The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
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The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then –- though without any contagious aspects –- the Real Mary King’s Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar –- and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) –- past room after room, each with its own story to tell –- a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
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The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
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Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
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Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor –- the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her –- and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
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There was a lot of life lived within these buildings –- and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks –- literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

What do William Wordsworth, William Yeats and Jemima Puddle-Duck have in common? Well, they all lived in and around the fairy-tale villages of England’s Lake District, but only one of them actually is a fairy tale. And possibly the most famous of the three — at least among the under-10 set. Ms. Puddle-Duck, along with her good friends and neighbors, Peter Rabbit, Samuel Whiskers and Pickles among many others, were brought to life by Beatrix Potter, another famous resident of the Lake District — and the one most responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the area since her death in 1943 when she donated 14 properties to the National Trust thereby preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Okay, is there anyone who actually made it through childhood without at least a cursory introduction to Peter rabbit, Flopsy and Mopsy and that mean old farmer McGregor? Well, this is where they lived until Beatrix caught them and immortalized them forever in little 5” by 4”-sized books.

Her books sold more than any other children’s stories ever although I suspect Pat the Bunny, Peter’s more tactile cousin, has since given him a run for his money…

So first, something about that Lake District which Beatrix Potter so loved. The countryside is so tantalizingly green the color needs a new more enchanting name.

Quintessentially English replete with requisite sheep, rolling hedgerows, low slung stone walls criss-crossing the landscape into checkerboard squares, slate-roofed stone houses, and hot pink, orange-gold and deep purple explosions of color so vibrant as to rival the most brightly lit of neon Nikes so popular today. And by contrast, in the middle of the district, craggy mountainous regions lend an even more dramatic flair. And, oh yes, then there are the lakes — 16 of them; ergo, the District’s name.
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A world so clichely picturesque, with OMG moments at every turn, which serves to explain the many artists who flocked here to replicate its beauty on canvas. An entire expanse of visual wonderment extending for miles in every direction that makes scenic overlook signs ridiculously redundant. All of which is a walker’s wonderland with public footpaths as plentiful on every country road as Starbucks are on every street corner in the U.S. No wonder Beatrix Potter fell in love.

I saw so many rabbits scampering about as we hiked the countryside, I felt this was an open invitation — as it must have been for Beatrix — to follow them further into their world, even if that turned out to be a very commercial but wonderfully inventive, creative, interactive enterprise appropriately nicknamed The World of Peter Rabbit. But more on that later.

And splattered throughout the countryside are hilly historic towns with cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways that now sport shops, pubs and curbside cafes, with such lyrical names as Branthwaite Brow, All Hollows and Beast Bank Lane. And a lot more stone, this time on buildings, many from the 16th-18th centuries, evoking memories of Renaissance–era maidens and merchants plying their trade, oblivious to the KFC establishment right across the street.

But there is nothing modern about a visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home for 38 years and the site of many of her creations’ adventures. Many homes reflect the personalities of their owners — and sometimes even their pets. But rarely is a home so filled with the immediacy of its owner’s creations as is Hill Top, first purchased in 1905, that they appear so alive as to permeate not only the house but the surrounding village and countryside, all of which became additional characters in what were soon to become a series of beloved children’s books. And once you enter the grounds and garden of Hill Top, with all its original furnishings, you are transported back to the world as it was until the day she died. Except for the occasional young visitor who has been known to ask the guides, “So is she Harry Potter’s granny?”
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Pick up “A Tale of Samuel Whiskers” lying about as you walk in and follow the book’s tale as you see the holes where the mice lived that threatened Tom Kitten! You can accompany Pigland Bland as he wanders thru the village and seek to protect Jemima Puddle-Duck’s egg as it lays hidden in the rhubarb patch. You can almost hear the Two Bad Mice discussing the ham and cheese that don’t seem quite edible because they are, of course, from Beatrix’s doll house which is right in front of you in the parlor.
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And not only her stories — but her life. Her desks contain letters she wrote, often illustrated with little cartoons and drawings; the first edition of Peter Rabbit, which started simply as a story written in letter form in September 1893 to cheer up a sick son of her former governess, is available for viewing.

The whole house becomes alive through the illustrations in her stories – or is it that the illustrations become alive because they re-create the reality of her home? The parlor contains a table with some partially eaten biscuits and some correspondence Beatrix was evidently in the process of completing — clearly she is expected to return at any moment…

So much of the house, the grounds and the village reflected in the books remain unchanged, you can relive the delightful tales of your youth in a way no perfunctory read in your own living room can provide.

And indeed every area shop seemingly sells some version of Peter Rabbit. memorabilia. Emblematic of how much he invades the neighborhood, when my husband and I stopped at a local pub for some requisite fish and chips, he asked about the soup of the day. When told by the bartender that it was carrot, he quipped: How appropriate. No doubt Peter Rabbit’s favorite…”
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And remember the rabbits cavorting in the countryside? Well, here’s where their namesake really comes alive. In the downtown section of Bowness-on-Windermere there stands a very different testimonial to the creations of Beatrix Potter. More commercial perhaps but no less intriguing. The World of Beatrix Potter Attractions, unconnected with the National Trust preservation of Hill Top, offers an animated version of all 23 of Potter’s tales brought to life in an indoor re-creation of the Lake District countryside she loved and her lovable characters inhabited complete with sights, sounds and smells.

I mean how thrilling is it to find that Jemima Puddle-Duck was a real duck that lived at Hill Top whose efforts to hatch her own eggs, thwarted by a conniving fox nearby, were protected by Kep the collie, Beatrix’s favorite sheepdog. You can’t get more real life than that — and we’re talking cartoon characters!

Throughout the attraction are life-size dioramas of scenes from her books, sometimes comprising an entire forest, that it’s hard to imagine that they were once only illustrations in a book the size of 4X5 inches. The whole exhibit replicates a stroll through Beatrix Potter’s home and garden.
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Each exhibit entreats the viewer to press a “Find out more” button which provides an explanation of what inspired Beatrix to write that particular story and how she developed those particular characters. Each larger-than-life display lifts the characters from the page to inhabit your consciousness in a way few fairy-tales — or for that matter, adult literary protagonists — ever will. There is so much background information about each character — and there are dozens — that it is almost impossible to absorb it all unless you are a very devoted Beatrix Potter aficionado. It’s a journey through a lifetime of literature.

Adele Wilson from Scotland, with nary a kid in tow was so obviously enthralled by the exhibits that I couldn’t resist asking why. “My granny used to read these books to me at night, and seeing these presentations brings it all back to life. I had forgotten how much I had loved all those stories.” She isn’t alone.

For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top and http://www.peterrabbit.com/en/beatrix_potter/lake_district/the_world_of_beatrix_potter_attraction.

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They say every Englishman’s home is his castle, but there are several real
castles around the country where you can feel like the King for a while (or
the Queen!) They have been converted into hotels which offer unique
accommodation for guests. These are some of the most impressive.
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Lumley Castle

This castle is more than 600 years old and is found in North East England,
near Newcastle. It was built for Sir Ralph Lumley, a brave and popular
soldier, who met an unpleasant end, being executed for his part in a plot
against the King. The castle was the home of other members of the
aristocracy until it was transformed into a hotel in 1976. It has 73 quirky
guest rooms, where you might find your bed up a spiral staircase or in a
turret, and one magnificent suite, which has a 20 foot high four-poster
Queen Anne Bed, a reception room and a Jacuzzi with views over the grounds.
There is a fine dining restaurant in the hotel and you can participate in
the very English tradition of Afternoon Tea, with sandwiches and scones, in
the Library Bar every day.
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Langley Castle

This castle was built in 1350, in Northumberland, also near Newcastle. It
was a stately home until the 18th century when the owners James and Charles
Viscounts Langley were beheaded for their loyalty to the King of Scotland,
whom they believed was their lawful Sovereign. Its ownership was passed to
the Royal Naval Hospital until it was purchased by a local historian in
1882, who restored it to its former glory. One of its most interesting
features is the tower which has 12 Garderobes (mediaeval toilets) – a rare
and lavish provision in those days. There are 27 guest rooms, some with
four-poster beds and window seats in the 7 foot thick castle walls. Others
have saunas and spa baths, for a little bit of modern luxury. The
restaurant is candlelit and romantic and has been awarded two AA Rosettes
for its food.
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Thornbury Castle

This Tudor castle is in south west England, near Bristol. This is a
really regal experience – a place where King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
stayed. You can sample the wine from the vineyard within the castle walls,
where grapes have been grown for over 500 years. There are 27 fantastically
atmospheric guest rooms, including the bedchamber used by Henry VIII and his
wife. Most have four-poster or coronet beds, stone walls, tapestries, grand
fireplaces and carved ceilings. The hotel restaurant has a traditional
English menu which features a Sunday roast. Many herbs and vegetables used
in the kitchen are grown on the premises.

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Get fit, polished, pampered and delightfully oiled at the only Canyon Ranch SpaClub® at sea! You’ll feel the energy to succeed and learn how to do it in style—befitting a ueen—on board the venerable Queen Mary 2 ocean liner, part of the Cunard Line of ships, offering classic luxury and ultra-modern amenities between two continents. Getting there is half the fun. While on a six days’ westbound Transatlantic Crossing (Southampton, England to New York City), my adult daughter and I discovered new things about each other. It was our first ocean voyage and it just happened to be on a ship with a storied pedigree:

 

 

Cunard Line, Queen Mary 2. By the 1830’s the Industrial Revolution prompted Her Majesty Queen Victoria to invite interested persons to bid for a contract to provide transatlantic mail service. Samuel Cunard of Halifax, Nova Scotia won the bid and signed a contract May 4, 1839 to carry mail on steamships across the Atlantic from Great Britain to North America. Cunard, along with four other financial backers, began the North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which later became the Cunard Line.

The original Queen Mary was described by Hollywood film star Cary Grant as the eighth wonder of the world. Grant timed his sailings to coincide with the Queen Mary’s Atlantic schedule. There are no ports of call during a Transatlantic Crossing which allows for the opportunity to immerse oneself in the Golden Age of Ocean Travel as heralded by Cunard for 170-years.

Queen Mary 2 was named by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll in January 2004 and entered service on January 12th the same year. To date, QM2 has sailed the Atlantic 104 times — a journey for which she was especially built — and made calls to 115 ports in 45 countries. She celebrates five years of service in 2009.
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QM2 Grand Lobby
It’s amazing how a touch of brisk sea air revs up the metabolism, emotional spirits, and can easily trick you into believing you’re Tarzan. Pace yourself and you’ll easily have more than enough to keep you busy without becoming exhausted. You can always just chill out for the entire voyage on one of the Queen’s famous cedar lounge chairs and dine like royalty. We decided to let it go full throttle. We learned how to tango with professional ballroom instructors, took acting lessons, enjoyed unique spa treatments, attended gala balls, explored a grand ship, met the captain, met interesting people at the Empire Casino and jogging on deck, sampled cuisine from around the world (it’s like a world gastronomic tour), struck a pose at the Veuve Clicquot® Champagne Bar, took hundreds of photos (one photo in particular at midnight during a foggy evening offered lots of atmosphere) and we still didn’t do everything we wanted to do before the end of the voyage. We decided the frantic pace we set ourselves was worth it and made our spa treatments that much more enjoyable.

The beauty of sailing with the longest ship at sea, the Queen Mary 2 — an ocean liner capable of withstanding the fierce lashings of an angry Atlantic sea — is that there is very little chance of repetition in covering ground aboard ship. There is always something new and exciting to do and new people to meet. Public spaces are enormous, glamorous, and lined with valuable works of art. For my daughter and me it was smooth sailing for the entire voyage to New York City, except for one morning during an acting class when I had tightened my waist belt one extra notch in order to regain somewhat of my youthful teenage figure. I thought I was becoming suddenly sea sick. I’m no expert seagoing female…but I’m a quick study. I loosened my belt and continued to play at reciting Hamlet along with my daughter to pretend (at least I pretended) that we would one day set foot in the 1,105-seat Queen Mary 2’s Royal Court Theatre a mother-daughter duo.

They say getting there is half the fun. On the Queen Mary 2 it’s more than true. Every crossing has celebrity guest speakers and programs on tap, not to mention the opportunity to get in shape over the course of the voyage with fitness classes, and to stretch the mental faculties with science and medical lectures. Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University, is one of the inaugural science lecturers for the new onboard Science and Sea program on the QM2 that began in April 2009. The Literature and Liners program showcases Christopher Buckley on an Eastbound sailing November 5, 2009 and The Kennedy Center Chamber Players New York City to Southampton, England September 8, 2009.
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Canyon Ranch SpaClub® Queen Mary 2’s 20,000-square foot SpaClub, offers AquaTherapy Centre and well-equipped Fitness Centre. Yoga on QM2 outside deck.
One of today’s health and wellness trends is towards treatments using water. What better place to indulge in the miraculous benefits of H2O than beneath a waterfall in the Aqua Therapy Centre at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub® surrounded by the intense blue of the Atlantic Ocean? The AquaTherapy Centre is primed for sublime relaxation with sensory showers, whirlpool, ice fountain, aqua therapy pool, and locker rooms. The Thermal Suite relaxes with aromatic steam room, Finnish and herbal saunas, and reflexology basins. Try one of the airbed recliner lounges, neck fountains, or air tub and body massage jet benches before a sports, chronic pain, arthritis, first-timer or therapeutic massage. The Centre is complementary with a Spa Club Passport on the day of any Health & Wellness, Massage, Body or Skin Care treatment. We absolutely revelled in the onboard Canyon Ranch SpaClub and had no difficulty arranging spa appointments to suit our personal schedule.
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Canyon Ranch SpaClub®
A jog on the ship’s open-air 360-degree Promenade Deck around the longest ship ever built (3 laps = 1.1 miles) is but one of the healthy activities available on the Queen Mary 2. Canyon Ranch health resorts on land and at sea set the gold standard in fitness, health and wellness, and spa treatments with state-of-the-art equipment, facilities and personnel that cater to both sexes at all levels of endurance. It’s possible to engage in a whole new way to live and view life after taking advantage of what Canyon Ranch SpaClub® experts have to offer. There are classes for the golfer, runner, dancer, cyclist, swimmer, yoga and cardio enthusiast and tips for pet owners. There is a kennel on the QM2. Canyon Ranch lecturer Dr. Joseph Alpert has given talks on bypass surgery and how to stay healthy, live longer and stay out of the hospital.

The SpaClub® is 20,000-square feet on two-decks (7 & 8) with spectacular ocean views and a staff of over 30 professionally trained spa associates. There is a hairdressing salon and a full complement of beauty treatments and well-being classes offered for men and women. You can get your teeth whitened to make any mother proud, your bones manipulated during a chiropractic session, your scalp thanking you due to a Wild Lime Blossom massage treatment, your brain cells multiplying from one of the educational lectures, and just in case the ship’s four stabilizers built by Brown Brothers of Edinburgh, Scotland don’t keep an even keel – which is unlikely – a massage for a queasy tummy is on tap; perhaps a relaxing drink in the Golden Lion Pub will do the trick instead, or at any one of a number of cocktails lounges.

Chandrika is one of the Ayuredic therapists on the Queen Mary 2. She says there are two main kinds of Ayurveda treatments offered on the QM2: Abhyangam massage and Kizhi (herbal pouch treatment) utilizing imported authentic Ayurvedic medicated oils. “Authentic” is the operative word here to keep in mind. Cunard is known for offering guests the highest possible quality of service to make your voyage a memorable one. Chandrika uses a special massage to reduce pain, inflammation, swelling and in the case of post running issues to aid in the removal of waste body by-products such as lactic acid.

 

 

Thai massage — where arms and legs are gently eased this way and that way for a long and careful stretch by the therapist– is one of the new treatments on the Queen Mary 2. The treatment makes use of pressure points on the body followed by deep strokes along body energy channels for cross-fibre friction massage. After our separate treatments, both my daughter and I agreed the Thai massage was an exhilarating experience that left us feeling taller, lighter, and full of energy to spare. The cocooning envelopment bed is another very popular relaxation treatment.

The SpaClub® is more than a place to get gussied up in one of more than 24 massage, body and skin care treatment rooms and ready for the numerous evening balls in the largest ballroom at sea in the Queens Room, or to be appropriately seen making an entrance down one of the sweeping staircases or in the always packed G32 disco. The SpaClub® is a refuge to discover your personal qualities at your own pace. The SpaClub® is also a place to learn the six steps to healthy eating for weight loss or weight maintenance. Canyon Ranch cuisine available in all QM2 dining rooms assists with a weight maintenance plan. The spa menu is extensive and exciting, designed by Canyon Ranch chefs and Cunard’s Executive Chef Jean-Marie Zimmerman. I think a week on the QM2 enjoying all the benefits of the SpaClub® is an ideal way in which to get ready for a wedding. All the services are available in one place…and what a special place this is sailing on the Queen Mary 2.

A personal meal plan can be organized during a Personal Analysis session to make things really easy. Issues of sweeteners, salt, carbohydrates, fibre and protein are addressed with nutritionally balanced meals. Canyon Ranch spa menu selections involve whole-wheat buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup and fresh fruit, salads using fresh herbs and quality oils and vinegars, soups such as roasted corn chowder with dill, lemongrass coconut chicken soup, soba noodles with seared scallops and cucumber salad, crab and mango salad, sushi, fish, raspberry mustard-crusted chicken breast, sautéed snapper with kumquat vinaigrette, seared beef tenderloin with truffle, and crème brulee with Grand Marnier liqueur make up just some of the sumptuous offerings.

Brandan, SpaClub fitness instructor, suggests for the first-timer to speak with the orientation gym instructor about appropriate classes and correct use of the equipment available to you. Brandan highly recommends a 60 minutes’ Personal Training session to make full use of the weight training, Pilates reformer work or Yoga/Pilates mat work. Brandan says often the PT sessions overlap into a custom nutrition plan for fat reduction and/or muscle gain. And for anyone taking part in a marathon pre/post voyage, a PT session will incorporate an LSD training and interval-training schedule along with stretching and strength training exercises, nutritional advice, massage, and advice to set a personal goal that leads up to race day.

And for those persons with mobility or physical limitations the “Sit ‘n’ be Fit” exercise class done in chairs and “Totally Tubing” class will teach you how to improve balance and muscle strength when getting up from a seat or toilet or when reaching up to lift objects down from a shelf, all very important movements as we age or recover from a prolonged illness where movement has been restricted. During one such class I learned that there was an imbalance on one side of my body. Strength training on this one side was in order. Just remember when you first board the ship not to let the elegance and grandeur overwhelm you so that you forget there is some measure of organizational skill needed to tap in to the ship’s extensive activities and spa offerings.
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QM2 private veranda accommodation
On the first day before sailing there is an open house and tour held at the Spa. Spa services may be arranged in advance of sailing (up to 21 days) or once sailing has begun. Read the “Today’s Activities” schedule delivered to your stateroom each day for important information on the ship’s activities. This piece of information is invaluable. Keep it with you as you travel about the ship just in case you have a change of heart and find yourself wanting to use the putting and driving ranges, and golf simulator on a whim and find yourself instead near one of the many fabulous pools. In addition to the SpaClub® indoor pool, there are four outside pools one with a retractable glass roof. Healthy choices.

And what would a fitness/wellness plan be without exercising the mental faculties. Queen Mary 2 isn’t just a BIG BOAT that knows how to treat a lady of stature….you can add a few new brain cells while you’re sailing merrily along with Cunard Insights program of learning. There are lectures, debates, performances, workshops and social gatherings featuring guests on an international standing. The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) is a new part of the exclusive award-winning enrichment programming aboard the Queen Mary 2’s November 5, 2009 to April 29, 2010 Transatlantic crossings in association with Cunard Insights. Cunard is the sponsor of the festival’s World Documentary Competition. So if meeting film writers, producers, directors, actors and the like is of top priority to your enjoyment, then the Queen Mary 2 Insights program is for you.

 

 

Princess Grill Princess Suite
We weren’t surprised Cunard’s Grills Accommodation was awarded for 2009 by Berlitz top rankings for “Best Overall Food” & “Best Overall Service” with a five-star Berlitz rating among the Top Ten Large Cruise Ships. Additional information on Cunard is available in the 2009 Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships compiled by Douglas Ward a world-renowned cruise authority and president of Maritime Evaluations Group. Every moment my daughter and I spent in our Grills Accommodation felt like a lavish hotel room. We both can recall exactly how surprised and relieved we were to see multiple his/her cupboards and walk-in closet. But the walk-out private terrace with classic Cunard lounge chairs was the icing on the cake. Cool breezes and invigorating sea air. We also weren’t surprised that Canyon Ranch SpaClub was voted one of the “Top Ten Spas” by Berlitz. It all makes for an affair to remember.
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Next trip we want to combine a Transatlantic Crossing with a short Getaway voyage to Europe. Summer 2010 will see the Queen Mary 2 sail five voyages to Northern Europe from Southampton and Hamburg, Germany. And fall 2010 from New York the Queen explores Canada and New England. There are many connecting points at the front and/or end of a Transatlantic Crossing offering excitement and legendary adventure. We learned Cunard sails the world, too, stopping at different ports of call, and does sailings into Canada’s eastern provinces for more of a sightseeing holiday than the historic six-days’ Transatlantic Crossing.

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Where to go: Bath, England. From ancient Romans, to high society in the 1800’s to modern day pleasures Bath will always remain the perfect place to find relaxation, beauty and history.

 

 

How to get there: Both trains and buses bring visitors to Bath. I booked tickets in advance and took a bus from Heathrow Airport’s Central Bus Station in London through www.nationalexpress.co.uk Buses tend to board about 15 – 20 minutes before departure times.

 

 

Where to stay: Abbey House Apartments www.laurastownhouseapartments.co.uk Staying in an apartment is the only way to go! Stove, fridge, washer, dryer, and most important, space. Laura (owner) picked me up from the bus station, and even had crumpets, milk, tea and coffee for me at the apartment. Various apartments available. Mine had a lovely view of Bath Abbey out the kitchen window. (Hint: Bring a cell phone that works in the UK, or rent inexpensive pay as you go phones which are sold all over Bath, zero phones in the apartments).

 

 

How to navigate: Free walking tours of Bath leave by the Pump Room Sun-Fri at 10:30 am, last about two hours of easy walking and frequent stops. This is a great way to learn the layout of Bath, or just to see the sights if you only have one day in town.
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What to eat: Check out Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place. This is a newly opened Jamie Oliver restaurant with the theme of affordable, quality Italian food. No reservations accepted, so just walk in and ask for a table in this two-level casual dress establishment. Many of the ingredients are imported from Italy. The pasta with black truffle, parmesan, and nutmeg is beyond good and with tip, around 20 dollars. Yes, the black truffle shavings are actually visible! My favorite cream tea (a pot of tea, two scones with clotted cream and jam) was at the Jane Austen Center’s Regency tearoom. The Russian Caravan tea has a smoky accent and may be purchased on sight. Plenty of Mr. Darcy items to be found in the gift shop. (Author Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years. Parts of her novels Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey take place here). www.janeausten.co.uk For fish and chips look no further than Seafoods Fish and Chips Restaurant and Takeaway at 38 Kingsmead Street. Ask for zero skin, or else it is left on. Mark and Spencer is a killer supermarket in the back, and check out the clothing up front. In fact, take an empty suitcase and buy clothes in Bath!

 
How to spend time in the fairytale countryside: Mad Max Minibus Tours leave from Bath offering full and half days to Stonehenge, Avebury Stone Circles, and other sights including Lacock National Trust village (a bit of the Collin Firth Pride and Prejudice, Cranford and some Harry Potter scenes took place here), a full day Cotswold tour stopping at villages like Castle Combe (scenes from Stardust, and the upcoming The Wolfman were shot here), and Stow-on-the Wold (meaning holy place on the hill). The tours are perfect for both couples and independent travelers who don’t wish to brave driving on the other side of the road. www.madmaxtours.co.uk
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What to see: Roman baths, Bath Abbey, Jane Austen Center, Pump Room, Assembly Rooms, Costume Museum (name changing to Fashion Museum), great architecture with the Royal Crescent and the Circus by architect John Wood, parks, several abbeys, theatres, shopping galore, and even a spa. If you are there on Nov. 5 Guy Fawkes Day ask at the tourist information center (located in the courtyard next to Bath Abbey) about where to see the fireworks.

 

Take a hike: Hike from Bath to Bathampton, around an hour’s hike by following the towpath behind Bath train station. Purchase take-away ice cream from a pub at the end of the journey. Don’t be afraid of the tunnels that you must sometimes walk through, for I often saw people with their children, hikers, and bikers along this trail. Some beautiful countryside views await you.

 

What I love most: Bath is where my peace lives.

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Set in over five hundred acres, Leeds Castle lies in Kent, and not as the name suggests in the town of the same name in Northern England. It started life as a Saxon royal manor back in AD 857. In 1119 it was fortified and built as a Norman castle by Robert de Crevecoeur before passing into royal hands in 1278. It subsequently became the residence of no less than six medieval queens, earning it the name of “lady’s castle”.

The most famous royal owner of Leeds Castle was Henry VIII who dramatically altered the castle for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, no expense spared. In the sixteenth century it was passed over to private hands, and in the years that followed the castle played many roles, serving as a prison and a convalescence home for World War Two pilots as well as a private residence for the Fairfax and Culpepper families. It remains today a living castle, at the request of the last private owner of the estate, Lady Olive Baillie.

Lady Baillie, an American born heiress, donated the castle to the nation on her death in 1974, to be managed by the Leeds Castle Foundation. She initially bought the estate in 1926 and completely renovated the interior of the castle using the services of the French designer and architect Armand-Albert Rateau and later the Parisian Stéphane Boudin. The transformation of Leeds Castle did not stop with the interior. She created a golf course and a swimming pool, as well as tennis and squash courts to provide entertainment for the guests attending her many parties, which included famous actors and politicians.
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The castle is adorned with acres of beautiful colourful gardens which were developed by Lady Baillie, as well as a duckery and the aviaries which she established during the 1950’s. The birds housed here today certainly cannot be found swimming or flying around your local park. Over one hundred species of bird reside in the outdoor aviary (rebuilt in 1988, the original aviary is now the Lady Baillie Garden) and white peacocks roam the gardens, their tail feathers greyed from the dirt they sweep up from the ground, as they strut proudly around their habitat. Black swans float graciously across the lake, introduced to the UK by Lady Baillie from their native Australia.

The castle opened to the public over thirty years ago in 1976, and since then millions of visitors have dropped in to marvel at Leeds Castle. There is a reason so many have taken the time and trouble to visit.

First stop is the ticket office. A ticket is valid for one year from the date of purchase, and if your journey to the stately home is a reasonable commute then this is an absolute bargain. Imagine lazy Sunday picnics throughout the summer, evening strolls through the gardens or the perfect opportunity for the amateur photographer to snap away to his heart’s content.

From the entrance gates the tour takes you through the duckery, to the open grounds stretching before the castle up to the entrance of the historic building. From the gardens the exterior of the castle can be admired in its entire splendor. The top of the castle is a traditional turret design, the kind all children draw when depicting a castle. In short it is a castle as a castle ought to be.

Continuing the tour inside: the building offers an interesting peek into royal history. There are tapestries on display, as well as fine arts and furnishings. Two rooms portray the décor as it would have been in the 15th century during the reign of King Henry V and Queen Catherine. Other notable highlights of the tour are the Fountain Court, the Queens Rooms and the Chapel, as well as the largest room of the castle, the Henry VIII Banqueting Hall. The ornate French fire is eye-catching, and the paintings hanging here depict the Fields of the Cloth of Gold. Henry VIII set off from Leeds Castle, embarking from Dover across the Channel for this grand tournament in 1520 to meet Francis I of France.

Interestingly, of 24 bedrooms in the castle 23 are still in use, the exception being Lady Baillie’s bedroom which remains preserved for historic interest. The rest are used as accommodation for conferences and special events such as weddings and dinners. The Leeds Castle Foundation itself organizes events in the grounds such as a firework display for Bonfire Night, and a Christmas or New Years Eve dinner. Furthermore significant political and entertainment events have also taken at Leeds Castle; in 1998 the G8 summit, the Anglo-Irish peace summit chaired by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in 2004, Helena Bonham-Carter filmed scenes here for her role in Lady Jane in 1986, Elton John played a solo concert for two nights in 1999 and the recently deceased Pavarotti performed there in 1993 and again 2004. Modern day Leeds Castle has certainly seen its share of glitz, glamour and momentous events.
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Leaving the inside of the castle to walk around the grounds the view from the far banks of the moat transport you back in time. It is truly a breath taking sight, watching the honey coloured sunlight beam off the castle walls and bounce back off the water. The clouds hang in the canvas of the blue sky, appearing to be dabbed on with an artist’s brush. The moat ripples gently with the breeze, the mirrored reflection of the castle changing as the direction of the wind alters. Ducks glide effortlessly across the water and geese stroll along the banks of the moat, calling out in sing song; most probably delighting in their good fortune to be residents of this rather impressive and peaceful abode.

On the lush green grass surrounding the moat flowers dot the garden with an array of colours; pinks, purples, yellows and reds all left as an imprint. Clusters of daisies make indiscriminate patterns, decorating the banks, awaiting the arrival of one of the many mowers that are busy across the landscaped gardens. It is certainly not a job for a lone operator.

Variety, they say is the spice of life, and so it is with Leeds Castle. In addition to the duckery, the aviaries, the castle tour and the gardens there are a few more attractions worth a mention. There is a maze that was created from 2,400 yew trees in 1988, a vineyard (Leeds Castle wine is for sale in the gift shop and restaurants), and more obscurely the only dog collar museum in Great Britain.
In short, Leeds Castle is a combination of architectural wonder and beautiful gardens. Humans and nature unite for an eye catching spectacle and a wonderful day out in the English countryside.

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People began congregating in the neighborhood of the Queen’s Hotel on the afternoon of October 1, 1887. Armed with crowbars, pickaxes and spades- the protesters began marching toward Latrigg, a favorite fell. They chanted “The lions of Keswick will break every chain, and open the footpaths, again and again.”

The object of their ire was Mr. Spending, the landowner that had closed the ancient pathway. His hired guards worked to build barricades of steel and logs topped with oozing black tar. This “crowbar brigade” was not going to cross his land. Anticipating small numbers, as in previous days, his hopes were dashed when the human mass poured forth from the valley below. Seeing the rubble, the crowd yelled “set fire to it”, and, for several moments, it appeared that would happen. Then Mr. Jenkinson, one of the leaders, climbed on top of the heap and with the help of others, cleared a path. Farther up the lane, more obstructions were knocked down until they reached their coveted mountaintop.

In the days, months, and years ahead, contrary to landowners’ desires, the English people would establish their right to roam on mountains and open spaces. One hundred and twenty years later, as I made my pilgrimage to the top of Latrigg, a soft mist rolled up from the peaceful village of Keswick. I silently thanked the band of warriors that had the foresight and determination to preserve this path for future generations. Their prudence and fortitude make England one of the most outstanding destinations for walkers today.

The Lake District in northwestern England is a prime destination for devout walkers. As a dedicated walker, not to be confused with alpinist, the Keswick area is my perfect match. This area offers recreational outlets for everyone from the casual day hiker to the serious mountain climber. The majority of well-maintained trails pass through privately owned lands ranging from small farms to wealthy estates.
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Keswick – pronounced “ke zick”- a small market town since 1276, is a convenient portal to the Lake District. Traveling by train from London (with one brief bus connection), I land in Keswick in the middle of Saturday market, people swarming the tents and hawkers selling their wares. Working my way through the crowds, I slowly move up the red brick street toward the reigning Moot Hall, a grey stone building with the famous one handed clock. Moot Hall is the home of Keswick’s Tourist Information Center, my first stop.

Armed with walking stick and water proofs (rain gear), I begin one of the many recommended hikes. The eight mile foot path gently winds around the Derwentwater, the third largest lake in the district. The first of many spellbinding views begins with Friar’s Crag, a grassy green promontory, which affords views across the lake of the Catbells, an emerald green fell with a lemon-shaped peak. These are the same views which inspired Wordsworth’s poems and Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s stories.

The hills ring with the baas of sheep, confirming earlier signs on fence posts with warnings to keep dogs under control because it is lambing season. A fat old mother with dirty-yellow dreadlocks warily watches intruders. She hurriedly maneuvers her off-springs up the grassy knoll.

Spurts of rain are followed by soft shots of mist. Waiting out a downpour, a local rambler-dressed in hiking boots, and canary yellow rain-gear, provides a few sheep facts as we pass the time. “You think they all look alike, don’t you?” she asked. “There are over 19 breeds” she instructs, “but the old Herdwick is what we are best known for in these parts”. The lambs are born black and change to white as they age. True to a mother’s love, they know their own lamb’s baas amongst all the others. Most interesting is that the Herdwick is geographically bound, forcing landowners to sell land with the sheep in tow.

Realizing the English rain would not be ending anytime soon, we crunch forward on the wet gravel. The trail leads through bucolic pastures adorned with wildflowers in pastel hues of violent, blue, and yellow. Ramblers follow the trail signs over wooden boardwalks that perch on stilts above eco-sensitive marshes. Endless dry stone walls quarter the land. “Kissing gates”, self-closing, V-shaped contraptions allow passage. The gates were termed “kissing gates” because the custom was for the second person to kiss the first person before he or she was allowed through.

As I round the corner of the stone building at the Nichol End Marine, I hear a demanding bark of a dog. A group of walkers are standing next to the water’s edge, watching as black-and-white Border collie yelps at two young women. As one woman steps into the canoe, the other one pushes off. The dog leaps to the bow, front paws landing on the helm, her nose pointed into the wind.

Topping off the day, I land at Keswick’s Market Square at the Bank Pub. Since I visited on previous nights, the pub tender glanced up and immediately pulls a pint of my favorite rusty brown Snek Lifter. Regulars begin to enter the comfortable and unpretentious low wooden beamed rooms. Two old men, clad in identical tan corduroy jackets, gather to gossip and discuss world affairs with their contented border collies sleeping at their feet. Sipping my brew, I ponder experiences of early Lake District walkers through the lens of historic photos on the white washed stone walls. I once again thank those early warriors for having fought for the public rights of way, making this day possible for me and the many to follow.

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The two witches from California weren’t all that impressed. ‘It’s not as good as Stonehenge,’ said one of the two women frowning at the cell phone picture she had just taken of the ancient Neolithic stone circle at Avebury, England.
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‘No, it isn’t, is it” said the other leaning in for a look. ‘I hope Glastonbury is better. Visually, I mean.’
‘Me too. I don’t really feel the energy here,’ she said, and reached out to touch one of the large stones while I noticed that the rock, in turn, remained stone cold and probably took her for granite.
‘Not like Stonehenge.’

‘Definitely not,’ said the other. ‘I wonder if there’s anyplace around here where we can get a tall decaf caramel macchiato”
A tour bus operator shrugged but pointed out a nearby pub. ‘I don’t think they have that but perhaps you might find some hot tea,’ he said. ‘We’ll be going there in a bit.’
‘I could use a vente breve double mocha.’

Witches brew apparently involves a 20-ounce chocolate flavored mix with crushed, filtered, and solvent rinsed beans with thick cream in a concoction that Starbuck, the wizard devised for such covens. The two women were among an interesting show of visitors I found touring several of the ancient monolithic sites in England. I would learn that among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who call on the sites each year you can usually find a number of modern day Pagans, Neo-pagans, Witches, Wiccans, Druids, Neo-druids, New Agers, and several happy hippies.

‘We see all kinds,’ explained the tour bus driver nodding to another nearby group who were dressed in long flowing Starwars Yoda-like robes.
‘Druids” I asked while he shook his head.
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‘Witches,’ he replied. ‘At least one of the many off-shoot groups anyway.’
‘Ah!’ I said ah-ing not really understanding the difference. Black pointy hats and brooms would have helped but apparently that’s old school perception. These days you’re likely to find a wide array of dress from tie-dyed shirts with jeans to elaborate robes complete with crystal necklaces, capes, and wooden staves.

This has come about since the ban against practicing witchcraft was lifted in England in 1951. Then a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner quickly reorganized and popularized the practice and becoming the nation’s Chief Witch. From Gardner and his Gardnerian style Wicca came the Alexandrian, Dianic Feminist, Eclectic or Solitary, and other off-shoots that quickly took shape and form. The difficulty, at least to the casual observer, comes in telling them or other groups apart which is where tour guides or bus drivers come into play.
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Glancing at a mixed troupe I realized that there was something oddly familiar about one visitor; a short, fleshy, dour faced man with glasses and a lopsided smile. His head was tilted off at an odd angle and holding a staff as though he were a cynical bird hunter watching for quail but willing to shoot anything that got in his way.

‘Doesn’t that warlock kinda look like Dick Cheney” I said.
‘Who”
‘The American Vice President,’ I said as the tour bus driver took another look at the man and grinned.
‘I suppose you could say there might be a resemblance, yes. By the way, he’s a male witch, not a warlock”
‘Who, Dick Cheney?” I asked while the tour bus driver just chuckled.
‘No, the visitor in the robe.’
‘Male witch’ I thought they were called ‘Warlocks”’
‘No, the word ‘warlock’ is a Scottish term for an oath breaker.’
‘So are you sure Dick Cheney isn’t a witch or a warlock. I mean, that could go a long way in explaining a few things,’ I said while the tour bus driver avoided the obvious and went on to tell me more about who visits the sites and why.

Some like the witches, he said, come to the sites in large groups or numbers looking for the magical, other visitors come in search of the interesting, the spiritual or the historic and each perhaps finds something they hadn’t necessarily planned on.

‘The mid-Summer Solstice draws the biggest crowds. Lots of vendor booths, events and goings on,’ he said. ‘But only a few of the recognized practicing Druids actually get to conduct their ceremonies within the circle. It’s an irritant to some visitors.’

Most tourists, like us, are prohibited from entering the stone circle and had to view the site from a cordoned-off distance. Private tours can be had inside Stonehenge but at selected times and at a select price. Avebury, though, was different. Here you could walk amongst the monoliths to get a more physical connection with history.

However, the Californian witches obvious disappointment with Avebury appeared to be aimed at the pedestrian nature of the staid English country farm village’s proximity to the ancient circle. But then having just come from Stonehenge at its impressive Salisbury Plains surroundings maybe there was something to their comments.

At Stonehenge in Wiltshire the massive forty-ton Sarsen stones and the smaller four-ton Preseli blue stones set against the open green countryside and open English sky just off of the motorway did seem to evoke a sense of mystical importance and serious substance. Even from a viewing distance the temple-like Stonehenge allows one mentally to travel back through the ages, if only to try to figure out how it came into being and ponder for what purpose.

‘Druid’s still worship here, you know,’ said one visitor.
‘Modern Druids, actually,’ added another reading from a travel guide. ‘Says here there’s little correlation between them and the original Celtic Druids.’
‘It is other worldly,’ said another visitor, a small serious man who was shaking his head.

‘Other worldly”
‘UFO’s,’ he said.
‘Ah, UFO’s!’ I said while the small, serious man nodded.
‘Alien crop circles,’ he said letting me in on the secret. ‘They visit frequently, you know”
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‘Could be,’ I said pointing to the monolithic in the golden glow of sunlight. ‘I mean, doesn’t it look like a fast food chain’s drive-up window to you’ A quick shake, chips, and a burger to go.’ That comment, of course, drew several surprised looks from some visitors but a chuckle from the tour bus driver.

‘You know, some people consider this to be a sacred place,’ said one of the visitors scolding me. ‘Would you make jokes at the Vatican”
I smiled and nodded. ‘Spent half a day there trying to find the patron saint of Bingo,’ I said. ‘B-5’ B-5, anyone”

The witch stared at me dumbfounded.
‘Sorry,’ I said and offered something she could better understand. ‘It’s a curse.’ When that drew a groan or two I asked another question. ‘So how did they build it, Stonehenge, I mean”
‘The great stones came from the Salisbury Plains and the Preseli stones came from the Preseli Hills in Wales, both with the help of Merlin,’ said a visiting witch.
‘Merlin, the wizard”
‘Uh-huh, he willed them here.’

‘King Arthur’s Merlin” I asked while another women nodded and the bus driver remained suspiciously quiet content with the knowledge that myth often trumps reality and that tips to a tour bus driver were often based on not battling against someone else’s opinions or beliefs.

‘Arthur is buried at the Glastonbury Abbey, you know,’ said a heavy set woman who was chewing on a candy bar. She reminded me of an older and much larger Stevie Nicks. A button on her expensive peasant blouse read: goddess. A label on her designer purse read: Guess.
I decided not to.

Besides, I didn’t know that the legendary figure King Arthur was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Mainly because there is still considerable debate about whether Arthur and Merlin ever even existed so I said as much.

‘I thought the Arthurian legend is based on a bunch of stories about a bunch of guys named Arthur or something close to it”
‘Yes,’ replied the man with the travel guide book. ‘There was a local leader named Arthnou in the 6th Century who gets a convincing nod. Says here he’s buried at Tintigal in Cornwall”

‘My book says King Arthur’s grave is on Cadbury Hill,’ said another visitor reading from another travel guide book.
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‘No, that was the site of Camelot,’ chimed in the faux Fleetwood Mac crooner in between bites from the candy bar. ‘After the battle against Mordred on the Salisbury Plains his wounded body was whisked away to the Vale of Avalon where it rests until King Arthur is once again needed.’
‘No,’ disagreed the small, serious man. ‘UFO’s snatched him back up. He was one of them, you know”

‘Actually he was a Roman soldier named Ambrosius Aurelianus,’ added another voice with a certain degree of authority.
As the witches and other tourists debated the legend in Avebury I realized that witchcraft has made a strong comeback since the days of Matthew Hopkins- England’s 17th Century Witchfinder General.
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Hopkins made his living routing out witches and having them executed, if not for fun then certainly for profit. Hopkins opted for the tried and true methods of selection. He picked Crones, women with hairy upper lips and the sure indicator of a woman who possessed ‘an evil eye.’ To give Hopkins his due he did conduct exhaustive testing procedures. For example, those he accused of witchcraft were bound and tossed in a lake or pond to see if they would float, which he surmised witches did.

Less buoyant candidates who sank and unfortunately drowned were ruled innocent. I could find no account or record to suggest that those who drowned were happily vindicated. Justice was not only blind but apparently lacked basic resuscitation skills as well.

On other occasions Hopkins used a long needle-like device that he stuck into an accused witch’s moles or birth marks. If the suspect didn’t cry out in pain then he or she was indeed a witch. Of course, Hopkins didn’t let on that the needle was spring-loaded and when pressed against the skin it would retract into its handle. With no pain to the suspect witch it was a sure sign of evil. The real question, of course, was evil on whose part’

As I glanced back over at the male ‘witch’ who shared an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney I realized that witch hunting or some variation was still very much in play.

However, even with the banter the Witches at Stonehenge and Avebury that I saw were less wild eyed, angry or crazy sounding as some of the people I met a political caucuses over the years and more upfront about their curses.
Did you know that any evil a witch does returns to him or her three-fold’ A pity this doesn’t work with politicians.

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A few years back my 15 minutes of fame came to me in England. In this case, it might actually be known as infamy, but I’m not picky. About 10 million British people have seen me naked, which is not a statement a lot of people can make. For my honor or shame, I am in a fairly elite group.

I worked for nine months for a travel company in medium sized English town called Banbury. It took me a little while to get immersed in British culture, but it happened. Generally Americans and Brits have a different sense of humour (and spelling), so comedy TV took the longest to get into while of course visiting the pub came the quickest. There was however a show that struck my funny bone from the start. I don’t even know the exact name of it, but the host was Graham Norton.
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The show was of the nighttime talk show variety, with an opening monolog, a skit or two, a celebrity guest or two, and a closing musical act. But Graham’s show was different than others of this genre. For starters Graham is flamboyantly gay, as camp as a row of tents (as they say). Secondly, the show has the distinct advantage of NOT being on American TV (or at least he wasn’t then). They didn’t have to worry about blacked out nudity and bleeped out swear words and general censorship that plagues “America the free.”

I had wanted to go see the show live the whole time I was in England, and finally about four days before I was set to fly home my friend got us on the list to see Graham in studio. Of course, it was filmed in London, so on a Wednesday night we headed south for the show. As we waited in line to get in, some of the production assistants circulated through the crowd. They asked us to write down a crazy story that may be shared on the air. We all did. I can’t remember what I wrote but my friend Tim had a winner. Also while we were in line a producer said to me, “you, you look like you’re up for a laugh, would you do anything?” I instantly said yes, to which he quickly replied “anything???!” Because I had seen the show many times before, and knew of Graham’s crazy antics I more hesitantly gave an affirmative the second time.

Our group of five was placed near the aisle so that Graham could “randomly” select us for Tim to tell his story. I had decided to wear some crazy patchwork pants (that my mother made) and an authentic San Francisco policeman’s shirt. I wanted to stand out, as I knew Graham often picked audience members to do something crazy. During the “mingle with the crowd” segment, Graham headed up the stairs into the audience in our direction. He was on a hunt to find audience members with crazy stories, and he “wound up” asking Tim. Tim and I (and the others with us) all worked for a camping tour company that has trips all over North America. Tim (prompted by Graham) proceeded to relay a story about when he had been a tour leader out and about in America. He was with his group, sitting around the camp fire, enjoying his dinner of fried chicken. About midway through his meal he looked down and realized he had dropped a little chicken skin into his lap. He decided to retrieve it and stabbed the skin with his fork. Much to his dismay, he realized the skin did not belong to a dead chicken, but rather a very alive set of family jewels, his own. This is a great story, just the kind of thing Graham usually looks for, and brought roaring laughter from the crowd. It would be even better if it were true. Tim admitted to us later that he ALMOST stabbed his own sack, but realized what it was at the last moment. BUT, Graham, the studio audience and all of the show’s viewers never knew the story was inaccurate, and it was a very funny segment of TV.

After the laughter died down, Graham wanted me to stand up to see what I was wearing. My costume decision worked, and he proceeded to ask me a few questions. He then moved on, but didn’t forget about us. He kept referring to Tim as “bollock man” as in the British slang for testicles. Several times mentioned us as Bollock Man and Brian, like some sort of super hero duo

Graham has various segments on his show before the guest comes on. One standard of his is where he looks at some kooky website. He decided this night on one called “molesting statues” or something like that. After having a brief look around, he proclaimed “We have a lot of statues in London, and we think it would be funny if a member of our audience molested some. We also think it would be funny if it were Bollock Man or Brian!” The camera zoomed in on Tim and myself and showed our shocked faces. After a brief moment of back and forth indecision between Tim and my self, somehow we decided that I was to be the statue molester.

A producer rushed down the stairs and grabbed me by the arm. He led me through the studio and out the back door. He had a camera in his hand and we headed to the parking lot, in a hurry. They don’t film the show live, but it is taped nightly with only a few hours to edit it before it goes on the air. We hoped into a car that had a ladder sticking out of the trunk (or boot) and sped out into the London evening.

Our first victim was a statue of Nelson Mandela. We quickly got out and the producer put the latter up to Nelson’s head. For what I was about to do, I figured Nelson and I could be on first name basis. I quickly had a French kissing session with his ear as the producer filmed away. As quick as we got there, we were away, zipping off to our next statue.

After another short drive, we wound up at the Thames. There was a statue of a topless woman sitting by the river bank in an area that was a lot more crowded than the first one, but I hoped on the lady and did my duty. The producer wanted me to put my hands and mouth on her breasts as he filmed. Of course people were looking at me oddly as they strolled by, but I kept tonguing away at the bronze lady.

Again we hurried away, but this time we pulled back into the studio lot. I was a little confused, but assumed that was all we had time for. Then, I was led (now with a security guard in tow) to a back lot statue of two wrestling Greek men. It was supposed to look as if it was also out and about in the city, but this one was actually private. At that point the producer said to me, “we think it would be funny if you got on the statue, and we think it would be funny if this time, you were naked!”

I was stunned. I had seen the show before and I knew they did some crazy things, but naked! To my recollection I had never seen anyone fully naked on the show before. People had shown their butt or the pubic hair, but not fully naked. The producer could see I was hesitant, so he (like a good sales man) said “not to worry, Graham will hold his thumb over, they won’t really see anything.” As I considered dropping my drawers I thought to myself that I had already told them I would do “anything” and this part of the show was counting on me. Also I thought (being American) there would certainly be black lines or fuzzy spots covering my junk. So how could I expect they would show everything. I decided to just go for it and my clothes came off, as I joined the naked wrestlers for a three way photo shoot.

We hurried back to the set, and I waited back stage. Graham was busy with the guest, finishing up the interview. I was a little disappointed by the choice of guest because I had never heard of him before. The week before, Darryl Hannah and Burt Reynolds where both on, and I would have liked to be on stage with either of them. Instead, I got someone who was more or less a third rate British soap opera star. Most English people when they hear who it was say “Ohhh, Him?” Before the show started there was some delay and they made an announcement about the guest being late. The guy who did come on eventually was doing a play (rehearsal) nearby and we think he was a last minute fill in guest. It was Paul Nichols, and you’ve only heard of him if you are English.

Finally the interview finished, and Graham said “I hear Brian is back, lets get him out here and see what he got up to.” I went out on stage and sat in between Graham and Paul. Graham asked me a few questions but more or less got right into the photos. They were still photos, not movies, up on the big monitor above the stage. That’s right, way above Graham on a giant TV. There would be no thumb of Graham’s saving my dignity. I was in a daze.

First they showed the picture of me and the topless woman. Nelson Mandela was on the cutting room floor; apparently the man is not important enough. Then all of a sudden I was naked in front of millions. My friends who have been watching Graham for years say they have never seen him so shocked. He was almost speechless, which is not a good quality for a ‘talk” show host. The crowd whopped and hollered for quite some time my friends leading the cheers.

The photo was not a flattering one, but there it was, and there it stayed. First of all, I am not the skinniest guy in the world, but I am by no means obese. The way I was sitting had my belly jutting out at a weird angle, and looking rather large. Secondly, (guys will back me up here) sometimes your “stuff” looks more impressive, sometimes it looks less. Well today, mine defiantly looked less. I was mortified, Graham and the crowd were ecstatic. It’s a good thing I was set to leave England in a few days as I probably wouldn’t be getting any more dates.

When all the laughing settled, I got up to leave assuming my 15 minutes of fame were over. Paul said how brave I was and that I needed a hug, so he hugged me. Graham told me to sit and stay a bit while the musical guest came on. I sat back down, still in a daze. The Pet Shop Boys (of whom I am a big fan) came and played a set 10 feet from me. I began to somehow forget about what had just happened and enjoyed being on TV.

The show was almost over and it was time for Graham to tell me what I had won. I knew from watching the show that the audience idiot (me this time) always was awarded with a prize. Graham asked me if I liked golf. I tried as hard as I could to put on a good game face and smile, but I don’t think I was successful. I hate golf. The prize was 6 tickets (two each day for three days) to the British Open golf tournament in Scotland, which of course the Brits just call The Open. Along with those tickets came 6 tickets (same as before) to the British Telecom hospitality booth at the Open and 3 nights at a 5 star hotel in Edinburgh. All in all, it actually sounded like a pretty good package even though I didn’t like golf. Later my friends and I tried to price it out, and we decided on a little over 3000 pounds value. So I took the envelope and headed of stage, hoping I could actually attend the tournament that was over the coming long weekend, of which Sunday I was supposed to fly home.

On my way off stage, I (me and my friends) were invited to the after show party. It was great fun to go there for free drinks and snacks and mingling with the cast and crew. Graham and Paul were both really nice people off stage as well. I even got to meet Betty. If you are not a Graham Norton follower that doesn’t mean anything to you, but regular viewers should know her. She is an older lady that for some reason goes to every one of Graham’s shows and is used as a punch line quite often. I asked her if I could have a picture with her, and that saucy old bird replied “if you take your clothes off again.” The cast party was a lot of fun and topped off a great evening, except for about 10 minutes of horror.

The next day at work, I quit. Actually it was Thursday and I was supposed to be done Friday, but I explained to my boss what had happened and that I was heading to Scotland. He was fine with it, and Tim got two days off as well. We only planned to go for one of the three nights as it was a long drive and I needed Saturday at home to pack. I gave the rest of the tickets to the others (Lee, Molly and Andrew) that had gone to the show. It took Tim and I 11 hours (horrible traffic) to get there and in the end we stayed until early Saturday morning, two nights.

I didn’t really see any golf, but had a great time. On the one day that Tim and I attended we headed straight to the hospitality booth and didn’t leave there until they closed it up. The golf was on the TV in the background, but we were more intent on the never ending steaks and scotches. All our table mates were quite interested in the story as to how we got there. During one of my many bathroom visits a man came up to me and asked me about the show. He was in the middle of several questions when another man came up and asked if when I was done, I could come by his hospitality booth, the ladies in there wanted to meet me. It couldn’t be because they were impressed with what they had seen. I went in and everyone clapped. Tim, seeing what was happening wanted to share the limelight and ran over. I shouted “hey everybody look its Bollock Man,” to which they all cheered. We were minor celebrities for the day.

By the time we left the booth, we were quite drunk. As I said, we really didn’t see much golf. We did look around a bit for Tiger Woods, but apparently kept missing him by a few minutes. We also tried to steal (or borrow) a golf cart to get around but got told off in the process. It was a great day and we topped it all off by spending another night in a 5 star hotel. Lee, Andrew and Molly arrived late and shared the room, ready for their fun the next two days, but Tim and I left early in the morning.

That night, my friends and work mates had a going away party for me. It was inevitable really, but out came a video tape. We had realized that Graham’s shows are often audience participation, so we set up the VCR before we left. The tape was played over and over and over again. I thought it looked bad the first time, but with pause and rewind it was much worse. I eventually had to leave the room from embarrassment, and thankfully the next day I left England as well.