Monday, April 27, 2009


After two crowded trains from Conwy, I found myself in Liverpool. Unlike Manchester, I was sort of expecting a dumpy city in Liverpool. From what I’d heard, it was a dingy, depressed place. Maybe because my expectations were lower, I was pleasantly surprised. I got in to Liverpool around 7 pm, but the place was bustling. It was still pretty sunny and there were stacks of people out. The walk from the train station to my hostel took me through a few pedestrian-only streets full of cafes (which were still open!), restaurants, pubs and shops. There were street musicians and people sitting around chatting and drinking coffees. And, compared to Manchester and even old Conwy, Liverpool felt squeaky clean.

My accommodation in Liverpool was a bit of a let down, however. I had booked into a dorm room at Hatters Hostel. The location was good, but it’s so new that it hasn’t really grown into itself yet. They didn’t even have a credit card machine, so I had to go running around the streets of Liverpool looking for a cash machine so I could pay for my room. Compared with the hip yet homey Hatters in Manchester, the Liverpool hostel was sterile and lifeless. Plus, they stuffed up my booking and put me into a private double room—a much more expensive choice, but I didn’t realise until after I had paid and got to my room. Since at this stage I was coming down with a very unpleasant sinus infection, I decided to go with it. I looked around downstairs for a lounge room, or an internet café, or some pamphlets about Liverpool, or even a map of the city (the things backpackers hostels generally feature) but found nothing. But, my bed was comfy, and I had a private bathroom so I can’t complain too much.

My lack of a Liverpool map severely hampered my explorations. Instead, I followed the black tourist signs to various attractions, which was fine but meant I missed things like Penny Lane and Abbey Road (which I didn’t even think about till I was on my way out of Liverpool, der). Also, I was running short on cash but didn’t want to get more out of the ATM because of the expensive international fees, so I was on a budget. But, I still managed to see a lot and have some fun.

I knew (thanks to a brochure in the Manchester hostel) that I wanted to go to Albert Dock, so that was my first stop.

I went through the Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. Both were very compelling, given Liverpool’s history as a major hub for shipping and slaving. I saw replicas of the Titanic and the Lusitania that were as big as some real boats I’ve been on.

After the museums I took advantage of the “balmy” 15 degree weather and wandered around Albert Dock in the sunshine. The view from here to the city was a cool mix of old and new buildings.

I continued enjoying the weather by wandering through the city, vaguely in search of food. I saw lots of cool old buildings, especially churches. Liverpool must be a religious place, because there seemed to be a church-like structure at every turn.

I also paused for a moment to watch this interesting street performer. Employing stereotypical symbols of Native American-ness, this guy also had some minor influences from South America and Australia (see the didgeridoo?).

It was even warm enough here for the flowers to be cheery. (In Manchester they looked cold and out of place.)

The next day I walked in the other direction, towards the Liverpool Cathedral. This is the largest cathedral in Britain; the largest Anglican Cathedral in Europe; its organ is the largest in Britain; it has the highest and heaviest peal of bells in the world; it also has the world’s highest and widest Gothic arches. It is, quite literally, a big deal.

Photos don’t really do its enormity justice.

The cathedral is surrounded by a cool garden and loads of graves, which is a little weird but it didn’t feel as creepy as I thought it would.

The garden also has this holy, healing spring... which ironically had rubbish floating in its muddy pool.

You can go inside the cathedral for free (that is, if your conscience lets you ignore the many pleas for donations... mine did) to have a look around on the ground level. In a cathedral this big, there were obviously some major stained glass windows, altars, and several small chapels.

After a bit more roaming the streets, I made my way to the Egg Café (a sign on the way upstairs says it’s the egg of alternative capitalism), a vegetarian café with about ¾ of its menu completely vegan. For less than £5 I got the Spicy Burger—a plate piled high with a big patty full of kidney beans, tomato-onion relish, pasta salad, some sort of grain salad, and a green salad, plus a pita to stuff it all into. I enjoyed the vibe of the place as I ate (unfortunately my camera batteries had died by this stage so I could document neither the vibe nor the meal). Then I went up for dessert—a delicious vegan Chocolate Crunch.

Satisfied, I collected my bags from the hostel and headed to the train station. Unfortunately, this was the end of my UK adventure. Luckily, my flights back were much more pleasant than my first round of travel (well, as good as 24 hours in airplanes can be)... I had a whole row to myself between Manchester and Dubai so I stretched out my legs and got a whole hour of sleep! And unlike the first set of flights, I wasn’t ill. In fact, I was starving for the whole trip. I housed every meal they gave me, and broke into the backup provisions I had packed in Australia—all the while rocking out to my chosen radio station, UK #1 hits from my birth year, featuring awesome tracks like “Wake me up before you go-go” and “I just called to say I love you”.

In terms of vegan food, Emirates was pretty good. There were a few oversights, like the occasional non-vegan dessert (which, at least, was clearly labelled) but there were other nice touches, such as margarine bearing the Vegan Society sunflower. Plus, they had loads of movies to choose from. Among others, I enjoyed W. about George W. Bush; Viva Zapata about the life of Emiliano Zapata; Gremlins; and Slumdog Millionaire.

It was a long way to go, but I really enjoyed my trip to Britain. That said, I am quite glad to be home.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Despite my relative disappointment with what Manchester had to offer, my trip wasn’t a complete let down (and I should clarify--Manchester wasn't terrible, I just didn't love the place). The day the conference ended, I caught a train to northern Wales. My destination was a small town called Conwy. In a guidebook I got from the library when I was planning my trip, I saw Conwy and decided I had to go. In addition to a quaint seaside village enclosed within 700 year old walls, Conwy boasted such kitsch attractions at Teapot World (which I found out on arrival was no longer there) and Britain’s Smallest House.

After a 2 hour train ride to Llandudno Junction and then a short walk, I reached my accommodation. I stayed at Gwynfryn Bed and Breakfast, a bit of a splurge after my hostel experience in Manchester. I stayed in the Olive Room, which was totally cute.

This wasn’t a standard B&B with ugly flowered wallpaper and matching bedspreads. The room had nice touches like a kettle with a variety of hot chocolates, coffees and teas, plus a bowl of lollies, a very comfy bed and a telly. The private bathroom across the hall was equally cute and had rainbow bathrobes for guests to use.

I got in at dinner time, so I headed out for a wander around the town to see what there was to eat. There were a fair few nice restaurants, but since I was travelling alone I opted instead for a takeaway shop where I got a veggie burger with chips.

I ate on the marina, closely watched by a few gigantic seagulls—seriously, these birds are much bigger than their antipodean counterparts.

After filling up, I went for a wander around the decidedly quaint little town as the sun went down. Old churches and the castle, nestled alongside newer (but still old) houses made me very quickly fall in love with Conwy.

That night I got the best sleep I’ve had in a while, and had a really great shower as well (which was more than welcome after the terrible hostel showers). Then I went down for breakfast, which was my first real experience with a traditional English breakfast. I am in awe at how much food people can put down in the morning! My veggie breakfast was (at my request) about half the size of the normal brekky. I had 2 veggie sausages, baked beans, a grilled portabella mushroom, a grilled tomato, a hash brown, toast, tea and juice. It was so good, but I was so stuffed! And the other guests had about twice as much as that.

Suitably packed full of food, I set out to explore Conwy in more depth. I started by climbing up to the top of the town walls for a walk around.

The end of the wall-walk brings you very close to the smallest house in the United Kingdom. It is two storeys tall, but those storeys are fairly small. And the floor space measures 10’ b 4’2”. I paid the £1 to get in, which is probably a bit steep considering how small the place is—obviously there isn’t much to see. But I’m glad I did anyways... how many people can say they’ve been in Britain’s smallest house? Though, despite my attempts to crouch out the door I still smacked my head.

After such a small house, the Conwy Castle was quite a contrast. It was built in the 1200s as part of the attempt by Edward I to conquer the shit out of Wales. The stones are all that is left of the once obviously grand structure—all of the internal buildings are long gone, but you can still see foundations and climb towers (plus there are a few little museum displays on offer).

As you can imagine, the views from the towers were pretty spectacular.

I had lunch at a café nearby the castle which served only fair-trade coffee and tea, and had a good selection of vegan menu items. Even though it was sunny in Wales, and much warmer than Manchester, it was still only about 15 degrees and being outside for long left me very chilly. I warmed up with a soy hot chocolate, fresh bread and a bowl of soup—red pepper, tomato and lentil which also had quinoa in it.

I got a joint ticket to the castle and Plas Mawr. This is a “great mansion” built in 1576 and it has been preserved/restored as an example of Tudor life. This was pretty cool, but my favourite part was easily the “cat door” into the attic.

And with that, my stay in Conwy came to an end. I could have easily spent more time there, and would have willingly stayed in my awesome room for longer, but I had booked a train ticket to Liverpool so I was off. But, if I ever find myself in the UK again, I will be sure to go back to Conwy and stay at the Gwynfryn B&B. Next... Liverpool!

Thursday, April 23, 2009


For some reason, I had expected Manchester to be a totally amazing place. I’m not really sure where that came from—surely a mixture of libraried guide books, the internet, and a creative imagination. The actual effect of Manchester was... underwhelming. It wasn’t a bad place; it just had nothing really going for it. Regardless, I had loads of fun while I was there, and the rest of my trip (which I’ll put into several posts, to avoid rambling for too long) was great. (Beware, however, that this post is quite wordy. I’ll intersperse some random images of Manchester out of context to keep things interesting.)

The flights

Whatever it was that had built up Manchester in my head, the undermining factors were a bit too strong. First, consider the time it took to get there. I was travelling for about 30 hours total, and this travel didn’t actually start until late afternoon on easter Sunday. I have a really hard time sleeping on planes, so I was awake for something like 40 hours when I got into Manchester.

But it wasn’t just a long trip this time... for some reason, I was sick for most of it. As I waited in the Townsville airport to fly to Brisbane, I started shivering and couldn’t stop. The 14 hour flight between Brisbane and Dubai was miserable. At least I had an aisle seat (in the very back row of the plane...), which was handy since I was ill from post-dinner till landing. I couldn’t get warm, and I couldn’t stomach most of the food they gave me. It was a shame, too—Emirates hooked me up with some kick-ass looking vegan meals, but I barely got down a few pieces of fruit. I felt a bit better on the 8 hour flight between Dubai and Manchester, but I was still feeling quite unsettled when I got to my final destination.

The Accommodation

In Manchester, I chose Hatters Hostel for my accommodation. It was the closest backpackers to the conference venue, so it was the easy choice. I booked into a four-person dorm, and the room was never full while I was there. The place had a great vibe, and offered free tea and toast 24-hours a day, plus gave Morrissey tours around Manchester. The places where it let me down... undoubtedly the shower. A large room with several glass-doored showers was shared between all the females on two or three storeys of the building. And rather than giving the user control over the heat and pressure and length of the shower, the water came in one temperature via a push button (like the most annoying of public toilet sinks). The temperature was just on the side of too hot. The rooms, though, were too cold. I was on the 5th floor, and the building was old and draughty. And the other thing about any hostels is the noise. This one can’t really be faulted for that, but I didn’t get a single good night of sleep while I was in Manchester.

The city itself

After a very short nap on my first afternoon, I set out to wander around the city a bit before I was set to meet my friend, Nick (from Brisbane) for dinner. On the maps, the city seemed really large and spread out. But I found that everything was much more compact than it looked. It didn’t take us long to see everything. On that first evening, I saw the cool old buildings you’re meant to see in Manchester. We wandered through the Northern Quarter where we found a bar called The Bay Horse that had vegan Bombay Potato Pies coming straight from the oven (they were only okay, which was a bit of a let down, but their normal menu was superseded by the public holiday).

The next day we met up again in the mid-morning with a set goal—to find this Engels exhibition. We went to the museum where it was meant to be and found nothing. We wandered through another museum’s display in the same compound and likewise found nothing. The closest we got was a display about the textile industry (which Engels worked in for a bit in Manchester) and a puppet depicting some other friend of Marx. Google, you let me down on this one! After the disappointing museum trip, we went to the free art gallery which was showing a few sketches by Da Vinci. That took about ten minutes, and by then we’d exhausted basically all of the attractions in Manchester. We did a lot of walking around that day looking for something exciting, and followed almost all of the black signs pointing out things to see. And in Manchester’s defence, we could have opted to look around inside some of these historic buildings, or even paid for a proper tour. But we didn’t. We even went out to Old Trafford, where Manchester United play football. Nick is a fan of football, but not Man U, so neither of us wanted to pay for the tour there, either.

The thing that really struck me about Manchester was how ugly it is. It felt more like an industrial park than a city. There were a fair few cool looking old buildings. But there were even more plain brown brick buildings. I could see three distinct smoke stacks from my hostel window. Aside from the Hilton Tower, none of the new buildings were even very innovative. In fact, we saw new buildings being constructed in the bland old style of the 80s, and in more brown brick. This is why I didn’t really take more photos.

But let’s be honest, the thing that really affects me the most (now that I live in the tropics and have acclimatised to 34 degree days) is the weather. Manchester was flipping cold. And gray. And occasionally even rainy. But rarely ever sunny. During the days it hovered around the 10 to 12 degree mark. And at night, of course, it was colder. And it was windy. The wind was cold and biting, and even the Mancunians we met at the conference said it was uncharacteristically bad weather. Lucky me.

Finally, I was given the impression that Manchester is some sort of cosmopolitan city. But we had trouble finding chai lattes. There was more than one person who gave us a blank stare and said “What’s that???” when we asked if they had chai latte. It was only the bigger coffee chains that carried them. Also, Manchester lacked the things that make cities charming, in my opinion—street musicians, good graffiti, and even state-sanctioned artwork, or cafes that were open after dinner. It did have the normal urban unpleasantries, like trash and lots of homeless people asking for money.

The Conference

I was surprised at how small the conference was. I could tell by the schedule that it would be small, but compared with the major international conferences I went to in December, this was tiny. Probably 50 or so attendees. Less than a quarter of these were visibly students—most were men with grey beards in their 50s and above, and many were staunch Marxists. Now I’m obviously not opposed to the arguments of Karl Marx. I think his critique of capitalism and of the state is a fantastic starting point for understanding complex power relationships. But people who believe so strongly in one single doctrine without ever considering the other options kind of put me off. That said, I met a few really interesting people. And my paper went pretty well—the other presenter in my panel couldn’t make it, so I had 90 minutes for myself. I expected to finish after about 45—50 tops—but my 20 minute paper generated enough questions and discussion to take up an hour and 15 minutes. And more importantly, people seemed to think it was good.

The food

I don’t actually have any photos of food from my trip, even though I ate a fair bit of it. Blame Nick—we ate together and I felt awkward pulling out a camera to snap food when I was with him. Breakfast was free in the hostel (tea and toast), though after a few days I crashed Nick’s accommodation for brekky because they at least had fruit and soy milk for the tea.

Dinner our first night was, as I said, at the Bay Horse Inn where we had two vegan pies. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Nick had gone vegetarian at the beginning of the year, so I didn’t have to feel like such an inconvenience when it took a while on the first night to find a restaurant with vegan meals. After the first day, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find non-vegan restaurants with a significant amount of cruelty-free choices on their menus. We didn’t actually get to any vegetarian places (Manchester has a few, but thanks to my terrible sense of direction and the short opening hours we never made it) but I was still spoilt for choice.

There was a Thai place that had nearly half of its menu dedicated to vegan choices like Mock Chicken with Cashews or Aubergine and Tofu with Basil and Chilli, like we got. We also found a pizza place with a vegan mozzarella, aubergine, olive and sun dried tomato pie, which was really yummy. There was the Chinese place where we got Asian Vegetables in Black Bean Sauce and some yummy Sweet and Sour Tofu. And for dinner one night we visited the Curry Mile where we had veggie versions of Rogan Josh and Bhuta curries.

In conclusion

Manchester was all right. I actually had loads of fun there, because I was travelling with my friend Nick. We met in December at the sociology conference in Melbourne and since then have mostly conversed (and commiserated, on PhD related matters) over emails and facebook. So it was fun to actually hang out again in person. Plus, having someone to travel with is way better than travelling alone. If I were given the opportunity of another free trip to Manchester, I would probably take it. I would just try to time it for a warmer season, and also do some better research beforehand about what there is to do in the place.

Manchester let me down a bit, but the rest of my trip was the opposite. Here’s a teaser picture from my next destination, which I’ll tell you about in another post.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Quick update

Sorry for my unexpected hiatus. I've been busy, and it's not over quite yet! Andy's been away, so I've been eating fairly uninteresting meals. And the good ones have not been documented thanks to dead camera batteries. So I have no food or photos to offer you, but I will next time I post...

At least it's been a productive busy period. So far I've written four chapters of my thesis. Two are polished enough that they are currently with my supervisors. A fifth chapter is all but written. And I have only three left to write. I've been focusing recently on getting my conference paper ready-- it's called "Doing activist research: A critically engaged methodology for praxis". And I've put in a few grant applications. I'm also tutoring this semester and even though it's an online subject it's still time consuming, thanks to all the assignments I have to mark. Plus, Andy and I have made some wedding decisions, but more on that another time. For the rest of the week I'll be getting ready to go--I leave for Manchester on Sunday.

To get from the Townsville airport to the Manchester airport will take 29 hours of travel (24 of those in the air). I'll cover 11,653 miles each way, or 18,750 kms. My carbon footprint will probably be the size of a small country (but at least I don't contribute to animal agriculture, right??). My camera batteries are charging and my memory card is clear. I've got trains booked within Britain and some general plans made. I'll spend a few days in Manchester, and I've got plans to visit the People's History Museum, and another museum with an exhibit on Friedrich Engels (Marx's bff). After the conference is over (I present at midday on the 17th) I'm catching a train to Conwy, in North Wales. From Conwy I head to Liverpool for a few nights before I fly back home.

It's going to be exhausting, but I'm so excited to be going to England!!