......stories that endure......



Helen and Jennifer's trip to the UK Sept 2006

dedicated to Mum

who would have been pleased that her girls did something together

and amazed that they managed it without any fights.

Thursday 31st August and a looong day - we left Melbourne at 9.30 the previous night in an amazingly low-key way: no security alarms, no plastic bags - as much carry-on luggage as anyone wanted. The plane was full which meant sitting quite still for 13 hours and enjoying the individual screens with your own choice of movies, TV or audio. Emirates has good food even in economy: take note Qantas!

We arrived in Dubai at 4.30 am and were transferred to the Fairmont Hotel with no fuss and revelled in tomorrow's buffet breakfast (because we'll be leaving at sparrow fart tomorrow) and a swim in the Sunrise Pool while our room was being "purified" as the desk clerk put it. The waiter in the restaurant was very happy to chat at that ungodly hour and tell us about the food: all of it - every single thing - is imported. All that grows here is dates and only the poor people bother to pick them up. There was beautiful fresh fruit and I was very taken with the dragon fruit looking like pear slices with poppy seed mixed in and tasting of grapes. Jennifer hit the strawberry smoothies which were laced with honey and loaded with yoghurt.

We took a taxi to the gold souks - and by now the roads were humming with cars and trucks forming a gridlock around the souks - which are narrow little streets crammed with tiny jewellery shops. It took us a while to get our eye in and appreciate we were looking at real gold and whoever told Jennifer there was cheap gold jewellery was wrong. Bling is in abundance but not cheaply! Jennifer bought herself a most unusual ring in gold and white gold with a beautiful design - eyecatching but not bling. We had a quick look in a grocery shop which had an appealing array of spices.It is HOT! HOT! HOT! 42'C and we didn't last long, only too glad to find a taxi to take us back to the blessed cool Fairmont away from the pressure of the jewellery touts and street hawkers so we can rest a bit before Dinner in the Dunes. We're being picked up at 4.30 for a 7 hour trip... as I said: it's a long day.

in the gold souk


The desert goes on forever - mile after mile of billowing dunes. There we were, five people in a four-wheel drive standing on top of a dune temp 43' waiting for the rest of the convoy, another 42 vehicles. After we were all sufficiently fried and the drivers had deflated the tyres we set out to hoon around the dunes in a Conservation Park - swooshing up a dune, lurching around on the top and swooshing down, sand flying everywhere. Occasionally we didn't make it and had to roll back gracefully for another go: OK for people aged 14 but it got a bit tedious. Sunset over the desert was beautiful, the more so because it meant time for a camel ride and bbb always likes a nice camel ride. These camels have crocheted net bags covering their mouths which I take to mean they spit, but they did behave nicely for us. Dinner for 250 people was served in an oasis where we sat on hard cushions and ate barbecue, very nice, and were entertained by an indifferent belly dancer. (You can see better belly dancing in Mount Gambier...) It went on too long and by the time of our return to Dubai we were all tired. Too bad about the airconditioning failing for the return trip! On our return at 11pm Dubai had picked up speed and traffic was bumper to bumper and 10 lanes wide, temperature 36'.

about to hoon around the desert

Helen on camel with stranger

Lake District England
The Lake District was a haven of peace after a horrendous journey from Manchester Airport via the M6, with trucks honking and flicking their lights as we tried to navigate our way through 8 lanes of traffic all going like the clappers. Jennifer did a marvellous job considering that the car was a VW Golf with indicators on the wrong side for her. What a sigh of relief to turn off the M6 and see the incredible green and drystone walls of the Lake District - still lots of traffic as it was the end of school holidays but calm unfrenzied traffic just looking for somewhere to park and buy a Luxury Icecream.

Our b&b Bank Ground was in Coniston and was chosen because Arthur Ransome used it as Holly Howe in Swallows and Amazons - it was where the Walker family stayed before they set off on their camp on Wildcat Island and there it all was laid out before us like a map from the top of the hill - the farmhouse, the boathouses, Coniston Lake, the village over the other side and the mountain Old Man Coniston looming over it. A wonderful sight!! and the beginning of our children's literature pilgrimage. We settled in and drove around the head of the lake to the village in search of dinner and decided on The Ship Inn and a Real Ale. Ale is not my thing but interesting to try it, sure it would be better cold.

b&b Bank Ground, Coniston

Arthur Ransome hanging

Next day was raining - not hard but steadily, and we began to realise why it's so green. But undeterred off we went to Windermere for some essentials of b&b living like shampoo, tissues and facewasher and discovered the joys of Pay and Display parking: you can't park anywhere without it costing £3. Splash splash into the shopping area and into a very nice op-shop where Jennifer spotted a Monica Edwards hb with dj. Wow! wonderful op-shops in England!! (But we didn't see another gem ...)

Next day was Sunday and we went to church at St Mary's Applethwaite, a lovely old church outside but bright and modern inside as it was rebuilt recently following a catastrophic fire caused by a homeless man sleeping in the nave. The people were very nice and friendly and invited us for coffee and a chat - got lots of advice on what to see and do, so we followed it to Blackwell House, an Arts and Crafts house with a gorgeous White Drawing Room that just sparkled with light reflected from the lake.

Blackwell House

Lake Windermere

Townend House was the exact opposite being an old - very old, 600 years old - farmhouse filled with intricately carved wooden oak furniture.

garden at Townend House

Townend House

sheep & Lake Windermere

swans at Ambleside

Back at Bank Ground, Jennifer emulated Roger in S&A and tacked up the meadow to the house. We discovered a lounge room at Bank Ground dedicated to Arthur Ransome with interesting stories about him and the Amazons who were based on a family living next door. Dinner at The Black Bull in the village was dreadful so we resolved not to eat in pubs any more - guess we are really not pub people. A walk up through Dixon's Farm brought us to the start of Old Man Coniston, very Swallowdale.

Kendal was good for some mobile phone shopping and they have the Museum of Lake District Life which includes Arthur Ransome's study so we were able to gaze reverentially at his desk, books, pipes, and the very red leather slippers that were given to him by the real-life John, Susan, Roger and Titty. (He had big feet.)

Jennifer in Arthur Ransome's study

Arthur Ransome

Sizergh Castle (pronounced sizer) is a wonderful castle there that was lived in by the Strickland family for 760 years!! Back at Bowness (Rio in the books) we had a ride on Windermere Lake which was very nice and a good Italian meal with a bottle of wine. That's more like it!

Sizergh Castle

Sizergh Castle garden

Beatrix Potter is a more famous author of the Lake District and we saved her attractions until school had gone back, but as it was raining (again) there were lots of people there. The Beatrix Potter Gallery is situated in an old office at Hawshead where she first met her future husband, the solicitor who handled her purchase of Hill Top Farm and now houses some of her original manuscripts - delightful - and Hill Top is just as she left it, all low key and charming, but there is a multitude of shops selling Peter Rabbit!!!

Hill Top Farm

Hill Top sheep

Feeling PeterRabbited out we set off in search of William Wordsworth, as the other famous Lake District author and his family's home at Rydal Mount. We found Rydal Hall and hovered out the front wondering if it was correct. "Is this the right place?" asked Jennifer of a man entering. "Yes of course, come in" he said genially so we did - look cups of tea and nice cakes! Isn't that nice of the National Trust! We wandered about looking at the paintings (dull) and observing the other tea drinkers (talkative) until accosted by a lady who wanted us to tell her the door code. "Er, I think maybe we're in the wrong place" I say as Jennifer splutters cake into her cup of tea. Well yes, we were: it was a synod meeting for the Bishop of Carlisle and Rydal Mount was further up the road. We giggled our way up the hill and I regretted leaving my cake behind. WW's house was nice and he had a good garden but no daffodils in flower at that time of year. Returning through Ambleside we found a free car park so of course had to use it and have dinner there.

Rydal Mount

lake at Windemere

It was raining again as we left Bank Ground but had slowed to a drizzle as we reached Keswick and the Derwent Pencil factory. Fascinating how they make them! I took over the driving on rather wider roads to Carlisle, and across the border into Scotland and Gretna Green where we lunched at the Outlet Village (not as good as the American ones), then on to Dumfries (pronounced DumFREESS) and our Country House Hotel, Trigony House which we loved - perhaps because there was a black cat asleep on the sofa and a friendly black lab called Bess. Beautiful garden and time for a drive to a recommended "idyllic village" of Durisdeer. Hated it! It looked to be inhabited by the living dead all staring into the churchyard filled with leaning brown tombstones and a dank smell. The acclaimed Queensberry Marbles will forever remain a mystery as the church door was firmly locked. However the nearby castle was terrific.

Lovely dinner at Trigony, a good sleep and wonderful breakfast (I had kedgeree) and we think Scotland is pretty good. We headed into Galloway to the Irish Sea coast and admired the shimmering sea flats, not so much the pebbly beaches, stopped at Sweetheart Abbey and then Threave Gardens. They are excellent - immaculately kept and featuring a terrific walled garden where some ripe apples just happened to fall off the tree as we walked past. We had a guided tour of the house which was most informative: our lively volunteer guide really brought the whole thing alive with her little stories of shooting parties and maids rushing shrieking through the house when the brothers were in residence.

Sweetheart Abbey

Galloway coast

Threave House

Threave kitchen garden

Thank goodness we decided to head straight for Glasgow because when we got there, having successfully negotiated the M8 and fearsome one-way streets it was to find that Europcars were longer at the address given on their map, hadn't been for 2 years, and the present inhabitant thought it was now Watt Steet but she didn't know where. And to add to it: both our mobile phones had run out of money - phone time melts like ice in Dubai... At a petrol stop Jennifer asked the attendant - no idea - but a customer knew and explained it in broad accent and drew on the map. "I could kiss you!" I said. He looked alarmed so we left hurriedly and followed his directions exactly.

Our hotel in Glasgow is very centrally located and we could walk across the road into Buchanan Street, which seems to be the main drag, in search of additional phone time (can't do it over the phone as they only accept UK credit cards. Honestly the time we've spent on modern technology! I think life was easier when you sent a postcard in the mail and it arrived in Australia 2 weeks later and no-one had to worry they hadn't heard from you. I had a tiny chat to David which cost £4!!!) Major find was this internet cafe where you can get 30 minutes for £1, a bargain compared with Windermere.)

After we'd done our technological duty we trawled around the restaurants, rather fancied the pre-theatre set menus for £9.50 but misunderstood the waiter's accent when Jennifer ordered the special for the day and then discovered it on the bill for £15. He very nicely let us off. We haven't yet come to grips with the Scottish accent, very soft and pretty but quite fast and we tend to just latch onto a few words and ignore the rest. Both of us are having trouble with the Glasgow accent: I asked the receptionist at the hotel three times what she had said and it was "Sorry to keep you waiting"! I enjoyed the ambience of the restaurant which reminded me of Balfours in the 1950s with brass luggage racks overhead and individual booths.

Today was warm enough for t-shirts and to ride in the top of the Big Bus which is open. There was a live guide who kept us entertained with tid-bits like: "We have two hobbies in Glasgow - shopping and drinking." The tour around Glasgow was very interesting and we got off twice, firstly in the University area and then at the Art Gallery to look at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition. Theyv'e got half a teashop there which he designed from the chairs and wall-paper to the cutlery. I particularly liked his decorated chamber pot - shows his design extended to everything! I was intrigued that nearly every statue we saw had a resident seagull...

Queen Victoria

Robert Burns

ship-building on the Clyde

Glasgow's Queen Street station was swarming with people but with great efficiency we boarded the train for Inverness and settled in for a peaceful four hour ride. It's a lovely way to travel, just sitting there reading and watching the rolling hills and green fields flash by - the hills getting steadily steeper and the colours turning to pink (heather I presume) and brown as we headed into the Highlands. Fast streams ran by with the occasional fisherman standing in the water hoping for a fish. The fishermen we met in the Lake District caught pike which they put back, none of the fishing for food that our husbands do so devotedly - but surely they'd keep nice freshwater trout...

At Inverness we booked into our smart little hotel, admired our room up in the eaves (2 flights of stairs are a bit tough on those of us with a gammy knee) and strolled along the river to the town centre. There are 9 churches in about half a mile of river with the hotel sandwiched amongst them and a buzzing commercial centre. We were in search of Leakey's Bookshop - over 100,000 books and the largest in Scotland - and I did buy 2 in a kind of desperation but I reckon 99,000 of the books haven't been moved since they first went on the shelves: secondhand books buying is better in Australia. We don't have the churches though nor the kilts.

Inverness Castle

Glenmoriston Town House Inverness

We've just spent an entertaining half hour out the front of our hotel with a glass of wine watching the guests at a wedding - the men so sexy in their kilts and bald heads and the women so unsexy bulging out of their long strapless dresses and covered in tattoos. Correction: judging by the many young children present they are sexy.

wedding party, bride in red

church on LHS is where we went on Sunday

The Ghost Walk of Inverness sounded interesting so a bit before 7 pm we assembled at the designated point and passed the time watching people arrive for a function at the Town Hall: the men all in kilts but their ladies oh so different! This was the white-haired brigade and not a tattoo to be seen. The ladies wore full plain skirts in glowing dark colours with aprons, white stockings and black strapped shoes - probably going to dance. The occasional teenager looking mutinous was to be seen. Suddenly Davey the Ghost materialised in front of us: I swear I didn't see him arrive... He's a squat dark little man with a sepulchral voice who quickly relieved us of £7 each and started his spiel - murder and mayhem in Old Scotland. He kept our attention, being prone to suddenly turning around and saying boo! and picking on people - more especially the horrible English than Australians though we got into trouble for leaning on the castle wall. Inverness Castle is relatively young, only 150 years old and is still used as law courts - sheriffs go in the front and witnesses go round the back, which seems a bit unfair... After an hour's worth of stories about disembowelling, iron maidens, hanging and heads being chopped off he lead us at a fast trot down the pedestrian mall to a pub, gave us a free drink each and dematerialised. The pub was pretty lively - packed to the rafters with drinkers, booming with loud music and SIX bouncers standing outside waiting for trouble. They found it when Jennifer stepped outside holding an open bottle of beer - not allowed in Inverness.

Tomorrow at 4 pm we will be picked up and taken to The Highlander which is our home for the next 6 days while we have a cruise of the Caledonian Canal down to Fort William and back.

The Caledonian Canal
The Caledonian Canal runs diagonally across the Highlands of Scotland linking the North Sea and the Atlantic via 3 lochs - Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. We cruised along it on the Scottish Highlander, a barge for 8 passengers and 4 staff. As well as Jennifer and me there was Elizabeth and John from Sussex, Jean and Bob from Chicago and honeymooners Jillian and Marston from Cambridge - rather a tight squeeze around the dining table! Part of the day was for cruising along the loch and for several hours a day we visited tourist spots in the boat's minivan. Far too many gift shops and I've seen enough thistles and models of Nessie to last a lifetime.

Scottish Highlander - hotel barge

(a nice beer)

anchored at Fort Augustus

The best place we went to was Cawdor Castle, gorgeous inside and out with wonderful romantic gardens. Inside was a family home lived in by the Dowager Countess of Cawdor during the winter months with wonderful old furniture and paintings of great interest and impeccable family provenance, outside were immaculate gardens with 8 full-time gardeners. Even in early autumn the flower garden had plenty of colour, there was a wild wood, a secret garden, a manicured maze of holly - which we didn't dare set foot in as we only had an hour there. Would much sooner have tried the maze than go to the next stop which was Culloden Battlefield where 5000 Jacobites were slaughtered by the British. It's a dank and desolate spot with the usual gift shop - more people there than out on the field.

Cawdor coat of arms

Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle garden

Next day we motored through Loch Ness with a eye out for the Monster but I'm afraid she didn't want to appear to us.

Quite a long van ride to Eilean Donan (pronounced ailin dunnan) on the West Coast, a very romantic castle that appeared in Mel Gibson's film Highlander and there are photos of him there to prove it. A highlight of that trip was a piper playing with the castle as a backdrop.

Eilean Donan


afternoon tea on the boat

The Scottish Woollen Mill at Skean Bridge was dull, just an excuse to expose us to more thistle souvenirs - though to be fair John from Sussex did buy himself a nice Harris Tweed jacket and had gone there with that in mind. He was also of the generation to be interested in the Commando Training museum, but for most of us it's academic interest only. I did enjoy the Clan Cameron Museum and was tickled to see a photo there of the Penola Camerons. The tour of the whisky distillery was smelly and the tasting of 4 year-old whisky was disgusting.

fishing near Skean Bridge

a cultivar of heather

commando memorial

However - the mountains, lochs and rivers are of amazing beauty and you just have to gaze and gaze in every direction.


On our last day there was a heavy mist around the canal with the sun struggling to get through. We decided to cycle the six miles along the towing path to our mooring place and set off bravely on Beauty and the Beast (Marston and Jillian had the better bicycles: we named Beast for its killer hard seat and difficulty to ride.) It was a glorious ride when one had Beauty - crisp air, spiderwebs sparkling on the bushes, the mist gradually lifting seeming to dissolve off the water to reveal looming mountains and bespangled trees. Jillian and Marston kept stopping to look at mushrooms and caught us up about a mile from the mooring where Jillian insisted on swapping Beast for Beauty 2: we were able to swoop happily into the mooring ahead of the barge followed by Jillian on a man's bike and Mars pushing Beast (not best pleased). So it wasn't just our ineptitude that made it so hard to ride!

H&J cycling

our own piper

moored at Neptune's Staircase

We moored above Neptune's Staircase which is a flight of 8 locks going down to the Atlantic and only ocean-going boats are allowed on it, not like hotel barges like us.

The final night's dinner was a special affair preceded by our very own piper on the dock, cocktails on the deck and the Captain joining us for dinner for stilted conversation and stodgy food. I'd had one or three of the cocktails which seemed to be innocuous - mainly cranberry - but I guess there was another ingredient there... The entree was haggis with neeps and tatties piled mountainously high, then venison stew with four lonely limp circles of courgette, then Laird's Trifle, then stale cake in honour of the honeymooners. I had shocking indigestion after that lot. The Captain played his piano accordion which was pleasant but too short, Marston read his poem about the Island of Mull and I read the limericks I'd made up about everyone. They fell rather flat - and they were the polite limericks!

6 days was enough and it was quite a relief to get on the train to Edinburgh. There was no hope of emails or internet access on the boat - in fact the Captain discovered that day's weather by reading the newspaper!


It's a big city - rather overwhelming at first, but once we'd had a good night's sleep we were off on the Big Bus to get an overview of what there was to see. We chose the Majestic Tour because it goes to the Ocean Terminal where the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored, which we'd earmarked for the afternoon. First we did the circuit, shivering bravely on top of the open bus in our summer clothes but determined to stick it out. On a children's literature note we saw the home of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island) and of James Barrie (Peter Pan) and heard that Nicolson's Cafe where J.K.Rowling wrote so much of the first Harry Potter is now a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet and not the same atmosphere at all.

At the Scottish Museum, where we went in search of a cup of coffee - you can always get good food at a museum! - they were having an Islam exhibition and I was tickled to see a Scotsman in full kilt bottom half and an Arabic headcloth on top! Off we went to the Edinburgh Castle and the most amazing thing was how small the area where the Tattoo takes place looks! On TV it looks much larger... The Castle itself is huge and on many levels with lots of military museums which weren't very interesting to us. Of much more interest was a bridal party having wedding photos in the Great Hall - very tasteful bride's outfit - pity about the rather small bridegroom in his too-short kilt.

Back on the bus we did the circuit again and this time got off at the Ocean Terminal which had livened up: people enjoying new modern shops and cinema complex with the Britannia anchored at one end. The tour of the Britannia was terrific! Totally fascinating and the best thing in Edinburgh by far. You're given an individual audio wand which worked perfectly (they don't always) and sent off on a self-guided tour starting at the bridge and working your way down. After each level you come back on shore and re-enter the ship at the next level. You get to see the Royal apartments (separate bedrooms for the Queen and the Duke - she likes a wide turn-back on her sheets, he doesn't) the officers' quarters with elaborate dining room and walls covered in signed photographs of royalty, the State Apartments (very lush), the engineers' quarters (much more basic, 2 double bunks to a room), the laundry (necessary because the officers changed 6 times a day) and the engine room. We enjoyed it all enormously and in line with royalty day went to see The Queen, a new film starring Helen Mirren about the week following Princess Diana's death and how the Royal Family reacted. Go see it everyone - it's excellent.

The Royal Yacht Britannia

poster showing yacht

Britannia's Rolls Royce

Helen on private deck

private dining room

private drawing room

The North of England
Our new hire car was a 4-door SmartCar, two-tone in dark blue and silver and rather cute. In it we proceeded south from Edinburgh to Alnwick (pronounced ANNick) to visit Alnwick Castle which was the location for some exterior scenes in the Harry Potter films. The guide was rather contemptuous of this interest and grudgingly showed us the spot where Harry fell off his broomstick due to Malfoy's nasty spell. Warner Brothers has prevented them from putting up a poster of it so I guess it's commercial interests winning again... The guide was very interesting about the uses of the Barbican and how the castle was never captured during its 900 years of use due to its formidable defenses. Inside the castle, family home of the Percys - the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland - the state and private apartments are absolutely sumptuous. The state dining room is in the process of being re-decorated at the cost of a quarter of a million £s with the carved wooden ceiling being rubbed down and rewaxed and the walls rehung with dark green silk. The grounds were laid out by Capability Brown and not a tree or blade of grass is allowed to be changed - it's all green meadows, trees and sheep, no flowers. Flowers are in a separate garden with an extra entrance fee but we didn't have time for that though the guide showed us where in spring 10,000 daffodils bloom, such a success that the duchess has ordered another 10,000 bulbs for next year.

Alnwick the town was a surprise, being a bustling little market town with impossible parking, heaps of cars and lots of people especially school kids. St Cloud University in the US sends university students here for a semester to study European history and they were visible - all stunning-looking blonde girls!

The drive down to York is through Catherine Cookson country - it said so on a sign - and "dark satanic mills" were certainly in evidence, so much industry and so many houses. Jennifer bravely drove Smarty through the Newcastle Tunnel which seemed endless and it was a relief to get away from the industrial side of things into North Yorkshire and the city of York.

We had a good map to find our b&b where we parked in the street nearly outside, as do the residents, no garages here. There must be 30 b&bs in that street and we encountered the egg delivery lady leaving several dozen eggs at each b&b (she had to double-park.) Traffic in York is a nightmare as our host explained: the Romans didn't lay out the city with cars and parking in mind... So it was walk to the city centre and our first sight of the York Minster. It's unbelievably huge! impossible to photograph! looms against the sky like a monolith made of icing sugar - such amazing detail in the stonework. It takes your breath away with its grandeur and that's just the outside.

Next morning we did the 90 minute tour with a volunteer guide, a 70ish man with a passion for the catherdral and he soon had a large crowd jostling to hear him. (Someone's mobile phone went off and he started to chat till we all glared at him and he got the message...) Inside the cathedral is enormous and so high! You have to take the guide's word for the description of bosses in the roof because without binoculars it's just a blue and gold blob. Time sped by as we trailed around behind the guide looking at the amazing detail and hearing stories of the dreadful things that happened here: he seemed personally peeved at one Jonathan Martin who set fire to the quire in 1871, more upset than about lightning striking the roof of the south transept in 1988. The roof always burns because it's wood.

Finally cathedraled out we entered the rabbit warren of shops around the Minster and soon came to Betty's Tea Shop with a fantastic display of marzipan-iced cakes. You too can buy a cake shaped and iced like a cabbage for only £12.80! Intrigued, we decided on early lunch and entered only to find we were in a queue stretching up the stairs. Being Australians we hate queuing but decided to stay as the next lady began to tell us how she'd driven 50 miles to have one of Betty's "Fat Rascals". So we had elderflower bubbly and shared a smoked salmon sandwich and a Fat Rascal - delicious fruity buttery rock cake - must get the recipe.

We took the mini-train to the National Railway Museum where huge trains are housed, with people solemnly sitting in the carriages and clambering over the engines (elderly men only) but we only went there to get Thomas the Tank Engine postcards and because it was on the way to where our b&b hosts had told us there was a secondhand bookshop. Alas, it was new books but there was an Oxfam Books there - and do they know how to charge! We trudged through the Shambles, lots of old old crooked streets where the tops of houses seem to lean toward each other and every underneath is another shop, to Fossgate which turned out to be the secondhand books mecca. But the prices!!! Chalet School with dust jackets for £140!!! (approx. AU$350).

Our feet were just about dropping off when we arrived back at the cathedral in time for Evensong. We knew the choir would be girls and men: in these days of equality girls now attend the choir school and alternate with the boys at daily Evensong - and how lovely they looked in their dark red gowns and snowy white surplices - ages 6 to 14 I'd say. Two dear little 6 year-olds could barely see over the pew tops but they were so serious and concentrated it was a joy to watch them. And to listen to them: they sang two anthems, clear voices sailing way up into the vaulted roof. The congregation was seated with them in the quire where we each had a carved wooden nook with red velvet cushion (hard) and red velvet hassock. It was 35 minutes of serenity outside of time, most refreshing and welcome relief for aching feet.

We'd chosen a restaurant earlier, La Vecchia Scuola (The Old School) once a girls' school, now a posh Italian restaurant. We ate in the conservatory with a view of the cathedral beyond the walled garden and enjoyed a bottle of NZ sauvignon blanc as there was no driving, just a long walk back to the b&b.

P.S. I've used the terms Minster and Cathedral interchangeably because the one at York is both.

the western apse of York Minster

dinner at La Vecchia Scuola

The West of England
Escaping from York was almost impossible: we went round and round, even got entangled in pedestrian precincts at one stage - nearly lost hope - then suddenly there was the road we needed and we bolted down it. Driving in England is absolutely horrible: the motorways (M roads) are 6 lanes wide and fast, fast, FAST, minimum speed seems to be 70mph which is the official maximum and if you go slower the thundering trucks flick their lights at you so the left hand lane is the safest but then you might miss your exit. It's hell on wheels. Then there are the A roads which can be 4 lanes or 2 with varying surfaces, going through every town and stopping at every pedestrian crossing, often getting diverted for roadworks and a nightmare in villages. Then there are the B roads which are often so narrow they are one-way and even then you practically scrape the car mirrors on walls which are shrouded in greenery. Not to mention the huge horrible round-abouts with multiple-choice exits: before you enter ot you have to say "I'm exiting at 3 o'clock" and not go shooting off at 12 o'clock because you may never get back again. It takes much longer to get anywhere than you think it will: one person said she always leaves the day before if she has any distance to go. Everyone tears around like maniacs but - here's the good bit - except for the trucks everyone exhibits perfect manners, no road rage here: they politely stop and let us go, just as well because no way we could reverse easily.

Chatsworth, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is even more sumptuous than Alnwick and very popular with the tourists. We had lunch in the stables - pretty good life for a horse here in bygone days - then went to the gardens which (as at Alnwick) are on a separate ticket. We particularly loved the maze and its display of dahlias at their best at the end of summer. Beautiful fountains blowing in the wind, hidden grottoes, lovely vistas designed by Capability Brown (how did his parents know to give him that christian name?). Cows and black-faced sheep wander the car park happily.

In the house we were allowed in the state rooms, all with amazing painted ceilings, culminating in the Statuary Room which was used in the latest film of Pride and Prejudice. The sunbathing lady in the photo is one of a range of statues they have for sale through Sotheby's: if you have a spare £50,000 this is for you... They've got the best shop there filled with the most luxurious things that you don't need but have to have and playing on the connection with Nancy Mitford of Love in a Cold Climate fame (her sister Deb married a Duke of Devonshire and became the Duchess - about the 5th I think. The 7th has just died.)


Chatsworth and fountain

the maze

Chatsworth dahlia

Statuary Room

statue of Mr Darcy from film

Then back in the car we had to find Hartington - lots of narrow lanes and close shaves and finally LOST! I asked a man harrowing a ditch who turned out to be the village idiot (they still exist...) He didn't know but yelled out: "Hoy Dennis!" and I had to gallop up a field to where Dennis was hoeing mangel-wurzels. He looked exactly like the vet in The Vicar of Dibley except no teeth. "You'll have to turn around" (Jennifer will be pleased to hear this, I thought): "keep turning roight, turn roight at church, then roight then roight again" - with great difficulty we turned and he was RIGHT! Finally we got to Hartington and discovered it's a boring village with nothing going for it and that includes the inn where we stayed the night, couldn't wait to get out of there the next morning.

We decided to cut down on the driving and head straight for the West Country so embarked on a combination of M6 Toll, M5 North and M6 South (but a different one) - only went wrong once and were rescued by a convenient AA guy and found ourselves at Gloucester. This will do I thought: Historic Docks sound interesting. Wrong! Historic Docks bear the unmistakable look of failure and even the pub we went to was grotty and didn't have decaff. This is the pits I thought: it can't get worse than this. WRONG! I asked a nearby couple about things to do in Gloucester and they suggested the Cathedral. Well, we'd just been to York - what else? The 5 story Antiques Centre across the way "always a jolly visit"; OK could be good and was very interesting. Emerged to find a rain storm in progress but our car's parking due to expire so we made a dash for it whereupon the heavens opened and it was like having buckets of water thrown at you. This REALLY was the PITS!! You remember the old nursery rhyme "Doctor Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain"? - well that was us.

We drove out of Gloucester looking for anywhere, anywhere away from horrible Gloucester and ended up at Frampton on Severn, solely on the grounds it was in a clear space on the map. Frampton on Severn turned out to be heaven - just as you imagine an English village to be - calm and quiet with nice houses, the longest village green in England at half a mile, thatched cottages, groaning apple-trees and a B&B called The Old School House with a vacancy. Our hostess took us in, dried us off, gave us a cup of tea and made a dinner reservation at "the best fish restaurant in Gloucestershire". And it was gorgeous! A short drive to the end of the world i.e. where land runs out and across the Severn is the Forest of Dean, so right on the edge of the water is this very posh little restaurant called The Old Passage Inn where we had a lovely meal and a bottle of Three Choirs white wine grown and made in Gloucestershire.

Next morning we enjoyed the amenities of the b&b: we're cat-deprived and had a nice pat of their cat, inspected the apple orchard and were given a bag of fresh crisp apples, met the three dogs, two rams and 40 chooks whose eggs we'd had for breakfast. A great little b&b and highly recommended. I do like it when the owners take time to treat you as people not just bodies that have to be fed Full English Breakfasts and sent on their way.

The Old School House b&b

By now it was Saturday and car boot sale day. We went to one on the A38 where admission was 1p (must be the cheapest parking in England. Everywhere you go it's "Pay and Display" and another £2 is swallowed up by a machine so you can leave the car and go foot-slogging off.) No gems, but it was fun.

A short burst of M5 and we were past Bristol and turned off into West Somerset and towards Cleeve Abbey which I have been looking forward to all trip. Elsie Jeanette Oxenham used Cleeve Abbey as the basis of her Abbey books, uprooting the Abbey and planting it in Oxfordshire next door to Abinger Hall so that Joy could inherit the Hall and Joan the Abbey - well you can do those things in books. She also squashed things up a bit I reckon as in real-life the buildings are spread out and such a lot of it in good repair. I was quite stunned by it: as we were early it was almost deserted and had a wonderful feel of quiet and serenity just as it should have. They are working at preserving some 13th century paving and the whole thing is a credit to English Heritage. The most famous Abbey Girls picture shows the gatehouse in the background looking exactly like the real one. There are a lot more buildings: it's a sacred site to Abbey Girls and Jennifer took a photo of me sitting on a seat donated by Abbey Girls world-wide.

Cleeve Abbey gatehouse


looking into the cloisters
the cloisters
the refectory

Helen on EJO seat

We spent the night at Dunster, a beautiful mediaeval village with the worst parking we've encountered yet. We were staying at the Luttrell Arms ("everyone stays at the Luttrell Arms" said our b&b host. "My parents went there for their honeymoon in 1930.") It has changed internally since then and is very nice with efficient modern plumbing but there is no parking! You have to Pay and Display in a car park blocks away and then towards evening move the car to the narrow street in front. There's no room out the back because the hotel is built into a hill: in fact we had afternoon tea in The Secret Garden which runs off the first floor and overlooks the castle. I had a lovely stroll around Dunster Castle, admired the view out to the coast, inspected the 1690 Yarn Market in front of the Luttrell Arms and even bought 2 books in a secondhand bookshop. Dinner was very good and I bravely sent back the wine which was a corked dark yellow Sancerre. Fortunately there was no argument and we settled on a very nice viognier from South Africa.

Old Cleeve village

Luttrell Arms - look - no parking!

Dunster village

Dunster Castle

grounds of Dunster Castle

view from the castle

The South of England
Sunday should have meant less traffic but it increased as we approached Exeter: before that it was rolling farmlands and thick woods. Torquay is there before you realise it and the seafront was full of people, very little parking as usual but we did find a free one for an hour - just enough time to find the information centre and an internet cafe like the Edinburgh one but where Edinburgh had 300 terminals this one had 6! At least we could look at and send emails! And at Meadfoot Bay Hotel there was free broadband facilities for guests. It's a charming small hotel run by a family who have recently taken over and re-done the reception rooms in opulent dark red velvet and gold wood furniture which is surprisingly comfortable. No comparisons with Fawlty Towers allowed! though you do have to stand on a chair to get a seaview.

I walked down to Meadfoot Bay which is just how we imagine an English beach to be with grey pebbly sand, a cafe and a promenade lined with tiny chalets and deckchairs for hire at £1.50 for the day. Some people in jumpers and wrapped in towels were sitting doggedly in their deckchairs determined to get their moneys worth - not that it seemed particularly cold.

Meadfoot Bay Hotel

Meadfoot Bay with chalets


Next day we started out on the Agatha Christie Trail, first stop the Imperial Hotel where she came as a young woman and where Hercule Poirot visited. We walk into the main lounge imperiously and no-one seemed to mind as we looked out the huge windows at the sea just as she must have done, then on to Ladies' Cove where she nearly drowned and past the Torbay Yacht Club where her father spent his days - what a life-style! Here we got distracted from our quest and diverted to Go-With-the-Flow Day because along came a little red mini-train, but we were soon lured off that onto a wide glittering pier and on the pier were further tempted by a boat ride across the bay to the fishing village of Brixham. We really meant only to glance at the village but the ferry cast off and we had to stay for 2 hours!! It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny with a gentle breeze so it was no hardship but Brixham is a strange place. It's a full-scale working fishing village (which means dirty and smelly) with row upon row of tourist shops selling postcards, lolly rock and every souvenir you don't want. We managed to stretch it out by having a pasty for lunch, microwaved unfortunately to searing heat and with thick pastry but plenty of meat.

Agatha Christie bust
After our return voyage across the bay to Torquay we resumed the Agatha Christie Trail including her bronze bust in the marina. Poor Agatha! She seems a has-been and no-one else was making the pilgrimage. We ended up at the Grand Hotel where she spent her honeymoon - nice but not as grand as the Imperial. However it cost no more there for a decaff latte with two biscuits thrown in and a lovely view of Torquay Harbour. We really liked Torquay and found our way around pretty well, mostly on foot because of the parking. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy and in holiday mood which seemed to consist of eating and drinking at the many pubs and shopping.


It was a 3-hour drive to Chichester, mostly through rolling farmland but around Southampton through very dense traffic. Jennifer now handles M5s with aplomb and can even be found speeding along in the outer lane! We decided to go on to Arundel Castle today instead of tomorrow to make an early start for London. Arundel Castle is beautiful from the outside, the perfect storybook castle, and was used by Elsie Jeanette Oxenham as Kentisbury Castle where Rosamund went to live when she married. (All the Abbey Girls married well, especially Rosamund who was also given 2 sets of twins within 11 months - just as well she had all those Queens for nurserymaids, but I digress...)

It was £12 to see the Castle inside and grounds which is the most yet and then once you get inside they try to slug you another £1 to see the bedrooms. "No" we said firmly and contented ourselves with Queen Victoria's Bedroom. She described it in her diary as "small but cheerful". Small! An average family could live in it though they may not appreciate the huge four-poster bed and the steps needed to climb into it. Queen Vic was quite a small lady. The castle is populated by a bunch of attendants who stand around like waxwork dummies, not even giving information. "Ask Geoffrey" said one man, but Geoffrey ran away. We caught some of them talking about their lovely lunch with icecream and fresh pineapple just finished at 3 pm! In high dudgeon we stomped off to the kitchen gardens and each ate a fig, an apple, some raspberries and strawberries. "Please don't eat our fruit!" said a sign: "It's to feed to castle staff". Well stiff luck, let them eat pineapple!

Arundel Castle

from the tower

Arundel Castle

We found Kim's Bookshop in the village and each bought a nice book at a decent price: best range of second-hand books all trip. Now had to return to Chichester for that night's b&b and the worst driving experience yet. B&b is smack bang on the 18 inch pavement and double yellow lines of a one-way 3 lane highway throbbing with cars. We had to circle the town twice to even see the place, no way to stop. Jennifer parked in a park while I ran back and crossed the diabolical 3 lanes to hammer on the door - nearly hysterical - and got the b&b person to guide Jennifer around the town - again - to park in a town car park and pay a parking fee for the night. Even a nice quiet sit in her garden with a pot of tea didn't restore us and the discovery that we had to share bathrooms with 3 other people seemed like the last straw. The room has triple gazing to slightly muffle the traffic noise which stopped briefly at 3am.

We decided a visit to the Cathedral for Evensong might be more calming and by dint of fast walking made it more or less on time but were relegated to the body of the church, not up with the choir as we were in York. I counted there were 28 congregation not counting the man playing with his Blackberry, 16 choirboys - no equality here - 12 choirmen and 5 clergy: the workers outweighed the watchers. I have to admit the boys' voices were purer and sweeter than the girls...

Well we did it! successfully found Gatwick Airport car hire returns and dropped off Smarty unscathed and ahead of time! Getting out of Gatwick by express train was trickier than it should have been as the railway announcer kept us guessing and we scurried about changing platforms and dragging luggage. We were met by a driver in London - thank goodness - and delivered to a very nice new self-contained apartment: hallelujah! our own bathroom with heated towel rails. It's in a very nice area with rows of smart terrace houses and nice shops on Gloucester Road. Lots of traffic but that's not going to bother us any more.

Much refreshed by a quick shopping trip to Waitrose and lunch of Duchy of Cornwall organic bread and organic ham smoked with hazelwood, we explored the neighbourhood and even bought a few books at the op shops. Then I reckoned we could cope with the underground so off to London's West End on the tube to see Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. It all worked out perfectly, just come up into Leicester Square out of the underground and there are all the theatres within a short distance of each other. The Mousetrap has been running for 54 years and it wasn't hard to get tickets. I did read it once was but had completely forgotten who-dunnit. The detective steps forward at the end and asks you not to reveal the ending so of course I won't. It's dated a lot but is still an enjoyable show and it was great to see something I've always read about. Dinner was tapas at a lively (and dark) Spanish restaurant with a jug of sangria - delicious!

Next day we had tickets for the Big Bus where you ride around London all day on top of an open double-decker bus. It got a bit cold up there but we stuck it out, getting off at Trafalgar Square and walking a mile down the Mall (rhymes with pal) to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard. Trouble is: so did about 1000 other tourists. We know now: you have to get there at 10.30 and chain yourself to the railings to keep your place and be able to see anything, the rest of us can fleetingly see the guards arriving amidst a sea of cameras, thereafter all you see are the tops of their busbys (busbies?) moving up and down and hear the occasional hoarse shouted order and the band playing a medly of showtunes. So we sort-of saw the Changing of the Guard. I hope that went Christopher Robin Went Down With Alice he had a better view.

Buckingham Palace

Horse Guards arriving

Horse Guards


Changing the Guard

The Guard leaving + hat

During lunch we sat in Piccadilly Circus and watched the world go by before embarking back on the bus trip past St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament - all of the London icons - and any one it would have been nice to get off and explore further but there just wasn't time. At the Tower of London we hopped on a river cruise back down to the Houses of Parliament and went for our pre-booked ride on the London Eye. 25 million previous passengers can't be wrong and it was a marvellous experience! It's meticulously organised from the 5 minute wait to the checking of each capsule with a mirror under the seats (searching for bombs I suppose). It's a huge slow ferris wheel with room in each capsule for a dozen people: it doesn't stop, you get on perfectly safely and take 30 minutes to do a full circle so in 15 minutes there you are at the top able to see 25 miles on a clear day. This was a cool grey day so we could only see about 5 miles but it was most enjoyable and not at all scarey.

Trafalgar Square

Tower Bridge

The Tower & Traitors' Gate

The London Eye

a capsule on the London Eye

inside the capsule

Helen in capsule

Houses of Parliament from The Eye


one of 6 food halls at Harrods
The last day in the UK was designated Luxury Day for visiting Harrods and tea at the Ritz - and so it was! That is after an unpredicted shower of rain spoiled our leisurely walk down Cromwell Road and sent us scurrying into the Victoria and Albert Museum for shelter. And as usual it had a great gift shop.

We were overwhelmed by Harrods - so much glitz, richness and power - loved it though! The food hall is just sumptuous, like David Jones multiplied by 100, a female singer sang from the fourth floor balcony in the Egyptian escalator hall and a tenor serenaded the diners at the pizza bar, the clothes are all designer labels, and the home furnishings were amazing. I did buy a few things and was able to claim back the VAT at the airport.

I had much pleasure in hailing a taxi and saying: "The Ritz, please" and off we went to pre-booked afternoon tea. We were in the Palm Court, smaller than it looks in photos, with lovely linen tablecloths and napkins, hot and cold running waiters, a pianist playing in the lobby, a three-tiered curate's helper for sandwiches, scones and cake, and endless pots of tea. It was an hour and half of magic and we ate too much - well we didn't like to disappoint the lovely waiters as they kept coming around with more sandwiches.

Here is the poem from the menu:


I'm feeling sublime
For I've passed back in time.
Surrounded by glamour and glitz
As I sip my Earl Grey
All life's cares pass away,
For I'm having tea at the Ritz.

It's friendly, no fuss
But it's luxury plus
Cocooned in a creamy gold light.
There's a 'tea for two' mood
As the waiters bring food,
Displayed on three tiers of delight.

There are scones, jam and cream
Straight out of a dream
And sandwiches minus the crust.
Pastries good to the eye
So they can't be passed by
And fruity fruit cake - that's a must.

To accompany this
Is a pianist, what bliss
As music of old fills the air
One fancies that it's
The right theme for the Ritz
And a nightingale sings in Berkeley Square.

All that is true, except I had Lapsang Souchong.

Jennifer went and chatted to the pianist who, guessing we are Australian, played I Still Call Australia Home which made us a bit weepy. The pianist introduced us to the President of the Ritz who was amused to see middle-aged (that's all we are admitting to...) groupies.No dinner tonight - just early to bed to try and sleep before our 4.30am pick-up. Fortunately Heathrow has relaxed its luggage restrictions and one can now have a carry-on bag though still no liquids.

Jennifer & tea at the Ritz

Palm Court

Helen & tea at the Ritz

President, Jennifer & pianist

Dubai again

This time we arrived late evening and were chauffered to Jumeirah Beach Hotel which is an ultra-luxurious resort hotel with 4 swimming pools and 20 restaurants

Jumeirah Beach Hotel

The swimming pool was tempting and we had a lovely long swim looking over at the imposing Burj al Arab Hotel which is built out over the sea and then a good sleep after such an early rising. Breakfast was the usual wonderful array of goodies, over in time to catch the hotel shuttle to The Mall of the Emirates for a spot of shopping. This is a shopping centre built underneath a ski run: yes, there is snow in the desert and there were people warmly wrapped in ski gear ski-ing down a long slope. Incredible!

The shopping was very good with an interesting mix of smaller traders and big names like Debenhams, the English department store and Carrefours, the French super-store, but the mall had a strange atmosphere because it was Ramadan, an Islamic tradition where for a month they don't eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. So none of the food outlets was open.
Mall of the Emirates - inside where it's cooler!

We didn't particularly feel like lunch after all that breakfast so went straight to the pool for another leisurely swim. Then we had to try the ocean which was strangely tepid like a child's bath, back to the pool again and then a visit to Wild Wadi which is a water-park. First we went on Flooded River where you sit in a rubber boat and get whirled by fast-rushing water around and up and down a flume. We screamed all the way and at the end looked at each other and both said: "Let's go again!" so we did - had 3 rides altogether: more fun than a camel ride. Jennifer liked the wave-pool but I liked sitting in a rubber tube and drifting around the perimeter in a moat. Then there was "Sinbad's Bucket" where a huge bucket of water gradually fills up then tips all over you - just like being caught in the rain in Gloucester...

Wave pool at Wild Wadi

I wanted to have a closer look at the Burj al Arab (pronounced barzh al aRARB) so we took the hotel shuttle over there and felt a bit embarrassed when we saw how close it is, but at least our shuttle-driver was there to get us past the heavy security. Probably for the cars: in the forecourt were parked 2 Rolls, a Jag and a Porsche: I saw a common old Merc being driven away by the valet parking service, obviously not good enough to be left outside. Inside we discovered you can't go to the undersea restaurant and look at the fish without a dinner booking and it was booked out. I was a bit relieved actually: no doubt dinner would be very expensive, but we were able to take the escalator to the first floor past the walls of colourful tropical fish and then catch an elevator to the 27th floor for a drink and panoramic view. It was quite hazy, but a wonderful view of our hotel and the rest of the coast. No alcohol of course so we had Mocktails - strange mixes of fruit drinks ( we passed up on the camels' milk and saffron one). At 55 dirhams it's probably the dearest fruit drink I've ever had but the view made it worthwhile (AU$20).

Having had no lunch we wanted early dinner, but here's where Ramadan kicks in: nothing was open until sunset. We didn't understand this important fact and wandered around trying to find an open restaurant and got thoroughly lost, ending up in the bowels of the hotel and having to be rescued by a staff member who took us through a maze of service areas which got dingier and dingier until - suddenly - we popped out into the very posh lobby with wall-to-wall staff including one lady whose sole job it was to push the lift button for you. I thought it was hilarious that the grubby rubbish-bins etc exist so closed to the plushness of the lobby. What we didn't know was that another lady sat at a computer around the corner ready to take our dinner booking: you don't just turn up, you book your table.

Helen & Jennifer with Burj al Arab background
So we booked for the Arabian buffet in a tent in the garden and very nice it was too. Had another strange drink of butter milk and cucumber followed by lentil soup, stuffed vine leaves and lots of other entrees, mostly lamb and some chicken dishes and international-type desserts. It was fascinating to watch men going off to have shishas. (Dictionary definition: an oriental tobacco pipe with a long flexible tube connected to a container where the smoke is cooled by passing through water.) I don't know what they were smoking: it smelt like flowers, not unpleasant, but they breathed out thick grey smoke. Jennifer was told a smoke cost 400 dirhams (AU$146! - I don't get it... Perhaps that was to discourage us from trying it.)

After elegant room service breakfast we were picked up and driven to the airport with a 3-hour wait. Security was stricter than 4 weeks ago and we still had a three hour wait. They don't let you into the gate-lounge until just before boarding so there was an unpleasantly long time of milling around the duty-free shops with nowhere to sit and nothing to do except shopping. It was a relief to board and sit for 13 uneventful hours until we landed in Melbourne and found out who won the AFL Grand Final.

It was a great trip and on the whole we had good weather (except for Gloucester). In fact I read in the paper that it is the warmest September in the UK since 1659.

But I Still Call Australia Home!