......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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
Townend House was the exact opposite being an old - very old, 600 years old - farmhouse filled with intricately carved wooden oak furniture.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
The Caledonian Canal
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.
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.
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!
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!
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
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
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
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
North of England
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.
West of England
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.)
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.
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.
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.
South of England
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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
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.
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:
TEA AT THE RITZ
friendly, no fuss
are scones, jam and cream
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.
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!
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...
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.
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!