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Entries in UK (55)

Tuesday
Jul222008

Back to the Motherland

For the last three days we have been in London. The last job interview for me, and the final destination to research for Lydia. London is immediately attractive to us because of Luke and Shyla. A city feels so much warmer when you can turn up and already be surrounded by good friends who show you the best parts about living there.

We have been staying with Luke and Shyla since Saturday night. On Sunday we went out for an English breakfast on Portobello Road in Notting Hill (which was fantastic), then they took us out to London Zoo. The Zoo is quite small, being in London, so they have concentrated on the most interactive exhibits and having only a few large exhibits rather than lots of small ones (with the animals needing the most space out at their second zoo).

I especially enjoyed the bug exhibit and the giant stick-insects. I was really interested to hear the origin of the saying "one for the road". When we were on the bus down Tyburn Road, Shyla told us that the people to be executed at the Tyburn gallows were allowed to stop on the road to have a final drink. We had a great Indian dinner just across the road from Luke and Shyla Sunday night.

Monday was my day of interviewing, and Lydia's day of stationary and paper museums. Once again, Mill Hill awed me with the fantastic people working there. In my opinion it is one of the best places in the world to be working on cellular immunology. The people are motivated, intelligent and collaborative. The bulk funding means they can focus on top research and not worry about applying for grants or getting the micky mouse papers. And the commitment to mouse biology is shown by the direct absorption of mouse costs by the institute, so individual labs don't have to factor it into consideration. The building is old, and on the very edge of London, but there are hundred good reasons to work there.

Today was the day for World Heritage sites. Shyla had to work, but Luke, Lydia and I caught the tube down to the Tower of London. The Tower was founded by William Conqueror after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. He founded the central tower, the White Tower, in 1078. Other towers and fortifications were progressively built, being completed by Edward I in 1285. The inner wall is the highest, at 15 feet high, with 13 towers. The outer wall is the thickest and has 6 additional towers, giving 20 towers in all. The moat around the tower is 125 feet wide. It was originally built too deep, such that it collected debris from the Thames rather than being washed clean by it. On this plus side, this has made the moat an archaeological gold mine. Our tour was conducted by a Beefeater (Yeoman Warder). The Beefeaters have been guarding the tower since 1485. They live in the tower with their families, and are locked in every night at 10pm (there is a whole little village inside the tower). Last September the Beefeaters gained their first female Yeoman Warder. To become a Beefeater you must have served in the army, royal marines or royal airforce for 22 years (people from the navy are not accepted as they do not swear to the monarchy), rising to the level of Sergent Major and having good conduct medals. The post seems to be an odd retirement position, being locked in at night and conducting tours during the day. They must go mad bellowing out the same poor jokes every hour, on the hour. In the tower we also saw the Crown Jewels (guarded in the tower since 1303, and including the largest perfectly cut diamond in the world) and the old armoury. Also interesting were the ravens of the tower. They are fed by the beefeaters (with beef) and their wings are kept clipped so that they do not fly away, due to the myth that if the ravens leave the tower, the city will fall.


After the tower Luke had to leave, but Lydia and I caught a ferry down to our next World Heritage site - Greenwich village. We wandered through the charming streets of the village, including the oldest brewery in Britian, and on the campus of Greenwich University. We then climbed up to the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. Interestingly, this used to be in the Tower of London until the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed complained about the ravens to Charles II. It was after Charles II ordered the ravens removed that he was given the prophecy about the city falling, so instead he moved the astronomers out to Greenwich. The highlight of the observatory is the Meridian line, the definition of zero degree longitude, and the clockwork defining Greenwich mean time. Afterwards we went back into town to meet up with Gwyn and Lyn for a beer at the Mason Arms, and then had a great pizza dinner with Luke and Shyla.

Saturday
Jun072008

The political murals of West Belfast

 

Our navigation from the Giant's Causeway to Belfast was somewhat complicated by the large number of towns beginning with Bally- in this small region (the Bally- prefix means "town" in Irish) - Ballymena, Ballyclare, Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Ballyrashane, Ballyvelton, Ballybogy, Ballylintagh, Ballyleckan, Ballyvoy, Ballyknock, Ballynafie, Ballygelly, Ballyeaston, Ballynure, Ballypalady and Ballygallagh. Despite this, Luke drove through without a problem while Shyla and I dozed.

Belfast looks like a city still under reconstruction. The old churches and sites still looked shattered, groaning under the weight of neglect. Compared to Dublin, the city has the feel of a hard edge that is slightly unnerving. Walking through West Belfast in particular makes you feel uneasy. The heavy tattoos on everyone are not the body art of Seattle, but rather the political tats from the Troubles. The three decades of guerrilla war, IRA bombings and unionist suppression of Catholics have obviously taken a hard toll on the city. Whatever mistakes they made, the hard work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in forging the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland was a lasting good.

We saw the Peace Line wall, made to fence in the Catholics, and the Wall of Solidarity, where the Republicans show their support for other populations politically repressed by a stronger force, with murals painted by the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Basque separatists. And we saw the headquarters of Sinn Féin decorated with the quote from the famous hunger striker Bobby Sands "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children". A reminder that now the Troubles are over.

Following our visit to Belfast we drove to Drogheda, a surprisingly charming city with beautiful churches, old fortifications in the middle of the town and a lovely atmosphere to wander through. We had a nice dinner at a pizza joint and then stayed our final night just outside Brú na Bóinne. All up we drove nearly 700km across Ireland, had a brief, yet enlightening, taste of the Emerald Isle, and I got to catch up with dear friends.

Saturday
Jun072008

Driving along the coastal highway of Northern Ireland

After a day of crummy food, Shyla had set rules for today - a traditional Irish breakfast with soda bread, and either a Sheppard’s pie or an Irish stew for lunch. Luckily, we were able to do both - and see the most stunning natural site in Ireland, the Giant's Causeway.

 We had to refill the car after our long day driving, and paid the most I've ever seen for petrol - £1.16/litre (that is $2.40/litre for Australians and $8.56/gallon for Americans). Although since Ireland is so small, I doubt most people have to fill up very regularly. We drove to Ballycastle for breakfast above a bakery, which was simply delightful. I had eggs and fried mushrooms, with a pot of tea and a fruit scone, while Luke and Shyla tried the Irish fry-up with soda bread. Just the smell whifting from the bakery was amazing. I haven't eaten such amazing baked goods since the last time I drove from Canberra to Adelaide and stopped in at the Narrandara bakery.

From Ballycastle to Carrick-a-Rede. Famous at Carrick-a-Rede is the rickety rope bridge which has been used by fishermen for 350 years. The bridge is now stable with iron cables, taking away any of the novelty, but it did make a good excuse to walk along the coast and out onto the bluff, seeing the nesting seabirds on the cliffs and the heath meadows framing the deep blue and turquoise ocean.

From Ballycastle we drove along the coast to the Giant's causeway. The Causeway is another of the three World Heritage sites in Ireland. It is a rock formation starting at the coast and diving into the ocean, formed by basaltic lava cooling rapidly, such that the contraction caused fracturing of the lava bed into hexagonal columns. The Irish legend about the Causeway is that it was built by Fionn mac Cumhaill in order to walk from Ireland to Scotland to fight Benandonner. After building the causeway he was so tuckered out he had to have a nap, and Benandonner crossed over the bridge for the fight. Fionn's wife Oonagh laid a blanket over Fionn, and told Benandonner than Fionn was just her tiny baby. Imaging how big Fionn himself must have been Benandonner ran back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway. In Scotland at Fingal's Cave there is a similar formation, representing the other end of the Causeway. The coast along this region was simply beautiful. We had perfect weather, deep blue skies and strong sun, the ocean was gorgeous and the rock formations were interesting.

To fulfil Shyla's second gastronomic imperative, we headed down the road to Bushmills to eat at the Bushmills Distillary kitchen, for Irish Stew, Shepherd’s Pie and Pasta Bake, washed down with Guinness.



Friday
Jun062008

Driving along the coastal highway of Northern Ireland

From Slane it was my turn to drive, the first time I have driven in two and a half years (and the first time in more than six years that I have driven a significant distance). I was rather relieved to find that it wasn't difficult at all to get back into the drivers seat (odd too, that despite living in the US for more than two years it still felt natural to drive on the left).

The plan was to head up to Belfast, see the political murals of West Belfast and then drive further onwards along the coastal road to Cushendall. The Irish countryside is very pleasant to drive through, lots of sheep and rolling green hills. Once we crossed the border into Northern Ireland (there is now no actual border crossing) it changed from sleepy little agricultural towns to more industrial and modern towns.

It was getting later than we had planned, so instead of stopping in Belfast we decided to just drive through it. Thanks to the complete lack of adequate signage, navigation was almost impossible without a detailed map - roads were not labelled, and when they were they used different names from the one on our basic road map. Eventually we managed to muddle our way out of Belfast, but not without cost to our congeniality.

The coast of Northern Ireland was stunning. We got to enjoy the long slow sunset and pink light over the Irish ocean, views of the mountains of Scotland in the far distance, and the smell of salt water. The towns we passed through were all quite cute, but from a gastronomic point of view strangely barren. We had given up hope of finding any food at all when we reached Glenariff which (oddly) had two late night Chinese take-aways open. The food was horrific, but it let us reach our hostel inland from Cushendall. At the hostel were no other tourists, just locals from Ballymena who came here on the weekend out of boredom. We shared a few beers and Baileys with them, try to stifle rolling our eyes at this one drunk girl and got some helpful advice on our following day.

Tuesday
Jun032008

Job interviews in London

I only had three days in London, and most of it was spent in interviews, or on the tube between interviews, at the Kennedy Institute, Mill Hill and Hammersmith Hospital. I was able to see just a little of London, staying with Luke, Shyla and Suma in their trendy new apartment in Notting Hill, a visit to their local, the Cock and Bottle, Trafalgar Square and a little plain old wandering. Walking around London is quite surreal to someone who had an English education but hasn't really spent any time there - every landmark and train station has a name that resonates, Paddington, Notting Hill, Trafalgar, King's Cross, Waterloo, the Tower of London, Piccadilly, Westminster. So much of our culture, so many quirks and habits, only make sense if you know the historical context - and that means London.

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