Tag Archives: UK

Valentine’s Day failure

Now that I’m no longer working for myself, I don’t have the sort of flexible schedule that allows me to accompany Sasha every time he goes abroad to engage in academic shenanigans. It’s sad. Last autumn he toured around Vienna without me, and in February month he headed to Mainz, on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Despite my inability to travel with him to the continent on this latest trip, I was, at least, able to arrange to meet him after his flight deposited him at the Bristol airport. The beauty of this plan was that it gave Sasha an excuse to not drive straight home after a long day of travel, while also giving me an opportunity to make reservations at Jamie’s Italian, which I’ve been longing to visit.

Sadly, the reality of the excursion was nothing like the vision I’d had in mind when planning it. To start with, the massive storms we’ve been experiencing have both washed away and flooded various portions of the tracks between Plymouth and Bristol, requiring passengers to hop shuttle buses between train stations.

Image courtesy of Express & Echo

Because train travel has been so highly disrupted, First Great Western has been extremely lenient about tickets; they’ve been letting pretty much anyone ride at any time regardless of what reservations had previously been made, because it’s either that or lose all their customers to alternative modes of transportation. This turned out to be extremely good for me, because I somehow managed to book tickets for March 14th rather than February 14th–a fact I did not discover until I reached the Penryn station, ready to depart on the first leg of my trip. I thought I was going to have to shell out an additional ¬£60 for my journey–especially galling because of how incredibly inconvenient and time-consuming I knew it was going to be: the normally 3-hour trip had morphed into something at least twice that long because of all the bus transfers.

Mid-journey selfie

The exact procedure turned out to be even more complicated than I’d anticipated. I first rode a train from Penryn to Truro, where I then waited for 45 minutes for a train from Truro to Plymouth. At Plymouth, I hopped on a bus to Tiverton Parkway, where I transferred to a northeast-bound train. I had thought this would take me all the way to Bristol, but, no, I only got as far as Taunton, where I had to disembark and hop yet another bus for the final leg of the journey into Bristol Temple Meads. Once there, I had to walk in bone-chillingly windy and rainy conditions another mile or so to my hotel. I really was earning my king-sized bed and Jamie Oliver feast.

Entrance to the hotel, the Thistle Grand

I must admit that, all along, I had a deep-seated feeling that something¬†would go wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I could just feel it coming. When the train ticket thing didn’t cause any problems, I thought maybe it would be the journey itself; when I was successful at arriving, at long last, in Bristol, I suspected the issue would arise with Sasha‘s journey rather than mine…and this time I was right. First his flight was delayed; then it was canceled–and not even because of the horrendously blustery weather we were having, but because of a technical glitch with both the first plane he was supposed to take and then the one sent to replace it. The airline sent him and all the other passengers to a nearby hotel, with a promise to contact them later with a plan of action. I, meanwhile, was left to order room service and sleep alone in the middle of my ridiculously spacious bed.

Even so, all was still well. Our culinary adventure was scheduled for 1:30 PM on Saturday, giving Sasha plenty of time–or so I thought–to make it back to the UK. On top of this, I’d scheduled myself a massage for 10:30 on Saturday morning, so I knew I had plenty of ways to amuse myself until his arrival.

Artwork in the passageway running under St. John’s

As per usual, I woke up at the crack of dawn, which left me with plenty of time to see some sights before heading to the hotel’s spa. Within just a few steps of the hotel’s front door, I was already finding photogenic buildings and decorations: The Grand is located right on the outskirts of Old Town, so there are all sorts of antique structures and facades to admire up and down the road.

Facade of the building opposite my hotel

When I left the Grand, the weather was merely overcast, but soon it became drizzly and then, eventually, downright miserable. My delight at finally having the opportunity to see more of Bristol than just the train station and airport soon turned to dismay that I was stuck outside in sleety conditions at a time of day when there were no businesses open, and therefore no shops or restaurants for me to take refuge in. There was, however, a cathedral.

Bristol Cathedral, beautiful even on the dreariest of days
College Green, the last thing I managed to photograph outside before the weather drove me into the cathedral

When I set out from my hotel, I had no idea where I was going, and no final destination in mind; I was just following my instincts and wandering wherever I liked. That haphazard process happened to lead me to the cathedral, and I happened to arrive there just as the skies opened up and dumped down a flood of icy rain. I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but if I had been a character you were watching in a movie, you definitely would have recognized that the screenwriter had used the weather as a tool to facilitate a desired scenario. I was left feeling as though something important was going to occur, and that it was going to happen inside that church.

Whenever I see ornate altars like this, I always expect a ray of light to come shining down, and a heavenly choir to start singing. Never happens.

For better or worse, however, life is not a movie, and nothing exciting did happen. Sorry to disappoint. Still, the cathedral really was quite lovely, and I was the only person in there for most of my visit, which was strangely awesome–it’s not often you get to have a building that large all to yourself.

One unexpected bonus of the tour was being able to see a display of artwork contributed by local high school-aged students. There were some really incredible pieces that I would have offered to buy had I been in a gallery. I was really impressed at both the originality and the execution of the work. I took photos and would show them here except that I’m a little worried about copyright issues and whatnot, so instead I’ll show you this:

Jesus: the original superhero. If modern churches had decorations this cool, there would be a lot more people in attendance every Sunday.

This is the oldest object in the entire cathedral; it was carved in the 11th century and shows Jesus restoring Adam and Eve to virtue after conquering Satan and standing on his head. Just around the corner, there was also a nice brass plaque showing a very serene-looking St. John the Baptist:

Is it just me, or is this strangely reminiscent of Buddha?

As I walked through the choir, I encountered a pulpit with a huge open Bible. I happened to glance at the words as I passed, and I felt compelled to stop and read the whole passage:

It may contain a lot of ridiculous proclamations about women and gays, but the Bible does also have some nice parts.

I have to say, I like that bit about hope. Also the part about family. I wish people spent more time reading Romans and less time reading the outdated stuff in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Bristol Cathedral nave

I eventually finished my tour of the building and emerged to discover that, conveniently, it had finally stopped raining outside. It was, however, still so overcast that it was actually darker than it had been when I’d awakened that morning.

Shoes dangling from a tree on the edge of College Green. Don’t ask me for an explanation.

I headed back to the hotel spa for my much-anticipated (and much-needed) massage. It was worth every penny, particularly because the masseuse was able to work out a painful knot I’d had in my neck for weeks. I was feeling very limp and blissful by the end, but I think we all know that there was no way my Zen state could last for long. When I emerged from the subterranean spa facility, my phone regained signal and picked up a message from Sasha saying that he still hadn’t heard from his airline and that the earliest he could conceivably return to Bristol would be 4:30 PM–three hours past our lunch date at Jamie Oliver’s.

That left me to amuse myself for another five hours, and I already had a few ideas about how I might do that. I put my luggage in storage at the hotel, reluctantly canceled the lunch reservation (it seemed a bit excessive to have such an extravagant meal all by myself), and headed back out into the city. This time I put my wellies on so that I would be prepared if it rained again. Naturally, it was sunny for the rest of the afternoon.

Another unexplained Bristol phenomenon: Why was this ship on the exterior of a building near my hotel?

My main destination was the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which, because of its proximity to Jamie’s Italian, I had previously identified as a potential place where Sasha and I might amuse ourselves if we had some time to spare before or after lunch. I went there by way of Park Street, which features a variety of shops–not least of which is Hobgoblin Music, a specialist in folk and acoustic instruments. My favorite whistle was purchased from Hobgoblin via Amazon, and I wanted to stop by the store in person to see what other treasures I might find. A mere fifteen minutes and four new whistles later, I was ready to go absorb some culture at the museum.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

I’d hoped to see an exhibit of award-winning nature photography that I’d seen advertised on the gallery’s website, but I never could figure out where it was on display–or if it was still on display at all. However, I found something even better:



Mummified cats! (just as aloof in death as they are in life)

…and also:


In fact, there was a whole wing devoted to Egyptian artifacts. I was in heaven. When I was young, I wanted to be an Egyptologist; I eventually abandoned that dream because I thought that maybe all the good stuff would have been uncovered by the time I grew up (probably not a bad idea, to be honest, though frighteningly practical for someone that age). I still love to learn about ancient Egypt, though, and it’s always a pleasure to see “material culture” (as my Geography colleagues would call it) in person.

The museum had many other interesting items on display, including dinosaur bones, stuffed animal specimens, a collection of antique pianos, a variety of Roman artifacts unearthed in western England, a room full of dragon-themed Chinese artifacts, and several galleries’ worth of paintings.

Irish elk, a.k.a. “giant deer,” an extinct species that was one of the largest deer ever to have lived (which it did during the Late Pleistocene)
Animal-themed Delft tiles

I’ve never really thought of myself as much of an art-lover, but every time I visit an art gallery in person, I seem to find a painting that really captivates me. My all-time favorite is The Watersplash, which I stumbled across in Bath. The Bristol version isn’t quite as wonderful, but I’m still rather fond of it:

Les Adieux

The painting, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, is full of all sorts of imagery to which we might not immediately be able to assign meaning today, but which would have resonated with viewers during Tissot’s era (the painting was produced in 1871). For example, the scissors represent the imminent separation of the two lovers, but the ivy and holly along the fence indicate that the pair will eventually be reunited. Lovely–and what an appropriate find for Valentine’s Day weekend.

When I’d had my fill at the museum, I headed back down the hill to find a nice cafe in which I could have some tea and maybe do a bit of reading. Little did I expect to encounter even more artwork out on the street:

My third Banksy in four months!
Brightly colored birds basking in the sun
Prayerful angel

I found the last of these along an alleyway leading into the St. Nicholas Market, which both smelled and looked delicious–there was a huge variety of internationally flavored foods on offer, along with non-edible delights such as jewelry, artwork, and flowers. I kind of wish I’d passed through the market earlier in the day, before I’d eaten lunch and spent a bundle on whistles. Next time Sasha and I visit a city with a market, I do hope we manage to get the timing right–we’ve missed out in both Camden and Bristol, so fingers crossed that the third time’s the charm.

I bet my dad gets jealous when he sees this selection of gourmet coffee

After being on my feet all day, I was quite happy to kick back in the cafe. It was tempting to push myself to keep exploring the city while I had the time, but I needed a bit of a recharge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my feet that were hurting after all that walking; I was also feeling the first pangs of a migraine that would end up plaguing me for nearly two weeks.

Once I’d drunk up, I headed back to the Grand Hotel to pick up my suitcase and embark on the final leg of my journey. Rather than make Sasha drive from the airport into the center of the city, I opted to catch a shuttle between the train station and airport. This had the added advantage of allowing me to greet Sasha in true Valentine’s-Day-weekend fashion at the gates; we may not have had our luxurious hotel room and decadent lunch together, but at least we were able to manage a quick embrace and then a tedious three-hour drive home together. After five years, romance is still alive in this relationship!

In all seriousness, this was about as spectacular a failure as I’ve ever experienced on a trip, but I think I did a pretty good job salvaging things. Even Sasha didn’t complain that much, despite having been stuck in a boring airport for so many hours. Whatever else you might say about us, you have to admit that we are a couple that can roll with the punches.

Signs of spring despite all the late-winter storms