Monday, April 28, 2014

Of patron saints, Miss Potter, and lawn mowers

My favorite of all critters is the rabbit/hare. This love came about because a very good friend of mine told
"Wild" rabbit tending the grass
me wonderful tales about what good pets rabbits made, how they were easy to take care of, sweet, cuddly and so on. My first rabbit, Drucilla, was every bit as promised: cuddly, easy to take care of, sweet, and a bit more ~ stubborn, hungry for electric cords, and very good at hiding when I was ready to leave the house. Maggie was also wonderful and she didn’t eat cords, just woodwork and body parts when she was really irritated. Pepper had none of the bad habits of Maggie or Drucilla; she just had nothing to do with me and loved DM. I didn’t care; I loved them all no matter what! Along with this love of real rabbits came my collection of rabbit/hare statuary, dishes, paintings, stuffed critters, and basically anything that looks like the real animal.

I knew that Beatrix Potter hailed from the Lake District of England, so I was determined to make the pilgrimage to her Hill Top Farm. However, in doing research for this trip, I found that
St Melangell Center
there was another place I needed to visit. Saint Melangell is the patron saint of hares, rabbits, other small animals and the environment. At the end of a long, winding, one-lane road in Wales is Pennant Melangell, one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Around the area are fields with grazing sheep, daffodils, and hedges. Although I hadn’t planned it, we visited the shrine the week before Easter. There was no special service at St. Melangell so the church was open to any and all visitors. It remains open throughout the year so that pilgrims can come and go as they please. Because St. Melangell is
St. Melangell Church
the patron saint of hares, no hares are ever hunted in this area. The church was built in the 12th century and is surrounded by Yew trees with a cemetery in front of the church. Not surprisingly, the information on the headstones is in Welsh. Just down the hill is the St. Melangell Centre in a house not much younger than the church. It was a real treat to wander the grounds, see the carvings, and visit the shrine.

And of course, we did visit Hill Top Farm. One would think that such a famous place would be very easy to find, as would the
Hawkshead village
museum associated with Beatrix Potter. Think again. We spent several hours in frustrated search for either the farm or the museum hoping that if we found one the people there would be able to direct us to the other. Fortunately, this was the case. The Beatrix Potter Gallery is in the building that once housed her husband’s law offices in the small town of Hawkshead. This is a beautiful little village situated on a hillside surrounded by open fields with sheep, lambs, and even a pony or two. The gallery has two floors (very small rooms) devoted to information about her writing, her family and her life. Not five miles away is Hill Top Farm. This was Miss Potter’s place of refuge from her
Hill Top Farm house
parents and city life. As she became wealthy from her writing, she was able to buy up more and more farms saving them from becoming fallow. During World War I she campaigned for keeping horses on these farms so that land could continue to be worked efficiently. In World War II, she successfully petitioned Winston Churchill to remove the factories that were built specifically for the war since they would be abandoned and would ruin the land for farming. She was very specific in her will, leaving Hill Top Farm and the surrounding lands to the National Trust. At the farm there are still rabbits that are fed regularly and are fenced off not from the garden but from the tourists.

Hill Top Farm Rabbits

And speaking of environmentally friendly places, Inverness Castle uses rabbits to trim the grass on the slope below the castle. As we looked out of the window of our hotel, we thought we were seeing rabbits. Quickly, we went down Ness Walk, crossed the bridge and came up to the slope beneath the castle. The rabbits hop in and out of the daffodils, chase each other and hide in their warrens. They are not disturbed by the traffic, tourists, or evidently anything else. Most appear to be
"Wild' rabbit at Inverness Castle
wild, but there is a black rabbit that looks suspiciously like a domestic bunny that has escaped into this ‘wilderness’. That rabbit doesn’t know how lucky it is!

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Playing Scottish Chess

Dashing lords, ladies in waiting, knights in armor, hot and cold running servants: what else could you expect from castles? Actually, none of these. There are castles that are trimmed out in the finery that was Scotland in antiquity, but most are ruins or partial ruins. In general, castles were built in defensible areas for the protection of the royalty and those who worked for them. This means that they are on top of hills and/or surrounded by water, cliffs or at the very least vast stretches of flat, clear land. The only moat we saw was in Fort George and it couldn’t be flooded unless the tide was at its highest.

Venturing out to Dunvegan Castle meant experiencing the wind, rain and cold that is supposed
Dunvegan Castle
to be typical of the Isle of Skye. The castle has been continuously occupied since the 13th century, so wandering through these rooms provides a great glimpse into the past. The family heritage is obvious in the art collection that includes paintings, ceramics, jewelry and household furnishings. There are also several acres of formal gardens, which in mid-April were not quite ready for visitors. However, the daffodils, growing everywhere like weeds, and the gorse (another weedy hedge) were beautiful. From the castle you can see the Loch Dunvegan, which opens into the Sea of the Hebrides; on the day we visited it was a slate grey churning froth that discouraged anyone from getting on any sort of boat.

Thatched Huts
Before and after the construction of castles, people on the Isle of Skye lived in cottages. The Skye Museum of Island Life is a great example of these dwellings. These are the antithesis of living in a castle, although castles aren’t much warmer. Although the sun was beginning to shine, the wind chill drove us inside as much as possible. These cottages held examples of fabrics, tools, household materials, and machinery that were typical of the 18th century. One of the comments on the guest book was obviously from a child. He/she wrote, ‘I liked everything except the fake people were kind of scary.’ On a hill above the cottages is a cemetery in which Flora MacDonald, who risked her life to save ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is buried. She was an exceptional woman who took risks throughout her life, immigrating to the United States but eventually returning to Skye in the 1780s.

Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle, near Inverness, was repeatedly sacked and rebuilt until 1692 when it was blown up to keep the Jacobites from using it. One of the interesting facts about Urquhart Castle is that there were no Urquharts ever living there. Urquhart is a region of Scotland for which the castle is named. What’s left of the castle is absolutely stunning because of its location. From the top of a rise you can not only see the remaining tower, but Loch Ness. There are still plenty of castle parts left to crawl around on, including the main gate, dungeon, grain drying area, tower house, dovecot, chapel, stable or blacksmith area, great hall and a kitchen. You can also see the privy used by the guards in the gate house. After climbing around for a while and wandering down to Loch Ness, we were sure we spotted something in the water following one of the tour boats. Alas, we have no pictures of Nessie; perhaps we should have used a different map.

Visitors aren’t allowed to wander freely inside Inverness Castle simply because it is now the
Inverness Castle
site of the High Court, council offices, and Sheriff’s Court of the shire. However, the exterior is spectacular, particularly at sunset and at dawn. The grounds are open to the public and my favorite part, the slope from the castle down to the water is easily visible with its thick covering of daffodils. The River Ness runs through Inverness and provides a pleasant walking area in front of the castle, through the city then down to the Loch. Along the way are public and private gardens, places to eat, and a few shops. This whole area seems to be much less frenetic than many of the other tourist stops in Scotland.

The most extensive castle we visited was Edinburgh Castle. Built in the 900s, this castle has housed royalty for hundreds of years. Mary Queen of Scots bore her son in this castle and was, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned here. There are three military museums with an
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
assortment of interesting armaments, uniforms and historic information; each is small but is packed full of information. The National War Memorial puts into perspective the sacrifices Scotland families have made for peace around the world. The Prisons of War show how conditions for prisoners have changed over the years, one set of sleeping conditions reminding me quite acutely of some of the field trips I’ve taken. The Crown Jewels exhibition was interesting in that it showed how the ornaments were made, how the monarchs were crowned, and how the jewels were hidden in times of crisis. The Stone of Destiny, important to Scottish history, is also in this exhibit. As we climbed up and down towers, scrambling over old walls, battlements and other tourists, we stumbled on to a group of people showing raptors to the visitors. These birds of prey have been used for hunting since the middle ages and are now being protected since their numbers are decreasing. One of the treats, other than the views of Edinburgh from the ramparts, was eating in the tea room; great food, quiet atmosphere, and good service. We planned to be there about three hours but stayed all day.

While most of the castles in Scotland housed nobility, St. Andrews Castle was the residence of
St. Andrews Castle
some very powerful churchmen.  The first castle was probably built on this site in the 1200s, but as with most castles, fell and was rebuilt many times over the years. Beneath the castle are a mine and a countermine that were dug to escape the siege in 1546. This was the time of the Protestant Reformation and anything that remotely appeared to be Catholic was ripped from church structures and destroyed. This castle is also the site of a ‘bottle dungeon’ into which prisoners were dropped. It gave me the willies just to look down through the grating. However, the grounds are beautiful particularly with a
bagpiper playing nearby. The castle faces the North Sea, with nothing to stop the Arctic wind but a few low walls. Even on a day when the temperature is in the mid-50s, there were people playing in the water at the foot of the castle walls where the inhabitants from ages past went down to bathe, catch a boat or sit in the sun.

Listed under ‘things I wish I’d known about before I went to Scotland’ is the Explorer Pass. This pass pays for itself if you visit four of the 78 historic attractions listed. We’d have made a concerted effort to see more castles (although one of my fellow travelers shudders to think about one more castle) and known about some sites that are not shown in guide books.

©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Magical places

One of two Sphinxes
No matter where you travel, you’re going to find some sites that spark your imagination. London has many Cleopatra’s Needle, these are presented to successful military personnel. The Needle, along with two sphinxes, are down on the London Embankment. They harken back to the days when Egypt was being explored and the romance and mystery of the desert.
of these. Colonization, as well as participating in wars can lead to the collection of artifacts. Sometimes, as with

Entrance to the A&V Museum
The Albert and Victoria Museum is another of London’s magical places. Filled with everything from traditional Chinese carvings to Botticelli masterpieces to textiles to Beatrix Potter’s letters, this jewel of a museum will take you all day to even begin to experience. One of the great pieces of art in its entryway is the Chihuly hanging. This jaw-dropping piece of glass catches the sunlight and is mesmerizing.

As a devoted mystery reader, a trip to London just isn’t complete without a visit to 221b Baker Street. There is a funky little museum with period pieces that are arranged as though they belonged to Sherlock, Watson and even Mrs. Hudson. Part of it is rather creepy, in that they have life-like manikins
Mounted Head of the Hound
representing some of the characters in the cases, including their rather grizzly demise. However, one of the most spectacular oddities (or spectacularly odd) was the mounted head of the Hound of the Baskerville.

Hedwig at #4 Privet Drive
For me, the most magical locale is not in London but in a nearby  suburb. For 10 years the cast and crew of the Harry Potter movies literally lived at  Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden. Several of the sets are still intact, and it’s amazing to think that over the 10 years the beds in the Gryffindor tower set that the boys slept in were never enlarged, so they had to scrunch up to look as though they fit. The back lot has Tom Riddle’s grave, the Knight Bus, and two houses including Number Four Privet Drive; Hedwig, Harry’s owl (yep, he’s live along with about half a dozen other varieties of owls there for educating the public) sits in front. Many of the drawings, complete concept paintings, and full scale models are on display and are quite astonishing. There are also costumes, makeup
Door to the Chamber of Secrets
areas, and probably most interesting, the animatronic heads for some of the characters. There is, of course, butter beer available. The tour was supposed to take three hours, but we were there for closer to five; going behind the scenes is quite possibly more fascinating that the actual movies.


©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Never normal, only near

Group W Bench
Although I refer to this as the NearNormal Traveler (singular) blog,I am usually with other folks on these sojourns, so many of the postings will refer to 'us' rather than just to me. In the long years that I've indulged my wanderlust, there has never been a 'normal' trip nor 'normal' travelers; that would be much too dull. So
far on this trip we've only encountered a few odd occurrences, but situations from our past adventures seem to set the stage for new possibilities. For instance, using the Group W Bench as a meeting place.

Back in the 1980s Arlo Guthrie sang about Alice’s Restaurant. This was a tale not only about a woman who owned a restaurant, but also a war protest song. The Group W Bench of ne'er-do-wells figured prominently into the war protest portion. If you’d like to know more you’ll have to go
The Awakening!
to YouTube and listen to the entire saga. Suffice it to say that when we’re with any group and we end up sitting for sustained periods of time in one place we refer to it as the ‘Group W Bench’. It’s also a place to meet when we’re off doing our separate things. In this case the bench was in the British Museum and we were taking a break from the excitement of the museum collections. However, a few minutes later, Barb and I went off to do some shopping. Upon our return, we found the guys, still on the Group W Bench but surrounded by two groups of picture taking, Japanese tourists; they were picture worthy because they had fallen asleep! I missed the sleeping shot, but caught the awakening.

Trafalgar Square Rooster 
Trafalgar Square is home to great places to eat and wonderful things to see. Lately a German artist has presented London with a piece of art that now graces the area and celebrates England’s defeat of France in 1805. Yep, it’s a big blue rooster. I have no idea how Londoners or the French feel about this, but it gave our group a good giggle. While identifying a large rooster didn’t present much of a problem, the sheep seemed to cause some consternation. Perhaps if they had seen cattle or horses they wouldn’t have been quite so astounded.
Sheep near Stonehenge

Neither the travelers nor the travel is ever normal, that's why we’re NearNormal Travelers . . .

©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Hopping around London

Lion at the British Museum
So what do you do after you’ve spent 9 hours on a plane and an hour or two getting to your hotel? You go British Museum. Traveling with friends is really fun, particularly since we’re all willing to not only run around as a group, but break off on occasion to follow our own muses. However, since we were quite jet lagged and more than a bit goofy, we wandered in to the museum, en masse. The lion greeted us and the exhibits literally overwhelmed us; the oldest chess set in the world is housed here, as is the Rosetta Stone and a whole host of Egyptian, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and currently Viking artifacts ~ more about the treasures of British museums later.

One thing we decided we had to do on our first day was to eat fish and chips.
Fish, chips and peas in a pub
In the States these are prepared using anything from strips of cod to halibut to tilapia. That is not the case in England. Here they use a huge chunk of cod plus the chips (fried potatoes) and generally add a side order of peas (you can have them mushy or whole; mushy is substantially better since the whole ones are slightly more tender than ball bearings). And the accompanying beverage is usually some sort of ale, but the hard apple cider is a delight.

London Eye Rabbit
After lunch and a bit of a rest, we headed for Westminster Abby and Big Ben. Along the way I was delighted to see that there were bunnies loose in the city. The plaza near the London Eye is decorated for Easter with rabbits (check out their website now to see the Easter Bunny) and very soon they will have a marathon in which the runners try to
find the ‘lost bunny’. It all sounds like a lot of fun.

A bit about London hotels: think small rooms and no air conditioning. The positive thing is that the windows open to let in cool air. Although this is April and you need a jacket to wear outside, you’ll be very happy to have fresh air in your hotel room. Our room, in the Tavistock Hotel, is several stories above a bowling alley which doesn’t close until midnight ~ make sure you pack earplugs. A ‘full English breakfast’ has been eggs (poached, scrambled or boiled), bread, an assortment of jellies, bacon (lots of meat), sausages, grapefruit, oranges, prunes, baked beans (traditionally served on toast), stewed tomatoes, fish poached in a sauce, several types of bread, several types of cereal, and coffee, tea, juice, water. At our hotel it’s all prepared fresh daily, so it’s pretty good! We've found that the best thing about our breakfast time is our coffee server, Sabrina. She's the reason this hotel has so much business. If you’re a Starbucks addict, there’s one on about every other corner and they have better than average internet; unexpectedly, our hotel did not have internet in the room (as advertised) and the band width in the lobby was extremely limited. There are internet cafés, and if you need that level of speed/dependability, they are most likely better than the free internet in the hotel lobby, particularly if there are lots of people hanging around checking email.

So what’s on for tomorrow? More fun, more exploring, a lot more walking and a substantial bit of magic!
Queen's Guards?
©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Gentlemen, start your engines!

'Air Conditioner'
It was our first really warm day of spring and we were just not going to stay inside. As luck would have it, we spied an antique car show in the square that would soon host the Keller Farmers’ Market, and these cars were fun and funky. This car show also supported two good causes: Down Syndrome Partnership and Cook Children's Medical Center. Some cars were what we have been dreaming about for years while others reminded us of our misspent high school days. We were also treated to a view of one of the first car air conditioners ~ a canister that sat on the window and let the air flow into the car.

Thunderbird Convertible
The baby blue T-bird with the port hole and the Continental package was my favorite. Other cars we’d like to have gracing our driveway were the 1935 Ford Roadster and the British made Ford Anglia.
Ford Roadster

All of the cars were polished to the max, the music was rock and roll, and the folks were friendly. However, there was no food and we were getting
Ford Anglia
hungry. Rather than sample any of the numerous great places to eat in Keller, we wandered over to Haslet and ate at Lee’s Barbecue.

The decor wasn’t fancy, but the food was good and the owner personable. Watching basketball finals on a small TV while rolling silverware, the owner chatted with us and made sure we had plenty of everything including his homemade barbecue sauce. This little hole-in-the-wall joint has been around for 25 years and is listed in Trip Advisor.
Lee's Barbecue in Haslet, Texas
©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.