This time, though, we lucked out, and had stupendous weather. We spent a good deal of our stay in the southwestern counties of Cornwall and Devon, and were treated to spectacular vistas of rocky coastlines and beautiful seaside villages.
Mevagissey Harbor, Cornwall
One thing that impressed us about England as a whole, but the southwest in particular, is that they can grow damn near anything. At an amazing botanical garden near St. Austell in Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, we saw a collection of camellias, dahlias, hundred-year-old Nepalese tree rhododendrons, and... pineapples. I kid you not. The brilliant South African amaryllis relative, crocosmia, is everywhere, growing not only in gardens but along roadsides and train track embankments.
Crocosmias in Heligan
The Eden Project
Speaking of kaolin, as amateur potters, my wife and I had to visit Wheal Martyn, near Ruddlemoor, a porcelain clay museum and working kaolin mine. If you own a piece of English porcelain, chances are the kaolin -- the constituent of porcelain clay that makes it white and allows it to be shaped -- came from here.
From there, we headed off to London, a city I'd never been in before (having spent my entire previous visit to England north of the city of Manchester). Having New York City as my mental model of a large, cosmopolitan city, I was immediately impressed by how clean London is, how orderly everything (especially the Tube) is, and how polite everyone seemed to be. I swear, Londoners use the word "Sorry" as a greeting. More sightseeing, including Kew Gardens (we have a thing for gardens, you might have noticed), a couple of museums, and the Tower of London, and then it was off to Suffolk.
What brought us to Leiston, a little town on the Suffolk coast, was Minsmere, a phenomenal wildlife refuge. Illustrating Dave Barry's quip that "there is a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness," the entire reason for visiting Minsmere was...
... birds. I'm an avid birdwatcher, and if you like birds, Minsmere should be on your bucket list. I won't bore you non-birders with the details, but let's just say that watching a Barn Owl hunt at dusk was one of the high points of my vacation.
Then we continued north to the beautiful cathedral town of Durham, which is in a region of England where they speak a variant of English composed almost entirely of consonants. The north of England demonstrates the accuracy of Oscar Wilde's comment about England and America being two countries separated by the same language. I had many conversations like the following:
Taxi driver: "S'h'w l'ng y'r'n D'rh'm, eh?"
Me: "Only a few days, unfortunately."
Taxi driver: "t's l'v'ly t'wn, n't?"
Me: "It sure is."
Taxi driver: "M'n sq'd b'f'n l'rg b'lt'sqt?"
Me: "Oh, definitely."The upshot of it was that most of the time, I had no idea what I was responding and/or agreeing to. But people were very friendly, probably because at some point in the conversation I had inadvertently agreed to make them the beneficiaries of my will, or something.
While in Durham we visited Carol's ancestral castle, Hylton Castle, near Sunderland. Her great-grandmother was a Hylton, and they descend from nobility and (ultimately) King Edward IV, a fact of which she reminds me when I start getting uppity. In fact, she considered stopping by Buckingham Palace while we were in London to say hi to her Cousin Elizabeth, but figured that might not go over so well considering that Carol has more than once publicly mused about how many people she'd have to kill to be in succession for the English throne. (Best estimate: 857,209,281 people are ahead of her in line. But hope springs eternal, right?)
Practicing the "Royal Wave" in front of Hylton Castle
But all in all, it was a wonderful holiday, and thank you for indulging me not only a three-week break from writing Skeptophilia, but my devoting a day's post to a mini-travelogue. During my hiatus I was sent a number of good topics by loyal readers, because while I was gone the world apparently went on being weird, illogical, and irrational, to no one's particular surprise. So tomorrow I'll be back at it again.
Refreshed, rejuvenated, and with luck, wearing clean underwear.