20 August 2016
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
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|
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.
08 August 2016
Love London. Would happily have stayed longer, although Peter was ready to leave after our 17 night stay.
Journey to London is wearing. A long drive with various motorway holdups, then longer holdups getting into Luton, finding the hire car drop-off, going off again to get petrol, finding the drop-off again, finding out where to go to get the car checked out, waiting for the shuttle to London, crawling through London peak hour traffic in the bus, and finally a hot and crowded tube journey from Baker Street to Canary Wharf. We sink our pride and get a taxi from the station to our lodgings, even though it is only about a 10 minute walk. Final piece of the disaster becomes apparent later when Peter realises he has left his wallet in the taxi. Despite considerable effort (visits to police stations, multiple visits to Transport for London Lost Property), we never see it again.
Our accommodation in Canary Wharf is great - a cleverly designed open plan apartment where the bed pulls out like a huge drawer from under a raised living area. It has all mod cons - washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, good kitchen where we cook quite a few meals. We occasionally patronise the local Indian restaurant which is two minutes walk from the door, or eat in London proper while we are out and about.
Weather in London is amazingly good. It doesn't rain until our very last day, and the temperature is generally in the low twenties. As a result we spend a lot more time outdoors than we anticipated. We walk and walk and walk, and get our money's worth out of our weekly Oyster cards. We go to Bush Road in the Surrey Quays area to see the house where Peter spent his first months, in the middle of the Blitz. Contrary to family myth, the terrace that the house is in wasn't destroyed by bombing, only damaged when the houses across the road and further down the road were destroyed. Their place has been taken by rather ugly 50s utilitarian buildings, but the Victorian terrace containing Peter's family house is intact. Peter manages to find some people who've been in the area for years to confirm this.
I re-visit some of my old haunts. After one of our fruitless trips to TFL Lost Property, near Baker Street, we walk through Regents Park and up to Chalk Farm, where I manage to locate the bedsit that my brother and sister-in-law were renting when I first arrived in London in 1969, and where I lived until I found a place of my own. On another excursion I explore Paddington, finding that the office where I worked is no longer in existence, but the pub where I drank is. After a chat with the barman I walk to Inverness Terrace in Bayswater where I lived next in 1969, and from there walk across Hyde Park to join Peter who is enjoying a day in the Science Museum.
We love being near the Thames. On our first Saturday we go via the tube to Greenwich, explore Greenwich market, visit the Naval College. We return to the north bank via the foot tunnel under the Thames, then walk all the way up the east side of the Isle of Dogs and back to the flat in Canary Wharf. On another excursion we go via the Docklands Light Railway to Tower Bridge.Starting with Tower Bridge, we cross the river, walk along the bank, cross at the next bridge, walk along the bank... we get as far as Southwark Bridge before we run out of steam, stopping along the way to visit a wharf that's now a shopping mall, and to have a cup of tea in the Tate Modern, and to admire the view from the top of that building.
03 August 2016
|Recycled birthday cake (lots of baby boomers here)|
|Peter meets Blind Jack in York|
On Wednesday we pack up and say farewell to Goldsborough, which has been lovely, and head south.
27 July 2016
|... with great view.|
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.
22 July 2016
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|
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.
19 July 2016
More pictures here.
17 July 2016
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.
- 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.
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)
Linden trees in flower, petunias, and a truly rural pong from the countryside, presumably silage, like a very powerful cheese
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.
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.
10 July 2016
Amsterdam and the North
It is of course dead flat, which means very few locks, compared to France. Instead the excitement is provided by bridges, many too low even for our small boat so one has to tie up and wait for one of a variety of lifting mechanisms to operate. Then if there is no one coming the other way, off you go.
There is a lot of traffic. Unsurprisingly, in a waterlogged country, there are hundreds of thousands of boats, and in summer they are all out being sailed, rowed, or motored. We have dodged everything from people on paddle boards to vast barges over 100m long. There are tiny harbours or mooring places along the canal sides in every town, but it can be hard to find a parking spot. And although we have travelled along lengths of canal with only polders on either side, much of the time there are houses on at least one side of the canal, some of them floating on the canal.
Our itinerary to date:
We started from the canal base in Loosdrecht, went North to Weesp, then to Amsterdam where we spent 2 days and nights, further north to Alkmaar, then back to Amsterdam via Edam, Vollendam, Monnickendam and Broek in Waterland. We've taken more time than allowed for in our schedule, so instead of proceeding on a southern loop through Gouda, we are retracing our path toward Loosdrecht. From there we will just go on to Utrecht, then return to base next Friday.
|XXL Barge to be avoided in the Nordsee Canal|
- Seeing Amsterdam from the canals, both in our barge and in the hop-on hop-off "canal bus". People braver than us navigate them in pedaloes, which are called canal bikes
- Doing the above without colliding with the dozens of tourist boats, and getting across the Nordsee Canal without getting run down
- Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum
- NEMO, Amsterdam's equivalent of Scienceworks, where we happily spent most of a day. Big emphasis on energy conservation and renewables.
- Watching bottes manoeuvring in Monnickendam. We saw these big traditional wooden sailing boats coming back into the tiny harbour after a regatta, and were amazed to see them spin through 180 degrees before mooring or rafting up. See the video for this one.
- A museum in Edam, an old house furnished in the style of a couple of hundred years back, which had a floating cellar, an open brick box that you climbed down into, and where you could see the water level over the sides, less than a metre down.
- Witnessing two weddings, a high school graduation, and an a capella choir competition, all of which we just happened on. Very strange hearing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" sung in Dutch.
- Birds. The canals are a twitcher's paradise. Even ignoramuses like us can identify several sorts of duck, geese (ordinary, Egyptian and Canada), swan, moorhen, grebes, heron, assorted gulls. Lots of gorgeous fluffy young being shepherded by anxious parent birds.
|Bottes in Monnickendam Harbour|
|Floating bike park, jam-packed...|
The barge hire people, whom Peter described as a mine of misinformation, were negative about their capital - full of Muslims, rapists and bicycle thieves (categories possibly overlapping). We were told not to take our hired bikes in, as even if locked, they would be stolen in one minute. Hard to believe once you've been there that there is anyone in Amsterdam that doesn't already have a bicycle. There are 9,500 bikes parked around Central Station every day - God only knows how people remember where they put theirs. There are dedicated bicycle parks jam-packed with bikes. And everywhere you go there are bicycles whizzing past. On our boat trip we were told that the saying about Amsterdam's canals is that they are one third water, one third mud, and one third bicycles.
|...and there's more.|
More observations about boats, bicycles and Holland in general to follow in Part 2.
01 July 2016
|Le Vieux Chateau|
Our first week is spent in France, with a quick crossing into Geneva to visit friends Ben and Cam, now living and working there. We travel rather more than is our custom, with only one two-night stay in Dijon. Our little Eurodrive Renault Captur is great, and churns through the kms with amazing economy. Itinerary: Paris, Maçon, Geneva, Dijon, Reims, Liège (Belgium).
High spots of our week:
- having the first croissant and espresse breakfast, even if it is in the shuttle station near the Ibis Hotel at Charles de Gaulle airport. And then similar breakfasts all week but in better surroundings
- staying in Le Vieux Chateau, which is just that, on a hilltop overlooking vineyards in the Maçon area. Our chambre d'hôte is on two levels - the bed upstairs is in an alcove, rather like sleeping on Nahani. And there is a very friendly cat. We vow to return one day for a longer stay.
- sunshine and warmth after wintry Melbourne. It is low to mid-twenties, perfect for city strolling
- lunching with Ben and Cam, talking music and politics, and the politics of international music
|Paddle steamer on Lake Leman, Geneva|
- zipping back and forth on Lake Leman in Geneva via mouette, little ferries that are part of their public transport system
- crossing the Jura, on some very Tour de France roads. I enjoy this more than Peter, who is doing the driving and therefore can't look at the view much
- in the cathedral, woman in her sixties goes and stands directly under the crossing of nave and transept, sings the Bach Gounod Ave Maria unaccompanied, pitch perfect, beautifully expressive, with a second Amen pitched for maximum echo. Stunned tourists like us wanting to applaud at the end, but would not have been right. Singer rejoins husband and goes on walking round cathedral
- as we walk across one of the squares in Dijon, we stop because some people are doing something odd with a half constructed barrel and some bits of wood. We ask what is going on, helpful person explains that in France they award gold medals to the no 1 master in various creative arts and crafts. This is a meeting of all of them (almost every neck we can see has a tricolour ribbon and medal) to honour one woman who is France's no 1 flower arranger (she recently spent 8 days in Dubai doing flowers for some prince's wedding). We watch as a figure is constructed with the barrel as a skirt (staves open at the bottom) wooden legs and feet, a steel mesh torso, tubular steel arms, steel frame head and beaten metal hat. The florist and assistant then decorate hat and body with flowers until "Caroline" is complete. By then the charming woman who has explained the whole proceedings has to go, and we have had enough of standing in the sun, so we don't wait to see "her" carried off in triumph
- finding that Reims Cathedral still gives me goosebumps and that Peter thinks it amazing too (he hasn't been before). Admiring wonderful new stained glass by a German artist, complements the Chagall window beautifully.
- accidental abandonment of clothing, pajamas in Paris (his), shirt in Dijon (hers)
- accidental laundering of passport (his), retrieved before too wet and dried out successfully
- accidental acquisition of key to Belgian hotel - will have to post back
- finding Satnav not as good as Google maps - being led up windy narrow roads all around the vineyards, and being badly misdirected on to the wrong motorway where there has been recent road rearrangement. Takes a tense 20 mins getting back on course.
- paying 32 Swiss francs (more than $50) for parking behind Hotel in Geneva, when there was a public car park 50m down the road. Somewhat compensated by getting free parking in Dijon as payment machine was out of order and we were let out gratis by a disembodied voice, after 15 mins of struggle with machine and search for an attendant.
24 June 2016
Only hours left before we board our first flight.
Watch this space....