Tag Archives: 2017

Four Days, Four Counties, Four National Trust Properties

In what is becoming an annual tradition we have once again, having seen off family and friends, got out and about to make the most of our National Trust membership. Last year we did five National Trust properties over an eight day period and the year before five visits over five counties in seven days. For reasons that I can’t quite work out we didn’t have quite so much time this year.

Once again I have included the price for the two of us had we not had annual membership.

The Vyne, Hampshire
There’s not much to see of the house at the Vyne at present as the roof is undergoing extensive renovation work. It isn’t long since we last visited and were able to go up and inspect the work and I had hoped to go up once again and see the progress but, alas, the last trip goes up at 14:30 and we arrived at 14:31. Grr! We had to make do with a muddy walk around the woods instead.
Friday 29th December

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
A new entry, at least for our post-Christmas challenge. Cliveden is probably best know as the home of the Astors and the location for the Profumo affair which gave rise to the very famous picture of Christine Keeler, naked, looking over the back of a chair.

Now the ugly house has been turned into a posh hotel and the beautiful grounds turned over to the National Trust for the hoi polloi to roam.
Saturday 30th December

Osterley Park, Middlesex
Osterley Park must win the prize for the noisiest National Trust property that we have been to. It is bordered by the M4 on one side and the A4 (Great West Road) on the other. Add to this that it is right under the Heathrow flight path and you get an idea of just how much noise pollution there is. Nevertheless it is a pleasant walk.
Sunday 31st December

Grey’s Court, Oxfordshire
A very muddy end to our visits today but at least it was close to home.

We had intended to also go on to Nuffield Place but, unfortunately, it was closed today so that put an end to that.
Monday 1st January

Checking the National Trust website I can see that an annual joint membership is £108 a year. The total saved this year when visiting the four properties was £91 so one more trip around one of them and we will have made our membership back.

USA ’17 – The Video

This has been a while coming but finally I have managed to stitch together all the footage from the dashboard camera we took with us to the US (you can read more about the £20 camera here).

Every day that we were in the car we took a short bit of footage to give an idea of what the local scenery was like that day. I have now edited that down into the short video below. I think that this gives a good idea of the huge differences in landscape we experienced over the three weeks we were in the States. In fact, as you will see, there can be great differences even within the space of a few hours. Enjoy!

USA ’17 – Day 19 – LA, Full Circle

And so we reach the end of the road leaving San Diego this morning to head back to Los Angeles where we started almost three weeks ago.

We had intended to spend today out on a boat in the San Diego bay whale and dolphin watching but we didn’t seem to be able to find a boat to take us out so we elected to go shopping instead 😉

We know from previous visits to the States that there are a number of shopping villages dotted around called Premium Outlets that have a variety of shops and so we headed to one of these half way to LA. As they are outlets they are selling brands (such Gap, Polo RL, Tommy Hilfiger etc) at good discounts. So I was able to purchase yet another pair of Converse at 50% off bringing them under the £20 mark. Not as cheap as it would have been pre-Brexit vote but still good.

We also lunched at the outlet having a slice of pizza which would have easily fed a family of four for a week. This was accompanied by what can only be described as a bucket full of Sierra Mist (a poor excuse for a Sprite). Everything in the States is supersized and nowhere is that more obvious than in the food portions. It will be good to get back to the UK where we can control our intake a bit better.

Finally we made our way back to LA. One thing that we have relied on while we have been here is Google Maps navigation to get us from one place to another. It has been scarily accurate in showing where holdups and congestion are likely to be, although to be fair we have encountered very little of that.

Google Maps showing it’s impressive skills

In LA we took one final walk along Hollywood Boulevard as far as the Chinese Theatre and enjoyed once again the delights of Ghirardelli. As you enter the shop you are always offered a free chocolate square and Helen has calculated that over the course of the three weeks we have consumed 14 of these things. I am now thoroughly sick of spiced pumpkin though which is everywhere thanks to it being Halloween soon.

They may be free but they are also deadly

Tomorrow there is only time to pack up and fly home.

USA ’17 – Day 18 – San Diego

For the most part we have stayed in hotels on this trip but our two nights in Joshua Tree have been a bit different as we have been in a B&B. It’s funny that we paid far more in some hotels than we have at the Desert Lily yet the place has been far nicer than most and there was a fantastic breakfast included.

The Desert Lily B&B, Joshua Tree

The other thing with a hotel is that you can avoid all the other guests and be as anti-social as you like. At this B&B at any rate that is not possible as we all sat down to breakfast together and, last night, also sat chatting around a wood fire.

There were two other couples apart from ourselves – one from Bristol, UK and the other from New York City. The conversations that we had proved fascinating especially when we got to discussing politics with the Americans who were openly Republicans but admitted to voting for Hilary Clinton to avoid the Trump issue.

The time at the Desert Lily was just perfect from the room to the breakfast, to the other guests, the brilliantly star filled night skies and, of course, the national park itself. However, we needed to move on and this morning we drove across to San Diego.

The city was described to us by the couple from NYC to be ‘generic’ and I think that’s a good description for it. The place is clean and tidy with a nice breach front area but nothing really marks the place out as being that different although there aren’t many that have huge aircraft carriers in the bay.

Tonight we are off out to one of our favourite restaurants providing we can pull together some clothes that are suitable and clean enough!

USA ’17 – Day 17 – Joshua Tree National Park

OK, so I am running out of superlatives now.

I said yesterday that it was sad now that we have done all the “big ticket” items and we have really. Nobody is going to put Joshua Tree National Park above the Grand Canyon or Yosemite but they should and you really really should. It is a real gem.

We spent all day in the park today and it is the most amazing place. Better even than the Grand Canyon and that was pretty spectacular. Partly that is because, I suspect, that all we had time for at the canyon was to stand at the rim and look down. At Joshua Tree you are in it with it all around you and although it is pretty small in area there is so much diverse scenery to see and be part of.

Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

As we walked around the many trails and was wowed once more I did feel a little like a vandal through. This place has stood untouched for millions of years and now we are trampling over it and wearing it down at a faster rate than ever before.

Nevertheless, trample we did as we went to Hidden valley, Skull rock, Face rock, Split rock, Arch rock, Cholla cactus garden and Barker dam.

The cactus garden is a great example of the diversity of the area. It is an area of about five acres in which nothing but Cholla cacti grow and they are found nowhere else in the park. Very peculiar.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

By the end of what was a pretty full on day we came back to Joshua Tree the town where we found an Indian restaurant and had a taste of home before returning to the B&B.

Now I am sitting outside our room and there is zero noise or light pollution and if I look up it is so dark that you can see not only many stars but the milky way too.

This is definitely somewhere I would want to come back to again.

USA ’17 – Day 16 – On the Road to Joshua Tree

Today was probably the longest drive of the whole holiday travelling from Williams, Arizona to Joshua Tree, California. Helen and I both realised that even though we still have five-ish days of the holiday left with the Grand Canyon out the way all the “big ticket” destinations are now done (with apologies to the Joshua Tree National Park and San Diego!) which is sad.

The route took as through the Mojave Desert which had long, long straight roads with flat sandy desert either side. Pretty much like the above really. Not the most exciting scenery we have been through on our travels.

The views from our overnight stop though were fantastic, even if it did require some off-roading to reach. The Desert Lily is just at the edge of the Joshua Tree national park and is reached via an unmade road to a beautiful B&B in the quietest location I think we have ever been. I’m currently sat outside in the shade typing this and it really is idyllic (and hot – 30 degrees).


As I have some free time let’s talk about tipping. Whenever you read anything about eating out in the US tipping always comes up and it does seem to be a big deal. That is because tipped workers are paid less than the minimum wage in the expectation that the difference will be made up through tips. I personally think that is outrageous. Basically it is an excuse to pay workers less.

So you are expected to tip heavily. If you tip 10% (which would be usual in the UK) this is considered that you haven’t enjoyed your meal or service in some way. 15-20% is considered the norm.

I don’t mind tipping but my reason for giving a tip is for good or exceptional service not just for doing the job but that seems to be the case here. I remember the service being great in Florida but here on the West Coast it hovers somewhere between ordinary and mediocre. That is apart from the woman at breakfast this morning who I wanted to tell “look you are getting a tip can you please turn off the smile? It’s 8am for goodness sake!”

Where tipping gets really silly is places like Applebees (a mistake going in there I know) where we ordered through a machine on the table and also paid this way. We only ever saw our server once when they brought our food to the table but I was still expected to tip even though I had done all the work!

And while we’re at it the process is incredibly insecure too. First you get the bill which you check over and find that, of course, there are two flavours of tax added. In San Francisco along local taxes (7.25%) there was also an additional 4.9% “in part to help offset the cost of Government mandated expenses”.

You leave your credit card and THEN THEY COME AND TAKE IT AWAY!!! Have they never seen The Real Hustle?

Having no doubt cloned my card and taken the money off it is returned to me (no chip & pin required here, nor a signature check for that matter). I am now also given multiple bits of paper and a pen onto which I can add a tip. This is then returned and at some unspecified later date the additional amount is also taken from your card.

What a complete and utter pain in the arse. It’s a wonder anyone leaves anything.

USA ’17 – Day 15 – Grand Canyon

Another stop at a national park today but for once we weren’t driving but arriving by train.

Last night we stayed in a town called Williams which happens to also be the starting point for the Grand Canyon Railway. Originally built to transport goods to and from the south rim of the canyon it now fulfills the same but for tourists.

We arrived at the station in time to see a fun wild west show before boarding the train. The amount of leg room available in our carriage was impressive when you are used to GWR as was the pastries provided.

The view out of the window was pretty flat and uninteresting but fortunately there was plenty going on in the carriage to fill the two hour journey including a singer/guitarist and our host Starlie (I sometimes think that there is merit in the old French rule limiting the names you could select for your child).

When you arrive at the station you wouldn’t know you were at the Grand Canyon. You then walk up a set of steps and suddenly you are on the edge of the canyon. And wow what a sight it is!

Like Yosemite nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of the canyon. It is very deep and very wide. No, not that very deep and very wide but even bigger than that! And again the pictures really don’t do it justice and even on a wide angle you cannot capture the whole thing in a single shot.

We had just over three hours at the canyon before the return train so we took one of the free shuttle busses to a point a few miles along the rim and walked back from there. We took pictures every few yards so have captured the place from every single angle.

One thing that was surprising was that given the perceived view of litigation culture here that there was no guard rail between the path and a one mile drop to the bottom of the canyon. Helen stood well away from the edge… The walk back was slow as we made regular stops to admire the view and take more pictures.

It really is amazing just how much damage a little water can do. The Colorado river that created the canyon did so over a relatively short five million years (unless you are a creationist in which case it was done last month). I was left wondering where all the material that it removed ended up. The Colorado feeds out into the Pacific somewhere so it must be piled up there I guess.

I was thrilled that the engine on the return trip was steam. It was great looking out the window as the engine made a turn ahead of us and I could see the smoke filling the air. We were lucky as they only run the stream trains on the first Saturday of the month which happily coincided with our trip. All in all a fantastic day.

USA ’17 – Day 14 – Las Vegas, Hoover Dam & Williams, Arizona

There was one thing left that I had on my todo list before we left Las Vegas and that was to go to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. We drove along the strip until we got to half a mile from the it when everything ground to a halt – everyone wanted to stop and see the sign it seems.

Eventually we were able to park up and walk to the sign. It was newer than I expected and so I suspect that it has been renewed fairly recently. It was also quite busy and there were a couple of news crews there too. This turned out to be as a temporary memorial to the recent shooting had been erected there. I have to say that you could have spent all your time in Vegas and not been aware of the tragedy at all. Business as usual it seems.

The sign done we left Las Vegas and made our way to our next overnight stop in Williams, Arizona. This we did via the Hoover Dam another oversized American monument. It really is huge but the most interesting thing is just how low the water is in the dam. You can clearly see how high the water can reach in the picture below.

Ever since we have been in the States there has been talk of a drought here but no sign whatsoever of anyone taking any positive action. There has been plenty of sprinklers, fields being watered and, in LA, the pavements being cleaned. The water level in the dam suggests that they do need to take some positive action but, as we were told in LA – the Californians like their water.

Despite the level of the water being low I am still impressed that anyone could have swam across it. How did they get down to the water for a start.

Tomorrow we ride this beauty to the Grand Canyon!

USA ’17 – Day 13 – Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas is nuts, there is no getting away from that fact, but it is also tremendous fun. This is my second time here and I feel the same as I did the first time – this is an adults equivalent of Disneyland.

We arrived yesterday afternoon and spent some time trying to orient ourselves in our hotel – Caesars Palace. These places are huge, Caesars apparently has 4,000 rooms, and so making your way from one area to another takes forever. We got lost a couple of times and had to ask for directions!

When it comes to entertainment there is one big hitter in town – Cirque du Soleil. They have seven different shows playing and last night we went to see ‘O’ at Bellagio, what I consider to be the classiest of all the hotels on the Strip.

Like most things in America the theatre and the show were huge. Many times larger than the London theatres I have been in and not just the seating area but the stage itself too. This one went back and up seemingly forever.

‘O’ is water based and so the stage is a giant swimming pool where they can raise and lower the floor during the performance turning it back into a traditional stage. I have no idea just how deep it was but part of the act was to have Olympic high divers diving into the pool from unfathomable heights. The other amazing trick performed was where performers dived into the pool never to resurface!

All Cirque shows are the same formula – a series of circus acts with ‘distraction’ acts inbetween while the next big set piece is set-up. However, all the acts have a real wow factor and you are left wondering either how they do it or in some cases why! If you have never been to one I urge you to go.

Today we have spent the day walking up and down the strip looking into all the hotels and the gaudy treats that are on offer. We went to see the galleons outside of Treasure Island, the wonders of Venice at The Venetian, Paris, New York and many more besides. The further you go along the Strip the tackier it gets.

The level of detail that goes into these places is amazing. The shops that are part of the Venetian are just like walking through the streets of Venice. This includes a canal complete with gondolas that you can take a ride on and a copy of St. Mark’s Square. The ceilings are painted with clouds and it really is like being part of the a Venetian version of the Truman Show!

Oh, we also went on the slot machines, which will please the owner of Caesars Palace no doubt. I have to say that it was all too complicated for us and we quickly moved on as we shall tomorrow.

USA ’17 – Day 12 – Death Valley, Badwater Basin & Red Rock Canyon

We had a relatively short drive today from Stovepipe Wells in the Death Valley National Park through to Las Vegas but we had plenty of interesting stops on the way.

The first stop, at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, was only a short distance from our overnight hotel but was so unexpectedly different from all the surrounding landscape. It was a proper desert with shifting sand dunes in amongst the more arid and rough landscape of the rest of Death Valley.

Visiting the sand dunes had been an unexpected surprise but our next stop, Badwater Basin, was planned. At 282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. It was interesting in a flat, salty, kind of place.

Once again the drive brought changing landscapes as we moved closer to Las Vegas. There was one final stop today that we made to the Red Rock Canyon, somewhere I had been about 12 years ago and was keen to revisit.

The canyon is about half an hour outside of Vegas but I’m not sure that many make it there but it is a fascinating place. As you can see from the pictures it is not just that the rods are red but there are layers of coloured rock making it seem like large dollops of sweets.

Today’s post is a but rushed as we are now in the adult Disneyland that is Vegas and we are out to see a show. More tomorrow.

Death Valley Pictures

Red Rock Canyon Pictures