Nine Important things to remember about Aging


#9 Death is the number 1 killer in the world.

#8 Life is sexually transmitted.

#7 Good health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.

#6 Men have 2 motivations: hunger and hanky panky, and they can’t tell them apart. If you see a gleam in his eyes, make him a sandwich.

#5 Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to use the Internet and they won’t bother you for weeks, months, maybe years.

#4 Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in the hospital, dying of nothing.

#3 All of us could take a lesson from the weather. It pays no attention to criticism.

#2 In the 60’s, people took LSD to make the world weird. Now the world is weird, and people take Prozac to make it normal.

#1 Life is like a jar of jalapeno peppers. What you do today may be a burning issue tomorrow.

Sorry – couldn’t resist sharing!

Signing off to go consider how I want to age… And ignoring all criticism as I do so…

The Soup Lady

Edinburgh Castle – another “Must Do” Tour!


Our list of “Must Do’s in the UK” is getting longer and longer. We’re going to run out of time before we run out of stuff to see, hear stories about, explore, and experience. But isn’t that the best kind of holiday? When you are sorry to leave – and have to promise yourself that some day you’ll be back.

But on to the Castle. Isaac and Derek warn us that pre-booking tickets is a seriously good idea, so we do so – and it’s a really good thing! We get to the esplanade where they do the Tattoo (sadly only starting next month) and there are two neat lines.

Did I mention that everyone here seems to love to line up? It’s quite the reverse from the Canadian and American tendancy to mush together if there’s no clear way to line up. Here they line up as a matter of course.

Anyway – two neat lines. Line 1 – less than 2 people long – is for those with pre-booked tickets. Line 2 – stretching from one end of the Esplande to the other – is for folks who didn’t pre-book. Lesson learned. Pre-book people! You get a 2 hour time slot, and surely you can estimate your time that closely, right?

Well – we manage to log in with 2 minutes to spare. Not sure what would have happened if we’d missed our slot, fortunately I don’t have to find out.

After the customary bag search, we enter the castle and line up (again) to pay for audio guides. That task done – we sit to listen to the history of the castle – and admire the view over the ‘New Town’. There has been something ‘royal’ perched high on this massive rock outcroping for at least 2000 years – but the current castle only dates back 1000 years or so in the very oldest sections.

Once again, the Intrepid Traveler and I marvel at history that goes back so very far. And trust me – a 500 year old slight is as good as yesterdays. The Scots refer to the times that Henry VIII attacked as if it was recent history. And the fact that Scotland and England were officially joined (by a perfectly un-war like treaty in 1703) just doesn’t appear as relevant as the ‘Rough Wooing’ of the 1500’s.

But Castle History aside – the Castle is a marvel of engineering, and there are 5 different museums within its walls to investigate. But we start with lunch – or at least a cup of hot tea to share. It’s cold up here – and the heat of the lower part of Edinburgh persuaded us to dress lightly. A mistake. It’s really cold up here.

After our warm-up, we check out the first of the museums – The National War Museum of Scotland. It’s a general overview – but very interesting. Unlike Canadians – the Scots seemed to have gleefully gotten involved in as many conflicts as they could. If they weren’t at war as a nation, they were fighting as mercenaries. And they were well respected and in fact feared. One guide reminds us that they were once refered to as those “Devils in Skirts” or the “Ladies from Hell” – a reference to both their fearsome fighting skills, and the Kilt.

After the over-view, we visit two smaller museums devoted to the history of specific regiments, for me the highlights of the entire tour. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (also known as the Scot’s Grey’s for their Grey Horses) figured promently in the battle of Waterloo (1815). They captured the Eagle, Flag and Banner of the 43rd Regiment of the Grand Armee. Which was quite a feat. The French held the Eagles with high regard, and didn’t give it up easily. Most importantly – because it was captured, it survived the general melt-down and distruction of these objects after Napoleon I’s defeat. A great deal of the museum is given over to a discussion of the events on that historic day – and the Banner, Eagle, and Flag are given pride of place. I take lots of pictures, buy a postcard copy of a painting of the event – and even get my husband (shhh – don’t tell him) – a pair of cufflinks with the eagle.

The other regimental museum is devoted to the Royal Scots – and provided an over view of their history – and listed their regimental honors from the 17th century when they helped Charles I against the Covenanters. The exhibit ends with some current personal historys of members of this famed fighting force.

Another highlight were the displays on the Prisons of War. There were three parts to this facinating display – a fairly current ‘prison’ dating back only 50 years, a demo prision from the time of Napoleon I, and an exhibit of information on Prisons of War in more general terms. Worth more a quick visit for sure.

There are several parts of the castle open to a quick look-see – they are ok, but nothing to write home about. I did like visiting the room where James IV of Scotland and James I of England was born. Here in Scotland they never refer to him as ‘only’ James I – he is always refered to with both titles. Told you – really long memories!

Anyway – his mother is the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots – and finally after over 50 years of not quite getting it – The Intrepid Traveler and I finally figure out how Mary, Queen of Scots is related to Elizabeth I. We’d always somehow (ok – all Brits reading this – blame it on our lousy history courses) thought that Mary was Elizabeth’s Sister. And all the references to ‘Cousin’ to us was just another way of avoiding the awkwardness of ‘half-sister’. Wrong – completely wrong. Mary, Queen of Scots is the dauther of the Sister of Henry VII – Ie: Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots share grand-parents in Henry VII and his wife. When Mary, Queen of Scots (not Mary – daughter of Henry VIII) was 2 years old, Henry VIII wanted to bethroth her to his new born son, Edward. The Scots saw this as what it was – a grab for church property – and said – no. Hence the ‘rough wooing’ series of invasions.

Well – now that I understand this – I am a bit clearer on why Elizabeth I picked James IV of Scotland to inherit her throne. He is the great-grand-son of her Grand-father – Henry VII. And at that point – her closest living male relative in a direct line.

We finish our tour with a mandatory glimpse of Scotland’s Crown and Septure, and admire the Destiny Stone that has, after hundreds of years, been returned to Scotland. (Don’t ask).

We hike back out of the castle, pre-book tickets for 2 tours tomorrow – and ride home. Dinner, some wine, and bed – a perfect plan!

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler – signing off

Vikings Explained – FINALLY!


Ok – we’ve done the Viking Experience – but are still left with so many questions. We’d assumed that the Vikings had mostly been a plunder and raid society here in the UK – and the evidence discovered in York – and dated around 975 AD clearly shows that this was certainly not the whole story.

So today our goal is to go to the other museum in York that’s been recommended – the Yorkshire Museum – and check out their exhibit on the Vikings. Note to the reader – this is not a permanent exhibit – it’s on loan from the British Museum in honor of the re-opening of the Viking Experience. Check to see if it is still on if you come to York. And just FYI – the Yorkshire Museum is in an amazing location – the former Abby of St. Mary – and it’s an outstanding museum in its own right – with or without the Vikings.

But we are into Vikings – so we skip past the wonderfully interactive exhibit on the Roman occupation of York (Check out the video on dating skulls by their teeth – so interesting) and go right down to the Viking Exhibit.

This is a multi-piece effort to explain the history of the Vikings in the UK – and starts with an overview of the extent of their lands. They truly conquered the world as it was known in their day – and towads the end their reach extended much further than that of Rome.

But tightening in on how the Vikings influenced the UK – the exhibit switches to a short overview of that history. The Vikings at first were – as we’d been taught – plundering and raiding – and going home every winter. But eventually they sailed an armada of ships across the North Sea and landed in the UK – at basically York from 866 – intending to conquor and stay. They made York (or Jorvik as it was known then) the largest city in England outside of London.

They set up a tent camp the first winter – and then redeveloped it into the wooden town that became Jorvik later. The exhibit traces this experience in several ways – thru the objects found in the York cashe, in cards found near the displays that say ‘Dig Deeper’, and in story telling archeologists who are wandering the exhibit asking if they can answer any questions. We are luckily in a small room towards the end of the exhibit when Collen finds us and we can sit down to listen. He regales us with the tales from this tiny portion of UK history, interweaving what we know about the Battle of Hastings (not fought at Hastings), and the various Henry’s who were fighting (or trying to fight) over this land. The Vikings backed one of the Henry’s – and it is thought that they were also backing William of Orange thinking that if he conquored the southern part of the UK they would be free to rule the northern section.

Scotland wasn’t involved actually (this we didn’t know!). They were too strong to be attacked, and too well organized to conquor. So the battles fought were all fought well south of them.

In the end (1066), William won – and marched his troops northward forcing the Vikings to choose to flee – or be absorbed into the Ango-Saxon world. Many choose to stay – which explains a lot of the ‘Old Norse’ that is found on street signs in this area today.

Well, that clears up that mystery. But I’m still wondering why there were only 2 skeletons found in all that cashe – and where all the other bodies must be buried.

Liz says that the norm was to bury folks outside of the walls – which means her home is effectively on top of a graveyard. As are all of the other homes just a short distance outside of the walls. So many in fact, that most are not dated.

If you are going to be digging in your garden – be prepared to call in the Archeologists! At least you don’t have to worry that it might be the body of the wife of the last guy who owned your home. Nope – that skeleton is likely much, much older.

Suitably informed we head to the York Art Museum (not wonderful – so sorry), and then head back to Liz’s for our final dinner party. Tomorrow we travel on to Scotland, stopping first at Edinbough.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Fabulous York – a walled city with style – and Awesome Museums


Friends of the Intrepid Traveler told us that York was worth at least 4 days – and our sources had better be right – We’ve paid for our Air BnB lodging, so we’re going to be stuck if our sources are wrong.

But confident travelers that we are – we head out bravely – figuring that at worst we can finally get a much needed break. We’ve basically been on the go since we left Montreal May first – and frankly getting up and at’m every day is wearing a bit thin.

So York – here we come! The view from the train ride between Manchester and York is very different from the scenery we’ve been seeing during all our previous trips. For starters – suddently there are no dry stone fences. None. There are a few stone fences held together with morter, and lots of wood or wire fences – but no dry stone fences. Clearly – when the glaciers went thru, they dropped stones all over the fields west and south of Manchester – and had none left to drop when they receeded from York. How interesting. I’m sure my friend Thea Alvin – stone mason extraordinare – could explain it, but we just note the difference – and continue our ride. The types of animals in the fields change as well. Before this trip, we were looking only at sheep. Lots and lots of sheep, with maybe the occasional cow. But now cow herds seem to equal sheep herds in popularity – and there are lots of horses as well.

Our arrival in York is nothing special – thank goodness. I’m not sure I’m up for anything special right now. We get off the train, find a lift, find a map, find the street – and start navigating ourselves to Liz’s house. Despite her detailed directions, we’re slow walkers. And we constantly stop to double check that we haven’t missed a turn. Our path takes us around the wall of the city – and a wonderful wall it is too. There are stone gates – just one car wide of course – in various locations, a beautiful river with those distinctive canal boats on our right as we walk, and flowering bushes everywhere. We’ve clearly arrived at Springtime. We drag our cases pass signs for various museums – several of which feature Vikings as a theme. That should be fun. I don’t know anything about Viking occupation of the UK, wonder what they will tell us?

Our Air BnB hostess Liz is waiting for us outside of her house – and graciously invites us into her lovely home. The entrance way and the main ‘living’ room has the traditional super high ceiling of the Victorian houses – and correspondingly, the stair case up to our loft room is steep and winding. But she helps us with our tiny carry-ons – and we are quickly installed in our new home.

There is just one tiny problem. We count on having access to the kitchen of the places we stay in order to fix our meals. We can’t afford to eat out on our budget. And somehow I’ve overlooked the fact that at Liz’s place – the kitchen is strictly off limits.

I’m stunned by this news. What will we do? How will we cope? We have made no provisions for dealing without a kitchen. The angst must be visible on my face because Liz quickly realizes something is wrong.

To our everlasting delight – Liz offers to settle the problem by feeding us dinner. We’ll deal with the cost later – right now we are simply relieved beyond measure. She tells us to come back by 6:00 – so off we go.

Our plan for the rest of the day is simple – get our bearings in York and perhaps check out the newly renovated Viking Experience. We wander to the Minster – which given that it is a huge Cathedral – isn’t that much of a challenge to find. We check out the times for Evensong figuring that’s a good way to get a peek inside – and enjoy some music. Turns out that Monday night is just a prayer service, but tomorrow there will be Evensong. We will return.

We wander a bit more of York, noting the abundance of thrift shops and thinking that those are also places to come back and check out more carefully. We then wander thru the ‘Shambles’, an aptly named winding little road packed with shops on either side.

We stop at the Sainsbery Local to pick up a bottle of wine – our offering for dinner – and arrive just in time to join Liz. She serves us a dynamite salmon dish – apparently she’s been taking cooking courses and loves the idea of having guinea pigs. We sit out in her just finished garden full of blooming flowers and comfy furniture. We soak up the last of the sun, eat and chat. 3 hours flies past. By 9:00 we’re ready to call it a night – so we amble off up stairs to bed down. Tomorrow we will find that Viking Experience – it has to be here somewhere.

Signing off – very very full of yummy salmon and a nice pudding for dessert – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Manchester Bombing at Ariana Grande Concert hits achingly close to home


Andy Warhol might have thought that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, but for most of us – life is better lived outside of the limelight. So finding ourselves even remotely close to what may well be a history changing event like the Terrorist Bombing at the Ariana Grande Concert on May 22, 2017 is gut wrenching. It’s not our style. But it happened.

We had boarded the train in Lancaster and were headed towards Manchester-Picadilly where we are to change trains for York.

Again with the poor labeling – and despite our best efforts, we find ourselves dragging our luggage down the entire length of the coach to find our assigned seats.

Across from us sit a very quiet, very cute mother and daughter. We’re hard to ignore, so eventually they start to chat with us. The daughter has just turned 14 and as a birthday present – she and her mother are heading to Manchaster to go to a concert. They are going to be seeing and hearing Ariana Grande. Some brief chit-chat about how exciting this is – and how we should listen to her music when it turns out we have no idea who Ariana Grande is – and the train pulls into the station in Manchester.

Typically quick goodbye – hope concert is swell – and they head off toward the exit while we figure out where to catch the train to York.

Fast forward 20 hours – I’m lying in bed in our BnB in York when the phone rings – it’s my daughter Adrienne checking up on us. Where are we, and are we OK?

It’s the first we’ve heard about the bombing in Manchester-Picadilly – not a mile from where we’d been standing not 20 hours before. The Intepid Traveler and I let friends and family know we are ok – and not near Manchester – but it makes one wonder – were the daughter and Mom we met impacted – We are going to guess yes, because even if you were not hurt – you were still there and still scared.

Their pictures are not on the news, thank goodness – But worse news is still to come. We now know that in addition to the children killed or wounded, there were parents killed, two of them from York. And Sam, the son of our hostess, knows the York family well and is very upset and demanding retribution. It’s not an easy situation. The grocery store where the mother worked is collecting money to help the two young girls who are suddenly orphans – thru absolutely no fault of their own. We are sure this is 15 minutes of fame they could have lived without.

The British news is filled with reports on what happened, on the US leaks of information, on the British reaction, and all the museums we visit are implementing a tighter bag check policy. But this is not what bugs us.

We can not help but think that anyone, on either side, who thinks this kind of behavor will be rewarded by G-d is going to discover how very wrong they are. And until the entire world understands that ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind, we fear that the world is moving not towards enlightenment, but into the Dark Ages.

I walked past a young lady today here in York who was wearing a face covering. Only her eyes were exposed, and for some reason I do not understand she threw me a very angry look. I wondered if she was angry at me, angry at life, tired of being judged by the actions of others, or if perhaps I’d mis-interperted her glance as angry when all it was was curious.

I hope we will never know.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Getting the Low Down on Birmingham’s History


We wake to the Doves in the Peace Tower just outside of Sameer’s flat when we get up in morning. They make the most wonderful sounds – and as we are on the 6th floor – watching them fly by is up close and personal.

We were joking last night – and asked Sameer if he had bats in his belfrey – but he didn’t get the joke! Instead he told us about how bats are protected animals in London. Nice to know – but not what we were laughing about.

This morning, Sameer dashes out before we are up – leaving us to fix our own breakfast from the fixings he left us – blueberries, bananas, oranges, milk, and an excellent Granola. There are also eggs – but we opt for a simple breakfast, lunch will be a bigger meal.

We have reservations for a tour at 10:15 at the Birmingham Back to Back Houses. We’ve been reading up on these houses – and the ones we will see are the last in existance – as late as the 1940’s there were thousands of people leaving in Back to Back Houses. They could be crammed in – up to 14 in what is effectively a 3 room house – under 900 sq feet in total – and some of that taken up with narrow spiral stairs that go from the first to the third floor.

Today these houses are in the heart of China Town, and adjacent to a large restaurant and bar complex, but in their day they were the key stone of lively neighborhoods. We were excited to take the tour.

The visit starts in front of a sweetshop, and our guide, Jane, begins by explaining that just before these houses were finally demolished in the 1970’s, they were mostly used as shops – and the sweetshop was what was in this location at the turn of the century. Back to Back Houses were built – surprise, surprise – back to back. So there are 3 houses with windows facing the road, and three more built against their back walls. These 3 houses have windows only on the ‘courtyard’ side. The entrances are street or courtyard level – and most of these houses had no running water and no toilets. Instead the toilets are located in the shared courtyard. In earlier times, these shared toilets were modified chamber pots, but eventually they were renovated to have ‘flush’ toilets. But you are still outside! In one of the houses, running water had been added – but only on the first floor. Water was never available above the first floor.

There is basically only one room on each floor – a living/dining/food prep room on the ground floor, a bedroom on the 2nd floor, and a 2nd bedroom on the third floor. The floors are linked by steep narrow twisting staircases – hard to go up, and frightening to go down. There is only one window in each room – depending on the house, facing either into the courtyard or into the street.

There was a fireplace in both the kitchen and ‘master’ bedroom – but while the kitchen fireplace was on from dawn till bedtime, the one in the ‘master’ bedroom was lit only when someone was feeling ‘poorly’. As for those sleeping on the third floor – crowding was the solution to a cold night. Families were known to put 6 kids in one bed, sleeping head to toe, and then renting out the other bed in the third floor bedroom to strangers!

So – no running water, no toilets, no sewer, and a central washing area that each family sharing the courtyard got to access once a week – life in the Back to Backs was not easy. There are audio tapes of folks who used to live here talking about what life was like. There was no reason to go home until bedtime, because there was nothing to do in the house except sleep. So kids ran wild and wooly all over the area – keeping themselves busy until going to bed was unavoidable.

And jobs, while plentiful, were neither well paying nor safe. Birmingham was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in England, and had more than it’s share of stuffy unsafe factories and challenging work environments. So Dad and the older boys would work all day – while Mom and the girls did the washing, cleaning, cooking, and sewing needed to keep the family together. Young boys went to school – a priledge rarely available to young girls in the UK until after 1870.

Back to our tour. The small block of back to back houses that has been saved has been extensively renovated. Of the three houses facing the street on the northern side, the bottom left is the sweet shop – and above that is ‘holiday’ let.. The center one is also a ‘holiday’ let, and the last one is used for storage by the National Trust. Of the back 3 houses on the north side, the one to the right is set-up to show life in 1840 – when this block was first built. The middle house is set-up as 1870, and the left most house is set as 1920. Of the 3 houses on the East side, the left most has been left as it was in 1970 when the last resident – a tailor – left. The center and right houses are now the welcome area, space for staff and an exhibit area. In the exhibit area you can see the 28 layers of wallpaper that were removed from one wall. Turns out it was much cheaper to just paste on new wallpaper – and that’s what happened.

We totally enjoyed the tour – our guide was very informed, the houses are very interesting, and unlike most museums – you are welcome to touch everything. I found the clock making tools in the house from 1840 particularly intriging.

Our tour finished, we decided to visit the rag market – which quickly gets boring, and then stop for traditional English Fish and Chips. Yum.

Now we stroll just a few blocks North and West – on our way to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The city changes drastically as we work our way these few blocks North. As we leave the ‘Rag’ Market – we also leave the majority muslim crowd and the boarded up and abandoned shop fronts. We pass the dramatically new Central Train Station – a huge Silver sphere shape that dominates the western view from St. Martins in the Bull Ring. Once on High Street – we are on a Pedestrian Mall with fancy shops, folks in nice dresses, and a general sense of well-being. What a drastic change from the rather scary feelings of the area near the ‘Rag’ Market!

Within minutes we are at Victoria Square – dedicated by the Princess of Wales (Diana?) in 1970. And just past that is the museum. And a glorious museum it is too. As with most of the museums here, it has a bit of everything – from Egyptian artifacts, a brief history of the Irish in Birmingham, to a room dedicated to the Stratford Hoard. The Hoard is impressive – and the rooms dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite painters contain art that is both extensive and beautiful. But the absolute best part of the museum, despite the lack of any marketing, even on the museum map – is the 3rd floor display on the history of Birmingham.

We’ve seen histories that are as dull as paint drying, but this is not one of them. This series of rooms takes the history of Birmingham and makes it personal – entertaining – and facinating. The curators have used every trick in their books to make these displays interesting, and they are amazingly successful.

The fun starts in the Medieval Past – over 1000 years ago. There’s a model of the town showing clearly that the Bull Ring Market, St. Martin’s of the Bull Ring, and the High Street were already known in those days. A series of short videos featuring kids from a local drama department explains why Birmingham was growing by leaps and bounds in those days – a combination of a belief in freedom of religion, and the lack of a town charter. Without a charter, guilds couldn’t operate – so a free-for-all attitude took hold. Anyone could do anything – and folks flocked to Birmingham in response.

To cover the years during the industrial revolution the display becomes a ‘tourist guide’ to Birmingham. Hints include finding the best places for food, and cover the ‘building boom’ with humor and attention to detail.

Moving historically forward, there is a series of puppets who demonstrate how to make a musket, and a display of the hand made buttons that made Birmingham famous in the 1800s. There are model kitchens from the 1900s for kids to play at, there are build it yourself models to practice town planning in the 1920s, and a multi-screen video presentation on Birmingham’s participation in WWI and WWII.

The display ends with a nod to the issues of the present – including the recent announcement by BMW to close their plant, putting 6000 out of work.

It’s an outstanding example of the curator’s art – and a fabulous examination of the history of Birmingham in particular and England in general.

We are thrilled to have wandered in!

But now the museum is closing around us – and we are gently escorted out by the guides who have appeared from nowhere.

So it’s home, a lovely roast chicken dinner with wine at Sameer’s flat – and early to bed. Tomorrow we travel – and we need our rest.

Signing off to get our beauty sleep – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Getting down and dirty in Birmingham


Birmingham is definitely not on most tourists hot lists. In fact – when we’ve told folks we were headed this way after our visit to Oxford – they were either surprised, stunned, or bewildered. Why would anyone want to visit dirty old Birmingham? It’s not known for anything really – except being the center of Industry for the UK.

But we’re museum buffs – and there are two noteworthy museums in Birmingham. The National Trust Back to Back Houses were on the very tip top of our list of places to see – and the reviews of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with it’s huge collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings sounded intriguing. So we planned to hop a bus from Oxford and spend 1 day, 2 nights in this under visited part of the UK.

But first we must start at Lovely Lucy’s in Oxford. Our charming hostess bids us good morning and runs out leaving us to fend for ourselves. Breakfast finished, bags packed, and Lucy’s doors locked and the keys put in her post slot – we are off to repeat the walk back to the bus station in Oxford. It goes much much easier this time – there is simply nothing like knowing your way around to make dragging suitcases easier.

I pop in for a quick coffee at a lovely shop called Coco Loco. It’s claim to fame is it’s view of Christ Church Collage – and a lovely view it is too. Suitably coffee’d up – we drag ourselves to the bus station, guided by ‘Maps’ on my iphone. Surprisingly – it directs us into a square that has been taken over by a lively silver market – and while The Intrepid Traveler stays with the luggage – I do a quick round of shopping – finding a delightful buy in a Salt, Pepper and Mustard Silver Plated Service set. Perfect. I have little time to haggle – the bus is leaving – so I make the gal an offer – she accepts – and the service is mine.

Back to Jill who is patiently waiting by the bus driver who has already loaded up our suitcases! I have time to sit down – and we’re off. Our bus quickly gets out of the traffic jam that is Oxford – and soon enough we are driving hell-bent for leather thru the lovely British country-side.

I’m going to tell you now that there is apparently no auto-route from Oxford to Birmingham – at least no auto-route that we North Americans would consider an auto-route. We drove thru village after village – even passing quickly thru Stratford-upon-Avon – on our way. Green fields with sheep dotted on the hillsides like musical scores rolling by, puncuated by traditional british farmsteds. Nary a high-rise, nor glass enclosed modern structure to be seen.

So my first question – do they have rules about what kinds of houses can be built? Or does no one here like ‘modern’ design outside of the big cities – where modern is the go to option? But rules or no rules – there were no modern houses.

And not that much traffic either! Perhaps that’s why our driver chose back roads, but it did make for a very British riding experience.

Eventually we arrived in Birmingham, and at first look the concerns of all the folks we chatted with seemed very valid. The bus station was lovely and modern, but once you crossed that threshold you were plunged into the Bull Ring Market. There’s been a market on this site since Medieval days – and they have the archeology to prove it. The Market was a buzz of activity – one section devoted to fruits, vegetables, eggs of all sizes and to meat, another to the giant ‘Rag Market’ – which sold all kinds of objects – not just ‘rags’, although the cloth merchants were in great number.

What surprised us most was the very different look of the folks wandering the market. In London it was rare to see a hijab, let alone a woman in a Burka. But here – it was almost the norm. And they were young ladies pushing strollers, tugging on the hands of toddlers, and using cell phones. I was reminded – in a good way – of Istanbul. Anything goes, but modesty prevails.

And the street meat prices were so much lower! We enjoyed a lamb kabab, 3 skewers with salad and Nan for just 4 GBP. Definitely on our budget.

Refreshed, we tried to find our lodgings. Birmingham is a city of layers – there are under roadways and upper roadways – and the map you get for free at the tourist bureau doesn’t really have a chance of making this spaghetti easy to naviagate. In fact – they even call this area ‘Spaghetti’. Fortunately – there are traffic folks easily visible, and one of them took time to slowly explain exactly how to get where we were going.

She just forgot to mention one tiny thing. It was up a Steep Hill.

We dragged ourselves past industrial buildings, closed and deserted storefronts, and the occasional homeless asleep on the street to Holloway Circus. This is a giant round-about – under construction. So detour signs for drivers and pedestrians abounded. We navigated this hurdle, and slowly make our way up, and up, and up till we found the “Peace Garden”. This is a garden built on the remains of a church bombed out during WWII, and where our lodging was located.

Relying on the kindness of strangers, we find the conceirge, get the key – and examine our new lodging.

It’s designer minimalist. A two bedroom, two bathroom flat we’ll be sharing with out host – furnished with a combination of Ikea functionality and high design. The airplane coffee table is not terribly useful – but as our host expalins – reflects his passion for high adrenaline sports – from skydiving to road racing.

Floor to Ceiling windows form all the walls on the ‘view’ side of the condo – there are no windows on the other 3 walls. But the view is spectacular. We’re on the 6th floor – overlooking the “Peace Garden” and the city scape. At night, with the city lights aglow – it’s a stunner.

Our host, Sameer, is a charming young man (ok – not so young – probably in his mid thirties) who works for Jaguar in the marketing department, owns 5 fancy cars, another flat in London, and land in India. He’s elegant, well spoken, and fascinating. In our conversation – I ask him why he’d want BnB guests – and he admits – it’s for the chance to meet interesting people. Isnt’ that sweet? We chat over wine and dinner before he annouces that he must work tonight. He works, we sleep – tomorrow will be a busy day.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

London’s Top 12 Museums – Rated and Reviewed for your Amusement


12 museums in 13 days – hours and hours spent walking up and down stairs and corridors – and the result is our list of the 12 Top Museums in London – in order from Best to least favorite. Enjoy – and let us know if you agree – or disagree!

1. Museum of London – This is one huge exhibit divided up into generations of London History, and it’s astoundingly well done. I loved strolling the Victorian Shop Street and evesdropping on the Regency chatter in the Secret Garden. I suggest skipping the pre-history and start with the Romans – walking through and around the displays is simply incredibly interesting. And take a moment to do the docent guided talks and tours. Super. Plan on 3/4 of day – maybe more if you watch every video and listen to every talk.

2. Natural History Museum – Dinausaurs, Human Biology, Creepy Crawlies are steller displays – and rate a “Must See”. This museum really needs an entire day – we had to skip at least one major secton – Human Evolution. Human Biology is a remarkable collection of interactive toys and videos and games. It is a challenge to leave. And the Dinosaur Display is justifably famous. The audio-animatronic T-Rex is worthy of Disney Land, and the multi-layered effects create a dramatic and exciting stage on which information about Dinosaurs can be displayed.

3. Somerset House – The Courtauld Galley – Outstanding collection of Impressionists. It’s hard not to love a museum that boasts such an extensive and well laid out colleciton of such magnificant works of art from Degas to van-Gogh, Monet to Manet and all the artists inbetween. Well lit, well curated, interesting tid-bits of information – what’s not to love. It’s really only two floors – so 1/2 a day is enough to see everything.

4. Design Museum – The only free section is on the third floor – but it’s outstanding. It covers Industrial Design from the Designer, Maker, User perspective starting in the 1700 and in a rather jerky fashion – moving forward till today. And it’s brilliant. Engaging, entertaining, and in some cases – down right funny. Since you only see one floor – you can do this one in 1/2 a day, easy.

5. Imperial War Museum – Only the WWI and ‘Family thru the War’ sections are worth spending time at – but the WWI exhibit is truly outstanding – probably one of the best and most complete museum treatments of WWI I’ve ever seen. I even enjoyed walking thru the Trenches. So see those 2 – and leave. Budget 1/2 a day here.

6. Tate Modern – it took us a day and 1/2 to ‘do’ the Tate Modern – there’s simply so much information crammed into the audio tour. But this is modern art – and not all of it is going to be your ‘cup of tea’. So it’s easy to skip past some very interesting exhibits because you just don’t understand or can’t appreciate what the artist is trying to do. Budget a day – but be prepared not to finish if you opt for the audio tour – which is highly recommended.

7. National Gallery – The individual talks about specific paintings by a curator are not to be missed. We lucked into one about a Rembrant – and she made the painting come alive in surprising ways. Highly recommend figuring out where/when these talks will happen. 1/2 a day was long enough to get the idea – they have a lot of art! Be aware that the Rembrants have been moved to the first floor to make room for a special exhibit – we ended up circling around twice before we found them.

8. Tate British – Like the V&A, this is a mother-ship of museums and could use a bit of sprucing up. The Turner collection is huge – and honestly, if you’ve seen 10 Turners, you’ve seen them all. I did love the small collection of Henry Moore pieces – donated in most part by the artist. And there are some stunning pieces hidden in almost every room – which makes the Tate British slow going. You skip ahead at your own risk. You will miss something amazing – you have been warned.

9. RA – Royal Academy of Arts – America after the Fall. This special exhibit was a block-buster – but since there are constantly new special exhibits, and no standard exhibit – we voted to demote the museum to the #9 slot. But given how great the exhibit was, I’m willing to suggest that this is one museum where paying the extra for the ‘special’ exhibits might actually make sense. How often does one ever come face to face with Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

10. Kew Garden – comletely weather dependant of course – but the Princess of Wales Conservatory is the star attraction – and possibly one of the best of these we’ve ever seen with over 14 different climate zones and simply incredible flowers. I found the 2 carnivore sections particularly interesting. The acres and acres and acres of wandering space is also wonderful.

11. Victoria and Albert – Great Tour, Great Restaurant – rest of the museum is more ho-hum. There is a lot of wonderful things inside, but it’s hard to read the signs, and there’s little to engage you unless you have a specific interest in the topic. One clear exception, the Display on Theatre and Staging. That we can easily recommend. We also enjoyed the free hour intro tour to the Museum. It was fast, but surprisingly entertaining.

12. Science Museum – terrible let down. Could’a been great – didn’t deliver. Skip it. You have better uses for your time – even if you are here with kids. Just watching the horse guards was more fun.

Ok – there you have it – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler’s reviews of the Museums of London. I feel a bit like an ad for a financial planner – this represents our views – you might disagree completely. And past performance is no guarentee for success.

Signing off to go tour the museums of the rest of the UK – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Take on the Tate Modern!


So – you think you know Modern Art, eh? Well think again. The Tate Modern isn’t your soft fuzzy easy approach to art. This is ranchy, hard core, over the top (and sometimes under the bottom) art. None of those cutsie Impressionists – no sir. We are the Tate MODERN!

Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t visit – it just means come prepared for some rather surprising things to be called art. And some pretty nice things too. This is a museum devoted to the surprise, the curious, the edgy and it definitely delivers.

The building itself is hardly the glory that is the Herschorn in Bilboa, Spain with it’s stunning silvered outside and huge Koons Puppy. Nope – the Tate Modern is housed in an old pumping station and switch house located on London’s South Shore, catty-corner from the Sommerset House with it’s outstanding collection of Impressionists. Talk about contrast. And between the Tate Modern and the Thames is one of the main sections of the Queen’s Jubliee Greenway – a walking, strolling, family friendly path that winds for miles along the Thames. Just walking in to the Tate Modern past the bubble blowers and living statues is an experience!

The building is huge, and the collection is also huge. The ceilings are at least 40 feet high – as befits it’s factory origins. And the renovation has creatively made light as important as the art. The ceiling of the inner courtyard is a massive 2 floor high light box – and the enormous hallowness of the courtyard echos the emptiness that most of the art on display is attempting to explain.

Modern is not necessairly comfortable or easy.

The inner courtyard links the two original buildings. On the Thames side is the Boiler House – 6 floors high, only 2 of which contained ‘art’. The restaurant on the 6th floor was – for us – an overpriced waste of money, but the view was lovely. More stunning was the view from the open observation floor on the 10th floor of the building on the ‘not’ Thames side – the Switch House. Open to the air, and running completely around the entire exterior – you had massive views into the million dollar appartments that are the Tate’s neighbors. No curtains or window treatments blocked the view into these homes, although their mininmal decor made it hard to imagine who might be living in these places. Curiously – signs on the columns of the viewing platform suggested it would be nice to be polite to the neighbors – I’m not sure how we could have been polite given our birds-eye view directly into their homes.

But as usual I meander. This is supposed to be about the art.

We splurged and paid for the audio guides, an expense that is well worth it in this case. Too often you get cheap and figure the audio guides will slow you down – but I find that the better guides give you insights into the art and the artist – and sometimes even the curator – that you would never normally get. And in the case of the Tate Modern – the audio guide is a clear winner. Each selection had at least one short discussion about the art – but often there were additional options, including videos of the artist at work (I loved the one where the artist is shooting at balloons filled with paint hidden under the surface of the work). Do get the guide.

While there are many ‘rooms’ – there are really only two sections that require a significant time to explore – both on the 2nd floor of the Boiler House – the building nearer the Thames. Entitled ‘Artist and Society’ and ‘In the Studio’. I found both well worth the 4 hours we spent in them, although I will admit that ‘Artist and Society’ made more sense to me. It was clear in this section that the artists were responding to the society of their times – and often they were taking on opposing and/or contrasting view points. The counterplay made for interesting viewing.

We had to come back a 2nd day to do the rest of the museum, fortunately the staff maning the audio tour guide desk took pity on us and gave us a 2nd day free. Good thing – you really need the audio tours to make any sense at all of these surprising works of art.

There is one section that I think is a must-see for any woman – artist or not. It’s on the 4th floor of the Boiler House – the building closer to the Thames, and it’s in a general display area called ‘Media Networks’. The room is called ‘Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girl’ – and it contrasts the approach towards gender equality that these artists were championing. Andy Warhol’s art appears sexless – while the Guerrilla Girl art is more in your face obvious. One piece was actually a poster showing a naked woman in a traditional reclining pose with the caption – Women – if you want to get in a museum – do it nude! The poster goes on the explain that while 70% of the women in a major museum are in paintings as nudes, only 2 are artists.

Another poster has the headline: The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist:
followed by a list of 13 advantages including:
“Working without the pressure of success”
“Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs”
“Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty”
“Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position”
“Having more time to work after your mate dumps you for someone younger”

You get the drift.

Most memorable piece of art? A huge room filled with what we originally thought were giant potatoes, but turned out to be hand sewn brown and burlap sacks stuffed with paper. They were scattered around the room – and the audio defended the display as art explaining that the amorphous forms were made to make us think of bodies.

I must also admit a fondness for the urinal turned sideways and labeled fountain.

Bottom line – worth two days – but not an easy two days.

And if you want to go to the 10th floor to see the view (and you should) – start on floor 0. If you try to catch the elevators upward at any other floor – they will be packed – and you won’t get in. Start at the very bottom. And don’t tell anyone else.

Off to see some more of the Impressionists – now that’s art I can understand without an audio guide….

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Oh bummer – it’s 2:00 AM and I’m UP!


I’m just not enough of a jetsetter I guess – my body hates long air flights – and I just flew from Montreal to London – a short 7 hour flight – but just long enough to make sure my body is in to denial.

So here it is – 2:00 AM London time, and I’m up. So Naturally – I’ll do a blog. Plenty of time, and the internet is always fastest at this hour anyway.

Our official 2nd day in London was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum. We’re serious museum buffs – the Intrepid Traveler is a docent at 2 museums (that’s a fancy word for knowledgable volunteer), and of course she wants to see all the museums. I’m in total agreement with her. Public space devoted to the display of art, or history, or science, or music, or – basically anything – I’m totally there.

So – The Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s huge. Really really huge. I think the guide from the free tour we took mentioned 7 acres of hallways and displays – and untold acres of storage space. They have one of almost everything there is on display. We only managed to do a 1.5 hour guided tour, and hit 5 spaces – Silver, Jewelery, Beatrix Potter Theatre and Scenery, and the Lunch Room. My favorites were Lunch and Theatre!

First Lunch – we’d been told that the food at the V&A was good – moderately priced, nicely portioned, and delicious. And I have to agree with the critics – they were right on the money. We shared a stuffed yellow potato – stuffed with avocado, cheese, and veggies – and served with two sides. It was delightful. Later in the day we came back and shared a ‘Green Tea Scone’ which was served with clotted cream, butter and jam. It was Yum. So the Lunch Room (they refer to the space as the ‘Cafe’) is a definite yes in my book. Add it to your must do list. Jill notes that it isn’t only good food – it’s pretty with huge chandaliers and wall paintings.

My next favorite spot was the Theatre and Scenery Exposition. At least 5 rooms have been set aside for this topic, and highlights in my book included the mock-up sets of at least 10 famous British stage productions. A particular favorite among these was the mock-up of the staging and lighting for “Sweeny Todd”. This section was extremely well conceived, laid-out, and realized. And almost totally empty! But then, outside of the main passage ways and the must see “Jewelry” room – most of the V&A was surprisingly empty. Very easy to browse to your hearts desire.

Having ‘done’ as much of the museum as our time warped legs, knees, and backs could handle – we headed on towards the National Theatre. We had tickets for “Consent” and were keen to get ourselves organized for an evening at the Theatre.

First off – getting tickets. This is easiest to do ahead of course – and for discount tickets in advance – sign up for “Time Out London”. It’s a daily email full of discount options – and the National Theatre is often available there. I managed to get tickets to three performances – while not free (my favorite price point), at least at a discount. They also offer 15 GPB tickets for the week ahead every Friday Morning on their website. This is a great option if you are flexible on dates.

Anyway – back to our play. “Consent” is advertised as a look at the legal and moral issues of rape from several points of view, but I found it more of a look at marriages of today. Having kids who are married – and friends with kids who are married – my gut feeling is to echo Maurice Chevalier – “I’m so glad I’m not young anymore”. And this play takes a very hard, and not very kind look at today’s young people and their attitudes towards children, loyality, sex, and marriage. To keep it short, no one is very happy – and they take out their inability to be happy on their partners – by cheating on them. Seriously – kids – get a life! This is hardly the only solution to the challenges of having children, working in a difficult environment, and having friends with issues. We walked out feeling that we wanted to spank each and every one of these spoiled, self-absorbed young adults.

Which I suppose is the hallmark of a good play!

Back on the tube – and a 45 minute ride to our lovely comfy loft – and to bed.

Speaking of which – now I’m ready to go back to sleep.

Signing off – The soup lady and the sleeping Intrepid Traveler.