UK Roadtrip: Week 3 Part 1

Day 14: Isle of Skye and Highland Games

The Isle of Skye came highly recommended; the island and the entire journey to it did not disappoint. I have often heard Ireland called the “Emerald Isle” but Scotland could very well have it beat. As valleys rose to mountains at sharp angles, my mind took me back to the algebra classes I never thought I needed and how a quadratic curve was staring me in the face at ever direction.

Once again, narrow, turn filled roads were outfitted with “60 mph” signs. The speed seemed far too high and too dangerous for the sharp, blind curves. Thankfully, Scottish drivers were a bit more forgiving and would pass by without a honk or a shaking fist like we might have experienced in Houston. I also have to give mad props to my beautiful chauffeur. The road trip had not been without its disagreements and frustrations, but she was the right choice for the job and had kept us safe.

In 4.5 months, we had some truly once in a lifetime experiences, but Skye presented one set apart: The Highland Games. Locals and visitors alike crowded onto a small jutting spit of land close to downtown Portree called The Lump. The space was small and the crowd was often 3-5 people deep to get a view of the main competition arena. At any given time, long jump events could be occurring simultaneously as Gaelic dancing and bagpipe competitions. The best way to describe it was a flamboyantly Scottish track and field event.

Two fan favorites were American competitors from California. Both were massive men, in kilts, and brought equally large personalities to the competition. The taller of the two, who had the look of Thor, broke the grounds all time record for the highest one-armed 56lb throw over a vaulted stick. For the picture, he curtsied with his kilt to laughs from the crowd. Naturally, I enjoyed all of the field events (I briefly had a stint at shot & disc in high school) and Hannah intently watched the dancing, trying to decipher the pattern of movements in concert with the shrill bagpipes.

After standing for over 6 hours straight with no water to drink and very mediocre, over-priced food, we headed home for a quick sleep before another move. I had to crank some music from Spotify in order to get the endless loop of bagpipe out of my head. Inspired from watching the gallant displays of strength and athleticism, I heroically dispatched 4 spiders for my endangered heroine before rolling over for some zzz’s.

Day 15: Loch Lomond

The following day was a long drive that took us through Loch Lomond. Long stretches of narrow lake were flanked by walls of dark green pine trees with small bay inlets for boating enthusiasts along the way. The scenery across the entire country was varied, incomparable, and breathtaking. Northern Scotland had rolling, lush green fields while the west had massive mountains and central Scotland showed narrow, ever continuing lakes. Most Scots seemed surprised that our drives were often 3-5 hours on a given day. A few mentioned they had never even been to some of the places we were visiting within their own country. They explained that for them, that was quite a long haul, while as Americans we may be more accustomed to such long journeys. Interestingly, one host told us the population of Scotland is 3 million people, which is less than the greater Houston area where Hannah and I were living before the trip. It gave interesting perspective to the country.

Day 16: Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was one of the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Many may not be aware that the Roman Empire spanned all the way from England down to Northern Africa and as far East as Arabia. The few remaining remnants of the wall stand beside some of the roadways. Hikers undertake a path hemmed in one side by the wall and vast fields of green on the other. It was an experience that we probably would have taken had we more time. But for what bit we did have, I tried to imagine the Roman centurion outposts repulsing the “barbarian” hordes from the north (from their own land) from atop the structure.

Day 16 & 17: Beamish

I was skeptical. Hannah LOVES open air, living history type museums. You know, the ones where people are dressed up in period garb, talking in an olden accent, and where nothing modern exists yet? Ya, those…She had tagged this one months ago as a place she had to visit. Beamish Living History Museum was the name and it was absolutely incredible, and that is coming from a skeptic. Because of the not cheap entrance fee, I originally had even formulated an alternate plan to get out of it and spend my day at a coffee shop writing or keeping busy, but I would have very much regretted not going.

Stepping out into the rainy walkway from the admission center, I was not sure what to expect. With a loud “ding-ding”, my head whipped up to see a 1950s double-decker cable car adorned in deep red and mellow cream colors waiting to take us to our first adventure on the estate. True to form, it bore time period specific advertising and font for a paint supply company. Bemused at this point, I hopped on with a more open mind.

The first stop was an area called Pit Village that was an old mining town from the 1900s. One of the most memorable moments was the tour of a real underground coal mine. The space was cramped as we endured the relative darkness that miners endured by candlelight through long grueling shifts. Display cases nearby contained old lanterns and emergency breathing apparatuses.

The next stop was the 1820s Pockerly Waggonway and Quilter’s home. This area showcased a working steam engine, modeled after one of the first ever created. It took us on a short journey into decades past, spewing coal dust and water vapor into the air as it chugged. The engineer took the time to explain the mechanics of the steam engine and how propulsion was created. It was fascinating. Next was a brief stop at the quilter’s home to hear about a historic, gruesome village murder, we moved along.

The 1930s era Town was one of my favorite stops. It featured an old bank with real downstairs vaults for patents. An elaborate Masonic hall with beautiful stained glass monikers. A sweet shop nearby made boiled candies from 1930 recipes and rows of candy jars adorned the shelves. A nearby pharmacy/chemist showcased additional rows of old medicinal salves and bottles. The soda shop bottler used 1930s technology to bottle sarsaparilla flavored soda. I had only seen sarsaparilla bottled anything in the video game Fallout, so I was naturally curious to try it. Sarsaparilla is a root grown in Latin America. The best description I can give is a faint licorice taste. It will be something I look for again in the future. We strolled through the cobbled streets past horse filled stables, hardware, grocery, and clothing stores. The stores contained an old payment system involving a gravity fed track and ball overhead that fed directly to a cashier cage where money was kept and change was sent back. One of the shopkeepers was kind enough to demonstrate it for us. A large band stood situated in the park emitting melodic 1930s era music on our way to the railway station and out of the area.

The railway station contained a large hanger depot full of old steamrollers, a diesel ship engine, and 1 modern electric car for size comparison. We took another steam engine train ride here before continuing on to the resource center. The resource center building was essentially a movable library stack system of cataloged historic items. The shelves held dollhouses, rocking horses, an iron lung, radios, gramophones, and many other interesting items. Outside, an enormous old, grey excavator stood at attention, like something from a history book.

Iron Lung

Our remaining stop was a late 1800s ration farm. Large pigs laid in muck while chickens hopped around beside them. Old farming equipment stood at the ready to supply the village with food as WW2 raged onward. We hopped on one last cable car ride around the park to take it all in a final time. It was a great experience and I was glad that Hannah drug me along for it.

One neat and worthwhile note on the Beamish Museum admission was that it is valid for an entire year. If we were parents and lived nearby, this would be a frequent stop for children to spend fun-filled educational days and a great way to keep busy on the weekends. We split our visit into two days and were thankful we had.

The best part about Beamish was its authenticity. The historic buildings had all been carefully brought in brick by brick from various English towns and villages. The attention to detail and utter magnitude of the projects was impressive and memorable.

Day 18: Cambridge & Oxford

Cambridge was our first stop of the day. Spires of collegiate buildings stood tall amongst street level tourist shops, cafes, and souvenir stores. The town felt small and intimate, but also a bit commercialized due to the fame of its central attraction. The dated buildings helped us imagine a simpler time where education was less about technology and more about complex problem solving and innovation.

Oxford was probably my preferred sight of the two storied universities. The brass clanging of cathedral bells greeted us as we emerged from the car park. After seeing a number of churches thus far, we elected not to pay the $10-15 for each entrance. We also did not have an abundance of time, as we still needed to drive an hour or so further to our Airbnb for the evening. Hidden away in the depths of one of the colleges, a secret garden hid an even more private pond. As the path continued, a secluded cricket pitch with a sole sunbather stood ready for a match.

What felt strange about the two cities was the way that college students had to presumably weave around the gangs of tourists to make it to class or to the next item on their agenda. Hannah and I agreed that it would have gotten old quickly if it had happened during our college days.  


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