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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Edinburgh Tattoo, 2014

I'm off to Bonny Scotland for five days with the highlight of the tour being a visit to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This will be my seventh consecutive year of taking this tour so by now, I should have it pretty much stitched up and know what I'm doing!

Day 1

We hit the road at 7:30 am with a very pleasant group of relatively young, fit and active people. We set off up the motorway and had a comfort stop at motorway services before our lunch stop at Gretna Green Old Blacksmiths Shop. For a change, it wasn't too busy with hundreds of other coaches so it was a much nicer environment to be browsing the shops and having lunch than I have seen before, although there is never a problem with coping with large numbers of people. I have written about the Old Blacksmiths Shop in previous blogs so I won't bore you with it again.

After lunch we hit the road again and made our way to our 'surprise' visit of the day, the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Wheel is an amazing feat of engineering based on a very simple idea. 

The Falkirk Wheel lies at the end of a reinforced concrete aqueduct that connects, via the Roughcastle tunnel and a double staircase lock, to the Union Canal. Boats entering the Wheel's upper gondola are lowered, along with the water that they float in, to the basin below. At the same time, an equal weight rises up, lifted in the other gondola.

This works on the Archimedes principle of displacement. That is, the mass of the boat sailing into the gondola will displace an exactly proportional volume of water so that the final combination of 'boat plus water' balances the original total mass.

Each gondola runs on small wheels that fit into a single curved rail fixed on the inner edge of the opening on each arm. In theory, this should be sufficient to ensure that they always remain horizontal, but any friction or sudden movement could cause the gondola to stick or tilt. To ensure that this could never happen and that the water and boats always remain perfectly level throughout the whole cycle, a series of linked cogs acts as a back up.

Hidden at each end, behind the arm nearest the aqueduct, are two 8m diameter cogs to which one end of each gondola is attached. A third, exactly equivalent sized cog is in the centre, attached to the main fixed upright. Two smaller cogs are fitted in the spaces between, with each cog having teeth that fit into the adjacent cog and push against each other, turning around the one fixed central one. The two gondolas, being attached to the outer cogs, will therefore turn at precisely the same speed, but in the opposite direction to the Wheel.

Given the precise balancing of the gondolas and this simple but clever system of cogs, a very small amount of energy is actually then required to turn the Wheel. In fact, it is a group of ten hydraulic motors located within the central spine that provide the small amount, just 1.5kWh, of electricity to turn it.

Despite the magnificence of this structure, the main attraction for the majority of visitors here today, was the presence of Freddie Flintoff, promoting his fish and chips at 'Flintoff's Fish Bar'!

The passengers thoroughly enjoyed their surprise visit here! From here we went directly to our hotel, the Best Western Plus Keavil House Hotel.

On our arrival, we were met by the same manager who has been at the hotel in previous years, unfortunately, he has never got any better and all he sees to be successful in is causing chaos so, as usual, we bypassed him and dealt directly with the staff. They are all so friendly and welcoming and willing to please that in no time at all we were checked in and all cases were delivered to rooms. I was just about to park the coach up when I was called back into the reception and informed that I was being shipped out to the hotel down the road, along with the driver of the other coach which is staying here tonight. This was because, although both of us drivers are booked in stay at this hotel, they seem to think it is acceptable to sell our rooms to others and farm us out somewhere else! I was not best pleased! I used the shower facilities in the spa before dinner. We had a nice meal and a pleasant evening, then the hotel called me a taxi to my accommodation down the road.

I checked in and went to my room which was spacious and newly refurbished but in desperate need of a good clean. I have nicknamed the place, 'the grot hole'!

Day 2

I had arranged to have breakfast with the other driver at the grot hole this morning before we caught a taxi back to the Keavil House. My group were taking the mick because I had had breakfast with a strange man!

I had a coffee with my group while they had breakfast then went to prepare the coach for today's excursion, which was to Scone Palace.

Scone Palace has an exciting and colourful history. Fifteen hundred years ago it was the capital of the Picts. In the intervening centuries, it has been the seat of parliaments and the crowning place of the Kings of Scots, including Macbeth and Robert The Bruce. It houses an outstanding collection of antiques, paintings and rare artifacts and the grounds are renowned throughout the world.

Poised above the River Tay, Scone Palace overlooks the routes north to the Highlands and east through Strathmore to the coast. The Grampian mountains form a distant backdrop, and across the river stands the city of Perth.

We had a guided tour of the palace before time for lunch and exploring the grounds. 

At 2pm we left for today's 'surprise' visit. A scenic drive around Loch Leven before stopping at the RSPB Loch Leven Reserve for a coffee stop.

On an island in the middle of the Loch is Loch Leven Castle. This late 14th or early 15th century tower was the setting for the most traumatic year in the life of Mary Queen of Scots. It was here in 1567 that she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate before her dramatic escape a year later.

Some of our group had been for a walk, others were very interested in the conservation of the area and had spent a lot of time talking to the rangers, while the rest sat in the cafe behind the panoramic window and took in the view of the Loch with the backdrop of the Lomond Hills. After an hour here we returned back to our hotel.

I had decided I would walk back to the grot hole to get a shower and change before getting a taxi back for dinner. Just as I started walking, the heavens opened and by the time I got back I was looking like a drowned rat! I jumped in the shower and it wasn't until I looked for the hair dryer that I realised there wasn't one! So I arrived at dinner feeling half ready with wet hair! We had another pleasant meal but to be honest, seeing as this hotel boasts an award winning restaurant, I found the menu quite boring and disappointing. Must be another menu dumbed down for a coach group. I have never been able to understand why, hotels especially, drop their standards just because they are dealing with a large group. Our food has been nice but certainly not award winning and our menu is certainly very different from that for private guests. But the thing that has been noticed most in this hotel is the extortionate prices for a drink. I don't think I know of anywhere as expensive as this.

Day 3

This morning, I checked out of the grot hole and was told that my luggage would be in my room when we returned this evening.

We have a very busy day ahead of us today in Edinburgh. We left our hotel at 11am and made our way to the centre of Edinburgh to meet our guide, Bill Hill, who would be getting on the coach and showing us the city. I've worked with Bill every time I have done this tour. He always gives an informative, enjoyable tour with the right balance of history and humour and the passengers have always thoroughly enjoyed him, today was no exception. As always he was great. He told me how he had been on the telly since I last saw him, telling the story of Greyfriars Bobby. And how he was being kept busy due to his Award of Excellence from Trip Adviser, which is well deserved.

After our tour we had the whole afternoon free to go off and explore the city or take in some of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival with just under 50,000 performances and more than 3100 shows packed into almost 300 venues across the city. The Fringe is open to all: anyone can perform and everyone does - from students to superstars.

Edinburgh may be the centre of the culture universe in August, hosting the world’s best artists, performers and thinkers, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it also becomes the world’s most expensive city. In fact, a lovely day can be had out in Edinburgh for very little money at all.

There are hundreds of shows that are completely free, happening in venues all over the city. Mostly located in bars or restaurants, these are by no means lesser shows – awards are often heaped upon free events, and exploring free comedy, theatre, spoken word and burlesque is one of the archetypal Fringe experiences.

We all met up at the Princes Street Mecure Hotel where we were booked for our early evening meal before I picked up the group and drove them to where I would be parked for the tattoo. Courtesy of my company, all my passengers were given a 'Tattoo survival kit', which contained a plastic poncho, a miniature of Bells Whisky and a pack of shortbread biscuits. When I got to the castle and was looking for me seat, I was quite amused to see my whole group in their blue plastic ponchos! Then it was time for the show!

From its early days, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been an international favourite.

Performers from over 46 countries have taken part in the Tattoo, and around 30 per cent of the 220,000 audience each year are from overseas.

Each year's Tattoo is very much a 'global gathering' - showcasing the talents of musicians and performers from every corner of the globe.

In addition to this, the Tattoo has been televised in more than 30 countries. An annual television audience of 100 million watches the coverage worldwide.

The international flavour of the Tattoo has been deliberately developed as a key element in its capacity to entertain a huge, cosmopolitan audience.

The Tattoo's unique ability to bring together thousands of people for this annual celebration of music and entertainment continues and the public's appetite for pomp and ceremony shows no sign of diminishing.

The show was fantastic despite the rain, but we didn't notice that thanks to our ponchos! We arrived back at the hotel at about midnight after serving hot chocolate on the coach. I checked into my new room and was very pleasantly surprised to see that I had the suite!

Day 4

After a lie in and a very decent breakfast we set off for St Andrews, not a place I particularly like which has been voted number 7 in Britains top fifty crap towns! Here is an extract from Fife Today News on the subject:

The book names rowns 'from the dull and lifeless, to the ugly and depressing' - and St Andrews is number seven on the list!

'Crap Towns - The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK', is the brainchild of Sam Jordinson and Dan Kiernan, both journalists working for The Idler magazine. The idea for the guide came after they wrote pieces about towns they knew well and hated, then posted them on the magazine's website.

Inviting others to do the same, they received a deluge of complaints from irate citizens the length and breadth of the UK. St Andrews, which now suffers the ignominy of featuring on the 'Crap Map', was one of the places nominated most by the public on the website.

Described by a contributor as being home to "thousands of nauseating toffs", the student population came in for fierce criticism as the town's biggest headache.

"So absurd is the wealth of these students and so great is the clamour to meet Wills, that rents in the town have rocketed to Kensington levels thereby pricing out regular students and the long-suffering locals," says the guide.

It continues: "Having failed getting into Oxford or Cambridge, yet desperate to cling onto their bizzare public school sub-societies, they flock to St Andrews. Worse still are those who didn't go to public school and are now desperate to get in on all the body warmer/ ridiculous accents action."

Other than the university and the golf, St Andrews has little else to offer. There is the abbey ruins which is little more than a collection of stones and has an entrance fee. There is also the castle on the beach. This visit has never gone down badly with our customers but it is one I would like to see taken out of the itinery. There are so many other things we could be doing instead. While we were here today it poured with rain and few people ventured out of a cafe to see anything, which was a shame. We had a scenic drive and arrived at the hotel at 4:30pm.

We had a very uneventful evening and I went off to my room to have a long soak in the bath.

Day 5

Today we are heading home. Friday of Bank Holiday weekend and the first day of the Creamfields festival and I have the joy of travelling the whole length of the M6 and I'm expected to arrive on time so I hope my crystal ball is working!

Our first stop was at Moffat Woollen Mill where several people went for a walk into town for some Moffat Toffee and to see what was missing from the Moffat Ram.

In 1875 the businessman William Colvin decided to present a statue of a Blackface Ram and a fountain to Moffat. The sculptor was William Brodie R.S.A. 1815-1881. Brodie also sculpted "Greyfriars Bobby", another well-known Scottish animal sculpture which stands in Edinburgh. The Ram was cast by William Brodie without ears - 'it has nae lugs' - an omission that led to a strange myth that William Brodie committed suicide from shame. However, William Colvin did die in 1881 after an illness. The Ram has stood on its sandstone fountain ever since, an attraction to the town and a memory of agricultural success.

From here we pressed on down the motorway, stopped at a very nice garden centre for lunch, got delayed by 2 hours on the motorway, had the fastest ever 'splash and dash' at motorway services and rocked up 25 mins late. Oh well, can't be helped! Everyone's had a great time, I've enjoyed this tour and I hope it will be my tour again next year.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Dublin and Wicklow

It's been a few weeks since my last post and I am a little out of the habit of writing so I will apologise now if this is short and sweet! 

On Friday afternoon, I had a phone call from my office, asking if I could cover a tour to Ireland as the allocated driver had been signed off sick. I agreed and was on my way out on Sunday morning after a full days work on Saturday, which left me very little time for route planning! Luckily, it looked a straight forward tour from a driving point of view and my courier for the week would be Karen, who I get along swimmingly with!

Day 1

It was pouring with rain this morning and as our passengers were arriving on their feeder vehicles there was a lot of complaints about the weather. We were on the road by 7:30, heading for Holyhead for our ferry to Dublin. We had too much time to go straight to the port so I had planned to stop at Beaumaris for an hour, but because the weather was so wet this morning, I was trying to think of a plan B while driving up the M6. We had a brief stop at motorway services. Everyone was dashing about, trying to get undercover. Karen and I didn't get off the coach. While we were waiting there, a man came over and said, "I've got some passengers for you!" 
Karen replied, "we have enough of our own thank you, you can keep them!" 
He half laughed and said, "no but seriously, I have some passengers for you."
"No seriously, they are not ours!"
"I have the paperwork I'm to meet your company here, I'll fetch it!"
So he went off and came back with his paperwork where I had to point out that we were not the company he was waiting for! With that, the coach he wanted pulled in! We had all our passengers back and so were on our way again, still trying to come up with plan B!

I had a vague recollection of seeing signs for a factory outlet store from the A55 so I asked Karen to do a google search to see if she could find it. Bingo! We told the passengers we were taking them to Tweedmill Shopping Outlet and that neither Karen or I had been there so we didn't really know what we were throwing them into, but we guaranteed that it wouldn't be raining inside!

So we arrived and were very pleasantly surprised. The whole place was very clean and tidy. There was a good range of shopping. A very nice cafe with lots of seating. And always a bonus, the toilets were clean! Everyone enjoyed the short time here and appreciated not being out in the weather.

Our next stop would now be at the ferry terminal at Holyhead Port. We checked in and sailed on time. Considering it had been forecast that we would be getting the tail end of Hurricane Bertha today, we had a very smooth crossing. I had a cabin so managed a couple of hours kip! We arrived in Dublin on time and had just a short drive to our hotel for the next 4 nights, The Esplanade Hotel in Bray.

The hotel is in a very nice location on the southern end of the sea front and just a short walk from shops and pubs and the town centre. Check in went smoothly and our evening meal was adequate. I certainly didn't go hungry! It had been an easy day for me.

Day 2

This morning we have a free morning in Bray. Bray is known as the “Gateway to the Garden of Ireland”, due to its location in Northeast Wicklow, Ireland’s most scenic county. The town shares a boundary with County Dublin and enjoys easy access to Ireland’s capital city. Bray has something for everyone from its rich heritage and splendid scenery to excellent transport links, a vibrant arts scene, a bustling Main Street and thriving industry.

After having time for lunch we went out to Powerscourt House and Gardens, near Enniskerry. Lonely Planet and National Geographic had voted Powerscourt Gardens number 3 in the Worlds Top Ten Gardens.

Like many of these old estates, the entrance gate was ridiculously skinny and my mirrors only just squeezed through. We collected the tickets and everyone went off to enjoy the estate. 

The gardens at Powerscourt were laid out over two main periods. Many of the people involved in their creation and development never saw the gardens completed in their lifetime. When the house was rebuilt in the decade after 1731, the surrounding grounds were also remodelled. The design reflected the desire to create a garden which was part of the wider landscape. And what a view it is! To the North formal tree plantations framed the vista from the house, while a walled garden, fish pond, cascades, grottos and terraces lay to the South. Walks wound through the wooded grounds and a fine tree lined avenue was created. When you arrive at the tree lined avenue today, hundreds of beech trees will guide your visit.

Powerscourt house today offers the warmest of welcomes to visitors and some of the best views in Ireland, overlooking the breath-taking Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a wonderful place to relax and enjoy browsing range of bespoke stores or to indulge in a coffee and dessert in the famous Avoca Terrace CafĂ©.

We offered to run down to Powerscourt Waterfall, 6km away, for those who wanted. 
Powerscourt Waterfall is Ireland’s highest at 121m (398ft.). It is set in one of Ireland’s most beautiful parklands at the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. As you drive from the gatelodge towards the Waterfall you are surrounded by Beech, Oak, Larch and Pine trees some of which were planted over 200 years ago. 

I had called the visitor centre yesterday to check that the waterfall was accessible for coaches, which I was told it is. When we parked up at the gardens there was a local coach driver already there and he was asking where we were visiting. I mentioned we were going down to the waterfall and he said my coach wouldn't fit! He said he had only ever been there in a mini bus and it was tight in that! Then he rang his mate Paddy and asked his opinion, which was that I would fit but he wouldn't do it. It's very tight with a narrow gate and a very skinny bridge. Then we rang Seamus who said, yes no problem," I've done it with a full size coach and it's no problem!" I was then told not to believe what Seamus tells you so we rang Robbie! Robbie said you can, but I wouldn't! So now I was feeling a little worried about going there and was considering cancelling. It wasn't in our itinery, it was just a little added extra I was putting in and it wasn't something I wanted to risk damaging my coach for. Then a service bus pulled in so I went to ask that driver. He said you can and the waterfall will look magnificent with all the water from the recent rain they had, but I wouldn't! I was really undecided what to do about this. We had already offered it and I didn't really want to back out but I wasn't feeling happy about going. So we rang the visitor centre again. They said yes it's narrow, yes you need to drive slow but we do have coaches regularly and it is do able. So we went. I really don't know what all the fuss was about. Yes the entrance gate and the bridge is skinnier than skinny and it's a real squeeze through, but it's ok. I wouldn't worry about going there again. And when we saw the waterfall, it was definitely all worth it.

We took some photos and had an ice cream then went back to collect the rest of the group before heading back to Bray. Everyone had enjoyed their day and there had still been no sign of Bertha!

There was live music in the hotel tonight. Many of our group stayed to listen and it was a very enjoyable evening.

Day 3

This morning the group are travelling on the DART from Bray to Malahide with a guide, Felicity, which meant that I had a nice run, empty, up to meet the group at Malahide. I always enjoy driving empty, radio on, knocking out the tunes! It seems the guided train journey was a hit with the group. When they arrived in Malahide they were taken straight to Duffys Bar where we were booked in for a cream tea before having some free time in the town, while I had to repair the broken microphone where Karen had been too heavy handed with it!

Malahide is known to have become a persistent settlement from the coming of the Vikings, who landed in 795, and used Malahide Estuary (along with Baldoyle) as a convenient base. With the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the last Danish King of Dublin retired to the area in 1171. From the 1180s, the history of the area is tied to that of the Talbot family of Malahide Castle, who were granted extensive lands in the area and over the centuries following developed their estate, and the small harbour settlement.

In Malahide village there are extensive retail facilities and services including fashion boutiques, hair and beauty salons, florists, food outlets, and a small shopping centre. There is a wide selection of pubs (including Gibney's, Fowler's, Duffy's and Gilbert and Wright's) and restaurants and the 150-room Grand Hotel.

I collected the group and we had a brief visit to Malahide Castle. Malahide Castle, set on 250 acres of park land in the pretty seaside town of Malahide, was both a fortress and a private home for nearly 800 years and is an interesting mix of architectural styles.

The Talbot family lived here from 1185 to 1973, when the last Talbot died. The house is furnished with beautiful period furniture together with an extensive collection of Irish portrait paintings, mainly from the National Gallery.

The history of the Talbot family is recorded in the Great Hall, where portraits of generations of the family tell their own story of Ireland's stormy history. Many additions and alterations have been made to this romantic and beautiful structure, but the contours of the surrounding parklands have changed little in 800 years, retaining a sense of the past.

This visit wasn't on our itinery so we weren't booked in and couldn't go inside the castle without paying admission, which I was aware of, but we did have access to the gardens and grounds, the visitor centre and cafe and the few shops on site. It was a pleasant visit and just another bit of interest to add to the day. 

From here we went for a scenic drive out around the Howth Peninsula with a photo stop at 'the summit'. Typically, the cloud came down just as we started our drive and the views from the summit weren't that clear. The group seemed to appreciate it though. 

The hotel had prepared a quiz for tonight's entertainment but Karen had to be the quizmaster! We were both surprised when 24 people turned up for it! We had some fun doing it and taking the mickey out of Karens pronunciations! Gazpacho soup had been pronounced 'Gestapo!'

Day 4

Today's excursion was a day in Dublin. We were booked on a Liffey River Cruise for a 1 hr round trip leaving from the Jeannie Johnson Famine Ship. I couldn't park at the jetty so couldn't go on the boat. The group were saying they'd enjoyed it and the commentary had been good.

Then we'd arranged for a blue badge guide to join us on the coach and take us around the city. Helen was very good, if a little rough around the edges, and had a great sense of humour. First, she took us around Georgian Dublin and we had a quick photo stop at St. Patricks Cathedral.

Then we went to Phoenix Park where we had a half an hour comfort stop at the visitor centre before continuing on our tour, taking in the Flusie in the Jacuzzi and finishing with O'Connell Street, the Monument of Light and the GPO before dropping the group on Nassau Street for a couple of hours free time. I think we have succeeded in giving a good insight into the city.

After dinner, Karen was feeling she needed some time out so we went to a pub up the road for half an hour. We were just heading back to the hotel for tonight's live music when we bumped into some of our group who said the music was dreary and did we want to join them at the pub, so we did.

Day 5

We had a little more free time in Bray this morning before it was time to leave for our ferry home. Our hotel had been ok, not exceptional but nothing to really complain about. We checked all bills had been payed and left for Dun Laoghaire. We had only driven around the corner when I realised I had left my phone in my room! We looped back round to the hotel to pick it up but because of one way streets and low bridges it didn't just take a few minutes! So 20 minutes later we were leaving the hotel for the second time! We checked in and had a pleasant crossing, then were homeward bound with the pedal to the metal.

It has been a successful tour and as always I have enjoyed and had a lot of fun working with Karen. I'm looking forward to coming back to Ireland next month.