Liverpool, Cumbria, and Belfast

Our spring break may only very loosely be regarded as having a ‘plan’. On Friday, 2 March, we decided to go up to King’s Cross St. Pancras Train Station (Just at the top of Gray’s Inn Road) and find out what information we could regarding prices for train travel and such. We went with literally no knowledge of the train system (or anything regarding the dynamics of travel in Britain, for that matter), and more than a little anticipation for the ensuing adventures. The week ahead was a great fuzzy cloud that had only small focal points of interest in the Lake District of Cumbria in the north of England, as well as interests in the white cliffs of Dover in the south of England. We went in with our minds not yet made up as to where we wanted to go – and figured that the information we received from the helpful people at the train station would provide the filling for the clear gaps of ‘how’ we were to find these points of interest in England.

As it turns out, our interest in going to Dorchester, Brighton, and Dover in the south of England were not altogether feasible as there were no direct trains between any two of these locations; travel from one to any other was going to be a pain in the neck and consumer of time that we really didn’t want to go through on our first adventure into the British Railway system.

We decided, therefore, to make our first destination Liverpool: home of the Beatles. We bought return (round-trip) tickets from Euston station in London to Lime St Station in Liverpool and left at 6:50 AM from Euston on a Virgin train (the same company that owns Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin Records, Virgin Communications, and nearly everything else in London).
When we arrived in Liverpool, we decided to make our next destination Windermere in Cumbria, England’s Lake District. At the Lime St station we experienced our first real ‘accent’ related problem when trying to communicate with the ticket-seller and purchase our return tickets to Windermere. Just think Ringo Starr multiplied by 3 and you will have a good idea what I’m talking about. The two-inch thick plexi-glass window with the small gaps at the bottom and top between himself and us didn’t help matters much either. The result was a nasally, muffled, thick Liverpool accent coming through a very small space in a very loud room. But he was an exceedingly nice fellow who joked and had just as much trouble with our thick Californian accent, I’m quite sure. Who would have thought it would be so difficult to speak the same language? I thought about taking out a piece of paper, writing to him, and placing the paper against the window, but then I thought people might think I was trying to rob the place, so I thought better of it.

After a few more accent related issues trying to find the correct underground train stop for the hotel that we had booked, we finally discovered that we were staying in Birkenhead, the small town directly across the Mersey River from Liverpool. Birkenhead reminded me very much of Yreka, with its small streets and small town atmosphere.

That afternoon, we did a bit of research into fares and decided that the place we should go after Windermere was Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tina and I had heard much of the kindness of the Irish and wished to discover this trait for ourselves (we were not disappointed, as you will find out when I talk about that later).

The nice woman at the front desk of the hotel we were staying at allowed us to do a bit of research on their hotel computer on the Internet (not normally available to ‘guests’) and asked us a few questions about where we were from, etc. When we told her we were on spring break, and that we were from California – she asked us, quite seriously, “what the devil are’ya doin’ in Birken’ead?”. We described to her our exchange program in London and our plans for spring break and she seemed satisfied with our answer. I think she just couldn’t see why Californians, from the land of fun and sun (as is the predominant belief in Europe) were spending time in cold, drizzly, rainy Birkenhead.

We walked around Liverpool that night, and discovered that it is a town that bears a lot of resemblance to Chico – it seemed like there were pubs, clubs, bars, and good looking young people wearing very little on every corner. The Liverpool ‘guhls’ were either very daft or very fashion conscious, because it was below freezing out there and all of them were wearing short skirts, stiletto heels, and very tight, very revealing tops. No wonder the Beatles had so many songs about ‘guhls’ :)

The next day was spent mostly in transit to Windermere. While the train system is nearly comprehensive in covering the major towns and cities of Britain, it is not exactly timely. We had to make two changes: the first at Warrington Bank Quay (pronounced ‘key’), and the next at Oxenholme to Windermere.

The train ride out to Oxenholme was wonderful. This part of the English countryside was particularly stunning – from the train it rushed past in layers of blurred green, white, blue, black and gray; playful lambs dotted the landscape from the blazing orange, purple, and red sun stained horizon to the sweeping rock-walled velvet green fields close to the train.

We arrived at around 7 PM and made our way from the train station to our accommodations through the exquisitely clear cold down the narrow, clean streets of the small town of Windermere. The sky was perfectly clear and Tina and I saw Polaris, the Big Dipper, Orion and a full sky of stars for the first time since we arrived in England on January 13th. We stopped to look up for a while and to soak it all in; we were truly where we wanted to be for spring break.

The next day we set about exploring the small towns of Windermere, Bowness, and Ambleside (all towns situated within a mile or two of lake Windermere). After breakfast we wandered down to lake Windermere (via several small art, clothing, and chocolate shops in Windermere and Bowness) and bought tickets for a ferry ride from Bowness to Ambleside. The lake itself was quite breathtaking, set serenely between the wooded, green and white rolling hills of the surrounding countryside.

Unfortunately, due to the recent outbreak of the ‘Foot and Mouth’ agricultural epidemic spreading rapidly between livestock throughout the UK, we were not able to hike through the public footpaths through and around the majestic hills of the Windermere countryside. These paths were closed in an attempt to help curb the devastation of the spread of this highly contagious virus.

Quite to my surprise and delight, the place we were staying had a full-sized Roland electronic piano, and the owners allowed me to play for a bit. I can feel my hands slowly getting less and less agile with the absence of a piano from my daily routine, and I’m starting to feel that absence more and more keenly. My piano at home and I have a standing appointment for the 28th of April 2001. If someone could kindly strike the “A” note just below middle “C” for me, and hold it until the sound dies, I would be very appreciative.

The next day Tina and I took another ferry ride, this time to the south side of lake Windermere into Lakeside. There was very little to Lakeside that we strayed to discover, and we more or less wasted 5 pounds each on an aquarium that promised a detailed, close-up look at the type of life that was in lake Windermere. The aquarium was neat, but mostly set up for children between the ages of 6 and 12, and certainly not worth 5 pounds fifty (I just kept thinking, Nine Dollars?…. NINE Dollars??… for THIS?, doh!). We decided not to get upset over it, though, and came to the conclusion that if we are going to be tourists, we’ve got to expect getting robbed every now and again.

On the boat on the way back a very young, very cute girl of about 3 years prided herself on being quite loud – just shy of obnoxious. She interrupted my sun-warmth induced cap-naps intermittently, but did so in a way that I couldn’t help but smile back at her inquisitive stare, and make faces that she quite enjoyed. I soon found that her delight in her surrounding world was contagious.

That afternoon we saw ‘Finding Forrester’, Sean Connery’s latest film. I recommend it to anyone seeking a bit of literary inspiration.

The next day was another travel day. A very sullen rain fell after being gracious enough to stay away for the entirety of our stay in Windermere. The showers had stopped by the time the train arrived at Oxenholme from Windermere and left in its stead a moist, warm calmness to the air that was filled with the songs of a thousand small birds in the surrounding trees, and that wonderful smell of damp, clean earth that follows rain. We enjoyed extended moments of the peaceful atmosphere punctuated by a few cargo trains that screamed by the platform, silencing the birds, and disturbing the calmness of the air. From Oxenholme we took a train directly to Liverpool Lime St Station. From there we took the number 500 bus for 2 pounds from Lime St Station to Liverpool Airport. We were, in fact, about 3 and 1/2 hours early for our flight, but we’re fairly paranoid people as a rule when it comes to travel anyway :)

The lapse gave me a great deal of time to read, and I finished ‘The Romantics’ – an intriguing, melancholy, beautifully written novel by an Indian-English writer by the name of Pankaj Mishra that had the most eloquent, poetic prose I have read in quite some time.

Just before we were going to the departure lounge for our easyJet flight to Belfast, an ear-piercing, wailing, panic-inducing shriek was emitted from little red horns all over the airport. It took some time, but all of the people in the airport gradually realized that this was an alarm. I felt myself fighting back a natural urge to panic as the continuous wail surged through every molecule in my body. I found it strange that the wail was so loud that it drowned out the instructions delivered over the voice loudspeaker. How ironic that the horrible, ear-piercing shriek was periodically mixed with the distant sound of someone mumbling over the loudspeaker: ‘Please… calmly… nearest… exit… don’t… panic’.

It turned out to be a matter for the local fire department to investigate, and we were only held outside for about 5 minutes. We were never told what the alarm was about.

Our trip to Belfast was brief, but enjoyable. As it turned out, the place we reserved was actually about 15 miles outside of the city of Belfast, situated in the countryside miles away from any means of public transportation. Charles Kelly, the owner of the ‘Country House’ we stayed at, was exceedingly nice and drove us nearly everywhere we needed to go. First he picked us up from the airport, then that night he drove us to a restaurant in nearby Crumlin and arranged for a cab-ride home, then back to the airport to catch a bus to Belfast the next day, then to pick us up that night, then back to the airport the next morning to catch our plane! With gas at about 4 pounds per gallon (about six US Dollars) we thanked him profusely for his kindness. Charles was also quite a cook and served us a full Irish breakfast both mornings we were there: sausage, potato bread, soda bread, fruit, juice, bacon, tomato, toast, home-made wheat-bread, and yogurt. Belfast, the city, was much like London in its large shopping complexes, tourist shops, and restaurants. Tina and I enjoyed the place we stayed more than the actual city of Belfast, I think.

We got back to the airport early the next morning, and I had an opportunity to finish Michael Crichton’s book ‘Travels’, a book I highly recommend to anyone looking for a few good, well written autobiographical stories about traveling (much better than mine ;)).

We flew from Belfast International Airport back to Liverpool Airport, and on our last morning in Liverpool we toured the ‘Beatles Story’ museum. I learned quite a few interesting things about the Beatles, the most striking of which was the fact that their first drummer quit them to attend art school in Hamburg, Germany and died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 21; some of his artwork was on display in the museum (and it was quite good, I might add).

Overall, the trip gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relax and enjoy the English and Irish countryside. We found our vacation from the fast-paced London life a welcome retreat, and hope to return to some of the wonderful places we visited at some point in the near future.