Why are you always going back to Britain?

Birling Gap

So it's time for my semi-annual blog travel update. I just got back from two weeks in England, with a little bit of Belgium thrown in, and thought perhaps I would attempt to answer this question.

Back in my 20s, I set myself a goal of going to London before I was 30. A few weeks now into 34, I've been there six times, so I've ticked that goal off perhaps a few more times than necessary, but I'm not about to stop.

There was something about London that had always appealed to me, long before I actually went there. I wasn't really that into royals (then, at least), and although I've always had a penchant for history and architectural twiddly bits (or, even better, historic architectural twiddly bits), I don't think that was actually the source of the appeal.

I'd heard stories, you see. I'd read Orwell and Dickens and Shakespeare, I'd listened to "Penny Lane" and "Dirty Epic," and yes, all right, I'd seen "Love Actually." Stories of London, and of the whole United Kingdom, had got into my head well before I went there. I had exceedingly high expectations.

Every expectation I had was met, and then some. That hasn't been the case for other places; I think back to the romantic black-and-white prints of Paris that used to adorn my walls, and how they came down after I actually went there. When given the chance to return to the UK not long after I'd been there the first time, I hesitated for about 15 seconds, and then threw in, and once again I wasn't disappointed. In fact I was hooked. The more stories I learned while I was away –  Austen, O'Brian, Doctor Who, you name it – the more I wanted to return and visit the settings of those stories.

By now I should be pretty well saturated even on those settings. And yet while I love cask ale and cream tea and a fine walk on a country morning with the birds chirping, what fully sunk in for me this time is that I love going there because the British are damn good storytellers. Granted, they've got rich material to work from – even just with those royals, you've got a mystical king who may or may not have existed, a guy with six wives, the daughter of one of those wives (one of the two who were beheaded) who ruled over a Golden Age, and that's just scratching the surface.

But everything can be a story, told well. This time around, I visited Dover Castle, and toured the wartime tunnels. When we descended into the hospital set of tunnels (there are three sets, two open to visitors), we stood there in a cool, dimly lit space while our guide told us we would be following the story of a Mosquito pilot who was shot down over the English Channel and brought down to the hospital with shrapnel in his leg. As we continued on through the tour, we alternated between walking through rooms where audio played – nurses and doctors discussing the status of the pilot – and our guide stopped us to explain the purposes of the room, and further advance the story.

It would have been so easy to just lead us around, and say, "here is the operating theatre, where they operated on the patients that came in." To instead be in that operating theatre, listening to the surgeon attempt to save the pilot's leg while bombs rained down overhead, cutting the power so that the lights dimmed – that was a far richer experience entirely. And there wasn't much in the way of special effects to cheese it up – just audio and dimming lights – it was the story, and our imaginations, that did the work.

You encounter things like this all over the country. It's the one place where I will willingly get and actually use an audioguide, because usually it will be good, if not excellent. It's a place where down in the local pub, you hear men spinning elaborate jokes that may take five minutes to arrive at a punchline. There's a reason why this little island has a ridiculously rich literary history. There's a reason why it produced the biggest band in the world, and they then spent an entire album pretending to be "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." There's a reason why we're all hooked on Downton Abbey.

I have no doubt that I will be making plans to go to the UK again next year. But for now, some thoughts on my admittedly packed itinerary, which mainly focused on the Southeast (East Sussex, Kent, and a little jaunt up to Norfolk), for anyone who's thinking about going as well.

HastingsThe Battle of Hastings did not actually happen here, but I made it my base for two nights, staying in a medieval-era B&B in the old town. When I got to the street my B&B was on, I thought it would be easy to find – just look for the medieval building, right? Wrong. There were actually several medieval buildings just on THAT STREET. Suffice to say, Old Town Hastings lives up to its name, with narrow streets and plenty of historic buildings and shops. It was a great base.

Rye: This was one of the Cinque Ports, until the sea receded, leaving the town high and dry and very nearly exactly as it was when it was the haunt of smugglers, except with more cute shops. In hindsight I wish I had left more time for here – I would very much recommend a full afternoon here, and it's a quick train ride from Hastings.

Eastbourne and Beachy Head: The dramatic cliffs at the beginning of this post are from Birling Gap, just beyond Beachy Head, which was a spectacular walk. Eastbourne itself is a somewhat typical Georgian seaside town; I took a hop-on, hop-off bus (not usually my thing) as a way to get up to the cliffs without climbing them myself, and then got off and hiked for awhile.

Battle: The site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings is actually in the town of Battle. It's a cute town, but the site itself and its evocative Battle Abbey ruins are the real reason to come here. This is another of those places that featured excellent storytelling – it's not a small thing to make an empty field come alive, mostly through an audioguide. Another short train ride away from Hastings that I highly recommend.

Brugge: The Eurostar makes it tantalizingly easy to get over to the continent from London these days, so after two nights in Hastings, I headed here with an "any Belgian station" Eurostar ticket. My two nights (with really an evening and one full day, plus another morning) here were sufficient, though. By late afternoon of my full day, I'd spent way too much on lace and chocolate, explored all the things I wanted to explore, admired the lovely old architecture and canals plenty, and was sitting down at a cafe for a delicious Belgian beer, so that amount of time was sufficient. Everyone here is ridiculously trilingual (Flemish, French, and English), and I found it to be a nice, condensed bit of Europe (canals, cafes, cathedrals, delicious food), but in a friendly and unintimidating way. I would go here again before France or Germany, but will note that at least from the train, I found the rest of Belgium to look rather a lot like Ohio.

King's Lynn: A book I read called this "one of the most historic towns in England." I am now no longer trusting anything in that book. It's not that King's Lynn didn't have historic buildings, such as the cool checkered Guildhall pictured above, but it didn't have nearly so many of them as other places I've been. It was probably only about the fifth most historic town on this particular trip. It did, however, serve as a nice base for the next two places.

Castle Rising: A bus from King's Lynn takes you both here and to Sandringham, below, and the two between themselves made a very nice day trip. This was the home of Queen Isabella, after she and her lover  Roger Mortimer acted to depose King Edward II (see what I mean about just scratching the surface of all the royal stories?). Her son Edward III let her live here after seizing power in a coup and taking his birthright. So, again, interesting stories, and told in a partially intact ruin. Some rooms are whole, while others are left to the elements.  

Sandringham: This is the royal family's country estate, which looks much more casual and lived-in than Buckingham Palace. I'm not sure that I'd go out of my way to see it over other royal sites, but if you are in Norfolk, it's worth a stop, as in addition to the house there's a nice museum, lovely grounds, and of course a cafe where you can get a cream tea.

Canterbury: I originally wanted to use Dover as a base for all of the places I wanted to visit in Kent, but I was not impressed by the hotel offerings there. Looking at my National Rail map, I realized Canterbury could be equally good from a trains standpoint, and that it had a lot more to offer in terms of places to stay (I chose another medieval building, this one an old coaching inn that pilgrims to the cathedral would have used, which was super creakily cool). I'm very glad I made this my base instead of Dover; in addition to all of the attractions it has to offer, it's quite historic, with its narrow alleys crowded in by medieval buildings. As well, there were several Shepherd Neame pubs, and that brewer's Spitfire rapidly became a favorite of mine on this trip.

Ramsgate: I had a string of coastal towns on my list to visit, some of which I think came from the same unfortunate book. Ramsgate is high on that suspect list. A very long walk from the train station down to a largely disappointing harbor. It has some merits – namely cafes around the harbor – but other towns have much more going for them. Thankfully, I hit here, Margate, and Broadstairs in one afternoon, so I only spent the hour between trains exploring here.

Margate: I've had Margate on my list for years as the home of the Turner Contemporary – I'm a huge fan of J.M.W. Turner. Unfortunately, they were preparing for a new exhibit and had very little on display while I was there, although it seems like much of what they're up to is actually pretty far from the gallery's namesake, so I'm not sure I would have liked it anyway, unless I caught a good exhibit. The town itself was an improvement over Ramsgate, although that's not saying much. It had a nice little historic section, although there was also a section with lots of gaming places and bouncy castles on the beach. 

Broadstairs: Now we're getting somewhere. Broadstairs was much more historic and had a charming view down to the beach, below, although as you can see they were setting up for some sort of Celebration of Loud Noise while I was there, which mostly consisted of playing Sting songs at wildly fluctuating volume. My first choice for restaurants was not serving food when I was hungry (my stomach, unfortunately, remains jet-lagged long after the rest of my body has adjusted), so I ended up eating pretty good fish and chips in the Charles Dickens pub, which was the town's assembly rooms in Dickens's time. 

Rochester: Speaking of Mr. Dickens, he looms large in this town. The historic section is nice and intact and charming, although it suffers from lots of shops named for Dickens-associated puns such as those in the picture. This was the site of several houses that inspired those in Dickens's works, including Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations. It also has an absolutely lovely cathedral, which I visited, and a castle, which I did not (I had to pace myself with castles on this trip).

Chatham: This is another place I've had on my list for years because of its historic dockyard (HMS Victory came to rest in Portsmouth, but she was born here). I was pretty disappointed by the offerings of the dockyard itself compared to the one in Portsmouth, and yet I had a tremendously fun time here. This is because they were doing a "Salute to the '40s" weekend. This is not a thing I knew that the British did, and I was delighted by it; essentially people dress up in '40s garb, and there are historic vehicles, military encampments, an operational Spitfire (the plane, not the ale), singers and dancers, and an hourly air raid siren. It's basically the 1944 equivalent of a Renaissance fair. I enjoyed it so much I didn't even mind the periodic jokes about the Americans being late. I mean, in a 1944 context, I suppose we were.

Dover: Of all the castles I've been to thus far, I would recommend Dover Castle as probably a tie for the top with Edinburgh Castle, even though I hiked up a tremendous hill to get here (a cab from the train station is advisable if you do not want to do that). It's got my top recommendation because it basically has all of the things a castle complex could possibly have, all together: Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, medieval castle (with restored rooms, including a working fireplace), medieval and Georgian tunnels, and those World War II tunnels (the Dunkirk evacuation was planned here). So you pretty much get the full span of British history all in one compact spot. Oh, and the view is spectacular. It was clear enough to see France when I was up there. The rest of Dover, though, was bombed heavily during the war and replaced with cruddy '50s and '60s architecture, with only an okay seafront to try to salvage it. I am very glad I didn't make it my base, as much as I enjoyed the castle.

Chilham: I watch a lot of Jane Austen adaptations. By a lot, I mean pretty much all of them. I found this place because it was where the BBC's adaptation of "Emma" was filmed (I do this now – if I see somewhere neat in a movie or TV show, I track it down and add it to my list of places I might want to visit). It is an eight minute train ride from Canterbury and seriously one of the cutest villages I have ever seen, right up there with Castle Coombe and Rye. I also had the best meal of my trip here at the Woolpack Inn (mussels even better than those I had in Belgium, and slow-cooked pork belly), another Shepherd Neame pub; these pubs, thankfully, seem to have full independence over their menus, and yet they all stock the same delicious beer, which is a real win in my book. I highly recommend working this in to anyone including Canterbury in their itinerary – it's got much better proximity to the train than the Cotswolds. Come out as I did in the early evening, when the sun is starting to set on the lovely old buildings, have a walk around, and then a delicious dinner.

Sandwich: This was a means to an end, as the closest train station to Richborough, below. I was not expecting to like it so much, although I did consider eating a sandwich here, just so I could say I did. It turned out to be quite historic and cute, though. I wouldn't seek it out as a destination, but it did surprise me.

Richborough: I came here for the Roman Fort, which is one of the larger Roman sites in Britain. It's a two-mile walk from the Sandwich train station, and there are worse ways to spend a hazy morning than walking along a little country road sided with wild blueberry and blackberry bushes. Was it worth the walk? Probably only if you are really into the Romans. Of all the Roman-related sites in Britain I've visited, Bath is still the most extensive and intact, and in the same town as so many other lovely things.

Deal: It's not Lyme Regis, but it was easily the prettiest seaside town I visited on this trip. I came here after the Roman fort four-mile round-trip walk, and was very pleasantly surprised by it, and suddenly felt very compelled to sit by the seaside and drink ale and eat fish and chips. When one is seized by such a compulsion, it's best just to go with it, so I did, and it was indeed quite enjoyable (yes, that's a Shepherd Neame pub there). Afterwards I had a little walk around Deal Castle, which was built by Henry VIII. After Dover Castle, I probably could have skipped this one, but I had purchased an English Heritage Overseas Visitor pass, so I was cool with a quick little walk around, since I wasn't paying separately for it. I don't usually go for the passes, but this one was actually fantastic, and probably paid for itself two if not three times over on this trip.

Whitstable: This was the closest to a working fishing town I visited while I was there, so I had high expectations for the seafood that were not quite met. The Whitstable Bay oysters are impressive, but they were actually so large they were some of the first oysters I've ever had to send all the way down the hatch without any chewing (although, side note, despite consuming tons of seafood on this trip, it was almost invariably crazy fresh, so I had zero food poisoning, yay). I did have a half-pint of Spitfire in a friendly little pub, though, so I will say the people there are nice.

London: London is London, and I've covered it pretty extensively in previous posts in other years. I will note the two major new things I had on my itinerary this time, though. I went horseback riding in Hyde Park (and en route to the stables passed this highly moving "Animals in War" memorial), It was very fun, although as someone who rode for 10 years, my legs hurt for days after an hour of trying to ride the way I used to. I also attended the world premiere of the Blitz Requiem at St. Paul's Cathedral; the Requiem itself was moving, but the most beautiful segment was Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," preceded by "How Shall I Sing That Majesty," which was set to the original Tallis hymn. Independent of location, it was stunningly beautiful; in that cathedral with its epic reverberation, it was something I'll never forget, to hear how the music swelled to fill the space. I also had a chance to meet up with some friends while there, and to check out the Twinings shop, which somehow I've never been to (but now I certainly will be going back!).


My scone recipe

I made scones the other day to bring into work, and had another request from a co-worker to share my scone recipe. Since I have it typed up nicely now, I thought I would share. This is adapted from Old Fashioned English Lavender Tea Scones and the result of many rounds of experimentation.

Carrie's Scone Recipe
Makes 16-18 scones

3 1/3 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons butter (I use salted Irish Kerrygold)
2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 1/3 cups milk*
1 egg, beaten with a little milk
1 teaspoon vanilla (for sweet scones only)
Additional ingredients to mix in (e.g. blueberries, cranberries and orange zest; chocolate chips and walnuts; cheddar cheese and Old Bay; cheddar jack cheese and green chiles)

1. Cut up the butter into cubes and place it in the freezer.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 450 F.

3. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together.

4. Stir in the sugar.

5. Remove the butter from the freezer and rub it into the mixture, breaking it up with your fingers until it resembles coarse crumbs. Be careful not to overwork the butter.

6. Make a well in the flour, pour in the milk (and vanilla, if using) and mix to a soft doughy texture. Add a little milk or flour if the mixture is too dry or too moist, and again be careful not to overwork the dough, particularly if you are mixing in other ingredients.

7. Mix in any additional ingredients. Continue loading in the ingredients until the dough is as full as possible.

8. Roll out dough on a floured surface and use a round cutter to cut out the scones, placing them on parchment paper on a baking tray.

9. Brush the scones with the egg and milk mixture so that they are covered.

10. Bake in the oven for 7-10 minutes until they rise and are slightly browned, then let them cool for 5-10 minutes on the tray, place them on a cooling rack.

*Cream whey (the leftover liquid from making clotted cream) can be substituted for the milk. Use 1 1/2 cups if doing this.


My itinerary kicked ass, you guys

So in the way that I usually do things with this blog, after extensive neglect I am going to post again because I just got back from a big trip. This time, it was 19 days, and I traveled to Germany, where the usual crew and I shared a house, and also — and I'm sure this will come as a shock if you read this blog at all — England.

Okay, yeah, not so much a shock. But I realized something after last year's Paris visit, and it's that I really, really tend to prefer traveling in Great Britain to anywhere else I've been so far. There's so much I love about it — the history, the literature, the scenery, the architectural eye candy, and, not least of all, the cask ale. And while I enjoy traveling to new places, until such time as a new place steals my heart more, I came to realize it needs to share a hefty portion of my itineraries, especially as there are so many places in England, Wales, and Scotland that I want to visit.

So this year I decided I'd devote a large number of days to England, and, moreover, I would stop hopping around, willy-nilly, from place to place that caught my attention, and instead assume that I will be coming back, many times in the future. As a result, I focused my time outside of London in the southwest coast, in lovely Hampshire and even lovelier Dorset.

Everyone has been asking me since I've been back what my favorite part of the trip is. Impossible! I can barely choose a favorite thing from each place I went to, and I went to quite a few places. So I'm just going to share my whole itinerary (because it really did kick ass), and highlights from each place.

3 nights: London

After I decided to have a hefty-dose-of-England itinerary, it was logical to fly into London. And since my friend Matt hadn't been there yet, but had been wanting to go, I invited him to join in. We took a redeye out Wednesday night, landed Thursday morning, and commenced the jet lag death march. I introduced Matt to cask ale, and also learned that after two pints, I don't really mind being on the London Eye, even though I'm quite afraid of heights.

September turned out to be a good time to visit, as things that aren't normally accessible were open for visitors. We took the opportunity to tour Buckingham Palace (I, sarcastically, said there wasn't enough gold leaf, and after that there was even MORE gold leaf in each room we viewed). We also managed to fit in the Cabinet War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, the Tate Modern, a whole lot of shopping, and quite a few more pints.

Palace of Westminster, from the London Eye. Full London set.

1 night: City Night Line sleeper train

I am not a fan of flying, and if there is a reasonable train option, am usually going to go for that. Particularly in Europe, where a sleeper train saves a night of hotel cost and gets you there while you sleep. So as soon as I found out there was a Paris-Munich sleeper train, I knew it was the option I was probably going to go for. That meant a trip through the Chunnel on the Eurostar, and a brief layover in Paris. 

The sleeper itself wasn't the greatest night's sleep I've ever had — it seemed like it was either hauling ass or stopped the entire night. But it was a good length of time, at 11 hours, to be on a sleeper, and I arrived in Munich reasonably well-rested. Matt had stayed over in Paris to visit a friend there, so I was a little nervous about making my way in a new city (with a new language), by myself, but I needn't have worried. I felt very comfortable traveling around Munich, although the city was clearly packed for Oktoberfest.

Paris Gare de l'Est. A little sleeper/Paris set.

1 night: Munich

When I had a brief outline of my itinerary set, back in February, I decided to book a cancellable hotel room for this night, just to ensure I had something. I'm glad I did, as many hotels were sold out, and the one I chose started to enforce a two-night minimum stay closer to fall. It was close to the train station, so I dropped my bag off and then went back to the train station to go to Dachau.

Going to Dachau was one of those things that I knew wouldn't be an enjoyable experience, but it was something I felt like I both wanted and needed to do while I was in Munich. There were points while I was there when I felt physically nauseous, and it gave me an uneasy perspective on the startling lack of diversity in Munich and Bavaria (particularly noticeable after coming from London). But still, I'm glad I went.

Dachau took up the entire morning, and after taking the S-Bahn back into the city, I had no desire to go to any other museums. So I spent the afternoon walking around, exploring the city and taking pictures. I even managed to time it so that I was at the Marienplatz when the glockenspiel went through its paces.

Dachau. Full Dachau set.

Marienplatz in Munich. Full Munich set.

4 nights: Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Ace house finder Meghan was extremely wise this time to find us a place outside of Munich to stay. Yeah, we wanted to do the whole Oktoberfest experience, but the city was not only crowded, but crowded with generally drunk people. So she found a place in this Bavarian town where we could take the train in to the city for our beer tent reservation, but otherwise enjoy peace and quiet at the base of the alps.

Oktoberfest was every bit as much beer-filled fun as you'd expect it to be, and operated on a much larger scale than I'd realized. The beer tent we were in (the Hofbrau tent), was just one of twenty-some tents that held thousands each. And beyond the tents, there were food stands, carnival rides, you name it. And thanks to the Germans' beer purity law, I was not hungover the next day, despite measuring beer consumption in liters.

Aside from the day we spent went to Munich for Oktoberfest, we spent the rest of our time in the town, which truly was this perfect little picture postcard Bavarian town. We hiked the beautiful Partnach Gorge on one day, and took a train and then cable car to the top of the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany. The latter perhaps wasn't the best idea for someone who needed two pints just to go on the London Eye, but for some reason I thought I would be alright. I wasn't. The area at the top of the mountain was much more perched on the top of the mountain than I'd expected. I went nowhere near the edge.

Yeah, that's me, standing on a table. Full Oktoberfest set.

With the lovely and windblown Meghan and Kristen on the top of the Zugspitze. Full Garmisch set.

No shortage of mountains and twee Bavarian buildings. Full Garmisch set.

1 night: City Night Line sleeper train

Although we had the house in Garmisch for five nights, I began to realize that if I took day trains back to England, I'd basically spend an entire day on trains. So I left the evening of the last night and repeated the sleeper-Eurostar trip. I thought there were going to be some issues with this leg, as the sleeper left Munich two hours late due to a brake problem in one of the cars, and I had less than two hours to make my transfer and get checked in for the Eurostar. You have to go through security and passport control before boarding the Eurostar, so I was seriously concerned that I was going to miss my scheduled Eurostar and have to buy a very expensive day-of ticket for a later train.

But as it turned out, the train made up all the lost time. And I actually slept better on this leg, despite my worry over the delay. The sleeper must really slow things down in order to give you enough time to settle in and sleep, and nicely enough this gave them a cushion.

Oh, and by the way, Munich train station on a Friday night: total shit show. Drunk people running to catch their trains, even drunker people in lederhosen propped up by their buddies (one of said buddies still drinking a beer with his free arm), ambulances driving through the station, and most disturbingly, a young child with an inflatable beer balloon. It was some serious people-watching.

3 nights: Portsmouth

Conventional wisdom holds that when traveling in southern England, you should base in London and take day trips. And London is very much a giant hub in the British rail system. But there are some drawbacks to basing in London — it's very expensive, and, while I love London, there's a charm to getting out of it and spending time in cities and towns of more manageable size. Not to mention English breakfasts, as a general rule, get better as you get closer to the actual livestock. I'd already traveled to Portsmouth three times, and I was quite comfortable with the city, so I decided to try it as a base for day trips this time around. This was in no small part influenced by the George Hotel, a lovely little historic pub and inn just around the block from the Portsmouth Harbour train station, where I paid about half of what I would have for a room in London. And for that I got not only a delicious breakfast every morning, but also a room that pushed pretty much all the Carrie buttons — exposed beams, disused fireplace, quilt on the bed, and a settee.

I arrived with just enough time to poke around the Historic Dockyard a bit, and have dinner in the George's pub. The next day was a Sunday, which is key, since the Watercress Line only ran on weekends during the time I was there. I knew that I wanted to visit Jane Austen's house, which was not too far away in the village of Chawton, but with Portsmouth as a base I needed to get a little more creative about how to get there. Trains run from London to Alton, which is a walkable distance to Chawton, but the line stops there. Which meant that to take a regular train to Alton from Portsmouth, I'd have to go nearly all the way back to London, and then work my way back. That seemed ridiculous, and eventually, I found an alternative — the Watercress Line.

The Watercress Line is one of an amazing number of historic rail lines in Britain which is kept open by enthusiasts. It runs from Alresford to Alton, and when I say historic, I mean it uses steam locomotives and vintage rail cars. If I took a regular train to Winchester, just a short trip from Portsmouth, it would then be a quick cab ride to get to Alresford, and from there to Alton. I could (and did) hoof it from there to Chawton. Which is the story of how a steam train became an actual legitimate leg of transportation on my trip. And while I greatly enjoyed touring Jane Austen's house, I got a real kick out of riding the steam train. My only disappointment was that because this day fell on a Sunday, I wasn't able to tour Winchester Cathedral, which had shortened visitor hours.

My second day trip was to Southampton, then on to Poole, and back to Portsmouth in the evening. At one point I'd considered staying in Southampton instead, and I'm very glad I didn't. The city has a number of  remaining medieval buildings and walls remaining, which made for a good morning walk. And its Tudor House Museum was interesting, but its maritime "SeaCity" museum was a bit of a letdown — almost entirely Titanic-focused and very small. Poole, meanwhile, was a pleasant surprise. I went there mostly because it has a Lush Spa, and I had a "Good Hour" massage scheduled. But it has a beautiful historic area, leading right up to the water. If I were to make a list of the 10 best places I've ever had a pint (and you know, I just might, one of these days), the medieval banqueting hall of Poole's King Charles pub would most certainly make the list.

Of course, all of these day trips I made from Portsmouth shouldn't shortchange Portsmouth itself. I still had time for a serving of the best fish and chips on the planet at the Ship Anson, and a few pints at other historic pubs. And, of course, a walk through HMS Victory. I mean, how could I not, when I'm in the neighborhood?
HMS Warrior, at night. Full Portsmouth set.

Traveling all old fashioned on the steam train. Full Winchester-Chawton set.

 Jane Austen's writing table. Full Winchester-Chawton set

Tudor House in Southampton. Full Southampton set.

The Lush Spa in Poole. Full Poole set.

2 nights: Lyme Regis

The second Jane Austen-influenced portion of my trip was to actually spent two nights in Lyme Regis, which features prominently in my favorite Austen book, Persuasion. Even if I had never read a word of that book, though, I think I would have loved Lyme Regis of its own merit. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.Granted, my aesthetic for natural beauty tends more towards English countryside anyway, but when you combine the rolling green hills and hedgerows of the English countryside with dramatic cliffs, a historic sunlit hillside town, and, of course, the ocean, well, you've pretty much ordered up a place guaranteed to be loved by Carrie.

As soon as I arrived (via train from Portsmouth to Axminster, with a transfer in Salisbury, and then a bus from Axminster to Lyme), I checked in to my hotel, the Royal Lion, a 17th century coaching inn, and then made the short walk to the seaside. And immediately said: "Why don't I live here?" That's right, people of Lyme Regis. I hate all of you, simply for getting to live in such a lovely place every day.

I was left to make the most out of my short time there by walking everywhere I possibly could to explore, from the famous Cobb to the cliff-side wilderness to the faded pub well up the hill with a view of it all. And I also managed to fit in some shopping, and a visit to the city's cute little museum. Jane Austen, you can serve as my travel agent anytime.

Sunlight on the Cobb. Full Lyme Regis set.

1 night: Sherborne

At one point, I'd thought about trying to cram Cornwall into my itinerary as well, but as other things sucked up more days, it became clear that would just shortchange everything. Still, after Lyme Regis I thought I'd like one more night somewhere, if just to ensure that I didn't have to deal with the bus (which ended up not being an issue at all) or a taxi, then the train all the way back to London. Somehow, Sherborne ended up on my radar, and it was nearly a perfect solution. It was about a half hour train ride from Axminster, on the line back to London, and a lovely little compact day of sightseeing.

Sherborne has four key things for the traveler. The first is just the city itself, with a large number of medieval buildings still intact, particularly around Sherborne Abbey. My Georgian-era hotel seemed like a new kid on the block by comparison. The Abbey, of course, is the second thing to see. It's relatively small, and I've seen a lot of cathedrals, abbeys and other churches in my travels, but as soon as I stepped inside I was completely wowed. It's beautiful, with such intricate fan vaulting on the ceiling that it makes Bath Abbey seem simple by comparison. The third and fourth items are Sherborne Castle, built on to a former hunting lodge of Sir Walter Raleigh's, and Sherborne Old Castle, ruins of the former castle, which was torn down during the civil war. All in all, it was a lovely little stop, except for dinner, which I'll blog about later (there certainly deserves to be a food post from this trip).

Sherborne Abbey fan vaulting: WOW. Full Sherborne set.

Sherborne Old Castle, and a little of the lovely Dorset countryside. Full Sherborne set.

2 nights: London

I got back in to London with about a day and a half of real sightseeing time left on my trip. Taking even more advantage of the trip timing, I did a tour of Westminster Palace (perhaps more commonly thought of as the Houses of Parliament), which I believe does tours only on Saturdays the rest of the year. In Buckingham Palace, I joked that there wasn't enough gold leaf. Well, apparently, they saved it all for this place. The only place I've seen that's more ornate is Versailles, but this Gothic-as-reimagined-by-Victorians may well have Versailles beat in the line of twiddly bits. The best part, though, was when a little kid from another tour group made a break for it and sat down in the queen's throne. The policeman was not amused.

I managed to fit in evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral — lovely as ever — before seeing Richard III at the Globe on my second-to-last night. Now that I've been, I don't think I'll ever skip an opportunity to see a play at the Globe, and this one, a fully traditional performance (read: men dressed as women), was very well-acted and so entertaining. Which is all the more impressive considering it was pouring down rain for much of it. I was glad I had a seat, which kept me protected under the thatch roof, and really felt for the groundlings out there in their ponchos.

My last full day, I had a Validation facial at the Lush Spa, which meant I was super-relaxed and had brilliant skin while I spent the rest of the day in Greenwich, catching some things I hadn't seen my last time there. The Cutty Sark has been undergoing restoration on top of restoration (it was damaged by fire during the restoration work), and was finally open during a visit of mine. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by it — it's essentially a museum stuck inside of a ship, rather than an attempt to actually recreate what it was like in the ship. HMS Victory is a much better experience, in my opinion. I also visited the Queen's House, Royal Observatory, and Museum of London Docklands.

The cavernous Westminster Hall, one of the oldest parts of the palace. Full London set.

And that's the whole of it. I wasn't gone much longer than my usual Europe trips, but those extra couple days, combined with the fact that this was the longest amount of continuous time I've spent traveling in England, apparently made a difference. Like when I asked for ketchup ("tomato sauce"), or my bus ticket back to Axminster, and was amazed at how, well, British it came out of my mouth. Or when I got home and went to pay for lunch, and thought, "this money is so SMALL!" That's the price you pay for a kick-ass itinerary, I guess.


Three five-mile tests

Left to right: Merrell Barefoot Contour Glove,
Merrell Luxe Mid, Merrell Tetra Strap Waterproof

So I've had time to do some walking, but haven't managed to post about it, and I'm behind on five-mile tests.

First up, in order of the photo if nothing else, was the Merrell Barefoot Contour Glove. I got these for hiking, because I wanted to see how it went with a minimalist shoe, and these, which have a waterproof leather upper, looked like the best fit for that. I walked in Rock Creek Park two days in a row in some pretty serious mud, and they had fantastic grip. Even better, with literally no break in and only a pair of silk liner socks from REI, they went about 12 miles (new personal record!) the first day and 8 the second with only the slightest hot spot on one ankle that went away when I readjusted the laces. They are pretty waterproof for barefoot shoes, but I didn't expect them to be fully waterproof since they don't go up to the ankles. A little moisture did seep in from the top, but not much given how muddy it was. So, basically, these shoes are so fantastic, they laugh at 5 miles.

Second in the photo is the Merrell Luxe Mid. These are apparently approved by the American Podiatric Medical Association, which made me suspicious, but I bought them anyway, because they were cute, and Merrell doesn't make a huge amount of cute shoes. They even have a little bit of a heel, and after a year and a half of not wearing heels at all, it feels pretty strange (but nice) to be just that bit taller. I walked five miles in them in one of my loops around the Jefferson Memorial, and they were okay, but my feet were feeling it by the end. These don't have Q Form, and they would have been much better with it. That's what you get for listening to podiatrists, Merrell, instead of sticking with what you know — I like wearing these to work, but they're not as good for travel as I would have hoped.

Last in the photo and one of my favorite pairs of shoes of all time, are the Merrell Tetra Strap Waterproof boots. I bought these in both tan and black at the end of last winter on clearance, and I am so glad I did. Because I can't wear a lot of shoes that are in style, it feels so nice to put on these equestrian boots and, instead of envying others' footwear, actually get a lot of compliments on my own boots. I would love them just for that, but they also happen to be waterproof, so they are perfect for rainy weather. And they're quite waterproof — once I realized I was walking in a puddle that went up to my shins, only because I was splashing my thighs as I walked and then looked down. I wear these a ton, but hadn't put them through the paces of a true five-mile test, and still haven't taken them through a RunKeeper-tracked one. But I did wear them on a rainy weekend in New York City where we tromped all over the place, and I feel reasonably sure that they did at least five miles in a day, and although I had some foot fatigue, overall they did quite well. So I'm including them. I heart these boots.


Tips for Amtrak travel

A Northeast Regional train car.

My parents recently took their first trip by train, using Amtrak to get to a Canada/New England cruise that departed from Montreal and ended in Boston. And helping them prepare got me thinking about what I've learned over the years in taking the train.

So here are 10 tips for enjoying Amtrak travel. These apply to short- and middle-distance trips (I ride the Northeast Regional frequently, and have also ridden the Acela, Carolinean, and Downeaster). I haven't done any of the long-distance routes like the Empire Builder or City of New Orleans, although I'd like to someday.

1. If it's called a "Snack Car," don't expect gourmet meals

It's "snack" for a reason. If you want a bag of chips or a cookie, a glass of wine or a beer, you are in great shape in a snack car. Do NOT think that you are going to get a gourmet meal here, although it will be better than what you'd get on an airline. My preference is to purchase my meals at the train station beforehand, or pack a lunch/dinner, and bring it with me. For me personally, I have a hard time leaving from Union Station in DC without a Corner Bakery Chop Salad. Yum.

2. Yes, it is slower than the ideal plane time, and yes, there are delays.

Note, IDEAL plane time. That is assuming your flight isn't delayed, and you don't have some sort of ridiculous connection to make, which you then miss because your flight was delayed. This year, I've flown six times and had a delay of more than an hour three of those six times. So when you compare your Amtrak train against a plane, be sure to factor in potential delays there, as well as the time it takes to get to the airport and get through security, so you can sit there waiting for your delayed flight.

I've only twice EVER had delays on lines Amtrak owns (Northeast Regional/Acela), and the one I knew the cause of was an equipment issue. I travel on Amtrak more frequently than I fly, so that's a pretty good track record. On tracks Amtrak doesn't own (such as the Carolinian's route), you do see more frequent delays due to yielding for freight trains. But you don't have to sleep overnight in an airport for one of those.

And yes, on any train, anywhere in the world, if someone jumps on to the tracks, you are screwed, because there will be police, and they will take their time to do what they need to do. This is the one thing that can bring any route, no matter how usually on-time, to a halt. So if that's what happened, you need to be looking into alternatives immediately. Fortunately, incidents like this are few and far between.

3. Chemical toilets get gross after a certain amount of time.

On a lengthy train ride, don't expect to use the toilet in the 10th hour of your ride and have it smell like a rose. Obviously, this is different on long-distance routes where they have points to refresh the toilets. But on routes like the Carolinian, it seems there is a certain point where they stop servicing the toilets, and aside from you not being able to use them, things can get a bit smelly.

Lessons here — don't take a seat near the toilets, and don't chug water near the end of your train ride. Two or three hours toward the end of your trip, hit the restroom whether you need to or not. The good news on Amtrak is that if the restroom in your car fills up, you can walk down the train and probably find another that's not full yet.

4. Yes, you're on a train for a long time. Deal with it, accept it, and then embrace it.

Do you want to compare this to being on a plane? Because really, let's. So after opting out of a body scan because you don't want cancer 5 years from now, necessitating a pat-down, you and your quart bag and your carry-on bag are waiting for your delayed flight. Eventually, they start boarding the flight, but because all the people in line in front of you have brought their ginormous carry ons due to the checked baggage fees, the overhead bins fill up and they need to start gate-checking bags. This takes extra time as there are people in the middle of the plane with their giant carry-ons who need to work their way upstream to get them gate-checked. So your flight is ready to leave 20 minutes later than it could have been, when the airport you're flying to issues another ground-stop due to weather, and you sit there on the tarmac, buckled in to your tiny seat and unable to move, until you're finally able to take off. Then once your ears stop popping, you can move around and use approved electronic devices until it's time to land. That is, assuming that the weather issues that caused the ground-stop have cleared up -- otherwise, you're sitting on the tarmac somewhere else. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there's another seat half an inch in front of your knees.

To sum up, the train is the tortoise, and the plane is the hare. While the plane is filled with drama and delay, passengers on the tortoise are siting in their nice big seats and stretching out their legs, walking up and down the train with no thought to a seat belt light, stopping in to the cafe car for a drink if they're so inclined, and using the restroom whenever they want to. Yeah, they might be delayed, but they're delayed in a not-altogether unpleasant place to be (as long as per #1 they brought sufficient food). So whatever it is in this world you need to keep yourself occupied and happy over the course of a long train trip, whether it's a Kindle, regular old book, iPod, or something else (aside from the scenery, which may distract you from whatever you bring, anyway), bring it. If it's a book, try to bring something special -- something you know you won't want to put down. I did a day trip to New York on Amtrak once and brought Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played With Fire," which I ravenously finished that day.

5. Remember the Quiet Car. Love the Quiet Car.

The Quiet Car is the best thing about both the Northeast Regional and the Acela. Basically, it's a car in which you cannot have cell phone conversations, and must talk in a whisper. It's meant to be a library-style environment. I'm not going to lie -- once I was on the Acela where a really drunk guy was on the quiet car next to me and kept making cell phone calls, despite all of the other passengers' attempts to police him. (Some sociologist is definitely missing out in not doing a study on the dynamics of quiet car passenger policing.) Generally, though, this is an uber-quiet bastion of the train where you can work, read, or sleep with no interruptions.

6. Don't stay in your seat.

Yes, in even coach it is the size of a business-class plane seat, and yes, you have business-class leg room, and you should enjoy these things. But also enjoy the fact that unlike a plane OR a car, you can get up out of your seat and walk around anytime you want. Take advantage of this. Walk the length of the train if you're feeling restless.

7. Train naps are the best naps.

There is something about the motion of a train that has lulled me to sleep on countless trains, both here and in Europe. If you're feeling sleepy, go with it. And if you've chosen to follow the quiet car advice, you might be asleep for quite awhile. Don't worry about missing your stop, though, because the conductors put a piece of paper on the luggage rack near your seat noting where you're supposed to get off, so they'll warn/wake you if they need to. You can also set the alarm on your cell phone for extra security.

8. The piece of paper is a bit mysterious, so take precautions.

That piece of paper that the conductors put on luggage rack near your seat...I've heard that you are supposed to take it with you (leaving yourself open to having your seat taken if you choose to sit in the cafe car for awhile), but it'a all a bit mysterious. I personally usually leave the paper, together with some sort of cue that my seat is taken (a book, sweater, or Corner Bakery salad on the seat will do the trick). But then I'm sure to carry my ticket stub for the train on me, so that if a conductor stops me, I can show that I'm supposed to be on the train and I've already had my ticket looked at.

9. Travel light, and be ready for stairs, but don't worry about exact dimensions.

When you travel via train and public transit, you do want to make sure that you're using light baggage (in wheeled baggage, the latest Skyway carry-on is my favorite when airline rules aren't a factor). Amtrak has extremely liberal guidelines for carry-on luggage, but what you don't want to do is be like the French girl on one Regional I took, who had a giant (29"+), heavy roll-aboard, and when our Regional departed from a platform where you needed to walk up a few steps with your luggage, was screwed to the point where another man had to carry her luggage up the steps for her.

So on Amtrak, no one is going to make you put your bag in a sizer. But on many routes without checked baggage, you will be responsible for all of your luggage. So learn light packing techniques. Everyone should actually be able to live out of a carry-on-sized bag for an indefinite amount of time with a little learning and advance preparation. As for stairs, in addition to any legitimate stairs you think you will encounter, plan on at least one escalator being broken during your trip. On Amtrak, you can carry a tremendous amount of baggage without having to check it, so make sure you're ready for the amount of baggage you bring.

10. Remember that the snack/cafe car has seats.

A couple things might happen. You might have chosen to sit in the quiet car, but since had a call that you need to follow up on. Or you might be seated in an area with rambunctious people or kids (usually it's the kids...I'm just sayin'). Or you might just have gotten on the train with timing that made it impossible for you to sit together with the rest of your party. Regardless of what your driver is for not being happy with your present seats, remember that you might have other options. Check out the Cafe (Acela) or Snack (other short/middle-distance routes) Car, which has seats in addition to a booth for food sales, to see if there might be a better spot for you to sit, at least in the interim. And if you have a glass of wine while relaxing and enjoying the scenery, well, more's the better.

And a bonus tip for those leaving from or going through New York...

11. Penn Station is a hole.

Blame this one on New York, not Amtrak, will you? New York had a beautiful Penn Station which trains came in to, but it chose to castrate it for the space Madison Square Garden is in now. This is exceedingly unfortunate. I feel sorry for people who start their Amtrak trips here instead of somewhere like DC's lovely, organized Beaux Arts Union Station. But they're still probably better off than they would be if they had chosen to fly or take the bus, so don't feel TOO sorry for them.

So in Penn Station, do still follow my earlier tips and make sure you have a decent lunch from here or nearby before you board your train. Just don't expect it to be as lovely as boarding a standard Amtrak train in a decent station. And keep in mind that there is an Amtrak waiting area, although it's a bit hidden. So grab your food and hang out here until a track is posted for your train.


5 mile test: Merrell Heather and Sundial dress

Merrell Heathers and a bit of my Sundial dress.

In my last trip to Europe, I took a Patagonia convertible skirt/dress that did pretty well, with one glaring issue — it was cotton, therefore easily wrinkled, and if I'd have washed it, it would have taken ages to dry.

I spend a fair amount of time on Merrell.com, and while I was there, I ran across the Sundial dress, which I liked the looks of, as well as its 90% polyester/10% spandex fabric blend. So I ordered one, tried it on, and loved it. It's got a flattering empire waist, and is super-comfortable. I've worn it to business meetings, and driving (and pushing my car due to an unfortunate battery incident) on the Pennsylvania turnpike. It always comes out of my suitcase without and wrinkles and feels exceptionally comfortable and nicely fitting when I wear it.

So it didn't really need to go on a 5-mile test — it's pretty much already proven its capabilities. But I wanted to go on an after-work walk, and it was something I could wear to work and then go out and sweat in during DC's hot, humid summer, without worrying about it.

I wore it with Merrell's Heather sandals, which are my sandals of choice for something to kick on and wear around my condo, or even to the pool. They have excellent arch support, and a microfiber footbed, but no ability to adjust the fit, so I was curious whether they'd have the same rubbing issues that I ran into with the Merrell Bassoons.

So I set out on my favorite loop around the Jefferson Memorial, down the National Mall to Union Station, just over 5 miles total. Overall the Heathers did pretty well, until about the last mile or so, when they started to rub in a few places on the top of my foot. Things were a little irritated by the time I got to Union Station, but with no permanent blistering.

The Sundial dress, meanwhile, provided plenty of ventilation during the walk. In addition to the natural ventilation of a dress or skirt, this particular dress has the ability to ruche a portion of the back to create open ventilation between your shoulder blades (check the link to Merrell's site for a photo of this), and it was hot enough that I actually made use of this feature during my walk. This dress is going to have a hard time staying out of my suitcase on future trips.


In which I try video suitcase reviews

So I've been wanting to talk about suitcases for awhile, because, well, I'm mildly obsessed with them. But the more I started to think about the format for a review, the more I thought that pictures just weren't going to do it justice.

And so here we have the first (and probably last) ever video review I've done:

Details on the two newer suitcases:

International Traveler IT-0-1 is listed as a 3.7 lb weight for the 16-inch bag (which is actually 17 inches in length). I got it for just over $65 including shipping on clearance.

Skway Ultralite is listed as a 21 inch bag (in reality 23 inches in total length), and 5.2 lbs. I got mine for $40 but got an amazing deal on it. You're more likely to find it for around $70-$75.

You can still find the older Skyway No Weight online (it also sells under the Union Bay label) in a few corners of the Internet, but I can't say I'd recommend it unless you really like everything I described about it and can stomach the extra three pounds, or it's critical for you to be for-sure under 22 inches. That's not usually the case for me, and yet I can't bring myself to get rid of it, because that bag really served me well in Europe.

I tested the weights on all of them with an analog luggage scale and they're pretty close to what was listed.