Keeping weird in Austin, Day 1

Keep Austin Weird.

Hey, Austin. Isn’t that Portland’s line?

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If you thought that, like I did, you’d be incorrect. So much for Portland being the hip, trendsetting city it touts itself as. Turns out Austin was there first. Portland is a copy cat.

I had my doubts about Austin, Texas. Yes, they have all sorts of live music. Some fantastic acts have come out of the capital city. If you haven’t heard of the music and tech festival South By Southwest, you’ve likely either been living under a rock or are living in another country. I won’t go in to any of that because all I know about SXSW is what I hear on public radio whilst it’s happening. Instead, I chose to go to Austin during the Reggae Festival.

Ya mon.

One of my BFFs (yes, I have sooo many) was in town for work, all the way from London, and I, being the globe-trotting travel junkie that I am, promptly flew out for a girlie weekend in the so-called Live Music Capital of the World. Having just moved house I needed the break. So swiftly into the sky via Southwest I went, an easy 2.5 hr flight from LAX.

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I love their new logo, of which I was up close and personal with having lucked out at a front row center seat.

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My trip was pretty eventful as I had a leisurely chat with the woman seated directly to my left. As it happens, when you fly from Los Angeles, you might find yourself sitting next to celebrities or personalities. I was sat next to the fabulous Kari Wuhrer, star of many B-movies and my personal favourite sci-fi show: Sliders. Oh, and of course don’t forget Beverly Hills 90210. I only wish I’d recognized her sooner, as I’d have definitely told her what an honor it was to be sat next to her, chatting about the industry and projects etc. She even introduced herself (first name only) and my brain still didn’t put two and two together.

If you are reading this, Ms Wuhrer, have fun in Austin!

Upon arrival, a taxi spirited me straight to the W Austin, located next door to the famed Austin City Limits. (If you don’t know it and love music, look it up.) On the eighth floor, we had quite a view of the Lady Bird Lake and the green beyond:

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But enough about the views. It was time to do what any self respecting girlfriends do on a weekend of girliness: we went shopping.

Off to the SoCo neighborhood, a little shopping district walking distance from downtown on South Congress Street. We popped our heads into a few boutiques and filled our suitcases with wares from the independent shops that line this vibrant street. I dug the signs, their age turning them into retro chic.

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We popped into Heritage Boot and my cohort purchased some beautiful handmade cowboy boots in red whilst I tried on and lusted after these deer skin, $600 beauties:

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My wallet not allowing such an extravagant purchase (it whispered to me something about airline tickets), we moved on instead to the shop next door: Blackmail, which was so up my street with its dark vibe and rock influences, clothing with a nod to All Saints and a few original pieces by its designer. I myself steered toward the more inexpensive pieces. If you aren’t sure that cowboy boots are your thing, stop in to Blackmail Boutique instead.

After a bite to eat and glass of wine we powered back to the hotel for some late afternoon sun bathing. The W Hotel Austin is kinda awesome for that sort of thing. I’ve never been much of a poolside holiday type of girl. Let me tell you, I am now.

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I spied Pimm’s behind the bar, and bless the little Texan bartender if he didn’t have any idea what to do with it. He made a pretty good drink out of lemonade, soda water and a strawberry. Not exactly a Pimm’s Cup, but who’s complaining?

Cheers:

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When in Texas, you must have some of the local cuisine, aptly named Tex Mex. Keen to keep with the walking tradition, our group headed to Michelada’s (where, yes, I did have a Michelada – basically a bloody mary with beer in it. F’ing yum.) on our way to Rainey Street.

Rainey Street was once a residential street filled with big old houses with front porches and even larger back gardens. During some development snafu, these houses being slated for much bigger things, bar and restaurant owners moved in and turned the street into an eating and drinking paradise. We visited Lustre Pearl, which was the bar that started it all (so says its website). Upon entering, it felt like a cross between a shabby frat house, cleaned up crack house where they left all the original features and college house party in someone’s parent’s back yard. It was a hoot:

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From the trees hung mason jars with little lights in them, and as you can see from the photo, the vibe ranged from sweatshirts to button downs. Everyone was welcome and seemed relaxed. Great place to grab a can of Shiner Bock and pull up a pew on a picnic table. Good vibe overall.

And once you’ve realized just how tired you are after a long day of travel, shopping and pool hopping, the very best way to get back to your hotel after you’ve enjoyed a drink on Rainey Street is via pedicab.

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These guys and gals have no fear. Weaving in and out of traffic, it’s almost an amusement park ride. I don’t usually condone bicycles plowing through traffic lights or riding into oncoming traffic, however within seconds we were back at the hotel having seen more of the city than we would have on foot (like the metro and dedicated, separate bike lanes! Come on, Los Angeles!). And besides, it meant I no longer had to walk in my heels and we even had a wee blanket to cover us. Lovely.

To recap. Austin is not at all what I thought it was. It’s not just some landlocked city with lots of students and some live music to boot. It’s a forward thinking mecca of innovation. With a river. And trees. In Texas.

Who knew?

(no offense intended)

Keep an eye out for my next update where me and my friend explore more of Austin – even more than our concierge knew existed. Who’s trendsetting now?!

After a Shropshire wedding on New Year’s Day

It’s too late to say Happy New Year. And it’s probably too late to show off the photos I took the day after my wonderful sister-in-law’s wedding deep in the Shropshire countryside at the stunning Ellesmere College.

For those of you not versed in English English, college is not always what you think it is. It has many definitions, for example it could be a section of a well known institution of higher learning, like Oxford or Cambridge. It could also be a place that one goes to learn a trade, like a vocational college. In most cases, however, it’s basically high school. So as an American, if you tell someone who is not versed in American English that your highest education was from a college, well they may think you just went straight from high school into your career. University, or “Uni”, is the common term for further education degree program.

Back to Ellesmere. About 35 minutes through narrow and fast moving roads you’ll find the imposing college campus set amongst rolling green hills. It was founded as a boys only boarding school in 1884, eventually admitting girls in the 1970s. Everyone kept going on about how the building was out of Harry Potter. And I have to say, they aren’t wrong. Sure, it’s not a Scottish castle up on a stony crag. But it does have its gothic influences, and its large hall could very well be imagined to have floating candelabra under its roof.

And on New Year’s Day the family all banded together to tidy up after the wedding and party of the year. Of which I was able to take a few snaps in between trips to the car.

Starting, of course, in the lovely town of Shrewsbury.

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Let’s talk about Shrewsbury for one brief moment. This is a market town full of contradictions. And by that I mean of how the name of the town is pronounced. There are two schools of thought, possibly depending on what side of the River Severn you live. Our taxi driver back from Ellesmere told us that Shrewsbury is pronounced how it looks. Shrews-bury. I have found absolutely no evidence that this town was named for its over abundance of the eponymous mole like mammal. However why it also has a pronunciation of Shrows-bury I will not ever know. Apparently the posh pronounce it the latter, and the more common folk say “shrew”. This will be an argument that might never be settled.

The above photograph is taken from the Lion + Pheasant Hotel, a lovely old building with creaky, original floorboards with little sound proofing (we came in from the wedding at about 1:45am and the NYE party was in full, drunken swing downstairs. Directly downstairs from our room. If I had any more energy I’d have been down with them, reveling away. But instead I waited out the thump thump thump in the comfy bed and eventually fell asleep, dreaming of a bloody mary with my cooked breakfast). The street is called Wyle Cop, and it is a very historic street. Look, someone even posted an image of a painting by Louise Raynor of Wyle Cop on wikipedia. How handy:

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I wonder if that building on the right is what is now the car park in my photo above? I think so, because when you look at this little pano I took from the window of our hotel, you can see the spire in the distance. What you don’t see is that the building next to the modern, brick car park is a beautiful old tudor style building, very common to the area.

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And to look right you can see the bridge over the River Severn. And another stunning blue sky, the first in a long time. The Severn had completely flooded its banks due to the deluge of rain. Good thing we were in a hired SUV. Flooding? What flooding?

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And back to Ellesmere we went, dustpan and broom in hand. And camera:

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Much mirth was had as after midnight on NYE, this very organ played Jerusalem to the party goers. Everyone sang, raising a glass and toasting their homeland. Well, most of us sang. I actually don’t know all the words, so I just sang this bit:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And then I just hummed a bit until this part:

Till we have built jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Speaking of, here’s the view from the front of the college.

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It’s not the best of panos, as you can see I lost some of that crazy blue sky. But if you can imagine that behind me is this:

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Well, you have quite the imposing U-shaped school.

Before we left, we raided the kitchen for a post clean up snack. I marveled at the little signs telling the students what not to do. An amused relative cracked about how American I was to take photos of such things. Hey, I call it art.

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American mustard. I just thought it was yellow. Do you think this is how the Chinese feel about Chinese food?

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No snacks for Walt, no matter how hard he begged:

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“Blech: coffee,” scoffs Walt.

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“Oh but I do love marmite.”

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“Please?”

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Upon leaving Ellesmere, our SUV packed to the gills with presents and decorations to be dropped off in Birmingham, we were dying for a coffee to warm up our chilled fingers. So a stop in to the nearest Welcome Break it was:

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A Starbucks is a Starbucks, no mater where you are in the world. Be it LA or just outside Telford.

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Speaking of Telford, I am a bit gutted that our time there was so limited, as this area is rich with history. Telford is the location of the Ironbridge Gorge, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just mere miles away is this beauty (credit to Jason J Smith via Wikipedia):

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And so we didn’t have time to visit it, or nearby Wales, of which the border was only 9 miles away from our hotel in Shrewsbury. But we did have time to visit this little educational hotspot at the Welcome Break car park:

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What could this be?

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Upon closer inspection we discovered…

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Ah yes, a steam hammer. Of course! For use in building the Ironbridge itself.

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But instead of exploring the Shropshire countryside and its Iron history. We instead turned back to our car, the trusty white Qashqai, to get us to Birmingham to unload our heavy, post wedding burdens, egg nog lattes in hand.

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And a sunset in our wake:

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Spring is here. But for some of us it’s still wearing a winter coat.

A few days ago this time last year, I marveled at the glorious sunshine and high temps that baked London’s streets, sending each and every able bodied Londoner to the nearest patch of outdoor space, grass or bare step at any availability to grab every ounce of vitamin D they could. I went for a walk, as I am known to do, down Regent’s Canal through Camden, taking photographs of yellow daffodils reaching for the bright blue skies. Read all about my exploits here in my post titled Spring is Dead. Long live the Spring! or March is the new July.

This year I am over 6,000 miles away in a whole different weather pattern. And they aren’t wrong, whoever they are. Living on the westside has its temperature perks. When it is unbearably hot in the Valley, with temps at 90f+ (30c+), it’s in the 70s (20s) over this side of the hill, cooled by the ocean breeze. The flipside of the ocean breeze is the ocean itself. It brings with it fog, what we call the marine layer, that sits on us all morning, sometimes all day. Whilst the rest of the city is bright eyed and tee-shirts, we are long sleeves and cardigans. Compared to the current winter weather that’s gripped the UK and Europe, I’m happy for a bit of overcast. I’m satisfied with cardigans. I definitely prefer it to the Valley’s high temps and requisite sunburns.

In a salute to weather passed, here’s a walk I took with the DH (dear husband, as a reminder to you readers) on the Regent’s Canal heading east – a direction I’d not ever been before. It wasn’t exactly margarita weather, mind, but we were able to start off the sunny Sunday at the pub. We were wearing jackets as the temps were a little more normal March/April with clouds that threatened to open on us as the day went on. And in order to truly participate in the UK’s national pastime (complaining about the weather) one has to get out in it and experience just how very diverse it is.

And you may get lucky with a day dry enough to wander around with a camera. Of course, I’m sure most Londoners would just prefer it warm enough.

Since the sun was out and a beer garden so tempting, we stopped at the Lion & Unicorn Pub in Kentish Town on the way.

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An empty pub and a blue, sunny sky. We were tempted to stop here for the day but instead kept going. We had a canal to explore!

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So we walked from Kentish in to Camden Town, down Kentish Town Road.  At the railway bridge we could not be more certain about our location.

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And instead of turning right toward the big money of Primrose Hill, we went left towards the hipster edginess of Hackney.

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The above building looks like a Victorian Pump House, another reason to love this city, because here this beautiful building sits amongst broken down boats and a rail line. The section of canal just east of Camden goes through the construction site known as King’s Cross. At present there are major works going down all around the prolific railway station, including refurbing university buildings for Central St Martin’s, a prolific art school, that is already housed on site. Soon one can actually enjoy the walk through this area to the fullest. I thought I’d save the photos until then. Here’s a website for the development itself so you can see the scale of what they are doing to this once rough part of London.

One thing we didn’t actually realize, though we both knew considering I’d even been in the tunnel itself, was that the canal actually goes under Islington fairly soon after you leave Camden, meaning as pedestrians we had to find our way through the streets of well to do neighborhoods Islington and Angel to get back to the canal. Upon making our way back to the canal, the first thing we stumbled upon was another lock.

City Road Lock, as it’s known, is just a bit east of the Islington Tunnel, constructed sometime around 1812.

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Even with the hipster graffiti, it’s looking pretty old for a 100 year old lock.

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This area is full of contrasts – like the new, designed buildings next to old industrial warehouses, likely soon to be expensive flats.

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And like any day with a bit of sun, the locals have come out of doors to find their patch, ideally with a pint in hand. This might be what I miss most about the UK, and especially London: getting outside and socialising with friends with a few cans or a bottle of wine. I have fond memories of sitting along the Thames in Chiswick with a can of Fosters (yes, I said Fosters, get over it), surrounded by happy people and their picnics. Completely legal, drinking out of doors. Tourist tip: don’t go doing it on the tube or trains as that’s a no no.

This is where our canal journey ended – as building work along the canal meant we had to take a detour through the De Beauvoir Estate. And although there are a lot of buildings that look like this:

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There are all these modern new builds along the canal that can only mean one thing: gentrification of the area is going to make the above eventually go away or be converted. Give it 20 years, maybe.

Doesn’t mean we can’t take some artsy black and white photography before that happens.

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Like the above, a new build with lovely glass balconies. And in front of the construction, an old woman in ragged clothes smoking a cigarette. It won’t be long until she won’t have a place to sit anymore.

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Yet, as it so happens, Hertford Road changes again. This area, De Beauvoir Town, was once meant to be residences for the upper classes in the 1820s when the area was purchased from some De Beauvoir chap. However, delays to building due to supposed illegal acquisition of some sort (likely to do with paying off planners for a speedy approval) meant that the upper class folk who were going to move in here instead moved to the west end. What story would Hackney have written for itself if De Beauvoir Town had achieved its upper class desires? An east end Mayfair? And has it taken this long, this almost 200 years, for this part of Hackney to reclaim its crown?

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Even if its past was pillaged from it, Hackney keeps on.

Okay okay, I don’t need to hear the groans. I thought that was a pretty good bit of wordplay, if I do say so myself. Pirate. Pillage. Whatever.

Our walk ended at Haggerston Overground station, just a couple streets over on Kingsland Road. The weather had started to become bleak, the sky threatening to open up on us and the wind picking up to warn of the coming storm. Not 30 minutes later we were safe as houses back in our flat, even though deep down we both wanted to go back down to the pub to eek out as much of the day as we could.

So, who wants to talk about the weather?