PhD’ing on tactile access to microscopic objects. All about anthropology, archaeology, museums, cats and bad puns. Tell me your favourite history fact.

  • Kate

Came back in last night from Colchester by the train line and I must say, I absolutely adore the train system here. To be honest, I don’t know if it could ever become a thing in the US due to the sheer size of the country, but it works well for the UK. Rather than just gush about how cool the trains are here, I thought I’d just give you an idea of how a typical journey has gone so far (we’ll stay on the rosy side and not go into the fun of when the trains go awry this time).

To begin with, I ordered the tickets online in advance. Not the furthest in advance for optimal pricing this time, but it does make a major difference in cost. Train travel has a lot of options, and booking a particular train for a particular time in advance is typically the cheapest method of traveling on the rail. However, there are also options such as off-peak, super off-peak, or anytime passes that you can buy for a day at different costs if you want some more leeway in when you’re on the train that day. Another fantastic feature is the railcard system. I qualify from age alone to get the 16-25 railcard discount, which takes 1/3 off each ticket I purchase. The card is also good for students of any age, so long as you have proof of student status. There are also a few other schemes such as the Two Together railcard, the Family & Friends railcard, the Senior railcard, or the Disabled Persons railcard. If you’re planning on making at least 2 decent-length journeys while here, these railcards will pay themselves off really quickly. God knows I’ll manage to do it.

So I booked the tickets online through National Rail this time, though there are other options such as the train companies or third parties. If you’re in a small enough place, you may need to have your tickets posted to you overnight or within a week, but living in Leicester means I have the option of picking up my tickets at a self-service machine at the station here in the city. In order to do this, you only need the card you used to purchase the ticket and the confirmation code, which is sent to you via email.

Well, actually you’ll get 2-3 little stubs in total. The others are good to hold on to for advance tickets as they’ll usually have your seat information if you reserved a spot. Now with this ticket, I have to keep my railcard with me as they will check your ticket on the train to make sure you’ve paid for that particular train (and there are some stiff fines if you haven’t), as well as check to make sure you actually have the valid railcard for the discount.

This ticket was actually run through machines at 6 different points, so HOLD ON to these more-orange-than-golden tickets. In this instance I was coming from Colchester back to Leicester which meant feeding it through the gate at the platform to get to my first train, then to get off that train platform in London at Liverpool Street Station. I then fed it through the Underground turnstile to get from Liverpool Street Station (Don’t just call it Liverpool, even if the context is known. You will be giggled at by locals.) to King’s Cross St Pancras International Station and again through a turnstile to get out. (Technically there is King’s Cross Station and then across the street is St Pancras International Station, but the Underground stop is good for both. Trust me, you don’t walk far to get to either – maybe 5 minutes if there’s a queue to leave the Underground?) Pro tip at this point – see the little cross at the bottom middle of my ticket? That means that your fare on the Underground is included in the cost of the ticket so long as you’re going from point A to point B. Just run it through the Underground turnstile like a day pass and it lets you right through. Of course, (as I am coming to see about a lot of things) the Brits kinda just assume you know basic facts like these and it’s not mentioned in any obvious points. Finally, this ticket will be run through a machine again to get on the platform at St Pancras, and then depending on the time of day you get to your destination it’ll go through the exit machine and possibly be eaten. I got in late on this round and they’d just opened all the exit gates so they wouldn’t have to be staffed in case of machine muck-ups. You can also see the stamp on the bottom middle where the train conductor checked my ticket.

So what about the trains themselves? Well, it depends if you end up on a commuter train or a long distance one. From Colchester to London I was in a commuter train run by Abellio Greater Anglia, which stopped about every 10 minutes for about an hour to get to London.

Then when I left London for Leicester, I got on a train with East Midland Trains that only stopped at Leicester, Loughborough, East Midlands Parkway, Long Eaton, and Derby (pronounced Darby). Seeing as I was the first stop, it was a nice straight shot.

You can’t fit more than a small duffel bag or a jacket up in those racks btw. RyanAir-sized luggage is even too big. There is a luggage rack on each end of the carriage though.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but then the anthropologist gets let loose and it gets to be pretty entertaining. (For me anyway.) It’s one thing to ride the trains. It’s another thing on how to follow the cultural norms of the trains. Let’s continue with this particular train journey. From Colchester to London, I had stood at the platform and just kinda zoned out until the train arrived. Unlike in the US, it’s pretty odd for a stranger to come up to talk to you. As the train came in to the station a woman had asked me if she had the right one, and we all quietly shuffled into the carriage. It’s not an everyday phenomena, but sometimes when I say something I’ll get people asking if I’m American or Canadian, which happened this time. She said she could never tell the two apart, and a very well-timed Canadian that just happened to be on the train chimed in to represent the Canadian homeland.

From that point, Canadian Jake and I chattered for the rest of the ride into London. If you catch other North Americans on a train and they seem friendly enough, it tends to be fine to talk to them, even if they’re strangers. It can be a nice little slice of home to hear a reference (like “Rocky Top”) that’s totally lost on the locals here. I’m glad I talked to Canadian Jake, as I now know of a promising burrito joint at King’s Cross to check out. Getting on to the train to Leicester was more of the average experience. Everyone is very polite and courteous, but beyond that you really don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, even at a table seat. You just read or write or gaze off into space and hope you don’t accidentally end up staring at someone. Train trips are MUCH faster with friends.

Speaking of friends, I watched two girls out of the corner of my eye at the table seats to the right of me pop open a bottle of wine and have a few drinks while nibbling on snacks on our journey north. Drinking laws are much, much more lax here than they are in the States, and you can not only buy alcohol on the train from the food carriage/trolley (depends on the train), but you can totally just bring your own and drink it – the staff on the train couldn’t care less. I’ve not yet done it, but it feels like I’m being a little wicked and breaking all the rules I’ve grown up with. Give me a month or so though, as it’ll probably amuse me far more than it should. It’s the little things that are fun like that. 😉

Hmm… Have I missed any important bits? Have any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment, especially if there’s something about life here you’ve been curious about. Otherwise you are subjected to my totally random topic choices! Well, I’ve got a field trip tomorrow with the programme to Sheffield at 8 am, so I should probably wrap things up soon anyway. All is doing well here. 🙂

— Kate

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  • Kate

So sorry for the lack of posts this week, but I’ve been pretty busy! A quick recap for the perpetually curious.

Sunday: Made it back from Colchester in one piece, if perhaps a little wobbly. The great pink behemoth suitcase managed to both crack and partially melt a wheel, which rendered it about as useful as a grocery store cart. It got the job done, but I had to fight with it the whole way. Also ended up getting back to the flat WAY late due to some issues with the university coach service, but I met a fellow museum studies student from Austria and we both live nearby each other.

Monday: I signed up for the local GP office before leaving Leicester, but had been texted to come in at some point for my online log-in information. With that info, I could just log on to their website and make an appointment with the available staff of my choice. They even have a twitter account! (And Americans like to grumble about how backwards the NHS must be… So far I’ve been nothing but impressed.) Got in and out quickly with another super cool coursemate and we both headed over to sign up for the welcome week and get our little bags of goodies. (Turned out to be pizza coupons and SIM cards, but you just don’t turn anything down when it’s free at a university. Students are natural scavengers.)

Tuesday: Well, the two of us had intended on just going to the informative lectures about life in the UK, but when we saw the signs for the visa checkpoint (a requirement for registration and where one could receive a letter to open a local bank account) we decided to try and get ours done then instead of Friday like our papers had written on them. I am a bad influence for suggesting it, but it totally worked! With that out of the way, we both went to open bank accounts. She went with Lloyds Bank and opened an account that day, whereas I was leaning towards Santander because of their budgeting app. Santander had a wait though, so I had to come back the next day.

That evening, we had tickets to Film Night at the Attenborough Building, but were quickly disappointed to find a small, half empty room and that Pirates of the Caribbean was the film of choice. On my bad influence spree, I instigated a runaway to a nearby pub with two coursemates and introduced them to hard cider. That was really fun. 🙂

Wednesday: Finally, more students were arriving in the city, so a group of us did a tour of the city centre while I went to my appointment with Santander. Come find out, Santander wants £5 a month “because of international student status.” Needless to say, I declined the offer and went over to Lloyds Bank who saw to me immediately and didn’t charge me a pence. My new debit card should arrive next week and I can deposit my change cheque from the university immediately. Excellent service there!

After the bank was dealt with, we all walked around and pointed out city landmarks and good places to shop for different things. Everyone was somewhat familiar with UK culture already, so it was an easy and pleasant wander around. It’ll be nice to work with everyone in that group when term starts.

That evening there was a traditional Irish Ceilidh dance lesson, which is really similar to square dancing in that there’s one person that calls the dance moves for the group. It’s a bit more touchy than square dancing though, which only ever really sees arms linked together for the most part whereas this had some swinging around of partners. But it’s really fun! Ran into some issue with it as the night progressed though, as I’ve realized that international welcome things are really only geared towards people that don’t speak English as a first language. People were grouping up together and cheerily talking to strangers in their own languages, which made things a bit awkward for me. I shuffled out after awhile of it, but ended up over at my new friend’s flat where I met her flatmate and we all talked for a few hours with pizza. They’re awesome. 🙂

Thursday: Slept in this morning, at least until the building’s alarm test went off. I think it’s safe to say that it’s loud and jarring enough to wake the dead. Got word back that my iPhone 5 had been unlocked (Score one for UK phone unlocking laws!), so this 4S I came with can be put out to pasture. Within 5 days of getting here, the 4S decided it was actually on a speaker dock all the time (it wasn’t) and now the only sound it makes is for phone call rings and thankfully when people are speaking to me on a call. I thought I could just deal with it, but then the battery started dropping like a rock and now the phone likes to turn off at 40% and tell me it won’t turn back on until I plug it in because it’s just *SOOO dead.* Need to speak with Three Mobile and have them send me a SIM to fit the 5 and hopefully not encounter any more fun like this.

Fully alert, I took a shower and headed to the university to get a look at the clubs and societies available. There are a lot that look like fun, but realistically I’ll probably only join the Museum Studies Society (duh), as well as the History Society or the Archaeology Society. Should be more than enough with those three to get me some extracurriculars in.

Headed back to the flat via the city centre and wandered around for a bit. I think I’m finally using landmarks to get around correctly on the first try! Got back, cooked up the veggies in my fridge and froze them, let the boiler man check my water heat as the building requested, and packed a bag again. Now I’m on a train BACK to Colchester, but I’m choosing to justify this quick turnaround because it’s going to be almost a month before another visit is feasible.

Well, looks like the train is about to pull in to St Pancras Station, so I need to collect my things and scuttle over to Liverpool Street Station via the Tube to make my next train. Hope all is going as well for y’all!

— Kate

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  • Kate

The votes are in and Scotland has decided to stay in the United Kingdom with 2,001,026 votes for No (55.3%) and 1,617,989 for Yes (44.7%). The Scottish First Minister Alex Samond thanked everyone that came to the polls and asked that they all accept the verdict of their peers. David Cameron has stated that the main parties in Westminster would continue with their promise to hand more power to Scotland, including “new powers over tax, spending and welfare.”

So what does this mean?

Well for starters, my dollar just got hit again.

  • The pound rose in strength against both the dollar and the euro. Ouch. (I secretly wanted Scotland to leave, just a little bit so the pound would drop some, but so goes life.)

  • The Royal Bank of Scotland has stated it will keep its headquarters in Scotland with the No vote decision.

  • The promise for more power will begin with an act being drafted and published before January 25th of next year.

  • The local parliament will begin their demands for a comprehensive devolution with aims to have complete control over income and corporation taxes, airline duties, and welfare.

  • This vote does not just change life for Scotland though. Across the United Kingdom there are new questions being raised.

Is it right that English MPs will have no say in devolved issues in Scotland, but that Scotland can still vote on things in Westminster that don’t affect it? Should Scottish MPs be banned entirely from voting on England-only laws? Should Wales and Northern Ireland be asking for more devolution and local powers?

These and surely more issues will be things dealt with over the next few years. This may be the push for Scotland to get what they want via devolution, but it is possible that something like this could happen again within a generation. Who knows?

— Kate

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