Adventures Abroad: Great Britain

London is my favourite city in the world. Admittedly, I haven’t really gotten a feel for many world cities, but even if I had I suspect London would be right at the top (excluding anywhere inside Japan). It is the quintessential Australia: when we were founded by the British all those centuries ago, they built their white picket fences and brought English culture to the occupants here. They tilled the soil and planted English crops and set it up just like home. Except Australia isn’t Britain, but no one really seemed to notice. I was still brought up believing Christmas was a time of snow and that a tropical island where the sun shines every day is paradise. England is, simply, everything Australia was meant to be, but for climactic and geographical reasons, is not. In a very naive way, going to England, was like seeing what my life was supposed to be like. There were English breakfasts and quid for currency, tea everywhere and these wonderful accents… I loved the humour, the politely amusing self-deprecating commentary about life… It’s hard to pin down what exactly is so English about English culture, but it had (obviously) permeated every aspect of English life and I loved it. It felt like home.

It didn’t feel that way to start though. After the initial twelve hours of hyped up excitement (Omigod look, a red double decker bus! Right in front of a red telephone booth! Right next to a red post box! Omigod look, they have a Tube stop called “Picadilly”, like in Monopoly! OMIGOD LOOK THAT POLICE OFFICER IS WEARING A BOBBY HAT!) it was exceedingly depressing. There was a great weight in my heart as my brother went to meet his friends and sent me off to find Trafalgar Square on my own (with all the experience of two rides in the labyrinthine underground train system known as the Tube) to buy everyone London Passes to get us cheaper entry to city attractions. I had no idea how to get there, or where to go when I arrived, and I was already behind schedule for the stupidly busy weekend my brother had planned. I didn’t have enough money for the London Passes, and the weather was positively awful. It was always cloudy, even if it didn’t rain, and if the sun deemed to come out at all, it was a weak, hazy attempt at shining, as if Sol were fighting cancer but doing its best to look healthy. As I was spiraling into a pit of loneliness and despair at another foreign city all by myself I heard a busker playing. They were strumming an acoustic guitar and singing some cheesy love song, but it was the first time I had felt anything that resembled joy or happiness in hours and it made me smile. After that I realised Eugene was right: English weather really is awful, but somehow the people make it cosy. There are pockets of joy and warmth and laughter to be found everywhere, and despite the depressing circumstances, the English are quite a resilient lot.

We went to Buckingham Palace, where we managed to catch the ceremony of the Changing of the Guards. There were literally hundreds of people thronging around the palace, but after some clever crowd evasion (and after getting soaked and buying umbrellas, which we more or less didn’t use for the rest of the trip) we managed to watch the guards march around and hear the band play. It was a wee bit disappointing to be so far from the action, but it was still exciting to see their £7000 uniforms and their scarily high-tech looking assault rifles. Plus, the marching band starting playing the theme from Star Wars!

We went to Westminster Abbey for a tour with the Verger, a very kind pastor of the Abbey. It was a truly spectacular building, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. So many famous people, so many things worth honouring. And the detail of the sculptures was magnificent- the most meticulous details were poured into things that most people will never see, like the backs of tombs up against the walls. The coronation chair was quite amusing because it was so humble.

That night we went to the Lyceum Theatre to watch The Lion King musical. It’s hard to describe just what it evoked in me, but please take me seriously when I say it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. At the presentation of Simba, when all the animals (and my God, what animals) approached Pride Rock to pay homage to their new prince I started crying. Not out of sadness or joy or any emotion in particular, but because it was so beautiful I couldn’t help it. The whole thing was amazing, child acting/singing aside, and I have huge respect for the designers of the costumes and the choreographers and the actors who played (or rather, embodied) the animals.

We went shopping in Covent Garden and Seven Dials, where Eugene bought some English Brie (which was, unfortunately, later slept on and smooshed all over his friend’s shirt so he never actually got to eat it), and moved on to Tate Modern. Tate Modern is a building dedicated to modern art, and I went in as neutrally as I could, to appreciate with minimal judgement. Some of the work was amazing (Eugene thought it was rubbish, but there was a piece of canvas that had been slashed once with a knife, and as the artist intended after hours of contemplation, it really did seem to be very violent and aggressive- I could feel his energy coming off it), much of it laughable or just plain crap (like the pieces of iron poo spread across the ground next to an ironing board which was supposed to represent a stag in a forest).

We visited Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern day recreation of the first theater Shakespeare’s plays were performed in built entirely out of materials from the 1600’s. It was very exciting to see actors practicing with sabers and unarmed fight choreographies. It was also a delicious day to eat deep fried honey-battered peanuts on the bank of the Thames on a cold, windy day.

It was here that I went to stay at the Flexistay Apart Hotel, my favourite accommodation of the whole trip. It’s hard to describe what it felt leaving my brother and his friends to their hotel rooms and setting out in the world to find my own way. It was different to being sent to Trafalgar Square- this was my choice. I was using my knowledge, my skills, to find something that I wanted. As I walked down the streets of Tooting Broadway (I love the names of English suburbs), I was grinning like an idiot, massive bag on my back as I wandered the streets at my liberty. I dropped off my bag and spent a few extra minutes shopping, which was possibly a mistake. Upon entering an electronics store, I quickly realised that English games were 50-80% cheaper than Australian games. I really don’t understand why a brand new PS3/Xbox360 game has an RRP of $99 or even $119. In England, Arkham City had JUST come out and was being sold for £35, or ~$50. I ran around buying games like crazy and ended up with about seven on that first run (regretfully putting some back for want of luggage space) and dropped back in a few days later to pick up Mortal Kombat (banned in Australia due to not having an R18+ rating on video games until a few months ago).

I rejoined Eugene and his friends to see Hampton Court, one of the residences of Henry VIII and his wives. The gardens were truly breathtaking, and the hedge maze was a great delight. I don’t know why I insisted on finding my own way out thank you very much, when I get lost trying to get home from five minutes away. We went for a horse and carriage ride around the grounds on the most gigantic horses I have ever seen- I stood only to their shoulders at best- and the gentlemen doing the steering had amazing uniforms and even more dazzling moustaches.

I broke away from the pack to try some English ice skating (oh the pleasure of being on the ice!) and practice my ukemi, and found a suspicious-looking store that sold bongs and BB guns. After much contemplation, I bought a £40 heavy metal fluorescent blue pistol in order to respectfully train with a firearm and practice disarms. Shortly afterwards, I discovered BB guns are illegal in Australia (I did have an inkling…) but was unable to return it until a few days later. Because it was second-hand (though I’d only shot it once) and the man who sold it to me was in Thailand I couldn’t get a refund, but the guy at the counter bought it off me for £10 anyway. Sigh.

Pre-Runefest drinks were at Namco Bandai station, a delightful wonderland of arcade goodness. At three tries per pound, I spent quite a bit of money on the Dragon Punch machine trying to crack the 9000 barrier again. I’ve developed a technique to consistently get 8750, but I think I lack the muscle mass to hit any harder than that. It’s a flawed system, measuring only directional force for a single attack, but I still want to beat it! I mostly went nuts upstairs shooting and hitting things rather than getting drunk with the RuneScapians downstairs.

I split from the group again to go on a tour around England and visit some of the other exciting cities. Oxford was truly wonderful, the city of universities with students on bicycles everywhere. We saw the Great Hall from the Harry Potter films, as well as an extraordinary library (couldn’t go inside unfortunately), Blackwells (a bookstore with seven miles of book shelves), and some crazy beautiful weather. The rivalry between colleges is really quite amusing.

The Cotwolds and Lacock were beautiful, quite villages, arguably the most beautiful and quintessential streets in England, with thatched roofs and cobblestone roads. There was an amazing sense of peace in the country life there, and I came to appreciate many moments of great stillness and clarity. We also saw the manor used in the most recent Pride and Prejudice film.

Bath was absolutely gorgeous, a real pleasure to be in as I visited the Jane Austen centre and the Roman Baths which gave the city its name. I drank the (clean) bath water, believed to be a cure-all for pretty much every ailment under the sun- it tasted vaguely of rotten egg and metal, but I’ve certainly had worse drinks.

Finally Stone Henge was quite an imposing and mysterious site to visit. The name means The Hanging Stones, I loved the different theories about how the stones were transported several hundred miles to be arranged in their specific positions, which act as a kind of calendar using the sun- like a giant sun dial. I can’t explain the difference between the two types of stone, but one was certainly warmer than the other despite the weather. It was very cool.

After a mildly stressful airport experience where Eugene’s phone was dead and we didn’t find each other until boarding was nearly closed, we spent five days in Scotland. We went on a “Highland Fling” tour with 27 other people, mostly Australians, and our crazy Scottish driver/tourguide Andy. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with most of them- I wanted to see Scotland, but I didn’t want to drink every day and every night, or dance to ridiculously loud music. I’m afraid I was quite “boring” by their standards, which upsets me a little, but I vastly preferred having early nights to read, train and play Zelda. At the very least, I learned the resounding lesson that I don’t like pubs, and I’m quite certain I wouldn’t like clubs, and I am okay with that.

Scotland has the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. The forests were truly magical, genuinely enchanting. The highlands were breathtaking- I laughed out loud and the sheer joy of climbing them. The waterfalls were everywhere, including one in particular believed to have been enchanted by faeries- I drank from the source at the top of a muddy hill, and was goaded into running down it which was, of course, disastrously messy. We fed boar, who are part of a long-term project in restoring natural flora to the mountains (what a great volunteer project- planting new trees to restore the ancient forests!), visited Perthshire, learned how to drink whiskey the Scottish way (you give it a nosing, add a few drops of water, then knock it back), learned how to fold a kilt (I think this particular type was called a fil-a-mor) and what life was like in ancient Scotland, including the weapons they used there (my goodness the claymore is brutal), visited the sites and graves of the Battle of Culloden, climbed the Wallace Monument and saw the sword he wielded (it’s still sharp!), fed herry coos (hairy cows, the cutest animals on the planet), visited Saucy Mary’s (the legend of the Viking princess who created a toll bridge to generate income and who attracted sailors from around the world to see her enormous breasts), climbed castle ruins, saw the sunlight streaming through the clouds and shimmer on the surface of Loch Ness… It was quite a fling! And all the little things, like taking your wet, muddy boots off and sitting them by the fire to dry, made it very special. Some truly amazing sights and lore in the highlands of Scotland.

Thereafter we returned to London, and while Eugene flew home, I stayed an extra week. Mum fought with me to make me come home at the same time as Eugene (“Not now! You can’t fly by yourself! Go another year when you’re older!”), but there was a tour to Wales I could not walk away from. On the 5th of November, my birthday, we drove to Chepstow Castle, the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain (where I practiced taiji in its ruined Great Hall), visited the Church of St Mary the Virgin (aka Bloody Mary Chapel, due to the history of black magic which, our tour guide suspected, is continued by teenagers today) the ruins of the great Tintern Abbey, visited Hay-on-Wye, the town of books with something like 37 second-hand book stores, and stayed in Baskerville Hall Hotel, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Hounds of the Baskervilles. There, for my 21st birthday, I attended my first Guy Fawkes Night bonfire. Did you know that it’s a tradition for children to build Guy Fawkes dolls out of paper mache and old clothes to put on the bonfires? There was a couch with about ten Guy dolls on it when I arrived, but just as I approached there was an explosion and the platform burst into flame. It scared the hell out of me, seeing that pillar of flame erupt from nowhere and the bang that accompanied it. Apparently they has poured paraffin all over the wood and let the vapours mix in a hollow chamber inside it, then fired a rocket into it to set it alight. But they hadn’t taken into account the footballs used for the heads of the Guys, which were flammable, sending flaming wood into the sky and crowd. It was brilliant! The heat was immense as the flames licked the sky, sparks flying everywhere, dolls burning and furniture collapsing into embers. And the fireworks- God, it’s been years since I’ve seen fireworks. They were amazing, screeching and fizzing and banging and popping and exploding in chains of dazzling light and sound! It was a wonderful evening. Afterwards there was a local ‘nightclub’, which despite having the nickname “fight club” sounded far too much like my Year 7 disco, so I went to bed early.

The next day we went to Brecon Beacon’s National Park, which is too huge to comprehend, for a morning horse ride on horses that were short and fat and apparently part teddy bear. Of the 20+ names written on the boards, I was secretly hoping for the one named Tai, which, if my Mandarin is accurate (highly unlikely), means “supreme ultimate”. As fate would have it, I was indeed paired with Tai. Although I was nervous (and it didn’t help that they told us not to show our nervousness, because that would upset the horses), either I hid it well or Tai was patient as I secured his saddle and mounted up. Although I was hoping Tai and I would be friends and would instinctively where and how fast I wanted to go with the slightest pressure of my knees, I soon learned to assert my dominance in our shared journey. I felt bad at first forcing his head one way or another, or drawing him to a halt, but he was quite cheeky and liked to push the boundaries just to see what he could get away with. It was rather like taking a three-year-old to the park- they enjoyed the journey, but still wanted to run on the road and eat candy off the floor. Once I had set the boundaries of what was and wasn’t okay (eating passing branches was to be avoided, but bursting into spontaneous trots to take over the other horses was jolly good fun and secretly encouraged) we had a great ride, weaving through the trees, ducking branches, passing cars in extremely narrow lanes and alternating between hot and cold as we crested the hills and then passed through the shadows of the mountains. The weather was the best any of us had ever seen, a beautiful clear autumn day, and though the mud was slippery, Tai handled it well. When the ride was over I wish I could have stayed to rub him down, but we couldn’t linger. After I loosened all his straps and gave him a quick ruffle with my hands, he turned to look at me and gently nudged me with his nose as if to say “Thank you. It was really nice riding with you.” He did this a few times (it’s quite unusual for a horse to look at you directly, let alone touch you) and I eventually hugged him gently and kissed his head. At my request, the horsemaster got me some carrot to feed him, which Big Ben (the giant of the horses) hit me over the helmet to get at. It was a very special ride.

Unfortunately, I had felt my body telling me it was getting sick, so I called up and cancelled my plans for the next two days, which were supposed to be spent mountain biking in the Peak District. Retrospectively, it’s a good thing I didn’t go- my poor butt wouldn’t have been able to take the abuse of the bike seat after all that trotting. I spent an entire day in the hotel room (excepting a quick venture for food and taiji in the falling autumn leaves) reading while I recovered. I went a little delirious and stir crazy, but the rest was really salubrious and by the next day I was about 98% better.

I ventured to St Paul’s Cathedral, where I’d heard it had just re-opened after the Wall Street protests sprawled outside it had forced it to close indefinitely. There were still tents everywhere, and people from Anonymous wearing their Guy Fawkes masks (so, so cool that that caught on), but I was able to get inside. It was a truly magnificent work of art, like Westminster Abbey. For some reason though it upset me quite a bit- it didn’t feel at all like a house of God, just a testimony to human achievement and skill, through sculpture and war.

Next up I visited Madame Tussaud’s, the famous wax museum on Baker Street. It was smaller than I thought, but far more glamorous with flashing lights and trendy music. I got my photo taken with Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes, Muhammad Ali and Captain Jack Sparrow. There was an entire room dedicated to Robert Pattinson, though no one seemed interested in him, and I was deceived by a woman who was hogging the best spot to take a photo in front of Judy Dent and Daniel Craig, who turned out to be made of wax. I had an absurd amount of fun playing a reflex game (I scored a few notches above average, but nowhere near the record held by a Formula One racer) and watched the Marvel 4D movie twice. I also stayed the hell away from the Chambers of Horror and Scream, preferring to walk through the bright and happy rainbow doors.

I had lunch and a Cadbury Picnic bar in Hyde Park (lacking an actual picnic) and headed to the Science Museum to see what Science is up to these days. Not a lot. Well, to be fair, plenty of things, but not many things that I was interested in. Scitech in Perth does a much better job of being attractive to kids (and, apparently, to me), though I did play a game where I was a sperm who had to swim up a vagina. Yes, you read correctly.

I called home from a red telephone booth (just for the delight of it) and visited the National Gallery, which was surprisingly delightful. I didn’t think myself one for paintings and displays, but there are some really amazing works that are worth seeing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination afford to go into the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit that had been sold out for hours. It was also at this late stage of my holiday when I discovered that my 3DS wasn’t picking up any other signals because I had to turn on Wireless to activate StreetPass- all those hundreds of thousands of people I passed, the tens of thousands in the afternoons on the Tube at peak hour alone… Wasted T_T.

Saving the best for last, I finally went to the Tower of London. I was expecting a spire with a crown and scepter in a room at the top, but it turns out the Tower of London is actually a small village with a number of towers, houses, services and residents, including a Ravenmaster (coolest title ever), whose duty is to ensure that there are more than 14 ravens living in the Tower at any one time, lest the monarchy should fall. The crown jewels turned out to be  27300 precious stones set in dozens of crowns, scepters, jewellery, swords, cutlery and more. (Having recently re-read Brisingr while I waited for Inheritance, I couldn’t help but think that the gemstones would be perfect for storing energy to use against Galbatorix.) I joined a highly entertaining tour being led by a Yeoman Warder, one of the 37 personal bodyguards to the monarch requiring a record of exemplary behaviour and the rank of Sergeant Major from a minimum of 22 years of serving in the armed forces to apply for the job. It was the 11th of November when I went, so at 11:11am, the guards there performed the Remembrance Day ceremony, marching about the town square in silent respect. While I was exploring the rich history of the Tower, I met a scribe who was writing beautiful calligraphy on a scrap of parchment. It was the first stanza of a French poem, and read “Dame nuit et tour ~ me fair votre beautez languir ~”. I can’t find the translation proper, but when he told me what it meant, my heart melted and I probably would have kissed him if he asked me to. It went something along the lines of: ‘Lady of the night and day, your fairness and your beauty make my heart languid’. Swoon. I also toured the Royal Armory for over an hour, pouring over the antiquated swords, armour, maces, pistols, pistol-maces, halberds, lances, rifles and so much more collected throughout the centuries.

Although I saw the Tower Bridge, I had spent so long exploring the Tower of London that I missed its opening. Too, had I missed the red ball that drops from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to signal 1pm to all ships in the area. Greenwich was my next destination, the centre of time and space on the planet. After synchronising my watch with the clock outside (which was later negated as I had to readjust it due to the timezone difference in Perth), I paid the entrance fee to straddle the Prime Meridium, longitude 0’0’0′. The excitement of the Observatory wore off pretty quickly after that, but I wandered around the house of a famous astronomer whom Sir Isaac Newton stole a star chart from, and who built the first portable clock for sailors to use. I also saw an atomic clock, and got into a lengthy discussion with a desperately bored staff member about the shape of the earth and the weaknesses of using the sun versus the moon to keep track of time. I also visited Cutty Sark, a famous ship that I once sang about in chorale, but it was mostly covered by scaffolding and tarpaulin and was quite anticlimactic. I stumbled across a market and tried hot, spiced cider (my God, what a drink on a chilly autumn day) and a churo, filled with hot milk/dark chocolate and dusted in sugar and cinnamon. I bought some cidar, and some English raspberry Coconut Ice, and bundled myself up in sugar and warmth to return to London, and then, to Perth.

So that was my holiday! Forgive me for my longwindedness, and lack of editing, but I’ve put this off for far too long already. Photos to come soon-ish! Ah, how unnecessarily busy and dull life in Perth seems to be compared with the carefree attitude of travelling. London, I’ll be back, soon enough I hope <3