Friday, January 9, 2015

Southwest England and Wales

I could not contain my excitement watching France funnel away into the distance, and seeing my motherland fill that marvelous, minuscule airplane window.  The White Cliffs of Dover waved a glittery welcome against the sunny coastline. Did I say sunny? So yeah, that was a sort of phenomenon of my trip. It only rained one out of the 11 days I spent in England, a far cry from the icy downpour I was promised in all those rom-coms and stereotypes of those infamously heavy British skies. So it was a little bit of a surprise when we stepped off the plane to a warm welcome, literally.

Emma's parents picked us up at the airport, and I liked them immediately. They gave me the grand driving tour of the countryside as we wound our way through hedge-lined, single-lane roads deep into the hills of English farmland.  I didn't have quite the shock I expected of being on the "wrong" side of the road, but what really got me was how narrow the streets were, with everyone flying by at least at 50 mph. There were only a few close calls over hills...

We pulled in at last to an old farmhouse resting just off the country lane, no numbers for an address, just a homestead sign and a bright red postbox. There were sheep in the backyard. Yup, just right there. I was shown to my room, and I felt a little like Elizabeth Bennet when she goes to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins at the Hunsford parsonage in Pride and Prejudice (minus the Mr. Collins bit, and no shelves in the closet).

We passed the first day there delightfully--running down sheep, feeding them by hand, walking "the circuit"--a 5k trek through some good English footpaths. There is a law in the UK that protects these centuries old paths for public use--even if the path cuts through a farmer's land. It wasn't the first time I've picked my way through a farmer's fences, but it was the first time legally and in broad daylight. And I think I was more nervous this time. But it was completely worth it. Nothing but rolling hills full of green grass nibbled down to the earth by the many flocks that spattered the scenery. Oh that glorious country air that filled our lungs as we tromped through the mud and stone. It was clean and crisp and cold and filled me with every good thought.

That evening we went a new pub in town, and I had my first try at English fare: black pudding and steak and ale pie. Some parts were great! Some parts, well... let's say once I found out what black pudding was, I probably won't be eating it again. When we returned home, we gathered by the wood-burning stove for some of that infamous bad English telly over some tea and biscuits.

The next day, we did a little jaunt over to Haye-on-Wye in WALES. Because people here can just dash over to Wales whenever they want. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Known as "the Town of Books" for the many bookstores that pack its village streets (first picture), we found our way to the biggest and best, Richard Booth Bookstore. Complete with a cozy cinema, a luminescent cafe, and old wooden bookshelves stocked with both new and secondhand books, it was the perfect place to enjoy the ambience of the town.

But as for the best views of the town, one must head up to Hay's Bluff. There are no signs along mud and gravel roads, just the inside knowhow of a local to guide you. But the sights once you get to the top are breathtaking. Truly breathtaking. It's so windy you can't see between the tears rushing to your eyes and the hair whipping around your face. But against all odds, I did manage to get a few shots.

Then it was back down the mountain, back to England, back to catch the train to the next leg of the adventure: London.

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