Friday, October 21, 2016

Dartmoor to Wales-Be Seeing You!

Road Trippin’ 
Steve McCarthy

So, where were we? Ah, yes, leaving Guy and Eunice in Cornwall and setting out for Wales. So much to see! 

Our immediate goal was the Great Dartmoor. The looming landscape of so many Gothic novels, including, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes’ greatest adventure. We did it in daylight, but the brooding landscape, dotted with free range sheep, cattle, and horses; the patches of bog, the fields of gorse and heather; what’s not to love! 

We took the B3212 through the centre of the park, and what a wondrous route it is! Plenty of open road, some tight twisties, lovely inns that are centuries old. Spectacular! 

From there, we skirted Exeter, then jumped on the M5 and exited for the Cheddar Gorge and lunch. Cheese, of course! There is one, and, sadly, only one cheddar cheese maker in Cheddar. It makes me sadly shudder at the lack of cheddar. I know, that’s a gouda one. 

This is a marvelous little village at the mouth of one of the most spectacular rock formations in the Isles. We bought a couple of wedges of cheese, one a super aged cheddar, the other, a smokey cheddar. Then, lunch across the street. All the sign says is Good Food, Real Ales. We took them at their word and weren’t disappointed. I had the ploughman’s lunch with TWO huge hunks of cheese, enough to eat half and save the rest for future lunches. We snacked on that cheese for a week! 

One of the interesting, and, well, a bit freaky bits of info we learned was about the mummified remains of a neolithic hunter/gatherer, dubbed “Cheddar Man”. His remains were found in one of the caves that riddle the gorge, and a few years ago, someone got the idea to do some DNA testing on him and the living locals. Shockingly, some 20% of the local population are direct descendants from this guy who lived some 3000 years ago! 

After lunch a a walk through some shops, we headed through the gorge itself. Amazing! Spectacular. It’s not a long drive, but well worth it. Out the top, we headed to Wales. Using good old, we found a B&B in Chepstow, Wales, just across the Severn River. The First Hurdle is a nice place, but we were only there to rest our heads. For dinner, we opted for the Beaufort Hotel. Very nice and reasonable, it’s an old school hotel/bar/restaurant that is clearly the gathering spot for the local Old Farts’ Club. Large Welshmen with booming voices. Well, I’ve heard they do some singing in Wales, so I wasn’t surprised. all in all, a nice place. 

Early in the morning, before breakfast was served, we were on the road, first to Tintern and the abbey ruins made famous by William Wordsworth, the great romantic poet. Pretty far afield from his native Lake District, but it was easy to see why the man who practically invented Romantic Poetry, all filled with a love of nature and a 180 degree turn from the cold hard logic of the Enlightenment, would love the place. 

Again, timing is key. We got there just as the sun was struggling to rise over the gorge of the Wye River (and yes, there is an Abbot and Costello routine in all of this) we had the place to ourselves. No tour buses, no chattering selfie-stickers, nobody. The sun lit up the ancient walls with a golden glow, and there I go, waxing poetic. It’s an easy place to have that happen. 

We chatted a bit with the shopkeeper in the only place open (the Welsh accent is both the loveliest and most difficult to understand), bought some stuff, including the obligatory Welsh Love Spoon. These are a great art form, hand carved from one block of wood, they have interlocking chains, hearts, flowers, etc, each having a meaning. 

From there, we headed through the Brecon Beacons National Park (more great roads and scenery) along the A479/A470 to Tywyn on the coast. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. Welsh is indecipherable to all but the native born speaker. 

Tywyn is neat because it has the oldest steam tourist railway in Britain, if not the world, and served as inspiration for Thomas the Tank! It’s a delicate little two foot gauge railway that once served the slate mines nearby. The equipment almost looks more like an overgrown garden rail road. The Live Steamers in Griffith Park in LA are almost as big! Mind you, I’m not disparaging it at all. But to an American, used to massive 4-8-4’s and Big Boys, well...Lunch in their cafe was good, and we left in plenty of time to make it to one of The Highlights of the entire Trip, Portmierion, AKA, The Village. 

Now, you’d have to be a fan of the late 60s TV series, The Prisoner to get any of this, but catch a few episodes on youtube and you’ll see why it is quintessential 60s Down With The Man drama. It was all filmed in this odd little resort on the Welsh coast, called Portmeirion. Built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, beginning in 1925, it’s a tribute to idyllic Italian fishing villages. What can I say, it’s what the Madonna Inn wishes it was! Every nook and cranny has something in it, every arch reveals a ready made photo opportunity, it’s spectacular! 

We splurged on this. Our room was in the Cliff House at the top of the Village. The view into the estuary of the  Afon Dwynyd was incredible. There was also a full carafe of complimentary sherry. Walking about, we headed down the hill to the hotel itself, made reservations for dinner and strolled about. Naturally, we hit the #6 Shop (you need to see the TV show, suffice it to say, #6 was the main character-”I’m not a number, I’m a Free Man!) and bought T-shirts, buttons and stuff. 

Dinner was a show in and of itself! We opted for the Tasting Menu. PreStarter (Salmon Sushi); Crispy Duck Egg with black truffle soldiers; Local lobster, heritage tomatoes, iced lobster thermidor, and basil; Loin of Welsh lamb with pine nut crust, quinoa, ratatouille vegetables, torched aubergine and olive tapenade; Sea Buckthorn sorbet with champagne and yogurt; and finally, Chocolate and passion fruit tart with coconut ice cream. And to cap things off, a spectacular full moon rising over the river and a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary with a fireworks show!!! And did I mention that the dessert was a FLAMING one? 

The morning saw us off to Holyhead and the ferry back to Dublin. We said good bye to the trusty rental, and just a bit hungover, took the good ship Jonathan Swift back to Ireland, and more adventures. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stonehenge and Cornwall: The Best of England. London? Not so much.

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

So, after Goodwood, everything else should be an anti-climax, right? WRONG! Along with the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall are the loveliest parts of England we drove through! That’s not to say these are the only lovely parts, but they’d be hard to top. 

We did do a day in London, and managed to bring some real SoCal weather along with us. Hottest September day in London since 1911! They were DYING, but we were just uncomfortable. Again, nothing has A/C so that didn’t help. Mostly, London was a blur. The British Museum was, of course, fantastic (I mean THE ROSETTA STONE! THE ACTUAL REAL THING!!) and the Tower was pretty neat, but damn, the traffic is worse than imagined. I’m a hardened LA Freeway Traffic Warrior. No freakin’ way I’d drive in that! I don’t see how the city can actually function. We did one of those hop-on-hop-off bus things and were glad we did. Sure, we could have done a “mere cat tour” by popping up and down on the Tube, but Marianne had never seen the place, so we opted to stay above ground. Took us 2 1/2 hours to get from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London. About 4 miles! If we hadn’t already walked a bunch, we’d have walked and done if faster. Here’s a tip, do like LA did for the Olympics in ’84. Ban all daytime truck deliveries. Make ‘em deliver stuff at 3AM. And ban ALL on street parking. All of it. The damn donkey cart scaled streets were OK when everybody drove Minis and Morris’ and such, but not modern cars! At least they went back to double deck buses and dumped the bendy buses! Whose idiotic idea was that? 

So, Apres-London, we left our digs in Bromley (yeah, I know, a LOT of people wondered about that. See, Marianne’s GGPa came to Sierra Madre from there, so, she wanted to see it. Underwhelmed is the term) and off to the West. Took us 1 1/2 hours to get away from the general London area and onto a motorway. Again, STOP PARKING CARS ON The STREETS! Hell, we had to drive up onto the center divider to let an ambulance get through! It’s so bad, London had paramedics on motorcycles to deal with the traffic! And, you all COULD have fixed all this 300 years ago when the whole place (London that is) burned to the ground. But no, narrow quaint winding streets in a major metropolis is EVER SO ENGLISH! But I digress. 

We made it out into the country and enjoyed things immensely. Once out of the cities, England, in fact, all of The Isles is terrific and well worth seeing. So many cool things along the way. Case in point, as we were driving to Portsmouth and Goodwood, we spotted the signs for Blenheim Palace! Of course we stopped. Magnificent place! Anyway, off we went on the M3 and past Basingstoke (a place full of hidden meaning!) we took the A303 and headed for Amesbury and that most marvelous of all Neolithic monuments, Stonehenge! Now, on a map, the A303 looks like a major road. Well, in places. Like so many “A” roads, it occasionally makes an attempt at being a 4 lane highway (dual carriageway to that lot over there) but randomly, it goes to 2 lanes and roundabout intersections that, depending on the traffic, either improve or hinder traffic flow. It’s all rather random and, again, SO terribly English. 

What was amazing, and, a bit confusing, was that we made a couple of turns, topped a rise, and there sat Stonehenge. It’s, well, compact. Far more than any photos will let on. Although the Sarcen stones are some 30 feet tall, the entire circle is only some 300 feet in diameter. That’s about two average to small residential lots square. Still, it’s impressive as all hell! 

There’s now a new visitor centre and you have to take a shuttle bus out to the stones, and they’re roped off, so you can’t get closer than about 20 feet or so. It’s a shame, but sadly, needed to preserve the place from the hordes of selfie-stick wielding tourists who pile out of tour coaches from the cruise ships in Southampton (I talked to a couple of drivers at lunch and this was their SIXTH trip there that week!) and, left to their own devices, would swarm the place, climb on the stones, and probably carve their names in the rocks. Or worse, do a Griswold and back into one with their rental car and play dominoes. People suck. 

Anyway, in spite of all this, it was still AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING! If one is patient, with a decent zoom lens, one can get great photos without people in them. The key to ANY of these “must do” spots is get there early to beat the buses, uh, coaches! Another tip is every museum/cultural site we went to, the food in the cafe was quite good, and reasonable in price (take note, LA County Museums!) so get there nineish, when most open, look about, then have lunch. BTW, Fentiman’s Ginger Beer is a great accompaniment to a lunch of local cheeses and is non-alcoholic, so driving after lunch doesn’t run afoul of the law. In Scotland, find Crabbies. It’s alcoholic, and REALLY good! 

So, from there, we were off to Cornwall, and along the way, discovered the Haynes Automotive Museum. As in  Haynes Manuals? Great find, lovely collection! From there, it was off to our friends (and Official Road Trip Heroes) Guy and Eunice. Constant Reader may remember them. They’re the nut jobs who drove their Austin 7 from Baltimore to Alaska, to LA to TIERRA DEL FUEGO some four years ago? An 18,000 mile trek? They are wonderful people, and, more than most, really understand the rigors of a month on the road. The first thing they demanded was for us to get our laundry done! Of all the little things one needs to do, laundry is THE most important and sometimes, most difficult chore. The hotel in Carlisle and the later one in Doolin were great for this. Charged by the bag or the kilo. After getting a bit soggy at Goodwood, we were getting desperate. In Bromley, we asked and they charged BY THE PIECE. Like, THREE POUNDS FOR A BRA! I had to get some fresh stuff, so we spent the equivalent of a dinner for ONE SET of clean trousers, shirt, and undies. So, Guy and Eunice were live savers! They also took us to a Staples (yes, that Staples) and used DHL to send back some of the overflow from our baggage. We’d been stockpiling trinkets for the natives back home and had some stuff we’d needed for driving in the TR that were just taking up space. Mind you, doing this ain’t cheap, but sometimes, necessary. 

Having taken care of the necessities, we were ushered around Plymouth to see the sights (the steps where the Pilgrims embarked in 1620 to take the Mayflower to the New World in order to spread religious intolerance here) and the green where Sir Francis Drake played out his game of Bowls before heading out to trounce the Spanish Armada were two highlight. Then off to lunch. Off to the BEST MEAL OF THE TRIP! 

Off in the Middle of Nowhere, Cornwall is the village of Tideford. Unless you live there, or know someone who does, there is no way you’d go there. None. the Rod and Line pub isn’t even on the High Street (the main drag of this one horse town) and even if you went past it, you wouldn’t give it a second thought, let alone stope there. And you’d miss out BIG TIME! 

Half dozen guys in for an afternoon beer (Tribute, Cornish Ale is quite good!) and a bull session, ceilings so low I had to duck, and that lovely aged color of ancient centuries of nicotine, this is a true Local. And one with fantastic food. The Scallops in garlic butter were amazing, sourced that morning from the fishmonger in Plymouth. The bread was fresh baked and the ale great. And about $20 a head. Beat hell out of several high priced spreads we had! So, more thanks to wonderful people when on the road! 

We’d sacrificed a day in Salisbury for the extra day of R&R with Guy and Eunice, and it was worth it. After a good breakfast, we headed off to our next adventure, The Great Dartmoor, the Cheddar Gorge, Tintern Abbey, and another highlight of the trip, The Village.