Our Trip To England, March-April 2007

by Michelle Erica Green

My mother drove us to Dulles Airport on Wednesday evening, March 28th, where we ate in a Subway and watched CNN until it was time to board. The flight felt very fast. Adam and I watched Happy Feet -- I specifically wanted to watch something I had seen before in case I fell asleep, and even though they were showing Bobby, I decided would rather rent that and see it uncut -- while Daniel and Paul watched Casino Royale once United got the tape straightened out. They fed us close to midnight, though none of us ate very much of the airline chicken and green beans, rolls and butter, and carrot cake with a lot of icing. I fell asleep immediately after the food and slept till they started bringing breakfast around three hours later, just what we didn't need. By then the sun was up and for the first time flying in, I had a clear view of the Irish coast. It remained clear all the way over Wales and finally clouded over as we approached London.

Customs moved quickly and the luggage was out by the time we got through, so we picked up our rental car and drove to Hampton Court Palace, Thomas Wolsey's residence that Henry VIII decided he liked so much, he snatched it from him, settling in with his second and third queens (Edward VI was born there and Jane Seymour died there -- her ghost reportedly haunts the stairs, though we didn't see her). The conference that produced the King James Bible took place at the palace, too. It's been open to the public since Queen Victoria's reign and Henry VIII's tapestries are back on display after a fire in the 1980s inspired major restoration. There are days' worth of gardens to explore -- it had been drizzly when we arrived, though the sun came out by afternoon -- but we only spent a few hours before we were all too tired from the flight to keep walking much longer.

So we drove to the Glenthurston Holiday Apartments in Catford where we had stayed in 2003, dropped off our luggage, and walked to Tesco to buy essentials (tea, Aero bars, salt and vinegar crisps...oh, and chicken korma and tandoori and things like that). Then Paul took the kids swimming in the Roman bath-decorated indoor swimming pool while I recharged our various electronics, took the photos off the SD card and called my friend Vera, with whom we were going to dinner and the theatre the next day. We ate the aforementioned Indian food, watched a bit of the Elton John birthday concert on TV and collapsed so we could get up and do lots of things in London the next day.

Click here for photos of Hampton Court Palace and Catford.

On Friday we took the train from Catford to the Museum in Docklands on West India Quay near Canary Wharf, which is terrific...a history of London via the Thames, including a full reproduction of "Sailortown" in the 1800s with a model pub, animal emporium and chandlery. The museum traces the growth of the city from the Romans to the present, and as an extra surprise there was a replica of the Discovery -- one of the ships that founded the colony at Jamestown, Virginia -- docked just outside, along with a couple of other historic ships. We took the Tube from there to meet one of Paul's friends for lunch at Leadenhall Market -- the passage to Diagon Alley -- walking to it by way of the Tower of London and the ancient Roman Wall), where we had sandwiches under cover since it was drizzling. We had planned to go from there to tour the Golden Hind which we have seen from both land and the Thames yet never boarded, but it started raining in earnest, so we went instead to St. Paul's Cathedral, which was in the midst of major renovations when we visited four years ago. This time we could see the tribute to US military personnel who died during World War II and the magnificent tiled ceiling.

From St. Paul's we went to Westminster, where we saw Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and No. 10 Downing Street on the way to the Horse Guards, Whitehall, Nelson's Column and the Admiralty Arch. We had plans to meet Vera at the National Gallery, which we visited only very briefly so I can say nothing intelligent about the artwork (and Adam would say that the best part were the pigeons that would land on people's arms if they held out food). We walked to Chinatown, where we had dinner at a buffet with very good lemon chicken, and Vera brought us organic chocolate Daleks from Marks & Spencer's that say "EXTERMINATE!" if you press on the boxes (this proved to be hilarious, as every time one of us bumped into a bag, we would hear, "EXTERMINATE!" and all crack up). We were going to go to Forbidden Planet to get Doctor Who action figures, but the store was just closing as we arrived, having shut the doors early because Neil Gaiman was there and a mob had gathered outside trying to get a look at him. Woe!

Vera had brought us tickets for Spamalot at the Palace Theatre (formerly D'Oyly Carte's Royal English Opera House), which we saw in the evening after looking in vain for a non-mobbed coffeehouse to sit for half an hour. We were all very familiar with the score and with all the Monty Python movies it is based on, but we didn't know for instance that "The Song That Goes Like This" was performed as a Phantom of the Opera parody, nor that the audience always sings along on "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." We had an immensely good time, and also had entertaining people in neighboring seats at the theatre who turned out to be Doctor Who fans and were fortunately amused when they stepped past us to sit down and our bag said "EXTERMINATE!" to them. I'm sure I'm forgetting a dozen small things, like stopping in Boots to get Cadbury Creme Eggs...

Click here for photos of London.

Saturday we got up, left Catford after a brief visit to the aviary in the courtyard of the place where we were staying, and drove through lovely, occasionally sheep-filled countryside to Bath. We went first to have lunch at Seafoods Fish & Chips, reputed to have excellent cod, which reputation it happily deserves. Then we went to the Jane Austen Centre, which was very interesting though Jane Austen has never been one of my favorites. We had a very dynamic guide -- even the kids were attentive during the talk on her life -- and there was an exhibit of clothing and costume of the era with exhibitions on her life and the costumes of the new ITV production of Persuasion. There was also an entire room on Austen, Bath and the Royal Navy (with particular emphasis on Nelson) that I'm sure would have warmed Patrick O'Brian's heart, given that he seems to have adored Austen as much as Nelson.

We walked around Bath quite a bit, going to the Circus (a Georgian architectural circle, not a performing show), the Royal Crescent, a Georgian garden and Bath Abbey. We went last to the Roman Baths themselves, since we had visited them in 2003 and figured that if we ran out of time, that was the thing we could most easily miss. It was still early enough to take the audio tour (which has been expanded since we were last there) and taste the water (much too warm and metallic for my taste but hopefully it has cured all my ills). There was a duck swimming in the central pool, which pleased Adam greatly until he started to worry that maybe it was ill because it seemed to have an injured wing, but one of the people who worked at the baths assured him that ducks come there often to enjoy the warm water. Some of the sections that were being repaired last time we visited were more visible, like the hypocaust, and we had a clear, sunny sky which provided much prettier views of the Abbey and surrounding architecture than the dreary drizzle we had four years ago.

After a stop at a Tesco for dinner necessities, we drove to the cottage at Greyfield Farm in High Littleton where we planned to stay the week, where we nearly had a small disaster by getting a flat tire as we were parking, then discovering that the wrench that came with the spare didn't fit some of the bolts on the wheel. (We met most of our neighbors and spent many dollars calling rental car agencies, repair shops, etc. before tracking down another wrench and getting that solved.) While Paul fixed the wheel, the rest of us watched the first episode of Doctor Who series three, which was ever so much better than I had dared to hope...I had not much liked Martha in the previews, mostly because she wasn't Rose, but in some ways she's a better match for the Doctor -- older and more sure of who she is from the start, and quite certain that she knows things he does not, with some of the same kind of sass Rose had. We discovered that the chocolate Daleks were in fact not Dalek-shaped but more like giant Easter eggs, which made one easier to break and eat (the boxes do the actual talking and are collapsible so we could bring those home). Then we discovered Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World on some cable channel and this made my night!

Click here for photos of Bath.
Click here for photos of High Littleton.

Sunday morning, after feeding our breakfast leftovers to the goats on the farm, we drove to Bristol, which covers the hillside from the Clifton Suspension Bridge to the River Avon and its docks far below. It was a perfect, nearly cloudless spring day and we went first to the Bristol Zoo, which has an exceptional Humboldt penguin exhibit with parents sitting on eggs in nest boxes outside and a view of the swimming penguins from tubes below the water. It's not a very large zoo, but beautifully designed with gardens and large walk-through exhibits of bats, reptiles, several aviaries, a terrific insect collection and Daniel's favorite, red pandas. We had lunch at the zoo before driving down to the river where we toured the fantastic exhibition of the SS Great Britain, which sits in drydock in a dehumidification chamber surrounded by exhibits on its lengthy past as the first ocean liner with a steam-powered propeller, then an immigrant clipper, a windjammer and a floating storage hulk. The interior of the ship has been restored to its 1843 splendor and both kids enjoyed the audio tours, since one described life for first-class passengers and another described life for kids chasing one of the ship's cats.

We walked around Bristol's Great Western Dockyard, where we saw a replica of the 1497 wooden ship Matthew -- whose original sailed from Bristol to discover and claim Newfoundland for Britain -- which was about to go on a pirate cruise. We also saw the wooden schooner Tangaroa and the Dutch ship Energie. Then we drove to Stanton Drew, a little town with a stone circle in the middle of a field surrounded by sheep. The surviving stones in the circle are about the same size as the ones at Castlerigg, which we saw on our last trip -- they're bigger than the Rollright Stones, smaller than the stones at Avebury -- and they overlook both sheep-dotted hillsides and the town chapel. There were only a couple of other people visiting the circle while we were there, though there are more signs of civilization, farmhouses and homes, up close than at Stonehenge or Castlerigg. Adam was more excited about being able to get up close and personal with the sheep anyway; many of them had lambs and they were quite calm about having strangers among them, unlike the goats at the cottage.

On the way back we tried to look for Passover necessities, but the Tesco had closed an hour earlier than we expected, so we went instead to a smaller store and got frozen dinners, reminding me that the amount of inexpensive, quick Indian meals available in the UK is vastly superior to what we can find at home. We ate while watching the 2006 Doctor Who Christmas special "The Runaway Bride," which we were delighted to discover via the Sunday Times would be on BBC3 along with a rerun of the previous night's new episode (which Paul had mostly missed dealing with the flat tire). Then we watched the new film of Persuasion on ITV, which had many scenes filmed in Bath in the places we had visited the day before. It was an entertaining production but I had a frustrating evening, as first Photoshop wouldn't load, then we had no internet connection. We did get some laundry done, at least.

Click here for photos of the Bristol Zoo.
Click here for photos of Bristol's Docks.
Click here for photos of Stanton Drew.

We had a rather pagan day before the start of Passover, beginning at Lacock Abbey, which remained intact after the Dissolution and has beautiful cloisters that were used in the filming of the early Harry Potter movies. Fox Talbot, who invented the photographic negative, inherited the property after it had become a private home and there is a museum on the grounds about his work. We didn't actually tour the abbey-turned-country-house, just the cloisters and some of the gardens. Then, after a brief stop to see the Cherhill (Oldbury) White Horse, we drove to Avebury, which we have visited each time we have been to Britain -- the beautiful Wiltshire town with a stone circle surrounding it. We picnicked in the middle and walked around the circle to see Silbury Hill and the other nearby sights. As it has been every time I have visited Avebury, the weather was magnificent...not a cloud in the sky, though there was some haze.

We stopped briefly at Stonehenge because we couldn't bear not to when we were in Wiltshire so close...didn't do the audio tour this time, just walked around the circle under the gorgeous afternoon sun. From there we drove to Glastonbury, sometimes known as Avalon, where we stopped briefly in a couple of the spiritual-New Age-Wiccan stores before going first to the Chalice Well -- an underground spring that reaches the surface at the foot of the Tor amidst lovely meditation gardens -- then climbing Glastonbury Tor itself in the hazy late afternoon sunshine. There were sheep low on the hillside and rabbits and ravens up near the top, which was windy but not nearly as cold as the rainy day when we climbed it two years ago. Then as now we drove out of the city listening to Loreena McKennitt, inevitably!

After an afternoon at the focal point of British goddess worship for anyone who grew up a fan of The Mists of Avalon, it felt kind of strange to stop in Tesco, pick up Passover essentials and come back to the cottage for a seder, but we did...quite modified in places, as we had no shank bone and had kind of forgotten to pack the Haggadah, but the kids can recite most of it from memory after Hebrew school model seders, and the quickie charoset and lack of gefilte fish did not seem to distress them. Avebury and Glastonbury have always felt absolutely spiritually right to me, so I am quite content with unorthodoxy.

Click here for photos of Lacock Abbey.
Click here for photos of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Click here for photos of Glastonbury.

Tuesday we drove across the Severn into Wales, the first of several trips over that border. We went to Cardiff to have lunch with people Paul works with in Thomson's offices there. First we visited Cardiff Castle, originally a Roman site with a Norman keep that became the property of the phenomenally wealthy Marquess of Bute, who had architect William Burges transform it into a Gothic revival pleasure palace even though he lived there only a few weeks a year, overseeing the vast Welsh coal mining and shipping operation. The women's quarters have a ceiling carved from imported wood painted in gold and the nursery is ringed with paintings from folk and fairy tales, with lamps decorated with figures from nursery rhymes. It's probably the most opulent home I've ever seen, and the grounds are gorgeous, with the Norman keep surrounded by daffodils and peacocks.

After meeting the Thomson people and going to lunch at Ha! Ha! we drove to nearby Caerphilly Castle, which made a remarkable contrast with Cardiff Castle...a massive Medieval stronghold that appears to be twice the size, but has been slowly decaying for more than 500 years, with restoration work beginning only in the 1920s. A moat filled with waterfowl surrounds the huge dark walls, which sit right in the middle of a busy shopping area. The massive great hall remains in very good condition, while the "leaning tower" that was probably knocked aside in some kind of seismic event looks as if someone blasted it with a fiery weapon and left it to crumble. Caerphilly is just over a low mountain from Cardiff and the drive is very pretty too.

We could not leave Cardiff without seeing both "Torchwood" (Roald Dahl Plass and the Wales Millennium Centre) and the exhibition on Doctor Who at the Red Dragon Centre. The latter is pretty heavily focused on the ninth and tenth Doctors -- artifacts include a Dalek, a Cyberman, the Anne Droid, a Clockwork Robot, an Ood and K-9 -- but there was enough history for me to get a better sense of the first through third Doctors, plus a lovely large portrait of Paul McGann and loads of pictures of David Tennant. We also went to Forbidden Planet (this one before it closed for the evening!) so I am now the proud owner of a Doctor, a Rose and a Captain Jack while Adam is the even prouder owner of a remote-control Dalek. That's right: we are all geeks!

Click here for photos of Cardiff.
Click here for Doctor Who in Wales.

We drove to the Cotswolds on Wednesday, first to Kelmscott Manor -- William Morris's home, where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often gathered, at least while they were speaking to one another and not sneaking around with one another's wives. The house is smaller than I expected, but gorgeous, filled with Morris tapestries and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings of Jane Morris and her daughters (plus his paintbox with the remains of his tubes of paint and his name on the bottom!). There's a very pretty garden and a covered yard where we ate lunch after looking at William and Jane's separate bedrooms...Guinevere was a popular theme.

Then we went to Birdland, the only place in the UK where one can see king penguins. And unlike various US zoos we visited last year, these penguins are just on the other side of a low stone wall...no glass between them and visitors, so the views are fantastic! The colony arrived fairly intact from one of the Falkland Islands when a man who had bought the island gave the birds to the zoo, and they have been very successful at breeding (including one naughty penguin who had two chicks with different females last year). We were there for the feeding and were introduced to Seth, the penguin who co-starred with Danny DeVito in Batman Returns, as well as the rest of the birds, one of whom believes he is human because he had to be hand-fed and was flirting with the keeper. There are hundreds of other birds in the park, including flamingos, various Amazon and desert fowl, cranes, pelicans, storks...all quite lovely.

We took a short walk around Bourton-on-the-Water, a beautiful town which, as the name suggests, sits right on the river with many daffodils and ducks lining the banks. The Old New Inn there has a 1/9 scale miniature of the village in its gardens. Bridges connect one side of the town to the other. We stopped in a few bookstores and local craft places, then we went to meet my friend Jo and her family for dinner, having discovered earlier in the week that she lives about ten minutes from the cottage where we were staying. I was afraid my kids would be hyper after so long in the car, which they were, and was relieved that her babies were just as active...plus they have four cats, which made Adam extremely happy. They treated us to fabulous Indian food and we discussed various fannish insanity (largely Doctor Who, which seems to be the theme of my holidays this spring!).

Click here for photos of the Cotswolds.

On Thursday after feeding breakfast scraps to the goats (one of whom liked to follow Adam around and head-butt him, leading him to dub it the "killy goat"), we took a long ride to the coast -- first to Torquay, a pretty resort area which has a marine life zoo called Living Coasts, then to Plymouth. At Living Coasts we saw three different kinds of penguins (African, Gentoo and Macaroni) as well as puffins, dozens of other seabirds, seals and the cormorants and gulls that live outside the flight cage on nearby rocks. The penguins have free run of the enclosure, so a couple were right on the path next to us, and there are also underwater viewing areas and educational displays in the exhibits connected to the big enclosure with the birds.

We had lunch in Plymouth a few dozen yards from the Mayflower Steps, or at least the former site of the Mayflower Steps since the originals have apparently had to be rebuilt. There is a monument above them now, and a museum across the street from the water with exhibits on the departure of the Pilgrims and how it affected Britain both before and after, as well as a brief history of Plymouth and Sutton Harbour. We parked in the Barbican area and walked around the citadel up to the lighthouse and statue of Sir Francis Drake on the other side while eating ice cream, since it was spectacularly warm and there were many ships to see in the bay. The sun was almost blindingly bright as we watched a Channel ferry pass a big frigate that was flying a flag I didn't recognize. The English sailors held captive in Iran had been released the day before, so the mood was festive.

We tried to visit Drake's home, Buckland Abbey, but apparently it is closed on Thursdays (no great loss to Adam, since we got to walk right up to the sheep that live there). Then we drove into Dartmoor National Park, where there were wild sheep and horses walking across the roads and fantastic stone formations, some natural, some neolithic. We hiked to a pair of stone rows dating back thousands of years and the Merrivale Stone Circle, surrounded by sheep that grudgingly marched out of our way when Adam tried to get close enough to pet them. We didn't actually see much of the forest, which is massive, apart from a couple of stands of evergreens and the animals on the moors. We also visited Postbridge, a village at the very center of Dartmoor National Park with the best-built clapper bridge in the country, and stopped for dinner at the Highwayman Inn in Shepton Mallet, a pub with excellent fish & chips.

Click here for photos of Torquay and Living Coasts.
Click here for photos of Plymouth.
Click here for photos of Dartmoor and Postbridge.

I have always managed to be in a church on Good Friday when I have been in Britain, and this year was no different. We went first to Caerleon, one of the sites frequently associated with Camelot, though the Roman Museum there carefully made no mention whatsoever of Arthurian legend. Instead there were relics dug up at the nearby barracks and graves -- weapons and beads and the remains of shoes. The museum has a reproduction of Roman barracks and many suits of armor, but is not nearly as interesting as the excavated barracks and amphitheatre across the street, where University of Cardiff students were surveying a yet-unexplored field adjacent to the barracks. The amphitheatre rises in mounds out of the ground where the arches were buried and looks astonishingly complete. I didn't feel particularly strong King Arthur vibes there -- much less than at Glastonbury, even though the graves at the latter said to be Arthur and Guinevere's are almost certainly not -- but it's amazing to see something from so long ago that has lasted for so long, with so much new detail to be learned because the ruins have been so well preserved by the local people.

We had lunch on the grounds of Chepstow Castle, one of the earliest stone castles in Britain, dating from about 1090. It was held by Royalists and besieged during the English Civil War, then used as a prison and allowed to decay, so that now it is a beautiful ruin with gorgeous views of the Wye from the paneless windows. We toured the castle, then drove to Tintern Abbey. There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream were made easily accessible by the National Trust and English Heritage people working at them, but I must say that I am unimpressed by Cadw, the Welsh equivalent. The town was very crowded both with tourists and locals all going to some kind of Good Friday fair, and the miniscule parking lot couldn't hold all the cars coming in. Lots of people were parking illegally in front of the abbey and on the street creating traffic hazards, but we figured we would do the right thing and ask if we could park in one of the many unused coach parking spots for a few minutes -- there was not a single coach to be seen -- but the answer was no. We got lucky and managed to get a spot after much driving in circles, but at that point I wasn't prepared to be all that thrilled by the abbey, which isn't as dramatic as Rievaulx, as scenic as Fountains, as striking as Whitby nor as meaningful to me as Glastonbury despite the fact that I spent a week studying the poem in a Wordsworth class as an undergraduate.

We went from Tintern to Monmouth, birthplace of Henry V, which has a small Nelson Museum including a substantial collection of his letters, though there were none of the impressive displays we saw in Portsmouth a couple of years ago -- Nelson displays are always amusing because it seems like the curators don't quite know what to do about all the controversy he caused before he became the martyred naval legend by dying on his ship in his moment of triumph. Then we drove to Gloucester Cathedral, nearly 1000 years old (and a setting for the first two Harry Potter films, which naturally had nothing to do with why we visited, heh). Formerly Gloucester Abbey, the building was spared during the Dissolution because Edward II was buried there after being murdered in captivity nearby, and since Henry VIII did not want to destroy a building where a king was buried, he refounded it as a cathedral. It is quite magnificent, with cleaner, brighter stained glass than most of the cathedrals we have visited and beautiful cloisters. Tenebrae services had just ended when we arrived, so the church was in darkness save the light through the stained glass and from candles, which was wonderfully evocative. We drove back to High Littleton through fields of sheep, cows, horses and golden flowers, with the occasional rabbit and deer along with pheasants and magpies by the side of the road.

Click here for photos of Caerleon and Chepstow.
Click here for photos of Tintern, Monmouth and Gloucester.

Saturday was a glorious day, both in terms of the weather and our activities. We got up very early and left the cottage in High Littleton for Dudley, a city near Birmingham with a zoo containing one spectacular and unique feature: Dudley Castle. However, this was not our reason for visiting: my friend Deborah had adopted one of the penguins there for Adam as a birthday present last year, and when we realized we would be in the vicinity of the zoo, I had written to the marketing manager, who had offered to arrange for Adam to meet his penguin, Arkwright, while we were there. The zoo really went above and beyond the call. Not only did Adam get to help zookeeper Mark feed the penguins and pet one of Arkwright's week-old babies while a zoo photographer snapped pictures for their newsletter -- I gather that they don't get many Americans who have adopted animals visiting them at the zoo -- but they also arranged a private tour of Dudley Castle led by "Brother Dudley", ostensibly a medieval monk who told us about the castle's history from the Norman conquest through the execution of onetime owner John Dudley, who lost his head for supporting Lady Jane Grey, up to the fire that destroyed the castle in the 1800s.

There are beautiful views of the castle from all over the park, but from inside the walls, you forget that you're visiting a zoo (well, unless you are fixated on penguins and sheep, since the latter can be seen and heard all over the area). After a visit to the castle armory and a quick walk through the zoo, which is beautiful -- there are paths through the wallabies and lemurs where the animals can run right next to zoo visitors, plus a little amusement park and gorgeous views of the entire city from the castle keep, the highest point in the Midlands -- we drove through the Welsh countryside to Aberdyfi on Cardigan Bay. We passed steam trains, magnificent mountains and thousands of sheep on the way to the shore, discovering that our bed & breakfast on Tyddyn Rhys Farm was an extremely steep quarter of a mile uphill from the water...nearly as strenuous a hike as Glastonbury Tor!

I am starting to think that rumors of bad weather in England and Wales are made up to scare away tourists, because it was warm, brilliantly sunny and clear the entire afternoon and evening. After walking down to the shore, we had dinner at Walkers Fish & Chips outside facing the water, where a handful of boats were coming and going, and local kids were racing crabs which scuttled to the waterline and buried themselves in the sand as quickly as possible. The B&B where we stayed had several cats, one of whom came through our open bedroom door and made itself comfortable on the bed between Daniel and Adam, as well as dogs, chickens and sheep in the fenced areas around the house. We watched Doctor Who in the evening -- "The Shakespeare Code", filmed at the Globe Theatre in London, in which the Doctor explains to Martha that the seventh Harry Potter book made him cry and 57 academics punch their fists in the air at having Shakespeare's sexuality confirmed for them.

Click here for photos of the Dudley Zoo.
Click here for photos of Dudley Castle.
Click here for photos of Aberdyfi.

We were awoken Easter morning when a Jack Russell terrier came upstairs and whined until Adam opened the door to the room in which the kids were staying, where it proceeded to jump on the bed and lick Daniel awake. There were cats mewling and sheep bleating just outside our window. After eating the huge breakfast prepared by the woman who owns Tyddyn Rhys Farm, we hiked up to Carn March Arthur and Llyn Barfog, the Bearded Lake in the hills far above Aberdyfi -- again in weather so gorgeous it seemed unreal. The path winds up past hundreds of sheep and alongside a farm into Snowdonia National Park, surely one of the most beautiful places in Britain. The lake isn't very bearded at this time of year because the water lilies that cover it in the summer have only started to spread across the surface, but it's still a gorgeous little lake surrounded on all sides by grass and rock-covered hills which I have wanted to see since I first read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books in elementary school.

We stopped briefly at the Talyllyn Railway station in Tywyn to see the train museum and to watch the steam engines come and go. In Thomas the Tank Engine movies based on Reverend Awdry's series, this line became Skarloey, and while we were at the station, the red Thomas train Duncan pulled in. (The kids were at this stage less impressed than we were!) Nearby is Tal-y-llyn Lake, also known as Llyn Mwyngil, the Pleasant Lake, at the foot of Cader Idris -- another place I have wanted to see since reading about Susan Cooper's Wales in childhood. Yet again we missed any hint of the Brenin Llwyd; it was spectacularly bright and sunny as we drove into the valley, just as it had been since we arrived in Wales.

However, keeping to the King Arthur theme, we went on to King Arthur's Labyrinth in Corris surrounded by a local artists' colony. The Disneyland-type history of the Mabinogion is mitigated by subterranean boat ride and walk through the caverns beneath Braichgoch Mountain used for decades by Braichgoch Quarry to mine slate. It was very dark, quite chilly and moody in the caverns and the exhibits in that setting were quite enjoyable. It was late in the afternoon by the time we finished lunch, the 45-minute tour of King Arthur's Labyrinth and visiting the craft stores, so we drove out of Wales to Telford, where we had dinner at a Brewer's Fayre and spent the night in a travel inn.

Click here for photos of the Bearded Lake and Talyllyn.

Our flight from Heathrow the next day was scheduled for late afternoon, so we wanted to be within a couple of hours of the airport. (We had successfully extracted the batteries from the Dalek "EXTERMINATE!" voice boxes so they could be safely transported to the US.) We arrived bright and early, only to be told that our flight had been cancelled and United was putting us up at the Radisson Edwardian Heathrow, a very nice hotel which unfortunately was a bit too far from London for it to be practical to get downtown during a bank holiday. So we had lunch at the Pheasant pub -- walking distance in the suburb of Harlington, which has a little playground that we walked through as well -- and stopped at McDonalds for Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurrys (the only reason for eating in a McDonalds in England). On the way back to the hotel, we ran into someone Paul used to work with at Thomson in the US, who was also in London on holiday with his family. Then we hung out, took baths and decompressed for awhile (The Sound of Music was on), before going to the huge dinner buffet.

Since our flight was rescheduled for 7:30 a.m., we had to be at Heathrow at 5, so we went to bed very early and got up for the breakfast buffet at 4. On the flight back (complete with another hot breakfast plus cold lunch), I watched Miss Potter and most of Blood Diamond, though I slept through the beginning of the latter. (I'm officially over my dislike of Renee Zellwegger, as that's three movies in a row in which I've felt she gave great non-actress-y performances, in contrast to to Kidman and Paltrow; I thought the acting and cinematography in Blood Diamond were phenomenal but was very glad to be watching on a teeny tiny little screen because the violence was so graphic, and the small screen didn't stop me from bawling.) We were slightly detained because the Department of Agriculture had to question us about the farm on which we stayed and to check our shoes for mud. My father picked us up at Dulles and we came home to unpacking and laundries galore!

Click here for photos of Heathrow and Harlington.