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England

The festivals in Buxton, Derbyshire

overcast 15 °C

I seem to have arrived in Buxton in the middle of a great big festival. On Wednesday, in an attempt to stay awake, having arrived in the UK at 5:30 in the morning, I went for a walk through the town with my aunt. There's a huge fun fair with rides and junk food and a midway set up in Market Square. There's the Buxton Festival, a 19-day festival of the arts, happening around the Buxton Opera House, with opera, music and literature events. And there's the Buxton Festival Fringe, which is the UK's second-largest fringe festival after Edinburgh.

For a town of just over 20,000 people, that's a quite a lot going on at once.

I wasn't up for much on Wednesday, but Thursday I headed back down into the town to check it out. It seems this whole event has grown up around something called the Wells Dressing Festival, a custom local to Derbyshire where people decorate the local wells. Believed to have its roots back in pagan traditions of leaving offerings for water gods, the festival took on its current shape back in 1840, and has continued fairly consistently since then.

The Buxton fringe began in 1980 and is now a major part of the festival. It permeates the whole town, with venues in local shops and artists' studios, in the parks, on the streets, as well as in dedicated theatre spaces. There are more than 150 events, including comedy, dance, film, music, spoken word, visual arts, street theatre and regular theatre. I had a really nice afternoon checking some of it out.

I stopped by The Hendrick's Horseless Carriage of Curiosities, set up in the Pavillion Gardens, and toured some of the visual arts in a local framer's shop. I visited the local museum, which had a couple of galleries displaying works by local artists as part of the fringe. It also had a sequence of rooms charting the history of the Peak District in general, and Buxton in particular, from the formation of the Earth through to the present day. It's just a small museum, but I found it fascinating and well laid out.

I bought a ticket for one of the fringe events - called The World's Greatest Walking Tour of Buxton. I would have been happy with a real walking tour. And it began something like that, albeit with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. As we went on, though, it devolved more and more into a piece of street theatre. Funny, if a little awkward.

One of the nicest parts of my day was sitting in the bar, waiting for the tour to begin and listening to all these local men and women talk about the shows they'd seen. Most had been to something that afternoon and were heading to something else in the evening. Others were saying they'd been to something every night. It was good to see that the festival really does belong to Buxton and isn't just something that sits on the town bringing tourists in.

Today, Saturday, is carnival day. The fun fair is packed and running full swing. And everyone headed down to the centre of town to watch the parade. The Queen and the Rosebud of the Wells Dressing Festival were out front, and there were floats from a number of the smaller surrounding towns. There were pipe bands and fancy dress costumes. My cousin's daughter was up on one of the floats dressed as a cave girl. The parade lasted about an hour from where we were standing, but the route is long and they were probably on the move for a good few hours.

We stopped into the Old Hall Hotel for tea and a snack. The current Old Hall Hotel hotel was built in 1670 and is one of the oldest buildings in Buxton. The earlier hotel building standing on the same site was host to Mary Queen of Scots when she came to take the waters in the 16th century.

The festivities will continue for another week, but I leave tomorrow for Edinburgh and my next festival experience.

Posted by kithica 16:41 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (0)

prep and planning - flights

booking my Scotland trip on the cheap

After nearly two months of going back and forth about whether I could make this happen, it's finally beginning to come together. This next bit is going to be the crazy part, because I'm now scheduled to leave a week today.

Based around a six-week work contract in Edinburgh - which was only finalised today - I'm extending my trip to nearly ten weeks in order to spend some time with family and to travel around Scotland.

I took a gamble and booked part of my flight before things were confirmed. There is a website, Canadian Affair, that offers cheap flights to the UK from Canada - sort of like a transatlantic EasyJet. And we're talking true bargain basement here. They offer flights with Thomas Cook and AirTransat, so it's essentially going to be a charter flight where you're lucky if there's room enough in the seat for you and your knees together. When I flew with them six years ago, there was no assigned seating (it was first come first served), and I think there was a charge for the in-flight meal. There was an option (which I took) to upgrade to what would be economy class on any other airline (assigned seating, free food, etc). The check-in line at the airport was huge, and the flights were delayed by at least two hours both going out and coming in.

That said, they're very cheap if you have some flexibility in your travel plans. I have to be in Edinburgh on the 19th of July. And there was a seat sale on - I could fly to Manchester for $49 (all figures in Canadian dollars) one way if I left on the 13th. Instead of dithering and hoping that the deal would still be there when I was ready, I just went ahead and booked it. With all the taxes and charges it came to $240 for the one-way flight.

(At that price, I could swallow the cost if worst came to absolute worst. And being able to book one way at a time - not having to commit to a return date - was a huge bonus. If the job had fallen through, there was a back-up plan; I'd find the cheapest possible flight home, and spend whatever time that gave me in between with my family. A low-cost vacation option.)

Now, according to their website, things seem to be a bit more civilised. I haven't gone for the upgrade this time since it would have doubled the cost of my flight and money is the primary issue, but I was able to pre-book my own seat (for a charge of $17) and they do seem to be offering a complimentary meal. They also make a lot of claims about leg room and seat-back video screens (on certain aeroplanes only), but I'll wait until I've suffered the flight before I comment on those.

I've also found that their flights seem to be cheaper if you book them one way at a time. For one of the itineraries I was looking at, the same flight was $50 cheaper if I booked it as a one-way than if I booked it as part of a round-trip. I don't know that this is always true, but do explore your options when it comes time to book flights.

Another trick is to check the prices flying into various airports. The $149 flight to London I had been counting on disappeared, but the $49 flight into Manchester made up for it. As it turns out, I have family near Manchester that I can stay with, so it was even better for me than London (which is usually a cheaper flight), but had I needed to get down to London, the UK has excellent rail links, and if you book in advance the tickets can be quite cheap. (Although the UK rail system has been privatised and different routes are run by different companies, you can still book all your travel through the National Rail website.)

I haven't booked my plane flight home yet. The end of my trip is still a bit fuzzier than the rest, and there's a certain part of me that wants to explore the possibility of not coming home at all. I could, if I wanted to, arrive in the UK on a one-way ticket alone and sort out the rest of my plans at some point during my trip, because I have a visa that allows me to live and work there. I may, in fact, end up doing that, gambling that there will be another seat sale to get me home closer to the date. If you're just travelling as a tourist, though, you will need to have a return ticket, a one-way ticket home, or a ticket for an onwards journey that will take you out of the country. Immigrations officials don't like it when you turn up with no plans to leave.

I'm waiting on one last piece of information before booking my train tickets, and once those are in place I can start looking at car rentals and accommodations. I'll keep you posted as things progress.

Posted by kithica 13:40 Archived in England Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

a few days in London

sunny

I recently answered a post in the Forum and ended up waxing on and on about my favourite bits of London, so I thought I'd go out of order for a bit and put up my London entry while all those thoughts were still whirling around my head.

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I arrived in London in late October on an overnight flight from Toronto. A friend picked me up and we ditched my bags at his place and then headed out into the city. I knew I had to keep moving in order to stay awake, but didn't have any specific idea of what I wanted to do beyond 'touristing sounds fun.' I lived in London, on and off, for five years, so there are some areas, like Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, that I know inside and out. And the last time I had been back to visit I dragged a friend around the Tower, the Museum of London, the National Gallery and to see a show at The Globe Theatre. So this time we decided to start with Big Ben and the parliament buildings because I hadn't seen those in a long time.

We ended up spending two days wandering the South Bank. Mostly East of the parliament buildings. That first day, we took a cruise down the Thames. I've never done that and it's been on my list of things to try. It was mostly sunny and not that cold, and we had a fantastic vantage point at the railing of the boat. There was an unofficial tour guide - one of the crew - but I could only hear him part of the time. We passed the National Theatre, the Globe, the HMS Belfast, the Tower, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf (which I had never seen), and ended up going all the way out to Greenwich.

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We got off the boat and wandered through the grounds of Greenwich University and the Royal Military College. It was beautiful there, with the big white building standing out in the twilight, and strains of music drifting from one of the windows.

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We kept wandering, stumbled across a map and realised we weren't far from the observatory that established Greenwich Mean Time. We hiked up to where it sat at the top of a hill and discovered a spectacular nighttime view of the East End.

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The next day was a Friday, so I dragged my friend down to Borough Market. This is one of my favourite places in London. Or, it used to be. It was in the process of being renovated, and while many of the stalls were still open, nothing was where I remembered it. It's a whole market, tucked under the arches of a rail bridge and overpasses, so there's lots of old brick and wrought iron and it has a delightfully Victorian feel. They sell some of the most unusual treats, and lots of organic and home-made foods.

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There used to be a stall where you could buy pheasant and other wild game all trussed up by its feet, but we couldn't find it this time. We ate lunch at the market, and bought snacks. Then we headed out along the river again, aiming for the HMS Belfast.

The HMS Belfast was a battle cruiser, commissioned in the '30s. She fought in WWII and was part of the bombardment at the D-Day landings. She was overhauled in 1950 and last saw active service in the Korean War. She is now permanently docked on the Thames and part of the Imperial War Museum.

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We spent an hour poking through the various levels with one of those portable audio guides. I was most fascinated by the crew living areas. I spent ages peering into the kitchens and laundry and crew bunks, trying to get an idea of what it was like to live on one of these ships. We eventually retreated up to the deck levels because it was feeling very stuffy and oppressive inside, and I think I might have been a little seasick.

From the Belfast, we walked along the Thames, all the way back to the London Eye.

The ticket comes with a 4-minute 4-D Experience, where the fourth D, it turns out, involved being sprayed with mist and bubbles. And the ride on the Eye itself was beautiful. It was after dark by this point (by the end of October, it's getting dark pretty early) so we could see the city lights stretching on forever. There were only a few other people in our car, too, so I was able to move around easily, taking dozens and dozens of photos. Particularly of Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Thames.

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So beautiful. And very peaceful, actually.

The next day, I headed up to Camden Market on my own. Camden Market is another of my favourite places in London, and another place that has been recently renovated. It used to be its own separate village, but was annexed into a growing London. Many of the old stone buildings are still there, and practically all of them have been converted into a giant market. It's amazing. Parts of it are still grungy and boho. This is the place where you can still find punks with foot-high bright green mohawks. And goths. Lots of goths. I love it there, grunge and all. And I'm actually quite upset about the areas that have been renovated and cleaned up and turned into cute upscale boutiques. It always happens, though. The bohos make it cool, then the yuppies move in.

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That said, some of the renovated areas are absolutely stunning. And they've opened up whole new areas that I had never been into before. It was amazing seeing the bones of the old stalls, the old horse hospital, all still mostly intact. And some of the bronze artwork they've put in, some of the lampposts and stautary, is just lovely.

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On Monday, instead of finding a pub somewhere, a friend and I decided to meet up at the British Museum and do our catching up while we wandered there. Such a good choice. We started with the rooms off the atrium devoted to the Enlightenment. They seemed to hold a little bit of everything from just about everywhere. It also contained the library of King George III, and the whole area felt like a select library of the British Empire. My favourite thing in the room was a replica of the Rosetta Stone that the public was invited to touch. I loved being able to run my fingers over the stone, to feel the engravings. I'm not sure why that connection was so important to me, but it really made an impact.

From the Enlightenment, we headed upstairs. My friend wanted to see the Mesopotamian things and I didn't much care what we saw, so long as I could just wander through the museum. It turned out Mesopotamia was at the opposite end of the second floor, so we wandered through Ancient Britain to get there. All those old Celtic torques were giving me flashbacks to endless university lectures (I have a degree in Archaeology and Celtic Studies that is completely pristine and unused), but I couldn't really remember any of the specifics of what I'd been taught.

I loved the Mesopotamian stuff when we got there. Everything, whether it had pictorial engravings or not, was also covered in cuneiform writing. It was beautiful. Having been spoiled earlier, I wanted to run my fingers over everything, as though that physical connection would help me understand what it meant.

We then headed down to the gallery where they keep the big stuff. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, whatever. There were huge sculptures of human-faced animals, and animal-faced humans, taken from palaces and temples in many different countries. Slabs of stone friezes. A reconstruction of giant copper-bound wooden gates. The head and arm of a giant statue, described as colossal, the rest of which is still in the sands where it was found.
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"Round the ruins of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone, level sands stretch far away." One of the only poems I know by heart. I've always loved the desert.

Also in this room was the Rosetta Stone. The real Rosetta Stone. Encased in glass, this time. No touching.

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It's beautiful, with the rows of writing so tight and so neat, and perfectly straight. It contains the same text in Ancient Greek, the everyday language of the Egyptians, and hieroglyphics. Within 25 years of its discovery, historians had cracked the hieroglyphic code. And now a copy of the damn thing is printed on every single item they sell in the gift shop, from paperweights to dish towels.

And that was the end of my few days in London; the next day I flew to Marrakech to spend three weeks travelling around Morocco. It was a very good start to my trip, though, and I was pleased with my decision to find new things to see, rather than only revisiting the familiar. The markets, being particular favourites, were the exception, but with the renovations, there were new things to explore there, too. Next time I'll have to branch out and try new markets, maybe Spitalfields or Notting Hill, and find new rooms in the British Museum to explore. And maybe add a graveyard or two... There's always more to do in London.

Posted by kithica 12:52 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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