Thursday, June 16, 2016

A very Brummy adventure (England 2, June 2016)

7.6 Bethesda - Solihull

All too soon - back to England and traffic and roundabouts. A quick stop at Prestbury for lunch and catch up with Sam who is, as usual, too busy too talk. But he looks good, if tired, in his chef garb!
Sam in Prestbury
The roads are either motorway (3 lanes of very fast traffic with lots of lorries), secondary roads with endless roundabouts, or laneways where you have to pull over for oncoming traffic. Each has it's own stresses, but at least motorways are fast. It's motorway to Birmingham and Solihull, so except for a bit of peak hour congestion it's quite a quick drive. We arrive at our small b&b guesthouse, which has a faint whiff of fawlty towers, and find our room is small but comfortable and very clean - a relief after the Bethesda grot. There is a leafy outlook over the back garden, and good wifi.
The town centre is a 5-10 minute walk, through a quiet shopping mall punctuated with a few pubs and restaurants. Of course there's a picturesque church and cemetery. Via Tripadvisor we pick a well-reviewed Indian place for dinner (Panchuli), and we order the 3 course special, but in fact are not nearly hungry enough and we take half of it home.

8.6 Solihull - Birmingham

Sleep in and emerge late for breakfast! But our hostess takes pity and does a cook-up that we don't really need. We resolve to skip lunch. Train to Birmingham from the nearby (old, attractive) station, to Birmingham (Moor St - old, attractive station). No visitor info at the station so we head up New St. The visitor centre has closed and amalgamated with the new train station, so we queue there for a city map. No maps, they have run out - but here's a barely legible photocopy ... An hour into our Birmingham visit and we still can't see where to go, it's reminding me of Bucharest. Guess they don't have a lot of tourists ...
Greco-Roman in Brum - the Town Hall
Kids' dress-ups in the Art Gallery
But it's not complicated. We walk to Victoria Square (impressive old city buildings) and the Art Gallery, which has a good historical collection as well as some contemporary specialities such as ceramics. The major draw is the Pre-Raphaelite (and Arts & crafts) section, with several major works by Rosetti, Millais, Holman Hunt and Madox Ford, as well as a whole room of Burne-Jones. I used to love these guys as a teenager who aspired to illustrate fairy tales, and still feel a nostalgic affection.

Then to the new library, in its glitzy new building - amazing spaces and interesting architecture, we enjoy walking around, but as we don't actually have library business it feels a bit voyeuristic. Next stop, IKON, gorgeous avant-garde gallery in gothic old school building. Dan Flavin's neon works from the 60s and 70s make it look like a space-age church - stunning. But just as we are leaving with a plan to walk canals to the Jewellery Quarter, the heavens open. My umbrella is at home. We sit for longer than we should over coffee in the attached cafe, and finally make a run for it ... And forget to pay for coffee (but also realise we have been overcharged in the gift shop ... ).

Thirty minutes later, like drowned rats back at Moor St, we find the platform crowded with commuters stranded by the flash floods, which have caused cancellations. But thankfully our train arrives and we (literally) squeeze on. Dinner is last night's Indian leftovers (palak paneer and rogan josh), and I dream that it's new year's eve.

Chris on terrace of the new Library
Back home, post-downpour

9.6 Solihull - Cookham

Before leaving Solihull, a few pilgrimages: the house where we lived, the school I went to, and a great collection of op shops (charity shops here) on the high street. A few photos and op shop buys later, on our way again.
Our old house in Solihull
Op shopping!
On our way back to London, we detour via Kenilworth (crumbly castle, restored Elizabethan garden) to Cookham, birthplace and spiritual home of Stanley Spencer. Visit the modest gallery (the best work is now in major collections), then walk in a glorious afternoon through the churchyard (no resurrections!) and along the willow-lined Thames.

Have a drink at Bel and the Dragon (we should stay here! But it's a bit pricy), then drive to nearby village Wooburn where we stay at the Old Bell (almost as appropriate!). The 'garden view' room has no view, just a tiny frosted window, and a leafy outlook through the door when it's open. But it's right next to the beer garden, so smoke and hubbub drifts in. The room itself is spacious, comfortable, and full of olde English character (pitched ceiling with dark beams), and we make the best of it, with whisky and oatcakes, and I hang a sarong over the (usual) awful modern 'art'.

Kenilworth Castle - with recreated Tudor Garden
Cookham graveyard
The Old Bell - Wooburn

10.6 - Cookham-London

It's an easy drive back to St John's Wood, except for a final mis-turn that takes us via a busy Lord's cricket ground (England vs Sri Lanka test). Phew! A relief to have the car returned with (touch wood) no problems. Back at the lovely Finchley Road flat, we have returned to summer. A bus ride, then walk around Hampstead Heath to Kenwood House cafe. Home for Libby to nap, and we lounge and chat up in the warm, sunny garden.

It's Bob's birthday! So early evening we walk up to Primrose Hill wit ha bottle of (proper French) champagne. There are knots of people picnicking, walking and taking in the view, which is a panorama dominated by dozens (hundreds?) of cranes. But still a gorgeous spot for wine and nibbles, followed by Lansdowne Pub for a yummy, healthy and slightly pricy dinner (roast cod on chickpeas, courgette fritters with lentils and coriander).

Walking back via Georgian terraces, it's easy to feel that London is the most civilised place on earth. (But on the tube it's a somewhat different view).

Chris at Finchley Road
Chris and Bob watching footy at the Finchley Road flat
Bob, Libby, Chris at Hampstead Heath
Libby and Bel at Kenwood House cafe
Bel, Libby, Barbie & Bob on the way to Primrose Hill

11.6 - 12.6 London 

A quiet day, Chris & Bob watch AFL, then a walk through cemeteries and gardens. Following prosecco in the garden, Chris and I cook dinner - my eggplant and gorgonzola tart, Chris's Thai salmon (trout) poached in coconut milk. In the morning, a final outing to the Victoria & Albert Museum - it is a treasure! Enter via an avenue of Rodin sculptures to the cafe, designed by Morris and Co. It's buzzing on this gloomy Sunday, but we have a great flat white. Wander through Medieval galleries, Renaissance sculptures, portrait miniatures, tapestries, jewellery, ironwork ... It's a maze, the whole museum a vast treasure trove. Return home via Knightsbridge on double decker bus, a great way of sight-seeing! Buy a few picnic supplies for the train, eat a Nicoise salad, then watch Mr Turner, poignant having seen his work (and Constable's, and Pre-Raphaelites) at the museum today.

View from a double-decker

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The only tourists in the village? (Wales: June 2016)

Following our Women's Institute lunch, the drive from Newent to Pembrokeshire in S. Wales is fine, but it is not easy like Australian rural driving. Lots of traffic and roundabouts and roadworks on our alternative route, apparently the main route is even more congested. Even so, we are there in three hours. Our Airbnb place near Mathry is easy to find (thanks Google maps!) and is a lovely spacious apartment set in a beautiful garden. Wine in the garden, bacon and eggs for dinner, a coal fire. The daylight lingers until around 10pm! End of day.

Laneway to our Airbnb near Mathry
Countryside near Mathry

4.6 - Pembrokeshire 

Drive south to Tenby, a seaside resort on the south coast, for fish and chips. Sounds easy ... but ... there is a lot of traffic, and endless roundabouts. Try to stop in Narberth, but it's too busy - we get told off for trying to park in a 'private street' (there are no signs ...). It's the last weekend of 'half-term' school hols - I had forgotten that there is such a thing - and Tenby is also packed. Four pounds for parking, then queue for very greasy fish and chips (no lemon! no pepper!). By the time we are driving north again, it's 3pm. Sodding Tenby!
Beach at Tenby
Sodding Tenby
It's a quicker drive back north. Fishing villages with pastel rows of fisherman's cottages, postcard views galore. We stop at Solva for coffee (vis Newgale Beach - looks familiar). Then to Charming Tourist Town (CTT) of St Davids for the cathedral. It's very pretty and olde worlde, but the cathedral - wow! It's vast and ancient and atmospheric with endless little side chapels and crumbling effigies of knights and bishops. They are preparing for a concert - the last of their summer festival - and we could buy a ticket for just 8 pounds, but are weary and hungry. I am torn, but after exploring the grounds - graveyard and exterior of ruined Bishops Palace - we go home. I grill sea-bass with new potatoes, leeks and broccoli - very nice.

Interior of St Davids Cathedral
Chris and Bishop's Palace
Graveyard - St Davids Cathedral

5.6 Mathry - Bethesda

A leisurely start to the day and at 11 begin the drive north. It's quite an easy drive, not too many roundabouts and less traffic (school hols are over!), the roads are lined with wildflowers. Beginning at Dollgellau in S. Snowdonia, the towns and villages become dark and slatey, very characteristic. It feels more rural than the south, and rocky mountains emerge out of the rolling, bucolic farmland. A bit of real wild.
We arrive at Bethesda just after 4, it's a bit of a shock after all the quaint tidy towns. The town, as well as our accommodation is shabby, run down and grubby. There are no tourists in sight. The 'fabulous views' advertised for our Airbnb are reasonably pleasant outlooks from small dirty windows. It's on a busy main road and everything is dusty and creaky. Oh well. It has a cluttered but functional kitchen and a spacious bedroom.

Dollgellau - southern gateway to Snowdonia
Emerging mountains ...
Wildflowers! including bluebells!
Exploring the village before dinner we try to find somewhere to sit beside the Ogwen River that runs behind the terraces. One side is dirty and dusty, old fencing and rubbish. The other side is a lovely park with a path along the river, but no seats ... It's weird. Finally we find some rocks to sit on above the river, with a view over the valley. We drink wine on a beautiful evening, surrounded by oak trees, the greenest things you ever saw.
After a brief walk we decide to eat out at a nice looking Indian place (Shirin). The food is good! Prawn Sag (spinach sauce) and vegetable balti. Too many pappadams so we bring the naan home for breakfast. The waiter tells us his story: from Bangladesh, lived in London for some years, until his wife brought him to rural Wales. He would rather be somewhere more lively, but his  father-in-law is the restaurant's chef, so at least he has a job ... We meet the chef, and congratulate him, the food is pretty good.
Bethesda - the only tourists in the village
Oak grove, Bethesda
Shirin's Indian in Bethesda - young waiter and his father-in-law chef

6.6 Snowdon

While Welsh language is visible everywhere in Wales, up north it is for many their first language and it is spoken everywhere. Today is tourist day: we go to the CTT of Llanberis to get tickets for the Snowdon Railway (29 pounds each!), then a detour to Caernarfon before the train leaves, to see the castle. Stop for coffee and lovely fruit cake at Cwm-y-glo, where I holidayed as a child. Also find a mechanic to check out our oil change alert - all ok.
Caernarfon is busy, but not overly, and the castle is impressive, with amazing local views, and several historical displays about the history that are quite well done. I never knew that all of the N. Wales castles were actually built by the English (Edward 1) to keep out the Welsh hordes!
The train ride to Snowdon summit is slow and crowded and it's hard to take photos. The views from the top are certainly spectacular, and it is still so warm that we are in shirts. Back down we board early, the crowds have thinned (some walking back) and it's a lot more enjoyable.

In Cwm-y-glo, near Caernarfon
Caernarfon Castle
Snowdon summit - look, no jacket!
Snowdon summit 2
I plan a quick drive around Anglesey, but it begins to rain and the traffic doesn't look good, so we head  for home. A detour around the back of Bethesda is lovely, and does have fabulous views of the nearby quarried slate mountains. We find the most amazing overgrown cemetery, all slate with Welsh inscriptions - very gothic. Back to Bethesda, and our dingy flat, do some washing, then out again for evening wine in the memorial park across the road. It's a lovely, cared-for oasis, and the weather is so balmy that it feels like Provence. Back home, I cook broccoli and leek frittata.

Slate cemetery
Slate cemetery 2

7.6 Bethesda - Solihull

Driving along the north coast of Wales for a glimpse of seaside villages before returning to England, what we find is ... Rhyl! Endless streetscapes of cabins and caravan parks punctuated with amusement arcades, fast food shops and an occasional closed down 'fun' fair. It's the underbelly of Welsh tourism, where working class hordes from Liverpool and Manchester are ghettoed by the seaside. Weirdly bleak, extremely ugly and sparsely populated, it must be a vision of hell in August. We linger a while to ponder this new dimension of Wales. So it's not all CTT with quaint and pretty old cottages.

Rhyl, a seaside village

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Aaahh - England (London-Newent, May/June 2016)

We land early in London, and it's a smooth journey to Bob's at Finchley Road, arriving around 5pm in cool, cloudy weather. We polish off bottles of wine in the garden and Bob cooks duck for dinner - yummy! Bob and Libby are welcoming, convivial, talkative, critical, intense. It's lovely to see them.

Cool London (Millennium Bridge & St Pauls)

31.5 - London

Very cold and gloomy, wet and windy (maximum 12ยบ!). We hang around the flat all morning waiting for the rain to stop, and venture out around midday. Aaagh - the wind blows our umbrellas inside out as we battle up the road to buy a local phone SIM at the post office. Back to the flat to activate the SIM ... but there is no mobile reception and I can't top up using my Aus credit card. So it's back on the streets, tube to Southwark, and the TATE Modern.
We have to walk several hundred metres around construction fencing to access the entrance (the vast new extension will open in a couple of weeks), and when we get there it seems crowded and dingy. The cafe is closed for renovation so up to the 6th floor restaurant for lunch - crowded and noisy and no seats with a view. Chicken livers on toast and salt & pepper squid are average, small serves, expensive. Jetlag is kicking in as I drag myself around the exhibits, can't remember when I was last so uninspired walking around a gallery. Anything memorable? Hmmm ... John Heartfield collages, Malevich and Mondrian, Rothko, ummm ...
The weather is still too awful for walking around so we stay at the TATE until 5, then head home. Cup of tea and lie down on the sofa ... Ah, that's better! Libby prepares avocado and mozarella salad with purple sweet potato mash,  while we play Boggle and drink wine - it's fun, and I win!

1.6 - London

Bob & Chris at the Foundling Museum
Chris's birthday. Awake at 5.30, I read and write in the tall 'princess bed' until we get up at 8. What to do today? The weather still cool and drizzly, but not so windy. After breakfast we get on a bus with Bob and head to the British Library, the Foundling Museum, and the Wellcome Collection, all near St Pancras. Not art galleries, but museums that include art in their exhibitions, they seem so much more interesting than the art of yesterday. But I am also feeling much more awake, which helps!
At the Library, a display on the history of punk in London (76-78). It's amusing, but makes me realise how very slight it all was, yet seemed so important at the time. Do prefer the US new wave that influenced the Brits - Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads and Ramones.

At the Foundling Museum (wonderful and poignant museum in itself), an exhibition called 'Found' curated by Cornelia Parker. It's patchy, but some lovely things, based on found objects. Lunch at a dodgy corner diner doing Lebanese and Moroccan kebabs - it's fresh, tasty and cheap. Then the Wellcome Collection, another wonderful space (free entry) with permanent and temporary exhibitions - Voice and States of Mind, both of them a combination of museum display, text, art and artefact - very mod in a lovely old building. A satisfying day.

Quickly back home for a cup of tea and birthday champagne. We decide after all that we will eat at home - smoked salmon and mangoes - it will be more enjoyable and better value than eating out. But first to Camden Arts Centre just down the road for text artist/performance poet (Karl Holmqvist).
It's like being transported back to the 70s, amusing but a little excruciating. The exhibition doesn't impress, nothing new to see. But a show of work from a mid-century Polish couple (Franciszka & Stefan Themerson) is more interesting and charming. Back home for smoked salmon picnic, I torment the family with my 2015 musical 'quiz'.

2.6 - London-Newent

Me, Auntie Pat and Emily
Up quite early, as has been usual (jetlag?) to my now customary bowl of tea and toast with almond butter. Kisses goodbye to lovely, kind, thoughtful Libby and funny, irascible Bob. We will be back soon! Pick up the car, then on the road, all going well until a sign flashes 'Oil change needed soon'. A call to base, and they offer to swap the car, but we don't have time for a 90 minute detour, so push on.
A snack of soggy leftover kebab wraps. A petrol stop with the worst servo toilet ever. Bumper to bumper traffic for close to an hour around Oxford. Aaahh - England! The congestion, motorways and endless roundabouts finally give way to country roads lined with blossoming hawthorn, then we are there, in Newent.

May blossom

Dear Auntie Pat, and a welcome lunch at The Buttery - fishcakes and salad. Pat's granddaughter, Emily, turns up with her new baby, Noah. We walk around the lake and chat, but am feeling weary. It is, however, a beautiful day at last and for that I am thankful.
Newent is a classic pretty village, old buildings wind along a narrow hight street, set in a quaint, slightly hilly, rural landscape. It manages to avoid too much of the 'ye olde' theme park feel, and is a lively, busy community. There is actually wine produced here - I don't dare to buy without a recommendation so play it safe with Italian pinot grigio and Marlborough SB to accompany a picnic (in the lounge room) dinner.

3.6 - Newent

We are staying in the Guest Suite at Pat's retirement village. It's plush and chintzy - flowery pink curtains, pink flower pictures, pink artificial flower arrangement and pink carpet on the bathroom floor. It's very comfortable, although Chris is not impressed with twin beds!
Almost midsummer, it's still quite light at 10pm when we go to bed, and light again at 5am when I wake up. I have finished my book (Paul Auster) and there's no wifi, so amuse myself writing this journal, although not so much interesting to report.
How is the trip so far? Too many airports, and staying in other people's places, and rushing from one spot to the next. I am happy to hang out, drink tea, read, drink wine - but feel we are wasting time if not out 'seeing things'. Staying in other people's places it's easy to feel intrusive, and wonder how to make recompense? But this very feeling seems ungrateful to the gorgeous relatives who make us so welcome. The fact is that Chris and I are so accustomed to our self-containment that the company of others can begin to seem oppressive. And over it all is the expense, the (unjustified) luxury of travelling like this. Discomfort with the sense of entitlement underlying such travel. I think of all the people in the world for whom such angst-ridden indolence would seem ridiculous and an impossible aspiration. I think of our friends who feel the same, ideology perhaps driven by financial circumstance, but I cannot say they are wrong. I think of the Maids' Day Off.
Auntie Pat is a picture of bustling hospitality as she organises breakfast. We only want a little cereal and coffee so she packs up fruit, bread, cheese, eggs and bacon for us to take with us. We won't need to shop today.
Bunting in Newent
We have a short walk around the village (op shops!), to the churchyard, and buy a bottle of the local wine, Three Choirs. It's another beautiful day and the village is festooned with bunting for the Queen's 90th birthday. Then to Aston Ingham for a community lunch arranged by the local Women's Institute. We have a table of Pat's Newent friends - engaged and lively women in their 80s and 90s. I chat to Enid, 83 year old retired school teacher, whose husband died of cancer when she was 60. She 'recovered well' and her lively interest in everything is inspiring - this is how to stay young! Lunch is delicious - home cooked lasagne and salad, followed by an amazing array of desserts. We have chocolate roulade with chocolate mousse, and are seemingly the only ones in the hall who forgo seconds (the raspberries and ice cream do look amazing!)

Monday, June 6, 2016

NOT for the shopping (Sydney to Hong-Kong, May 2016)

Me in HK
So, at last, one year after booking, we are setting out for another great Europe trip. Free flights from Cathay Pacific to London to see Bob and Libby, a brief tour of Wales and the Midlands, then Provence and Umbria. It has been difficult to plan - so hard to believe it would actually happen - after last year's plans went so astray. But it's a wonderful thing that Chris is (so far) so well, and so am I, so Carpe Diem and all that!

28.5.16 Sydney - Hong Kong 

Feeling slightly bloated after MacMuffins for breakfast at 5am - never again! Taxi from Steve and Marg's at 4.15, a very quick drive and check-in, then two hours to kill. My body not used to eating junk food so early, we are now resolving to eat little and walk much on this holiday. Nine hour flight - boring food, '45 years' (great movie) and 'The Revenant' (pretty terrible except photog and music).

29.5 Hong Kong

Misty view from 'The Peak'
Today up early and ferry to HK Island, then bus to 'The Peak'. It's cloudy and misty and the main thing to be seen is yet another shopping centre. We take the old tram back and walk to Luk Yu Tea House for dim sum lunch. It's another kind of tourist trap, and the service is surly, but the ambience is quaint and the dumplings delicious. At around $60 AUD for 11 dumplings and tea, it's not a cheap pleasure.

Chris in HK
As usual in Asia the great pleasure is just walking around. The humidity is 90% so it's sticky and we don't move too fast. Simple chores like topping up our Octopus (transport) cards at the train station, or buying a bottle of French wine in a durian-scented supermarket, are the best fun. We do plenty of walking.

Maids' Day Off
Walking through the city we see groups of women congregated, sitting on spread out cardboard boxes - picnicking, talking, playing games. The further we walk the more of them we see - sometimes in groups numbering hundreds. It emerges that it is 'Maids' Day Off': every Sunday, Indonesian and Philippina maids who have no place of their own, and no money for entertainment, spend their precious hours of leisure gathering together in accessible city places - near train stations and bus terminals. Remarkable ... And sad.

Back to the hotel for coffee, then Temple Night Market. Lots of tat, not the throngs of customers that I had anticipated. Some interesting jade artefacts and old (or reproduction) bric a brac. We eat too much (garlicky scallops and cuttlefish with beer) at a grubbily authentic seafood cafe nearby.
Seafood cafe

30.5 - HK -London

Up at 5, bus to station, train to airport. The Airport Express is 3 times the price of the bus trip, and four times quicker. Longish queues at the airport, so just a few minutes to drink our $8 Starbucks coffee for breakfast. All the usual airport rigmarole, people-watching the only distraction. The young couple with shopping bags who skip the queue. Elderly couple looking somewhat at sea. The puzzle over exactly who gets to be in the Business class/First class queue. (We are Premium economy, the first time ever we are not in 'cattle class'.) I really don't like airports, and thinking it's hardly worth the kerfuffle for a 2 night stopover. Trains, on the other hand, are their own sort of pleasure.
Twelve hour flight, food ok, good movies - Lady in the Van and The Big Short.