Wednesday 28 August 2019

Goodbye and hello again

Look, I tried, honestly. It was a hot night giving way to a grey, muggy morning, and there was a beach right there, just two short blocks away. So I went down again, hoping for more success than last time, and the tide was indeed up to half, and the sea when I paddled was invitingly warm - but the weed! Green, slimy, and unavoidable. I came out with it draped around my ankles and gave up entirely on any idea of swimming at an English beach. So inferior. Even the inevitable OWM busily metal-detecting in the pebbles after the busy weekend wasn't having any luck - "A couple of coins and a bunch of bottle-tops". His best-ever find was a well-preserved Roman coin, that turned out to be fake.
We packed up and headed off to a lavender farm, which I'm always a sucker for but which was really hard to find, even - or especially - with GPS. When we finally tracked it down, it turned out that the lavender harvest was over two weeks ago and they were all busy with much less appealingly-scented hops. But, this being England, it was no distance to a lovely alternative - the village of Eynsford, which we'd just gone through en route.
The main street was lined with pretty houses and inviting pubs hung with flowers, there were the ruins of a Norman castle in a green field and, down a side street, the ford of the name. It was busy with kids paddling with shrimp nets, swimming and playing in the water, and families along the bank making the most of the last week of the school holidays. There were some encouragingly busy tea rooms, but we ate indoors at the Plough pub - the tempura mushrooms were delicious, and the OH's rhubarb and apple crumble and custard, served in little metal pans, was a triumph.
And then it was all pretty much over, just tedious travel through thick traffic to Wimbledon for some sorry goodbyes, and then to Heathrow, via a long, long jam in Chiswick. There was all the usual boring airport stuff, then six hours to Dubai with at least a spare seat next to me, a short stop-over and then 15+ hours to Auckland with the sheer and unexpected delight of a whole row to myself. Then came a taxi to the ferry, the ferry to Waiheke and the final taxi home, to a disgruntled cat and the joy of my own bed, at last.
Getting sick was the pits, and really took the shine off the cruise; but then things (and I) got better, London was wonderful, Kent was a delight, and catching up with the Firstborn and partner was really lovely. I'm glad I went - but I'm so, so glad to be home again.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Bit of a bird theme today

Following its world-wide cynical norm, on the day that most people went back to work after the holiday weekend, the weather peaked today: a sweltering 35 degrees, clear and sunny. But it suited us, you'll be glad to hear, regular 😃 reader. After a lovely breakfast at the Windy Café up the road - where they are assertive about their making a fine flat white, and aren't wrong - we headed off to Leeds Castle which is, confusingly, nowhere near Leeds but is across the Downs near Maidstone.
It was chosen as a suitably do-able castle, which it is, though we were glad to have the mobility scooter as there's quite a long, but lovely, walk through the grounds to the buildings. There are lawns and trees and flowers, swans and ducks and a lake, and then the castle and keep in their moat, elegant and stately. It's also well set-up for disabled people so nothing stopped us from enjoying our stroll through the rooms, that had been extensively re-designed in the 1920s by its lady owner, and had fine furniture, fashionably karate-chopped cushions, and ornamental birds everywhere.
It also had, during its 900 years, plenty of history: Henry VIII lived here with Catherine of Aragon, burnt airmen recuperated during WW2, and both Camp David preparatory talks, and Northern Ireland peace talks with Tony Blair, took place here. There are novelties like carved beams, double-dovetail joints in the floorboards and an ebony floor which momentarily shocked me, getting confused with ivory (thanks for that, Paul McCartney).
We ate our packed lunch by the moat, bullied by gulls and ravens/jackdaws/crows (never got them straight, in all the years I lived in England) and then set off for the falconry demonstration. Except, a) the mobility scooter suddenly lost most of its power, and just chugged along; and b) when we got there the master falconer announced that it was too hot to fly the birds so we could have a meet and greet with them instead, under the trees.
That was actually better, seeing them close up, all sorts from a dinky kestrel to a massive Russian eagle. My favourites, though, as ever, were the owls, which are always so solemn and serious-looking, with boo'iful plumage - even though Twitter's latest discovery, that their legs are inordinately long, did somewhat interfere with my appreciation of their dignity. Stella was especially impressive.
We thought we'd need help getting the scooter back to the carpark then, and easily found help from the obliging staff, but then it suddenly rebooted itself and we managed fine. And that was it for the day, really. We returned the scooter to Canterbury, giving up on the idea of exploring that city, and retired to the Airbnb at Whitstable for a rest. This travelling lark, it really can take it out of you, especially when you're still in recovery from the flu - all that walking and talking and paying attention, it's tiring.
The restaurateurs in Whitstable were tired, too, after their long weekend, and not much interested in another tableful of diners after 7.30pm, so we ended up with cheese and wine back at the Airbnb and a pleasantly quiet wind-down after a busy few days.

Monday 26 August 2019

Phew-what-a-scorcher: the new normal...

It was August Bank Holiday Monday today, and it was a proper scorcher - a record, in fact, the hottest ever at 33.3 degrees. And it certainly felt it. I was very grateful not to be in London today, where it would have been unbearable.
This morning we left the Haywain, to spend the next two nights at Whitstable right on the coast - another new place for me. First, though, we stopped off in Canterbury (so hard for me, from Christchurch in the province of Canterbury, NZ, to think of that as a city) to hire a mobility scooter for the OH, who since the flu has become even frailer than previously. The Firstborn did all the research and it was all remarkably easy - very impressively so, in fact. There's an organisation called Shopmobility that hires out, for a pretty reasonable fee, your choice from a wide range of regular wheelchairs, electric chairs and mobility scooters. It cost £7 a day for a simple electric scooter (they did have fancier ones). The process was quick and straightforward, and in no time at all I was buzzing along, manoeuvring in and out of a lift, and around the streets back to the car where the OH was waiting.
It was an education, truly. I was instantly conscious of accessibility issues, and grateful for automatic doors, pavement ramps, pedestrian courtesy. It was also pretty good fun! Back at the car, though, the plan to look around the city changed and we were to head straight for Whitstable. Instant problem: how to get the scooter, with its heavy battery, into the car? We couldn't lift it for the life of us. Solution? Ask a passing big man - who happily obliged, heaving it into the back of the (fortunately bigger than requested) Jaguar.
I must say, here, kudos to the Brits. It hasn't always been my experience, but on this trip every single person I have had contact with, all of them random strangers, was friendly, obliging, helpful and cheerful. Maybe it was the holiday, maybe the lovely weather - maybe even it was a perverse reaction to the looming disaster of Brexit - but they were, without exception, a real pleasure to encounter, and they should all be proud of themselves.
So we headed away to meet up with the Firstborn and partner in Whitstable, where the OH very quickly got the hang of the scooter, and we had the novelty of being left behind as he zipped away ahead. It's such a pretty place, a classic seaside town, and was humming today with a little market, art shops, cafés, old pubs festooned with colourful hanging baskets, stately buildings, churches and a theatre. We moseyed on down to the harbour, which was if anything even busier, with cute little fishing boats reflected in the water, and quaint rows of tall, narrow huts converted into art and craft shops, and restaurants. Mussels are a big thing here, and oysters and lobsters, and there were stalls busily serving them.
We ate at one of the open-air restaurants - crab rolls, very nice, with cider - and it was all relaxed and lovely. Perfect, in fact. Then we ambled back up into town, along the seaside, enjoying the varied architecture and the ambiance, and fetched up finally at our Airbnb for the next two nights. It was one of the odder ones: almost Mary Celeste-ish in that there was personal stuff of all sorts lying around everywhere, as though the owners had only just popped out - which maybe they actually had. It was a bit disconcerting, but perfectly clean, so I wasn't bothered, although the Firstborn was more critical.
It was immensely hot, so I put on my togs and went to the beach just a couple of blocks away for a swim. Big mistake! The tide was out and, whereas in NZ that would mean just walking a bit further to the water, here it was a disaster. Honestly, I tried. I walked down the pebbles between the breakwaters against which people were clustered in the partial shade, and started to walk across the wet sand to the water - but it was so muddy and squelchy that I soon learned to step on the multiple patches of green weed draped over the surface, which gave a bit of traction. I picked my way out, and out, encouraged by seeing people in the water in the distance - but I never got deeper than just over my ankles before I gave it up as a bad job. Honestly, English beaches! We do them so much better in New Zealand... 
It was kind of cute, though, so after a shower back at the house, I returned to observe the natives at play. There they were, sitting in folding chairs or on towels under umbrellas between the ranks of breakwaters; or noisily drinking outside the Old Neptune pub; or wandering along the path with their dogs; or sprawled on the edge of the harbour wall, some of them hopefully fishing. There was a picturesque boat stranded in the shallows with people paddling around it and, beyond it, water deep enough for some of them to be actually swimming. It was all very colourful and typically English-seaside, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back at the house, there was champagne we had snuck away from the suite fridge on Silver Wind - thanks, Silversea - then a gorgeous (and widely appreciated) sunset, and then just crisps and beer for dinner in the quaint old Royal Naval Reserve pub in the main street, that's been making its customers welcome and comfortable since 1760.

Sunday 25 August 2019

So, so English

It's August Bank Holiday weekend, and the weather is amazingly hot and summery, so today everyone and his/her dog was out and about. I mean that about the dogs - honestly, you wouldn't believe how many dogs there are here. Everybody has one! Or several. On leads, well-behaved, well-fed, shiny and bright-eyed. It's lovely to see, if a little overwhelming.
The dogs were fine - it was the cars that got to us today. So much traffic! Not just on the big roads, but on the winding, narrow little lanes as well, crawling along, squeezing past each other, showing admirable patience and understanding. We were really glad we'd set out early on our big effort for the day, which was to walk along the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. We passed by the low but massive bulk of Dover Castle and left the car in the free! car park just above the cliffs. I'd never been here before, so it was great to see a new bit of England. The walk took almost an hour along to South Foreland Lighthouse, where we turned and came back. 
It was great. The cliffs are so high, so dazzlingly white, and the sea today was clear and blue like the Mediterranean. The ferry port was moderately busy, hemmed in by its harbour wall and totally focussed on processing car traffic. Up on the top, there were no fences or barriers, no warning signs - how refreshing, to be treated like a sensible adult! - just grass and brambles full of fat juicy blackberries, and wind-bent trees and shrubs. There were also Exmoor ponies, which was unexpected, though they were fat and crabby.
At the lighthouse, we were too early for the tea rooms, though they were getting ready and solved for us the mystery of the odd lumpy brown fabric bags hanging outside the open windows - false wasp nests, to dissuade the nasty stingers from making a nuisance of themselves. It was a new thing, so they couldn't report on their effectiveness (no pic, sorry).
Back at the National Trust visitor centre, we were also intrigued to find a freezer full of dog ice cream - pottles of almost regular vanilla ice cream with dog vitamins added. Good grief. Those Poms and their dogs, eh? 
We were almost at the end of our walk, just standing above the cliffs admiring the amazing scenery when we heard the most unexpected, yet appropriate, and instantly recognisable sound: a Spitfire! Of course we'd seen the gun emplacements that are still along the cliffs from war time, so we were already halfway in the zone, but it felt like a gift to see it buzzing overhead, and then back again, followed later by a couple of biplanes. Bank Holiday event, no doubt - but perfect timing, and so evocative.
We had also timed it well for the heat, which had really ramped up, and the crowds - not helped by a jousting event at the castle. There was no avoiding them though, and there were throngs of people everywhere we went that afternoon - to Deal's long pebble beach, and through impossible-to-park Sandwich to Ramsgate with its harbour full of boats including the sturdy Sundowner, which was one of the Dunkirk rescue vessels (and also, in a not-coincidence, once owned by the second officer on the Titanic)
The sandy beach there was heaving, typically English and so foreign to Kiwi eyes - impossible to see the crowds, the umbrellas, the wind-breaks, and not scoff at how inferior a beach experience it was. The ample expanses of skin weren't appealing, either - dazzling white, glaring red, or covered in tattoos.
We headed back inland then, to Fordwich, for no better reason than that it's the smallest town in Britain. People were playing in the river, in amongst all the weed (cue more Kiwi lip-curling) - but they were having fun, swimming, boating and kayaking. Our goal here was to have dinner at the George & Dragon pub, which was a great choice, although we can't recommend the rhubarb cider - too much like cordial. The food, however, was excellent, and the Yorkshire pudding that came with the roast beef was magnificent. I rather regretted my baked Camembert when I saw it.
We cruised back to Bramling in golden evening light, the countryside so pretty, the oast houses quaint, the cottages cute, and went to bed satisfied with our busy, outdoorsy, picturesque and very English day.

Saturday 24 August 2019

So long, Silversea

It's always the same at the end of a cruise: the friendly, attentive staff - even Ronill, the cheeriest waiter I've ever had the pleasure of being served by - are distracted, busy, looking ahead to their new guests; and we, who have had their sole attention for the previous two weeks, are now an impediment. It's really quite sad. So we had our last breakfast at La Terrazza, annoyingly not thinking to sit outside on the deck and bask for the last time in both sunshine and our glorious surrounds (though Brenton, the Golden Voice from Adelaide, was savvy enough to snag himself a table out there).
And then we waited for our colour to be called, setting off, when it was, on one of those tedious days that a trip inevitably involves: trailing down to the tender, crossing the Thames to the Millennium Tower Pier, waiting for a taxi - at least we had a cliché drive past many of London's iconic sights as we squandered, to the driver's delight, £91 getting to Heathrow - and then sorting out a hire car. Boring (though we did at least get a free upgrade to a big Jaguar). And then there was the protracted escape from the airport, which involved numerous GPS misunderstandings and several complete circuits before making it onto the dubious delight of the M25. So much traffic! It was to become a theme...
We headed down into Kent, to meet up with the Firstborn and partner at a lovely little pub at Bramling near Canterbury, the Haywain, where we stayed in a converted coach house. There was a lot of catching up to do, beer and cider to be drunk in the garden, some amusement to be had at the bossy pub dog, Charlie, then an excellent dinner (whitebait!) and finally, disappointingly too tired to stay for that evening's karaoke session, bed on a stable surface for the first time in a fortnight.

Friday 23 August 2019

Big, big day - long, long post

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Despite still suffering (it's official: proper flu, resulting in bronchitis), I was up early this morning. Pre-dawn early, in order to score a pozzy in the Observation Lounge as we glided up the Thames towards - yay! this time! - Tower Bridge. So I was able to observe, in comfort, the reddening sky behind the giant container cranes and windmills of Tilbury, which made this functional bit of the city look positively arty for once. 
The sky lightened, and more people appeared, and I scriggled my way [thanks to E F Benson's Mapp & Lucia for that verb: combination of squeeze and wriggle. I'm an unashamed expert] to the railing above the bow of the Silver Wind to watch as we approached the Thames Barrier at 6.45am, dead on schedule.
The gap between the barriers is the same as the width of Tower Bridge, not accidentally, and it was instructive to see how snug the fit was as we slid through. I had done this before, on a Greenwich boat trip, but that vessel was considerably smaller and we'd looked up at, not down on, the barriers. 
We were now into the city proper, and the buildings clustered ever more closely, and taller, along the banks. Some were monstrosities, but others historic, or stylish glass; then came the folly of the Emirates gondola (rarely used by anyone) and, round the next bend, the spiky dome of the O2 Arena.
The sights came thick and fast now: the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, stately and symmetrical, then the Cutty Sark trapped in its glass pond. We could see the Shard ahead, left, right and left again, and St Paul's, as we wound past the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. 
We rounded the last bend and there, straight ahead, was Tower Bridge, its bascules raised, traffic backed up each side already, even at 7.30am. Everyone was out on deck, Rule Britannia and other patriotic tunes were playing over the PA system, people were watching us from the bases of the towers, and we slid through under the walkways, with what felt like little more than a metre clearance on each side of the ship. It was glorious.
We moored with no fuss right alongside the HMS Belfast, dwarfing it and making an absurd contrast, it grey and functional and bristling with guns, and Silver Wind glamorously white and wide and fully focused on comfort and play. It was unreal, to look around and see, right there, so close, classic London sights at every angle: the Belfast, the Shard, London Bridge, St Paul's, the Great Fire monument, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and so much more. What a brilliant experience! How lucky and special! Thank you, Silversea.
And thank you, too, for not chucking everyone off as soon as we moored. The final generous touch from Silversea was to give us the whole day and night on board, with disembarkation not scheduled till the following day. So we could luxuriate in our being right in the centre of this great city, comfortably at home still on the Silver Wind, with everything right there at our convenience.
My choice was to go to Buckingham Palace to explore the State Apartments, which are open to the public for six weeks in the summer while the Queen is on holiday at Balmoral. It was easy to get there on the Tube - you can even use a WiFi-enabled credit or debit card at the gates these days, no need to fuss about tickets or an Oyster card - and I emerged at St James's Park to see crowds already gathering for the Changing of the Guard. The friendly policewoman I spoke to shook her head in weary amazement: "They always gather so early, I've no idea why. Nothing will be happening for at least an hour." It was heaving all along the railings and around the Victoria Memorial, and the road was coned off ready. It all looked splendid in the bright sunshine, everything clean and shiny and the gardens neat and colourful, and I regretted that when I booked my ticket time for the tour, I'd quite forgotten about the ceremony. But I had seen it before, several times, so I headed off to the Palace.
Now, dear regular 😃 reader, this was not my first time inside Buckingham Palace. Way back in 1982, you will recall, I scored, through no personal merit whatsoever, a ticket to one of that summer's several official garden parties at the Palace, hosted by the Queen herself. Then, we walked across the courtyard inside the railings, through the archway past the guards in their red uniforms and bearskin hats, and over the inner courtyard to the main entrance to the Palace itself. From there we went straight through the entrance hall into a room above the terrace, and down the steps into the gardens where there were bands, tea tents and roped-off walkways where, a bit later, we watched the Queen pass right by us. In the Palace we got glimpses of red and gold, marble and polished wood, huge flower arrangements and looming portraits, stairs and chandeliers - but only a glimpse, there was no lingering allowed.
This time, it was all about the lingering. We entered the inner courtyard from the side, walking to the main entrance and then, what a treat, went up the stairs I'd barely glanced at last time, and through a range of rooms filled with portraits, famous paintings, porcelain, elaborate clocks, huge gilded - possibly gold - ornaments, sculptures and huge sparkling chandeliers. It was all impossibly OTT, but splendidly so, and quite breath-taking to follow the footsteps of so many great names. The audio guide was helpful in emphasising how special everything was that we were looking at; and, though I was sorry, I quite understood the prohibition of photos. You'd never stop.
After about 90 minutes, we emerged onto the terrace and wandered off through the gardens (sprinklers going trying to resurrect bare patches on the lawn where Trump's helicopters had burnt the grass), some stopping for tea and cakes, others tempted by stuffed corgis in the shop. It was all amazingly relaxed - lots of staff around, but no pressure to rush, no forceful security, just smiles and friendly answers to any questions you might have. Great job.
Back outside, the crowds had dispersed a bit (I'd heard the music of the guard ceremony while I was inside) but by now it was lunchtime and there were people everywhere lying on the grass in St James's Park, feeding the swans and ducks (there was a sign forbidding feeding the pelicans, which was mysterious and unexpected) and eating their lunches.
I just wandered, along to Horse Guards Parade, past the Cenotaph, past 10 Downing Street (plenty of security here - hard to imagine now, that when I first arrived in 1977, you could wander along and stand right opposite the door) and then back towards Big Ben, currently totally unrecognisable inside a cloak of scaffolding.
I carried along the Embankment, past the London Eye on the other side, past the RAF monuments (I am an airman's daughter), and through the pretty green space of Whitehall Gardens. I was tired by then, so I took the Tube again and emerged at the Great Fire Monument which, on impulse, I went up. Just the 311 steps in an unbroken spiral to the top, people. But the views of course were magnificent - and there, front and centre, was Silver Wind, white and sparkling in the glorious sunshine as smaller boats buzzed back and forth.
It took a while to get back there, though - I crossed London Bridge and walked along that bank, past summer bars full of chattering people, and others thronging the river's edge watching Tower Bridge open (again!) to let a yacht through. Though they have to book ahead, there's no charge for boats to go under, by the way - just as well, as I'd only just got to the other side when the same boat headed back down the river. I trailed along past the walls of the Tower to the tender, and finally got back on board to get my poor, tired feet up for a while, sipping complimentary Heidsieck champers on the veranda looking past the Belfast's guns to the Shard right behind it. I even took a token dip in the pool, just to experience wallowing in such surroundings - but the water was too warm to be really enjoyable. Tch.
We ate dinner with a couple from London (who just caught a taxi to and from the ship!) and another from New Mexico, and it was jolly, relaxed and fun. Which it wasn't at all when we got back to our suite and had to pack our suitcases and put them out for collection during the night. Definitely a downer ending to a wonderful, if very long, day.


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