Sunday, June 9, 2013

London/Plymouth Days 1-4

London.  Lovely, wonderful, efficient, clean, and organized London.  How I love thee.

This is a post about my first few days in London.  I'll try to follow it on quickly with additional posts.

My flight was pretty good - not too full and not too long.  My favorite part was the cream tea and chicken mayo sandwich we were served prior to landing - two of my favorite UK indulgences.  We landed a bit early but sat on the tarmac for quite a while.  At first we were told it was because there were no parking places because we landed early.  Then the pilot came back on and said that an earlier incident at Heathrow had closed a runway and caused quite a ruckus.  I found out later this incident was a crash landing that disrupted flight operations in and out of the airport all day.  Combined with a near-hijacking on a flight that diverted to Stansted, not a great day to fly in London.

We finally were given a parking spot an hour+ later and were bused to the immigration area, where I thankfully sailed through the line.  Baggage claim took a bit longer, and I anxiously counted the minutes, knowing my car service was tacking on an extra 4GPB for every 15 minutes I was 'late' (40 minutes past scheduled landing).  I am not a fan of this policy.  Finally I was through customs, found the driver, got money, and was on my way. 

I arrived an hour or so later at my dear friends' L&S's house in lovely Swiss Cottage.  Their flat is perfectly located - I love this neighborhood.  We had a wonderful home-cooked Indian dinner, and L and I stayed up late catching up.  I looked at my watch and was shocked to find it was 10pm, since the sun had just set.  Welcome to UK in summer!

I slept wonderfully, though woke up earlier than anticipated because the sun also rises early in the summer. 

We packed and headed to Paddington to catch our train to Plymouth.  I wandered, open-mouthed, through the aisles of M&S Simply Food, spoiled for choice.  I bought a chicken mayo sandwich and lots of raspberries.  Heaven.

The 3 hour train journey passed fairly quickly, with lovely field/livestock scenery giving way to gorgeous coastal views as we neared Plymouth.  We disembarked and walked into town.  We first passed the high street area, a mostly pedestrian park-like area, gently sloping to the sea and surrounded by familiar shops.  We held out on a lunch destination until reaching the Barbican, the oldest part of town.  It's a warren of old buildings, shops, restaurants, and the largest concentration of cobblestone streets in England.

We stopped at one of the first decent restaurants we passed, realizing only later that we needed to go another block or so to find the best seafood.  We had a Mediterranean lunch, and I pondered the MANY people dressed as pirates who wandered past the windows.  I figured it must be a bunch of historical re-enactors.  It wasn't until we finished lunch, made our way to the waterfront, and encountered hundreds of additional pirates that we saw a sign advertising "Plymouth Pirate Weekend".  Aha.  We wandered the market stalls, watched the Renaissance dancers, and enjoyed Devonshire ice creams while people-watching.  We visited the site from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 and pondered the significant of this site.  We killed more time waiting for our bus to Sparkwell in a tea house and walking up to the high street area again.  We finally decided the bus was too late and called a taxi to get to our B&B.  We stayed a few miles east of Plymouth, in the sweet little hamlet of Sparkwell, reaching our destination after a few harrowing miles on narrow roads with high hedgerows bordering each side.  We arrived at Welbeck Manor, a lovely B&B set on a picturesque public golf course, and settled in for a quick nap.  We had intended to walk to the pub across the street for dinner but were surprised to find it booked out 3+ months ahead of time.  Its chef apparently won a cooking show last year.  We were directed to a pub in a neighboring village and caught a ride there with the B&B's manager. 

This pub's restaurant was all booked up as well, but they let us eat in the pub itself.  Good, hearty food, and we caught a taxi back.  I waited out the sunset (10pm!) and slept.

The next morning, after a full English breakfast (I always remember too late I hate baked beans), we set off for our main destination, the whole reason for coming on this trip.  After an easy half mile amble, we saw the signs welcoming us to Dartmoor Zoological Park!  This is the zoo on which the movie We Bought A Zoo! was based, the subject of owner Benjamin Mee's lovely book of the same name.  Since seeing the movie and reading the book I knew I had to visit it.

The zoo did not disappoint.  It is lovely, well-designed, and makes great use of the land.  It's a perfect spot for family picnics, as evidenced by the many people there for that very purpose.  The animals are in spacious habitats with enough places to hide from public view.  Today, though, on a lovely summer morning (sunny but chilly), many were out socializing.  We marveled at the capybaras, tapirs, wallabies, and rheas as we walked up the long hill that is the zoo's approach. 

The meerkats were entertaining, the ostriches put on a show, and the pygmy goats were delightful.  We met some of the book/movie's stars - Fudge the bear, Vlad the tiger, Sovereign the Jaguar, and mourned at the graves of some of those lost since the book was written - Spar the tiger, Solomon the lion, Ben the bear.  We spent the entire day meandering around, revisiting every exhibit 2-3 times, watching demonstrations (bears, falconry, otters) when we could and just enjoying the beautiful scenery.  We dined in the Jaguar Restaurant (even nicer than the book/movie make it seem!), pet the pygmy goats, and watched all the children play in the bouncy castles.  It was absolutely lovely.  I was so afraid I'd be disappointed, but just the opposite:  this is an impressive, family-oriented zoo with dedicated staff and some great conservation/education programs.

As the zoo prepared to close, we made our way back to the B&B and had sundowners outside as we watched some Sunday afternoon golf.  We had dinner at the B&B and retired early.  The next morning we had a cab bring us back into Plymouth.  It dropped us at the Hoe, the highest point along the seafront and home to most of the military installations.  We wandered a bit, took pictures, watched a submarine descend, rode the Plymouth Wheel (like the London Eye, but cheaper and a longer ride), and meandered back down to the Barbican.  We had a lovely seafood lunch (calamari and scallops for me - oh how I've missed you!), peeked into shops, and then walked slowly back to the rail station.  It started raining about 5 minutes out, and we arrived for our train feeling a bit damp. 

Arriving back in London, we made our way back to Swiss Cottage, enjoying the quiet of the Bank Holiday.  L and I took a lovely walk to Primrose Hill, getting phenomenal views of London now that the rain and clouds had cleared.  I sadly didn't bring my camera on this walk.  We passed UK comedian Jimmy Carr's house and then passed Jimmy Carr himself, out walking his dogs.  I was preoccupied looking at the dogs and didn't notice the couple walking them until L whispered who they were once we passed.

Dinner was another treat - Subway!, and we watched mindless television before heading to bed.  Now for some photos!  (Argh - they posted out of order.  Excuse this.)

Mayflower Memorial

Boats in Plymouth's harbor.  A military installation can be seen on the island behind them.

Pirate Weekend, unexpectedly

Sparkwell Gold Course

Lovely blooms!

Entering Dartmoor Zoological Park


Spar the tiger's gravesite.

The peacocks spent most of their day singing. Loudly.

Sovereign the jaguar hunts for his food.

Nom nom nom.

More military installations.

Plymouth's waterfront as seen from the Hoe.

The Plymouth Wheel.

The beginning of the USA as we know it today...

One of four Amur Tigers at DZP

Such a lovely family picnic destination!

Sovereign with the spoils of the hunt.