Tag Archives: UK

Scotland, Aye!


With Jessica off for two weeks at Easter and Aaron off for the Friday and Monday.  We decided to head up to Scotland with a couple from the house we stayed in when we first got here.  After Aaron finished work on Friday at 17:30 so we rushed to Kings Cross station in North London to catch our 18:15 train to Edinburgh.  We made it with time to spare and we can say the first leg of the train was nice, but when we had to switch in York then things got interesting!

As soon as we got on the next train we saw 5 or 6 young Scottish guys sitting with a whole bunch of 12 packs.  From that moment on we knew it’d be a rowdy carriage.  The guys were quite and reserved at the beginning, even gave a beer to Jess, but as we went further into the black of night it got loud.  First off it was louder and louder talking and then an iPod playing to accompany.  Soon it turned into chanting and singing.

There were ten bombers in the air,

There were ten German bombers in the air,

There were ten German bombers, Ten German bombers,

There were ten German bombers in the air,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

And the army from Britain, The army from Britain ,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

There were nine German bombers in the air,

They subbed in Scotland half way threw and did a few numbers a couple times. It was entertaining, but towards the end of the four and half hour train it was unbearable.  Even when the train arrived in Edinburgh we couldn’t escape their chanting as we could hear it throughout the train station.  Eventually we got away and wound up at McDonalds for a quick late night supper before our search for the apartment we rented for the weekend.

The couple we went with, Scott and Raphael, took the bus from London and got there at 1900.  They didn’t have any issues finding the apartment and now at 23:30 we were going to attempt to do the same.  We were on the right trail, until Jessica had to ask a guy who turned us around the same way we came.  Then we asked these two girls who told us we were going the right way!  Oh boy!  Once we finally arrived, the apartment we rented really WOWed us and Scotty and Raph too.  It was a good size, really well equipped and had a home feel.  We can’t remember the name of the company, but we found it on Edlets.com.  Highly recommend it.  To stay here it was cheaper then a hostel and way cheaper then a hotel.  Plus we could cook our meals.

On top of Carlton Hill

On our first full day in Edinburgh we wound up walking up and around Carlton Hill.  Where you can get great views of the city, although not as good as Arthur’s Seat, and see some cool sights.  Now an extinct volcano, Carlton Hill has an unfinished replica of Athens’ Parthenon called Edinburgh’s Folly, Nelson’s Tower for an even better view, a Portuguese cannon, the City Observatory and a few other things.  It would be a great place to take in a sunset or rise.  After that we wound up walk to the National Portrait Gallery and learn about some famous Scottish people.  To finish up the day we wound up walking around almost aimlessly, but sort of towards the Royal Botanical Gardens.  When we finally did arrive it was closed and we wound up at a pond full of swans and other types of birds.  The last few breathes the day had left, we spent here before heading home to cook dinner and relax.

The following day we had our eyes set on Edinburgh Castle, but had a few distractions and we got there in the late afternoon.  Sited on top of an extinct castle as well, Edinburgh castle provides great views and natural defense too.  In fact, it had such good defense it was never taken over from one single attack (the only way it switched hand was by waiting their water and food supply out) and no army ever got past the 3rd or 4th gate of 7.  There is a lot see here including the Scottish Crown Jewels, the 1 o’clock gun, and the National War Museum of Scotland.  One cool thing about the 1 o’clock gun is traditionally they set off 12 cannons at noon for the ships, however the Scots being cheap on set off 1 at 1 o’clock.  Does the same trick, costs less cannon balls and gives them more time to eat haggis.

We were a bit rushed touring the castle as we had a ghost tour booked at 17:30.  A bit of a shame giving the ticket of admission is a steep £14.50, oh well.  Now the ghost tour I don’t have much to say on that, it was interesting at time but ultimately boring I thought.  Jess enjoyed it and it was sort of neat being in the underground roads/passages of the city.  Earlier in the day we had plans to cook a big Easter dinner and erase our memory of the terrible movie Rob Roy with Braveheart.  We went to Lidl, got all the fixings for supper and headed home.  Everything was going smoothly, the pork roast was in the oven and supper was only a couple hours away.  Until Jess checked on it and noticed the oven was on broil.  Here we had a crispy top with a pink bottom.  Fast forward to around 23:30 and we finally ate a la super rich.  Dinner was fantastic, but maybe not for the wait we had to do.

The Forth Bridge

The following morning after our late night, we had to rush to the city for our Scottish Highland tour with a company called Hairy Coo.  On a suggestion from a teacher Jessica knows, the Hairy Coo runs their tour for FREE!  All they as for is a tip for what you feel the tour is worth.  This deal is great considering most companies charge over £40 for a day trip to highlands and you don’t even get to ride in bright orange buses like the Coo’s.  It was our tour guide, Nicola’s, first tour with the company and she did a great job aside from hitting a pheasant.

The Forth Road Bridge

This tours first stop was at the Firth of Forth where we saw the Forth Bridge an iconic cantilever bridge for trains and the Forth Road Bridge which is a suspension bridge.  Next stop was the National William Wallace Monument, located on top the hill which is where Wallace supposedly watched King Edward I gather his army before the battle of Stirling Bridge.  The monument looks like a Gothic style watch tower that over takes the treed landscape.  After the Wallace Monument, Nicola took us quickly to short look at Stirling Castle and then on to highlands.  Just before the highlands we stopped at the only lake in Scotland, the only lake you ask.  Well it’s the only lake in Scotland that is referred to a lake, the rest are lochs the Scottish Gaelic word for lake.  Not a 100% on the background, but it has something to do with the English on why it’s called Lake of Menteith and not Loch of Menteith.

Lake of Menteith

Almost as soon as we drove a bit from Lake of Menteith the scenery changed pretty dramatically.  What once was fairly low lying land was now hilly with valleys and a more colourful landscape.  It reminded us of the Okanagan with a bit more rock, fall colours and not as green.  It was really pretty to say the least.  After a bit of driving we stopped in a small town for lunch and after a bit of convincing Jess we ate at this on the suggestion of our guide, Nicola.  WOW!  The food here was unreal, they made good sandwiches, pie, burgers.  Out of the four of us nobody had a bad thing to say!  Just full cheeks and big smirks.

Once lunch was done we all piled back on the bus and made our way to see some Hairy Coo’s.  Now you might have asked when you told you the tour company we went with, ‘what is a hairy coo?’  Well it is a hairy cow, just the way the Scottish accent comes out cow sounds like coooooooooooooo.  They are pretty darned cute!  The rest of the tour went pretty quick we stopped at a couple look out points, one other loch, a famous hairy coo in Hamish The Highland Cow, and Duone Castle which is famous from the Monty Python films.

A Hairy Coo!

Overall, all four of us thought the tour was great and a good alternative from the cookie cutter bus tours out there.  Something we would recommend if you are ever in Edinburgh.  After we said our goodbyes to Nicola we went to a whisky bar to indulge.  Just a block or two from where the bus dropped us off, we quickly melted into the pub chairs and drank.  We met this gentleman Stevie who was in town from Glasgow watching rugby.  After a while of chewing the breeze he offered to take us to the Scotch Malt Whisky Vaults in Lieth, Edinburgh.  Scotty and Raph had to jet off cause they were going to meet up with a friend and so off we went with Stevie in a cab to this place called heaven.  Now the Scotch Malt Whisky is a members only and is the only place in the world where they buy casks directly from the distillers.

Both Jess and I learned a lot about Whisky here, Jess even got into Whisky!  Some facts about whisky we learnt were to be considered Scotch whisky it must be oak casked in Scotland for atleast three years and one day, they usually use old wine casks to mature now and even ones from the American bourbon/whisky industry as regulations require them to use new casks everytime.  The gentleman we came with Stevie and the bartenders were fountains of information on whisky.  When we were picking out something to drink we soon found out the whiskys here can be a lot more then to 40% you see on the shelf.  Most are inbetween 50% and 60% however there are some in the +70% range.  So it’s not unheard of for some people to water them down, as they do have water on all the tables here.  Whisky can vary a lot cask to cask and for a brands like Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet, etc they dilute it with water and use colouring to give it a rich and consistent appearance.  We soon asked the questions well why not cask a whisky and leave it there for 50, even a 100 years.  Every year the cask loses about 1.5-2% a year of alcohol and volume which is known as the angels share.  If you leave it too long you’ll have nothing left and also anything below 40% from the cask is not known as Scotch whisky.

Inside the Scotch Malt Whisky Vaults

After we got schooled in whisky we ordered up a round and some beers and then another round and some beers.  Soon it was last call and time to leave.  We said our thanks to Stevie and parted ways.  That was the end of our last full day in Scotland!  On our last day, we had time to kill until 15:30 when our train left for London.  Scott and Raph were staying an extra day since they didn’t work Tuesday  and Scott has a cousin in Edinburgh.  Our train ride should have been easy, however somebody wanted Subway and we were left with little time to get to our platform.  Running around like a mouse in maze we found our train platform through the construction mess of Waverly Station as our train was leaving.  Well, atleast we live in a major city and the next train was in 30 minutes.  We found some unreserved seats on the train, didn’t get a fuss from the ticket collector, all in all it was good end to Scotland and a quick 4 1/2 hours back to London.

There is another long weekend on the first week of May and Oslo might be the plan.  We’ll report back in then!



Break On Through To The Other Side


This holiday season, as usual, came quick and flew by even quicker.  The week before Christmas Jessica had off from teaching and we spent the week getting ready for the holiday season.  Buying gifts, wrapping gifts and gallivanting around London.  The by the time the 23rd of December rolled around we were heading to Kent with Jessica’s cousin Helen, her husband Andy and her 12 year old son Ben.  They live north of London in Sheffield and drove down and picked us up.  For Christmas 2011 we were going to spend it with The Bakers, Andy’s side of the family, in Kent.  A quick little 1 hour drive south from the bustle of London and you are in the quaint county of Kent.  It is called the garden of England, so you can imagine how nice it is.

It starts to get dark in England around 4:30pm, so sadly when we were driving to Kent we didn’t get to take in any of the beautiful country side.  Once we arrived at Andy’s parents, they quickly sat us at the table and fed us fish pie.  As far as traditional British food this has been our favorite so far.  Chicken tikka masala is the national dish of the British and probably our favorite, but we don’t think it really counts as real British food.  As much as we got sick of eating out on our travels leading up to London, I think we turned a corner and became sick of cooking every night.  It was great to be served great meals for the 4 or 5 days we stayed.

The days leading up to Christmas we explored Rye (Paul McCartney lives here), Hastings and Bodiam Castle with our tour guides Helen, Andy and Ben.  Both Rye and Hastings are small cute little towns.  We walked around Rye first popping into a few shops here and there.  Then we headed to Hastings where we looked in a maritime museum, walked along the ocean, had some really good fish & chips and then headed back.  Really massive difference in the way of life in England outside of London.

On Christmas day, it was just the usually suspects at the Baker house for gift opening and dinner.  It was a great spread for dinner, getting hungry thinking about it again, and the only real difference from Canadian Christmas dinner was their Christmas pudding for dessert.  Which is pretty much just a fruit cake they drench in brandy, light on fire, blow out and then serve with brandy butter or custard.

Everyone at the table kept on asking us if there were many difference between British and Canadian Christmas, but we couldn’t see any besides dessert.  However we couldn’t for the life of us land on the traditional  Canadian dessert.  Jessica thinks it is pumpkin pie while Aaron thinks it is fruit cake.

Helen and Ben skipped town on boxing day and went to Malta for a vacation.  While the rest of us held down the Baker’s house for the influx of guests.  Andy’s brother and sister came over for the day with their families and it was a lively day.  Kids running around, Christmas gift opening, play with the new toys (this air cannon was the star), Jessica snoring in the corner and board game playing.  It was an exhausting day to say the least!  After a well deserved sleep we packed up, said our thanks to Andy’s parents and hit the road for London.  Our flight was leaving early the next day for Amsterdam and Andy was going to crash at our place and drive us the next day.  Once we got back to London, Andy headed out to explore while we…well Aaron packed for the trip.  When Andy came back we all headed to the pub for supper and a few pints.  The following day Andy graciously drove us to the airport and off we went to Amsterdam, which was less time then flying from Edmonton to Calgary.

Once in Amsterdam, we had a bit of time to kill before we could check into the hotel.  Around town we went searching to exchange our Sterling pounds to Euros and eventually found out banks in The Netherlands don’t handle physical cash or exchange money.  Only those dodgy looking Western Union kiosks do, oh well.  We shopped around for a bit for the best rate and then hoped for the best.  It was almost nearing check-in time so we headed to the hotel and got all checked-in.  The apartment-hotel was beautiful, could not have asked for more!  Modern decor, big gas stove, lots of room and comfy beds.

During our time in Amsterdam we checked out a lot of museums.  On day 1, in the morning we went to the Van Gogh museum where they have a large collection of Van Gogh’s work, paintings that inspired him, paintings he inspired and some of the paintings he and his brother Theo collected.  We easily lost track of time in the musuems three floors of beautiful paintings and interesting letters between Van Gogh and Theo.  You get a real sense of Van Gogh from the museum.  Next we jetted across the street to the Bols Experience, where they have a little museum on the Bols alcohol brand.  Which is the oldest distillery company in the world.  The real highlight of the Bols Experience is the free tasters and 1 cocktail of your choice.  A stiff drink was the perfect ending to a museum day, Jess went with the Original Collins and Aaron the Holland House.  We both had known the Bols brand back in Canada, but just thought they produced that blue liqueur in the weird shaped bottle.  However my friends, they produce mainly Dutch Gin, almost 40 kinds of liqueurs and that weird shaped bottle is highly engineered for bartenders.  All in all it was a cool place.

Day 2 involved going to the Rijkmuseum and taking in some beautiful Dutch Golden Age paintings as well as fairly large Asian collection.  The Dutch was a super rich country back in the day.  Continuing with our drink after museums tradition, we went to the Heineken Experience after.  Touring the original factory, taste testing, interactive ride and finally enjoying a few pints.  Again it’s just what the doctor ordered!

All of a sudden it was New Years Eve and we had not made a plan on what to do!  After much researching and looking around we found a place that hadn’t sold out.  For the stroke of midnight we went to this nightclub call Rain.  Which was packed, but did have a disco dance floor.  New years day we were all hurting and just wound up watching Wallace and Gromit.  However the next day we went with Rachael to the Anne Frank museum which was really neat and we were glad we went early.  The queue  here was huge by the time we came out.  I don’t know what it is with Amsterdam, but buy your tickets online and beat the lines.  They are ridiculous.

The last ‘big’ thing we did in Amsterdam was go to a place called Nemo’s which is a big science center.  We were expecting it not to be so kid oriented, but it was still a good time.  They had soap bubble stations, this chain reaction-domino show every couple hours, science lab, ball factory and a bunch of other pretty neat stuff.  The novelty didn’t last too long and we probably spent more time on the roof looking at the panoramic view of Amsterdam.

As soon as you knew it, we were packing our bags and checking out!  With some time to kill before our flight we wandered around Amsterdam, having a sit for dinner, taking some photos and did a canal tour.  All in all Amsterdam was a success.  It’s a really world class city with lots of sights and things to do!

Pip, Pip, Cheerio


As we write this blog entry, a quick 3 weeks has already passed in London and more like 3 months since this was posted.  Our plane touched down in the afternoon on October 31st and after a long immigration line plus a wrong train we finally arrived at our guesthouse!  With a 5 and a half hours time difference and a 1am arrival, it made for a really long travel day.  Right off the bat we made friends at Mrs.Wilson’s Guesthouse by opening the door for Kat, a Aussie, who was coming back from hockey forgot her key.  In our brief late night chat, we talked with her about living in London and soon found out she is a teacher also.  After our talk with Kat, we all went up the stairs to retire for the night.

Before we set off to Japan, we never set up shipping for our proper clothes to get to London and obviously we didn’t take care of it during our travels!  Here we were in London stuck with hot weather travel clothes and nothing really fit to work in.  The housemate we let in the previous evening, Kat, had the day off from work and offered to take us around to do some shopping in Lewisham, a borough of London.

View from Greenwich Park

First stop was a store called Primark where they have decent looking clothes at an affordable price.  For 31 pounds Jess bought a pair of dress pants, a sweater, some dress shoes and just like that she was ready for her orientation tomorrow.  We also did a bit of grocery shopping before we headed back to the house.  The place where we are staying at, Mrs. Wilson’s Guesthouse, is an old English house with 11 rooms.  In total there is about 15 people staying in the house and let’s say things can get a little crazy during supper time with only one kitchen!  Overall we have been happy here aside from the lack of fridge space, but we manage.  Located in a part of London called Greenwich (pronouced Gren-itch) we are rubbing elbows with some of the rich and powerful of London.  It’s not the expensive area in London, but it has lots of upper class Londoners who like how close it is to the city yet it feels far away with it’s open green spaces.  Greenwich park is absolutely beautiful and only a 5 minute walk from our doorstep.

On day two in London, Jess had her orientation at 10am with the agency she is working for.  It seemed simple on paper get on the train at Westcomb Park, take it to Cannon Street, then get on the underground and we should be there!  Unfortunately, it quite didn’t work out that way in practice.  Once we arrived at Cannon Street, quickly we became disoriented as we couldn’t find the route to the tube station (lots of construction is going on to the underground for the 2012 Olympics).  With luck on our side we asked the right (I’m sure UK spell check will turn that to proper) Londoner as she was heading in the same direction as us, but walking.  Running a bit late we hustled with our guide and quickly found it wasn’t a very far from where we were.  Once you get into the city, London is a very walk-able city as everything is relatively close.

One of the resident foxes in Mrs. Wilson's backyard

Eventually we got to Jess’s appointment a bit late, but it was better late then never!  After she did her orientation and all the formalities we went to open a bank account.  With her letter from the agency saying she has a job off we went to the bank to open an account.  We went with HSBC and they have this, what seemed cool at the time, little device called a secure key here.  It looks a like a calculator, is almost the size of a credit card and it’s propose is to protect you from online banking fraud.  When you enter your details to log-on to your internet banking everything is the same except there is one extra step.  Where you have to turn on your secure key, enter your PIN for it and then it generates a 6 digit code you have to enter into the computer to complete the log in process.  How it works is, your secure key will generate a specific code at certain times of the day and HSBC’s servers know this code.  Your internet banking account is linked to the secure keys serial number on the back, so it’s unique code.  It is a little annoying to use in reality although.  Opening an account took another couple hours and next was seeing a company that will take care of Jess’s taxes.

In the UK it is your employers responsibility to file your taxes every year.  So in Jess’s case since she is a ‘contractor’ in a sense she needs to hire a company to do this for her.  Sort of sucks since they take a percentage of her pay, but it’s needed.  That was the last thing we did on day two aside from getting a pay as you go chip for Jess’s phone.  You have so many choices for cell phone providers out here and it’s pretty cheap.  A lot cheaper when you compare it to Canada, that’s for sure.

The rest of the week we spent just getting used to where we are and settled in a bit.  We also checked out London’s National Gallery on the weekend and WOW!  They have a huge and diverse collection.  In total they have 40 or 50 rooms with over 2,000 paintings and large collections of famous painters.  It will take anyone numerous visits to take it all in, thank goodness it’s free admission.  As a matter of fact almost all the museums in London are free, it’s just the special exhibits museums host that charge an admission fee.  Like the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit the National Gallery is hosting right now.

An afternoon in Greenwich Park

By the time Monday morning rolled around on the next week, Jess was all dressed and ready to go teach!  She got five days in for the week, knocked some socks off and did it all in the same Primark outfit!  That weekend a housemate, Koorri, was celebrating her birthday so the house cooked up a feast with chicken parmi’s (crazy Aussie lingo, Chicken Parmesan in English) as the main event.  After we were all full and merry from Rachel’s cooking, we stuck around the house for a few drinks and then headed to the train in dramatic fashion to go out.  Most of the housemates came out and danced the night away in the city.  The next day was slow moving in the house with a lot of laughs over the pictures taken that night.

Our luggage was enroute during week two in London, after some technical difficulties and with the help of Aaron’s parents & his friend Jeremy.  In perfect condition out luggage arrived on Friday right before Koorri’s birthday, so it was really good timing!  Thanks again!  Excited to now have more London appropriate clothes, Jessica was ready for another week of teaching and couldn’t wait for Monday to roll around.

Or maybe not, since on Monday she slept in and didn’t call into work to see if they had any work…opps.  They eventually called her with something, but she used the old I have a Doctor’s appointment.  We used that stolen Monday to get some some errands done and tried to head to the Doctor’s to register for a NHS number to make the day off look legit but it was closed.  The NHS number is exactly like your Alberta Healthcare number, but in England it’s country-wide.  For the remaining 4 days Jess woke up on time, sort of, and worked the rest of the week with varying success.

The Imperial War Museum

Aaron during this time as been applying for jobs in the morning and then being a tourist in the afternoon.  He’s seen the Remembrance Day celebration, The Imperial War Museum, The National Maritime Museum, a couple National Gallery’s and just strolling down in the city.  This next week he’s been told by two parties to stop looking for the perfect job, so potentially he might be educating children as a teachers assistant.  Keep your eyes on the news for updates on that.

Aside from that you are up-to-date on London!  We are in full stride now, but still not used to flicking the light switches the opposite way and looking the wrong way when crossing the street!