The Santa Special Steam Train

Yes, Christmas is long behind us, but I can’t not blog about the fun we had on the Worth Valley Railway’s Santa Special steam train. In the autumn, we had talked about looking into a Santa train ride, but it slipped my mind a few times. Then, my parents booked their flights to be here for two weeks in December, and we thought about how fun it would be to do this train ride with all four of the grandparents. I booked in October and they were only able to get all 7 of us on the 3:55 train out of Oxenhope. (If you are interested in this for Christmas 2015, I would definitely try to book in September when the tickets first become available. That’s our plan this year!)

At first, when I saw the nearly £17 (roughly $25) ticket cost for adults, I thought we should maybe give it a miss. But, that is because I thought the 10-mile journey with stops in Keighley and Haworth would be on a train similar to the commuter trains with the TransPennine Express. Oh, how wrong I was! This gave Richard a good laugh and he set me straight by explaining that this was actually a proper old-fashioned steam train, I became extremely excited. Honestly, I could not wait for the 13th of December!

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We arrived at Oxenhope station and it felt so Christmas-y — from the old-fashioned gas-lit lamps lining the platform to the ‘Winter Wonderland’ they had set up in the railway museum. Of course the moment we had to step outside to wait for the train, the rain started, so we kept the little lady covered as best we could and the rest of us anxiously awaited the train’s arrival with the hope of warmth once aboard.

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It was so neat to see the proper steam engine pull into the station (because of the rain I didn’t catch a clear photo of the engine), and it felt as if we had been transported back in time. We boarded our carriage and found our seats then were greeted by the jolliest woman who made sure we were comfortable and ready for a good time. I loved that the carriages had the original seats, upholstery, and luggage racks. Those details along with the Christmas decor really added to the festive nature of the train ride.

Soon, we were on our way and prepped for what was to come – a visit from Rudolph, Scrooge, and Santa and his elves. Well aware that we had a one-year old with us, the hostess on our carriage was kind enough to let us know there would be loud singing once Scrooge arrived as we needed to scare him off with our Christmas cheer in the form of Christmas carols. We would quite certain it wouldn’t bother our girl, but it was nice of her to forewarn us just in case. As we suspected, she was completely fine with the additional noise plus she loves music, so I think she enjoyed watching us sing along.

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I can’t remember at exactly what point they came through the carriages with mince pies and sherry for the adults, but that was a big hit with our parents…particularly our mothers who seemed to let that sherry go right to their heads! Hilarious. Our little lady surprisingly loved the mince pie. They do have a very specific (and almost spicy) taste to them, but she finished one on her own!

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Soon enough, Santa came through the carriage with an entourage of elves. It was a pretty impressive operation to ensure that each child received a gift appropriate to their age. Our girl got a great gift set that came with a book about an eskimo and a stuffed penguin like the one in the book. She LOVED the penguin!

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We were so happy with the entire train journey and our sweet girl seemed to enjoy it, especially the food part of it! We’re definitely planning to make this an annual tradition and look forward to making more memories on the Santa Special steam train in years to come!

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To the dungeon….

Yesterday, I took the train to York to visit The York Dungeon. I’ve walked past The London Dungeon before, but even after a few visits to York, I did not know there was a similar experience there. Truthfully, I also had no idea what these dungeon experiences were even about, but now I know!

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When I arrived, I was greeted outside of the entrance by the Ringmaster of Carnivále, which is the current sideshow at The York Dungeon that runs until the 1st September. Before the tour begins, I had my photo taken holding a board declaring the crime I was convicted of (‘Being a Witch’) and another of me looking shocked. In the second photo, they make it out to seem you are looking at a body during an autopsy and you are not aware of that until you see your photos at the end of the tour. (You can purchase these photos in the gift shop.) Well, I looked like I was busting a move above the body – hilarious!

As my group waited for our tour to begin, we sat in a corridor to make us feel like we were in Clifford’s Tower listening to the talking head of Robert Aske, a Yorkshire lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. He gave an introduction to the dungeon tour and warned us about Henry VIII. It’s quite cool as the ‘talking heads’ are images of the faces of actual actors that are projected on a faceless mannequin.

We were then introduced to a former washer of robes at St Mary’s Abbey in 1541. He lost his job when Henry VIII took over all of the churches. The man was attempting to pillage the room of its valuables before Henry VIII and his men caught us. This first show started off with a scream as the man came flying into the corridor, so I think most of us were on edge for a good portion of the 80ish-minute tour. I’m not a big fan of scary movies or haunted houses, so the prospect of something jumping out at me was slightly unnerving. This did definitely add to the atmosphere of the dungeon. I found some of us never wanted to be the first to enter a room or the last to leave a room. It was during these times when I wished I was there with a friend or Richard (also a scaredy cat like me!).

We then moved through a series of other rooms with the majority of the shows being done by live actors and only a couple being told by the talking heads or a recorded narration. There was actually quite a lot of historical information to absorb throughout the course of the tour. Some of the highlights for me included:  hearing a recording from ‘Guy Fawkes’ of his role in the plot against Westminster on the 5th November 1605 and his subsequent torture once caught, listening to the story of the Ghost of York from 1821 as told by the very animated pub landlord who witnessed the hanging and then the appearance of said person’s ghost in his pub, a demonstration on an unsuspecting tour member by the torturer of his various instruments, and the equivalent to a dark yet comedic stand up show involving the talking head of Eric Bloodaxe as he tells tales of the Vikings bloody invasion against the English complete with heckling by the talking head (on a stick!) of an Englishman he had beheaded.

My favorite of all of the shows was one in which we met the doctor’s assistant during the time of plague in 1551. We heard about the symptoms of the plague and the methods they used to attempt to heal those with the plague. We even played witness to a bit of a ‘live autopsy’! The assistant was just a little mad, which was completely understandable seeing as she would have dealt with such doom each day. This actress played her part extremely well and her dry sense of humor really added to this portion of the tour. She used a member of the tour to really engage us and the moments of pitch black kept us all guessing as to what was going to come next.

From the first live show of the tour, I could tell the actors were knowledgable about their respective times in history and each of them really got into their parts, particularly the pub landlord and the doctor’s assistant. They use humor that appeals to all ages (There were even a few innuendos thrown in for the older crowd!) and great storytelling to provide a synopsis of the darker times in York’s history. There are little surprises along the way, but I don’t want to give too much away because I really do feel it adds to the drama and atmosphere that they set out to create during the dungeon tour.

There are typically 24 people in each tour group, and the group members ranged in age from about 8 to 60ish years old. Everyone, but me, was there with someone else. It wasn’t awkward being there on my own because you tend to chat to others as you connect over your shared desire not to be frightened! The York Dungeon experience is most definitely a tourist attraction, but it is well worth a visit if you don’t know much about the dark history of the city. I think it would be a neat place to take some of our U.S. visitors as York is typically one of the places we tend to take people on our tour of Yorkshire. I really did enjoy my visit to The York Dungeon and would certainly recommend it!

I was provided a ticket by The York Dungeon for purposes of review. All of the opinions are honest and all photos are my own. I promise to always share my honest perspective when doing reviews. Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions.

Our First Real Visitor from the U.S.

Do you have those friends that you might not see or speak to for months at a time, but you know that they are always there and they know the same about you? The friends that when you do see each other again it’s like no time has passed at all? I feel really lucky that I have a number of friends like this in my life, and at the beginning of May, one of those friends, Jeff, came to visit us! Jeff and I met when we worked at the same study abroad organization as recent college grads. I’m sure he (and the rest of those work friends) would agree that was a funny time because we were still young and figuring out where we wanted to go with our lives, but we all had a great time together – both inside and outside of work.

Jeff was one of the first to leave our office to move on to bigger and better things, like grad school in London! I’ve been pestering him since I moved to England about when his next visit back to the UK would be as he still has friends in the city and has a strong love for this country. Finally, the time had come for him to dish out the cash for a ticket across the pond, and he took the train up from London to spend a few days with us during his trip.

On Sunday, we picked him up from the station then headed to Hebden Bridge and showed him around the funky little village before stopping in for a drink to avoid some of the misty rain that had started. After a quick stop at our house to show him his room for the next three nights, we went to one of our favorite local pubs for a meal. I think Jeff would agree that the fish and chips up north really have something on the fish and chips of other parts of England – not that I am partial or anything!

The next day, we decided to take the train to York as he had never been before. Thankfully, we had pretty good weather to walk around and enjoy the city. First, we checked out York Minster. I had only admired it from the outside, so we paid the admission fee (your ticket is then good for a year) and spent awhile exploring the Minster and the various rooms inside it. There are many areas to explore and discover once inside that make the building so intriguing. It is extremely impressive, and I would definitely recommend paying the admission fee because there is so much more to it than the main cathedral section.

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Next up, we wandered around in search of some lunch, and we took care of making sure Jeff visited one of the restaurants he wanted to be sure he hit at while in the UK, Wagamama. Then, it was down to The Shambles. The Shambles is definitely one of the most unique streets that I have seen here in the UK and is worth a nosey. (Unfortunately, and I don’t claim to be a good photographer at all, my photos of The Shambles came out extremely poor.) We then walked over to the York Museum Gardens. The sun had come out by this point, so there were a lot of people milling around the gardens and lounging on the grass. The gardens are home to the ruins from St Mary’s Abbey, the Abbey Walls and Gateway, St Leonard’s Hospital, and the Roman Fortress as well the Hospitium (They book weddings!). It’s a beautiful area to walk through and snap some photos.

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Earlier in the day, Jeff had spotted the old walls that circle the city, so after our stroll through the gardens, we decided to explore the walls a bit. We got on near the train station and followed them the entire way to Clifford’s Tower. We walked to the top of the hill that is home to the tower, but decided against paying the admission fee to visit it. We took a few photos then headed back to the train station to return home.

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On the way, there was one spot with a great view of the York Minster from a distance, so Jeff asked another tourist to take our photo. That resulted in the most hilarious photo, as seen below. The best part of this is the man then asked Jeff to take a photo for him and he wasn’t happy with the first one, so he had Jeff take a second one yet he had no issue that there was a giant bus directly behind us in the photo he snapped! Ha!

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I just noticed the blur of his finger in the bottom left corner, too! Such a laughable photo!

It was a fab day with a fab friend! Thanks for visiting us, Jeff! I just wish you could have seen the new house, but we’ll save that for next time!

{Train Trip} London: My Other British Love

During a trip to Washington, DC this summer, I was out with the friend I mentioned before who did his MA in London. We were talking about London and both grinning from ear-to-ear. Both of us seemed to fumble for words to express how much we love it. Maybe we’re both nutters, but we concluded that once London gets you, it doesn’t let go, and to truly understand the place, you have to visit it.

You might think I’m being a bit over-dramatic here, but I am not sure I can accurately convey my feelings for London in words. I literally love the city of London. Once you’re in it, you can just feel it…the movement, the excitement, the city. You’re so anonymous, but you can make your own time there extremely special to you. I’ll stop now.

Last week, the Brit was in London over night for work, so he found a great deal on a train ticket for me to come down and meet him. (£38 for a round-trip ticket on Grand Central that has free wi-fi for the entire 3-hour trip — can’t beat that!) I also should mention that the Brit shares my love of London, so we couldn’t wait for a fun night out just the two of us!

We both got all dressed up and headed out to Knightsbridge. The night started with a stroll around the Harrod’s food halls, where we checked out gifts for certain people in our families who will remain nameless. 😉 I showed the Brit what I want for Christmas…the Ultimate Hamper! Just kidding…maybe. Any other yanks out there who like me thought, “Why in the world would anyone want a hamper as a gift?” Yes?! Good! A hamper in the UK is essentially the equivalent to a gift basket. It is not, as I originally thought, a hamper for dirty laundry. Last year, I could not understand why the Brit wanted to bring my parents a hamper as a gift for hosting him at their house for his (first ever) Thanksgiving. I also could not understand how he planned to pack it in his luggage. Ha!! Moving on….

When we came out of Harrod’s and crossed the street, the Brit told me to look back and I wish I had taken my camera with me because it was lit up and just beautiful. Kinda like the photo below, which I found here….

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We continued up the street looking at restaurant menus as we passed and nothing really appealed to us. I think we were both already sold on the idea of eating at Harvey Nichols (or Harvey Nick’s, as it is so lovingly referred to in the UK). We had eaten at the bar in Harvey Nick’s with the Brit’s mum and dad when we were in London for a wedding in June, but neither of us had eaten in the Fifth Floor Restaurant. Definitely the right decision! Because it was a Wednesday night, it was not very crowded which makes the already impeccable service even better. Plus, half of the restaurant was set up for some sort of party and I had the perfect seat for gawking! 😉 And yes, there was actually a celebrity sighting, which I’ll get to later!

The food was truthfully delicious! I went with the 5-course price fixe dinner for £29.50, which allowed me to try a lot of menu items and not leave feeling overly full. We ordered a bottle of the Harvey Nichol’s sauvignon blanc, which is definitely on the low price side of their wine menu, but after trying it at the Harvey Nick’s bar in Leeds, we decided to go with it again. It’s the perfect combination of crispness without being tart that makes it a very nice wine for meal time.

So, back to our celebrity sighting…as I mentioned I had a perfect view of the private party, the Brit’s back was to it, but there was a mirror behind me so he could actually see quite well too. While we were enjoying our food, he said, “I think that is Dustin Hoffman.” I told him he was crazy. Why would Dustin Hoffman be in London in Harvey Nichols? It didn’t make sense to me. But, I continued to stare and realized that he just might be right, which he turned out to be! It was verified by the waiter who told us that Dustin Hoffman and his wife had just released a new clothing line at Harvey Nick’s that evening. (Just FYI, I did NOT ask the waiter if it was him. I merely mentioned that the restaurant got busy all of a sudden and he indulged us in the goss!) So, because we are both so cool (ha!), we both immediately texted our moms!

After that excitement, we had big plans to end the night with a drink (or two) at Mandarin Bar in the Mandarin Oriental, basically right across the street from Harvey Nick’s. The Brit’s friend originally began taking him there about a year ago and he took me there for the first time in June. We were both excited to go back to enjoy the fabulous bar again. It’s classy and swanky with a massive drink menu of classic and unique mixed drinks. It’s just a great place to end a fancy night out in London!

At least twice during the night, with a cheesy grin on my face, I told the Brit, “London is literally my favorite city in the world!” Thank you, Brit, for spoiling me with such a wonderful date night in ‘our’ city!!