A few days in Edinburgh

Apologies for the gap in posting on this blog – this has come about simply because I’ve been on holiday and haven’t really had internet access! I just started my summer job today, and I’ve spent the previous 10 days travelling in Scotland and in Derry/Donegal. So here goes: my writeup!

Day 1

My flight into Edinburgh left Stansted Airport at 12pm, which unfortunately meant that I had to get a very early bus from Oxford at 4.30am in order to get there on time. This had a few consequences, as the previous night was also the night of my schools’ dinner, i.e. the final dinner of term where all the Classicists at my college have a bit of a blowout. In the end I returned from a nightclub around 3.30am, had a shower, packed my bag and ran to the bus station. It was all well, and I managed to get to Edinburgh that afternoon. Unfortunately, I had little energy for anything but cooking myself dinner, making small talk in the hostel kitchen and collapsing into bed at 8pm.

19420772_10211116825534245_7893870030871762226_n

Day 2

This day was a bit more exciting. I ventured out to Edinburgh castle, and also took in the National Gallery before walking up to Caldon Hill, which offers iconic views of the Scottish capital.

 

That evening ended with a few drinks in a bar with some people from the hostel, as well as a surprising break-in to Edinburgh SU bar, where I was pleased to find that my Oxford card (valid until 30 June) was still able to secure me a discount.

Day 3

On my final full day in Edinburgh I paid a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard, where JK Rowling is alleged to have found inspiration for some of the names of characters in Harry Potter.
19366475_10211116846894779_7423936829513763442_n
I then went on to take a trip round the National Museum of Scotland, which presented a rather nationalistic view of Scottish history (certainly, though, such a view is politically prescient), before walking round some of the gardens in central Edinburgh.

I should mention that I have also had confirmation that I will be moving to Trier via the British council in late August and sent off my contract to them yesterday. I have not ceased to be busy after my degree finished, but at least it feels now that things are finally starting to happen!

 

Cheese rolling in Gloucestershire

Today I took a break from revision to attend the annual Cheese rolling race on Cooper’s Hill, Brockworth with a friend of mine and one of his colleagues. This is a traditional event in which a 9lb round of Gloucester Cheese is rolled down the hill, with competitors chasing after it. The first person across the finish line wins the cheese.

I had first heard about this event years ago and thought it sounded pretty funny, but when my friend suggested last week that we try to attend this year I couldn’t pass it up. He drove to Oxford early in the morning and picked me up before we set out to Brockworth along with a colleague of his.

The walk up to the hill was a steep climb, with a lot of queuing. The event runs without any real marshalls or even a first aid stand, as it now run without council approval, who have repeatedly tried to place restrictions on the event due to Health-and-Safety concerns.

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, sky, plant, crowd, outdoor and nature

Although it was raining heavily, the crowds which came out to watch were huge and it was difficult at times to get a clear view of what was going on. I regretted my choice of clothing for the event, having underestimated the location (jeans are not ideal in the rain), and not bringing water. Fortunately there were a few stands selling food and drink nearby.

I have to admit that it was highly entertaining to watch large groups of people hurtling down the hill after a large round of cheese. That said – if I chose to go again I would probably bring some provisions with me, dress properly for hillwalking and come earlier to get a better spot – as you can see from the picture it was difficult to get a full view of the course.

5 Things to do in Gloucestershire

I’ve just returned from a housewarming party hosted by a friend in Cheltenham, a city which isn’t usually on the tourist map, though there is a lot to do in Gloucestershire. Here are some suggestions for things to do if you find yourself in the county:

1. Visit Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester is home to one of the most beautiful Anglican Cathedrals in the country, which can be visited free of charge, though I recommend leaving a donation. The land around the Cathedral is currently being redeveloped into a green space in the city centre of Gloucester. The building is rich in history, local and national, and is well worth making the trip into Gloucester to see.

2. Walk the Cotswold Way

The Cotswolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty in western England offers well managed walking routes for ramblers, across green countryside and rolling hills. The Cotswold way is a 100 mile route stretching the length of the county as far south as Bath. The map you will need is the OL 45, though the terrain is very safe and most routes are along well marked paths.

3. Visit a Spa in Cheltenham

Cheltenham developed massively as a city after it was turned into a Spa town in the late 18th century, becoming a place where the wealthy could come to visit spas in order to improve their health. This continues today, and Cheltenham is home to a number of spas at various price points, the cheapest being Leisure at Cheltenham, where you can enter the spa for £7.40 as an adult – this offers a relaxing end to a long walk.

4. Visit Chedworth Roman Villa

Gloucestershire was one of the most Romanized parts of Britain, a fact which is reflected in the large number of Roman sites excavated in the county and borne tribute to by a statue of the emperor Nerva in Gloucester city centre. Chedworth Roman Villa, a National Trust site, is one of them and is well worth visiting.

5. Visit the Forest of Dean

The Forest of Dean is a large wooded area in the western part of the county, and can be visited for walking, horse-riding, kayaking and a variety of other outdoor activities – it is worth making the trip!

Eating out in Oxford on a budget: 5 of the Best

By budget, I mean that places where it’s possible to get a full meal for under or around £5. As a student on a limited budget you get good at sussing out these places very quickly: here are the places I’d recommend.

  1. Gloucester Green Market
    Open Wed-Saturday, the Gloucester Green market has a variety of food stalls which offer pretty much every kind of cuisine you could want, at very reasonable prices. I’m a big fan of the arepas and langos stalls.
  2. Viny’s Cafe
    A cheap and friendly café on the Cowley road which offers sandwiches, baked potatoes, and salads at very reasonable prices, with a quiet and friendly atmosphere. It is also open fairly late (until around 8pm), so can serve as a good place to get some work done in.
  3. Sasi’s Thai
    A Thai café popular with Oxford international students in the covered market, you can get a massive plate of curry or pad thai for around £5, to eat in or take away. Although the queues can be long at times, it is worth the wait.
  4. Hassan’s
    A classic place to stop when you’re in need of some late night calories, Hassan’s van on Broad Street is the saviour of many students. Although Kebab vans sometimes have an undeserved bad reputation, Hassan’s fast-food is of good quality (particularly the falafel wraps) and the van has a 5* food hygiene rating (which, for context, is better than the dining halls in several Oxford colleges!)
  5. Bodrum Kebab
    A cheap Turkish café near to Divinity Road on the Cowley road, which offers meze plates and kebabs at very cheap prices, along with friendly (table!) service. A good option if you can’t afford the pricier middle eastern options springing up on the Cowley Road, which coincidentally are all owned by the same person.

 

A Weekend in the Peak District

This weekend I travelled to Ilam in the Peak District with friend, R. I hadn’t been on a walking trip since September, and as expected it was good to get out into the hills again.

Friday 

I started the day running packing and sorting out everything we would need for the trip. I had to get the bus to Cheltenham from Oxford at 12.45, which put me under a bit of pressure. We were intending to cook most of our meals in the hostel, so I had to run around Sainsburys with my rucksack before making it onto the bus.

I am always struck, more or less every time I travel into Gloucestershire, by how much friendlier people are than in Oxford or London. I struck up a conversation with two ladies waiting for the bus, and while waiting in a café in Cheltenham for R to get out of work an older man started up a conversation with me, curious about my OS map.

When R finished work we went to his house for some final packing before setting off in the car for Ilam, a journey which took around 2.5 hours. It was dark by the time we arrived, driving down a pitch black hill to our hostel with ABBA blasting on the CD player.

Saturday

We were up early on Saturday morning for a 10-mile walk in the Manifold Valley and Dovedale.

The scenery was bleak, almost medieval, but also beautiful. I had been walking in the Peak District once before, back in May 2015 when I went to the Roaches with the Oxford University Walking Club. I was nervous about the prospect of navigating a walk by myself (something I’ve only really done round Oxford and in the Chilterns), but my fears were baseless. As R and I are fairly quick walkers we finished around 2pm, so we headed back to our hostel to change before heading into Derby, where we had a look at a gallery and the Cathedral, which was impressive in the understated way low-Anglican Cathedrals often are. We finished the night with a game of scrabble and a few beers back in the hostel, which brought a calm end to the day.

Sunday

Our walk yesterday was a bit shorter (7 miles), starting from the village of Wetton which we drove to after checking out. Although our walk today was shorter, it involved about 600m of ascent, as it included a climb up to Thor’s Cave, and Wetton hill, the top of which offered fantastic views.

We had a well-earned lunch in the pub in Wetton before beginning the drive back. Unfortunately, the satnav packed itself in so we had to resort to the A-Z Road Atlas, which extended the journey back a little bit longer than we had intended. Our soundtrack choices were a bit different this time.

Planning a hiking trip in the UK: a guide

This weekend I’m heading to the Peak District with a friend, which hopefully will be a much needed break from revision. As we come into the Spring and Summer, here are some pointers for planning your own walking trip.

1. Choose a location

The UK has a lot to offer for hikers. I’ve met quite a few people who are somewhat skeptical of this, but really – it is true! There are several National Parks which offer great walking routes: the Lake District, Peak District, the New Forest, Yorkshire Dales, and so on. They are all slightly different and have different features to offer to a walker. The second thing to think about is transport. Generally, it is best to rent a car as a lot of places are not accessible by public transport. That said, some of the most popular destinations, such as Windemere in the Lakes, can be reached by train. Research is crucial here.

2. Plan the walks

Once you’ve decided on a location, the next step is to plan your walks. You can do this by looking online for walks others have taken in the area you’re visiting. Look for walks which have been plotted on an Ordinance Survey map: you can then print out the route and laminate it. Alternatively, you can buy the OS map for the area you’re visiting and plan the route by yourself.

3. Accommodation

There are a few options for accommodation in UK national parks. Wild camping, that is, carrying in your tent, sleeping bag and so on and setting up camp in the mountains is illegal in England and Wales (though not in Scotland), but you can generally get away with it, if you are courteous and leave no trace. There are also plenty of campsites where you can book a site to pitch your tent. If you are travelling in a large group, you can also book a bunkhouse, which will often take the form of a large barn filled with bunkbeds, usually with some limited cooking and showering facilities attached. Alternatively, if you prefer something a bit less intense, you can book into a youth hostel or B&B.

4. Equipment & Safety

KODAK FUN SAVER Digital Camera

As outdoor pursuits go, walking is a fairly safe activity. Nevertheless, it is not totally risk free. It is important to be properly prepared and to take precautions against the possibility of getting lost, and the possibility of falls/minor injuries and hypothermia. To this end, you should be properly dressed for hiking (which in the UK means warm and waterproof clothing, and proper walking shoes or boots), and a paper map and compass. It is also a good idea to take some steps to keep your belongings dry, which means a rucksack liner and drybags. Google maps cannot replace a map and compass – your phone can run out of battery, stop working in very wet or cold weather, break when you drop it, and so on. If you don’t know how to use a map and compass, learn how to before you go, or go walking with someone who knows how to. You should also bring an emergency shelter or bivy bag, a whistle, and a torch. In an emergency, call 999, ask for the police, and then ask for mountain rescue.

5. Food and drink

This is the fun part. Good hiking lunches include sandwiches, fruit and nuts, cereal bars, and energy drinks. You should always bring enough water! If you are wild camping it is also a good idea to bring water purification tablets, and remember that it’s best to drink from running water rather than still.

Although you obviously should not get drunk while hiking, it can be nice to have an alcoholic drink after a day’s walking, or when you’ve just reached the top of a peak. I have a lot of fond memories of drinking hot whiskey on top of mountains in Donegal. Hot whiskeys and hot port, made by mixing the alcohol with boiling water, sugar, lemon and spices make a nice treat from a flask on a cold day, as does mulled wine. At the very least, bring a flask of tea! You will not regret it.

A trip to London

Yesterday I went to London in the afternoon, in order to see the Moomins exhibition in the Southbank centre with a friend. I was happy to see my friend again, who lives in London and comes to Oxford only occasionally. Nevertheless, I got the bus back feeling somewhat odd.

One of the most enduring images of London I encountered growing up (in Ireland) was the scene of a chase through the underground in the movie An American Werewolf in London.

 

It is remarkable how little the aesthetics of the underground have changed. I was due to meet my friend in Baker Street station, having got the coach from Oxford, and I have to admit I felt a deep sense of discomfort as I stood waiting there. Although there were several places to get food, there was nowhere to sit. Moreover, I noticed that the public telephones had tall metal spikes on them, presumably to keep birds off. When my friend texted me to say he would be on a later train, I wandered onto Marylebone Road and noticed a sign saying “Do not feel the pigeons. They are a health hazard and a nuisance.” As I walked along the street, tourist displays of London-themed merchandise blocked my way obtrusively, and I stopped to allow some tourists to have their photographs taken beside a statue of Sherlock Holmes.

The aesthetics and layouts of a city reveal a lot about its character. There was little space to take it easy.

Later, once we left the Southbank, my friend and I wandered northwards to find a restaurant. Having been to London dozens of times I was used to the obscene prices, but I was struck by the smallness of everywhere we walked past; even the pub we went to had the feeling of a box, built to temporarily contain people before they move on somewhere else. Perhaps this is just reflective of my lack of familiarity. Advertisements seemed to jump out from everywhere, and every theatre we walked past was garishly decked out as if to drawn in new customers.

I have spent a lot of time in London – more than I would have liked. I have many friends who live there and some who were born there, many of whom have a strong affection for the place. Nevertheless as I made my way back to my coach stop, drunkenly disorientated, having just managed to blow £11.10 on a round (for the two of us!), I had a realization several years in the making – this place isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

I hate London.