Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August hols three and four

OK, lets get this holiday wrapped up so I can talk about something else next time.

Thursday: You're Bard.

So we went on down to Stratford Upon Avon to do the Shalespeare thing. Well, three fifths of the houses and no play at any rate. Another Park & Ride visit (well, got to keep my hand in) and a journey into town through an unexpected industrial area.

Of the houses we visited, I think I enjoyed the Birthplace the most in terms of content, but if pushed to live in one of them would choose Hall's Croft, purely for the interior layout with the "consulting room" on a sort of mezzanine overlooking the front door. All three town houses have beautiful gardens - in fact the knot gardens on display put the Garden Museum to shame, frankly. Nash's house/New Place large garden also has a wonderful set of sculptures relating to the plays and as it is free to enter is well worth stopping for a few minutes in should you happen to be in town. Now all i need to do is read Bill Bryson's biography of the man, which is sat awaiting me on a shelf downstairs, and maybe have another go at seeing the plays. I haven't really given him any attention since O-level Romeo & Juliet in 1987.

The rest of Stratford is also a nice place to wander around. Lots of interesting buildings, many of which play up their Shakespeare connections (we had lunch in Crabtree and Evelyn of all places, and that building turned out to have housed one of his daughters for a time) but I do wonder how much of what we see now is original. All three of the Shakespeare houses in town have been "restored" to the conditions he would have known them in, having had various facades slapped on them over the years. I guess architectural history is something else I will have to delve into one of these days. We also managed to continue a holiday tradition by purchasing a Christmas decoration in the height of summer - there is a Christmas shop opposite the birthplace. Previously we have bought decorations up a mountain in Switzerland, by Niagara Falls and even in Yorkshire. Not that we will be in the country this year, but that's for another time.

Friday: Ruined splendour.

We finished the holiday with a morning at Kenilworth Castle. This one is operated by English Heritage and very much the ancient monument rather than a medieaval theme park. If forced to choose between the two I would pick this over Warwick, but then I prefer ruins to re-enactment. This is one of the sites deliberately destroyed by Cromwell after the Civil War and so much of the former splendour resides in the imagination. Mind you, mine can be pretty vivid so I have no problem mentally rebuilding the walls and populating the place with knights and queens (Elizabeth 1 visited four times). They also have a very good audio tour which fills in many of the gaps. Highly recommended.

Then it was home along the A14 and back to reality. All told a good relaxing break and just what we needed. Roll on the next one.

Ohm and for anyone counting, 10,000 steps acheived on three out of four days (somehow I managed it on the way there but not the way home, despite about equal time split between driving and mooching about).

Monday, August 17, 2009

August hols 2

Day Two: A-Warwick A-Warwick!

We hadn't decided what order to do days two and three (if you see what I mean) before arriving, but waking up to rain on Wednesday made the decision for us to stay local. OK, partly I wanted a day off from driving, but we figured that we could duck in and out of different bits of Warwick castle and stay reasonably dry better than trying to get between different Shakespeare houses. And it was forecast to dry up later anyway, which it did.

One advantage of Audrey's strict 0800-0845 breakfast rule meant we were up and about and in town nice and early. Warwick has a nice mix of medieaval and Regency architecture throughout the town centre and had more to offer than we had time to visit. We will definitely go back some time as I really want to look around Lord Leycester's Hospital which we had to miss.

The rain had eased off to a drizzle but before we went down to the castle we had a look around the Warwickshire museum. I got the impression that most of it was last updated in the early 80s and it could use a bit of a refresh. Not that anything was wrong, it just gave me a feeling of being a museum about a museum rather than about the county as such. Still, there was some intereseting stuff on display including a nice model of the town before the great fire and also a temporary 40 years of the moon landing exhibition which naturally grabbed my attention.

So this brings us on to the castle itself and the first obstacle to an fun-packed day of knights and princesses: getting in. Physically not a problem, you just join a queue, pay up and wander through the turnstiles. Mentally, however, it is quite a challenge. Walk up admission for an adult is a kibblesworth under £20. Now, that's a fair bit in my book and quite how the enormous family groups we saw inside can justify the cost is beyond me. Entry to the dungeon was another £7.50 on top. Fortunately MrsB has a pass that gets her into many things free (or at least cheap), what with her being a tourist information officer, so that was a bit of a saving for us. The second obstacle was, as previously mentioned, the weather but that was clearing up by now. And the final obstacle were the huge family groups (I'm really painting myself as a boring old fart here, but too many screaming kids and I just want to run for the hills. I know, I know, don't go to a family attraction then complain about the families!).

Having made it through the gates we headed to the Dungeon bit first as that was a timed entry ticket. It still took us half an hour (standing in the rain) to get inside from joining the queue - mainly due to them only letting in small groups at a time and also insisting on taking everyone's picture in an execution pose first. We did like the resulting photo but declined to pay £5 for it. Anyway, that was really the end of the negativity and things got better from then on.

We went to the London Dungeon a few years ago and this was much like a cut-down version of that - lots of grizzly torture instruments and people dressed up with a loose degree of authenticity to do a bit of acting in each new chamber. There was also a fair bit about the plague, which I'm not sure quite fitted the torture theme, but I guess it was better there than elsewhere in the castle. In fact, I got volunteered to have my head cut open and a cure effected - all done very nicely with curtains and shadows which definitely made it look realistic from where I was sitting. I'm not aware that there was any communication between the denizens of the dungeon, but they managed to pick different victims in each instance of requiring one so nobody in our group ended up feeling like they stood out too much.

Interactivity was a theme of much of the rest of the day as well. There are numerous static exhibits with rooms done out in the style of various eras of the castle's history (we felt these could have done with a few more interpretation boards, and while we saw people carrying audio guides at no point were we offered the use of them) but there was also a continual stream of things happening around the grounds, in various rooms etc. As well as looking through the exhibits and climbing the walls we witnessed a fire breathing jester attempting to entertain the mob (he succeeded), jousting, falconry, general hand to hand combat and the firing of a Trebuchet. All accompanied by subtle use of facts and folklore to get the crowd involved and fired up for one side or the other in the various combats without them realising they were getting a bit of a history lesson thrown in with the spectacle.

Despite my misgivings caused by the cost, the crowds and the theme-park atmosphere (the Castle is run by the Merlin Group who also operate Madam Tussauds, Legoland Windsor, the Sea Life Centres, Alton Towers and much more so that was understandable) I ended up having a great day out.

We walked a mile or so the other way that night for dinner at a recommended pub. OK, but nothing special in my book. Staggered the locals when we told them we had walked it though (to be fair, we did get a taxi back but only because the rain had returned)...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

August hols one

A few words about our little break in the midlands.

Day One: Home - Coventry - Warwick

Unexpectedly leaving home within a few minutes of our intended departure time, we hit the A14 and had a breeze of a drive to Coventry. The weather was overcast enough to make driving easy in terms of not having to battle with bright lights, rain or anything else untowards. Traffic was sparse and we were on the Park & Ride bus into the city centre by 1130 or thereabouts. Not the most impressive of P&R sites but the bus got us into town and the car was still where we left it and
undamaged when we came back so that's all you really need to worry about.

I'd been to Coventry twice before back in 1990/91. Both just fleeting visits from Derby - once to try and get tickets to see the Quireboys (failed) and once to escort a friend who didn't fancy making the trip alone to visit another friend who was at the universtiy there. I had some vague recollections of the cathedral from those but nothing else stuck in my mind. MrsB had never been before so it was basically a fresh experience for both of us.

While suffering from the same problems of closing shops and too many smilarities with everywhere else, it has to be said the City Centre is really quite nice. They have obviously spent a fait bit of money over the last few years cleaning up and re-paving and so forth, and if we had been there to shop I think we could have quite easily spent our money. Of course that wasn't what we were there for so we went off to gawp at the sights instead.

The cathedral was just as fantastic as I remembered. The contrast between the bombed ruins of the old and the mid-century modernity of the new makes for an unsettling and yet calming experience. If that makes any kind of sense. I'm not a religious person, but I do appreciate the varying styles of ecclesiastical architecture on offer in this country, and in this case found them both to be equally as appropriate as each other. Climbing the tower of the old cathedral (remarkably undamaged when compared with the rest of the structure) gives a great perspective on the sheer scale of the building which you don't always get from other such vantage points. I think the lack of roof makes it clear how big the place was, and experience of other churches helps interpret how the space would have been enclosed in times gone by. The newer building is just as magnificent in its own way, especially the stained glass curtain window (as pictured above - click through to Flickr for more views) and the way it spreads flashes of colour across what could otherwise be quite a dull interior. Some of the smaller spaces inside manage to capture the intimacy and feel of similar nooks and crannies in older churches and yet still reflect the hope of the new. I think in some ways I was most impressed that it was built at all, especially on such a grand scale. It is nice to know that we can still build "old fashioned" church stuff - such as the new tower put on Bury St Edmunds Cathedral for the millennium - but the fact that a city and the church was willing to go forward with something so radical is just great. I know there was opposition and controversy at the time, but I think know it fits in as a link between the different eras of construction.

After a spot of lunch the sun came out and we had a wander through a bit more of the town centre, ending up at Spon Street which wasn't quite the medieaval theme street implied by the signange but still nice to look at in parts. Most of the old buildings appear to now be bars and weren't open so we headed on to the Transport Museum instead.

Not having grown up in a town with a focus on manufacturing it is hard for me to comprehend just how dominated Coventry and surrounding towns were by the motor trade in its heyday, but the museum certainly gives a flavour of those times. Wandering past exhibit after exhibit built
within a 10-20 mile radius of the site did kind of bring it home a bit how much the town must have depended on the factories and how it must have suffered since their decline. Plus of course I'm a sucker for a nice bit of polished bodywork and a good old British marque. It was also good to see them give space to a number of concept cars - even if they are just plaster and mdf models some of the ideas that get touted at motor shows as "design studies" and so forth do give me interesting thoughts about what we could or should be driving by now.

The museum is also home to Land Speed Record breaking Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC, both of which I remember following eagerly as they screeched their way across the desert. A somewhat pointless exercise really, but fun to watch and both cars are impressive in the flesh.

Having used up the afternoon we then wound our way to Warwick and our B&B for the next three nights. The Seven Stars was lovely, the room was comfy, breakfasts tasty, Landlady Audrey and her helper Sue nice (we never did meet Audrey's husband John) and overall well worth the price. It would perhaps have been nice to have had the option of eating in at night rather than heading back into town but you can't have everything. What we saw of Warwick that night was also very attractive (more tomorrow) and we had a nice Italian dinner which went
down very well!