Thursday, June 11, 2009

Off to Wales - or Stay to the Left!

About a week before our trip we made a change to our plans. We really wanted to see some old castles – ones that were still much as they would have been when they were in use and not ones that had been renovated or restored during the last couple of hundred years. It seemed that Wales was the place to go. I investigated taking the train there and using it to get to the places we wanted to go since it appeared there were stations within walking distance of three of the four. Chip thought it would be easier and more flexible to rent a car. (Given our great train adventure to Hampton Court, it was probably good thinking on his part!). So we made arrangements to rent a car at Heathrow (easy to turn back in before our flight) and to stay in Cardiff, the capital.

Monday morning we left the hotel early and took a cab to the airport. Since this was a bank holiday, there was very little traffic. Apparently, cars with a manual transmission are the norm in England and since Chip could drive one he decided not to pay the substantial extra amount for a car that was an automatic. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best idea.

Heathrow is the third busiest airport in the world and has 5 terminals and roadways full of roundabout intersections (which had only recently caught on where we live). Fortunately, the car rental place seemed to be at the “edge” of the airport and pretty close to the road we needed to head west towards Wales. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple.

From the moment we sat in the car everything just felt “wrong”. We were both sitting on the “wrong” side of the car, the rearview mirror was tilted the "wrong" direction and although the gearshift was in the middle like it should have been, it was on the "wrong" side of the driver, meaning Chip would have to use his left hand to change gears (kind of like trying to brush your teeth or eat with a spoon with the "wrong" hand). Even the position of the gears was different and it took a few minutes to get the car into the right gear.

As we left the car lot, we asked the gate attendant how to get to the M4 highway. He made it sound simple – turn right out of the lot and at the roundabout we just had to follow the signs (you can see the junction on the top right hand corner of this map and the car rental place was on Northern Perimeter Road). As soon as we turned out of the lot I reminded Chip to “stay to the left”. It would quickly become our new catch phrase. The feeling of driving on the "wrong" side of the road was somewhat unnerving at first and going into the roundabout from the "wrong" side and in the "wrong" direction was confusing. So we really weren’t that surprised that we missed our turn to the highway and found ourselves headed back into Heathrow (just not in the same direction that we had just come from – that would have been too easy!).

We had hoped to find signs that would lead us back to where we wanted to be. But trying to find and read signs while concentrating on staying on the “right” (left) side of the road made it more difficult. We ended up at a parking garage with only two choices: go into the garage or go through the taxi lane. We picked the taxi lane. What we didn’t know was that taxi lanes at Heathrow are not like the ones we are used to in the states (where you can generally drive around the taxi’s parked in line) and we found ourselves behind two stopped cabs with no way to drive around. The driver in front of us politely explained that there was no way to go through or around them (and any possible way would result in some kind of large fine) and that they could be there for an hour or two. Realizing that there was no one behind us, I quickly got out of the car and ran back down the taxi lane to stop any other cars. Luckily, there were none and Chip was able to back the car all the way back down the lane to the entrance of the garage. One through the garage we spotted signs for the rental car lots and before too long, we had found our way to the M4. We were off to Wales and only about an hour behind schedule!

The drive to our first destination was about two hours. The English countryside along the highway looked much like those in the Midwest United States – fields, cows, some houses and the occasional town. Once on the highway, driving on the “wrong” side of the road was easier and we settled in to enjoy the drive.

Over the course of the next day and a half, I must have said “stay to the left” a hundred times! The four locations we planned to visit were fairly close to each other: Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, Cardiff and Caerphilly castles. But the unfamiliar roads, signage and those blasted roundabouts caused us to invariably end up backtracking because we had missed a turn (or two!) and so it always took longer to get someplace than we had planned.

Fortunately, our adventure of driving in England ended easier than it had begun which was a good thing because we cut it pretty close in returning the car and getting to the terminal for our flight. Once back in Denver, as we turned out of the airport parking lot to head for home, I found myself reminding Chip to “stay to the right!”

Details and pictures of our trip to Wales will be posted over the next several days.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

All Trains Do Not Lead to Hampton Court

I apologize for not posting for a while - we've spent the last couple of week packing and moving (fun! fun!). Now, back to tales from England.

The plan for Saturday was to visit Hampton Court Palace – the grand residence built by Cardinal Wolsey. Henry VIII admired the place so much that Wolsey was forced to give it to him. Located down the Thames from London, I had researched the best way for us to get there and I had a plan: take the train to Hampton Court and then take a boat ride back up to London to Westminster Pier. The boat trip was about 3 hours but it seemed like kind of a fun thing to do and we would get back to London in time to eat before it got too late.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can be an obsessive planner and when things do not go according to plan, I don’t usually handle it well. I also tend to get flustered when I feel rushed. Are you getting the sense that things didn’t exactly go according to plan? They didn’t. Not at all.

The problem started at the train station. I thought I was being so smart when I saw on the Tube’s web site that there would be certain lines that would not be in operation during the weekend we were there (due to the Bank Holiday). As a result, I had changed our point of departure from Vauxhall to Waterloo in order to take a train directly to Hampton Court. When we got to Waterloo we weren’t sure what kind of ticket to buy from the automated machine and so I reluctantly got in the rather long line at the ticket window. (It didn’t happened quite that simply, but for the sake of decency, we’ll leave it at that!). There were only a couple of windows open so the line was barely moving and I was sure we were going to miss our train. Chip meanwhile had found someone to help him figure out the tickets at the automated machines and with tickets in hand we went to board the train.

Only problem was we couldn’t figure which train to get on! There must have been at least 12 platforms there and after scanning all of the boards with the destinations and departure times, we couldn’t see one that said Hampton Court. We decided to ask one of the workers near the turnstiles who pointed to a train at the end of the platform and said to hurry because it was about ready to leave. Oh, and by the way, you’ll have to get off the train at (someplace) and take a bus. “Don’t worry”, he said. “They’ll tell you where you have to get off.” With a hurried "thank you" we rushed to catch the train. (We did not take this picture of the boards inside Waterloo station).

For all my smugness at checking for service disruptions on the Tube, I had neglected to check for them on the train. Once on the train we realized that we had no idea where we were supposed to get off at. Chip said we would figure it out once we looked at the maps on the train. What maps? There were no maps. No brochures. No signs. No anything. We were really surprised at this because of the maps in the cars on the Tube that you could look at and figure out where you were going (and I had unfortunately left the train map I had printed off the internet back at the hotel). Now, based on the information I had gotten before we left, the train trip from Waterloo to Hampton Court should have taken about 30 minutes. Several stops and more than 30 minutes later, we hadn’t heard the operator say anything about getting off the train. Hmmmmmm. Something is not right here.

We figured we needed to get off of the train but the problem was were and then what to do from there. In the front part of the car was an older couple so Chip decided to ask them and they confirmed what we already suspected: we were not on the train to Hampton Court. They suggested we get off at the next stop and see about taking a bus which they assured us shouldn't be a problem.

On the platform at the train stop we finally found the maps and timetables – not that they did us a whole lot of good at that point! The nice lady inside told us there were two types of trains – the regular ones that made lots of stops and something called a “fast train” which we obviously had not taken. She suggested we take the fast train back to a certain point and after a couple of transfers we would be there in 2 hours (and of course we had just missed the fast train by a few minutes and the next one wasn’t for another hour). By this point a combination of jet lag, lack of sleep and sheer frustration hit me and I broke into tears. I told Chip we might as well forget about it and just go back. After convincing me that I was being ridiculous, he looked over the maps and figured if we back-tracked a little to a point that was closer to Hampton Court we should be able to find a bus and the next train was in a few minutes. While we were waiting for the train, the nice lady from inside came out and told us we were on the wrong platform for the “fast train”. Oh, if we had only known that when we left Waterloo!

After a short train trip back a couple of stops and two bus rides, we finally arrived at Hampton Court Palace – almost 3 hours later than planned. There is no doubt in my mind that we would not have made it there if it wasn’t for the kindness of the bus drivers who (after hearing our plight - wrong train, trying to get to Hampton Court, did we even have the right tickets?) told us when we needed to get off of the bus and one even stopped to tell us we were walking in the wrong direction! After what had been an incredibly long morning, the first thing we did at Hampton Court was eat lunch – a beef pie (the crust was in the shape of a crown) and mashed potatoes. Next: Off to explore Hampton Court Palace.

Here is a visual aid of our adventure. Off the top right hand corner of the map is Waterloo station where we started. The turquoise arrow near the bottom of the screen is Hampton Court - a simple, straight line to the southwest. See why I was so smug - how hard could it be?

The blue arrow on the left of the map is Virginia Water where we got off of the train after determining we were on the wrong one. You can see, this is no where near Hampton Court. We went back a few stops to Feltham where we got information on the buses we needed to take.

The blue arrow (pointing down) near the top right of the map is where we were supposed to get off of the train at Clapham Junction where we would have been put on a shuttle bus to go around the work being done on the tracks.


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