So many bucket list items were crossed off for me as we spent two and a half weeks in the UK and Iceland. Far too much for me to tell all, but I love to write about the travels we take (Greece, Paris, Road Trip just to point to a few). Instead of taking it chronologically, let me take it by themes.
Places of Worship
In many ways our journey, which we took with two amazing friends, was a pilgrimage. The very first night we attended Evensong at Westminster Abbey. It was transcendent. Sitting right next to the choir and participating in the readings and prayers in this beautiful house of worship with pilgrims from all over the world was more meaningful than words could indicate. That was just the beginning. We walked all through St. Paul’s Cathedral (not to be confused with St. Paul’s Church), visited the Canterbury Cathedral, The Lincoln Cathedral, attended worship on Sunday at St. Gregory’s church in Bedale (an amazing 1000+ year old stone sanctuary), toured Rosslyn Chapel (of DaVinci Code fame, and I can tell you there are no secret chambers in the crypt, but there are several curious loose stones in the floor . . .), walked through the Frikirkjan, a unique towering Lutheran church in Reykjavik, and peeped inside the tiny ceremonial church in Thingvellir, which is where a church has been for over 1000 years when the Vikings converted.
It is impossible to indicate which of these was most meaningful, for they all had something special. But if I were to go to any of them again, it would be St. Paul’s and Canterbury. St. Paul is perhaps the single most beautiful and intriguing building I’ve ever been in (and it is the model for the US Capitol). Canterbury is not beautiful, but there is a rugged testimony in the stone and blood of that place which is a testimony to the enduring power of the Christian gospel.
Outdoor Adventure (AKA Places to maybe get killed)
We were not exactly safe on our trip, and we intended to be decidedly less safe, but the volcano we wanted to see was no longer erupting, so we didn’t hike the three miles in to see it. But we did do lots of outdoorish things. We rented a car in England and got out of the city, which was adventure alone. I am glad our friend drove, because there is no way I could 1) drive on the wrong side of the road 2) drive on the wrong side while navigating unending roundabouts inside of roundabouts and 3) figure out exactly where British arrows are pointing. Seriously, never trust an arrow in England because they lie.
We drove through The Dales, which looks as pastoral a place as you can imagine — sheep, pastures, hills, babbling brooks, and grumpy British men who serve you tea in their little shops. We hiked through an area of these to Malham Cove, a rock formation featured in one of the Harry Potter movies. Again, not an entirely safe activity as there are many places to fall and bust your head or plummet to your doom. We finished that day at Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham. I’ve studied the significance of Hadrian’s wall since I was a student in college. I never thought I’d be able to touch it (and actually stand on top of it). We drove around a beautiful Loch in Scotland and had cappuccinos in a little village there. No monsters were seen.
In Iceland the adventure kicked up. We went whale watching and saw a humpback, a couple of minkes, and a whole lot of jumping dolphins. It as cold. Very cold. I actually put on one of their complimentary thermal suits because my Eddie Bauer coat just wasn’t doing it. Day three of Iceland we were supposed to hike to the aforementioned volcano, but since that was no longer blowing lava, we decided to go to the beach that kills people. It is Black Sand Beach, a beautiful rock formation cut from the basalt. It is dangerous because of the sneaker waves that come up suddenly and every year kills tourists who turn their back to it to get the best selfie. I may have stuck my finger in the sea here, but don’t tell anyone. It was too cold to put anything else in.
After walking behind the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall (nothing is pronounceable in Iceland, but everyone there speaks English) we spent that night in a hostel in the countryside. This was the first night (and best night) we saw the Northern Lights. They were spectacular. We didn’t get the classic green shimmer, but instead we got that pinkish, reddish glowing coming off the horizon. The camera picked up different colors than we were seeing, which, according to my research (okay, I googled it) is normal.
The following day we did what is called The Golden Triangle by starting with Geysir, which is the origin for the word geyser. Then the big waterfall, Gullfoss, followed by Thingvellir which is where the North American tectonic plate meets the European plate. It is also the location of the Althing, the oldest parliament in Europe, dating to 930 A.D. Also they filmed scenes of Game of Thrones here.
We finished up the next day at The Blue Lagoon. This is a silica filled geothermal seawater pool that has become rather famous. We enjoyed it, but I wish the water were deeper. You had to squat or bend your knees the whole time. It probably didn’t help my disposition that it sleeted into our face for most of our stay in the pool, but I did like it.
I’ve already told you about Hadrian’s Wall. That fits two categories. But there were many historical things we did that I really enjoyed. The two Churchill activities were a real treat for me. We visited Chartwell on our way to Canterbury. Chartwell was his home where he loved to be. Churchill designed the extensive gardens himself and set up his painting studio in one of the out buildings. Seeing his studio was fascinating, as was his library and study. On the back end of our trip, we visited The War Rooms, which contains a large museum dedicated to Churchill that covers his life in full — from his rather neglected and sad upbringing to his time as a prisoner of war (and escape), his years out of power, his failures in policy, his waffling from conservative to liberal then back to conservative, and his second stint as Prime Minister. But seeing the war rooms, his office, the map room, and all of the crucial apparatus to winning the war was truly a special blessing.
We also witnessed history unfold. The day we arrived, we literally, not figuratively, literally dragged our luggage through the crowd where a ceremony was taking place at Westminster as Boris Johnson went out as PM and Liz Truss came in. We saw them both. That was a big deal. Then we were having dinner in Canterbury when we heard Queen Elizabeth had died. The next evening at Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln the church was in full ‘memorial’ mode. Two days later we went to church, and heard a congregation of Brits sing ‘God Save the King’ as a part of their worship for the first time in seventy-five years — for the first time in most of their lives.
Finally, in Edinburgh, we were present when the Queen’s coffin came by the street up the hill from St. Giles where she had been laid in repose.
I am not a fan of the monarchy, but these were historical days and meaningful moments for our cousins in the old country.
I suppose it counts as history — but we also did a walking tour of Whitechapel for a Jack the Ripper tour. It was fascinating — gruesome and horrifying, but gruesome. A big part of the tour worked on the social dynamics of Whitechapel as an immigrant area, which it still is. The immigrants have changed — it started as French Huguenots, then those fleeing Eastern Europe, and today it is mostly people from Middle Eastern nations. We also ate fish and chips at a place called ‘Jack The Chipper’.
And of course, a great big historical thing (and major bucket list item) was our trip to the British Museum. I spent most of my time in the Middle Ages section, since that was what we were focusing on with the trip to England, but I did get to stand by the Rosetta Stone.
Mrs. Greenbean and I also enjoyed very much The National Gallery and The Tate Museum. I could visit these over and over again.
We ate at a lot of pubs, which means we enjoyed fish and chips and meat pies. But at a gastropub near Chartwell I ate a bowl of basil and thyme soup that was out-of-this-world. So good. We thought we’d experience more lamb on the menu, but many places (especially in Iceland) had none. That was sad.
I had Yorkshire pudding in Yorkshire and haggis in Scotland and I liked it. I really liked it. I never got spotted dick, though, which is sad. We ate Indian food three times in the UK, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Indian food restaurants function like Mexican food restaurants do here. They are everywhere and every town has at least one good one.
In a little fish restaurant in Reykjavik we stood in line outside for thirty minutes to eat at the ‘legendary’ Saegreifinn. It was worth it. We ate whale, fish we’d never heard of, and a delicious lobster soup (not bisque). We also enjoyed sea snails and I had a delicious monkfish at a fancy dance restaurant in downtown Reykjavik.
One of the joys of traveling is meeting different kinds of people and seeing how they do things. What I learned is the people in London are friendly and playful. Most of them are jokesters. Out in the countryside, they are more serious but still very friendly and kind. The Scots are rough around the edges, and the people in Glasgow might shank you for a half-shilling.
I worry about the people in Iceland. We saw so much public drunkenness there, and not by typical ‘homeless’ types, but by average folks. One can feel a type of fatalism around them. I actually expected that a bit in Scotland given their reputation, but we didn’t see any of that in England or Scotland. Iceland, however, has a real problem.
Nobody who lives in London is from London, and all the people in the service industries for all three countries are from somewhere else — mostly Eastern Europe: Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Albania. Almost all of them were from these countries. We met a few from Italy and Belgium, but those were few and far between.
Speaking of service, I really love how far advanced they are in paying for things. The handheld register that taps the card or, better yet, uses ApplePay is amazing. Every place of business was high-tech that way, from fruit stands, vintage clothing shops, to side of the road coffee stands. Even the buses in Scotland use ApplePay. America is so far behind on this. So. Far. Behind.
And Iceland is ridiculously expensive — like $75 for a coke and a burger.
The Tube, or The Underground, is a beast that will swallow you and spit you out at a place where you didn’t intend.
Scottish accents are almost impossible for me to understand. There are no problems communicating in England or Iceland, but Scotland . . . It doesn’t sound like English.
Now, one final word about bathrooms. What is going on with bathrooms in Europe? The sinks are very tiny, and the showers are incomprehensible. For starters, there is only a half-glass. Which tells me they are perfectly fine with water all over the floor. Then, where one knob or handle would work, they use three different ones — water volume, water temperature, where the water is coming from — Every night I needed to allow myself five to ten minutes to orient myself to the controls, like it was a new car or something.
And washcloths. They don’t give those to you. You don’t know how important these things are until you’re using a giant hand towel for two weeks.
The one thing I liked about their bathrooms was the water conserving two flush button system — a big button for a big flush, but a little button for a little flush. Very smart.
I don’t know if I will ever go to Scotland again. I will probably never go to Iceland again, mostly because it is so expensive. If you go, take lots of money. I’m serious. But I can see me going to England, and specially London more in the future. Perhaps as as stopover on any trip to Europe. If nothing else, to see a show (We saw Les Miserables and it was fantastic) or spend a couple of days seeing everything in the British Museum.
Here are a few other pictures just for grins.