Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pembrokeshire, Wales

Recently, we decided to take a long weekend in Wales. I had bought a book, "Britain With Kids" and it inspired me to plan some UK adventures, our first being a 4-hour drive to Pembrokeshire, the southern tip of Wales. What a great decision it turned out to be! From the minute we crossed the Severn Bridge, a massive suspension bridge built in the 60's to replace the slower ferry, we began marvelling at the rolling landscape and chuckling as we tried to pronounce the Gaelic words on the bilingual signage.
We had booked into a Guest House in Goodwick, beside Fishguard, a small seaside town. The local tourist office was housed in the library which, in turn, was housed in the town hall. After getting a little local info, we were insistently guided up the stairs to view a tapestry that was created by local women to commemorate the Battle of Fishguard (1797), said to be the last invasion of Britain when 1400 French soldiers stormed the shores. Viewing the tremendous amount of work that not only went into creating the tapestry, but also displaying it, was the first inkling we had of the fierce independence and pride of the Welsh people. The Welsh remind me a bit of the Quebecois, but less militant, more gentle.
Fishguard is also intensely proud of Jemima Nicholas, a true feminist icon who led the women of Pembrokeshire into battle and captured 12 french soldiers with only a pitchfork. Now, apparently the soldiers were all drunk at the time, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story!

On Saturday we set off early to drive to St. David's, the smallest city in the UK and the only city in the UK to be located completely within a National Park. I'm not sure how it got it's "city" distinction - if you tried hard enough I'm sure you could spit across it. But whatever the designation, it was a lovely, little coastal town. St David's was also the launching point for our first sea adventure, a jet boat ride around Ramsey Island.

Ramsey Island is a small island about 1km off the coast and is home to thousands of seals, hundreds of thousands of birds, and 2 people (the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] warden and his wife). We didn't land on the island, but indulged in a high-speed boat ride around the island with frequent stops to view the unique landscape and the wildlife.

Hannah and Mira loved the seals laying around the beaches sunbathing.

The seals were quite curious about us and a few swam near to the boat to check us out.

Volcanic rock pushed up from beneath the sea.

Yup, those are lots of birds and that is a lot of bird poop.

We loaded onto the boat at the St. David's lifeboat station, a fascinating structure that displays loads of history about the sea rescues conducted over the years. We even noticed a listing for a rescue conducted to save a Montreal-registered vessel!

After our sea adventure, we visited St. David's Cathedral, originally built in 1181 and a popular place for pilgrimage during the Middle Ages. I'm not big on touring churches, but St. David's was really a lovely spot to explore.

This unknown soldier reputedly died in 1103.

Next stop - the beach! We were blessed with fantastic weather and actually splashed in the Atlantic ocean in April! Whitesands beach is a popular beach for surfers and they were out in full force in their wet suits.

We came prepared with sand buckets!

Hannah was very proud of her creation!

We capped off our day with a great seafood dinner in Solva, a very tiny, very quaint fishing village.

We discovered one of Pembrokeshire's curses and its charms are it's winding, single-lane roads. One drives precariously along these winding roads that feel like tunnels with their high-reaching berms and hopes there will be no on-coming traffic. Alas, another car appears and just when you think there is no way to get past each other, you just manage it. I kept looking at the sides of cars for scratches and dents, but really, the Pembrokeshire people must be quite adept at driving this way as there wasn't a scratch in sight.

On day 2 we set off early again for another sea adventure - taking the ferry to Skomer Island, a small island that is an important breeding ground for seabirds and located within a marine reserve. We heard tell that the Puffins were on the island the day before and so we went with full hopes of seeing some of the funny little birds building their nests.

Skomer Island is a protected space and only allows 250 people on a day. There were less than 100 of us on the day we visited so it was rather amazing to walk the island paths and feel like we were the only people for miles.

Can you see the bumps in the grasses either side of the path? Those are all birds nests! The island is covered in them - literally hundreds of thousands of them!

The island was last inhabited and farmed by a family in the 1950's and the remnants of their farm buildings are still there.

The seascapes around the island are truly magnificent.

We rented a pair of binoculars and Hannah was determined to master them.

My little posers on some rock.

Well, we didn't see the puffins, at least not up close. They were out in the bay and one of the wardens showed them to us through a telescope. But the stubborn little things refused to come in to their nests before we had to take the ferry back to the mainland. Apparently, just they day before they had been toddling around the nesting site and a volunteer showed us a very up-close picture she took of one just a few feet away from her. Ahhh, timing is everything! Oh well, now we have an excuse to visit again!
And, we just might. We all fell in love with the Pembrokshire coast and the friendly Welsh people. Perhaps we'll rent a cottage there for a few days this summer, or perhaps my book will lead us to another lovely UK destination.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cadbury World

What better place to visit on Easter Weekend than a Chocolate Factory! We were fortunate enough to nab some last-minute tickets to tour the world-famous Cadbury factory in Birmingham, an hour's drive from Oxford.
Cadbury has developed what they call "Cadbury World," a exhibit that takes you through the history of the chocolate from the amazon rain forest, right up to modern day. More interesting however is the Cadbury story itself. John Cadbury and sons developed a whole town around the factory which became know as Bourneville. In the late 1800's, anyone would have been fortunate to move to Bourneville and work for the Cadbury family whose Quaker beliefs resulted in very progressive policies for their workforce. They had vacation time and pension schemes to rival all of England at the time. They also valued nature and education. Bourneville was way ahead of its time.
Hannah and Mira sample their chocolate concoctions!
In the short time we were there, we managed to amass quite the collection of chocolate - we certainly gave the Easter Bunny a run for his money!
To eat or to play... that is the question!

Alice and her friends dropped by for some Chocolate fun.

As a final stop, Cadbury World boasts a fantastic playground - a place where they kids can get all their chocolate-induced wiggles out before the drive home!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Liu's Visit

Our most recent visitors were Stan's parents, Alice and Dickson. Unfortunately, the English spring has been a bit damp and cold, but we managed to get out and about and show them a few sights just the same... starting with a tour of Oxford city centre.

Daffodils grow practically wild at every turn. Driving the ring road (an almost highway that encircles Oxford) I always take a double-take at the swath of yellow on the sides - no, not dandelions, but masses and masses of daffodils.

Outside St. Mary's and the Radcliffe camera.

Next, we visited Blenheim Palace. Now, we have been for walks on the grounds before, but this time we decided to actually tour the palace and gardens. We cashed in some of our Tesco points and invested in an annual pass and I'm glad we did. The gardens are beautiful in March and I can only imagine how beautiful they'll be later in the spring and summer.

We had a wander through the palace and saw all the Churchill memorabilia, including a lock of his hair and some baby cloths. Most interesting were his paintings. He was an avid painter and was actually quite talented. Hallmark commissioned a number of his paintings for a line of greeting cards, some of which are still available today!

But really, the most beautiful part of the palace are the grounds so we spent the majority of our time wandering outside.

Big trees for little girls to explore...

...and climb in

The gem of the palace is the "secret garden." Refurbished in 2004, it is a beautiful garden with a meandering path, several lovely water features, and lots of green nooks for quiet (or not-so-quiet if you're 5 and almost 7) contemplation. I know a certain sister of mine who will absolutely love visiting this spot and I can't wait to take her there!

One of Blenheim's famous oak trees.

The girls enjoyed taking the small train over to the pleasure gardens...

to visit the butterfly conservatory...

...and the Blenheim maze - one of the biggest in the world!

On Monday, Alice, Dickson and I ventured to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit some of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust sites. First, we visited Anne Hathaway's cottage.

Next we went into the town proper and visited the Shakespeare museum and his birthplace. The floor in the house is the original that was laid by Shakespeare's father.
The rest of the week was fairly quiet with a couple of shopping trips and some quiet times at home with good food. It was like a vacation for me as Alice and Dickson did all the cooking and made some fabulous Chinese specialties.