Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Little Sony cam did the job nicely...

I am usually pretty darned fussy when it comes to shooting photos, especially when you want to get a photo of the oldest church in London. I try to get pictures as sharp as possible, good color, good lighting, good quality and all that. Going on vacation with my tiny little SONY shirt-pocket cam was a bit of a risk, but I told myself if I wasn’t happy with the photos I could always pick up a Nikon cheaply in a duty free shop. Well I didn’t need to do that. The little digi-cam was just right for the holidays. I was more than happy I didn’t have to lug around the big cameras like I did last summer. I took a handful of photos, about 100 in all in think, which will serve as a nice record of my trip to the UK. There were a few instances I wished I had the big cams, but overall I am pleased with the quality of photos from the little SONY.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Getting around in London

One of the best things about being a tourist in London is that I have learned to use The Tube, also known as the London Underground or the subway. The taxis are good, but to go for any distance, you want to use the subway. It is amazing and it will get you virtually anywhere in the city along with a three or four minute walk. This week I am staying at The Hotel Indigo right next to Paddington Station. Yesterday I was able to ride the train from Paddington all the way out to Wembley Stadium in about 45 minutes. It is so easy. Also, I use a plastic "Oyster" card that I tap at the turnstile to gain entry. No farting around with tickets. I get a daily low rate no matter how many times I use the train.
Speaking of Wembley, it is a fantastic stadium big enough for 90-thousand people! That's twice the population of Timmins!! I was convinced by some fellows to go to the championship rugby game for all of England. It's the biggest rugby game of the year they told me ... something like the Stanley Cup for hockey. It was my first time seeing a pro rugby game. They pronounce it ROOG-beh. What a party. The teams were the Wigan Warriors in red and the Leeds Rhinos in blue. So I wore both colors. I met up with some fellows from Oxford who play rugby and also enjoyed drinking massive jugs of beer.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Leaving Glasgow on the Virgin ...

Just got back into London today. After leaving the highlands, I spent a couple of days in Glasgow and it was nice. I was pleased to visit the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum. I love that kind of stuff. They’re very accommodating there and let you take photos inside. I was pleased to snap a photo of a Vincent Van Gogh painting. I also saw paintings by Rembrandt, Monet, Rubens and Degas. I never thought I would ever see such masterpieces up close. The architecture in Glasgow is also something to appreciate. I can’t get over how nicely the older buildings have survived over so many years with the sandstone and limestone. Even the train station looks like a fabulous castle. I spent some time walking around downtown Glasgow, but it was frustrating that seven or eight downtown areas were blocked off because Brad Pitt is filming a movie. I also took a walk along the River Clyde, which was famous many years for shipbuilding. In fact, it was so important that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, bombed the shipyards during World War II.
I departed Glasgow Friday morning aboard the Virgin high speed train to London which reached speeds of more than 220 kilometres per hour. I also went first class which meant I got free breakfast and free lunch. I hooked up with a bunch of fellows from Northern England who traveled to London for a rugby cup final. We plan to meet at O’Neill’s pub sometime tonight or tomorrow and they promise to teach me how to drink like an Englishman! I am not sure what I am in for.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh to the highlands ...

Following are three days worth of notes taken after leaving Edinburgh: >>>
As this is being written I am on the ScotRail train from Edinburgh to Mallaig. It’s lunchtime. I had to ride the commuter line from Edinburgh to Glasgow this morning and then grab a second train to ride out of Glasgow to the northern highlands. The weather is a bit overcast, but the scenery is very nice. The hills rise as high as the clouds and quite often we see sheep and cattle grazing on the hillsides. I am also amazed to see so many hikers / backpackers on walking trails near the rail line. The railway line follows many of the lochs and firths along the way. A loch, I am told, is a lake. I don’t know for sure what a firth is. I will be sure to find out. I bought a first class ticket for this train, but I don’t know yet, what makes it first class.
When I booked the ticket online, I was asked if I wanted a power supply for my computer and whether I wanted internet service. I answered yes to both, but neither is available on this train right now. Good thing I charged my batteries in Edinburgh before I left. The train is pretty crowded and there is very little leg room. I hope the other trains I ride are not like this. We are expected to arrive in Maillag in about an hour or so. My seat mates are a family from Spokane, Washington. Very nice people who decided to take in the scenery of Scotland. They’re pretty pleased so far. They too are heading for the Isle of Skye so we will be taking the ferry from the mainland across. I hope to get some nice photos when that happens.
As the train rides deeper and deeper into the highlands, I realize I am getting closer to where my ancestors came from. It’s a feeling of amazement how they could possibly leave this place. The train rides by several old farms where there are only stone outlines in the ground of where farm houses once stood. I try to think of the sense of loss the people must have felt to have to leave this area to go to Canada. I know that some left for religious reasons, but from what I have read, the most left because of the terrible poverty and starvation that existed here so many years ago. Canada must have seemed like a paradise. The train has just arrived in Morar. It’s a tiny village on the west coast and I can see the ocean from the train stop. Wow, I can’t believe I am here. I can remember my Grandma in Mira telling me about this place. I guess I am excited and emotional at the same time. Up until now, this place has only been a name on a map. I am quite pleased that I have made it here. There is a small bay where fishing boats are moored and several houses. The train is carrying on to Mallaig, where I will get off. In the next day or so, I hope to learn a lot.
It’s just after ten o’clock Wednesday morning and I am on the train heading out of Mallaig heading for Glasgow. The past couple of days have been enlightening. I have met several Gillies families and they all assured me that Gillies and Gillis are all the same. One man explained that because the name is pronounced Gillis, with a hard S sound, he believes the English rewrote the name as Gillis for many of the emigrants who left Morar in the early days. Regardless, it was so nice to meet people who regarded me as family.I had a quick chat in a pub with Sine (pronounced Sheena) and Angus who both have Gillises as grandparents or for great-grandparents. They also have several cousins who are Gillises. Sine estimated that fifty per cent of the families in the Morar and Mallaig area are Gillises.
I also visited the old cemetery in Morar and snapped photos of several of the old headstones engraved with Gillies. Some were barely readable, but were from the early 1800’s and therefore quite likely they knew my ancestors.

It was just an amazing feeling to be there, standing among the headstones and thinking of this little part of the world.
Morar is now just a tiny village with less than 50 houses. There is a hotel, a gasoline station, a store, an elementary school and not much else. I was told that most of the villagers are Catholic.
I visited the local heritage centre and learned a bit of the history of this area. People here still talk of “the Clearances”, which is when the rich landowners cleared the land of the tenant farmers, without caring what happened to them or their families. I was told it was one of the reasons why so many Scottish families headed for Canada and the United States.
My stay here has been interesting. I could not get a room in Mallaig or Morar, but I did stay at a B&B in nearby Armadale on the Isle of Skye. I had to take a ferry from Mallaig to Skye. It was about 25 minutes to cross. The walk from the ferry terminal to the B&B was roughly two kilometres, another 20 minutes. There is a hotel in the village that served lunch and supper so that was another ten minute talk.
I enjoyed freshly caught scallops, sea bass, oatcakes, tatties and of course, more of that amazing sticky toffee pudding just oozing whisky. Supper was served in the pub and each night just after 7:00 p.m. the place began to fill up with the locals coming to see their neighbours and to `ave a pint or two. Guinness is very popular here, but so is cider.
I seemed to have passed the test with respect to drinking Scotch. Everywhere I went I ordered it without ice, and then I learned that one is expected to add just the tiniest drop of water to the whisky to bring out more of the flavour.
I took the three-kilometre hiking trail from Morar to get back to Mallaig. Hiking and backpacking seems to be a very popular pastime in Scotland. Anyway, while I was on the trail, I took time to stop and create a small Inukshuk, a figure of a man made from rocks. It’s my own little way of leaving a bit of Canadian tradition in Morar. A woman at the hotel assured me it will likely stay for awhile since it is considered bad luck to knock one down.
The scenery here is pretty cool. The highlands are definitely highlands. They’re not like the Rocky Mountains you see in Alberta, but they’re certainly high enough.
Arriving in Glasgow this afternoon for a couple of days.

Sadness for Jack

Just got reconnected this afternoon. I was in the highlands and deliberately away from phones, television and the internet. Sadly I have learned of Jack Layton's death. I didn't always agree with his politics, but Jack was a good guy who really cared about the country. I had a beer with him two summer's ago and we talked about about his canoe tripping in the North West Territories. It was nice to just chat with the guy. Sad for his family.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A lot of freaky people here... : )

Okay, they're not that freaky... let's say creative. The Edinburgh International Fringe Festival is on, so there are a lot of very "unusual" things to see here. I spent the past two days touring the downtown, seeing the sights of the Royal Mile and the castle. I will try to put up some photos here tomorrow. It's Sunday night and I am pooched. I walked so much I have a nice little blister on my right foot. I will blame the new hiking shoes. But it is all very enjoyable. I plan on getting a good night's sleep and getting up early to pack. I will be riding the train the Morar, the tiny community in the northwest of Scotland where the Gillis family left from when they traveled to Canada a couple of hundred years ago. I will have five hours on the train, so that should be enough time to upload the photos and update this blog. Cheers for now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Travelling in the UK

Finally on vacation again. Not that it was urgent, but it is indeed pleasant. I think the best part was being able to spend time with Jennifer and her family again. Scott is also enjoying some holiday time and of course that means there is some serious golfing underway. Not only that, but his mens’ soccer team enjoyed winning their division championship. Jennifer and I got caught up on all the good gossip that is around so that was fun… thing is, there’s not a whole lot of gossip these days.
But Jennifer is well and that’s the good thing. It was around this time of year, two years ago, that her whole episode with leukemia began … so thank goodness she is beating that.
Jenn is also becoming something of a chef and is trying new recipes all the time. Her caramel pudding cream cake was the hit desert on the week.
Jenn and the boys dropped me off at the Sudbury Airport Monday morning, EARLY on Monday morning. We all managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 4:00 a.m. so we could be at the airport by 5:00 a.m. for the flight departure at 6:00 a.m. I was happy they all came out. I was surprised that the early flight from Sudbury to Toronto was full on a Monday.
The flight to London was long. I dozed on and off a bit, read a lot of watched some of the movie channels on the little TV screen. I was pleased when we finally landed at Heathrow about seven hours later.

The room at the Sheraton was nice and it had a very comfy bathrobe. There is a mini-bar, but the prices are ridiculous. I am NOT about to pay $10 for a shot of Jack Daniels, so I picked up some Scotch at a grocery store for about 15 Pounds. I got the hotel room at a huge bargain thanks to Expedia and booking early. I guess the hotel hoped to make extra money from cheap Canadian tourists. When I booked in, the pleasant desk clerk asked if I want to “upgrade” with a service that would give me a free breakfast each day, along with free tea and coffee throughout the day. The cost she said is only 48 Pounds. I figured that might be a nice perk for the three days I am here at this hotel. But she said it was 48 Pounds per day! That’s nearly $75 a day. NO WAY!
Tuesday was fun. The thoughtful concierge at the Sheraton told me there is a free bus that stops in front of the hotel that connects with the London Underground, the “tube” subway system.
My only mistake was that I headed out a bit too early, around 7:30 a.m. and got caught in the crush of daily commuters. Regardless, it’s so easy to get into the city.
Right away I went to King Cross station, got out, grabbed a coffee and sucked up some of the morning air in that massive old train station. So I recommend the idea of getting a hotel near the airport, at a much lower rate, and commuting into downtown London each day. The cost is well worth the transit pass.
Getting around downtown is easy. Before I left Timmins I bought one of those expensive tourist books that have all the maps and attractions. But the same thing is free on big maps posted at every Tube station. The maps show everything that is available within a five minute walk, and then it shows a circle on the map for everything within a 15 minute walk.
The walking is great, but a couple of times, I stepped onto the street thinking there was no traffic … only to see a bus or car rushing at me from the left. I am too used to checking to the right to see if a car is coming. And there are soooo many people here. It’s like leaving the McIntyre Arena after a hockey game… and there is a crowd in front of you and around you… only this is ALL THE TIME.
My first visit was the world famous British Museum. Wow, it is a beautiful massive building and the admission is free. But as much as I liked it, I am still partial to Canada’s Museum of Civilization and the Royal Ontario Museum. Still, the antiquities in the British Museum are amazing. I saw stone axes and arrowheads more than half a million years old. I saw Egyptian mummies nearly 5000 years old. I saw the ship’s logs detailing the voyages of Captain Cook, written in his own hand.
I also got out and about around the city and took in the sights … the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, Piccadilly, Westminster … I actually got a blister on my right foot from so much walking. But a few pints of Guinness took care of that.The stonework at Westminster cathedral was incredible. I loved it. Especially the flying buttresses. If you've ever read the book Pillars of The Earth by Ken Follett, you will know what i mean.
Acting on Ronald’s advice, I also visited the Imperial War Museum, which was pretty amazing and well worth going across town on the subway. It was an added treat that I was in the Lambeth North tube station, which was one of the many bomb shelters that was used during World War II.
The architecture here is stunning. I love the older buildings. London is filled with them. But there are also ultra-modern buildings everywhere too. As the train rolled through some of the older parts of the city, built at the height of the Industrial Revolution, there were rows and rows and rows of the old town houses, crammed side by side. I call them Mary Poppins neighbourhoods. The incredible thing is that the homes have been retro-fitted with plumbing and toilets and the pipes are all located OUTSIDE of the houses. It was amazing to see.
I arrived in Edinburgh Friday. The overnight train ride was so nice. The train left Euston Station at about midnight and I sat in the lounge with a few fellows drinking whiskey and having great conversation. Got to bed at 2:00 a.m. and up at 6:30 for a quick scrub up in my roomette and then down to the dining car for hot tea and croissants. The train arrived at Edinburgh Waverly Station at 7:15. I taxied to the B&B and dropped off my luggage and went exploring around town. It was great. It was amazing to see the castle early in the morning, have breakfast and enjoy the city.
Friday night I headed out to see the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo. But first I had supper at a local pub. It was brie cheese with raspberries, smoked salmon on crusty bread and then a dessert of warm toffee pudding drenched in whiskey. Yum yum.
The Tattoo was an amazing show and the music gave me goose bumps. I have never seen so many pipes and drums.
One of the features of the show is the performance of a lone piper who stands atop the castle ramparts and plays a sad lament in honour of all the Scots who have died in the wars. The crowd went absolutely silent as he played. The piper was a young fellow named Stuart Gillis.
Just finished breakfast in the kitchen at the B&B with the owner Kirsty and a couple of nice ladies from Ireland. Great early morning conversation. Another day awaits. Keep smiling.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A bit of a holiday eh ...

I hope to be able to post more info and some photos here in a couple of days. I am on vacation in the UK. Arrived Monday night and it has been busy ever since. Jennifer and the boys made my day by driving me to the Sudbury airport at 6:00 a.m. Right now I am on a business computer in the hotel lobby but I will be online with some photos in a day or two. The people here are nice... but I find some Brit accents are throwing me off. I don't always understand what people say. The food is a bit bland, but the beer is good and the whiskey is better. Keep smiling eh.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Seeing a memory

They say smell is the sense that triggers our most long-forgotten memories. I had a different sensation tonight when I was outside, reading. Now, reading is my great addiction. I am deep into a new book and I lost track of time and suddenly I noticed that I was barely able to see the page because it was getting dark. I was enjoying the sounds of the evening, the smell of fresh air and the whisper of breezes through the leaves. It all came back to me that the last time I experienced that was when I was on a two-week canoe trip up north on the Abitibi River more than 25 years ago! I remember the evenings sitting by the river and relaxing with a book until darkness came. Well now I am inside. Going to play a Miles Davis album, pour a whiskey and get back to the book!

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Roaming in the bush . . .

Having tea this morning instead of coffee. A couple of friends hauled me out last night for drinks, and although I was home early, I find tea is better on those mornings after the night before. I did sit out a bit last night before bed and was treated to some splendid Northern Lights just before midnight. I have been scratching a bit this week thanks to a trip into the bush Tuesday. The bugs got some good bites into me. It was a quiet Tuesday around suppertime and there was a report of a minor derailment on the CN mainline near Foleyet. I was told there was road access through a couple of very old bush roads. So I grabbed a map, topped up with gas and headed out. Well the map shows a road, but the reality is a narrow trail better suited to an ATV. I did my best to find the derailment... without success. Regardless, I snapped some photos. After three hours of driving around in low gear, so I wouldn't get stuck, I called it quits. But it was still a busy, busy week for news. I will put that all aside next week ... Next Saturday morning I will be packing my bags for a holiday. I plan to drop in to see Jennifer and her boys before heading out. Later.