Friday 29 July 2011

Fishy tales

With the aftershock total now 8175, any small bit of cheer is welcome from Christchurch, so it was heartening yesterday to hear a good news story for once, about the two goldfish Shaggy and Daphne discovered still alive in their tank in an office in the Red Zone, 134 days after the building was evacuated following the February quake. There was some dark muttering about their having lived off the corpses of their disappeared companions, but informed opinion has it that they have simply been in shut-down mode because of low temperatures (and snow is just the latest environmental insult that Cantabrians have had to cope with), the missing fish probably having been swept over the top in a post-quake mini tsunami.

From one extreme to another, my Ningaloo Reef whale shark story is recently out too, on the cover of the Herald's travel section, which was rather exciting - especially as my Leavenworth one was inside too. And then this week it was Reunion Island's turn. As ever, feast or famine - which is how it must be feeling for Shaggy and Daphne now.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Till next time

It was a perfect day to leave England: fixed in the memory on a warm summer's day, driving across the Cotswolds where the rolling fields of corn are golden and ready for harvesting, the trees are green and stately, and the butter-yellow stone of the houses in the villages was set off by the sweet peas, hollyhocks and lavender growing in the borders and flower-boxes.

We've been away for about four weeks. It seems ages, looking back over where we've been, the things we've done and seen, the people we've caught up with. Paris, London, rural England, Oxford, Stratford, Wales, Ireland... Punting, a West End show, a jaunting car, a progressive supper, a game fair, palaces and cathedrals, pubs and restaurants, gardens and galleries. Horses, dogs, goats, cattle, camels, donkeys and ducks. Pork pies, cider, Eccles cakes and cream teas. Boats, buses, cars, carts, trains and planes.

It's been fun. But it will be good to get home. (Especially on Air NZ business, thanks to airpoints and an upgrade, yay.)

UPDATE: Air NZ Business? Bit of a disappointment: looked good with the pods and all, and the service as always was excellent, but when it came to bedtime, instead of the seats reclining all the way back, what happens is that you stand up to allow the back-rest to fold forward to join up with the foot-stool. The resultant bed is perfectly flat, but the padding is minimal and it's like sleeping on an ironing board. It's a clever idea that doesn't work.

Thursday 21 July 2011


Couldn't leave Bunratty this morning without a too-quick look at the Folk Park: one of those outdoor museums where buildings have been relocated or reconstructed to make an old-time village. This one works particularly well, the trees and gardens looking really well-established and natural, and the buildings so pretty. And then of course there are people around like Mike here, in the school room, cane at the ready and full of chat about how back in 1847 ("Black '47") the children were so weak and tired from lack of food that it was no problem for a single teacher to be in charge of 130 of them. There were six books to teach from and "only one answer to a question" which were all learned by rote. Mike remembered having to kneel on prickly sticks for being late to school and threatened with expulsion if he looked at a girl, even his own sister - and he was born in 1952! (I speak as a Coronation baby myself.)

The main focus today was the Ring of Kerry, a 100-mile drive around the Iveagh Peninsula which promised great scenic spectacles that didn't initially deliver - I have a high standard for coastal drives, I am a New Zealander after all - but in the end all was well. Beetling great bare mountains, rocky coast, clear blue water, distant clusters of white-painted crofts, trails of stone walls down the slopes... No complaints. It felt appropriate, too, to find ourselves in Kenmare afterwards, driving slowly along the main street behind a man standing in a horse-drawn gig.

And finally there was dinner in a pub in central Killarney, with a glass of cider beside me, a beef and Guinness pie inside me, a duo belting out 'Black Velvet Band' and other old favourites right in front of me, and my last day in Ireland ahead of me.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Horses - four courses

Busy, busy day - proof again that there's more to see and do in even a small corner of Ireland than you can ever hope to squeeze into a laughable 5 days. First there was Waterford's Treasures: rooms full of silver and gold and crystal chandeliers with more than 200 prisms sparkling - and also more pleasingly ordinary stuff, like a tin clockwork toy Miss Busy-Bee the Typist and posters of Ireland's first pop superstars The Royal performing their smash hit The Huckleback in 1964.

Then a quick look at Waterford Crystal over the road where a grizzly bear 50cm high would set you back 30,000 euros, or an American football helmet - should you have a use for a glass one - a mere 17,500; and where Noel the duster claimed to have "nerves of steel" but that when accidents happen "it pays to run fast."

At Cashel Rock, that scourge of the tourist - scaffolding - was all over one side of the castle/cathedral like a rash, but down at Bru Boru, a cultural project, we were delighted by a mini-show of singing, dancing and music of such a high standard, we wished could see the proper evening show. Mind, it's hard work tapping along to that infectious music, so my ankles would be weak after that.

The horses came at Coolmore Stud, where a dozen or so stallions live in enviable elegance: lawns, gardens, trees, their loose boxes like pretty little houses, and endlessly pampered - though having five men watching narrowly when you have your end away, filming every moment, must take the edge off the luxury.

And tonight a four-course medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle, a tall and imposing 15th century castle, where Tom the Butler, some pink-cheeked wenches, an accomplished harpist and a lugubrious fiddler thoroughly entertained us while we ate a surprisingly tasty dinner. A long day, happily ended in the comfort of the Bunratty Castle Hotel's big, soft bed.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Street life

"Yur fookin' hoortin' may! Yur fookin' hoortin' may!" Moment of drama on the streets of Kilkenny as a man who stole a big bottle of vodka was forcibly detained by a couple of burly store detectives while the Garda came screeching to the rescue, siren and lights going.

It was pretty much all about the streets today: wandering Waterford's maze of lanes before being escorted on a guided tour by the famous Jack Burtchaell, who's been doing it up to six times a day for 21 years and so can be forgiven a certain lack of energy in his performance. Still interesting, though, covering 1000 years of history in an hour and a mile, with plenty of digs at the British, plus sex, violence and the drink. Waterford, a Viking city, is older than all the Scandinavian cities and is third in age only to London and Paris, so there's a lot to talk about; although some things can't be seen any more - the Waterford Crystal factory closed in 2009, alas, though there's still glass being blown here.

Then to Kilkenny through the green as countryside, where the sturdy castle - invaded today by hordes of Germans - is surrounded by a knot of little cobbled lanes lined mostly, it seemed, by pubs. It looked a lively place, colourful and pretty, and it was a shame we had so little time there.

Back in Waterford, we ate in the completely empty Munster bar before following our ears down to the riverside quay to watch a troupe of scout bagpipe band members practising: they were good, though it was odd to hear Scotland the Brave. It was windy and cold, so we had to go afterwards to the magnificent Granville Hotel for a warm-up: all shiny brass, stained glass, comfortable chairs and original caricatures of golfers and jockeys; and birthplace of Thomas Francis Meaguer, who did many things including designing the Irish flag, but for me was special because at one point he was sent to Van Diemen's Land - otherwise known as Tasmania, where I went in February. So that's today's connection.

Monday 18 July 2011

Good Knight

How I do hate the word 'uncomfortable'. Mostly when it's used by a gynaecologist bearing down on me with a plastic speculum; but also when it's uttered by the captain of a ferry I'm trapped on for the next two hours. Crossing from the Welsh port of Fishguard to Rosslare in south-east Ireland, we were shunted about by 2-metre swells and it was no fun at all, even with a Scopaderm patch behind my ear: it's a long time to stare at the horizon and concentrate on not hearing all the honking up going on elsewhere in the cabin.

But eventually we got back onto terra firma and wound up at the world's "oldest intact still-working lighthouse," said William, choosing his description carefully to avoid any possibility of challenge. Hook Head in County Wexford has had a light since the 5th century, and an actual lighthouse for 800-odd years, so I reckon he's pretty safe. It was a fine and stirring place to be on a blustery day with dark cloud and bright sun and, ever a sucker for lighthouses, I would have been pleased to be there on those grounds alone - but one-third of the way up its 150 steps, we came across an amazing coincidence.

Regular readers (hollow laughter) will recall that earlier in this trip, we stayed at the Inner Temple in London - a privilege accorded to members only. Just metres from the door of Dr Johnson's Building was the Temple Church, built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, they of the Crusades. We went in and looked at, amongst others, the effigy of William Marshal who made King John sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and thereby also made his own name, amongst the legal fraternity at least.

But something else he did was to found the town of New Ross in Wexford and, to encourage trade there, also built at the entrance to the river, Hook Head lighthouse, where there's a picture of his supine statue back in London. Connections, eh? Love 'em.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Horses and goats and dogs, oh yes!

And people, lots and lots of lovely, friendly, welcoming people, here in Herefordshire where we used to live. It's been such fun and a great pleasure to have conversations again about hunting and farming and horses, to hear so many names we'd almost forgotten and catch up on the news, almost all of it still completely local as so few of them have moved away (though some, inevitably, have now er, moved on).

Why would they want to go elsewhere? It's such a pretty part of the country, and there's always so much going on. Last night it was the Progressive Supper to raise funds for Lea Church, and about 40 of us moved from house to house - starter, main, pudding and coffee - eating really delicious food (summer pudding! heavenly) and mixing and mingling with a great assortment of people including the highly popular young vicar who has six churches on his patch but still has time to keep a horse for hunting.

Things don't stand still here, depite the traditions: yesterday we visited a goat farm to watch the milking of about 800 in a huge shed where 1200 of them live permanently indoors, entirely content on yellow straw with plenty of room and sun and air, and plastic barrels to play with. I thought I was against factory farming, but what I saw there was entirely unobjectionable. Travel: it does so broaden the mind.

Monday 11 July 2011

Periodic visits

It's very nice to be back in Oxford again: last time was two years ago on an Alice-themed visit. This trip is student-focused, and we're staying in Keble College - one of several that rent out their rooms during vacation time. It's the real deal: three-storey buildings forming quadrangles around squares of fine, neatly-mown striped lawns, and a high-ceilinged dining hall where we'll be having breakfast tomorrow.

There was also a brief dodo-detour at the Museum of Natural History across the road, to see the complete skeleton there and the feathery reconstruction: rather more impressive than the sad display of remains that's all they have to show off in Mauritius.

It seemed only fair to try out the Oxford version of punting, having done it in Cambridge last time. To be brutally frank, it's prettier in Cambridge, as there's more to see of the colleges, and more bridges to pass under, but Emilio, our very English punter, was charming and so was the enterprising pair who sat in the middle of the river in a punt full of Pimm's ingredients, even down to pots of mint, so we were able to pause for them to make us all a large glassful each, and then glide on our way, fully content. What better way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon?

Saturday 9 July 2011

Home county

Back to Farnham, Surrey today: the first place I lived when I arrived in England 34 years ago, to spend the day with family I first met then, still as funny, and such good company that the daughter who was initially miffed that we couldn't go instead to Legoland, was entirely won over.

Farnham is such a pretty town, different from the Cotswold classics but in its own way just as appealing, with its historic old brick buildings, some of them in herringbone patterns, its half-timbered houses, and flint ones too. As well, it takes the Britain in Bloom competition very seriously, and is a prize-winner with hanging baskets and window boxes bright with flowers everywhere. The country all around is lovely too, with lots of woods, the Common, bridle paths and footpaths - we took a walk to look at the mock-castle set currently being used for Johnny Depp's new movie Dark Shadow (unfortunately no filming in progress today).

A sainted aunt, cousins, children, cats, a dog and some horses, plus a cosy pub, good stories and cider: another good day.

Friday 8 July 2011

End of the octology

What a big day: the last event in the Harry Potter section of our lives, that's given us so much shared fun and excitement over the last 14 years. It was the premiere of the final movie, held in Trafalgar Square because the usual Leicester Square wasn't going to be big enough. Trouble is, Trafalgar wasn't big enough either, with so many eager fans camping out for days that the 8,000 coveted red wristbands for admittance to the central area soon ran out, and thousands of people were shut out into the wasteland of the footpaths around the outside, to be barked at by stressed policemen.

Rather unkindly, the barriers were solid and high, leaving us wishing we had drills - "Or a wand!" one girl said longingly - and reduced to poking our cameras over the top, hoping to catch a snap of the stars or JK herself on the stage in front of the big screen. We were all herded and bossed by the police, and most of us saw very little, our only excitement coming from the roars and screams of the crowds squeezed on the steps of St Martin's as they caught sight of a new star coming forward for an interview. But it was still fun and exciting, and it was such a good-natured crowd, from little kids in cloaks and round glasses, through the 20 year-old Harry generation with their risque posters ("I'd get sleazy for Ron Weasley"), all the way up to people like me who ought to be beyond it, but were loving every moment.

It was a major production, getting there from Gloucestershire, and battling through the traffic and crush of people, and we saw practically nothing of the celebrities - but it was an event that meant a lot to us, and we were glad to be there.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Summertime in England

Synonymous with Glastonbury, Wimbledon, Royal Ascot - and rain. Well, showers, so at least we did get to enjoy, in between, the rolling fields of wheat and barley in the Cotswolds, the poppies along the verges, and the lovely honey stone villages that are looking so neat and pretty with flowers in tubs and baskets and the grass so fine and tidy.

Lots of names from the past - Cold Slad, Pamington, The Slaughters, Bourton-on-the-Water, Broadway - and a long detour so the Firstborn could take a photo of the Wyre Piddle sign. Then a bit of rain, and we took shelter in the classy shops of Cheltenham Spa, where the assistants are effortlessly polite and the customers ditto. I'm feeling a bit scruffy here, to be honest - I always used to dress up to come to Cheltenham, whereas Gloucester was all jeans and muddy gumboots.

Non-appearance by the daughters at the rendezvous under the Regent Arcade fish-clock - instead an urgent text: "NEED MORE TIME!" - I'm glad Chelters is fulfilling our promise.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

As I was saying to Lady Carnarvon...

Highclere Castle is a beautiful building and a fun place for her young son to grow up in. We were there to get material for a story about "Downton Abbey", the irresistible upstairs/downstairs soap opera that's just finished its first season in NZ, and which is filmed at Highclere. We chatted with Lady Carnarvon for an hour. She was very nice, but wouldn't let me take a photo "because I'm a mess and haven't got any makeup on" - I should be so lucky, to look like that when I'm at my worst, all tousled blonde hair and blue eyes and perfect teeth, and casually elegant.

The house was very appealing on a hot July day - though evidently a chilly place in cold weather, and all the fireplaces were set ready to go - and I especially liked all the evidence of occupation, like the tubes of cream on the bedside tables, the books left open face down, in amongst the Van Dyck portraits and the soaring ceilings. Oh, and seeing the Queen and Di in family photos scattered about on the grand piano and side tables. And there was a Tutenkamen exhibition in the servants' cellars that was mostly convincing replicas except for Lord Carnarvon's actual folding razor that gave him the fateful knick, leading to septicaemia and death, and the Curse of the Mummy story. Great stuff.

Monday 4 July 2011

Therefore not tired of life

It's really pleasing to see the daughters, who began by rolling their eyes at a programme of sight-seeing historical buildings when they could be shopping in Oxford Street, surprising even themselves by being interested in the sights and amused by the guides and enjoying the open-top bus ride round London today. It helped that the commentaries were genuinely funny ("The man on top of that column is the Duke of York - 'The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men' - but enough of his private life") though who wouldn't be impressed by the history and the stories and the name-dropping that any look at London involves? The only downside is that Auckland is coming to seem like such a lightweight in comparison.

As well as the tour and the Tower and the Thames, there was also shopping of course, in battle with the crowds and the sales and the choice: a stressful business. And yesterday at Camden Market there was more, though different, amongst all the stalls of crafts and funky fashion and tat and food, where we managed to find a guy serving bbq ribs who comes from ChCh, so in amongst all the Sarf Lunnon accents by the canal lock there we were talking about Cathedral Square.

And then last night there was a West End musical, Betty Blue Eyes, on Stephen Fry's Twitter recommendation, which was funny and cleverly staged with some great swing-dancing and even some history - as well as an amazingly good animatronic pig. All that and a pork pie, too.

PS Post title of course referring to Dr Johnson ("When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life") and nicely connected because we're staying at the Inner Temple in Dr Johnson's Building - tucked away in total peace right beside Fleet Street, to which the journo First-Born has her own connection.

Friday 1 July 2011

En train de nous nous amuser

Today I slid into the Gare du Nord, starting point for so many stories I've read, for one of my own this time. A long one, starting with a 5.30am wake-up in London, a two and a half hour journey (but oh so smooth and efficient, leaving on the dot of the scheduled 7.22am) and straight onto a bus tour of the city.

It was a beautiful day and Paris looked fabulous, all the iconic sights bright and shiny and stunning, the traffic marvellously horrendous, our guide unfailingly cheerful. Up the tower, down the Seine, into Notre Dame during a service with a priest singing so beautifully I would happily have paid to listen, and then to a Temple of Mammon, Galeries Lafayette with its glorious stained glass dome. No-one could ever accuse Paris of minimalism.

Lots of queues and waiting too, though, and dinner finally at 10pm in Montmartre, charmed into a tourist-focused very ordinary restaurant by a waiter who snared us out on the footpath. No matter: it was a brilliant day and the daughters were delighted with their first taste of Paris.


Just gotta love these daylight legs. Even though Air NZ's entertainment system is SECOND TO NONE in its depth and width and accessibility from the moment you board, and I've revelled in getting deep into entire series of hi-qual TV series ('Episodes' - yes!), there's nothing like the real-time, real view from the window.
Of course, you need to be over land for it to hold more than a few minutes' interest - there's a limit to how long you can concentrate on empty sea - so unless you're flying over Oz, that means a long wait on any ex-NZ flight.
But so worth it! How much fun it is, looking down on vast landscapes that change so quickly and that feature recognisable things like Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon! (re which: never mind from the moon - actually, myth - how stunning to be impressed by its size even from 33,000 feet in a 777).
And even when the spoilsport cloud muscles in and wrecks the view, there's still the airshow map showing that we're passing over places with names like Salt Lake City, Mt Rushmore and - whoa! Gimli!!! Ok, waiting for Aragorn to pop up now...
And has anyone ever counted Canada's lakes? Seems excessive to me - but maybe that's the port talking. Even though I'm on the starboard side, hahaha! Ok, getting dark, going to sleep now.


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