“Alice Hawkins was a leading English suffragette among the boot and shoe machinists of Leicester. She went to prison five times for acts committed as part of the Women’s Social and Political Union militant campaign.” Five times to prison. That is commitment and bravery. Is that what we all need to do to force action on climate change?
Our niece picked us up at the train station and we walked The New Walk, a 200 year old pedestrian street.
We took a day trip into Nottingham, only 20 minutes on the fast train, and did what we do wherever we are: walked. In this case along the canal for more of a favorite activity, narrow boat peeping. There are no boats on the move right now but plenty moored up.
And back in Leicester we saw the statue of Thomas Cook, a name well known to travelers, holiday package bookers, and high street strollers. The man who first sent travelers off on package tours was indeed born and started his business in Leicester. The first trip he organized was to Nottingham. From Leicester. He was also a temperance man, so you can be sure those first tours were not big partying tours.
So thank you Midlands, there is more to you than most people might expect. And now, back to London for one night and off to Morocco. And thank you to our niece for having us to stay.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.
We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.
I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.
You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.
The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)
Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.
Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.
After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)
After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.
But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge, which was key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.
But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!
We found my favorite pub in the entire world. Yes, we’ve been to cat cafes around the world – oh, we’ve seen some things.
A cat cafe in Thailand with color matched cats. A resort in Malaysia with dozens of well behaved rescued cats who happily lounged at the pool, in your room, and under the tables at the restaurant. A San Francisco cat cafe where you could adopt the cats. We’ve discussed the absence of cat bars and what you could call one. Suds and Siamese. Pints and Pussies. Ale and Alley Cats.
But here in Bristol we visited The Bag of Nails. Going forward always referred to as Kitty Heaven. Cats for me, beers for him. Kitties on the bar, kitties on your lap, at one point eight cats were visible in this not large pub. Oh, did I not mention that my wonderful travel guy is allergic to cats?
Cat cafes tend to be very controlled environments. More so in California due to health regulations. Here at Kitty Heaven the list of amusing but serious rules includes one definitely aimed at me “no squealing.”.
We only stayed for one pint, but what a happy pint it was.
Vinyl on the sound system. Beer in hand. Cat on lap. Heaven.
If you’re a cat lover and in Bristol, it’s a great place to visit. Review the rules first and do not squeal.
Walking on the coastal path is one of our favorite things to do. Be ready for wind and rain this time of year, and be ready to be blown away by the geology. It helps to have someone drop you off at one spot, and you either hike back to home, or they generously pick you up hours later.
So how did we get here and still stick to our car lite car free ethos? Train from London to Swansea – a minus one minute transfer there where most of the train passengers started dashing to the connection to Camarthen- it was held but no one told us all that so it was a bit of a mad scramble. Our wonderful friends picked us up by car in Camarthen. There is a line to Tenby but there was no connection we could make that day.
It reminds us that to replace car use, alternatives need to be reliable, affordable, and easy to figure out. The UK has a much better passenger train system than most of the US, but when driving and flying are still cheaper and easier options, or you don’t have someone to help you out with a ride, it can be tricky to rely on trains. We’re slow traveling so we don’t mind lots of train time, but to sacrifice time and more money is a non starter for most. Non peak hours trains are much cheaper, not traveling on a Friday or Sunday – much cheaper. But if you need to travel on peak or are meeting usual office hours, you will pay more and it’s not cheap. For us, not having to rent a car (yet), and having friends who don’t mind picking us up at train stations (yet), and being willing to walk from train stations wearing our rucksacks to hotels 20 or 30 minutes from the station, means we can be as car free as we have managed. Long may we continue this.
Next up? Bath, Bristol, friends in West Sussex, Leicester, and then Morocco. Rich will write about the travel planning during COVID challenges. Happy travels.
Favorite thing about London? The transport. Transport for London (TFL) has quite a task keeping the underground, overground, and all the amazing buses moving. Once again, Citymapper for the London win. Using that app allows us to get anywhere in London on any mode. Turn by turn call out bike directions, we love you, especially the dock to dock bike share feature. As Rich notes, that was the missing piece when using bikeshare and directions. If you aren’t using Citymapper as your preferred transit/mobility app, give it a try, we think it’s the best.
We met up with one of our fantastic nieces for lunch and a walk. We biked around on the cycle share Boris Bikes, also known as Santander Cycles. we went to the Imperial War Museum and lost track of time in the amazingly well curated World War 2 exhibit. We didn’t take many photos. Too busy enjoying the city.
The Imperial War Museum reminded us of how great museums can be. The WW2 exhibit was next level curating. Diverse, engaging, and accessible. It made me want to write a sternly worded email to the Louvre about the problems we saw there while visiting Paris. We had been in the Louvre for about 3 hours when my wonderful husband said “Do they even exhibit any female artists?” And I thought I was the staunch feminist in this marriage! Good question, I replied, proudly. The top item on my sternly worded email to the Louvre would be a request that they call out in a map, or with specifically marked or colored description tags, the few female artists they have on display.
When I did an online search for information on female artists at the Louvre it turned out we had noticed several, without being aware that they were works by female artists. I don’t believe any of the art covered in the needlessly complicated audio guide, (Nintendo based, a big hit with the mostly over 55 users I’m sure), was woman painted. Next in my email I’ll mention the badly laid out cloak room/lockers, lack of drinking fountains, lack of signage and directions, and the exit through the shopping mall with again, no signage on how to exit the shopping mall. The art is, of course, amazing, but the curation is not up to date. We certainly didn’t plan our Louvre trip very well, we never even made it to one wing – we simply couldn’t find it – but as Rich said, a well curated museum shouldn’t need a plan of attack. It should be more intuitive and obvious where you want to go.
We have reveled in being able to communicate again with our move to English speaking UK. After so many weeks in countries where we spoke the language poorly (Rich’s French is pretty good, mine is awful), how nice to understand and be understood. It was also lovely to meet up with friends from SF, and our grad school attending niece. After many weeks of mostly each other for company we both enjoyed the time with friends and family. Where next? Off to Wales.
For years we’ve been thankful that we live a city life that makes travel less frightening than it is for some travelers. Three things we do on a regular basis here in SF make our trips easier, less daunting, and help us have a wider variety of experiences.
Buses. Being transit friendly makes getting around a joy. My favorite transit app is Citymapper. Citymapper has opened up a world of transit that used to be quite challenging to figure out. In London, like most tourists, we would be tied to the underground, with the confusing but understandable and always available map, but now, with Citymapper we use buses a lot. You can plug in your destination and be directed to the best bus routes, shown where the stop is, and the app will ping you before it’s time for you to get off the bus. No worries about missing your stop. The best part about riding a bus is being above ground and getting to appreciate the city – especially from the top of a double decker.
Bikes (of course!). Ever since I first used the Washington DC bikeshare while there for a conference years ago, and had my eyes opened about what a game changer bikeshare is, I believe that bikeshare, especially electric assist bike share, is the ultimate urban transportation. Fast, convenient, clean, space efficient. We’ve ridden bikeshares in SF, Boston, Glasgow, London, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Aspen and are looking forward to many more rides in many more cities. Similar to being comfortable on public transit, being a confident and safe urban cyclist opens up a lot of experiences you might otherwise miss. If you aren’t a comfortable urban cyclist I highly recommend taking an urban skills bike course.
Walking. Here in San Francisco we think nothing of walking a mile or two to dinner and home again. Yesterday we walked 1.2 miles to our dentist (Thank you Nikki! You rock!) had a Ramen lunch, and walked home again. While traveling we cover a lot of miles sightseeing. Our base level of walking fitness serves us well. Before traveling it’s a great plan to walk a lot so you’re ready to do 6 or 7 miles exploring a new city, and to make sure that your walking shoes are up to the task of helping you explore. And have your Citymapper app ready to help you get home if you need a boost!
Being flexible with your transportation will help you have so many more experiences than when you are limited to driving or taking taxis. And, having those options will give you the confidence you need to get out and explore. Some of our best times have come not from a planned destination, but from a serendipitous find while out on bikes, buses or foot.