Becky & Gil's - Italy/Britain Trip Continues:

April 10, 2006

We are up and moving around 9:00, after breakfast of hot cross buns (Easter is approaching), cereal, toast, yogurt, juice, tea and coffee.

The sun is out with a few white clouds, and there's not even a whisper of wind. What a delightful day to be cruising on a canal with good friends!

(Jean takes a hand at the tiller)

(it just doesn't get any better than this!)

(Barbara does an outstanding "King of the World/Titanic" impression)

At Bridge 12, we stop at a public Water Point. We use our Inland Waterways key to open the tap and fill up our water tank, which empties remarkably quickly.

Just upstream from the water point, a couple are selling hand painted canal ware, featuring brightly colored flowers and castles, which are traditional decorations for canal boats. The style is reminiscent of with gypsy carts. I purchase an old brass tray, now completely covered with enamel paint flowers. I learn that brass itself is now hard to sell. The couple scour thrift shops looking for items to paint ranging from tea pots to book shelves.

There are just two locks on this stretch of the Llangollen Canal, and now it's time to go through them. They're both single boat width, so have just one gate and sweep on each side. ("How Locks Work"-click HERE)

There's a charming lock keeper's cottage, complete with gardens filled with blooming daffodils. Yes, rural England really is this lovely. The lock keepers are friendly and helpful, especially with amateurs like ourselves. (Well, I should really qualify this statement, as Dennis and Barbara and both fully certified by Inland Waterways as canal boat and lock handlers.)

We moor for lunch not long after passing through the locks. This is one of those perfect moment afternoons, with the gorgeous weather, friendly ducks, the green meadows covered with lambs and their moms, delightful company, bread, cheeses, and chilled Blue Nun wine. It is GOOD to be alive!

("More caviar David?" "Don't mind if I do Becky"...kidding, but it was almost that good!)

I learn from our friends that when I say "My pants are covered in mud," I seem to be saying - to their English ears - "My underpants are muddy," which startles (and amuses) them to no end.

At last we carry on south, deciding to turn around as soon as we can, and head back towards Chirk. We must turn in the boat at Chirk Marina by tomorrow afternoon.

At Bridge 6/7, the map shows a "70 foot turning basins," but when we come to the spot, it appears far too small for our 69 foot leviathan, and rather shallow. Plus, another canal boat has moored right across from it (very bad form!), with a group of musicians playing music inside. We stop to consider our next move, and to wait for a speedy boat behind us to pass and to wait for a northbound boat to go through the tunnel. (All tunnels are wide enough for just one boat, so there's sometimes a brief game of "chicken" before one boat decides to do through.) We take the opportunity to talk with a friendly boat owner (as opposed to us boat tourists), who advises us to carry on to Frankton Junction, where we'll have plenty of room to turn round, being as it is literally the junction of two canals. He and his wife retired early 2 years ago and just love traveling the canals now.

(the Jenny's commanding officer, Captain Dennis)

We go forward, but decide to reject the friendly boat owner's advice and try turning the boat at a Marina we pass….oops, not enough room. It turns out to be a 67" basin and our boat is 69'. We grind against a ramp, and suddenly our rudder isn't working. We call to our own marina; they send three guys over right away. We're across from The Narrowboat Inn. Gil buys ice cream for everyone at the marina to help improve everybody's spirits. The 3 guys spend about 30 minutes wrestling with the rudder and controls, and manage to fix the situation. Whew!

(Gil Here: At this juncture we had been traveling now for three days and help arrived in about 15 minutes. It is always amazing to me how far you seem to travel in a canal boat -at its top speed of four mph - and how little distance you actually cover. While I have your attention, I should mention that what had happened to the boat was that we had lifted the rudder when the boat hit the ramp and unseated it from its hinges. All that had to be done was lift it back into its proper place...except that it weighs in at around 300 lbs.)

So NOW we go forward to Frankton Junction. Gil does a masterful job of turning our lumbering beast around, so now we're heading back north.

We finally stop for the night, just past the little settlement of Hindford. It's time for a peculiar dinner, using up the leftover food in our galley. Dennis creates some lovely scrambled eggs. In addition, we have cheeses, yogurts, breads, crackers, red wine...

(, well, the wine's gone)

...and cookies. Oh, wait, how could I forget - David's Baked Beans!! This is so very English (and tasty and fun, indeed).

(night along the canal)

We then find ourselves...playing with bananas. Bananas have become a kind of running gag (along with David's beans), clear back at the Martin's house, where we debated taking a bunch of bananas with us on the trip. Well, it's two bunches later, and we all must share our banana skills.

(it's simply more fun when when in a group where no one takes themselves too seriously)

Then David takes this party up yet another notch by deciding - as he does whenever he finds himself away from home - to do "a bit of mending." This time, it's the curtains which must be sorted out - the stitching is simply too darned tight.

Then our evening festivities switch to string games, once Barbara knots together all the bits of extra curtain string ("That's a nice, strong bit of string, that is," says thrifty David.) We learn variations of "cat's cradle" and others. It's amazing what a group of reasonable folks will do in an evening with no real TV.

April 11

Gil and I have the engine serviced (daily pumping of the bilge, greasing of the propeller shaft and an oil check on the mighty diesel engine) and fired up and cast off at 7:50. Today, it's rather miserable, with rain and wind. We make our way easily back through the two locks, as no other boats are about, fighting the wind on occasion.

(image courtesy of Barbara Martin)

We decide to head straight back to the marina, turning in the boat, and then have lunch at a pub. At times, the wind is so strong we are stuck along the bank, and we find it surprisingly difficult to get the boat headed out again. Eventually, Gil and Den bring the boat into the entrance of the Chirk Marina, where one of the marina guys hops on board and brings "The Jenny" in smartly. We unload and walk back up to the card park, where we have to say good-bye to our new friends David and Jean.

We drive to the "Poachers Pocket" pub, which lies alongside "our" Llangollen canal. In warm weather, one could sit outside next to the canal but today it's quite cold. We opt to go inside, where Gil has a surprisingly tasty "chili hamburger," which is a nicely grilled burger topped with chili relish in a "real" hamburger bun (not the rather too fluffy English "bap").

The English use a lot of condiments, but Poachers Pocket holds the record - NINE!

The Martins then took Gil and I to the ever so charming little Chirk train station, where we must say our farewells, sadly. The next train comes within minutes. There is not a manned ticket office, so we buy our tickets on board from Conductor DL Jones. He used a special hand held computer to check possible routes and best prices. (It's pretty expensive when you don't book way ahead.) There are many routes and possibilities, and the very kind DL Jones keeps returning to keep us informed of the latest changes.

(Becky fending off the paparazzi-me)

Eventually, we all decide to go to Wolverhampton, where we catch a Virgin Pendolino train to Euston Station, London. These trains are very snappy and colorful. They can go up to 125 mph and lean around corners - not that we actually noticed.

Arriving at Euston Station a couple of hours later, we take a cab to our B & B near Paddington Station. Our driver is a boxer, according to a posted notice. Not chatty in the least, but boy does he know what he is doing. We weave abruptly around other vehicles. Gil even blanches one or twice as we nip around busses and bicycle messengers.

Our B & B is at 35 Norfolk Crescent. We found it through a web service that matches up real homes with customers. All the buildings and blocks around here are laid out according to traditional Georgian/Victorian plans, with gardens, crescents, etc., but the building are much more recent - perhaps 60's - 70's?

(yes, those actually are milk bottles-there is actually still milk delivery to your door in London)

Our place is a little…different. For one thing Gil swears that our hostess is Yoko Ono. There are lots of cats and a fluffy white dog. Lots of mirrors and gilt and marble floors. Our room is huge, but rather…tired. It's quiet (except for an amazingly loud squeaky bathroom door).

After a bit of unpacking, we wander around our neighborhood, and find Bobo's Bubbles Launderette, where we will do laundry in a day or two. We find take away food at a Halal Lebanese restaurant. Yummy!

(Gil Here: I was unaware of Halal style cusine before we ate here. I found it surprising good and I ended up eating here twice in the three days we were in London. The food is always fresh and full of interesting vegetables, spices and meats. For more information about what exactly Halal is, click HERE))

April 12

Downstairs, we have a continental breakfast of cereal, toast, and one additional choice of carbs ("Bagel? Toast? Croissant? Pancake?") We are joined at the table by a family of three Norwegians and another family of three Austrians. Plus the fluffy dog and cats, who gallop around the room and up and down the stairs.

We decide to walk to Little Venice and take the 11:00 "London Walks" tour of this scenic area, situated on a canal in North London.

Well, after walking for literally miles, I come to the realization that I have caused us to turn left when we should have turned right…about a mile ago. Oops! But on the other had, if we hadn't done so, we would never have seen our delightful little mudhen, picking up trash from the canal, twirling it in his (?) bill, then, visibly proud, presenting it to its mate, who adds it to the collection of other trashy bits.

Eventually, and just a bit footsore (actually, I am developing a blister - ouch), we arrive at the real Little Venice, just in the brink of time to join the tour…but now we both really have to "use the toilet," so - after all our miles and rushing - we decided to just skip the tour.

We then rushed into the nearest Tube Stop, where we find out they don't have toilets...we started to panic a bit. We end up riding the Tube to Charing Cross station, because (a) they have bathrooms and (b) I want to "feel London" - and what better place than Trafalgar Square.

The "empty plinth" now has a statue entitled "Alison Lapper Pregnant," in white marble. This plinth was empty for years, and now hosts rotating works of modern art.

Of course there are the inevitable tourists and pigeons, but here at Trafalgar, somehow, it all seems just right.

It's lunchtime, and we're at Trafalgar Square…so inevitably, and much to Gil's bemused dismay, we end up yet again at The Crypt beneath St Martin's in the Fields church, where we dine on hot English food, trying not to notice the graves beneath our feet. (I estimate we've eaten here at least four times in the past few years.)

We use the Tube to go to The British Museum, where we buy tickets for 5:15 entry to the new Michelangelo exhibit. What to do in the several hours we have to kill? First, find a pharmacy and get something for my blister. Then, find Stanford's Bookstore, the world's largest map and travel book store. I'm looking for a book outlining the South Downs Way, in anticipating of a future walking trip to southern England with our friends Molly and Max.

(the downstairs floor at Stanford's is a huge map of London)

Then it's off to Leicester Square looking for a movie to watch (and a chance to rest my feet).

(this Honda ST1300 is actually a"first response" ambulance-it can pick its way through traffic much faster than a traditional van)

Aha - the Odeon (site of many a red carpet, star-studded, movie opening), "V for Vendetta" is just about to start. Since this thriller is set in slightly future London, what better place to watch it? (In fact, the next day, we tell ourselves "We really should go see if the Parliament Buildings are still there," since they were - gasp - blown up in the film's final moments.)

(outside of Parliament...not blown up but being deluged by all sorts of protestors protesting)

Now the Michelangelo exhibit. It's a special collection of his original drawings and many of his letters and poems. In addition, there is a fantastic interactive computer display, where you can see exactly how the various rough "cartoons" translated to the Sistine Chapel.

We have dinner at Munchkin, across from the British Museum. Nothing to write home about….

We took the tube home, to Marble Arch, then walked home, where we watched a little BBC on the telly.

April 13

Our final full day in London. We skip the continental breakfast, because we needed to do our laundry at Bobo's Bubbles (still 3 days from home and we've run out of the things that we can't was in the sink at night). We have a tasty full English breakfast just across the street.

3 pounds for a largish load of laundry, and about 1.50 for drying. We were done within an hour and a half.

We take the Tube to south London, where we walk to the Imperial War Museum. What a grand building, and well laid out museum (plus big guns!) We were here specifically for a special exhibit on T.E. Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia." It's filled with photographs, his maps, his desert clothes, guns and knives, and even the very Brough motorcycle on which he crashed and ended his life in 1935 in Dorset.

(Gil Here: Becky and I both like traveling by motorcycle and as I've mentioned before are members of the online Sport-Touring.Net. I was especially interested to find out a few "sport-touring" facts about Lawrence. For instance he went though SEVEN Brough Superiors which were the most expensive production bikes made at the time, around 170 pounds sterling and that Lawrence's were tailor made for him. The Brough's were 1000 c.c. model, twin cylinder and would do about 100 mph. He managed to clock 100,000 miles on this smallish island in 5 years (that's averaging 20,000 miles/year compared to my about 12,000/year...on a modern bike with modern roads). His motorcycle rides were often 500 miles a day (again, compared to me who is more comfortable in the 300 to 400 mile range). The guy was an animal!)

After several hours in the Museum, including the other-worldly World War I Trench Experience...

(why look, it's a BMW!)

...we grab a quick lunch, then walk across Westminster Bridge to St. James's Park, then Green Park, then up Piccadilly and onto a double decker bus to Marble Arch.

We pick up some takeaway dinner from Pret a Manger (I love this chain of fresh fast food restaurants!) and from our Halal restaurant.

April 14

Our United flight leaves at 2:30. We decide to depart our B and B "early" (around 9;30 or so), and walk to Paddington Station, where we'll catch the Paddington Express to Heathrow. It turns out that we weren't too early after all. The Express train stops several times for unknown reasons, and when we finally reach Heathrow, we have quite a bit of walking to do before finally reaching our gate. So - leave plenty of time!

We fly home on business class, once again. We sleep a little, and watch another bad movie.

(Heathrow tower from the plane seat)

April 15

We arrive back at San Francisco, catch our shuttle back to the El Rancho Inn (boy, are those young Americans on the shuttle LOUD and annoying!) We settle in for the night.

Boing! Jet lag! It's a quarter to 4:00 in the morning and we are both wide awake. So we decide to pack up and begin our drive home, with very little traffic to bother us. Our timing is such that we get to enjoy a fabulous breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants, Ardella's, in Willits.

We arrive home, greet Kipper the cat (who seems to NOT resent us for being gone, thanks to the visits by our always helpful neighbors and my wonderful mother) and pick up the dogs, who are freshly bathed and seem as happy to be back home as we are.

Almost before we've finished unpacking we are already starting to plan our next trip...

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