Friday, 16 August 2019

Sigh. Also cough, sneeze, groan, ache and otherwise suffer

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
I don't know how they measure waves. How do they decide where the bottom is? Anyway, though these ones don't look especially dramatic, they're big and bouncy enough to have prevented us from visiting Galway today, so that city's delights will also remain a closed book to me.

We're scurrying ahead of the weather to Londonderry, so it's an at-sea day during which various extra entertainments have been put on for us, none of which we're taking advantage of because - did I mention we're sick? Still sick. It's horrible, and no fun at all, and we both wish we were at home. Not Silversea's fault, but disappointing none the less.

We're not even going to distract ourselves today with Trivial Pursuit, since all the fun and satisfaction have gone out of that, too. Our as-per-usual randomly-assembled team this time has meant we've dipped out. The others are enthusiastic, noisy, energetic, but... let's just say we have yet to discover their fields of expertise.

So, we're just grimly clinging on, waiting for it all to be over. But there's a whole week yet to go, sigh.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Teeth and Troubles

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Today's port was Bantry, on the southwest coast of Ireland. It's a little town on the edge of a big, deep harbour and, like everywhere in Europe, has seen plenty of action in the past. I took a free guided tour with Teddy, who has lived here for all of his 68 years, and he did his best to summarise the history - but his introduction still took half an hour before we started the actual walk.

The real action in Bantry started happening when the rich English arrived to exploit the pilchard fisheries for their oil, until they eventually petered out - funny, that. There was an abortive attempt by the strikingly-named Wolfe Tone to evict the English from Ireland with the help of the French, just one of a series of events through the centuries to achieve that end, as we all know. There was another sort of oil boom, with a crude oil depot on nearby Whiddy Island, until a tanker exploded. And now there's tourism, with increasing numbers of cruise ships calling - 14 this year. Oh, and mussel farming, using equipment supplied by a NZ company.
We wandered along the narrow and surprisingly busy streets, with Teddy getting greetings and banter from almost every local who passed by. He talked about the history, the churches and courthouse, the pubs and the pound - but, most fun, about his own youth here when, pre-pumpkin (!) they would carve out turnips at Halloween and put them on the wall beside a derelict church, howling from behind it to scare passers-by. And about how the weekly town visits of the dentist were eagerly awaited by the school kids, who would get the whole of Friday off after an extraction. Teddy reckoned that was a fair price to pay, even with a healthy tooth: "We hated school". Not surprisingly - he was once punished "for being a bit of a messer" by being told to stand on his own hands for 20 minutes. He's still bitter about that.
Then I went around the harbour to visit Bantry House, a lived-in stately home with a lovely garden, excellent views over the bay, and some pretty impressive furnishings inside its grand rooms - though the labels were printed too small for me to read these days, which was kind of a release, I admit. 
Then it was back to the ship, anchored in the middle of the bay and looking sparkling white and glamorous, to gird my loins for the predicted 6m swells ahead of us, that will cut short our stay in Galway tomorrow. And Trivial Pursuit was a disgrace today: we scored half marks and came bottom. My contribution was triumphantly remembering Lake Baikal as the world's biggest lake and forgetting that's by volume, not surface area (Lake Superior). Tch.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Plodding round Cork

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise

It turned out to be a fairly bouncy crossing of the Irish Sea last night, and I was glad to have my head down. In the morning, we opened the curtains to the uninspiring sight of a pile of Maersk containers under a grey sky - in a bit of a turn-around from the usual state of affairs, Silver Wind is too small to be allowed to moor at the port of Cobh (pronounced Cove), which is only interested in the big ships with lots of money on board. (And where I went in 2011.) So we're stuck in industrial Ringaskiddy, about a 40 minute drive from Cork.

Despite being still sick, full of aches and pains and with no energy whatsoever - probably not helped by eating only a banana all day - I took the shuttle into Cork to do a dutiful walk around. I was impressed by the neatness of the countryside, suburbs and town, which looked prosperous, but the very first encounter I had was on the street with a forceful young man (admittedly pretty skinny) begging for money to buy something to eat "because Oim stearving, stearving!" I watched him for a bit after shaking him off - he was focused on women of a certain age. I couldn't decide if that was because he thought we looked kind, or gullible. Too bad for him I'm neither.

The centre of Cork is on an island in the middle of the River Lee, which is just as well, as it limits your scope for getting lost - because it has a confusing layout and I couldn't get my head round it at all. Still, I found the famous English Market, which is a hall filled with the usual offerings of food, raw and processed, including an impressive range of local cheeses. Then I just wandered, helped not at all by the useless map we were given on the ship. Shops, churches, cathedral, statues, people, traffic, wide avenues and narrow lanes... I thought of going to the butter museum because, well, butter museum, but ran out of energy and headed back to the ship for yet another nap.

We were down on numbers for Trivial Pursuit and the OH carried the day today (Anne Boleyn, 1940, eardrum). I was mostly just the scribe, though I did manage to get Mercury wrong, which was shaming. We came third again.

And tonight I had room service because I simply couldn't face tidying up and going through all the performance of a restaurant dinner. Instead I stood on the veranda and watched as Cobh slid past with its impressive cathedral and stacks of terraced houses. People lined the docks waving and cheering, and it must have been very like when the Titanic departed from there, its last ever port. Fortunately, we're not tackling an Atlantic crossing - just popping along the coast to Bantry.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Cream and steam

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
We woke to Fowey (pronounced Foy) this morning - a little Cornish fishing port that's now more dominated by its marina full of private yachts, and once saw many, many departures including transports to Australia, and forces to the D-Day landings. It's pretty, lots of pastel-painted plastered houses lining narrow lanes where cars look totally out of place and have to be very patient about pedestrians, who rule. 
First we went to do a steam train excursion, on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway. The drive there was pretty, through the summer countryside, and the trip on the train was pleasant, if unremarkable - about 20 minutes along the tracks, and then back again. I think you'd have to be a real steam enthusiast to get excited about that. I did enjoy though that we were in the First Class carriage, with comfortable old armchairs and little lamps, and, best of all, a cream tea laid out waiting - which I was ready for, not having had breakfast (I'm sick!)
Our guide, Peter, was emphatic that the correct technique is to put the jam on first, and then the clotted cream - which is what I've always done, but there is an equally fervid school of thought that it's the other way around. Anyway, it was very welcome, with a cup of tea.
I had a wander around Fowey when we got back, astonished by the sheer numbers of domestic tourists clogging the streets, and also by all their dogs - truly, so many shiny pampered pooches, it was lovely to see. I enjoyed poking round the little lanes and alleyways on the steep hillside, and marvelling at all the souvenir shops - and bakeries - and looking at the variety of boats out in the harbour.
Then it was back to the ship for a nap before Trivial Pursuit, where my team was pleased to have me on board (O neg, Drake Passage, gorilla, ballistics, Fiji) though we got K2 wrong (it's in Pakistan). We came third today.

Later, we glided away under a grey sky, along a mercifully calm sea, heading for Ireland. Apparently, there was a solid border of waving people along the harbour wall in Fowey as the ship drew away, but I was in our suite on the other side and saw only a few observers standing on the rocks below Polruan, on the opposite shore - but they waved too. Dinner was shared with two New Jersey bridge masters and an Australian actor/voiceover artist/playwright who fell satisfyingly instantly into my trap when I mentioned Adelaide and convicts in the same breath.

Monday, 12 August 2019


With thanks to Silversea for this cruise

I woke with a shivery, snuffly, headachey cold this morning, drat it. Fortunately it's an at-sea day so I could take it easy. Our suite (veranda, sitting area, bed, walk-in wardrobe and bathroom) is on the port side, which means we're on the sea side for most of the cruise, unfortunately - though of course half the passengers guests are in *cough* the same boat. I thought that at least today we'd see France, but it turns out the Channel is wider than you (I) think, despite that bloke nipping over it on a hoverboard in 20 minutes a week or so ago. 

So it was a day of snoozing and mooching, and trying unsuccessfully to avoid musak in the public areas. I mean, come on! Allow Frank Sinatra to finally fade away, please! Most of the other guests are Baby Boomers and younger (even some kids, surprisingly) - so surely it's time to retire the old crooners and lounge music? There has been other music since, you know! But at least, I suppose, it wasn't jazz.
There was a lecture about our first port, Fowey, tomorrow - tin mines, Cornish language, clotted cream, basically - and then afternoon tea served on the classic tier of plates of which, because I'm sick, I wasn't able to even touch the yummy-looking fancies on the top layer, which is a wasted opportunity that will haunt me for some time to come.

Then it was time for our Silversea essential, Trivial Pursuit. We joined a random group of US enthusiasts, one of whom made a point of singing out wildly wrong answers to fool the team next door. Even so, we scored only 23/30 and didn't place, which was disappointing, although still fun. I contributed obsidian, the Turkish flag, The Green Mile and Hindi, but got the Roman numeral C wrong - turns out it's 500, not 100, tch. My third form Latin teacher, Mrs Gallagher, would be very disappointed in me.

And tonight it was formal, with the Captain's Reception, but we didn't go, because I'm sick, and I had crisps and water for dinner. I hope I'm better tomorrow...

Sunday, 11 August 2019

No cats. But no cattiness either.

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
It's a bit disconcerting, after travelling, with two days' notice, halfway round the globe to start a cruise, when your ship doesn't turn up. I woke up at 11pm last night to look out of the window, expecting to see Silver Wind, all lit up and playing music, towed by a tug up the river, through the opened bascules of Tower Bridge to moor just the other side - and waited, and waited, and it never came.

Nor did any sort of notification from Silversea this morning - but after ringing them, we were told to take a taxi out to where the ship is actually moored, way down the river at Tilbury docks, and to get reimbursement later from the company. Just as well, it's about an hour's drive, traffic willing.

So this morning, having woken very early, I took a stroll in the sunshine along the Thames, admiring all the buildings, ancient and modern, the neat gardens, the bridges, and London's everyday gifts of "Oh, look!" Today that was London Bridge, the Great Fire monument, Pudding Lane, All Hallows (the oldest church in the city - 675 AD (I felt the AD bit was rather superfluous)) and of course the Tower, with its moat and towers and walls and battlements and immense history, all helpfully recounted on story boards. Gorgeous.

Then we ate breakfast at St Katharine's, in a little café as locals wandered past with their dogs and passed the time of day with each other. We had some hours to fill, so we went to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square - another long, fast queue, lots of people of all nationalities. The gallery has an incredible collection of big name works, and it was marvellous to get right up close to them. There were so many, in fact, that it was a bit overwhelming, and I found myself doing a little survey of incidental animals in the pictures. Lots of dogs, horses (a full-sized stallion by Stubbs!), sheep and cattle, even a crab and a monkey - but not one cat that I could find (if you discount a lion and a tiger). The collection is clearly pre-internet.

Outside there was a real buzz of tourists and buskers, and masses of people virtually queuing up to get photos with the lions beneath Nelson's Column, everyone studiously ignoring the 'No photos' signs. It all looked busy and interesting and fun, and I was glad to be there.

Then it was taxi time, with friendly Gary who, no doubt thrilled to get such a big fare, drove us through Wapping, telling us about Graham Norton's house, and Helen Mirren's, and other bits of trivia on the long drive out of the city to Tilbury. Just the £130, since you ask.

Another bigger ship was in chaos as passengers left and arrived, but we were whisked aboard Silver Wind with lots of welcomes and little fuss, and told that strong gales yesterday had made it impossible for the ship to sail safely up the river, through the Thames Barrier and under Tower Bridge. So that was that mystery sorted.

It was lovely to be welcomed into the bosom of Silversea again - this is our seventh cruise - although we are fussy now and noticed straight away that Wind is smaller, older and less well-appointed than their other ships we've sailed on. Not that we're slumming it, you understand - it's just that everything seems scaled down. But all the important things are here, and we went cheerfully down to dinner that night, to share a table with a liberal Canadian couple, a pair of Republican Trump apologists, and a rather ponderous English Brexit mansplainer and his wife - so it was a lively conversation, but not at all unpleasant, and we were amongst the last to leave the restaurant. 

And we were already underway, cruising smoothly down the river, to turn right during the night towards our first port of call in Cornwall, the day after tomorrow. It's lovely to be back!

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Beggars can choose - up to a point

There's always a downside, eh? You might think, regular 😁 reader, that being given free travel is pretty cool - and so it is, I agree. But it does have its disadvantages, the main one being that it's hard to plan this sort of thing very far ahead. And on Wednesday night, I got my best/worst experience of this: an invitation to take up a cancelled vacancy on Silver Wind, sailing from Tower Bridge, London, on a 13-day cruise along the Channel and circling Ireland, and finally returning to Tower Bridge again. Sounds great, huh? But the departure date? SUNDAY!

So it was action stations, getting flights, accommodation, house/cat-sitter organised, and ourselves to the airport on Friday for the 27-hour journey. As well as getting some current work out of the way, leaving the house tidy, that sort of thing. This was a route that one of us was particularly keen on (and I was pretty eager too) - not many ships are small enough to sail that far up the Thames and under Tower Bridge - so there was no turning it down, of course.

So, here we are, settled into The Tower hotel on Saturday afternoon, in a room that's located at the end of miles of confusing corridors, but with a splendid view of the Bridge, right there, just outside the window. I went out to explore it, joining a long but fast queue to go up to the walkways above the bascules and admire the views, read all about the construction (only in 1894, 10 men died, it took 4 years), take my turn on the glass panels looking down at the roadway 40m below, and then trail down to the engine room. Of course it's all electric now, operated by a tiny joystick, but the original coat and steam-driven machinery is there, and marvellously huge and neat and well-oiled. There were people everywhere, enjoying themselves, especially at a food-truck South American event at the other end of the bridge. 

Our (pretty expensive) room came with bar and canapé privileges, which turned out to be not very exciting, but there was a lovely view from there, on the other side of the hotel, over St Katharine's Dock, which I'd never heard of, and looked gorgeous. So we went for a stroll and, in the wonderful way of this great city, casually came across the Gloriana, the Queen's Barge from the Jubilee, moored just there - plus lots of boats, apartments, restaurants and cafés, and a pub of  course, the Dickens Inn, looking splendid all festooned with colourful hanging baskets.

We ate early, watching a stream of guests to an Indian wedding arrive at the hotel (the fabulously ornately-dressed bride and groom had their photos taken in the lift lobby on our floor, which was odd, but fortunate for gawpers like me). And then we went to bed, setting the alarm for 11pm to watch the Silver Wind arrive at the bridge, to pass through and moor alongside the Belfast just the other side.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Faded grandeur is still grandeur

I was here in 1980. That was just the [pause for finger-counting] 39 years ago. Thirty-nine years! That was the last time I was in Singapore (passed through once or twice maybe since, but never left the airport) which means I would probably literally not recognise the city now. Like you, regular 😃 reader, I've seen the photos, of those amazing huge artificial trees all lit up, of that improbable three-legged hotel with the infinity pool way up on top, the interior shots of all those fancy restaurants. But if you were to plonk me down in the streets, I'd be lost, despite having spent about a week there in 1977, and then another four days three years later.

And yes, I was actually here - at Raffles Hotel, which has just been re-opened after another renovation, which is why it is featuring in the NY Times, from which I stole this photo. Looks splendid, doesn't it? And the interiors are equally spiffing. It wasn't quite so flash when we stayed there - though I would say it felt very authentic, if it's the Kipling/Somerset Maugham vibe you're after. Things may have been a little worn, not to say a touch scruffy here and there, but it sure did have atmosphere - in the Long Bar, full of cane furniture and potted palms, where of course we drank the Singapore slings that were invented there; and in the billiard room where a tiger (escaped from a circus, poor thing) was once shot under the table. The Tiffin Room had white-painted cane furniture, green cushions and a ceiling three storeys above. Our room was spacious but not fancy, and noisy with traffic rushing past right outside the shutters - no doubt it's all triple-glazed these days. And air-conditioned, naturally - when we were there, all they had were ceiling fans lazily circling, everywhere.

We ate well there, in the Elizabethan Grill, with its dark wood-panelled walls, starched linen table cloths and orchids, and where waiters wheeled a huge roast of beef to the table under a great silver dome (which had been buried in the garden for safety when the Japanese invaded during the war, and duly dug up again afterwards). The waiter removed it with dramatic flourish and then carved thick slices for us right there, hovering discreetly while we ate, ready to pounce on any imperfection. I watched with fascination as a waiter whipped up butter, cream and several liqueurs in a frying pan on a trolley nearby and then flambéed it all with great drama. I was still trying to guess what the dish was when he poured the sauce over icecream and placed it in front of me: my cherries jubilee! Yum.
My obsessive diary of the time records what seems to me now an incredible - and disappointing - quantity of shopping, rather than the diligent sight-seeing I would do these days. We were up for a bit more of the nightlife though than I could cope with now, including goggling* at the transvestite sights on nearby Bugis Street. So, even more incredibly, we overslept and missed breakfast several times - but finally, by dint of setting the alarm on the clock we had just bought (Imagine! Needing to buy an alarm clock in order to be sure of waking for flights and so on! Imagine!) we made it down in time to have, with great triumph, kippers for breakfast on the last morning.

It was all rather splendid - and very different from the other, so much grottier, hotel I dossed down at in 1977 on my first, solo, visit, where the walls didn't reach the ceiling, the staff slept all over the floor in the corridors at night, and I got bitten by bedbugs. Yes, by the looks of the Times photos, Raffles is a thoroughly modern 5-star now. But I'm glad to have seen it in its 1980 incarnation.

Isn't it strange to see that word now? Aren't you itching to correct it to 'Googling'? 


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