20 August 2016

London, London!

I "grew up" in London. Not in the usual sense of being there in my childhood, but in the sense of going from a somewhat protected late developer to a mature adult capable of managing her life on her own. I lived there for over three years from 1969 until 1972. Peter and I have been back since, but only for short periods, and for the longest of these we stayed in the centre of London and didn't stray much further afield. So one of the joys of our most recent trip was rediscovering London, and becoming aware of how much it has changed, and how much it hasn't in the last four or five decades.

The Thames for me is one of the key features of London. In the 1970s I lived in East Molesey, in a house with a view of the Thames from the back window. And I spent many an interval at concerts in the Royal Festival Hall staring out across the river. On this trip we stay on the Isle of Dogs, right in the bend of the Thames, and we have a lot to do with the river, travelling beneath it by tube on multiple occasions, and even by foot through the tunnel from Greenwich, walking along its banks, crossing it on foot by most of the main bridges, including the new Millennium Bridge. Living in the East End we see all the reconstruction of the areas around the old docks, making this area an interesting mixture of new expensive apartments and older housing estates. We become aware of the huge amount of tourist traffic now on the river every day, as well as the commuters using it as an alternative to the tube. The "arts precinct" on Southbank that began with the building of the Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s has now extended to the new Globe and the Tate Modern, but the Southbank Centre itself is now old enough to need redevelopment, so two of the smaller concert halls are closed.

From the splendid vantage point of the top of the Tate Modern you can look over the London skyline. On the north bank are the familiar shapes: the dome of St Pauls, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. But there are also a series of extraordinary modern edifices sticking up from amongst the old: the Eye, the Shard, the Gherkin, and others whose nicknames I don't know but whose architecture is just as challenging. Some, like the Walkie-Talkie, seem to be larger at the top than they are at the bottom, which leaves one wondering how the structural engineers have managed it. These new structures don't really blend into their surroundings at all - quite the reverse - they are very "look at me!". But somehow it makes London look modern and vibrant, rather than just making it look like a hotch-potch. Living on the Isle of Dogs we are of course in the midst of the new high rise: sixteen of London's fifty tallest buildings are here.

Meanwhile, back at ground level, what else is new?
The parks: Hyde Park, Regents Park, are still the same wonderful green oases. There seem to be more people than ever using them, but that may be because we are there in the height of the tourist season. Peter and I are slightly disconcerted on one occasion to see a large group of fully-covered Muslim women coming towards us, then settling on the grass like so many huge black crows. They proceeded to picnic, lifting food up under their niqabs.

Muslim women are also strongly in evidence in the posh department stores in Oxford Street, although fewer of these are fully covered, most are just wearing headscarves. No doubt there are migrants from the Middle East who are not well off, but equally there must be lots of rich shopaholics, as they almost outnumber the uncovered. London's stores once seemed to me to be magical places, but on this trip we find them disappointing. Department stores everywhere now seem to be stocked with the same big brands - rather dull if having designer labels on your gear and goods doesn't turn you on. Places like Fortnum and Mason are now ludicrously expensive - we cannot bring ourselves to buy afternoon tea there (price £26 to £45 per person). And I am totally defeated in my search for a paper napkin holder as a present for friend Laura who has many a garden party. (On return to Australia I find a choice of three in the South Melbourne Market).  The only shopping we really enjoyed was in the Greenwich Market, which had lots of interesting and original stuff. If we return to London I will make a point of visiting more markets.


One of our favourite spaces was a reclaimed dock area on the South Bank, with a fabulous sculpture that did all kinds of interesting things, mostly driven by falling water (see left).
We found lots of good cafes in London, but it's hard to get a decent coffee if you like your coffee black. The long black seems to be a peculiarly Australian invention. Cafes in the UK and many in Europe offer black coffee in two forms: Espresso and Americano. An espresse in France is a short black, but in London and in places like French Autoroute cafes, asking for an Espresso gets you about a half inch of very strong coffee in a very small cup - one is not sure whether to drink it or inject it. The alternative Americano comes in a huge cup, and tastes like a bucket of slops from cleaning out the espresso machine (if that strong). In one very pleasant cafe in Bank, I actually resort to instructing the barista on how to make an Australian long black. Since he is a Dane, he is open to learning something new.

But overall, I love London, and would go back in a heartbeat. Peter says he couldn't live there, but I think I could probably last as long as I did first time round - after three winters I couldn't face a fourth.

19 August 2016

London - the inside story

There are so many historic and cultural places to visit in London that it's hard to know where to start. Somewhat to our surprise and disappointment, the range of events is more limited. There isn't much theatre happening apart from musicals and kids shows. And apart from the Proms, not many concerts either - nothing in Festival Hall or the Wigmore Hall. It is school holidays, of course. Fortunately the museums are all open.
Our favourite of these is probably the Docklands Museum, walking distance from where we are staying. It occupies one of the few warehouses left standing after the Blitz, at the end of Canary Wharf. It presents a fascinating history from the time when all the docks in the area were created, to the present day when the land is being reclaimed for sky-high office buildings and trendy flats. In between there are all the wartime stories, and a wonderful, if wrenching story of slavery. We spend the best part of a day there.
Peter loves all the science and technology museums. He makes two visits to the Science Museum in South Kensington, one to the Royal Institute where Faraday did his experiments, and goes to Bletchley Park for the day. Helen joins him at the Royal Institute (where we are the only two visitors) and on one of the Science Museum visits.
Arvo Tea at the Wallace Collection
On the artier side, we go to the Wallace collection twice, and the National Gallery once. We go to the British Museum, but it's hot and crammed with tourists, so we make our visit a short one.
Helen manages to get a single return to see Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, the only serious theatre going. Her enjoyment of the performance is slightly marred when the mobile phone of the person beside her buzzes just as Macbeth begins "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...". She feels the need after the show to explain to the young girl that turning your phone off means turning it OFF, not just putting it on silent. And that even if you don't actually answer it, it's just as distracting for the person beside you if you pull it out of your bag and start texting.

Music-wise, we go to an organ recital that just happened to be on at St Paul's Cathedral when we walked there on our first evening, and a lovely concert of baroque music in St Martin-in-the-Fields on our last evening. This gives us the opportunity to sit and take in these two lovely churches, quite apart from the pleasure of hearing the music. In between we go to the Proms in the Albert Hall three times, and Helen takes in a "Proms at..." concert at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in the Globe - vocal music inspired by Shakespeare played by the Arcangelo early music group.
We discover Polish cuisine in London, eating out at two restaurants that serve excellent food at reasonable prices, with impeccable service. One is near the Albert Hall, the other near Southwark tube station, convenient for our return to Canary Wharf. We have good meals at the local Indian restaurant two minutes walk from the door of the flat. After a hard days walking we quite often return to the flat, cook a meal and veg out, but discover that free-to-air television in the UK has less to offer than television in Melbourne (for example, very old episodes of the Doctor Blake Mysteries!) So we read books and I try to keep the diary up to date instead.
Another significant amount of indoor time was spent at Howarth's of London, purveyors of wind instruments. After four separate visits Helen finally settled on a pair of Buffet Festival clarinets (an A and a B flat). Then there was the fifth visit to collect them the day after the purchase, and one more visit to get assistance in taking the A clarinet apart (new joints are very stiff). This sixth visit was also an opportunity to buy a zip up case cover with backpack type straps, without which she would never have got the instruments safely home to Melbourne (along with her older clarinet, which had gone with her on the entire trip).

03 August 2016

Yorkshire

Recycled birthday cake (lots of baby boomers here)
We arrive in Goldsborough on Wednesday evening, and stay for a week with Laura Lindsay, who has been a friend since we were in Grade 6. She has insisted that we arrive in time for my 70th birthday, so that she can throw a party. Festivities begin the previous evening with dinner and my first present - a picture from my step-daughter from my first marriage which she has posted to Yorkshire to await my arrival. More cards and presents the next day, a cardigan and some bling, the latter is immediately worn for the afternoon party. The weather starts fine, but by about 11am it is clearly not going to stay that way, so we relocate drinks and nibbles to the garage, and have lunch indoors. Last guests leave at about 9:30pm, by which time I've over-indulged in both food and wine. But a good time was had by all.
Peter meets Blind Jack in York
We spend the next five days participating in English village life. P is disappointed because there is not one murder. We attend a wedding in the local ancient church, because Laura and partner David are singing in the choir (they are paid to do so). We thoroughly enjoy an amateur performance of "Quartet" in Harrowgate, help Laura entertain again when her choir has its end-of-season garden party before the summer break after their usual performance in church on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday we venture further afield  to the Yorkshire Dales to admire the views, eat a splendid pub lunch, and go to York to visit the Railway Museum, and walk around that very historic city. The weather is an improvement on Glasgow, but still showery.
On Wednesday we pack up and say farewell to Goldsborough, which has been lovely, and head south.
More pictures.

27 July 2016

Glasgow


Charmless house....
From Normandy we return to Paris to give up our Eurolease car, then fly to Glasgow. Two of my Scottish ancestors come from the area, one from Greenock, and the other from Paisley Road in Glasgow (on the south side of the Clyde). We stay in a self-catering house in between, in Port Greenock. It is a classic example of dreary English domestic architecture, but it has a kitchen and a washing machine, a splendid view and foxes in the back garden.
... with great view.
Our first day there is a Sunday, and we courageously drive into Glasgow. For the next two days we take the more relaxing option of driving to the nearby station and catching the train - about a half hour journey in comfort and no parking issues at the other end.
It rains every day of our stay, not all the time, but most of the time and we see very little sun or blue sky. This doesn't really matter as Glasgow is full of splendid museums, all of them free. We go to the Kelvingrove, Transport Museum, GoMA, Mackintosh House, Hunterian, Kelvingrove again. We still do quite a lot of walking, but also catch buses. Glasgow's underground is under repairs, so is currently replaced by a bus service, which is great for us as we get to see more of the city as we go from museum to museum.


Food is less interesting and more expensive than meals we've been enjoying on the continent. We eat at the house a couple of times, rather than staying in town. Like many port cities, Glasgow has experienced much cultural cross-fertilisation. We find that we can buy haggis pizza in the local Tesco supermarket, but decide against. But we did eat haggis fritters at a local Indian restaurant.
Glasgow is billed as the best place to shop after London, but we found it disappointing. The shopping streets are gracious and elegant, but the shops are all international chains selling stuff you could buy anywhere. Finally manage to find something Scottish in one of the museum shops - a Mackintosh design scarf ring, so that P has a gift for me on my fast-approaching birthday.
We leave Scotland on 27 July, and take the pretty route through Greenock and down the coast of the Inverclyde. The weather has at last improved, and we enjoy the scenery and the change from motorway driving, although eventually we join the A1(M) and use it to get to our next destination, Goldsborough in Yorkshire.
More pictures.

22 July 2016

Back in France: Bayeux and the Normandy beaches

We spend three days and four nights staying in a lovely old B&B called Chateau de Damigny. Mine host copes gracefully with my having got the booking dates wrong - uncomplainingly moves us from room to room so we get to see about half the available rooms, all charming.
We spend time walking in the countryside round the chateau, in Bayeux itself, at the Normandy Beaches and at Caen. One becomes acutely aware of the dangers of living in a place that is a crossroads, or an entry/exit point for a continent. Here Harold of England came to talk to the French, only to be captured and have to seek help and a ransom from William the Bastard of Normandy. The same William set sail from here to become William the Conqueror by beating Harold at Hastings (brilliantly and movingly recorded in the famous Bayeux Tapestry). The Normandy beaches were chosen by the Allies as the place to start the invasion of Europe which would eventually culminate in the defeat of Hitler's Germany. Before they landed on the beaches, they bombed Caen, killing thousands of civilians, most of them innocent of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many troops died in the landings and subsequent battles, but they at least knew what they were in for.
Arromanches, showing remains of Mulberry Harbour
At Arromanches we experience a documentary summary of the invasion and the time before and after, projected in a 360 degree cinema using archival footage from the time. It has a terrific impact, so moving that P is in tears at the end. Then we walk out into a perfect, sunny July day, and watch the French at the seaside, disporting themselves amongst the remaining caissons from the Mulberry Harbour, built by the Allies in a few days to provide a landing point for D-day. Back in Caen, you can see the ruins of William the Conqueror's castle, very strategically placed, and see all the new buildings that replaced the rubble left by the Allied bombings. War and peace. The cycle just keeps on going, whether its 1066 or 1944.
En route to Arromanches we experienced a traffic hold-up caused by some optimists trying to get a large truck, towing not one but two trailers, around a 120 degree bend in a tiny French village. It required the help of a tow truck and the decoupling of both trailers to get around the corner, providing the local inhabitants and us with entertainment for about half an hour.
From Normandy we drive to Paris to return our Eurolease Renault, stopping on the way at Rouen (lovely town, mediaeval streets, fine cathedral rebuilt after wartime destruction). More pictures, including nice ones of Rouen here.

19 July 2016

Belgium - in passing

Our barge trip in Holland is preceded and followed by a week in France. Which means we travel through Belgium, twice.
Northbound from Reims we make an overnight stop to break the journey, staying in a very pleasant hotel east of Liege.
Southbound we make a longer stop in Bruges, which has been on my bucket list ever since I did a school project on the city. I'm pleased to find it as captivating as I hoped, very mediaeval, lovely vistas down the canals, splendidly ornate buildings. Our hotel is genuinely old, exposed beams in the bedroom, some just above the bed on which past occupants have carved initials. As usual we do much walking, giving our feet a break by catching a tourist bus which provides an overview of the city and an amazing demonstration of driving skills in the narrow streets and tight corners, not to mention dodging horse and carriage combos, another popular means of tourist transport. Food is good, if rather more expensive than in Holland, but that could be just because Bruges is a top tourist destination. We get good advice about restaurants from the concierge at the hotel, who gets full marks for helpfulness, Despite the crowds in the main square and tourist souvenir streets, we find quiet places to walk and a couple of museums that aren't full of people. We see a very interesting Picasso exhibition at St John Hospital, and Flemish Primitives at the Groenigen. For once we don't feel impelled to get on the water, partly because the tourist boats all seem very crowded, and partly because we've just had our fill of canals in Holland. After two evenings and one full day we are happy to move on to France.
More pictures here.

17 July 2016

Barging about in Holland Part 2

We make our return trip through Amsterdam early on Sunday morning, a good choice as it was quiet and relatively free of traffic. Seems the Dutch still take Sundays seriously, at least in the morning - when we reach Weesp the streets and cafes stay empty until the afternoon.
From Weesp our itinerary is Sunday night in a countryside stop, 2 nights in the charming small town of Breukelen, after which our penichette is named, 2 nights in Utrecht, then Friday night back in the base at Loosdrecht, ready to give the boat back on Saturday morning.
Highspots of Part 2

  • seeing a bunch of Dutch teenagers returning from a sailing and camping weekend in small steel-hulled yachts, 4-5m. They are gaff-rigged, with masts that can be dropped. When we first see them they are being towed, daisy-chained behind a motor boat, then we watch enviously as the kids use a single long oar to scull them expertly into their mooring spots, alongside us.
  • Breukelen, where we have a lovely country walk, then a bit of a rest day because it is raining, and find two restaurants where we have very good food.
  • Utrecht, where we enjoy more city walks, an archeological tour under the cathedral where ruins date back to Roman conquest, but also includes fragments of the nave of the huge gothic cathedral, destroyed by a massive storm in 1674, never rebuilt. Apse and transepts remain as does the tower from the West end, with a cobbled square between
  • Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, filled with every imaginable mechanical music making device, from huge fairground organs to tiny music boxes, from Nickelodeons with circular metal disks to a Steinway player piano. Most amazing is a mechanical violin, extraordinarily ingenious construction involving 3 instruments each with only one string, and a circular bow rotating round all three. There is also a "woven music" display where a punched cardboard music "book" has been turned into cards for a Jacquard loom, then used to weave  a scarf. We stay until museum closes, fascinated.
  • getting back to the Locoboat base and finding that they are very nice about the minor damage we did by clipping another boat in a very tricky un-mooring situation, and that the cost is covered by insurance in the "inclusive package".
  • another serendipitous happening when we decide to break our trip from Holland back to France in a little village called Tholen, which just happens to be celebrating its 650th anniversary. And to Peter's delight, the town also has a working windmill. To see the windmill in motion and the amazing parade, click here.
Observations of Holland
- Sounds

Every town, large or small, has a carillon, and they ring out at least ever hour, sometimes on the quarters, playing tunes not always sounding particularly musical, but sometimes familiar (eg Fur Elise)
- Smells
Linden trees in flower, petunias, and a truly rural pong from the countryside, presumably silage, like a very powerful cheese
- Boats and bicycles
Dutch must start using both as soon as they can walk. Boats of all sizes skilfully manoeuvred everywhere. Bicycles ridden rapidly and vigorously in all weathers by people of all ages, some looking quite a bit older than us. Cycles range from rusty black treadlies to more modern numbers, but still mostly black. No one seems to bother with gears, it's so flat. They can and do dodge anything at a moment's notice, from other bikes to hapless tourists looking the wrong way when crossing roads. They often ride one-handed with the other hand used for a variety of purposes: talking on mobile, smoking, eating an ice-cream, nursing a child, holding a shopping bag, holding hands with another cyclist. The ultimate was an entire brass band playing while cycling.

- Gardens and flowers
In the height of summer, so everything is in full bloom. As in France gardens are well-tended, but where French gardens have a touch of careless rapture, Dutch gardens are generally clipped and mown within an inch.
Hydrangeas are big, in two senses, ubiquitous and huge, whole banks of plants canal-side, in colours from white through deep pink to blue and mauve.
Also as in France, all towns have hanging baskets and planters on all pillars and posts. Petunias are the municipal planting of choice, sometimes interspersed with geraniums. Whole towns are colour keyed, in Weesp the petunias were purple and white, in Amsterdam pink and white, in Utrecht all shades of pink.


- Houses
As in France, Dutch architecture is consistent - new houses echo the shapes of the past, stepped gables and steep roofs. Privacy is clearly unimportant, houses fronting right on the street generally have no blinds or curtains, and you can see through the immaculately clean windows into their living rooms, often right through open plan rooms to a well-kept garden at the back.  Houses built on floating platforms on the canals were equally open to view as we motored past.
- People
The French are mostly slim, the Dutch are lean and tanned (must be all that cycling). Older women are grey-haired, not dyed. You get a strong impression of organisation and efficiency. We found people extremely friendly and helpful. Language difficulties minimal as nearly everyone speaks English. The young are fluent and almost without an accent. We do find ourselves using sign language with a very sweet lady in her 80s, as we sat in a cafe in Monnickendam. She is joined by a slightly younger male friend and her granddaughter is waitressing, and they both help us out by translating. The friend slips away and returns with a little box containing Delft salt and pepper shakers in the shape of windmills, complete with moving sails. We buy a small pack of chocolates for grandma in return, and by the time we finish our coffee and appeltaart (to which Peter has become addicted), we are practically part of the family and I get a kiss on both cheeks from grandma as we say goodbye.
In summary
We really enjoyed Holland. Peter is not sure he would choose to go on the canals again as the amount of traffic and the frequent bridges mean that you need to be constantly alert while in motion, so not as relaxing as our previous French trips.
For the full photo album, with more boats, birds, bicycles and a spectacular sunset, click here.