This is the third of five articles I am writing about our UK trip. The first is here, and the second is here. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a fair amount of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.
Note that if you’re reading this through Facebook, you might want to click on the “View Original Post” link at the bottom to view it directly on my blog. Facebook messes up some of the formatting.
When I reserved the rooms at the Premier Inn (weeks before the trip), they gave me the option to buy breakfast at a discount as well. For £7.50 each, Gail and I got vouchers worth £10 each, and the kids each got a £10 voucher for free. This seemed kind of expensive (£15 = $30/day for breakfast), but I figured (a) it’s a hotel so it’s going to be expensive regardless, and (b) this will save us having to go searching for breakfast every morning. Breakfast wasn’t actually at the hotel, it was at a place called Roadchef, right next door. It certainly ended up being convenient, but in retrospect, I’m not sure I’d do it again. Remember this the hotel/restaurant is at a service centre just off the motorway, so the vast majority of their business consists of travellers who may never set foot in the place again. They’re not overly interested in repeat business, and it showed. The food was decent enough, though (not surprisingly) overpriced. They had a little serve-yourself cereal area, but three of the four mornings we ate there I had to ask for bowls because there were none there. Many of the staff acted as though our presence was pulling them away from something they’d rather be doing. The silverware was in little baskets and rather than just grabbing four forks and knives, I had to get them one at a time and make sure there was no food still stuck to them – much of the time, there was. The tables were all sticky but I figured they were just cheap and old… until we spilled something. Once I wiped up the spill with a napkin, that part of the table wasn’t sticky anymore. Ewwww.
After breakfast, we went to see Aunt Sandra (my mother’s sister, in case you’re curious) again, and she led us out to her little “shop”, Alexandra’s, where she sells jewellery. It isn’t really a shop at all but a booth in a garden centre, but she sells some pretty nice stuff and Gail had a blast looking over everything and deciding what to buy as gifts and what to buy for herself. Aunt Sandra wanted to give us a huge discount but Gail wouldn’t hear of it, so they had a bit of a tussle over how much we were going to pay for everything. They eventually settled on a price, and we went back to her place for lunch. During lunch, Aunt Sandra got a call from her son Ian, who wanted to speak to me. He and his wife Lesley were heading out to the Hamilton Park Racecourse that evening for a special event, and they asked if Gail and I wanted to join them while Aunt Sandra watched the boys (as well as his two adorable daughters Alexis (5) and Zarah (2)). Nice of him to offer her babysitting services. Anyway, we decided it would be fun, and Aunt Sandra assured us that looking after our boys as well as Ian’s girls would be no problem, so we said yes. We arranged to meet at our hotel in the afternoon.
After lunch, we called my Aunt Trudy (another of mom’s sisters – she has three plus two brothers) in nearby Motherwell to make sure she was going to be home, and then went to visit her. While there we also saw my cousin Julie and her husband (Andy) and kids (Cameron and Sarah). Cameron wasn’t much younger than Ryan, and the three boys had fun playing
soccer football. After a couple of hours, we went back to Aunt Sandra’s place and dropped the boys off for the evening, then went back to the hotel to change. Ian and Lesley arrived a little while later, and we all hopped in a cab to the track. The place was packed. We grabbed some drinks (the aforementioned John Smith’s for me, a Foster’s for Ian, a pint (!) of wine for Lesley, and just water for Gail) and a race program and attempted to figure out what we were going to bet on. We pooled our money on a handful of tickets where you pick horses in each race and if all of the ones you choose either win or place, you win a bunch of money. We decided that if any one of them was a winner we’d split the winnings, so we picked horses based on clever things like what their name was and what colour they wore. We followed those tickets until they were all wiped out (one ticket lasted until about the fifth race), and occasionally put additional bets on single horses. There were lots of different betting booths, and each was run by a different bookie – the booth had a big sign on top saying who was running it. But the bookies decide on the odds, so depending on where you went to bet, you might get slightly different odds on a particular horse than the guy in the next booth. So you’d see a horse with 6-1 odds at one booth, but the guy at the next booth was giving 7-1. And the odds changed while the bets were coming in, so if you bought your ticket ten minutes earlier than someone else, even if you bought at the same booth, you might have different odds on the same horse in the same race. Overall we won a few and lost more but had a lot of fun.
At the end of the night, I thought that perhaps my alcohol tolerance was increasing back to university levels, when we’d have a few beers and then go out to the bar – nowadays if I have more than one beer in a night I’m generally ready for bed. But I had five pints of John Smith’s over the course of a few hours. Make no mistake, I was quite drunk, more so than I’d been in many years, but prior to that I would have guessed that five beers in one night would have completely wiped me out. It wasn’t until the other day when I was writing the blog entry for the highlands and found the link for John Smith’s that I figured it out – it’s only 3.8% alcohol. Your average Canadian beer is 5%, and my personal favourite, Rickard’s Red, is 5.2%. (Stupid Molson web site won’t let me link to the miniscule amount of information on Rickard’s Red.) I know American beer is generally beer-flavoured water, but I didn’t realize Scottish beer was too. At least in Scotland you can get dark and good-tasting beer-flavoured water, unlike the American stuff.
We cabbed it back to the hotel around 9:30, and Aunt Sandra met us there with the boys. They had had fun at an Orange Walk parade going through Larkhall. I had never heard of such a thing (my knowledge of Irish history is woefully inadequate), and I guess it’s mainly an Irish thing, but I guess it’s a big deal in some parts of Scotland as well. Thankfully it seems nowadays to be more of a parade for the sake of having a parade rather than a “down with the Catholic bastards!” thing like it might have been in the past. Anyway, by 10:00 it was bedtime for everyone – late for the boys and early for us, but I’m pretty sure that thanks to my new friend John Smith, I was the first one asleep.
Luckily, I don’t get hangovers.
After breakfast we drove to a very cool playground in Chatelherault park in nearby Ferniegair. Aunt Sandra arrived with Alexis and Zarah a little while later, and the four kids had a great time playing together. It was a bright Sunday morning but the park was empty. By the time we left a couple of hours later, there were two other families there, but we couldn’t figure out why the place wasn’t packed.
After lunch, we went to visit my Uncle David (my dad’s brother) and Aunt Margaret who live just around the corner from Aunt Sandra. We had a bit of a Perrow family reunion there – Uncle David and Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty (my dad’s sister) and Uncle Charlie, and two of my cousins – David (with his wife Caroline and daughter Suzanne) and George (with his wife Liz and his kids Mandy and Jordan and Mandy’s boyfriend Kevin). Seeing Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie was a wonderful surprise – they live in Manchester, and we had spent a fair bit of time during the previous couple of weeks trying to figure out the best way to get down there to see them. We didn’t want to come three thousand miles across the Atlantic and then not see them when they’re only a three hour drive away. But before we could decide on when we were going to go, we talked to Aunt Margaret and found that they had already taken the bus up and were staying in Larkhall until the 14th, which was when we were also leaving.
Uncle David’s house isn’t very big, so it was quite packed with all those people, but we all had a great time catching up. Suzanne and Mandy are about the same age – early 20’s – but Jordan is only 9, about a year younger than Ryan. The boys and Jordan played for quite a while together and got along very well. Uncle David and Aunt Betty both love trivia, as do I (and as it turns out, a number of other people in attendance as well), so we had a lot of fun answering trivia questions from a talking trivia game that Uncle David had. At one point, we mentioned that we were driving to Edinburgh in a couple of days and I was a little worried about where we were going to park, since I knew our hotel does not offer parking. My cousin David warned me that parking in Edinburgh was crazy expensive, and suggested that we take the car back early and make our way around Edinburgh without it. We considered this, but the next day, circumstances convinced us to keep the car, at least for one day. For the next day or two I was quote worried about the parking situation in Edinburgh but it turned out OK, as I will get to later.
We stayed at Uncle David’s until the boys ran out of steam in the early evening.
Another delightful breakfast at the Roadchef. I ordered a “bacon roll” without knowing precisely what it was, though I had a pretty good guess. Turns out the name was almost too accurate – it was a roll with a couple of slices of bacon in it. No butter or margarine, no lettuce or tomato, no toppings or condiments of any kind, just a roll with bacon. Presentation, people! Even the month-old sandwiches you find in vending machines have a sprig of parsley in them.
After breakfast we went to visit yet another of my mother’s sisters, Aunt Maxine. She promptly put me to work fixing her computer which hadn’t been working properly for a while. There were a couple of problems – the keyboard and mouse plugs had been twisted, so the pins were bent all to hell. A couple of minutes with a pair of tweezers fixed that, and then the hard part – I plugged her cable modem into the wall. Turns out that without power, those things don’t do much. It wasn’t rocket science, but Aunt Maxine now thinks I’m a computer god, so all’s well that ends well.
The two sides of my family collided to some extent for lunch, as we met Uncle David, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Charlie at the cafe in the garden centre where Aunt Sandra’s shop is. This seemed a little weird, but does make sense, since my parents have been married for 47 years and together for about fifty, and they and their siblings all grew up in the same small town where most of them still live, so the families are fairly well acquainted. Actually, Aunt Betty and Aunt Sandra used to play together as kids, long before my parents got together. Anyway, we had a wonderful lunch – I had steak and mushroom pie and an Irn Bru – does it get more Scottish than that? Well, I suppose there was no haggis.
After lunch and some wandering around the other shops in the garden centre, we attempted to go and visit my Uncle Billy (my mom’s youngest brother), but he was not home and Aunt Sandra couldn’t get hold of him. We made our way back to the hotel and the boys played some Harry Potter Scene It? (a gift from Aunt Sandra) while Gail and I packed for our journey to Edinburgh the next day.
The morning was spent touring around saying goodbye to people before heading east. We stopped at Uncle David’s place, Aunt Sandra’s shop (narrowly missing seeing my other Uncle David by minutes), and then Aunt Trudy’s. We filled up with gas, grabbed some McLunch, and headed towards Falkirk, a little over halfway to Edinburgh.
Falkirk is home of the Falkirk Wheel, the only rotating boat lift in the world. It performs the same function as locks in a canal, except that it replaces about 15 locks and turns in about 4 minutes. There are big gondolas (I told the boys to think of them as swimming pools) at the top and bottom of the wheel, and boats enter the gondolas. The gondolas are then sealed off (so the water won’t drain out), and the wheel turns, keeping the gondolas level the whole time. Four minutes later, the gondola from the bottom is at the top and vice versa, and the gondolas open allowing the boats to drive out. It’s an amazing feat of engineering. We took a tour boat and rode the wheel – from the top, we could see approaching rain in the distance. We had time to get back to the bottom of the wheel before the rain hit. We waited (in the conveniently-located gift shop) for a slight break in the rain before racing back to the car and continuing on to Edinburgh.
The highway took us to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and then we had to take city streets into downtown. It took us a while to get through the city and once we got near our hotel, the Royal Terrace Hotel, we found that a couple of streets were closed so we had forgo the GPS temporarily and use an actual (gasp) map (like, made of paper and everything! How quaint!) to find an alternate route. After a couple of U-turns (some required, some not), we found the place and parked on the street. The hotel was quite posh compared to most hotels we’ve been to, but compared to the Premier Inn, it was the freakin’ Ritz. We got the key to our room on the
second first floor (the ground floor is floor 0 in the UK) and when I opened the door, my first words were “Oh my goodness”. The room had what had to be 15 foot ceilings, a huge chandelier in the middle, two queen beds, a couch and two wingchairs, a desk, and two TVs. It had to be at least triple the size of the Premier Inn room and several orders of magnitude nicer. There were three floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the street, and one of them had a view through the trees on the other side of the street to the Firth of Forth. It cost about double what the Premier Inn did, but was far bigger, far nicer, and had a far better location, so we were happy to pay it. At something like £110 a night, it was actually quite cheap for a beautiful place in downtown Edinburgh. Our first order of business was to find a local laundromat, and someone at the front desk told us about one just down the street. Unfortunately it was already closed, but opened early the next morning. On the way back, we found a pizza place and grabbed a couple of pizzas to take back to the room. The guy we ordered the pizzas from had a strong Italian accent (with hints of Scottish in it – very neat accent), which is always a good sign for a pizzeria, and we were not disappointed.
Shortly after returning with the pizza, we attempted to recharge the video camera, and as soon as I plugged in the power transformer (that we borrowed from Gail’s dad), we heard a loud bang. I quickly unplugged it, noticing the black mark on both the plug and the wall. The plug adapter rattled a little and when I shook it, little tiny bits of a capacitor or resistor or something fell out. It had literally exploded. We asked at the front desk if they had power adapters that we could borrow, and they did but they were for European plugs, not North American ones. For the time being, we were out of power. Luckily the camera batteries still had some life left in them.
The parking thing wasn’t as big a deal as we thought – overnight, anyway. Parking on the street in front of the hotel was plentiful and free from about 6:00pm to 8:00am, and the parking meters were smart – if you bought a two-hour ticket at 5:00pm, it didn’t expire until 9:00am the next morning. During the day, however, parking was limited to four hours. This would prove somewhat expensive over the next few days but the fact that we didn’t have to pay overnight saved us a bundle.
In the morning, we gathered up our dirty clothes and brought them down to the laundromat we had found the previous evening. Once the clothes were in the washer, we went across the street to a little cafe for breakfast. A couple of hours later, everything was done and we headed to the town of Kirkcaldy (the ‘L’ is silent, we found out later – it’s pronounced “Ker-KAW-dee”), about an hour north of Edinburgh.
A couple of days before, we found out that my cousin Lesley’s partner Wayne had just passed away. I had never met him, but he and Lesley had been together for several years. They had met through Lesley’s work – in a nutshell, she helps to rehabilitate drug addicts, and Wayne was one. With Lesley’s help, Wayne kicked the drugs and eventually joined her in helping others do the same. But many years of drug abuse had damaged his body, and at the age of 35, it gave out on him. I decided to attend the funeral since it was my only chance to see Lesley and I wanted to express my condolences. Gail took the boys down to the Kirkcaldy beach while I went with Aunt Sandra and my cousin Stuart (who also knew Wayne) to the funeral. It was a very nice service and I did get to see Lesley at the cemetery, though only for a few moments. She seemed happy to see me and grateful that I came, and so as much as I hate funerals (as most everyone does, I imagine), I’m glad I went.
After the burial, Aunt Sandra drove me back down to the beach, where we found Gail and the boys and had lunch. Aunt Sandra and Stuart headed back to Larkhall while we continued north to Dundee for our last family visit. My mom’s second-youngest brother Allan is in Dundee, so we went to spend a few hours with him. We were surprised to find my cousin Hazel there as well. We thought she was on vacation in Egypt, so we were happy to see her, and to meet her children, Christopher (5) and William (2). The four boys got along very well and played (LOUDLY) the whole time. Hazel and her husband Wilson are considering immigrating to Canada at some point in the next few years (actually they’re thinking about living in Hamilton, so we may end up being neighbours), so we tried to convince her that Canada is definitely the place to be.
We found a public parking garage around the corner from the hotel – we knew it would be expensive, but at least we wouldn’t be ticketed or towed, so we bit the bullet and drove there. We had breakfast at a little cafe inside the mall next door, and then walked down Regent Street to The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish home of the Royal Family. Mary, Queen of Scots once lived here and even witnessed her husband murder her secretary. Mary’s son became King James VI of Scotland when he was a year old and about 35 years later when Elizabeth I died without children, he became James I of Great Britain, the first King of both Scotland and England, thus uniting the monarchies.
Anyway, enough of the history lesson. We enjoyed the tour of this “working palace”, and were amazed to find that Princess Anne had stayed here just three days before our visit. Holyroodhouse is at the east end of the Royal Mile, with Edinburgh Castle at the other end. We walked the mile, stopping for lunch along the way, and then did the tour of the Castle, which was very cool. The views of the city and the Firth of Forth were amazing, and we could even see Kirkcaldy fairly easily across the Firth (though I don’t remember being able to see Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy). The boys were very impressed with the castle, especially Mons Meg, the 500-year-old 15,000-pound cannon that could shoot a 400-pound cannonball over two miles, and the display of swords and shields. Basically, Gail and I appreciated the architecture and history, the boys liked the weapons.
After the Castle, we walked down to Princes Street, which is almost completely dug up to install a new tram line. While strolling around, we saw a store dedicated to travellers, mainly for hiking and camping, but I thought maybe we could find a new power adapter there, which we did. We ate at T.G.I. Friday’s – after all the walking, everyone was hungry, and the boys devoured their meals. We walked back down Princes Street to pick up the car (parking cost: £19 = $34 – ouch) – while walking we heard the ominous sound of approaching thunder but managed to get to the parking garage before the rain started.
The new power adapter wasn’t perfect because there are a number of different European plug formats. Our transformer kit had a number of adapters, and luckily it was only the UK plug adapter that blew, not the whole transformer. We plugged the transformer into a different adapter and then that adapter into the new one we bought, and then plugged that into the wall, and lo and behold, we had power again. It was a little wobbly and didn’t look very safe, but it was only for one more day so we made it work.
The weather forecast for our last full day in Scotland was dreary and rainy, so we figured we’d have an indoor day. Luckily we’d seen the Castle and Royal Mile already. Around the corner from Holyroodhouse was a place called Our Dynamic Earth. It’s similar to the Ontario Science Centre, but smaller and dedicated to the Earth itself: its geology, geography, climate, and animal life. There was a 360° movie (planetarium-style) called We Are Astronomers which the boys enjoyed and was probably pretty interesting, but I was so baked that the comfy reclining chairs and dark room got to me before the movie did, and I slept through it all.
After the movie, we went out front where they had a zero-gravity training thing, which was basically a chair in a hoop which spun in one direction within another hoop which spun in a different direction. Nicky was dying to try it, but Ryan kept saying he wasn’t interested. Nicky went on and after seeing how much fun he had, Ryan decided to give it a try. The picture here shows how much he enjoyed it. Gail and I decided to pass.
After lunch, it was still raining, so we decided to stay downtown for the afternoon before heading back to the hotel to pack (again), so we went to the theatre and saw Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The boys loved it, and Gail and I thought it wasn’t bad either.
The evening was spent trying to figure out the best way to pack all the stuff we had accumulated into the suitcases we’d brought – luckily we always pack an empty duffel bag for just such occasions, so we checked four bags on the way to Scotland and five on the way back. While Gail did the packing (as she always does), I took the boys down to the hotel’s swimming pool, which was quite small – the whole pool would have easily fit in our hotel room. It was also rather cold, so the boys only swam for maybe half an hour before I took them and their blue lips back upstairs.
We checked out in the morning and drove to the airport, filling the gas tank along the way. Dropping off the car was easy, and we walked to the terminal. We were actually a little early for the flight to London, so we had to wait a little bit before we could check our bags (though once we did, they went right on through to Toronto – we didn’t have to get them and then check them again in London). The gate must have changed after our boarding passes were printed, so we only knew which gate to go to when we heard “This is the final boarding call for flight to London Heathrow. All passengers should now be boarding at gate 44K”, while we were sitting at 44C. We zipped down to 44K and made it, all the while checking the boarding passes which said quite clearly “gate 44C”. The flight to London was uneventful, though getting through Heathrow was a little silly. We got off the plane and into the terminal and immediately had to line up with most of the rest of the passengers who were connecting to other flights. One person checked everyone’s tickets individually before allowing us through (I believe the name on his security card was “Mr. Bottleneck”), and we then boarded one of a number of shuttles going to various other terminals, depending on which airline we were on. At this point, however, we were no longer in a “secure” area, meaning that we were in the general access area of the terminal, so I’m not sure what purpose Mr. Bottleneck served. After checking in at the Air Canada counter, we found that they had assigned us two seats in one row and two seats in the row behind, but not together – we had seats H and K, with seat J in the middle. Duh. Gail sat with Nicky in one row, and the person assigned seat J had no problem switching with Gail, and I sat with Ryan behind them and nobody sat next to me until shortly before take-off, when someone moved to accommodate some other passengers. He was also happy to switch with me. Ryan played his DS and watched Race to Witch Mountain, while I read and watched Watchmen, which I will have to rent and watch again sometime, since it really deserves a bigger screen than the 6-inch one on the plane.
On arrival in Toronto, we picked up our luggage and took the Park ‘n Fly bus over to pick up the van. Our first stop, as it always is, was the Tim Horton’s across the street from Park ‘n Fly. The flight landed at 5:30 and we were home by 7:30, which is pretty good considering it’s a 45 minute drive.
And thus ends my very long-winded account of our UK vacation. We had an amazing time, and I have also enjoyed reliving some of it while writing all of this. I have two more posts coming about this trip, both based on posts I made about our trip to France last year: By the numbers and Kudos and complaints.
The only casualty of the trip was Nicky’s Nintendo DS, which we have not seen since the flight to Toronto. Gail thinks that he must have put it in the back of the seat in front of him to watch a movie. Because the movie wasn’t over when the flight landed, he watched until the very last moment and then grabbed his bag and left. We called Air Canada and they gave me a reference number and a promise to call me if they find it, but I’m not holding my breath.