Monday, October 28, 2013

Wells — Bishop's Palace, Vicars' Close, and the Crown

Wells, England

In both its geographic size and its population, Wells is the second smallest city in England. Only the City of London is smaller. {Ed.'s note: The "City of London" is the 1.12 square mile city within the metropolis of London; it has its own mayor (i.e., the "Lord Mayor of the City of London"), and is the base of most of the financial services industry in metropolitan London.} The denomination "city" in the U.K. is obviously not based on an urban area's size, but instead is a political designation provided first by kings and later by Parliament. In medieval times, being a city came with advantageous privileges and exemptions.

Wells was designated a city in 1205. But settlements go back at least to Roman times, which centered around no surprise here water wells.

Downtown in Wells
Downtown in Wells.

Bishop's Palace

With tourism its main industry, Wells relies not only on its beautiful cathedral but also the Bishop's Palace and Vicars' Close. Most of the Bishop's Palace was created around 1230, but it has had numerous additions. A bishop in the mid-1300s felt the need to add walls and a moat to protect himself, since he raised taxes on the citizens of the city. Now, the palace is guarded by a wall, a moat, and a small army of ducks and swans.

Bishop's Palace surrounded by a moat
Duck flotilla approaches to meet us.
Swans at the Bishop's Palace in Wells
Then the swans arrive.
In a practice going back centuries, at least a few of the swans are trained to beg for food by pulling on strings attached to bells. They are not shy. Fortunately, we had a couple of bagels from Jack's bag to share with the swans and ducks.

Grey cygnet swans
These young grey cygnets will turn white as they mature.

Once you cross the drawbridge over the moat, the Bishop's Palace and its gardens are open for exploring.

Bishop's Palace in Wells
The current bishop lives in a portion of the palace.
Interior of wall of the Bishop's Palace
Interior of the walls that guard the palace and its grounds.
Back side of the Bishop's Palace
Back side of the palace.
The interior of the Bishop's Palace is pleasant, but nothing special. It looks like a lot of other European palaces that were somewhat frozen in time a couple of centuries ago.

Great hall inside the Bishop's Palace
A great hall inside the Bishop's Palace.
Room inside the palace
The acoustics of this room are not good for the piano. I tried it.
Dragon on the staircase banister
I did enjoy decorative touches like this dragon on the staircase banister.
Jumbled stain glass from Wells Cathedral
The Bishop's Palace has a little taste of the jumbled stained glass from the cathedral, as described here.
The best reason to visit the Bishop's Palace is for its 14 acres of gardens. There are both traditional, orderly English gardens, as well as wilder flowers and shrubbery.

Formal gardens at palace
Controlled, orderly, organized.
Flowers in the gardens
Straight-line plantings, tidy borders.
Adam and Eve sculpture
The formal gardens were enlivened by some modern sculpture, like this one of Adam and Eve.
The star of the show is the outer gardens. You cross a bridge enveloped by a weeping willow and venture out to a stream and wilder shrubbery.

Willow tree branches with bridge in Bishop's Palace, Wells, England
The willow branches part for the bridge.
Wells Cathedral lady's chapel from gardens
A glimpse of the cathedral's Lady Chapel.
Benches and paths give you beautiful viewpoints of the east side of the cathedral.

Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Palace grounds
Eastern exterior of Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Palace grounds.
A cat in the gardens tried to adopt us. He purred, rubbed, and meowed for attention. Then he followed us on our meandering tour of the gardens, making sure we were always aware of his presence. Jackson was delighted, of course. Ultimately, we asked the staff at the gardens if they knew the cat, and they said he was new but not unique as a feline interloper in the gardens.

Feline interloper
The cat makes his introduction.
Cat in the Bishop's Palace gardens
The cat followed us across the bridge and into the formal gardens. We eluded adoption only because we went into the palace.

Vicar's Close

The Vicars' Close lies on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Bishop's Palace. It is a picturesque straight line of houses, supposedly Europe's oldest purely residential street with all of the original buildings surviving intact. The houses were completed in 1412, about 50 years after construction began. Originally, the houses were approximately 520 square feet, but additions have been added to the rear and some of the houses have been combined inside.

Southern entrance of the Vicar's Close
Southern entrance into the Vicars' Close.
Obviously, many updates have been made over the centuries, but the street front remains uniform in style.

Vicar's Close in Wells, England
Looking north into the Vicars' Close. The close (i.e., an old term for cul-de-sac or alley) is ten feet narrower at the northern end than the southern end, making the street look longer.
As an American, this street looks quintessentially English to me, from the stone to the chimneys to the front gardens.

Front gardens of Vicar's Close
The front gardens were not part of the original plan; they were added in the 1400s.
At the northern end the close was capped by a chapel and library. It is now used by the cathedral school.

Alley at the north end of Vicar's Close
A narrow alley on the right side of the chapel/library allows egress to the north.
Sunflowers in the gardens
Beautiful sunflowers in one of the gardens.
I was quite fond of the sunflowers.
Since the southern end is wider than the northern end, the close looks shorter when viewed from the north.

Looking south down the Vicar's Close in Wells, England
Looking south down the Vicars' Close.
Wells Cathedral rises beyond the Vicars' Close. The southern end of the Close is plugged by a storeroom and barrel-vaulted hall.
The houses in the Vicars' Close are still occupied by church officials. But if you reserve far in advance, one of the homes can be rented out for weeklong vacations for about 500 pounds.

We came across another very friendly cat in the close:

Cat in the Vicar's Close
She had an appropriately serene demeanor.

The Crown at Wells

Wells is sometimes a location for television and movie productions, such as in Doctor Who episodes and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett). I thought the town looked familiar to me when we visited, but didn't know why. Then we stopped in at The Crown at Wells, a pub and hotel established around 1450.

The Crown at Wells
The Crown at Wells has been serving pub grub about twice as long as the U.S. has been in existence.
Interior of the Crown at Wells
Ready to start dinner.
When I looked around at the various photos on the wall, I came across this one showing actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg:

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost behind the bar at the Crown at Wells
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost behind the bar.
The Crown at Wells, and the entire city of Wells, were locations for Pegg's and Frost's movie Hot Fuzz, a comedy that followed their hit Shaun of the Dead. Kate and I had watched Hot Fuzz on DVD when we were living in Raleigh, perhaps a year before we visited Wells. Wells is the stand-in for the film's fictional town of Sandford. The pub is seen in the film.

Jackson got in the spirit of goofy comedy while we were eating dinner. His exuberance carried through to our stroll after dinner.

Post-dinner antics
Post-dinner antics.
Stomping sideways down the street
Stomping sideways down the street. "Mommy, you do it, too!"
Wells Cathedral, Bishop's Palace, and Vicars' Close were highlights of our trip to southwestern England. We saw them all within a five to six hour period, including feeding ducks/swans, a stop for dinner, some shopping, and a stroll.

Hard to get a better afternoon as a tourist than that.

For more about Wells Cathedral, the first wholly Gothic cathedral in England, see here:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Riding the Jacobite Steam Train

2nd UPDATE: The Jacobite Steam Train SUSPENSION HAS BEEN LIFTED. See here:

UPDATE: The Jacobite Steam train has been temporarily SUSPENDED. See here:

Last Friday we hopped aboard the Jacobite steam locomotive, a Scottish highlands rail trip from Fort William to Mallaig and back, an 84 mile round-trip journey. The 1936 "Black 5" engine that powered our ride is named "The Lancashire Fusilier":

Jacobite Steam Train with two oil lamps
The Jacobite Steam Train, ready to depart from Fort Williams. The two oil lamps at left and right indicate it's a passenger train.
The Lancashire Fusilier engine for the Jacobite Steam Train
This engine is based in Bury, Lancashire, England.
Jacobite Steam Train coal tender
As Jackson observed, it takes a "big pile" of coal to power the steam engine.
West Coast Railways, a privately owned company, operates about 90% of Britain's steam trains on the main railroad lines. Each year, they run approximately 500 train journeys in various parts of the island. There aren't many steam trains around any more; mostly they're curiosities and tourist attractions. They have been supplanted by electric and diesel trains, partly because of efficiency and partly because of environmental concerns.

Steam trains operate from burning fuel usually coal, but occasionally wood or oil that boils water into steam in a boiler, which powers the engine. How much steam does a steam train produce? Here's a bit of an idea:

Steam from the West Coast Railways Jacobite Steam Train at the Fort William station
The train produced enough steam that it spooked Jackson a little.
Steam between the train couplings
Steam between the couplings of two of the passenger cars.
This trip was all about the journey, and definitely not about the destination. Indeed, the nominal destination of Mallaig isn't worth a trip at all. Mallaig is merely the endpoint of the train line and serves as a Cal Mac ferry point to the Isle of Skye.

Why did we go? Two reasons. First, it's deemed one of the U.K.'s most scenic train rides; Britons like to declare it one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Second, Jackson is a bit obsessed with trains at the moment, and this ride is a great train experience for a kid.

Our journey was not just the train ride, but also the gorgeous 100-mile drive between our house and Fort William, which took us a little over two hours to travel. Not counting the cul-de-sac where we live, the drive was on only two roads: roughly half a mile on the street that passes our cul-de-sac, and then approximately 100 miles on the A82, called the Great Western Road.

On one end, the Great Western Road dead ends into downtown Glasgow. At the other end is Inverness in the northern highlands. Along the way, it hugs the coast of Loch Lomond, one of the most scenic lakes in Scotland; plows into the southern highlands and the magnificent Glen Coe; passes through Fort William; and then crosses the northern highlands on the western banks of Loch Ness and into Inverness.

Second breakfast at McDonald's
Like father, like son: hash browns make us happy. Caffeine makes Kate happy.
We arrived in Fort William about an hour before the 10:15 departure. A McDonald's was adjacent to the train station, so we stopped in for a second breakfast.

At the station, still with plenty of time I'm sorta kinda hyper-punctual we wandered up and down the train. Besides the engine and coal wagon, our train had seven passenger coaches, A through G. First-class was limited to coach A, and didn't seem to differ much from "standard class" other than better upholstery, a lamp, and some china on the table. Since we had a toddler along, standard class was a better choice for us.
First class passenger coach for the Jacobite Steam Train
First class for the fancy people. It provides you curtains, in case you weirdly want to vitiate the point of the trip by blocking the view.
Standard class passenger coach for the Jacobite Steam Train
Standard class for the hoi polloi. Apparently, only the first class windows get cleaned.
Standard class puts four people to a table. So you can enjoy the view from both sides of the train, they switch you from left to right (or right to left) on the way back. You don't get to pick your seats or coach; you've gotta hope for some good seatmates. We had three female American undergrads opposite us, and an English couple straddled the two sides since they hadn't bought their tickets far enough in advance.

Standard class coach interior for the Jacobite Steam Train
Standard class on the Jacobite steam train.
Coeds and curmudgeon in the standard class
Chipper American coeds and curmudgeonly English retiree proved to be excellent foils and conversationalists for each other.
Before the train left Fort William, Kate and Jackson got to take a peek inside the engine:

A peek inside the cab of the engine on the Jacobite Steam Train
Room for only a couple of people inside the cab of the engine.
Selfie with a steam train
And to snap a quick selfie.
The trip from Fort William begins near the tallest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. The train crosses over a fantastic curved viaduct at Glenfinnan. It travels through Arisaig, which is Britain's westernmost mainland train station. The route passes close to the shortest river in Britain, River Morar, and past the deepest freshwater lake in Britain, Loch Morar. You get views of highland mountains, deep valleys, large and small lakes, forests and fields and farms, country roads, tiny villages, rocky coastline, canals and bridges, sheep and cattle and waving children. At one point you can see some of the Inner Hebrides islands such as Eigg, Rum, Canna, and Skye. At Mallaig you are next to Loch Nevis, the deepest seawater loch in Europe. Then, after spending a couple of hours in Mallaig for lunch, you get on the train and see it all again as you head back to Fort William.

View from the Glenfinnan Viaduct
View from train as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Scenery on the train
Watching the scenery go by.
Distant view of Eigg and Rum
Inner Hebrides islands of Eigg and Rum in the distance.
Hills scarred by glaciers
Rugged highland hills, scarred long ago by retreating glaciers.
Neptune's Staircase on the Caledonian Canal
A boat in one of a series of locks, called "Neptune's Staircase," on the Caledonian Canal.
Small loch passed on the train journey
One of the many small lochs the train passes on its journey.
Perhaps the most scenic spot, at least for folks outside the train watching as it goes by, is at the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Built over a series of 21 arches, it curves across a valley floor that drops away as the train emerges from the trees. You have a better view of the viaduct from the hills than you do on the train, but the view from the train is pretty awesome, too.

Crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct
The train begins to cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Curve of Glenfinnan Viaduct
The viaduct is significantly curved.
Photographers of the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Through various pictures and zooming in, I found 17 people in the hills taking pictures of the train as it crossed the viaduct.
Leaving the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Leaving the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

For more about the Glenfinnan Viaduct, see here:

On the way north, the train makes a stop for about 20-25 minutes at Glenfinnan station, which has a tiny museum about the railway and, of course, likely a requisite bagpipe busker. A little ways from the station is a monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie, who "raised his standard" in rebellion against the English in 1745. This Jacobite uprising was put down by the English in 1746 and was the last serious attempt by some Scots to end their union with the English that is, until next year in Scotland's independence referendum. (For you fans of the Highlander movies, Glenfinnan is where the hero, Connor MacLeod, was born in the 1500s.)

Bagpiper at the Glenfinnan train station
Bagpiper at Glenfinnan station.
The Glenfinnan Dining Car at the Glenfinnan train station
If you're riding the train, you don't have enough time to eat at this little restaurant made from an old train dining car, but you can make a stop here if you drive along A830, the "Road to the Isles" between Fort William and Mallaig.
ion of the Glenfinnan Viaduct between 1897 and 1898
Photo of the construction of the non-reinforced concrete Glenfinnan Viaduct during its building between July 1897 and October 1898.
The train arrives in Mallaig around 12:20 pm, just over two hours after its departure from Fort William at 10:15. If you're returning to Fort William, you have until 2:10 before the train heads back. There's not much to see or do in Mallaig other than dine at one of the restaurants and perhaps take a gander at the ferry service to the Isle of Skye.

View of Mallaig from the pier
View of Mallaig from the pier.
Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat in Mallaig
Caledonian MacBrayne ("CalMac") ferry boat arrives from the Isle of Skye.
Shops in Mallaig
Shops in Mallaig.
We spent our time having a seafood lunch and wandering. You can get a sense of a town from its bookstores. Here's Mallaig's:

Mallaig's book shop
I'm guessing the selection might be...sparse.
Wandering in Mallaig
Expending some energy before the return to Fort William.
This train ride is now also known as the "Hogwarts Express." Why? Well, the train and its railway provide most (possibly all?) of the exterior shots of the train in the Harry Potter films that takes Harry and the gang to school. The Glenfinnan Viaduct appears in three of the Harry Potter films. The "traditional compartment" coaches, featuring closed compartments for riders, are shown in a number of the films. (Those coaches cannot be reserved by riders but are available for folks without tickets who arrive early in the morning in hopes of getting a seat.)

Traditional train compartments for the Hogwart's Express on the Jacobite Steam Train
Only one coach per train has the traditional compartments.
If you're riding the train hoping for a Harry Potter experience, you're going to be disappointed. Although those films greatly increased the popularity of the ride during the summer they have added a second train each day there isn't much Harry Potterish stuff. Except, of course, for many of the riders who have come to take a Harry Potter pilgrimage.

Hermione and Harry ready to board the Hogwart's Express
We were fortunate enough to have Harry and Hermione ride on our train.
We didn't ride the train because of its Harry Potter connections, though that was a nice bonus. We loved the books and have seen the movies, and we look forward to sharing them with Jackson. Instead, our goal was to provide our train-loving toddler a great ride. We succeeded. He got up close to a steam train just like the toys (wooden, Duplo Lego, etc.) he has at home. He enjoyed having a bench, table, and large window to amuse himself while riding. He could stand or sit or lie down, eat snacks, play with toys, color, read books, and do puzzles on the iPad. And he really did take a few minutes here and there to enjoy the scenery. Since we've been home, Jackson has talked about his train ride every day.

Jacobite Steam Train, also known as the "Hogwarts Express"
The Hogwarts Express.
Riding the Jacobite steam train was a treat for Jackson and for me and Kate. At a cost of 33 pounds for each adult, and 19 pounds for Jackson, it wasn't cheap. But I'm guessing we'll ride again next year, too.

Glenfinnan Viaduct For more about the Glenfinnan Viaduct, see here: