Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Evan Evans Sightseeing Tours review

I promised to write about my tour of Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Cotswolds, and Oxford. It was a pretty terrible tour and I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I'll try to explain why and then show you some of the good parts.

I took Evan Evans Sightseeing Tours, opting for them because they did pickup down the road, had pretty good reviews, and I thought I'd treat myself to a bit of a nicer tour since it seemed to go through everywhere I wanted to visit.

The first few problems became apparent right from the start. Firstly, that although they picked us up at the hotel, they would not be dropping us off at the end of the day in the same location. They said they would get us to a nearby tube station, but it was unexpected.

Next was more disappointing: Christ Church college would be closed, so we wouldn't be able to see the area where the Hogwarts Great Hall was filmed.

The website said nothing about the possibility of it being closed, so I assumed the tour would be given access even if it was closed to the general public. The guide, Sheila, told me that it was very unreliable and I shouldn't have counted on seeing it. The tour came with two options: prepay for all admissions or pay as you arrive at each location. I chose the former, assuming there was some benefit. Instead, with this one closed, everyone on the bus lost a bit of money.

Our first stop on the tour brought us to the farther location, Warwick Castle. There we wandered around the castle, visiting the Great Hall, State Apartments, and more. Madame Tussauds owns the castles and has decorated it using wax statues. A good portion of it was meant to resemble a holiday gathering in the late 1800s, although other rooms held wax figures of people such as Winston Churchill and Henry VIII and his wives.

The castle was probably the best in terms of decorations out of all the castles I had visited. I thought it would be very tacky based on the description, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was probably the best part of the tour.

Next we headed to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we visited the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I had visited Stratford, Ont. countless times, and I imagined the two towns would be very similar. In some sense, this was true: the river flowing through the town and lots of old-style homes. However, the problem was with the shops in this town. It has been a while since I've been to the Ontario version, but I remember it being filled with little independent shops selling unique products. In Stratford-upon-Avon, I didn't come across a single store that wasn't a big chain. Instead, it was filled with Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Marks and Spencers, HMV, and more.

Shakespeare's Birthplace itself was a very nice house. It was difficult to tell how much of it remains from when he lived there versus what was placed there to appear old. Apparently it's much better to visit in the springtime because the gardens are filled with flowers of all colours. It was still very nice in the winter, and I'm glad I was able to see it despite being somewhat unimpressed with the town itself.

Although the tour guide repeated over and over that if we were late, she would not hesitate to leave us behind, she and the bus arrived quite late to pick us up, making many of us very stressed and worried.

When we finally left Stratford-upon-Avon, we continued on through the areas known as the Cotswolds. It was described as one of the most scenic areas of England, passing through ancient inns and thatched cottages.  Our guide pointed out a few thatched cottages, but that was about all. She told us that winter was the only season where we wouldn't be able to see much at all in the Cotswolds, so it was really just a route to get to Oxford. This definitely should have been mentioned in the tour description.

We arrived at Oxford at about 3:30, giving us about an hour before we had to meet the bus. We were given a walking tour, in which our guide spent the time pointing out her favourite gargoyles and buildings. On the bus, she told us about how Oxford University got started, but once we got there, we weren't given enough information. Twice, she pointed and told us there were Harry Potter scenes filmed somewhere over there, but we didn't actually go through them, so I didn't get to see them, and she couldn't even tell me what I was meant to be looking for from the movies. I found that a bit disappointing considering the tour mentioned Harry Potter sights in its advertisements. She should have at least been able to tell us basic information.

Finally, we were given free time to walk around Oxford. Since we only had about 30 minutes, my friend Michael and I rushed to the Eagle and Child, the pub famous for its literary patrons. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would sit in the pub on a weekly basis as part of the Inklings, a literary discussion group. They would gather in the Rabbit Room to read and discuss their unfinished works. Therefore, we spent the rest of our Oxford time in the Rabbit Room with mulled wine. This was on my list of must-sees, so I left slightly less upset.

All-in-all, it was probably the worst of the tours I've done since I got to the UK, and was also the most expensive. I only have a few more free days in England before I go home for a few weeks, and I'm thinking I'll have to return to the Oxford on my own. That definitely seems the way to go.

Summary: Don't go on an Evan Evans Tour unless you want an unfriendly tour guide, an hour in each town, and most of the day to sleep on a bus.

[Edit: After many emails with the company, they've agreed to refund the admission cost (£5.50) for Christ Church college. However, they refused to refund any more, insisting the tour guide was actually one of their best. Disappointing.]

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Day tripping around London

Today, I walked here, there, and everywhere on the London Walks Magical Mystery Tour.

We began our tour in the Soho area, where the offices of MPL Communications is currently located. Our tour guide, Richard, said he's run into Paul McCartney a couple times by the office, and showed us the photos to prove it. Unfortunately, we weren't so lucky today. He told us it stands for McCartney Productions Limited, not McCartney Paul and Linda, as many people often suggest.

Next, we saw Trident Studios, where many classic rock stars recorded songs. The Beatles most notably used this studio for Hey Jude, and in the 1970s, it was also used by Elton John, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie.

Further along was this public washroom, where John Lennon took part in Not Only...But Also skit, where he played the doorman to this "Gentlemen's Club".

OK, I didn't get the pose perfect, but I tried!

This is a poster up in the Soho area. Our tour guide pointed out that the people in the front row appear to be imitating the front of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Next was Carnaby Street, where the independent fashion boutiques drew many rock stars, including the Beatles. John Stephen's shops turned this area into one of the best shopping streets in London during the 1960s. However, once it was recognized as such, it became populated with rock fans, leaving the stars to shop elsewhere.

We stopped at the London Palladium, the venue often credited with the start of Beatlemania. The tour guide described how fans swarmed to the concerts, and it became so popular that the band eventually decided to stop touring because it was no longer about the music.

This is 3 Savile Row, the headquarters for the Beatles' multimedia company, Apple Corps. The tour guide described the business as meant to help other artists so they didn't have to rely on men in suits. If I'm not mistaken, it was also the location of many Beatles interview, including the one where Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Our tour guide said this was meant as a comment on the declining church-going rates, etc, but it was taken out of context when republished in Datebook, an American magazine, sparking lots of anger and controversy.

In Piccadilly Circus sits the Ripley's Believe it or Not museum, also known as the London Pavilion, where all four Beatles movies were premiered. The royal family were known to attend the premieres, most notably Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. The guide told the story of the after-party for the premiere of a Hard Day's Night, which was attended by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. George Harrison was apparently informed that they could not eat while the princess and lord were still present, and therefore he went up to her and said, "Your Highness, we really are hungry and we can't eat until you two go."

Next up was probably the highlight of the tour: Abbey Road.

The gates all around were covered in graffiti, despite that the walls are repainted about six times per year. Many fans pass through the area on a daily basis and take photos crossing the road. One fan left this flower dedicated to John Lennon, with the recent anniversary of his death.

It took a while to get our photos, but lucky for us, it was Boxing Day and thus there were probably fewer cars around than usual. There is a constant live stream of the crossing at
If you click on Archive, you can watch the last 24 hours. I would be crossing around the 1:35pm mark.

Walking along with my friend Michael, who is staying at our student house for two weeks.
This week, the crossing was listed as a heritage site––an honour usually reserved for buildings such as cathedrals. It's the first listing of its kind, and essentially makes it a bit more difficult for anybody to move the crossing in the future. Most of the articles mentioned that the crossing is not in its original location, having been moved about 3m. However, our guide insisted this was simply a rumour, and showed us other photos taken from the day of the photoshoot that show a manhole on the ground, which still appears to be in the exact same spot.

The studios inside are said to be almost identical to the ones the Beatles used. However, this wasn't intentional. Instead, they decided it worked well the way it was, so why bother changing it?

That brings us to the end of the tour. From there, we continued to walk along nearby roads, making our way back to Oxford Street. On the way, we passed this synagogue––the first one I've seen in London (though I'm sure there are loads more).

We stopped at this Beatles coffeeshop, where I bought a deck of Beatles-themed playing cards. There was a ton of merchandise, including 3D posters, overpriced postcards, and many books, including one written by our tour guide.

We continued down the road to Baker Street, and stopped by the Sherlock Holmes museum.

Here was more merchandise, including pipes, Sherlock Holmes chocolate coins, and beautiful editions of the books. I've never actually read any of the short stories, but I think I'll have to bump that to the top of my reading list!

Then, we braved the big crowds of Boxing Day shoppers, continued our walk along Oxford Street, and headed home.

In all, it was a great day.

Next up: more day tripping in the form of a tour of Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Cotswolds. I know I'm super behind on my posts and I have quite a lot to tell you about. I need a few more hours in the day, but I swear, I will cover it all eventually!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Work work work...

Since I moved to London to work as an intern at the CBC London Bureau, I decided it's about time to tell you all about it.

I have my own little desk in the office! It's very exciting. I've never had experience in broadcast outside of the classroom, so I was thrilled when they accepted my application.

My role is to help the reporters and producers anywhere they need me. Most days, I do research for whatever story we happen to be covering that hour. I'll look for background information, read as many news articles as possible, and constantly monitor the various news channels.

The main story since I started has been the WikiLeaks trial, since Julian Assange was first hiding in London. He then turned himself in to the police station to be arrested on Swedish rape allegations. Since then, he has had a few court dates to determine whether or not he would be granted bail until the hearings for his extraditions, which won't even begin until Jan. 11.

My first week included a day where I went to the court to get footage and interviews as people went in and out of the courthouse.

I've never seen anything like it. It was arguably the biggest story in the world on that day, so there were representatives of the media from all over the world. We were there alongside the BBC, CNN, Sky News, and much more. The photo above came from the following day's issue of the Guardian. I would be somewhere just to the left of the photo.

My first thought was that it was a lot friendlier than I had imagined. I pictured each network pushing each other farther back and keeping secrets to try to get ahead of the rest of the networks. Instead, people were quite friendly, sharing rumours about what was happening in the courtroom and allowing each other to get the shots they need.

I mentioned this revelation to Tom, our radio correspondent, and he told me this would all change when someone important walked out the court doors. And boy, he was right.

If my memory is correct, journalist John Pilger was the first one to walk out the doors. Immediately, people began pushing each other, trying to get the best shot and to ask their questions ahead of everybody else. One cameraman fell backwards right off his ladder, and yet people continued to push. It was like being in the middle of a mosh pit at a punk show, but with extremely valuable equipment all around me.

It was unlike anything I've ever seen before, but it was a ton of fun, and I'm hoping I'll get to go out on more shoots soon. Since then, I've mostly been in the office researching, though I'd still really enjoyed it. When Assange was back in court for a bail hearing this week, I was responsible for finding out what was happening inside the courtroom and passing it on to our journalists and CBC Toronto. I found some Twitter accounts for people tweeting from inside (despite the judge's Twitter ban) and I became one of the main sources for updates for the other people in the office.

There are very quick deadlines. Last week, one of our journalists who does the live hits was running late due to traffic. Therefore, I had to find the information she needed and write up a script within 20 minutes so that she could arrive and go straight to reading it off the teleprompter.

Also last week, I was investigating into the "cyber attack" group, Anonymous, to try to figure out how it works and why they were conducting denial of service attacks on companies that were against WikiLeaks. For example, Visa and MasterCard refused to let people use their credit cards to make donations to WikiLeaks, so Anonymous sent enough traffic to the website to temporarily bring it down. It was definitely an interesting method of protesting, and it made me happy that my old habit of hanging out on IRC actually became useful!

Another fun bit about working at the CBC London Bureau is the location. We're located right off of Oxford Street, one of the busy shopping areas. Any store you could possibly need is along that street somewhere, and it's right above the Central Line, making it very accessible. My only complaint is the crowds.

Every day, I walk along Oxford Street to the Oxford Circus tube station, and there are always hundreds of people there.

Above is a photo of the crowd trying to squish their way down the stairs to enter the tube. I always have to squeeze into the crowd, making my way onto an overcrowded platform to enter a completely full train. I'll never again complain about the crowds on the Toronto subway. Although I probably will.

Other highlights from work: On Friday, we had an office Christmas party. The office was decorated with lights and a Christmas tree, and I got a chance to socialise with my coworkers outside of office hours. Everyone has been super friendly, and I'm really glad to be working there. It's a great newsroom, and hopefully it'll help get me involved with the CBC when I get back to Canada!

I also got to cover a Druid ritual on Saturday for a story about the winter solstice, which will be on Monday's episode of the Current. I went to Avebury Henge where I interviewed some Wiccans and Druids, and got some tape of their ritual for the show. It was definitely an exciting adventure.

More in the next post! For now, I must get my shortbread out of the oven to see if it turned out like shortbread at all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Living it up in London

I can't believe it's been almost two weeks since I arrived in London. Time has completely flown by, but I'll do the best I can to recount all the highlights.

On Dec. 4 I woke up early to catch a train from Stirling to London. As I've complained before, there was a wee bit of snow in Stirling, causing everything to close. Well, not everything, but many buses stopped and most trains were cancelled. Instead of a five hour train ride direct from Stirling to London, I had to hop on a train from Stirling to Croy, transfer onto an Edinburgh-bound train, and finally catch a train to London. This added nearly two hours of waiting for my transfers with my massive luggage. Not fun.

On the train, I sat and watched the landscape fly by. There's something so relaxing about sitting on a train and zooming through towns, passing loads of sheep on the way.

I'm not sure where this was. Maybe York?
Interestingly, the first person I chatted with in England was the woman sitting beside me on the train. In Scotland, the English are the enemy, especially in my Scottish history studies. When I mentioned I was coming from Scotland, this woman explained that Scottish people are a bit strange and very different.

I kept thinking to myself that it felt like I could have been on a train from Toronto to Ottawa. Not only did a lot of the trip involved passing through indistinctive areas and snow-filled fields, so it could have been anywhere, but also, the conductor announced we were stopping in Scarborough, Peterborough, etc. I guess we just stole all of their cities' names.

I believe this was Newcastle, but again, that could be completely wrong... That's what I get for waiting a week and a half to write about it.
It wasn't for many more hours that I would arrive in London. My five hour journey became almost nine hours. I had stayed up late the night before thinking it would help me sleep on the train, but I ended up seated near a group of girls heading to London for a party weekend. Again, not fun.

However, I finally arrived at the Victoria League student house just in time for their Christmas party. It was a nice welcome, since it drew everybody together, and I got to meet all the residents at once.

I met two other women named Cara! I have never met anybody in my life who shared my name, and here were two more. I've discovered the difficulty that comes with getting used to calling someone else by your own name. And if it isn't obvious from the photo, I wasn't aware it was a semi-formal party...

The house is full of decorations!
I introduced myself to everybody, joined them in singing Christmas carols, and then I settled into my room, trying to remember everybody's names.

The next day, I joined a group of residents who were visiting Cambridge.

From left to right, Simon from New Zealand, Michael from Australia, me, and the other Cara from Canada.

Cambridge was filled with many beautiful buildings, and it was amazing to think that so much of it actually belonged to the university.

In addition to the buildings, there were a ton of shops. Lots of big malls and arcades with big chains, so nothing too exciting. However, there were Christmas lights and bands playing for donations.

We arrived in Cambridge around 3:00, so it didn't take long for the sun to set.

The city became completely deserted once the sun disappeared. I thought there would be students roaming around the streets, but there were very few, perhaps because it was a Sunday night and possibly during the exam period.

From left, Douglas from Malaysia, Simon, Michael, me, Christine from Canada, Sabah from Canada, and Cara.

We went for a bite to eat in a nice little restaurant, so we'd have the energy to wander the city for a few hours.

I apologize for the bad photographs. The lack of light made it quite difficult to get good shots.

There were lots of cute little cafes around the city, and the Christmas decorations made them even nicer.

We walked through some of the university grounds, looking at the beautiful residences and lecture halls.

Along the lawn in front of one of the buildings was a line of pillers made up of books.

That's all for now. I have a lot to tell about my internship, but that will come in the next post!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Almost the end... part 3: From Stirling to London

This is going to be my final post from Stirling for this year, so I'm going to finish up with my Chanukah party, then begin my London adventure.

As usual since I started university, I wasn't able to be with family for Chanukah. Therefore, I decided I'd introduce my flatmates to this fun and deliciously oil-filled holiday.

To make latkes, my flatmates and I made an assembly line, which had some people on peeling potato duty, then others on grating, another on mixing, and finally actually frying.

We had a lot of potatoes. A lot. And it made for a lot of latkes. It was my first attempt at making them completely from scratch, and I must say, they turned out pretty delicious! Sure, some of them were falling apart upon picking them up, but they tasted like latkes, and that's what matters.

I also decided it was time to satisfy my craving for Challah. I haven't been able to find it anywhere in Scotland, so I baked it myself, with some help from my flatmates. As with the latkes, it was my first attempt, but it definitely looked like Challah, and it tasted mostly how it should taste. It definitely reminded me of home, and helped make my Chanukah party a bit more authentic.

I wasn't able to locate a chanukiah or dreidals anywhere around Stirling, so I made my own version for the candles. I couldn't quite figure out how to make my own dreidals though. I'll have to wait for next year. I did, however, find gelt at Marks and Spencers, so I gave some out to my friends.

Before leaving Stirling, I met up with some friends from the local knitting group. We meet weekly at the Tolbooth, knitting and sipping tea. It's been a great way to meet friends and learn tips from really experienced knitters! Some of them even spin their own wool. I'm hoping I can find a group as good as this one when I get back to Toronto. So far, I haven't been so lucky in London, but I suppose it's just another reason to look forward to getting back to Stirling.

I stroll through the Stirling Arcade on my way to the local knitting shop, and I noticed that they decorated it for Christmas. The whole city is filled with lights, trees, and decorations, which makes it quite cheery.

I'm just going to show off my knitted jumper. It's my first attempt at a garment, and took two and a half weeks of intense marathon knitting to finish it. Unfortunately, from washing it improperly, I've managed to stretch it a bit and cause a hole, but hopefully with a bit of sewing I'll be able to wear it again. I'm quite happy with how it turned out! I'll have to try another one as soon as I find a pattern I like.

I spent the last few days in Stirling spending as much time with my flatmates as possible. For the final time this year, we went out all together to play bowling. As usual, I was trailing far behind everybody else in my score, especially since I didn't know there were sensors disqualifying my points every time I toed past the line. I'm pretty sure I've never had this problem in Canada! Regardless, it was nice to have everybody together, especially since Matti (centre) won't be in Stirling next semester. It will be very strange to have somebody new living in our flat!

On Dec. 4, I woke up early, said goodbye to Stirling, and made my way to London.

Goodbye Stirling! See you again in February!