UK: “The truth is sometimes things aren’t exactly what you always imagined… they’re even better!”

This day’s itinerary originated from a Pin and grew from there. It was also the first day since my Cambridge day that Katia and I would be spending the day together, which was lovely! We can actually travel well together – huzzah!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fields of ‘rape’ – seriously, that’s what it’s called!

I only hit snooze once this morning, rising about 0715 to get ready. As it was Sunday, we decided the best course of action was to call a taxi to take us to the train station. It was outside Katia’s flat almost before she hung up the phone! We got to the train station about 0800, which was brilliant and gave us time to get a snack for the many trains we’d be taking on our journey. The 0828 train to Kings Cross was fairly empty, but that was not an experience we’d have during the rest of our trip.

From Kings Cross, we ventured across the street to St. Pancras, which is a beautiful old station. As we waited for the train to Brighton, it became very apparent we were the only ones not dressed for a day at the beach! The train filled up to standing room only and it felt like the British equivalent of a train to the Jersey Shore. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the weather, but we exited the train station in Brighton to bright blue skies and warm sunshine.

We left the beachgoers to find their way to the shore and ventured out to find the Royal Pavilion. We had a couple of false starts, owing to the fact that it seems like many of the streets in Brighton are named the same thing! Getting “lost,” however, proved to be a great introduction to this quirky, beach-side town. We found an amazing farmhouse-turned-pub that originates from the 18th century, but is now proudly advertising that it will be showing EVERY Olympic event LIVE in HD! Oh, how far we’ve come!

Once we found the Royal Pavilion, it was hard to believe we’d had any trouble seeing it at all! It is a massive palace, built for George, Prince Regent (later King George IV) in the early 19th Century. I wasn’t very familiar with this period in British history, but Katia was enthralled, and rightly so. Each room was decorated with either original pieces or pieces from the period in the style in which George IV had done. There were no photos allowed inside, so it’s hard to describe the scale and pageantry one sees inside each of the magnificent rooms. For the price of admission, we also got a personal audio guide to give us information as we wandered through the palace. This was immensely helpful to me, though I’m sure just enjoying the furnishings and rooms alone would be delightful. My favorite part was the temporary exhibit about Princess Charlotte, the “forgotten princess,” who died in childbirth. I could have done without the constant loop of the 1940s movie in which she was depicted for 30 seconds though.

When we finished our tour of the palace and made our requisite stop in the gift shop (where I picked up a Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee spoon, among other things), we decided to find lunch. We found a lovely Pret a Manger with a window that looked out to the street. It’s similar to EAT, but I think I like EAT better. However, we have Pret in the US (though sadly, not in San Francisco!), so I may have the opportunity to eat there again, even if I don’t make it back to the UK. Pret is also wonderfully socially responsible. Since they make their sandwiches fresh every day, any that aren’t purchased by day’s end are taken to a local food bank for distribution.

Full of yummy sandwiches and salt & vinegar crisps, Katia and I ventured down to the beach. It was my first trip to a rock beach and it definitely had its advantages. Like Katia said, you can visit the beach and not deal with having sand in your clothes! The rocks were also surprisingly comfortable on my back when I laid down, though I don’t know how it would feel on my bare skin. We were clearly the only tourists not dressed for a day at the beach, so about a few minutes we had to get moving again, so I wouldn’t bake in my jeans!

It wouldn’t be a day in Brighton without a little shopping and we both succumbed to the lure of the shops. Katia even got as far as trying things on, but in the end, we purchased nothing, for which I think we deserve a lot of credit! We headed back toward the train station to find the 13X to Beachy Head. Unfortunately, we just missed one as we reached the bus stop (which was under construction), but that gave us time to chat with the driver of another bus that was waiting to leave. And luckily, the bus runs every half hour instead of every hour as I had found during my pre-trip research.

Mysterious warning sign

Soon enough, Katia and I were high atop a cheeky double-decker bus to Beachy Head. The ride took just over an hour (mostly due to Brighton traffic by the pier, I think), but it was over and through some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen! Almost as soon as we left Brighton, we were immersed in the adorable small towns that you think only exist in the movies. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to see sheep grazing on a hillside before, but it really just made the journey that much more awesome. Not awesome, however, was the American couple seat opposite us and a row behind because they slept and SNORED the entire freakin’ way to Beachy Head. Thanks to family members who also snore like freight trains, this sound like nails on a chalkboard to me. I vacillated between murderous rage and unchecked awe during this hour and I was more than happy to finally get off the bus at Beachy Head (Katia was as well, having to deal with me!).

Once off the bus, we stopped briefly at the ice cream truck and Katia ordered a Mr. Whippy Oyster from the ice cream truck in the parking lot next to visitor center. This in itself does not merit a full paragraph in this long triplog, but after we got a look at how freaky HUGE it was, we couldn’t stop laughing. Seriously, I was almost falling to the ground giddy about this enormous ice cream sandwich. We also had to wait for Katia to finish eating this monstrosity before we could commence our walk along the cliffs. I don’t know if the bus ride + snorers had made us slaphappy or what, but we were giggling messes for longer than I’d like to admit!

However, we both calmed down when we came over the rise and got our first view of the cliffs, the water and the sailboats below. As I mentioned, this part of the trip was planned from a Pin; prior to leaving, I liked to hit the Travel & Places section on Pinterest. I found a photo of Beachy Head and I was all Liz Lemon – “I want to go to there.” Katia was game to come along for the ride, which made it that much more exciting and fun. As beautiful as my photos are, they really don’t do justice to the locations we saw. As we walked, we kept taking photos of the same things, just closer, but we couldn’t get enough.

Unfortunately, Beachy Head is also the #1 location of suicides in the UK, due to the sheer cliffs, which with only a few small exceptions, have absolutely no fences between you and the edge. While we walked, I noticed a Beachy Head Chaplain walking toward us, eyes trained on the edge. As we got to the more popular cliff edges, we were confronted with dozens of crosses stuck in the earth at the edge. In some areas, it was hard to take photos excluding the crosses because they were so dense. Having lost a friend to suicide in my teen years, it was difficult and sobering to look at those crosses and know that they each represented at least one person who thought they couldn’t take it any more.

There were plenty of tourists around the cliffs, but not as many as I thought we may encounter due to the good weather. Whether due to the precarious nature of the attraction or just the good behavior of those we met, I didn’t come across any obnoxious people during our entire visit. Everyone was respectful of everyone else’s desire to take the same photos and no one hogged any location. I was so excited to re-create the Pin that inspired it all (minus the fog because we were having another spectacular weather day), even sitting as close to the cliff’s edge as I dared. Much like my photo with my back to North Korea in the DMZ, the sunglasses are hiding my fear. Katia was much braver than I and she has the photos to prove it!

We had a little trouble finding the return bus stop and ended up hiking almost all the way back to where we started to catch the bus back. The upper windshield on the 1820 return bus wasn’t as clear as on the way out, so our pictures didn’t come out as well, but there were no snoring Americans, so I think it works out! In addition to sheep, we also came across people playing cricket (love the easy-to-identify uniforms) and an unfortunately-named estate agency,

We alighted back at the Brighton train station, ready to head back to Cambridge, via London. Katia had the brilliant idea to grab sandwiches at Marks & Spencer before getting on the 1945 train. This sustained me until we got to St. Pancras. From there, it was a short walk to an old favorite, Pizza Express, across from the British Library. We feasted on yummy pizza while an un-subtitled Italian film played in the background and we watched the people stroll by.

Stuffed with cheese pizza, we made our way back to Kings Cross to get the train from Cambridge. There was no line, so Katia graciously took my photo on my way to Platform 9 3/4 (which has been moved to the main area off Platform 9, presumably to attract the Olympic tourists). We took the 2253 train to Cambridge, sitting behind a group of girls with more life problems than sixteen year olds should have (or so their conversations would have you believe). I sprung for a taxi back to Katia’s flat in lieu of waiting for the bus. It had been a fantastic, breathtaking day, but we were both ready to crash in preparation of our London day to come.