Red Bricks City – York

Sheffield was the final stop in my Christmas trip, strictly speaking, a stop-over to York (I stayed in Sheffield because my friend there offered me free accomodation). Sheffield had been for a long time a city of steel industry. Today, although new buildings and new shops have been established in the city centre, in many parts of the city there remains the shabby and deserted factory houses which makes the city depressing (therefore I had not taken any picture in Sheffield). While I was in sheffield, I had taken a day trip to York. By contrast, York is much more beautiful. York had been the capital under the Vikings’ rule.

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Once I was out of the train station of York, I was attracted by the red bricks of the buildings.

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The minster is the landmark of York. It is the largest medieval cathedral in the U.K. and one of Europe’s most beautiful Gothic buildings.

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The city walls enclose the city centre of York. You can walk onto the walls.

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Paradise of swans – Stratford-upon-Avon

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After spending the Christmas at a host family at Bedford, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace (see pictures just below) and home town of William Shakespeare. It is a very small but lovely town.

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At the time of my arrival, it was just after the Christmas. The decorations of Christmas could still be found everywhere on the streets.

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The “must-do” program in Stratford-upon-Avon is watching a Shakespeare’ play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company there. I had decided to see a musical called “Merry Wivies” adapted from a Shakespeare play, instead of a play. The reason was simple: the actors and actresses would speak old English used at the time of Shakespeare which I could not understand, whereas for a musical, even though I could not understand what they said, I could still be entertained by the songs they sang. My thought was later proved to be correct.

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By the time I purchased the ticket of the musical, there was only one student ticket left for that day and the next day but student ticket did not mean it must be cheap – it costed 24 pounds! I had no choice but bought it – that was a “must-do” program there! Fortunately my seat was facing the centre of the stage at the circle of the theatre and had a good view of the stage. That night, the whole theatre house was full, even though the tickets were very expensive.

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The performances of the Royal Shakespeare Company usually took place in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre (see the picture on the left most above) and the adjacent Swan Theatre. The musical I watched was peformed at the former. However, the aisle between rows of seats was too narrow and even worse than the economy seats in air planes. In the latter, you probably can strengthen or extend forward your legs to a certain extent. However, in that theatre, your legs will have no chance to move, not even an inch. Sitting like this for three hours, even for me, a short and small person, was unbearable. You can imagine how miserable the other people will be who are much bigger and taller than me. Why did the theatre charge high price for tickets but not provide even a reasonable sitting environment?

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Stratford-upon-Avon is a popular town for tourists. There were many shops there. One clothing shop was called “White Stuff” and its symbol was a Chinese character in white color meaning “clothes” inside two circles (see the picture in the middle above). However, white clothes are taboos for the Chinese because only white clothes (traditionally only white clothes, but nowadays both white and black clothes) are worn at funerals. This is very different from the west where white clothes are worn at the weddings – a celebration event. I really wonder whether the designer of the symbol was aware of this when he/she decided to use that Chinese character in the symbol.

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The theatres were built beside the River Avon. Along the river bank, there were many swans and Canadian geese (they are two closely related species and all under the waterfowl subfamily of Anserinae but the former are usually bigger than the latter). Even the emblem of the district council of Stratford-upon-Avon has two swans (see the picture in the middle above)!

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The Canadian geese, since they were introduced to Britain in 1665, had grown too many and are now causing the problem of ecological balance. A sign was set up there to request people not to feed them. Of course many people ignored the advice as their heart was always full of “love”.

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Here came the stunt prince, “I walk on two feet but stand on one foot only. Do not imitate me without proper training.”

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It is Christmas time – Caernarfon

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Caernarfon, in north Wales, was my next stop after Cardiff during my Christmas trip. Unlike Cardiff where many people still speak English, most people of Caernarfon speak Welsh. Nevertheless, to me, a person who knows nothing about Welsh, Caernarfon is a much more friendly place than Cardiff.

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After getting off the train at the train station of Caernarfon, I got on a bus to the town centre of Caernarfon. Caernarfon is a small town. Even when the bus had reached the town centre (the bus terminus), I was still not aware of that because I had not expected the town could be such small. Sitting beside me was an old man. He talked to me in Welsh, seeming to tell me that I should get off then. I got off the bus. He then came to me again. Although I could not understand what he said, I knew he was trying to offer help to me. I showed him the name and address of my accomodation both in English and Welsh. He hesitated and said something in Welsh. I knew he would not be able to help me. I patted on his shoulder, telling him in English that it was okay (Although he did not speak English, I knew he understood, just like I understood what he said). I moved on, feeling warm in my heart.

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I stayed in Black Boy’s Inn, an old inn dating back to 1522. This was the first and the only inn I had ever stayed. Initially I was worried about the noises from the pub of the inn. Fortunately my room was at the far rear of the inn and surprisingly not only was the room quiet, it had a good view as well – looking out to the town wall. (The inn had a restaurant and the meals they provided were delicious and plentiful in amount with reasonable price.)

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When I arrived the inn (it was three days before Christmas day), I wished to change the type of the room from the one I have booked, namely single room with shared bathroom, to single ensuite. “Yes, you can,” the manager of the inn told me. “Then how much?” I asked, expecting he would quote me a higher price than my initial booking price. After thinking for a while, he said, “Same price.”  I could not believe my ears. “Same price as my booking price?” “It is Christmas time!” he replied. It immediatey reminded me of “A Christmas Carol” of Charles Dickens. In that book, a miser had learnt to care about people through his experience during Christmas. It was Christmas time! It was the time we showed our kindness to the people around.

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Caernarfon castle is now a World Heritage site. It was built between 1283 and 1301 by Edward I. During his reign as a king of England from 1272 to 1307, he conquered the Welsh and built massive castles to keep his rule secure.

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The Caernarfon castle, intended as a seat of power and as a symbol of English dominance over the subdued Welsh, is architecturally one of the most impressive of all of the castles in Wales. It had two gateways defended by strong gatehouses. It also had seven towers lining its walls (which themselves were up to twenty feet thick).

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As with all of the castles of Edward I, Caernarfon was built on the shoreline to allow easy supply routes from the sea.

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Caernarfon was defended in two parts – the castle and the town walls. Built at the same time as the castle, the town walls was an 800 yard circuit with eight towers and two twin towered gateways. The towers were situated 70 yards apart, the southern end of the circuit was blocked by the castle walls. The town walls were entirely surrounded by water filled moats.

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There was a pier with a good sea view of Caernarfon.

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The market in Caernarfon was open on Saturdays at the town square.

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A small amusement park was temporarily set up in the town centre for Christmas.

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The whole town was resonant with the Christmas carols (broadcast from the billboard in the town square). A joyful town!

There was an arts gallery there. The building of the gallery was not at all attractive. I was not even aware that it was an arts gallery if I was not told by him, a kind passer-by. While I was taking the picture of the gallery (on the most left below), he approached me and said, “I have never seen anyone taking the picture of this building.” Obviously the building was ugly, or at least not at all special to him. I explained to him that the building was not pretty but special. After he knew that I was a traveller, he told me where I could find a cafe in the gallery and the best place to take the picture of the castle. My heart was warm again.

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Another time, while I was taking a picture of the castle, another passer-by came to me, offering to take a picture for me (obviously she had noticed I was travelling alone). My heart was full of joy again.

A gesture of kindness, no matter how small it is, can make the world different. “It is Christmas time!” I will remember.

Coldness – Cardiff

Cardiff was the second stop of my Christmas trip.

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When getting out of the train station of Cardiff, broad roads and busy streets were in front of me. I was lost, where to go, how to get to my hotel. I asked a nearby newspaper stall vendor. He shaked his head, not wanting to speak a word. I walked on. I came to an old man waiting for a bus at a bus stop. This time I got a friendly answer.

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There are a lot of Victorian town houses in Cardiff. Some of them are really beautiful. Many cheap accomodations in Cardiff can be found in these town houses. (The left-most picture shows my hotel – St. Hilary Hotel)

I walked about half hour. Finally I found my hotel. This hotel was not known to me. I got its telephone number from internet and made the booking over the phone. The hotel is the kind of accomodation between a typical B&B (Bed and Breakfast accomodation) and a typical hotel. It has more rooms than a typical B&B but unlike a hotel, it is run by a proprietor who also lives there. The proprietor of the hotel came out to answer the door. She was in her thirties. She let me in, confirmed my booking, then asked me to pay the whole charge. (This was the only accomodation in my entire trip which required me to pay the whole room charge on arrival, not on departure.) I wanted to look at the room first before payment. The wall papers were old and the low-quality framed paintings occupied every usable space of the walls. I accepted the room although it was not delighting.

In the late afternoon, the heating radiators in the hotel broke down. The proprietor gave me a hot fan for warming the room. The evening was very cold. I put on me all the blanets available in the room. The next day the radiators were fixed but they broke down again in the evening. This time, I could not get any hot fan. The proprietor told me that it had been given to another guest. I said nothing. The room charge had already been paid.

I was to leave Cardiff the next next day morning. The proprietor told me that the breakfast started at 7:30 am on weekdays. The notice posted in my room also so stated. At 7:30 am, I got to the dining room. It was locked. I rang the bell of the proprietor’s room. She popped out her head from her door. I asked, “Can I have breakfast?” She said, “Breakfast starts at eight o’clock”. “Eight o’clock?” I could not believe my ears. I needed to catch a train that morning. Before I had a chance to say further, she repeated, “Yeah, eight o’clock”. Then she shut the door. Fortunately, at eight o’clock, the dining room was opened as she said. I asked her to hurry up my breakfast because I needed to catch a train. This time she complied. Luckily I did not have a quarrel with her earlier. Although I was dissatisfied, before I left her hotel, I still needed her cooperation.

When I left her hotel, I was happy. During the entire stay in her hotel, she had never greeted me.

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Cardiff is the capital city of Wales. The castle is the landmark of Cardiff. The original castle was destroyed and the current one was built about 130 years ago. The Bute family who then owned this castle liked the Muslim arts and had applied a lot of Muslim arts into the interior design of the castle. It was a surprise to me that I could find the traces of Muslim arts in Wales.

The visit of the castle must be a guided tour. I was the only visitor in that hour of tour. So it had become a one guide to one visitor tour. The staff in the castle were helpful and friendly.

Inside the castle area, there is a Welch Regiment Museum housing the guns, swords, uniforms and other military items as far back as the Battle of Waterloo. Unfortunately, after watching for a few minutes, I had to run away. All these items made me think of the horror of wars and human killings. The sight of them simply made me sick.

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There were some peacocks inside the castle area. They were free to move. It was me only who was scared that they might bite me.

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The Law Courts, the City Hall, and the national museum and gallery of Wales, all line up on the same street near the castle.

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It was before Christmas. An amusement park was temporarily set up there. The kids were excited in the ice-rink.

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There was an old indoor market as well as open markets in the city center.

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The mega Millennium Stadium looms over the streets, with three tiers and 72,500 seats. It also sours besides the River Taff.

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Along the River Taff, there was the Bute Park.

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Sound of Organ – Salisbury

Salisbury was the first stop in my Christmas trip.

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The Salisbury Cathedral is Britain’s finest 13th century cathedral and has Britain’s tallest spire (123 m). Its Chapter House (the meeting place for the “chapter” – the cathedral’s governing body) was beautifully built with one column in the centre supporting the whole Chapter House. The Chapter House also houses the finest of only four surviving original Magna Carta dated 1215. Magna Carta is particularly interesting to the people who study or work with law. It was a concession agreement by King John when he agreed to give more power to the then powerful nobles. It established freedom for the church and trial by jury and other principles of democracy and provides the basis for many countries’ constitutions.

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When I entered the cathedral, I was attracted, not by the interior (I have visited too many cathedrals and churches in my life and their interior or exterior extravagance can no longer attract me), but by the sound of organ. Maybe they were practising for the Christmas performance. I have not stepped into a church for around ten years. The music of organ was so overwhelming. I was suddenly moved. How long I have not sit still and thought about life while my life seemed to be always in a hurry. I sat there… silently… In the cathedral, I met an old man, a retired British soldier. He had served in Hong Kong and Malaysia and had experienced World War II. He is living in Salisbury and comes to the cathedral every day. He is lucky. He has never been injured or captured in the war. Some of his friends in the army were not as lucky as he was. I asked him, if he could live his life again, whether he would choose to be a soldier as his career. He said probably not. He would like to be a doctor to cure people. Why we need soldiers? Because there are wars. But why there are always wars? Is human so hopeless? I wish I could say no. Salisbury is a beautiful old town. Its river brings to it both liveliness and serenity.

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There was an open market.

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Many people go to Salisbury because it is the resting point to see the Stonehenge. I was no exception. Stonehenge is thirty minutes’ bus from Salisbury.

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On the day of my visit to Stonehenge, it was very foggy. But the Stonehenge showed its another kind of beauty and mystery in fogginess. The area of the Stonehenge is not big, but its wonder lies in the puzzle that about 4000-5000 years ago, some very wise people moved the stones from very far places to the current site. How did they make it? Why did they do it? There is no answer yet.