Sheep show their behinds to us as we approach from the lane.
More Scottish sheep on tap for this week's edition of Friday Farm Animal Blogging.
With sheep as plentiful in Scotland as midges (more so, actually—I didn't see a single midge while I was there, but they tend to stay away from the likes of me), there is no end to the photogenic sheep.
These lambs and their mums were at Corrimony Cairn, where we stopped to admire the archaeological ruins. (Don't tell my family, but I pretend to want to go to off the beaten path sights just to get a chance to photograph farm animals.) The ruins were nice—you can read about them here—but the sheep had built their own clever structure for escaping the chill winds.
Yes, you're adorable
By the way, if you're concerned at all about the environment, and the dangerous build up of greenhouse gases, you probably want to make sure these little guys stay off your dinner plate. Turns out lambs emit a lot of methane. More, per pound, than cows. Hard to believe, I know, they're so adorable, but these guys are serious methane producers.
Have you checked out my tofu recipes?
Shaggy sheep loses her fleece, which costs more to sheer than it's worth.
My favorite spot on Earth
We've visited many parts of Britain and Europe while living in England these past ten years. Only one place has tempted me back, again and again. And only one spot has convinced me to book the same cottage, with the same view, for a second time.
The first time we stayed in a self-catering cottage was in 2006, when we first visited Scotland. I happened to find the perfect idyll: a cottage in Foyers, on the southern side of Loch Ness. With a big picture window overlooking the loch, Coach House proved to be the perfect location for walking, and watching—scouring the ground below for red squirrels and deer, and keeping an eye out on the loch for any signs of legendary monsters.
We never saw a monster, but the loch has currents and reflections and odd patterns of waves, possibly created by the boats that cruise the shores, or possibly by underwater creatures. I try to keep an open mind.
Further afield, down narrow lanes and highways hardly deserving the name, the Scottish Highlands have much more to offer than quiet squirrel watching. This is the heart of Scottish whisky country—Speyside malts are born and bred here in the Highlands, and many distilleries offer tours and tastings. At any rate, it's a good excuse for a drive, regardless of whether you like the taste of whisky. (Don't bother to call it Scotch when you're in Scotland; everyone knows you mean the Scottish kind if you talk about whisky.)
On the other side of the loch, Urquhart Castle beckoned, almost literally—we'd see it on its spit of land as we went up to Inverness, across the loch through the trees. To get there, we had to put up with a bit of commercialism at Drumnadrochit, on the wider A82 road from Inverness, but the castle quickly dispelled us of any 21th century notions and transported us right quick to the 13th century, when defending your flank from raiders by way of a drawbridge and trebuchet was the thing to do.
Some visitors arrive at Urquhart Castle by boat
Trebuchet at Urquhart Castle
The view of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle
But then we ventured a bit further back in time, to the Bronze Age Corrimony Cairn. Nothing was defending this pile of rocks but sheep, who scattered as we approached. So much for defense, guys.
Still, eleven standing stones encircle the cairn, where ancient burials took place. Now, it's the perfect spot for a picnic.
The entrance to Corrimony Cairn
The inside of Corrimony Cairn, where the capstone has disappeared, showing the inside of the burial mound.
Since I've been bitten by the archaeological bug (it's related to the Scottish midges) I insisted we take a trip to Orkney, north of the Scottish mainland and virtually a country unto itself. Once part of Norway, the islands of Orkney were given to Scotland as collateral when the Norwegian king married off his daughter. He never bothered to reclaim them. Now Orkney is a bit of Norway in Scotland, with self-reliant Orcadians having their own flag and calling their largest island the "Mainland" as if Scotland is simply another island.
Prehistoric ruins are everywhere in Orkney, the most famous being Skara Brae, the neolithic village on the edge of the Mainland. Skara Brae was discovered in the 1800s when a storm washed away the sand that had covered it for centuries. The settlement was small—probably no more than 50 inhabitants lived here at any one time—but they left an almost intact network of homes, surrounded by earthworks and "middens", which is what archaeologists call ancient tips. Not only were the middens a convenient place for tossing rubbish, but the layer of rubbish provided excellent insulation from the harsh cold.
Well preserved Neolithic home at Skara Brae
Reproduction of a dresser at Skara Brae
Skara Brae map
The residents of Skara Brae built their furniture out of stone, ensuring it would last long enough for archaeologists to get a proper look at it. Each home was exactly the same, with a "dresser" (in Britain, a "dresser" is a hutch, like a China cabinet in the U.S.) directly opposite the entrance and two beds on either side of the circular room, with a square hearth in the middle. Skara Brae would have been occupied from around 3100 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the pyramids.
Next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, standing out on the desolate seaside like a concrete-hued fort. It was built in 1620 and has housed twelve lairds (lords), whose belongings are on display inside the house (included with your entrance to Skara Brae). The garden, built into the ground a meter or so, is a sad illustration of the harsh conditions on Orkney—no lush flowers typical of the English gardens here.
Skaill House, the 17th century home next to Neolithic Skara Brae
Garden at Skaill House
We also stopped at the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, not far from Skara Brae. Stone circles aren't that uncommon in Europe—around 1000 survive today. They must once have been as common as churches are today. The Brodgar stones are almost as large as the stones at Avebury, but are much slimmer.
We were told to expect a "magical feeling" once inside the circle, but all I felt was a stiff wind.
Ring of Brodgar stone circle
Ring of Brodgar
On the way back to John O'Groats from Orkney, our ferry boat tossed and turned in the choppy waters. Several passengers became ill during the hour long ride. But then, like magic, a rainbow appeared starboard, and we arrived at the port without incident.
Rainbow from the John O'Groats ferry
New York or Orkney?
One of the most beautiful drives in the Highlands has to be the road from Fort Augustus to Foyers, a highway built by General George Wade after the Jacobite rebellion in 1715. By highway, of course, I mean a single track road, with wide areas for oncoming cars to pass. Yet over the entire route, we only saw one other car as it passed while we'd stopped for photographs. We saw far more sheep, who proved to be the greater traffic hazard.
The Caledonian Canal from Fort Augustus
Views along the B862 from Fort Augustus
A glimpse of a loch along the B862
A meandering stream
Another view of a loch along the B862
Closer to "home", our cottage in Foyers was located a short walk from the Boleskine Cemetery and the Falls of Foyers, as well as the entrance to the Forest of Faraigaig. Boleskine House was once owned by rock star Jimmy Page, as well as a mysterious magician, known as the Beast of Boleskin, who reportedly dabbled in black magic.
Inverness is a 40 minute drive, despite the fact it's only 16 miles up the road. There's very little traffic—the South Loch Ness area has only 1000 inhabitants—but there are deer, and pine martens, who dash across the road unexpectedly, not to mention the odd slow camper van.
In the Forest of Faragaig
We spotted Nessie at one point, during our cruise of Loch Ness.
Did we spot Nessie? Clearly, we spotted something on the Loch during our boat tour. Or perhaps it was something on the window.
Black magic or not, there really is something enchanting about Scotland and its lochs. Maybe it's the pine-scented air, or the Speyside malts, or possibly ancient ghosts, cross at having their burial mounds disturbed. Whatever it is, Scotland is my favorite place on earth, I've decided, having sampled quite a few earthly locales.
I would go back in a heartbeat.
You think those postcards are joking about the "Scottish traffic jams"?
Scotland has more sheep than cows, in fact, Scotland has more sheep than people. So it's not surprising that today's Friday Farm Animal blogging is devoted to some of the sheep I saw on my recent trip to the Highlands.
We were driving from Fort Augustus to our cottage in Foyers one evening, stopping often to take photos of the amazing scenery. Several times we literally stopped in the middle of the road. There was very little traffic; in the 45 minute journey I saw a single car. We did, however, have to stop for sheep in the road.
We waited patiently for this bedraggled ewe to cross the road. She was losing her fleece in bits and pieces—since shearing sheep costs more than the wool is worth, many sheep are now bred to lose their fleece naturally, saving the farmer the cost of shearing his ewes, and putting sheepdogs out of business.
Finally we found a designated pull off, and since we were itching to pull out our cameras and get some good shots, we stopped the car, right where some sheep had decided to cross the road to get a look at the view too.
A sign nearby named this the Suidhe viewpoint. Here's someone's YouTube video of what it looks like. Breathtaking scenery, especially in the evening before the late summer sun sets.
I always say sheep have the best views, since they're often grazed on hillsides in some of the most picturesque countryside in Britain.
These sheep have views of two lochs, Loch Nan Eun and Loch Tarff. Lucky sheep.
A lamb by the side of the road.
More Highlands sheep:
Or should I call this edition "Friday Coo Blogging"?
This pretty mama was at Cardhu Distillery in Banffshire, in the area known for its Speyside whisky. We toured the distillery on Tuesday, a day when the Scottish sun was shining for all it was worth. As we were leaving after a tour, the woman at the till told us this "coo" was out in the field with her mate and newborn calf. I found her by the fence, but she didn't seem too happy. She was content to let me pet her and take her photo, but she never once made eye contact with me, even when I tossed her an apple, and then a digestive biscuit. I think she's shy; my cows would have been all up in my business after an offering like that.
Later I saw her baby and her mate, and the three of them ran back and forth along the fence for some exercise.
Mama running along the fence with baby and Papa following.
Seeing the "coo", as the Scots pronounce it, was one of the highlights of our tour of the distillery. (For me at least. The others enjoyed the wee drams of Scotch they sampled later.) Cardhu Distillery was pioneered by a woman, Helen Cumming, who was distilling spirits illegally back in 1811. Three times she was caught by the revenue and customs men, and each time her husband John, a farmer who had nothing to do with the distillery, went to jail since, back then, women weren't jailed. (At least not for distilling whisky).
After her death, her daughter-in-law, who took over the distillery upon the death of Helen's son, sold the distillery eventually to John Walker, who is now known for the Johnnie Walker label. If you've ever had Johnnie Walker, you've had Cardhu, since it's one of the whiskies used in the blend.
The River Spey, the Caingorms in the distance
The tour was entertaining, even for someone who's not fond of whisky. The drive along the River Spey was beautiful, and of course, the high point of any visit to the countryside is the chance to chat with a cow. Even a slightly shy coo.
If you've read my book, you'll know I prefer roundabouts to the stop signs and traffic signals that clog up American roads. Now there's scientific proof that roundabouts are superior.
Don't believe me? Believe Mythbusters. Watch the segment of Mythbusters above, if you can. Spoiler: Roundabouts are better. There, you don't have to listen to the whole silly and rather condescending narrative. More cars go through the intersection via roundabout than by four way stop: 385 drivers via four-way stop vs. 460 in the roundabouts. (Maybe the word "stop" in the name should be a clue.)
Next, we'll prove that British television is better than American telly. I sat through an American archaeology program the other day, an "is-this-an-ancient-monument-or-not" show, and I couldn't believe how much better Time Team would have handled the question. It's as if they think their viewing audience are idiots, and I know that despite a few prominent examples, that's not the case.
Replace your stop signs with roundabouts, America. Your commutes will thank you.
Sparky hiding from flies, which sound like too much like bees, which are Dangerous.
I was going to write a blog post about the plague of flies that have visited our part of England (I blame the new composting scheme and the warm winter) which is keeping us trapped indoors during our heat wave (that's Brit Speak for 72 degrees) with no open windows.
But I decided to challenge myself to write without whining, henceforth known as WWW. Instead, I think I'll brag. My book Temptation was named Best First Book in the Golden Quill Contest! I was extraordinarily thrilled, especially since it is, well, my first book.
Then more good news: Temptation was named a finalist in WisRWA's Write Touch contest for Single TItle Contemporary. (For those of you who don't follow the book trade, a single title is a book that's not part of a series, a la Harry Potter.) Again, pretty thrilling news. And then I checked Amazon last night and discovered that the print copy of Temptation has a placeholder. In other words, it will be released soon! (I have no control over when, and my publisher is at the mercy of Macmillan, the distributor.)
My next book should be out in the fall. It's called Redemption and is set in Philadelphia. If any book can be said to be the book of my heart, Redemption is it.
I'll have more to say about it on my author blog, where I hardly do any whining. Maybe I'll even venture out amongst the rotting compost and take some flower photos this week.
June is my favourite month, despite the flies, and I'm looking forward to my favourite day of the year, the Summer Solstice, when morning people like me get to enjoy the sunrise around 4 am.
Oh, and if you're still following my plumbing saga, I'm waiting for the arrival of Number Five right now, who has promised to install the tile today. Life really can't get much better, here on the 51st parallel.
What used to be a shower, now in disarray.
No, the plumbing issues still aren't solved, though I'm happy to report I have a new toilet (a crappy toilet with a flimsy plastic seat) and a new water softener.
But the shower, leaking since February, in case you've just joined us, is still in bits and pieces. The tile was removed, along with the cracked shower tray, and now the tiles are cracked and can't go back in, which was a problem anyway since the new tray is shallower and needed another strip of tile. Since the house was built in the early nineties, finding matching tile is impossible; the best they can hope for is to blend in with the rest. And with the entire bathroom covered in the rust-colored tile, it's turning out to be a big project.
We've resigned ourselves to never using that bathroom again. We've moved most of our stuff into the guest bathroom, and only go in there to brush our teeth, and to marvel at the mess that is British Plumbing.
The room smells like a sewer too, so I really am just as happy to never go in there again.
And there are rumors wafting from across the pond that we may be moving this summer, which, frankly, can't happen too soon. (Although I'm not putting too much stock in them, since those rumors have been squelched before.)
Have you read my book yet? In it I offer some insight into my frame of mind when these maybe-moves occur. The plumbing problems are all part of an effort by the gods to convince me I no longer want to live here, and just when I'm convinced, bam! They pull the rug out from under me and I suddenly find myself facing another few years with British plumbing.
So when I find myself longing for a proper sink, a single handle faucet, and a bathroom that doesn't smell, I remind myself of all the lovely bits of Britain I'd miss. In other words, I just lie back and think of England.
It's just as well I've not had to entertain the repairmen for the last few days. On Sunday I hosted a garden party for a friend who's moving back to the States (where he will no doubt enjoy proper plumbing) and then I faced a deadline—for my next book, coming out (hopefully) in the Autumn.
Oh, and did I mention that the kitchen sink started leaking? I opened the cabinet underneath on Sunday and discovered water pooling inside. We put a bucket underneath the pipes, offered a prayer to the Plumbing Gods, and tightened up a connection. Sorted.
And so I soldier on with a stiff upper lip, holding my nose against the sewer gas.
The tell-tale sign of a leaking shower. Or possibly a murder took place there.
People who know me know that when I'm not griping about the weather, I'm complaining about the plumbing. And right now, the weather is gorgeous, and my plumbing, well, my plumbing is in disarray.
It started in February, right after we returned from Italy and noticed a stain on the living room ceiling that could only mean one thing: the shower was leaking again. The three showers in this house have continually leaked, one after another, for various reasons. The living room ceiling has been patched twice after it was cut through to get to the drain from below.
I told the estate agent, Frost, who handles the property for the landlord. (Our old property manager had just retired, leaving two new employees in the office, who clearly weren't on top of their game.) And then I waited for a plumber to call. Meanwhile, the downstairs toilet stopped up. The toilet had been installed last January, and had never worked properly. I called again, waited some more, and finally someone was sent to look at both.
I didn't hear anything for a couple of weeks, so I called the property manager, using my American voice (Angry New Yorker version), to find out when the shower and toilet would be fixed. I was told a new toilet needed to be put in and a drain specialist was required to look at the shower. But meanwhile they needed approval from the landlord.
Again, I waited, and finally called after a week or two to see what was up.
"Someone was supposed to call you," I was told, "to set up appointments to fix everything." Once again, a plumber was called out to "look at" the problem. By now it's April, and the water softener has started to leak.
Another plumber (Number Two, we'll call him) came, poked around, and left. I have yet to hear anything from him. Then the drain specialist (aka Number Three) came to look at the shower. But now I've diagnosed the problem myself: the shower tray has a ten inch crack in it. Apparently this escaped the notice of the other two plumbers.
Number Three agreed with me, but had no idea how to go about fixing it. But when I casually mentioned the stopped up toilet, he offered to take a look inside the manhole in the front garden. (This is Britain, where you certainly may have a manhole or three in your garden. Don't ask me why, I only live here, and occasionally comment on the plumbing.)
He popped it open, after first erecting a safety barrier, and discovered it was filled with muck. He flushed it out with the garden hose, and my toilet, which had been inoperable for weeks, suddenly worked again. Apparently neither of the plumbers who'd been by before had thought to look in there.
Score one point for Number Three.
A few more weeks pass as the shower tray crack is pondered. And pondered. Blogs are consulted. Landlords are presented with proposals. (They were happy to pay for a completely new bathroom, if needs must, it turned out.) Then, I called Frost again in frustration, wondering why I still couldn't use my shower and the water softener was still leaking. (By now, my Angry American voice was off the charts.)
That's when the Plumbing Gods really decided to stick it to me. When I went to wipe down the bathroom, in anticipation of Number Three coming to look again at the shower, what did I discover but another leak, this time from the toilet, which was already cracked in exactly the same way the downstairs toilet had been previously. Water was pooling on the floor, water that was soon mixed with my tears as I wiped it up, knowing I would have to call the property manager again.
(I realized this is getting to be a very long story, and we've still got another couple of weeks and two more plumbers to go. Go ahead and get yourself a cup of tea and a hanky. You'll need it.)
Number Three, the drain specialist, returns for another look at what must be the most befuddling plumbing problem in Buckinghamshire, and then I get another call from Frost: they're sending someone else, this time a decorator named Number Four. (For you Yanks, a "decorator" in BritSpeak is someone who paints, wallpapers, and puts in tile. They usually show up in paint spattered coveralls.) The decorator came by, I showed him all my broken plumbing things, and he promised he'd do something. Anything. He seemed like a real can-do chap, plus he made funny jokes. And then while he was inspecting the living room ceiling he saw a copy of my book What Am I Doing Here, in which I complain a lot about weather and other oddities of British life, such as the deplorable plumbing.
He seemed impressed that I'd written a book, so I gave him a copy. Partly this was a bribe, since I am not above bribing repairmen at this stage, and partly, I figured it was a good idea if he knew I'd write scathingly about him if he didn't fix my shower.
Because I am not above threats either.
But then my tale took a rather dramatic turn.
That night Number Three called, wondering why he'd been cut out of the job. I played dumb; I'm really good at that. Then he asked where my husband worked, and if my dog bites*. I was frightened enough to tell everyone on Facebook just in case I turned up dead. And to give my friends who write murder mysteries a new plot idea: In the shower, with a wrench, by the plumber.
Since then I've had almost daily phone calls and visits from Funny Number Four, who's been trying to arrange for someone to come install a new toilet, or possibly he's just attempting to cheer me up. Thursday I waited all afternoon, but the promised plumber (who'd have been known then as Number Five) never showed up.
But Saturday, I was assured, was the day! I had tea and biscuits ready. And once again, I was stood up. Apparently that guy lives three miles away and it's too far to drive. I am not making this up, that's what he said. (Note to UKIP: An influx of Bulgarian plumbers is just what this country needs.)
Later, I heard a loud truck outside, which set off my vicious dog, of course. It was Number Four, the decorator. He wanted to leave the new toilet he'd bought in my garage, which is where it is now. But he had some good news: He'd contacted the plumber I'd been asking for all along, the one who replaced my boiler last year. Number Five, as he'll now be known affectionately, was on holiday, but promised to be here on Tuesday at 4 pm to fix my toilet.
I think I'm going to lock him in there and have him fix the shower while he's in captivity.
Meanwhile, someone is coming in the morning to turn off the water softener, since apparently no one wants to actually fix it. Fine with me; they're not my pipes.
To recap, this catastrophic plumbing failure started in mid-February with a leaking shower, progressed shortly thereafter with a stopped up toilet, then a broken water softener, then another cracked toilet. I'm still waiting for three of those four to be fixed. The biscuits are no longer on offer.
But the good news is, I now have a title for my next book. It will be called The Ins and Outs of British Plumbing: An American Perspective.
A friend also suggested I call it "Toilet In Vain," seeking to find the humor in the situation. Honestly, I wish I could laugh at all this. But it seems my sense of humor has sprung a leak. Maybe it's hard to be funny when you can't remember which of your toilets works and the sound of dripping water sends a cold shiver of fear down your spine.
Not to mention possibly homicidal drain specialists.
*Note that, in the interest of brevity, I may have conflated one or two characters and combined their comments. But if anyone asks, yes, my dog DOES bite. I'll make sure of it.
Can you see the cows, gathered in a heap at the fence?
We've been having some close encounters with the cows lately. It turns out there's something they like more than apples. The gardener tosses the freshly cut grass over the fence, and several times we've found them practically climbing upon the fence to feast at the buffet he's laid out for them.
It's gotten to where we're worried they may topple the flimsy fence. A couple of times my husband has sent Sparky out to chase them away, something Sparky's only too happy to do. I don't like the idea of encouraging the dog to bark at cows and scatter them. It's exactly the thing I don't want him to do, but I don't want the cows coming into the garden either.
We've got some new ones in the herd now. Some young girls, not babies, but not adults either, have joined the ladies and two little ones in the pasture. I've been trying to get a good photo of the two little ones, who only appeared a month or so ago, but they're very skittish, especially if the dog is anywhere near.
The babies and the new girls scatter when Sparky barks.
But this Mama isn't afraid of a barky dog. She continued to eat fresh mowed grass. Yes, that's grass on her head.
The new arrivals came closer. The two in the background are the young calfs, one black and white like her mum, the other brown with a lovely patch on her forehead.
They're so curious about us humans!
Yesterday I spent the day in Queen Square in London, participating in the HD Predict medical trial. I've done this every year for eight years, and now the study is winding down. It's good to hear that lots of good data has been collected, in both patients with HD and control subjects, like me. And somewhere there are eight years worth of brain scans of my brain. Nice to know.
Here are a few photos I took yesterday as I walked around in the rain, and underground in the Tube.
My bench on the platform in Baker Street Tube Station.
Directions at Russel Square Tube Station
Around the corner from Russel Square. I don't like the modern sign they've hung up there.
This plaque is on the side of Great Ormond Street Hospital. "This stone was laid by Her Royal Highness Princess Alice Countess of Athlone April 30th 1937".
Someone erected a statue in Queen Anne Square to commemorate someone's death, probably at the hospital across the street.
Looks like the bluebells here are spent. (Yes, you know I'd manage to get a shot of bluebells, even in the middle of London.)
Queen Anne overlooks her square.
(I know; it's not Friday, but Typepad suffered a Denial of Service attack yesterday. The hackers will do anything to prevent Friday Cow Blogging from going on. They clearly are worried.)
This week I took a couple of friends to the Cotswolds, and our first stop was Minster Lovell, possibly my favorite place on earth. After we admired the ruins we walked around a bit, and came upon a field of llamas, as you do. It turned out one was a mama llama, but she must be fed up with that whole nurturing thing, because when Baby Llama (who was almost as big as Mama) came over looking for the goodies, she kicked him out of the way.
This went on for a while, but eventually Mama Llama succeded in her denial of service.
That's llamas for you.
Give me a cow any day.
Baby Llama arrives, Mama scuttles off.
Mama bites Baby
I don't usually approve of kids playing with dogs unsupervised, especially if they're climbing all over the poor dog, but this dog, a Great Pyrenees, tolerates these kids pretty well.
We almost got a Great Pyrenees, before we got Bailey, but I didn't have anything to guard. They do seem like really great dogs.
And now I'm wanting some baby goats. Sparky seems good with kids; maybe it would work out.
Yep, that's bluebells.
I noticed bluebells in my neighbour's garden the other day, but I figured it was an April Fool's joke. Today I saw them again, even more of them. Bluebells are supposed to wait until May, late April at the earliest.
I also saw rape seed blooming during my drive on Tuesday through Suffolk, another typical May sight in the countryside.
I guess bluebells don't pay much attention to the calendar, or else the very warm winter we've had—I don't think it got below freezing even once—convinced them to poke their lovely heads up early.
But it's odd to see bluebells and daffodils in the same flower patch. I'm pretty sure I've never seen that before, and you know I'm the sort to notice that.
Bluebells and daffodils, friends at last.
Where else can you take your child to see a dodo bird but Oxford?
A friend asked for advice on where to go this weekend, with a couple of caveats: it must be child-friendly and an hour or two by train from London. My first thought was Oxford, my favorite city in the whole world.
Oxford might not be your first thought when it comes to family-friendly outings. But even though I don't have small children, I've seen lots there that would delight a young child. Beginning, in chronological order, with the dinosaur eggs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. What child wouldn't like to touch a dinosaur egg? There are also some nice dinosaurs there, rivaling those at London's Natural History Museum, and of course the famous Dodo, the only remains of the extinct bird anywhere (and only the beak and feet, since the rest of the original stuffed bird were lost in a fire).
Dino eggs at the Natural History Museum
Which brings us to Alice in Wonderland. Alice Liddell was the real-life friend of Charles Dodgson, who was the head of the Maths Department at Christ Church College. Across the street from Christ Church, where Alice's father was the Dean, is a little shop called Alice's Shop, with sweets and child-appropriate gifts, which the actual Alice frequented.
And if it's more modern literary heroes you're fond of, Christ Church was the film location for one of the Harry Potter films. Take a tour and you'll see the Dining Hall from the film, as well as the grand staircase featured in the films. (I'm not a Harry Potter buff, so I can't tell you which ones.)
The Bodleian Library Divinity School, also known as Hogwart's infirmary.
The Bodleian Library also has a Harry Potter connection: The Divinity School stands in for the infirmary in the film. At the entrance to the library on Catte Street, you can purchase tickets for tours of the library and Divinity School. I'd recommend taking the 30 minute tour, which gets you into the main room featured in the film, or if your child is too antsy for even that, just ask to walk in and look around. (This was also where King Charles I held court while in exile during the Civil War, so parents may find the room adjacent to the Divinity School interesting, but you have to take a longer tour to see that.)
The museums at Oxford are among the best in the world, but they're also family friendly. The Museum of the History of Science, located around the corner from the Divinity School, has all sorts of gadgets, but my favorite exhibit is the chalkboard where Einstein wrote down his Theory of Relativity. The Ashmolean is filled with ancient artifacts, including Greek and Roman statues which may bore children, but on weekends there's usually family-friendly activities planned. There's a nice cafe too, if you're hungry, and entrance, like most of the museums in Oxford, is free.
The Pitt Rivers is hands down my favorite museum. Filled with items from the collection of Victorian archaeologist and ethnologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, it's got something for everyone, from shrunken heads to ancient writing implements to musical instruments from other cultures. Best of all is how the collections are displayed, in Victorian cabinets—you can open the drawers underneath and discover more!—with original handwritten or typed labels. The Pitt Rivers is a meta-museum, with the museum itself an artifact of the Victorian era. It's located inside the Natural History Museum building, accessed by walking through doors in the back.
Oxford Castle was used as a prison until 1996, and then was remodeled as a tourist attraction geared toward children. (Don't worry, it has plenty of history to interest grownups as well, though you might want to read up on King Stephen and Empress Matilda.) Now it calls itself Oxford Castle Unlocked and is located very near the multi-story carpark at Westgate.
Punting on the Cherwell
For the child in all of us, there is nothing like punting on the River Cherwell. Just underneath Magdalen Bridge, on the other side of Magdalen College (look for the tall tower down High Street, leading away from the city centre) you can find the punt hire. You can either try your hand yourself or hire a chauffeur, which I highly recommend—at least for landlubbers like myself. Sit back and admire the river and the Botanic Gardens as you float by, while your child laughs at the swans and geese racing the river craft.
If your older son or daughter is familiar with Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, be sure to visit the Botanic Garden and search for Lyra's bench, where her name is carved. It's located exactly where the final book says it is:
She led him past a pool with a fountain under a wide-spreading tree, and then struck off to the left towards a huge many trunked pine.
There was a massive stone wall with a doorway in it, and in the further part of the garden the trees were younger and the planting less formal. Lyra led him almost to the end of the garden, over a little wooden bridge, to a wooden seat under a sprawling low-branched tree.
The Botanic Garden is just across from Magdalen College. The entrance fee is £4.50 for adults, but children are free.
You can also tour any of the colleges for a small fee, provided they aren't closed for student exams or some other reason. This may or may not interest your child, with the exception of Christ Church, which is a must for any Harry Potter fan.
All Soul's College, seen from the top of University Church of St Mary's
For great views of Oxford's "dreaming spires", you can't beat University Church of St Mary, right on High Street just beyond the beautiful Radcliffe Camera, if you're coming from Catte Street. (You might not want to tell your child what happened here—the trial of the three martyrs, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, was held in this Catholic church during the reign of Queen Mary, and later they were burned to death at a spot on Broad Street, near Balliol College.) For a small fee you can climb the tower and squeeze around the viewing platform (it's very narrow, with a high ledge, so short children may not be able to see over without a boost). And if climbing towers turns out to be a real turn-on for your child, go climb St Michael's tower on Cornmarket, which dates from Saxon times, and Carfax Tower, which is "only" from the 12th century. Better than any climbing wall, with proper steps!
The Bridge of Sighs, on New College Lane
If your child is impressed by architectural oddities, be sure and point out the Bridge of Sighs, right across from the entrance to the Bodleian Library. And if you pass underneath the Bridge of Sighs you can point out to your budding astronomer Sir Edmund Halley's house just on the other side, where Halley's Comet was discovered.
By now even the hardiest young tourist will be tired. Take them to Covered Market (between High Street and Market Street) and find a sweet shop or a bakery, or stop for hot cocoa in one of the cafes. Look through the windows at the cake decorating shop, where fabulous cakes are on display, and if your child has been extra good, you can buy her a lovely child-sized cake for a few pounds.
A celebration cake at The Cake Shop in the Covered Market
To get to Oxford, take a train from Paddington in London or drive up the M40 to Junction 8, then take the A40 to the Thornhill Park and Ride. There's also a nifty bus called the Oxford Tube, which stops at several locations in London and departs from Gloucester Green in the centre of Oxford.
Here's a map that shows carparks in Oxford, but I find it useful to have at hand while walking around the city centre. If you arrive by train, I'd go first to the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers on Parks Road (about a 20 minute walk), then head down Parks Road past Broad Street, admiring the Bridge of Sighs along the way, and then in to the Bodleian to check out the Divinity School. Then continue down Catte Street to High Street and turn left toward Magdalen College. From there, walk back down High Street to the intersection with St Aldates, turn left and visit Christ Church (you'll aim for the tall Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren) and Alice's Shop. To visit the Castle, go back to High Street, turn left, continue on Queen's Street past Castle Street until you see the large castle mound on the left. From there the train station isn't too far.
Likewise, if you arrive via the Oxford Tube, it lets you off in Gloucester Green and from there you're right in the heart of Oxford—my very favourite place to be.
I've been thinking lately that I need to get out more. Maybe everyone was getting sick of the same old cows, week after week, instead of more interesting, more colorful cows, further afield. Yet Sparky isn't good around strange cows (okay, all cows are strange, as far as he's concerned). Walking amongst livestock just isn't a good idea with a cow-reactive dog.
So today when I saw the cows near the fence I ran outside with apples.
This is the reaction I got:
I think he's trying to tell me something.
For now I think I will just stick with these cows. Maybe not so boring after all.
For the last few months, I've been working on a non-fiction project called What Am I Doing Here? I've kept it under my hat, since I wasn't sure I'd be able to pull it off. It's self-published, under my own imprint called Lavender House Publishing. (More about that later.)
What Am I Doing Here? is a collection of blog posts from this site, plus a few extra bits, including a glossary. It focuses primarily on my experience here as an expat, an American slightly bewildered by Britain. There are chapters on the assimilation process (rocky), driving (smooth), language (still incomprehensible at times) and, of course, my dog.
In fact, I've dedicated the book to Bailey, my Golden girl and I'm donating the proceeds to the cancer charity Animal Cancer Foundation. Cancer in canines is similar if not identical to the same cancers in humans, so research in one species adds to our knowledge of cancer in other species.
What Am I Doing Here? will be available in both print and digital. If you buy the print edition at Amazon.com, you can get a digital copy for only $.99 through Amazon's MatchBook program. They don't offer that at Amazon.co.uk yet. But the digital edition has some really colorful photos (as long as you have a color-enabled device), which aren't available in the print edition.
I got the idea to compile my blog posts well over a year ago, and around that time I designed the cover, using a stock photo from iStockphoto.com. The rest of the book I edited, copyedited, and proofread myself, which I would never recommend to anyone. I used a Word template for the print edition, and made modifications to that as needed. The ebook editions were made using Jutoh, a program I highly recommend.
In order to avoid the dreaded "Sold by Amazon Digital Services" in the product listing, I decided to create my own publishing imprint. I'd intended all along to call it Canterbury House, since that's the name of my house (isn't it charming how houses in Britain have names?). But when I searched the internet, I discovered there was already a Canterbury House Publishing.
So I scrambled for an alternative. While pondering several possibilities, I looked outside my office window at the row of lavender I planted, right in front of my house. Thus was Lavender House Publishing born.
One day I may publish more non-fiction through Lavender House. I doubt I'll ever publish my fiction there, as I value the editing I received from my publisher far too much to want to go it alone.
Here's how to find WAIDH?:
Another edition of "British signs are funny sweet."
This sign is located on the railroad bridge where I walk most days. It's a narrow bridge, with a curve on either side, so walking across is treacherous. Yet there's a school not too far away, and as regular readers of this blog are aware, there are no such thing as school buses in Britain (not for primary aged children, anyway). So mums and their offspring have to walk across this bridge during the school run, when cars are trying to get to work or taking other kids to school.
I try to avoid crossing during the school run, but when I do cross this bridge, I make Sparky heel. He does a pretty good job of that, and it's good practice for him.
Not long after I took this photo a windstorm came and knocked the sign sideways. It's been put back now, thank goodness. Now if they would only make a sign that has a person walking a dog alongside. That would seem like a very British sort of sign, don't you think?
Cows from my gym window.
I'm really enjoying working out with the cows. On Wednesday I was peering outside while I did bicep curls, and noticed a couple of cows coming close to the fence. I kept my eye on them as I did press-ups against the wall, and tried to think of other exercises I could do that would allow me to keep looking out the window.
Then I noticed one of the cows had strange markings on his side. I picked up the iPad and started taking photos, forgetting all about working out.
I can't tell what language those markings are; anyone have a clue?
At one point, one of the cows started staring into the neighbour's garden, then ran over toward the fence as if he wanted to see who was there. I didn't see anyone, but maybe my neighbour throws apples to the cows too.
Pretty soon I'll be able to throw the apples quite far, as my biceps are getting huge. Not really, but I am pretty sure I can out-gun Michelle Obama in an arm wrestle contest. I bet she doesn't even have any cows to look at from her gym window.
Everyone likes Flower Season. Including the dog.
Winter is officially over. But to be honest, I hardly knew it was here at all. This has been one of the mildest winters on record for the UK, and for me, the mildest since I've been here, almost ten years now. Not a single flake of snow fell. If it got below freezing, it was surely in the wee hours of the morning. I didn't have to scrape frost off the car once, in fact, we never even put the cars into the garage.
We did have rain. Lots and lots of rain, record-breaking rain. Flooding occurred in places that hadn't seen floods in decades. But unless you were up north or in Scotland, you wouldn't have seen any snowfall.
The British Isles seem to be the flip side of what's happened in the US this year. Record snowfalls in the East and 500 year drought in California have bookended a winter of wacky weather that gave us a new term: polar vortex.
Welcome to my jetstream, America. We had the same issues with the kinky jetstream three years ago. But we didn't call it a polar vortex, sadly. That's too technical a term for the average Brit to tolerate. (This is the same lexicon that reduces "MRI" to "scan" and "leukemia" to "blood cancer".)
Today we're basking in 20C weather. Last year, we didn't hit 20C until April 14, which just goes to show how fickle Spring can be. Regardless, I'm glad she's here, even if only for a few days. Spring, or as I like to call it, "Flower Season," is my favorite time of year.