Saturday, September 13, 2008

Road Trip Part 1: England & Scotland: Smile for the camera!

I'm absolutely certain that Britons are the most-watched people on the planet. Despite the well-reported teeth issue, questionable aesthetics, and camera-unfriendly weather, the passion in this country for reality TV has reached such heights that the police have CCTV cameras on every corner, and speed cameras on every street (no, I'm not kidding). I counted eight speed and red-light cameras within 2 kilometres on my way out of London.

My alternate theory is that the Metropolitan Police are so poorly funded that they've taken to filming ad-hoc reality TV segments and long-distance paparazzi shots to help finance their fight against crime (that may account for the increasingly grainy B&W images with boxes over their eyes in British tabloids).

Until I stepped behind the wheel of my mighty Astra for a two-week road trip around the UK & Ireland, I was unaware of this fetish for vehicular voyeurism. Thankfully, I was armed with my little Tom-Tom (satnav system), which helpfully (but occasionally inaccurately) beeped maniacally at me whenever I approached one of these infernal devices. The ludicrous frequency of cameras meant that my Tom-Tom's tone matched the rapid beat of the Russian Club Music CD's I'd put in the player, so it quickly won the label DJ TomTom.

Undeterred, I headed north from the London suburbs towards my rendezvous with Aussie friend and fellow adventurous traveller Kristen, who I was to meet in Edinburgh three days hence. This meant I had a lot of ground to cover in little time.

My first stop was the ancient and prestigious town of Oxford, home to one of the world's most famous universities. The first of many of the puzzles that were to bemuse me on this trip was listed on the roadsign as I entered the town: "Welcome to Oxford, sister city of Perm, Russia". Now, I've been to Perm, and while I'd be the first to defend it as a pleasant Western Siberian town, but even Wikipedia claims it to be an administrative, industrial and scientific centre, whose main industries include machinery, defense and oil production & refining. What on earth does it have in common with the ancient educational centre of Oxford?

Putting aside this most vexing of life's great mysteries, I continued north to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the legendary poet William Shakespeare. Refrains of "Midsummer Night's Dream" flitted through my mind as I flew north under not-so-sunny skies, before my thoughts turned to "Richard III" as I sat in yet another interminable traffic jam on the highway. Stratford itself was pleasant enough, and I mused upon the ability for so many fake (or real) Tudor cottages to be bolstered against each other and sell vast amounts of meaningless tourist junk.

Heading north once more, I arrived at my destination for the evening, the bustling city of Manchester. Lonely Planet describes Manchester as a "modern metropolis embracing change", "the UK's answer to Barcelona", with "literally something for every palate", and a "terrific club scene". For the record, this is complete bullsh*t. Arriving in town around 8pm, the "vast range" of restaurants were all closed (Barcelona? Are you kidding? People are still having breakfast in Barcelona at 8pm!).

I was reduced to eating at the Hard Rock Cafe, which thankfully served until after 10pm. As for the "terrific" club scene, I managed to uncover a bunch of shirtless university students doing 1GBP shots at a bar playing 2003 club mixes stolen from a third-rate DJ from Ohio. While in Russia, this may still become a good scene, these (male) students were constantly on the verge of brawling while being egged on by girls who in some cases were twice their size! I limped home, keen to see what the next day held in store.

I arose early, although unfortunately not early enough to beat the "change-embracing" traffic police, who had already seen fit to issue me with a ticket. As I headed for the city limits as fast as the speed cameras would let me, I couldn't get Manchester in my rear vision window fast enough. More exciting destinations awaited- Liverpool!

Liverpool, the home of the Beatles, was also principally uninspiring, and I didn't figure out until I got there that the legendary Abbey Road is actually in London (yes, it has a speed camera on it too).

I made a beeline for York, home to a beautiful cathedral, and then headed Northwest, to the Lakes District and Hadrian's Wall, the massive Roman fortifications which marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. This massive 2,000yo undertaking is still impressive, with segments of the wall, various wiers, and several of the protective berms and watchtowers surviving to this day (much to the amusement of local livestock). The area was beautiful, with rolling hills, ancient farmhouses, lakes, and so much of the green landscape that was to follow me north, and especially through Ireland. That evening I crossed the border and crawled into the ancient capital of Scotland- Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is a beautiful and lively Scottish town, with all the great food and nightlife that Manchester was missing. My first evening there I befriended some Polish travellers and we were persuaded by our bartender that my historical aversion to Scotch whiskey may merely be a result of drinking the wrong Scotch! She produced a Scotch tasting map (my consultant readers will be salivating), as well as a Scotch tasting menu. My favourite was a Macallan which apparently had "an attractive honeyed thread that weaves through the oak and grape, some beautiful marmalade off-cuts toy with a ghostly peatiness, with touches of creamy butter and vanilla". Hats off to the dude who came up with that cr*p, but no matter how many marmalade off-cuts there were, I still don't like Scotch (neither did my head the next morning).

Not to be outdone by the Scotch, the next morning I headed yet further north to unravel the mysteries of Loch Ness. 300km later, the most exciting part of the day was that I witnessed rays of sunshine breaking through heavy cloud cover for the first time since arriving in the UK! Oh yes, there was also a large, dark lake reputed to be infested with dinosaurs, but since they didn't see fit to expose themselves to me, I can only say it was a delightful lake with a pretty castle.

I hightailed it back to Edinburgh to meet up with my long-suffering friend and travel companion Kristen, and we threw ourselves into Edinburgh nightlife with gusto!

15 minutes later, we downed a couple of shots and headed back to the hotel...

The next morning, it was time to head (indirectly) to Northern Ireland. We confirmed there is in fact, nothing to see in Glasgow, and then risked life & limb (not to mention those bloody speed cameras) to make it to the ferry to Belfast.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

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