The first day she was here I meet her at Heathrow and we managed to haul her stuff to Jen's place on the opposite side of London, despite the massive tube closings that day for construction. We were off to Cardiff the next day, so I ran Nicole all over London, determined for her to get to see as much of the city as possible in a single day. We managed to hit all the major places; Kings Cross, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster, The Eye, Kensington Gardens, The Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Looking back I can't believe we managed to hit all those places in a day, but we did. Just ask my foot; I still have a huge, man-eating blister on the bottom of my heel almost two full weeks later from that one day.
My two favorite things about the day besides seeing Nicole's reaction to everything and being able, for the most part, to find my way around the city without Jen: the Trafalgar Square lions and J.M. Berrie's house.
Anyone who's been to Trafalgar Square knows what I'm talking about. Those 4 lions, about a million times bigger than any real lion (besides maybe Aslan), guarding the gigantic obelisk topped with a statue of Lord Nelson. They are easily the most photographed statues in the entire city, constantly crawling with children and adults alike, all wanting their picture with the massive felines. They don't make it easy to get up there either. The bottom of the obelisk is just high enough that anyone of average height would either need a leg up or otherwise have difficulty getting on top. I've been to Trafalgar Square about a million times by now (and by that I mean maybe five times) and have only managed to get up on the lions once. Last summer I got up to them, but not in the front which is where you want to be for the best picture. The last time I got to the primo photo spot was in high school on my first overseas trip. But, I had a lot of help.
I don't know why when looking back on my one day in London with Nicole, climbing up to sit with the lions sticks out as a highlight, but it does nonetheless. I boosted Nicole up first, got some shots, then she helped me. It's like if you have sat with the Trafalgar Square Lions, you can do anything. The whole square is so immense, always full of multitudes of tourists from all over the world. When you are up sitting with the lions you have a great view of everyone and everything. You can see the hustle and bustle of local Londoners going about their day in the background of all the tourist activity, behind people saying 'squeeze in for a picture!' in a hundred different languages. Whether you are a tourist yourself, a local, or a weird I-live-here-but-will-always-feel-like-a-tourist sort of person like I am, sitting with the lions you just feel a part of what makes London great; it's enormity. With that massive lion at your back, and for that full second you are allowed to stand with it for a picture before you have to get out of the way for everyone else, you are invincible. I am 100% sure this is just me, personally, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway. It's my blog after all.
Second favorite thing about our day; finding J.M. Berrie's house in Kensington. Our reason for going all the way to Kensington was to find the Peter Pan statue in the garden. Being on a story book adventure as we were, it was only appropriate we visit our pal Peter and high five all the lost boys. Anytime I find myself in Kensington Garden I am always looking over my shoulder in case any of Tinker Bell's cousins are around and want to take me to Neverland. (If you tell me I'm too old to go to Neverland, then consider us no longer friends. Harsh, I know, but just keep that in mine.) It's a place I always find myself in with not nearly enough time to relax or explore.
We found the statue with no difficulty and it was just as neat as last summer when I saw it for the first time. If you've been reading this blog for a while then you will know that I have a thing or statues. A big thing. I love them. The Peter Pan statue is one of my favorites. It's so intricate, the whole base encrusted with fairies, lost boys and woodland creatures, all leading up to Peter himself, his arms spread wide as if to dare the world to just try and make him grow up. ("cuz growing up is awfuler, than all the awful things that ever were!")
After bidding Peter farewell till next time, we headed down the street to the tube. We were crossing the street and I saw a blue dot out of the corner of my eye. I think my exact words were something like "Look, a blue dot! Wonder who that is." The blue dots are all over the place, I guess in the entire country. They are really blue plaques on the houses of either famous people (artist, authors, scientists, musicians, mathematicians) or noteworthy places. I've seen them all over Oxford and London, so it was no surprise that we found one in Kensington. The surprise was whose name was on the dot.
It was J.M. Berrie's house, the author of Peter Pan. THE house where he wrote Peter Pan if I'm not mistaken. It was 100 Bayswater Road, right on the corner. The yard (or 'garden' as they are called here) was hidden behind a high wall. The blue dot was only just visible above the wall on the front of the house. The corner of the house was rounded and made of brown bricks with bits of mirrors encased in it all the way up which made the side of the place sparkle in the sunlight. Being the creeper I am, I managed to climb onto an electrical box on the sidewalk and get a glimpse over the wall into the garden. It was so picturesque and adorable with a little stone path and benches among the bushes and flowers. It was like a mini Neverland that we would have walked right by if I had not seen that heavenly blue dot. As many times as I've been to that area of London (we stayed very close to there for a whole week last summer!), I never even thought of looking for Mr. Barrie's house. Story book adventure, I'm telling you. I was so tickled to have found that house that I kept talking about it for the entire day, even when no one was listening.
That night we went to Karaoke with Jen and her house mate and us WVU girls all sang Country Roads to celebrate WVU's victory over Marshal the night before that none of us had been able to watch. After butchering the first verse we got in our grove. Even Nicole sang, I could hear her, I swear.
Next we were off to Wales, our primary destination of the trip. Our whole reason or going to Wales was Nicole (the trip was all about her). She wrote an amazing book, the one I was talking about earlier, and she set it in little towns around Wales despite having never been to the country. This was primarily a research trip for her. Didn't I tell you that writing takes you places? I cannot think of a better job. Anyway, so we took a train from London to Cardiff and spent half the week in magical, dragon loving, faerie country and loved every moment of it.
Wales is an interesting place. I think I said at one point that Wales is the middle of nowhere, which at the time was a joke, but is actually true. There is not a lot going on, but it is a beautiful place. They are very proud of their faerie and Celtic roots. You can buy just about anything with their national red dragon on it such as your typical shot glasses, patches, t-shirts and messenger bags. I was tempted to get the messenger bag; I'm a sucker for a cool dragon, I'll admit it (especially if it sounds like Sean Connery). You could buy flower crown in the gift shops and greeting cards with all sorts of faeries on them, so needless to say Nicole and I were basically in heaven.
There were a few highlights of this trip, but the most unrelated-to-Wales highlight was the fact that we rented a car, and I actually drove on the wrong side of the road. I had to be the one to drive initially because you have to be at least twenty three to rent a car, and Nicole would not be twenty three until the next day. Man was I ever nervous.
I had one other opportunity to drive on the wrong side of the road, back when I visited Molly in New Zealand. We rented a car to get out of the city, but I chickened out and let Molly do the driving. This time, I had no choice. Not only did I have to drive the car, but I had to drive it out of the city. However, once I started to drive, it took about five seconds to get used to it. I don't know if it was because I've been here for a solid month, riding in cars and busses and may have subconsciously gotten used to being on the wrong side already, or if this just means I rule at driving. I think probably that first one. Either way, I ended up being head driver on our expedition, Nicole filling the position of head navigator and map reader, and it was fantastic.
We did a lot in Wales. A LOT. The first couple of days we had the car it rained and all we were able to see were the outlines of the countryside, and what would have been spectacular views of rolling hills and farmland, but ended up being white, fog drenched dreariness. It was still beautiful, but we had no idea what we were missing until the sun came out a few days later. Wales is gorgeous. Our second day driving down the coast we had sun, and not a moment too soon. GREEN AND BLUE everywhere we looked, the ocean on our right and farmland on our left. We kept pulling over to take pictures and climb on rocks, another reason Nicole is the perfect travel buddy. Not everyone would have the patience for stopping to climb on rocks or for turning around to go back and get a picture of a unicorn crossing sign. Oh right, did I mention we saw a unicorn crossing sign? Well we did. It's possible that the horn was just drawn onto a horse crossing sign, but I'd like to think it was a legitimate warning to motorists of the possibility that unicorns could be clogging the highways. That is Wales.
I think the highlight of the trip however were the Brecon Beacons. The entire trip was Nicole's deal; she planned it all out and decided where we were going to go without any help from me. I know nothing about Wales after all; I just want to go everywhere so I'm always game. The Brecon Beacons are a flat top mountain range where back in the day they really used to light beacon fires to contact the far away parts of the country about whatever they needed to alert them to. JUST LIKE IN LORD OF THE RINGS. This particular range of beacon mountains had a path you could walk to get to the top, and that's what we wanted to do.
We went to Brecon three times in three days trying to climb this mountain. The first two days it was either raining too hard or too foggy to climb, but the last day the clouds parted a tiny bit and we were actually able to see our hand in front of our face. Perfect.
Our first hint that climbing the beacons might be more of a challenge than we thought was right there as we pulled into the parking lot. There were guys everywhere wearing full wind suits with hoods or thick hats with ear flaps. We just laughed and said, "It's just a hill!" I debated whether to write about this or not, wanting to avoid any sort of negative reaction from my parents, but oh well. At least I wore hiking boots.
So up we went, me in a jean dress, bright turquoise sweatshirt, leggings and hiking boots, Nicole in a hot pink hoodie, jeans and tennis shoes, laughing and joking about how ditsy we looked compared to all the other hikers. It did not take long for us to see that the 'highest point in the southern UK' was actually pretty high.
We did not take that mountain seriously and probably should have. There were signs everywhere saying that it was a serious mountain and to be prepared. And it's not that we were not prepared, we had water and layers and provisions in my backpack, it's just that we were not prepared for the top. As we climbed, taking frequent breaks for my sake (Maria is not good at hiking), we were getting exceedingly high without even realizing it. Suddenly, Nicole turned around to see where I was and just about fell over the edge in shock. The path was no longer going up the middle of spreads of land but following the edge of a sheer cliff, tiny specks of houses miles below us. We were SO high. And that's when the wind picked up.
It had been windy all day, but nothing like this. The higher we got the more and more apparent it became as to why all those hikers at the bottom were wearing wind suits. We got nearly to the top and sat down to assess the situation. We clung to the rocks and contemplated going back, feeling unsteady with the wind tossing us around. However in the end we deiced that we had not climbed that far to not go to the top. Boy am I glad we did.
If not for the wind, I could have stayed up there all day. Tons of flat top mountains surrounded us for miles, the one we were on looking down on a green valley specked with ponds and trees so tiny I can't even be sure they were trees at all and not just little green smudges. Looking from mountain top to mountain top I could easily picture distant fires being lit to warn far off cities of impending invasions.
After walking around the top of our mountain for a while, arm in arm so we would not blow away, there was the matter of getting back down. We literally crawled to the edge. I went a little further to try and see the way. I couldn't. From where I was, it looked like we could climb about halfway and then it just dropped into nothingness. There was no path. Now, if this had been any other day neither of us would have minded climbing around on rocks to get down a mountain, but the wind made this seem impossible. Finally we had no choice but to just do it, and slowly, we made our way down.
It was not as bad as it looked. Once we were down the rocks to another flat surface, the rest of the way down was cake. We kept looking behind us, not believing that we could have possibly been that high. We were put to shame by a group of young boys who seemed to have had no problem with the mountain who followed us down. They were all properly equipped and none could have been over the age of 12. I feel like you would never see that in the states, super young boys climbing treacherous mountains in gale force winds, but then again I was never a boy scout (clearly).
I was going to write about when Nicole and I got back to Oxford in this blog too, but 2,800 words later I'm thinking I should save that for another one. Stay tuned for Maria and Nicole's adventures in Oxford in which we actually go to Wonderland.