Unprecedented, the word that describes 2020. Edinburgh in August this year fits the pattern - no Festival, no Fringe, no crowds. So sad for the Scottish economy, but an unprecedented opportunity for socially distancing tourists. I suspect the city hasn’t been this empty since the last siege of the castle by the Jacobites in 1745.
Our planned visit to the Edinburgh Fringe is delayed at least until 2021, but Anne-Marie’s birthday seems a good reason to keep our travel arrangements. Four hours on the train from London, masked and sitting separately, is a challenge. But the first sight of the Edinburgh skyline justifies the effort getting here. Countless Gothic spires and turrets, crafted from a common stone, cling to the hillside that climbs to the towering volcanic outcrop dominated by Edinburgh Castle.
Some girlfriends would complain about pulling their case up the steep incline from Waverley Station to The Royal Mile and our hotel. AM understands that taxis are a virus risk. I am sure the muttering isn’t from her. We stop every few minutes, occasionally checking pulses on our fitness watches - over 100 and we sit on our cases a while. We know the exercise is essential training. During our stay we will climb the Edinburgh bluff many times, the result of booking a hotel on the opposite side to the station.
Social distancing rules require tourist attractions to ration access. We have booked some visits on-line and even a week ahead there aren’t many spaces free. AM knows we are visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia, Edinburgh Castle and the Museum of Scotland. She doesn’t know her birthday dinner will be at The Witchery by The Castle, where Scotland’s best-known restaurateur, James Thomson, will have created the magical menu.
Our Wilde Aparthotel is just off the Grassmarket ,where inviting pubs and restaurants are offering Scottish hospitality and there’s no waiting for tables. I was here at the Fringe last year and had to walk in the road to pass the crowds.Now Edinburgh seems open just for us.
Most films based in Edinburgh use the same opening shot, a fly-in over Calton Hill, with Princes St below and the Castle on the distant skyline. We will start our explorations in the same way, though walking not flying.
Edinburgh claims three main hills, the Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat and the easiest to climb Calton Hill. Our small effort is well rewarded with spectacular views across the city and its setting and a unique set of monuments to inspect. I came up here about thirty years ago when my daughter, Karen was at Edinburgh University, but I recall it was raining and a family visit never allows one to dwell. Today, we have sunshine, three hours before lunch and available seats to relax and take in the spectacle. The history of Edinburgh is spread out around and below us, the landscape formed by volcanic and ice-age forces, and the city itself, the Old Medieval Town and the Georgian New Town, so different.
In the distance, we can see the Firth of Forth and one red cantilever of the Forth Bridge.
Scattered across the hill are monuments to wars and famous Scots, built in the early 19th century. The Greek style of architecture earned Edinburgh the nickname of “Athens of the North.” The Greek temple is an observatory, the National Monument to those lost in the Napoleonic wars, is modelled on the Parthenon but incomplete, a circular temple of nine fluted columns is dedicated to the Scottish philosopher, Dugald Stewart and a similar one as a memorial to Robert Burns.
AM and I have never heard of Dugald Stewart. We google him. He was a leading Scottish advocate of The Philosophy of Common Sense. We like him already.
We are relaxing on our bench-with-a-view when there’s a loud bang. It sounds like the cannon fire you get on special days. I am tempted to suggest to AM I have arranged this for her birthday but it’s a day early and we soon discover the truth.
Nelson is to blame. He has a tower, designed as an inverted telescope, as his monument.. At the top is a ball which, in the 19th century, was dropped at one o’clock each day to signal a time check to ships in the Firth of Forth. To allow for fog blocking the sight of the ball, a cannon was fired at the same time from the Castle. The tradition has been continued six days a week.
We leave Calton Hill for lunch, already after one morning, rating Edinburgh our favourite UK destination.
Haggis, in Howie’s Regency dining room, half price with the Eat Out to Help Out promotion and accompanied with a wee dram of 12 year Glenfiddich, adds to our Scottish satisfaction.
Lincoln is just a one-night stand, I am told. I worry because I have booked us two nights and wonder how we will fill the extra time.
The guidebooks claim 2000 years of history. The Roman’s Ninth Legion built a fortress at the crossroads, between Fosse Way and Ermine Street. Maybe it was their version of “Little Centurion” offering a Full Empire breakfast on their journeys up to York. William the Conqueror obviously took a fancy to the place as he ordered a country castle to be built in 1068, for long weekend breaks, perhaps. The local bishops felt the spirit here too and started building a cathedral in 1072. However, in more recent times, the town hasn’t had much claim to fame. Even Lincoln City FC has never been higher than the old Third Division and the current League One.
After a 2-hour train journey from London, we reach Lincoln early afternoon and visit the cathedral before closing time. Its Gothic architecture is impressive outside but inside it’s strangely unadorned with blank walls. Work began in 1072 and the first building was completed 20 years later. After fires and earthquakes, the final part of the cathedral was consecrated in 1280. With the addition of a central spire in 1311 it became the tallest building in the world for over two hundred years until 1548 when the spire collapsed. At 525ft high it surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza which had held the height record for almost 4000 years.
On day two we target the castle. This area has been of strategic value from Roman times. A great curtain wall surrounds the inner bailey of the 12th century castle. Recent renovations have created a complete wall walk, and we have great views of the cathedral and the lower town from there.
The castle has been used as a prison for centuries. A Georgian prison built in 1788, with a Victorian extension from 1848, survives. Many of the cells are open to visit and there are videos of prisoners’ stories. We are captivated by an ingenious escape of Joseph Ralph. He memorised the shape of the cell key and cast a copy by melting his pewter mug using the gas light into a mould made from masticated bread.
We read our Lincoln Guide over lunch in the Castle and discover we should have waited to eat at Stokes, Lincoln’s famous Tudor High Bridge Café. The High Bridge was built over the River Witham in the 12th century and is the oldest bridge in England with houses still on it. The café building dates from 1540, though Stokes has only occupied it since 1937. We go anyway and enjoy a champagne cream tea.
A last flick through our guide reveals there’s so much of Lincoln we haven’t had time to see. So, two nights here is a just a tease. We think this might be the start of a longer relationship.
“Non avere peli sulla lingua.” To have no hairs on the tongue or as we would say to tell it like it is.
“Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca.” To have a full bottle of wine and a drunk wife, or for us, to have your cake and eat it.
Who could fail to fall in love with a country which has spawned these wonderfully evocative expressions? In my heart I know God made a mistake when he planted me in a Lancashire fishing village nearly eight decades ago. Somehow he failed to recognise that my true spiritual homeland was Italy and I should have been born in my favourite city, Verona.
Twenty-five years ago I knew that I had come home when my first halting attempts at their language resulted in a torrent of approbation. “Complimenti,” they cried in Bologna as I tried to remember useful phrases from my previous week’s intensive course at the Italian Cultural Institute in London’s Belgrave Square. Such a different response to the reception I usually got in France where their seemingly hard-wired reaction is to sniffily correct your pronunciation even though they have understood perfectly what you have said.
I have by now scrambled up an aeroplane’s steps more than fifty times to head for Italian cities, lakes, mountains and coastal resorts. From the Dolomites in the north to Puglia in the heel of Italy
I have visited many stunning places. I have also worked hard to attain a workable level of fluency in their expressively melodic language.
Italy has a fantastic cultural legacy and shares top spot with China for the number of Unesco World Heritage sites. I do love the awesome historic monuments, the architecture, the paintings and sculptures. The way man and nature work in perfect harmony in Tuscany’s breathtakingly beautiful landscape is unforgettable. The lakeside towns and villages around Garda are a delight to savour. The ferry trip along the Ligurian coast is magical. The perfection of many smaller cities like Urbino, Padua, Sirmione and Mantua is not adumbrated by their more grandiose cousins such as Florence or Rome.
As well as this cultural richness there are so many examples of Italian behaviour that I love:
· My favourite people watching time is in the early evening when they stroll and chat and quaff an aperitivo during the traditional passeggiata
· They are so achingly stylish. They love themselves to bits and it’s no surprise that the top designer Valentino fashioned the uniforms of the Carabinieri
· They are congenitally incapable of queuing
· We stop at zebra crossings, the Italians hardly ever
I’m not blind to their faults. Their bureaucracy is tortuous; their propensity to drive at 100 mph a metre from the car in front on the autostrada is incomprehensible; they are stubborn as mules when you complain about anything. They are coffee snobs. They regard ordering a cappuccino after a meal as barbaric.
But, as Giuseppe Verdi said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
Long before the internet made it easy for us to find and book our holiday accommodation in advance we decided on a road trip to the Loire Valley. Armed with our copy of Logis de France and some road maps we headed south.
Eventually we arrived in the small town of Pontlevoy and there in the main street stood the Hotel de L’Ecole, a handsome shuttered building covered with an abundant creeper of some kind. We liked the look of the place so went inside to see if there was a room available.
We were greeted by an elderly lady who showed us to a first floor room, which was clearly not ready for new guests so we managed to communicate well enough to secure the room and agree to come back later.
Back on the ground floor we encountered an elderly man who in conversation with the lady was obviously not happy about something. My schoolgirl French and the speed of their speech did not allow me to fully understand but I concluded that perhaps he thought we had turned down the room because it wasn’t ready. However eventually the lady calmed him down and we went off to explore and find a picnic lunch.
That evening, after drinks in the garden, we had dinner, which was the highlight of our visit. Starting with a rich, smooth spinach soup, we went on to a veal main course served with small crisp beignets of creamy potato, after which a small fresh salad appeared. Finally we enjoyed slices from a large strawberry tart with cream. All this was served with a dry, white regional wine. Every course was superb. As we were leaving the dining room we encountered Monsieur, the grumpy man we had met when we arrived and who was clearly the proprietor. In my stumbling French I told him that our meal was “absolument delicieux” and his face lit up with a big smile. He insisted on bringing the chef out to meet us and I repeated the compliment. The evening ended with smiles all round.
Some years later, on another road trip, this time in Dennis’ first classic car, a Marcos, we stayed at Hotel de L’Ecole again and oh what changes time had brought.
The new owners had very different roles. Madame – immaculately dressed, coiffed and made up whatever the hour, had a style all of her own. It was somewhere between Sybil Fawlty and Elsie Tanner and she was front of house. I also suspect that she had overseen the redecoration of the public rooms. Gone was the dark wood panelling now replaced by vivid floral wallpaper. The colours were similar to those favoured by Madame in her clothes. Monsieur was interested in classic cars and was fascinated by ours, opening some gates at the back of the hotel so that we could park it securely. He was also the chef and as it was a fine warm day dinner was served in the garden - another excellent meal.
Vive L’Hotel de L’Ecole! Vive La France!
Scrabster: a setting as picturesque as it sounds. But, at Scotland’s northern edge, it’s the gateway to Orkney, where I wait to board the morning boat that will transport me to the islands, just visible through the mists now hugging the sea. On-board, it is the sounds that dominate - the clatter of heavy chains, the impatient cries of gulls and kittiwakes, walkie-talkie radios, and the idle chatter of islanders returning home.
I stay on deck, savouring the salty air, glad of the extra jumper and new kagoul – the mercury has not been above ten for days, this last week of August. The boat plies its way north-east dragging a coterie of seabirds in its wake and then, as the harbour recedes, the noise abates. Is this the peace I’ve been looking for? An hour in, Hoy looms on the starboard bow, The Old Man stands sentinel - like an Easter Island head. As we gather, ooh and aah, and as cameras click and whir, he pays us no attention – well, maybe once; just a sly glance.
At last, Stromness hoves into view – surely a Norwegian import? Sturdy grey-faced cottages tumble into an even greyer harbour, the drabness lifted only by the reds and blues of the island’s fishing fleet. A blast from the ship’s horn announces our arrival, and minutes later we’re deposited onto the quayside – a motley assortment of backpackers, businessmen and townsfolk.
I find a B&B with a harbour view – quaint quilts, buttered toast, eggs and porridge. That evening I wander back to a quayside pub, have a pint of ‘Twenty bob’ and a plate of chicken korma. Tasty, but hardly traditional.
The next day dawns fair and I decide on a tourist bus trip around the island. The bus is small, more of a minibus, and the driver offers me homemade fruitcake at 20p a slab. I take two. As we leave the town, the sun comes out, occasionally hidden by pure white clouds that scud across wide, blue skies. We bounce along twisting country lanes, new vistas opening up at every turn. I am beginning to like this place.
First stop is Skara Brae, a Neolithic village older than the pyramids. It’s largely intact, eight sunken houses, walls, beds, cupboards, seats…it’s stunning. The ageing guide is boyishly enthusiastic: Magnus Pike and David Bellamy rolled into one.
Next, Maes Howe, a Neolithic burial mound. I crawl the 30-foot tunnel and kneel amazed as my eyes adjust to the torch-lit chamber. Mysterious engravings mix with Viking runes – who knew they fought in the Crusades… alongside the Christians!
Finally, the Ring of Brodor, third only to Stonehenge and Avebury. Twenty-seven stones, standing, brooding, look out across the nearby lochs.
Quietly, reverent, the fruitcake gone, we start for home.
On the High Street, I find a house offering dinner. Trout with almonds, buttered potatoes, veg and wine, shared with a TV crew here to film a seaweed-eating flock of sheep.
And so to bed - well fed, and sun-kissed.
Image courtesy of Visit Scotland
We were stood like lemons outside Marco Polo Airport searching for our ride. The tourist ferry, fully laden with punters jostling for a rail view is alongside, but where do we go? Eventually after an eternity the water-taxi-controller turns up and starts gesticulating to everyone and anyone. Welcome to Italy.
To my consternation, he snatches the home-printed ticket from my hand, “Bellissima,” and then his windmill impression went turbo as a sleek, polished chestnut coloured, wooden motorboat pulled into the dock. This it turns out, is our ride to the most serene republic.
Our boatman is dour and aloof in complete divergence to his compatriot. Both reflect our sojourn in Venice perfectly. The raucous crowded tourist traps which we managed to avoid and the intimate bars and restaurants where the locals fed and watered and where we feasted on verve and relatively cheap Prosecco.
Sat in the stern, snapping paparazzi shots of my glamorous wife, the shimmering lagoon was now our private playground; one of life’s moments.
The launch navigated us through a labyrinth of canals and then to my complete surprise, we are on the Grand Canal, passing police launches, floating dustcarts, fire boats and a wedding cortege. We wave felicities, then are whisked under The Rialto.
I don’t know how my Wife does it but she finds the best places to stay. Our boutique hotel is in the heart of the Dorsoduro Sestieri. Our room is dark and sensual inside; but open the shutters and our Juliet balcony overlooks the marble and sculptures of the Guggenheim, radiant in the sunshine.
Crisscrossing canals to find back street churches with triptychs and Madonna’s we get lost in the maze of alleyways that reek of Jasmine. Squid-ink risotto and veal chops are washed down with sophisticated Veneto wines. The rain sends us scurrying from our canal side perch to shelter under the restaurant awning, where we converse with our waiter and are convinced to finish the exquisite meal with a Grappa.
Early next morning we venture to Saint Marks, our efforts to beat the throngs still too tardy. Strolling around we decide to give this all a miss and head to Harry’s Bar. Here we do get in before the hordes and grab a corner table where we can people watch. After a pleasant but overpriced Bellini, we switch to the house prosecco and get a much better deal. Harry’s carpaccio is amazing; as are the Count and Countessa that adorn the table next to us. They wear their full regalia, entertaining Venice’s finest. The waiter keeps surreptitiously topping up our glasses and I get told to not to act like Hemmingway. On our last morning, we sit for hours outside the old Customs House, now full of infuriating modern art and let Venice wash over us. We hit the Pub on the Corner for a farewell Chianti Classico; then jump into the water-taxi feeling like George and Amal.
Our boatman, like any Italian driver, breaks all the speed limits as we race across the lagoon, leaving Venice behind - begging us to return.
The City of Bath is a place I return to whenever the opportunity arises. I never grow tired of the place. There is always something new to explore.
There is no better way to start a day in Bath than enjoying a bun and coffee at Sally Lunn’s tea house in North Parade Alley. The bun, which is part bun part cake, is still baked to a secret recipe. Suitably refreshed, it’s time to walk to Queen Square passing the Roman Baths, Pump Room, and Cross Bath.
John Wood the Elder (1704 – 1754) had risen to prominence early as an architect with his London street designs as well as work in Yorkshire. Initially, Wood was influenced by Wren, but soon took on an approach more aligned to Palladio. In 1727, Wood was invited by Richard “Beau” Nash (1674 – 1762) and Ralph Allen (1693 – 1764) to submit designs for an urban expansion of Bath, then a rather seedy rundown spa town. Nash allegedly provided some of the finance for the building of Georgian Bath from gambling taxes. Nash also provided an arena for pleasure and intrigue for the fashionable wealthy by opening assembly rooms such as Harrison and Lindsay’s in Grand Parade (rooms now demolished). In contrast, Allen who was a successful postmaster, opened a quarry on Combe Down to the south of the city, thus providing local Bath stone for building.
Bath stone is a honey coloured limestone that can be cut in any direction without fracturing. This makes Bath stone a true “freestone” allowing for delicate precise carving but remaining strong enough for large building – both combinations can be found throughout Bath on its Georgian buildings.
The building of Queen Square commenced on 10th December 1727 to Wood’s specific design. The construction would take eight years to complete. Wood’s original intention was to level the land; however, the natural fall of the land was the final preferred option. This decision ensured the north side of Queen Square created a grand façade presiding over the rest of the square and on the north side at number 24, centre of the terrace, we find Wood’s house. Wood’s house is unmistakably based on Roman classical architecture as seen by Eighteenth Century landed gentry on their Grand Tour. This style would set the tone for much of the building of Georgian Bath. Rising from a basement which was originally used as a kitchen, the ground floor of number 24 provides a strong base for six columns known as orders topped with ornate Corinthian capitals. Although the parapet is plain, the crowning glory is a vast pediment centrally placed and proportioned to adorn a carved frieze. Three floral urns stretch skyward above the pediment. Servant quarters located in the attic, are masked by an unattractive balustrade.
In the middle of the square, now shrouded in trees, Wood positioned an obelisk inscribed with a tribute to Frederick, Prince of Wales, his consort Princess Augusta, and Nash.
Wood wanted to create an open Square for leisurely parading and for two centuries this ideal was upheld. Today, sadly Queen Square has thunderous traffic circulating, but it is still a wonderful architectural statement.
Image courtesy of Bath.co.uk
...LESS THAN 4.5 MILES (AS THE CROW FLIES) FROM LAND'S END
If you travel far enough west, to the tip of Cornwall, you'll find a land of rock and ocean, of myth and legend, of stories. A land of small fields, bounded by stone walls, and granite moorlands. A land of sheltered coves, and vast starlit skies. A land of struggles and hardships, but also of wild beauty. Visiting this area of Cornwall once more, my heart always lifts as we journey to our home for a week, a self-catering barn conversion in the fields above Sennen. It's so peaceful here; we can see the church tower in the distance, outlined in silhouette as the sun sets. And on a clear night, the glory of the Milky Way shines out high above.
You may want to ignore the tattered commercialism of Land’s End; candy floss, Cornish pasties, 'souvenirs', 'attractions'. But the cliffs and sea views are stunning; go in the evening, when the day’s hustle and bustle fades and you are left alone to wander the rocky paths as the sun sets over the vast ocean (next stop America), accompanied by gulls crying, waves crashing, as the lighthouse signals its warning.
Visit the tiny cove of Porthgwarra (see photo); sit and watch the waves as they lap against the shoreline, writing postcards, eating ice-cream (there's a tiny shop and tearoom), take your time to let your thoughts roam free.
Attend a performance at the Minack Theatre, perched high on the cliffs above Porthcurno. Whether as a member of the audience, or programme seller, or on stage (I've done all three, although only in a crowd of peasants on stage!), it's magical. As the sun sets in the west, the air cools; wrap yourself up tightly in your blanket and enjoy the show, with the sky darkening and waves crashing, tiny bats darting around the stage lights. Or go to a matinee, and enjoy the blazing sun. At least visit the theatre itself, enjoying the flowers that bloom along the sides of the steps as you walk down to the stage, see the Minack Rock below. And learn the story of Rowena Cade, who, with her gardener's help, built the theatre in her garden on the cliffs, using sand from Porthcurno beach.
Porthcurno houses the Telegraph Museum, a fascinating display of worldwide communications since the 1870s. Undersea cables can still be seen on the beach, a lovely spot for whiling away a few hours, sunbathing or paddling in the gentle waves that lap the shoreline.
Or visit Sennen, a small coastal village nestled along the bay, with a wide sandy beach, ideal for sand-castles and surfing, a Lifeboat Station, and the Round House Gallery, home to works from local artists and crafts people.
And these are only a few highlights. Travel a few miles further and you'll come across the remains of mine engine-houses and chimneys perched atop cliffs, stone circles and standing stones, the mermaid of Zennor, and the harbour at Mousehole, until you reach the busy, bustling streets of Penzance and St Ives.
Life has meaning when The Past connects with The Present. The Past was the time when we pondered about what The Future might hold for us, not realising that it would soon change its name to The Present. The Present is the time that we reflect on The Past, saying ‘Thank You’ or ‘Why did you do that to me?’ depending on the decisions that The Past made for us, blaming him for our misdemeanours.
I want to say ‘Thank You’ to The Past as I post this travelogue. You made the right decisions for me.
Start your short break in Copenhagen. Spend your first morning visiting Stroget, the famous pedestrian street, lined with shops, before taking some lunch, and then going to the Christiansborg Palace and City Hall Square in the afternoon. In the evening you might decide to visit Tivoli Gardens, the 19th century amusement park, before planning your next day, which will take you across the Oresund Bridge to Malmo.
Malmo lags behind only Stockholm and Gothenburg in terms its size, relative to other Swedish cities. It is a great place to go if you like culture and The Past, but first you should look at what The Present has achieved, visiting The Turning Torso, the skyscraper which was completed in 2005, having taken four years to complete. This building, which twists its way up into the sky, will remind you of what technology has achieved in the modern era.
Returning to The Past, discover the more ancient places to visit, such as the historic Malmohus Castle, encompassing two museums, a small aquarium, and the Science and Maritime House within its walls.
Then visit the Folkets Park for fresh air, before going to a variety of historic places, such as St Peter’s Church, the Museum of Modernism and the Malmo Art Gallery, not to mention Lilla Torg, Little Square, where you can have a drink and something to eat in one of the cafes as you watch the people go by. And don’t forget to take a sightseeing tour of Malmo via canal boat.
When you have enjoyed your day in Malmo, why not spend the next day 22 minutes away in the beautiful city of Lund. There you can visit the Domkyrka, the cathedral, before taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens and wending your way along the crooked cobbled streets that will introduce you to the colourful façades of the picturesque houses.
The following day, return to Copenhagen, say ‘Hello’ to the Little Mermaid (and she really is little), before you visit to the water again by going to Nyhaven, the 17th century waterfront, offering yet more beautiful, coloured town houses. It was the home of Hans Christian Andersen, who was a writer of travelogues himself, but became more famous as the writer of fairy tales, such as The Little Match Girl and The Princess and the Pea, not forgetting The Emperor’s New Clothesand The Ugly Duckling.
Southern Sweden and Denmark offer you sights, a lovely climate in the summer, architecture, entertainment and, perhaps most importantly for a group of writers, a voyage into the imagination of a man, Hans Christian Andersen, who, in writing stories for little children, made their parents think about some of our fundamental human values.
The Emperor’s New Clothes helps us to speak the truth when the accepted wisdom is based on falsehoods and The Ugly Ducklinggives hope to all us who fear we might not be accepted.
Come to Scandinavia and be accepted. You won’t be an ugly duckling any more. You might just find truths for The Present in the stories of The Past, just like I did.
‘A Very Small World’
I lived in Sweden for three years in the late 1970s. It has a special place in my memory because it is where I met my wife and life partner, Hilary. We have had three children and now have one grandchild.
On a note that is more relevant to Watford Writers, I worked for Kursverksamheten, or KV, as we called it, as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I was also a member of Clogs Mobile English Theatre Company; we used to take plays into schools in southern Sweden and Denmark and even made it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1980.
Mike Lansdown, a fellow Watford Writer, was also an EFL teacher for KV at the time, so we met at the events that were organised for the whole KV group. I was based in Lund and Mike was based in Kalmar.
Years later, in 1983, I had a job as an English as a Second Language Teacher at Glebe School in Kenton. I then left Glebe to work elsewhere and Mike came along to work as the ESL teacher at Glebe a few years later. Small world, especially when you think that I come from Cheshire and Mike comes from North Wales, and neither of us had had any connection with this part of the world i.e. Harrow and Watford, before returning to the UK from Sweden.
We both became Head Teachers, me in Harrow and Mike in Hertfordshire and had the great honour (or not!) of playing for ‘’The Gympies”, the Harrow Teachers football team in the early 90s. Mike did a sterling job on the wing and I wandered aimlessly around the pitch discussing various issues with the referee and other players, always intent on drawing the captain’s attention away from the fact that I was not actually making much of a contribution to the overall team effort!
Mike and I stayed in touch and when I returned from my second stint abroad as a School Principal in Dubai at the end of 2018, Mike introduced me to Watford Writers, who I joined in 2019, and the rest is history.
Around fifteen years ago, my daughter Rhianna and I spent a week at Butlins in Skegness for Spring Harvest which is an annual church worship event held during the Easter holidays. We went with our church – there were about 60 of us in total but our little group was made up of mums and children. Rhianna and I shared a chalet with my friend and her two children. We often sat together at church and chatted at the school gates, but we did not know each other that well outside so thought it would be a good opportunity to spend some time together.
I didn’t know what to expect of Butlins and on arrival the chalets and tents were very reminiscent of TV Show Hi-de-Hi and I wondered what I had let myself in for.
I am not keen on the cold or rain which is why I had not been tempted by “staycations”. This was also the first time I had been away with Rhianna on my own. However, we soon got into the swing of things, with Rhianna attending the group sessions with her friends in the morning after a lively breakfast in the food court. She had so much freedom as the older children took the younger ones to the onsite fair or for scooter races along the beach in the afternoons.
There was a full programme of workshops by well-known speakers which we went to whilst the children were in their clubs. Or I would sometimes take a long walk along the beautiful Lincolnshire coast in order to make up for the fish and chip suppers and ice-creams consumed later! My friend and I also made good use of the spa for some childfree time and spending time together knowing the children were safe and happy was a real blessing.
Toward the end of the week the weather took a turn for the worse and we had a flood of epic proportions. However, the torrential rain did not faze the children but only seemed to enhance their enjoyment as they went shrieking from chalet to chalet on a very soggy Easter egg hunt!
Our vicar – a bluff Yorkshire man – said at one point it was so windy that the rain seemed to blow sideways. This really tickled the children who then forever referred to the never-ending rain as “sideways rain”.
The week ended with a celebration in the Big Top where and Rhianna and her group were on stage in a dance production based on their activities during the week. (picture attached).
Overall my preconceptions about a holiday in the UK were completely blown away by the fun that we had and the friendships that were strengthened.
This year due to the coronavirus Spring Harvest has gone online, but I can honestly say being there was one of the best and most memorable holidays I have had (sideways rain and all).
We all wonder if things happen for a reason? When travelling, it’s often the unexpected and unknown that brings some of the best experiences. My trip to Australia and New Zealand three years ago highlighted the ‘best laid plans’ saying. After staying in Australia at the home of my childhood friend Tracey, I was going to fly to New Zealand and meet up with Auntie Maureen, also on holiday from the UK. She’s not really my aunt, but a very good friend of the family! She had been to NZ many times, but had never taken the Tranzalpine Railway trip, from Christchurch to Greymouth. Maureen announced this was something she really wanted to do, and at the age of 82, best that she get on with it! I couldn’t refuse.
We booked our rail tickets, £160 each for the 139 mile daytrip over the mountains of the South Island. We’d spend 9 hours on the train there and back with an hour’s stop in Greymouth for lunch. Oh what fun, so much excitement at ‘seeing the epic vistas, the ice-fed Waimakariri River and to traverse the Southern Alps, whilst enjoying the miles of native beech forest.’
Except nature had her own ideas! In mid-February, a scrub fire spread to a bridge and warped the steel structure. The train was cancelled. The travel agent offered us an alternative, a coach trip to Greymouth and back. Only an hour longer each way, a 20 minute lunch break and they were uncertain if there would be toilets or refreshments on board. We thought it through for about 5 minutes and decided that was not our idea of fun. So I looked at the map and announced ‘no problem’, I could drive over the pass. We’d stay overnight in Greymouth and take a different route back to Christchurch. These ideas sort of snowball don’t they? Having let Tracey know of this change, she decided that the best thing would be for her to fly to New Zealand with me and share the driving for our road trip! After all that’s what friends are for…
I look back at the photos of our journey across Arthur’s Pass, fantastic memories with two dear friends. Every bend had us gasping at the amazing scenery, ‘Ooh it’s like the Scottish highlands’, ‘Aah the Italian alps.’ or ‘This part looks like Devon.’ Auntie Maureen sat in the back and took in every view, whilst Tracey and I drove. We stopped when we wanted to photograph the scenery or just stretch our legs. Breakfast at the base of the mountains, lunch when we reached the altitude in the clouds at an establishment resembling a Swiss chalet; where we had the biggest sausage rolls I had ever seen. Then dinner in Greymouth, our destination, which sadly lived up to its name. However a delicious meal and a local crisp, chilled Sauvignon Blanc was a worthy reward for the drive. All in all an ‘accidental journey’ that was the highlight of my trip.
A place that doesn’t need its full title to bring back memories of the pristine and stunningly beautiful Copacabana beach. I spent weekends there back in the 90’s when the only area out of bounds were the favelas attached to the steep hills around the city. Dark deeds and desperation hung over those vistas. Nowadays they have built a chairlift across them and you can take walking tours without the need for close protection and security.
Taking the funicular railway up to Corcovada, the statue of Christ, is a must do and if you are lucky and there is no fog the views are simply spectacular. With the frequent fog its just a big piece of stone in the clouds and a disappointing video recording.
For a thrilling ride take the two cable cars up to the top of sugar loaf mountain. The view from the top will take your breath away as will the cost of the gift shop souvenirs
But Ipanema beach has always been my favourite. It’s impossible not to hum ‘Girl from Ipanema’ as you sit on the sand watching the beautiful people in dental floss bikinis walk past. Knowing that my body cries out for a Victorian all in one swimsuit, I could still appreciate beauty in others without too much envy. Sitting there with my two small children and eating fresh pineapple, cut with a machete that the young local held in one hand whilst slicing and handing over the pineapple quarters in the other was edgy to say the least. Running into the sea to wash off the pineapple juice and just laughing at the sun with my two beautiful children in that beautiful place is a treasured memory.
Image courtesy of National Geographic
The first issues for me are what to pack and what to wear. Will it be hot? Wet? Windy? Possibly a combination of all three. I decide to keep things simple and plump for something lightweight and comfortable; my dressing gown and slippers.
No passport needed for this trip. No having to look for those 100ml bottles and then spend ages trying to decant your toiletries; You know those bottles; you buy them on impulse when you see them in Primarni, only to discover that you already bought some last year, and probably the year before as well. They are normally hiding in a box in your bathroom, or in your otherwise empty suitcase. If you have splashed out and bought the ‘expensive’ sets of containers, they come with a miniature funnel to make life easier. The funnels never work, you always end up with more cream on your hand than is actually inside the bottle.
Anyway, I digress. So, no suntan lotion or suitcase required. No travel adaptor or passport. No foreign currency or bottles of water (which you either to hand over at passport control or drink quickly and worry for the next three hours that you might need to use the loo at a difficult times). This trip requires none of that stress, none of that planning, and no worry about getting to an airport on time.
You have heard of ‘home schooling’ well this is another slant on that really. This is home travel, Iockdown hopping, or as I fondly call it, ‘staycation’.
We have our itinerary planned. We shall dine on the finest cuisine, and do all the things we love to do when we get free time; read, write, sew. We shall chat and laugh. We shall listen to our favourite music and occasionally get up to dance. We will play board games and try to outwit each other (I say pretend as I always win anyway) We shall sit and contemplate the meaning of life whilst watching the wildlife in its natural habitat (if you can call a soppy domestic cat trying to catch a fly wildlife).
So, this is day one and we decided to begin our vacation by going to feed the ducks. A lovely gentle activity, once you can get past the questions flitting through your mind about whether It is good or harmful to feed bread to ducks...maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is swans that shouldn’t be fed bread or maybe it is the concern of contaminating the water. So much conflicting advice on the matter. Anyway, having spent an hour or two drinking coffee and contemplating the dilemma, we decided to throw caution to the wind, and took the short gentle stroll to the ‘pond’.
The ducks appeared to be very tame. Like us, they didn’t seem to have much energy and were just bobbing around, going wherever the mood or the current took them. They didn’t seem too hungry either, but still, we enjoyed ourselves. We decide that tomorrow we will return for a swim. I hope we remembered to pack our swimming costumes.