13 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 11

The Day I Explored Cardiff

This morning before wandering the streets of Cardiff, I took the time to consume another delicious "full English" breakfast in the hotel restaurant while sitting at a table overlooking the drizzly, rainy city streets.  I figured going out in the gloom today was only fair considering that Great Britain is supposed to be notorious for rainy weather and yet in the ten days I've been here, I've encountered rain only once when I was in Edinburgh and for only an hour and even that wasn't much more than a misty drizzle.  I've been supremely fortunate with the weather thus far, enjoying temperate and frequently sunny days in the upper 50s and low 60s.  What more could a pale girl ask?

Minus the fried tomatoes and mushrooms.  Yum!

After breakfast I once again checked out and stowed my belongings in the luggage lockup like the travel boss I've become.  The desk clerks were very helpful, both with my bags and with giving me a map and directions for how to access most of Cardiff on foot.  They also didn't laugh at me last night when I accidentally locked myself out of my room while putting my dinner tray in the hallway and had to come down to the lobby in my pajama pants and bare feet for a replacement key card.  Yay for consummate professionals!

I was interested in touring the city on one of the local "hop on, hop off" sightseeing buses because I've found them to be a quick and efficient way to get around as well as a good way to learn a lot about the city I'm visiting,   However, I also wanted to see the Doctor Who Experience (yes, I know, I'm a giant geek...it's been mentioned)  but the tickets already appeared to be sold out online and I hadn't pre-booked because I was trying to leave my time in Wales flexible in case I found some genealogy trail I needed to run to ground.  I knew I ran the risk of screwing myself over by not prebooking, but I figured since there's never enough time to see everything I want anyway I could just pick and choose activities as time and availability allowed.  As a result, I eschewed the bus for the moment and instead walked down to the bay in an attempt to get Doctor Who tickets at the door before they were all gone.

The walk was supposed to take 10 minutes but probably took more like 30 by the time I actually reached the Doctor Who Experience on the other side of Cardiff Bay; no doubt it would have been shorter had I not ended up going the long way around after getting faulty directions from some construction workers on the street.  Still, the rain had stopped before I left the hotel and it was turning into a beautiful day so the walk, while long, was pleasant.  En route I passed the dramatic Millennium Centre for arts and music, sheathed in the slate for which Wales is renowned.  Near the Centre I watched as a parade of festively-dressed people marched down a distant sidewalk for some inexplicable reason. I also walked by a very amusing street sign for the Doctor Who Experience which featured no words but which sported a Dalek and and arrow pointing the way to the site.  I strolled by the Pierhead Building on Cardiff Bay; it boasts its own clock tower affectionately known as "Baby Big Ben" or "Big Ben of Wales."  Standing next to this building were two entertainers (or so I assumed) on stilts who looked a bit like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, or possibly like some of Tolkien's Ents.  As they were largely just hanging around doing nothing, I've no idea why they were there but they were certainly unique.  Clearly it's all go in Cardiff on a Saturday.

"This way to the Long John Silver's salt shakers..."

Pierhead Building

Your guess is as good as mine.

Getting tickets to the Doctor Who Experience proved no problem after all; I purchased my ticket and was able to walk pretty much straight into the next viewing.  I smirked at a girl in front of me as the line moved because her shirt was emblazoned with a pseudo-Disney logo reading "Dismal and Bemusement Park."  All throughout the lobby were several props from the television show; we passed additional props and costumes displayed just outside the entrance to the exhibition as we threaded through the line barriers.  In order to avoid spoilers for future visitors we were not allowed to take photos during the "experience" part of the exhibition, which proved to be a terribly cheesy and trumped-up "action-adventure" clearly geared towards children.  Once through our dubious adventure we were funneled into a far more interesting museum of props and costumes and such from the many years Doctor Who has been on television.  My favorites were the oldest items from when the show started over 50 years ago, including a model of the original TARDIS set and the mock-up of the first TARDIS interior which was used in the movie "An Adventure in Time and Space" about how Doctor Who came into existence.  They even had the soundboard of the grand piano used to create the original theme song. Meanwhile, some of the early monster/alien costumes just made me laugh; they looked so ineptly constructed when examined in person.

Mockup of the original sets.

Original TARDIS console replica

Other notable displays included Jon Pertwee's yellow roadster "Bessie," a mockup of Tom Baker's Tardis interior, complete with a coat rack draped in one of his later, more purpley giant scarves, and several TARDISes, including one used in the filming of the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor."  I also got to see K-9, who is perhaps one of my favorite characters of the entire show and who was significantly larger than I expected.  After examining the mostly older set pieces downstairs, I moved upstairs to explore the remaining displays, most of which consisted of assorted costumes--including the clothing of each and every Doctor incarnation to date.  While I wish there had been less emphasis on items from the current Doctor's and previous Doctor's eras (understandable given the relative accessibility of such items) as opposed to a more equitable representation of all the Doctor's incarnations, I really appreciated the ability to look at all the costumes up close and with a seamstress' eye.  As with most theater costuming for the stage, the assorted clothing I viewed looked much better on film and in motion than it did on stationary stands.  In addition to thinking that the current companion Jenna Coleman must be impossibly tiny based on the size of her costumes ("Impossible Girl" indeed), my overwhelming opinion as I strolled through all the displays (especially the women's clothing) was that I could have easily made any of them myself (and probably done better). Clearly the BBC needs to put me on staff immediately.  Are you there, BBC?  It's me, Ginger...

Man's best electronic friend

Clara Oswald's and Robin Hood's costumes from "Robot of Sherwood"

As is often the case with tourist sites, I could only exit the main exhibition hall after being funneled through a gift shop, presumably in the hope that I would spend a bucket of money on souvenirs.  Much of the stuff on offer was typical touristy schlock, but there were a few good things including some collectibles I either couldn't justify expense-wise or couldn't risk damaging in my overstuffed suitcase on the way home.  So I settled for a couple of less breakable shirts, including a royal blue zip-up hoodie printed with "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Yard" in an homage to the very first episode.  I also sprung for the rather disappointing "Merchandise Pack," which included a certificate identifying me as an "official companion," a fancy souvenir ticket, a booklet about the exhibition (which was decent), and a t-shirt--though they were out of the sizes I wanted and so took my address to mail me one when they were back in stock.  I was most excited about the souvenir Tardis key included in the pack, thinking it would look like the ones used in the show.  It didn't.  Instead it was a perfectly normal and boring key stamped with "Doctor Who Experience."  Sigh...so lame.

Is that really the best you can do, Doctor Who Experience?  Really??

In spite of the kitschiness here and there, I really enjoyed the exhibition.  It's good to let one's inner geek out for fresh air every once in a while...keeps them from getting cranky (or too pasty).  Upon exiting the gift shop I came out in the main lobby next to a life-sized Dalek made of over 157,000 Cobi bricks (a Lego lookalike).  There was also a little cafe in the lobby whose menu, not surprisingly, had appropriately-themed item names (as did the wifi password); they even had small packages of Jelly Babies for sale (4th Doctor not included!).  I purchased a banana for a snack and a couple bottles of water to stash in my backpack. In an unusual stroke of luck for me, one of the sightseeing buses pulled to a stop nearby just as I was leaving the exhibition hall.  I was able to purchase a ticket directly from the driver and hop aboard, climbing to the top of the double-decker bus where I took a seat and plugged in my earphones.  The audio commentary on these buses always makes me smile; I'm convinced the narrators smirk their way through the entire script; they are my people.  The bus drove past the Millenium Centre, but this time the audio track explained the history and gave me a clue what was written on the front.  For those interested, it's two lines of poetry by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis: Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen ("Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration") in Welsh and "In These Stones Horizons Sing" in English.  The words are made up of windows and are apparently lit up at night.  I'd like to have seen that.  I also learned from the audio that Lloyd George, Welshman and former British Prime Minister, was supposedly quite the womanizer.  As we made our way through town I saw several lovely old buildings, including a historic Norwegian (Lutheran) church and the Millennium Stadium, home to the Wales National Rugby Union team.  I gather that Rugby is big in Wales.

Millennium Centre

Millennium Stadium

One of the stops was at Cardiff Castle and rather than finishing the bus tour just then I jumped off to make sure I had adequate time to see the castle and its environs. What's cool about Cardiff Castle is that it has building elements spanning centuries.  A Roman fort was built on the site around the 3rd century; some of the original wall was recently excavated and is now on display.  Then, in the late 11th century at the probable behest of William the Conquerer, the Norman invaders built a bailey castle over the ruins of the Roman fort.  Additional repairs and buildings were added over subsequent centuries, making Cardiff Castle an unusual conglomeration of building styles.  Cooler still (at least to me), the castle was held by the de Clare family for a century or two; in fact, the Black Tower still standing there was commissioned by one Gilbert de Clare, who was one of the 25 Magna Carta barons and, coincidentally, one of my ancestors.  This closed the circle on a weird serendipity for me...first I saw Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral during its 800th anniversary year and then I was able to go touch a tower built by one of its protectors who came from my own family line.  Funny how seemingly unrelated events end up tying together like that.  I'm not gonna lie; it left me a little breathless.  Even without that little connection the castle has quite an interesting history, having featured prominently in the War of the Roses and been held at different times by both the Nevilles and the Tudors.

11th Century Keep at Cardiff Castle.

The Black Tower, built by Gilbert de Clare, aka Grandpa

On my way up to the keep I saw a small gate house with a stockade nearby.  Across the grounds stood a medieval trebuchet all silent and poised as though performing active sentry duty.  I walked past the remains of another defensive wall which once connected the Keep to the Black Tower.  I hiked up myriad stairs to reach the top of the medieval keep, where I was treated to some stunning views of Cardiff.  I wish I'd thought to take a selfie of myself up there or asked another visitor to snap a photo for me, but I was so entranced by the landscape that I completely forgot.  The castle keep was built very similarly to the one I saw in Arundel with Alan, the memory of which made me smile.  I didn't run into any scary toddlers jumping out of niches at this keep, though. As I looked down from the 77 foot high parapet and across the moat, I could see a wedding party leaving the Georgian house on the grounds to line up so the newlywed couple could run the traditional rice-throwing gauntlet.

View of Cardiff from the castle keep.

Because why wouldn't you get married at a castle if you could?

Once back down on solid ground I returned my audio guide to the gift shop and purchased a couple small souvenirs, then left the castle grounds and went across the street to do some proper shopping at a place recommended by Phil, one of the guys I'd met at Whooverville.  I almost bought one of the beautifully-carved Welsh love spoons (they're a big deal in Wales), but they were incredibly expensive so I regretfully passed them by.  I did finally get my Welsh dragon necklace, though, and even purchased earrings to match.  Afterwards I headed back across the street to the bus stop where I discovered to my chagrin that I had missed the last pickup of the day--just as I had in Edinburgh.  Darn those fall hours!!  So I only got half my bus tour.  But that's okay; I was more than happy to exchange the reduced off-season running hours for the beautiful weather and fewer tourists in town.  With bus transport no longer an option, I started hoofing it to a nearby mall to see about purchasing a second small suitcase so I could get all my swag home on the plane.  Unfortunately, all the shops were either closed or closing by the time I got there.  Still, I got to do some serious people-watching as I walked along the busy arcade, observing first a small child dribbling melted ice cream while eating a cone, then several buskers playing drums, and finally some Asian girls wearing what looked like some anime cosplay outfits.

I had just stopped near the end of a street off the arcade and to figure out where to go next when a young girl stopped me to ask for directions to the train station.  I found this supremely amusing and ironic since I likewise had no clue where I was going, but apparently I looked safe and/or reliable and she stood looking up at me with wide-eyed innocence and trust. I sighed and pulled out my map from the hotel, pointing out the way for her as best I could.  Then I found a taxi parked on the street and gave the name of my hotel.  Once again the driver grumbled and muttered that I should just walk.  What is the deal with Cardiff taxis anyway?  I realize I'm not providing large fares, but surely making some money is better than sitting there making none?   I climbed into the cab and, because my feet were hurting again, I insisted he drive me anyway.  The driver grimaced but put the car in gear, hurtling down the road at high speed as if in a hurry to get rid of me.  He probably was, wanting to go off in search of more lucrative plunder. After retrieving my luggage from lockup, I sat for a while in the lobby till my feet felt better, then got up and walked the five minutes to the train station.

Originally I'd planned to spend two nights in Cardiff, but ultimately decided I was over schlepping all my crap to a different hotel every night and thought that a nice, quiet afternoon in London before getting up early to fly home sounded delightful.  The train ride back to London proved to be a colorful one; first we were delayed while the train in front of us had mechanical problems.  Then the door to my carriage, which was immediately behind me, decided it didn't want to stay closed when anyone walked through it, so for over an hour I was treated to the loud bangs and rattles of the carriage junction slamming into the tracks while a cool wind kept whooshing in through the door.  I tried fixing it once or twice to no avail.  Eventually the door sorted itself out, but it took over an hour to do so.  Next a guy on his phone walked through the carriage and out into the junction to talk loudly about sports to whomever was on the other end.  He said he'd given up on football (or maybe it was rugby) and was doing handball now...I think that's what he said, anyway.  His conversation then became extremely animated and heavily peppered with the word "fuck."  You would have sworn he had just stepped out of a British sports movie...it was that comical.  He finally disembarked right before we arrived at Paddington station. The couple sitting next to me, who were probably in their late 50s and who were very nattily dressed, muttered to each other that you could still hear the guy even after he'd gotten off the train...which you could.  And for probably another 300 yards before he finally went out of earshot.  The couple looked at each other and I started smirking, so they looked at me and we all exchanged knowing glances.  You've got to love the British...they are so understated and yet so much meaning can be conveyed in just one such eloquent glance.  I couldn't help asking myself "Why do I not live here yet???"  You know, because I'm so understated myself and all.

A couple of stops later the train arrived at Paddington. I purchased a ticket for the Heathrow Express, having cannily reserved a hotel room within walking distance of the airport so I could avoid any rush hour transportation delays before my plane's very early departure Monday morning.  As I was walking to the platform I was accosted by some man looking for money to get home "because his bank card was empty," etc., etc.  It sounded like the same old scam as at home; someone asks for money and if you offer to call someone or offer some other form of tangible aid and it's all "No, no, I just need X amount of money!"  I felt bad about turning him down but he was quite persistent which made it a little easier.  I had to wait a while for the train to show up and then to get moving, presumably because it was quite late at night, but finally the train zipped along towards Heathrow.  A transfer and a 10-minute walk later, I checked into the Heathrow Hilton where I was given a free upgrade to a "King Executive Room" with complimentary breakfast and internet.  Who knew keeping hotel loyalty cards you rarely use could come in so handy?  Plus the room came with "amenities," by which I mean "mini bar with exorbitantly overpriced snacks and sodas."  Personally I was far more excited by the free internet since most hotels over here charge for that unless you are a loyalty member.  I made myself comfortable and then climbed into the bed where I promptly fell asleep halfway through posting on Facebook, phone still in hand.  I found it under me the next morning.  Yup...that's how I roll.

Welsh Kilt Count:  8

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