brick facade, no flashy entry. The clear but church-like window is overhead and the tower up out of sight. When you do down a few steps and turn, you find a lovely church. High white walls, dark wood roof, simple white and gold baroque (maybe I should just say not over the top} altar, high clear clerestory windows. Organ music ending in sync with the bells chiming for mass. Lovely mass too. Then breakfast and tube to Camdem Lock Market. Dense, young, dingy market in and around old factories and warehouse. Very like the Village, very like Sydney. Mobbed. Music of all sorts jumbling together quite pleasantly. Falafel. Cheap clothes. Bags. Incense. New Age. When you go down to the canal itself though, the honky tank drops off almost immediately. It's very quiet, even with the tourist and houseboats. Unlike Amsterdam, all the houses back up to the canal with backyards and gardens. (And sunbathers and kayaks.} I went along as far as the zoo, then cam back up for a hurried visit with the pandas and a hot dog lunch. Then I raced through Regent Park which was basking in its Sunday green glories. Caught the tube out to Islington. Trendy shopping and eating area it seems, but there's a seemingly well- established fringe theater in the back room of the King's Head pub. Se12tember Tide. by Daphne DuMaurier. Susannah York was marvelous, Brendan Coyle (seriously Irish cute} and Francesca Hunt, tough but interesting. The room was cramped with tables, bolted down stools, chairs, ledges, whatever to seat 125. Thoroughly fun. Then back for roast beef at the hotel and resting up.
Monday, August 16
Packed up, breakfast, then taxi to Euston Station to check my bags for the night train. Tube then to Hampstead which is charming and seriously prosperous. The heath itself is wonderful -- real fields, clumps of wood, quiet, of course, on a weekday. All with downtown London in sight in the haze. Wandered through town then lunch at an exquisite nouvelle-Chinese, Zen. all Courbousier: white, blazing sun through a skylight, gray and steel and glass furniture, a waterfall along the stairs from the mezzanine. Serene. Piano music and Peking Duck for one. Make that sublime Back to Leicester Square to get tickets then tea in Covent Garden and a lot of wandering around bookstores until curtain time. The Last Yankee. Arthur Miller. Extraordinary. Lean, minimal. Powerful. Cast (if I've got it right} Helen Burns, Margot Leicester, David Healy, Peter Davison.
Stroll through the fun of Leicester Square to cool off (mentally} and on to Euston for the train.
Tuesday, August 17
The sleeper was a marvel of compact efficiency , though I can't imagine how two people could be nested into the same space with the upper berth let down. For me it was dandy, but you did have to think organized; no room to get sloppy. I was tucked into bed by 11:15 or so and almost asleep by the time we pulled out. I barely turned over all night so any "train experience" was slept through. A knock on the door at 7am announced tea and biscuits. In bed of course. The Glasgow train station was neat -- they've covered over an area that used to be open, so the big hotel and bank walls are inside with windows looking down on the station. Cab to Eurocar then off to the airport in a sporty little white Renault. Debby missed her connection in London so she didn't get in until almost 2pm. I hung out quite happily reading. Then into the car (I lost the parking ticket, but the attendants kindly let us out without paying again} and zip across to Edinburgh.
We headed straight for the city and were directed to our Channings Hotel. What a winner. It's five Edwardian townhouses joined together. Period decorations. We somehow lucked out and were ensconced in the wood paneled, book lined (yes, some Reader's Digest condensed volumes sneaked in} library overlooking the garden. Even the bath was multi-room. The dining room was also a pleasant surprise. Good french-ish food, fresh veggies. Very nice.
Wednesday, August 18
Up and about a very busy Edinburgh. First the castle which really does dominate the city center. A thorough tour of the castle in off-and-on rain. Then we strolled the length of the Royal Mile down to Holyrood Palace. Pretty much a palace I could like. Reasonable, simple. Bus back to the castle, lunch at a pub, then a walk down the Mound into the bustle and bother of Prince Street-during-the-festival. Not in the mood. We dithered around a bit looking for a currency exchange, but then we fetched up at the Edinburgh Book Festival which was more to my taste. Into the car and fought through the rush hour crowd heading north across the Forth Road Bridge. Stopped at a tourist information office and booked a B&B on a farm in Culross, Woodhead Farm. You come into a stone barn courtyard, all whitewash and red gates. Then through a passage to the farmhouse itself. We had a charming twin room up at the back. Dinner at a mediocre hotel next town over.
Thursday, August 19
Lovely day. Up and out early to see Culross starting first at the church (skipped the abbey ruins} then on to the town. The whole village has landmark status, but is still lived in. We'd beat all the tourist coach types so our wander around really gave a sense of 17C flavor. All the houses front directly on narrow cobbled streets. Mostly white Stucco and stone for building. Very atmospheric. On for a drive to the Soldier's Leap at Killiecrankie. The legend has it that a soldier, running away from the Jacobites jumped across this river mini-gorge and escaped. Eighteen feet or more on rugged wet rock outcroppings. Um, maybe not. It was a lovely walk though down to the river through green woods and splashing streams. We grabbed an early lunch, then drove on to the Cairngorms for some more outdoorsy fun. Took a side-saddle (sideways facing} chairlift in two stages up to the top of the ski area. It's all above the tree line and covered with grass, rocks, and heather. The lift goes to about 3600 feet, then we hiked up a rocky path another 1000 feet to the weather station (unmanned} at the top. Sweeping vies all ways with wind that blows straight in from Siberia. Like Mount Washington. Easy for a tourist to e delivered to the top; big time treacherous if the clouds come in or you're foolish. I loved it all of course.
Stopped briefly at the shop at the bottom where I picked up a Polartec vest for warmth, then tea in Aviemore where we called ahead to book a room "near Cawdor". We were sent to Nairn which turns out to be a delightful seaside resort. Said to be Charlie Chaplin's favorite. W e were in a small stone hotel, the Lothian, in sight of the sea, easy walk to the harbor, closer to the old section of small houses on tiny streets -- Fishertown. W e walked after dinner and were both charmed. It was low tide which showed a neat feature of the manmade harbor. The docks work like elevators and rise with the tide, the boats rising along with then. W e even saw a man carrying his largish dog down the ladder to the dock; he just slung him over his shoulder and the dog (wisely} hung on with all paws. Walked back through Fishertown spying through windows into kitchens and dumpy living rooms. Not to be confused with American style.
Friday, August 20
Walked around Nairn for a bit after breakfast. Around the harbor and Fishertown. All very quiet, though it's still tourist season. The kids are back in school as of this week, so it seems the resorts quiet down. Though maybe 65 degrees is not considered beach weather. A brief stop at Boots in the High Street for sunblock etc., then off for the tourist trail. First to Cawdor with dreams of thanes and witches. Instead it turns out to be a neat looking castle exterior with a luxe interior that has been updated continually for four or five centuries. Old tapestries, new rugg. Old beds, new chairs. Old dungeon, modern kitchen (circa 1989.} All with very dry tongue-in-cheek description cards. Debby very disappointed; I got an unexpected kick out of it. Pressed on north taking an alternate tourist bypass through wonderful heather covered mountains. Stopped for lunch at an inn in the middle of nowhere. Irish music and run by three ladies and two dogs. On from there to the Clynelish distillery and tour. No activity -- the plant is closed on Friday -- and the overwhelming, sick-making yeast and fermentation smells. Ugh. We did the tour all the same, ho hum, though neither of us cared two hoots about the reward of a sample of Scotch at the end.
Back up the thruway, both lanes of it, along a wild cliffy coastline. Lots of open moor, sheep farms, low stone farms. Sun, clouds, drizzle. We stopped at Helmsdale to book our B&B and took tea with the local library's ladies auxiliary. The epitome of pleasant simplicity -- 2 mugs of tea, 2 scones, $2.00. And for a good cause too. One lady described winters as "bleak ... it's the wind, you know." From there up the coast with a couple of prehistoric stops at the Grey Cairns of Camster and the Hill O'Many Stones. The cairns are 4000 or more years old. Stone burial chambers in the middle of a bog. We went inside one, quite tidy and neatly stabilized, but all those years of stone history were whispering in the background. Spooky. The Hill O'Many Stones is overrated. It's a fan-shaped layout of small stones with clearly some significance. What it is, no one knows. On to Wick and our B&B with Mrs. Sutherland in a block of flats in a dull development. Walked to town for dinner at the local hotel.
Saturday, August 21
Quick drive in the morning to Scrabster where we had no trouble booking passage on the noon ferry to the Orkneys.. With an hour or so to kill until boarding we took the recommendation of the lady at the ferry check-in and reserved a B&B right by the harbor for Monday night. Then we walked around the docks a bit, had tea at the fisherman's mission. "Spread the Word; heal the sick." In line with the car at 11:00 and quickly on board. A big P&O ferry with open decks and many not appealing indoor lounges: TV lounge with reclining airline seats all in rows, a video arcade, an indoor pub -- moderne -- complete with smoke and beer fumes. I opted for my book and a glassed-in verandah at the back. Debby preferred the wind and spray at the bow. After we cleared the harbor it was rough enough to be hard to walk and damp from spray. The crossing took about two hours with maybe 30 minutes in open water. The islands are radiant green where the sun hits through intermittent fog and showers. Steady, heavy wind, strong enough to lean on. Islands meet the sea in cliffs. Beyond is empty sheep country with a few gray stone farms dotted about. Stromness where we landed probably hasn't changed around the harbor in 150 years. On to Kirkwall for a late lunch then a browse past the shop windows for the afternoon. Narrow streets, lots of tourist targeted craft shops. Some good. I'm eyeing some silver jewelry in Celtic designs.
We tried to see St. Magnus Cathedral, but it was closed for a wedding so we HAD to stay to see the bride. The guests were all in hats and frilly dresses. Every woman went into church clutching her hat against the wind for dear life. Many of the men were in dress kilts and looked very dashing. The flower girl was adorable, but the killer was the ring bearer, a blond boy about three, in full kilt rig. The bride arrived via Rolls and stepped out in yards of white satin. Everyone in town, tourist and locals, was there to watch and take pictures. Quite the celebrity treatment. Settled into our B&B out in the burbs. Perfectly suburban. Also comfy. Dinner at an Indian restaurant downtown.
Sunday, August 22
Fun day. We slept in a bit and sat down to breakfast around 8:45 with our B&B mates who turn out to be a nice couple from Italy. We chatted a bit then invited them to join us in the day's wanderings. We did South Ronaldgey. First stop was the Italian Chapel built by POWs who were constructing the four stone causeways in the bay. The chapel's made from two metal Nissan huts, but inside they are plastered and painted amazingly to look just like tile and stone carving. All the details are terrific and convincing. Doriana and Paolo said it was "just like home."
On we went stopping at scenic spots like a beach with several wrecked ships. The weather was spotty all day going from sunny to rain and back again every five minutes or so. Heavy wind the whole time.
The fun was at the Tomb of the Eagles just north of Burwick. You drive down a lane to an ordinary farmhouse labeled "museum." A grandmotherly type then showed us and let us handle the various things found around the farm; things like a Stone Age 5000 year old skull. Also Bronze Age polished stone beads, a jet button that looked brand new. Eagle talons. All with a wry commentary laced with remarks about Stone Age men working only two days out of seven rather like today. Etc. she actually made more sense out of the tools and pottery than any museum every has for me. She could speculate and show where your thumb would fit and how you'd grasp a stone to use it as a hammer or a knife or whatever. She even pointed out the groove made in the female skull by carrying heavy loads using a headline. We were then sent off across the fields to her husband, Ronald Simison, who showed us the excavated Bronze Age house complete with a water cistern arrangement to gather water from the bog and a cooking well. The guess is that they filled the well with water then tossed in heated stones until the water boiled. Then they'd cook the mutton or whatever, adding more rocks to keep the water hot. A six to nine hour process. The heated rocks shattered often and were tossed outside in a pile that gradually became a windbreak. All this first uncovered by Mr. Simison, a "nosy farmer." Then we walked along the cliffs to the Tomb of the Eagles which was the local Stone Age burial cairn. In we all crawled on hands and knees to admire the central chamber.
Walking back along the cliff we could spot seals down below in the water and found that they would come when we whistled and called. Back damply to the car and on to Saint Margaret's Hope for a light lunch in a cafe. Home by three after a couple of quick roadside stops to indulge Paolo's bird-watching habits. I nipped back into Kirkwall to see St. Magnus' Cathedral -- no bride this time -- and grab tea. A bit of rest then back to St. Margaret's Hoe for dinner at - the recommended restaurant of the Orkneys. Doriana and Paolo joined us. The meal was delicious, the atmosphere was delightful. And to top it all off, a most unique thing happened: the two English couples at the other tables TALKED TO US. We ended up with a multi-table, multi-cultural conversation going on with lots of laughs and all round pleasure. One couple, closer to us, turned out to be a C of E priest and his psychologist wife. Kids round Scotland. He admitted a deep interest in stone circles et. al. and later let on that he's one of the diocese's five or so exorcists. ''I don't notice much of that sort of thing, not really sensitive, but I'm sent out to handle it." He had two curious stories. One of a house where a cook began dabbling with ouija boards and so on and they began to have poltergeist attacks. It turns out that the house was in the middle of a ring of Celtic burial mounds. She: "He settled it right down." He: ''I got rather interested in this sort of thing. What were those Celts up to?" The other story was of a neighbor who periodically sees a Roman soldier strolling through her garden. Turns out she's just at the site of an old Roman road. She wants nothing done. "He's quite dishy."
Lots of fun.
Monday, August 23
Off to the Stone Age again today with Doriana and Paolo. This time we covered the whole West Mainland circuit. First was the Broch of Gurness, six stone dwellings clustered around a central tower. Not much sense of what the insides were like, but a clear huddling community hunkered down away from the sea and wind. On to the Brogh of Birsay which would have been fun if only we could have reached it. Oops. The tide -- well, windswept breakers too -- was well over the causeway so we settle for waving across at the ruins. Around the corner past a very large and well-endowed bull to the Earl's Palace, ruins of a 16thC palace. Wall fragments only, but enough to show size and shape. You could get a clear sense of second floor rooms too. The reconstructions showed full wood paneling and lots of comfort. That was as hard to picture as the prehistoric stuff; the ruins were so well, uh, ruined. Lunch at a restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Bay of Skaill. Mediocre food. Too bad. Next on to Skara Brae another Neolithic village. Incredibly complete. You could see cooking vats, wall "box" beds, cupboards all as clear as can be. Then stops at the Ring of Brodgar --- originally sixty standing stones -- and the Standing Stones of Stenness, a more meager, but huger set of stones. (One exactly the shape of Citicorp Center.) We dropped Doriana and Paolo back in Kirkwall, then on to Stromness to kill time until the ferry. The town is build up a hill from the harbor so many streets are narrow steps and lanes up the hillside. Someone with a sense of humor named one "Khyber Pass." Dinner at a harbor side cafe, then a long wait onto the 8pm ferry (departing 8:45). The whole day marked by gales. Wind that would drive you mad. Cold enough, but what's stunning is the roar and the continuous physical and mental assault. It must be torture to live with. No wonder the ancients -- and moderns -- built low and enclosed.
Tuesday, August 24
Unbelievable day for driving. Breakfast at the B&B with Alec a Sandhurst student (up from the "other ranks") who was baby-sitting the house for his vacationing aunt. Then to the commercial hokum of John O'Groats. We bumped into Paolo and Doriana which was the most substantial event there. The better view was at Ducansby Head where the Stacks needle out of the water just out from the cliffs. Wet walk through sheep fields, but the view was worth it, rain and all. Then THE DRIVE. The road wet got progressively smaller until we were faced with fifty or more miles of single land (maybe) road punctuated with passing bays. It was a real drain even though the traffic wasn't very heavy. The terrain was rocky , mountainous, sliced by lochs, and covered with heather and off and on fog. In Durness we climbed down to "Smoo Cave, a huge cavern plus blowholes. Then on to Balnikiel craft village, a sad end-of-the-road converted radar station. Mostly mediocre crafts. Sort of an aging hippie compound. One potter though did interesting stuff, most notably floating rocks, shown off in a little pool out front. More single lane plus sheep until, finally, we spread out to the luxury of two lanes south of Scourie. Found a B&B in Ullapool just a block from the loch and relaxed with a nice meal at the vegetarian (mostly) and eccentric (quite) Ceilidh Hotel.
Wednesday, August 25
We woke up in Ullapool to the most discouraging weather possible; gray , rain, windy. A brief walk around town, then hopped into the car stopping first at the Falls of Messach to admire the falls, the gorge and the swaying suspension bridge. On to the Inverewe Gardens. Spectacular and huge botanical garden. No my thing at all, but impressive in scale. You just know that it all started with a barren, rocky hillside warmed (?) by the Gulf Stream. They've created a lush and global garden. Lunch there then sudden sunshine and views for the rest of our scenic drive south. I was today's driver, but it wasn't wearying in nice weather. Forty or more miles of single track road again, but seemed easy today. View after view after view. Lochs, inlets, mountains, sheep. One detour for salmon at the Highlands Fish Farm, a photo op Eilean Donach, then to a lovely B&B on the outskirts of Fort William.
At dinner we shared a table with an English bicyclist/nature hound who gave us tips on climbing Ben Nevis We'll see how the weather looks in the morning.
Thursday, August 26
Up early , stopped at a fabulous Safeway supermarket to get picnic fixings, then to Ben Nevis. We started up the climb -- steep and rocky -- but after about half an hour Debby pulled up and said she was just too out of practice to do a four hour up, three hour down slog. Ben Nevis is 'way to much of a real mountain to carry on alone, so we both toddled back down. I was disappointed surely, but it would have been a grueling hike and crazy to press on if you're not up for it. Instead we went over to Aonarchmor and took a cable car up to about 3,000 feet. From there we could walk along the bottom of the ski runs to a lookout point with a gorgeous view over Fort Williams and the mountains. The top of Ben Nevis was covered in fog, so it would not have been a pleasant climb. The rest of the view and the rest of the day was blazing sun and warm. W e admired the view, ate our picnic and saw a flying demonstration of birds of prey.
We hit the road again around 2 o'clock and head for Oban. The road was, as Debby described it, masquerading as two lanes. And we kept running into construction. Not fun. Oban was a commercial horror, but we found our way to the highland games on a field in the outskirts. What a hoot. Pipers everywhere, dancing teams jigging away under a tent, tugs-of-war by the burliest chunk (not hunks), hill races, and on and on. The most fun of course was seeing paunchy he-men in kilts first picking u the caber -- oops telephone pole -- then running and heaving it forward. The idea is to throw it forward, have the leading end plant in the ground, while the other end sails over and falls in a straight line forward. (Picture the pole vault pole passing on under the bar.) What is amazing is that they can get the blessed thing off the ground at all. We prowled around for an hour or so, then headed back on south. Better driving mostly. Took one two-mile detour into the woods for tea at a fishery spot cafe.
On along the narrow banks of Loch Lomond. In Tarbet we spotted a pleasant looking B&B sign and ended up at a delightful one with a gorgeous garden out front. Mrs. Kelly suggested a couple of restaurant possibilities and we fell immediately for the one we could walk to: "top of the road, follow the path, cross a wee bridge, then carry on until you see the church." What a winner. It was a craft shop and healthy restaurant in a deconsecrated and renovated church. The food was fresh and imaginative. I had chicken in a cranberry curry, while Debby reveled in salmon. A lovely top-off to the last full day
Friday, August 27
Slog home. I don't wanna go. Drive to airport, 45 minutes. Turn in car, 30 minutes. Wait to check in, one hour. Wait for plane, one hour. Fly to London, one hour. Transfer to Terminal 4, thirty minutes. Wait for plane, 45 minutes Fly to Newark, seven hours. Bags and customs, 45 minutes. Bus to Grand Central, hour and a half. Walk home.
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