I love shopping for souvenirs. I put a lot of thought and effort into finding just the right gifts that will make my loved ones feel included in my trip, or, in some cases, appease my guilt for not including them on my trip. I thought it would be great to get my husband, who is a pilot in the USAF, a T-shirt from a Royal Air Force Base. I went to an Army Surplus store in London, but couldn’t find one.
We had just finished touring Alnwick Castle, where they filmed two of the Harry Potter movies, and were wandering around the ancient market town when we saw a man in an RAF uniform walking down the street. I approached him, introduced myself, and asked if he knew where I might purchase an RAF t-shirt. It turned out Steve-O, as we affectionately would come to call him, worked in the Search and Rescue division at Boulmer RAF. He offered to escort us onto the base the next day, where we could meet his “mates” and buy the t-shirt.
Steve-O’s mates were thrilled to meet a couple of Americans and gave us a grand tour of the base, runway, and hangars. We were able to try on life-support gear, climb inside a life raft, and sit behind the controls of a Royal Air Force Search and Rescue helicopter (pronounced, hell-e-copter). Moments after we stepped off the runway, the helicopter we had been sitting in whirled to life, and took off to rescue a hiker who had fallen down a ravine.
Steve-O and his mates not only gave us a t-shirt, but pens, patches, pins, posters, and black hats they called, “woolly caps.” We met a few of their wives and enjoyed a spectacular lunch of chicken and spinach sandwiches at The Plough, a popular local pub. We left Boulmer proud to be Americans, satisfied in our choice not to travel like cattle, and happy to have made a few new friends.
Lesson: Even if you are the shy sort, open up and talk to people. The locals can tell you which pub serves the best Shepard’s pie, which tourist’s sites are over-rated, and who is snogging who (wink, wink, nod, nod). And sometimes, they can even get you on a hell-e-copter.
We left the North Country and headed to Peebleshire, Scotland. Full of notions about what it would be like to spend the night in a castle, with the ghosts of nobleman and knights flitting around our room, we made reservations at Traquair House, a castle once owned by the Kings of Scotland. Both Queen Mary of Scots and Prince Charles Edward Stuart stayed at Traquair House. We figured, if it was good enough for Bloody Mary and Bonnie Charlie, it would be good enough for us.
Without planning it, we arrived at Traquair House in the gloaming, that time of day when a trick of light can transform air into an apparition or a field into a fairy glen. We drove through the wrought iron gates, down the tree-lined avenue, and parked the car on the gravel drive in front of the ancient castle. There were no other cars around, no late-departing tourists snapping pictures of the once royal residence. We seemed to be alone.
We got out and walked around, absorbing the eerie beauty of the place, wondering if we would be given a tower room, high above the trees, looking out over the lush Scottish terrain. The front door creaked open and a man in flip-flops and a robe stuck his head out.
“Right then,” he said. “You must be here for the room.”
Before we could answer, he slammed the door shut, leaving us to wonder if we had somehow wandered into a Vincent Price movie.
A moment later, a side door opened and he shuffled out. He led us into a newer wing of the castle, his flip-flops making slap-slap sounds on the brick floor, to the Blue Room. He told us we were welcome to walk around the grounds, but to be sure to be back in our rooms by nine o’clock because that was when he locked up. And that was it. He shuffled away, never to be seen again.
Feeling a bit creeped out by Igor the sandal-wearing caretaker, and disappointed that we were not staying in a tower room, we decided to tour the grounds. We were trying to find our way through a beech hedge maze, wondering why there were no other guests, and trying not to let our idling imaginations shift into overdrive, when we found it.
A woman’s slip, stained with what appeared to be blood, carelessly tossed (or accidentally dropped?) on top of a mound of earth. The mound looked like a freshly dug grave.
“Now how do you suppose that got here?” I asked.
My friend looked at me, her eyes wide with fright, and said, “I knew it! Igor murdered the other guests. He was burying their bodies when we arrived, that’s why he didn’t come right out. Let’s go man, before we end up playing Janet Leigh to his Psycho.”
We raced back to the castle and locked ourselves in our room, too afraid to leave even to get dinner. We spent the night munching on packages of shortbread cookies pilfered from our hotel room in London, giggling like girls at a slumber party, and snapping pictures of the darkened rooms, hoping that when we got them developed, a strange white light or the shadowy outline of a specter would appear.
Lesson: When staying the night in a haunted castle, be sure to pack plenty of snackage, and never take a shower with the curtain closed.
Epilogue: I contacted the London Police after I got back home and was pleased to learn that the unfortunate rollerblader recovered from his injuries enough to skate home from the hospital.
The State Department assures me that my run-in with the Buckingham Palace Law has not left a permanent mark on my tourist record, and that I am, in fact, welcome to visit the United Kingdom again. It was suggested, however, that I leave my tripod at home and keep a 500-yard distance between Prince William and myself.
Frequent online searches of local newspapers around Traquair House turned up no reports of missing tourists (or tourists missing slips), which leads me to the conclusion that the soiled garment was probably misplaced by an eager honeymooner.
Finally, I would like to note that no sheep were injured in the making of this article.