Saturday, October 31, 2009

A month around London

Crikey, it's four weeks since I returned from Paris - so a little update is due I suppose. The days have got shorter, summer time has finished, there are lots of crunchy leaves to walk through & over, the weather is cooler (it got horribly cold for a day or two, but that turned out to be an aberration - October has been quite pleasant) & I have spent a lot of time tripping around London, walking tours, a weekend near & in Oxford (with a MTB ride thrown in), visiting friends & family, reading, watching the DVDs that turned up of The Big Bang Theory Season 2, sorting out insurance & slowly preparing for next week's trip to Kenya. After that brief summary, here are a few more details. of the highlights.

About the time I was getting over my cold, Trish, a friend of hers & I went for a day trip in to Kent to visit Hever Castle. It was a particularly bleak day, thankfully the rain was quite light. Due to the weather we spent quite a bit of time in the castle, which was a good thing as it was really well presented as a museum. As it was the childhood home of Anne Boelyn, there was a lot of Henry VIII history there & I was able to brush up my knowledge of that period. More recently, the castle was owned by branch of the Astor family (as in Wardolf Astoria) that returned to England over a century ago. It's always neat walking on a drawbridge over a full moat. The garden, which we went around in quick fashion, was also very impressive - one of the Astors had brought a lot of Roman & Italian sculptures back (they were huge & it must have cost a bundle) - & the numerous roses were still out.
The first Friday I was back in town, I went out to Earls Court for the cycle show. Basically it was an excuse to go & stare at bikes - & there was plenty of it. Of course everyone was exhibiting their 2010 wares & there was a lot to drool over - mountain-bikes, single speeds, uber cool fixies, road & track bikes, city bikes, regressive bicycles, touring bikes & a lot of retro styled cruisers (not the beach-type cruisers that were everywhere in San Diego. Thankfully I kept my wallet in my pocket, as I could have been significantly down on pounds; it was also great to see a couple of NZ companies exhibiting - Ground Effect & Two-Stage. The highlights of the day were the couch interviews with various cycling personalities - of note Alberto Contador & the Atherton siblings (Lee, Dan & Rachel), the world triathlon champ Alistair Brownlee & an Olympic gold medallist from Britain's 2008 track team. There was also some diverting BMX dislplays.
Most weeks have two or three trips in to London (it's most economical to buy a travelcard for the day, so I try to combine a few things at once). Amongst a lot of walking around I've managed to catch up for a meal or a drink NZ cousins, Palmy friends, a couple of schoolmates, family friends, a steel mill mate & some English riding mates. It's surprising just how many people are around. Trish had a previously-unused book of London walking tours kicking around; so whenever the weather is agreeable & I'm in town I've trundled off finding out more of small areas of this most fascinating city. The first I did was from Westminster through all the central parks & in to Kensington - this was quite a long walk, but a gorgeous day (the squirrels were out in force - squirreling away stores, funnily up) & as I wandered past Wellington Arch, I couldn't help taking a photo as Trish & I had just finished watching the Sharpe series (like Hornblower, but in the army during the Napoleonic Wars). The most amusing fact of the day was an elephant kept by James I in St James's Park used to drink a gallon of wine daily. There were plenty of birds & such like around the lakes & ponds (including one that thought I would like a little present). As the walk ended in Kensington, I did the Kensington loop - this of course had a lot more houses in it (& quite nice one they were too); of note was John Stuart Mill's (of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill). On the Chelsea walk, it was another gorgeous day & I spent a bit of time around the Royal Hospital & saw a few Chelsea Pensioners. Due to a big marquee going up (on the site where they have the Chelsea flower show) I had a to do a big loop around, through a park & then found I couldn't get out. So a lot of back tracking later I was back beside the Thames & walking past the former houses of Wilde, Whistler (whose mother I had seen not two weeks before, & this is where she sat for the painting), Sargent, Lloyd George, Gaskell (Cranford). Curious fact for that walk was the main street of Chelsea used to be Old Church Street, as King's Road only became open to the public in 1830 - previously it was for royal use only on their way to various country retreats). Beer with Tori & Greg near Victoria after that & then a wonderful ("amazing", if you'll allow it) Moroccan dinner with Amy (flatted next door in Union St) in South Kensington.

On the day I was to meet my Pheasant cousins in the city, I did a couple of city walks (makes sense really). The first was around Fleet Street & St Paul's; before I got to the Old Bailey I stumbled upon an exhibition of Royal Mail artists - there were a lot of landscapes & with all the pheasants in some of the pieces, it was delightful. Here is the best photo I could get of Old Bailey - without too much effort that is. Other highlights include the Black Friar & learning a bit of its history (there used to be a monastery there until it was dissolved); Stationer's Hall - pretty much the home of printing & publishing in Britain; Dr Johnson's house (couldn't get Robbie Coltrane out of my mind) & hangouts (close to Hind Court). Great to catch up with & here travels stories from Chris, Sasha & Blair.

Somewhere in all this I took myself & my bike off to Wallingford for a couple of nights to visit & ride with a couple of English guys I had met in NZ a couple of years prior & then seen again in Somerset last year. I was great to be around real bikes & real MTB mad mates. The Saturday morning ride started late after a big cooked breakfast, but it was still quite cool when we headed out. Off on to bridleways and I quickly found how much bike-fitness (& probably altogether-fitness) I had lost since California in June as we were up a few rather gentle hills. Magically it didn't rain for the whole ride & we got over thirty miles in with some pleasing downhills, with out too much more hard work. On the Sunday Richard took me the twenty minutes up to Oxford & dropped me off at Rob's flat - Rob is a mate from NZ Steel, who started at the other end of the process a year after me. While his girlfriend was off studying at the library (Cat is doing her Masters - the reason for their stay in Oxford), Rob & I strolled around Oxford looking at old buildings, colleges, rowers on the Thames, the inside of too many pubs that didn't have tables available for lunch & so on. Back on the train to Paddington, & home late Sunday night.
Last Wednesday Trish & I were well too cultured for our own good & hopped on the train & had dinner on South Embankment before heading off to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the London Symphony Orchestra. There was short piece from Bizet (The Black Gondola) to start & then Beethoven's third piano concerto & Mendelssohn's third (Scottish) symphony. They were not particularly well known (at least that's what Trish said, so what chance did I stand?), but it was an amazing performance (I have never seen such long & sustained applause) & even though I'm not all that musical, it was enthralling. We had seats above & slightly in front of the orchestra & they provided a good view of the instruments, the facial expressions & fingering of the players, & the conductor (I think if the orchestra was not there & the conductor performed in an identical way with as much intensity, I would have been quite amused for two hours). On the way back to Waterloo, our large dinners had gone down a bit, so we stopped for hot drinks (I'm still resisting coffee, but after a horrible hot chocolate that may become harder) & dessert - the restaurant was in the arches under the railway, so from the symphony we were now listening to trains rumbling overhead - not an unpleasant sound actually.
Thursday dawned very nicely, so I was off in to town & did a great walk from Warwick Avenue to Little Venice, down Regent's Canal, a slight detour past Lord's, through Camden Lock, past St Pancras & into Islington. Plenty of interesting canal boats cruising up & down the canal & even more permanently moored; with all the leaves turning various shades of red & gold, it was a beautiful walk. Walking through Regent's Park I passed the London Zoo aviary & the hyenas were on the other side of the canal; after the brilliant San Diego zoo, it would take quite a bit for me to go to London Zoo as apparently it's not as good. The history of these industrial highways between the factories of Birmingham & the dock of London was fascinating & in many places you could see where the iron work of bridges & so forth had been worn by the tow ropes over many years ("Oh, the tension!"). In a couple of places the canal disappeared in to a tunnel & the horses would have been unhitched & walked over the top while the bargemen lay on their back atop the barges & "walked" on the roof of the tunnel to propel the vessels through it. In other places main railway lines & tube line passed overhead & unseen rivers were deep below the canal. Near some of the overbridges, there were little ramps in to the canal where startled horses were rescued from the canal when they jumped in in fright of new-fangled steam engines passing overhead. Useless fact of the day was the concourse of St Pancras station is six metres above the ground so that it is level with the railway after it has passed over the canal.

I met Louis & Emma (they came down for the weekend from Ipswich) at the London Eye last Saturday & we slowly wandered out to Waterloo to get the train to Twickenham. The full train emptied of Kiwis & Aussies at Twickenham & they started marching off towards the Stoop (the smaller ground & home of Harlequins). We were off to my first live league in a few years & the second game of the Four Nations series; it was easy to see why this game was down in London - rather than the league heartland of the North - there was gold & green and black shirts everywhere. Just before the game & I bumped in to a school mate, Josh, & was able to find him & Kelly again at half time. Louis managed to get us pretty good seats, they were on the north goal-line looking across to the only big-screen in the ground. It was great game with plenty of massive hits, some good tries & we were unlucky to draw in the last two minutes. A win was so close & that would have been quite an achievement after the bruising defence the Kiwis pulled of for the first quarter & the ridiculously high penalty count.
I ventured in to new territory on Tuesday near The Oval and came away with three holes in my arms, nine malaria pills & £150 poorer. Still, better than getting sick with some horrible disease. After my packed lunch (I was organised for once) & a stroll in Kennington Park (I did well to resist running through the massive piles of leaves the council workers had make), I was heading out to Kew Gardens when I got a message from Kelly so I diverted to Acton Town for a second lunch & a big catch up; I especially enjoyed tales of their recent van tour of Europe in "Munter" - a horribly purple, but inconspicuous, Leyland DAF van. Once I was in Acton, I realised it was really pretty close to Kew; so on leaving Kelly & Josh I strolled down to the Thames & took a little look around Kew before it got dark. The Public Record Office is also in Kew so I popped in as it was late night Tuesday & Mum occasionally asks me to do a little family history research; the place is huge & full of people beavering away finding ancestors & there was a cool little museum all about record keeping & I was pleased to see the two Domesday Books.

Two days ago I made it to St Pancras just in time to see most of a Eurostar empty before (even when I rode it, I had no idea there were so many passengers on it) easily recognising Megan - despite it having been ten years (we think) since we last saw each other. The fact that she & Alex both had fully loaded touring bikes was also a bit of a give away. Megan is the daughter of a good friend of my mother's, & most times we visited Mum's family in Sydney we would make the very long drive down to rice-country in south NSW & visit the Dunns. Megan & Alex have just done five months & over ten-thousand kilometres of cycle touring in Japan, Britain & Europe. I was somewhat jealous, but I don't think I would ever be able to handle that much ride roading, slick tyres, fully rigid & loaded bikes. They were in London for two & one days respectively before flying out to Australia & Canada. In another of the series of coincidences Megan is going on to NZ with her mother in a couple of weeks to visit my family & do a bit of hiking before returning to Canada where she & Alex live very close to where Adele & I are going in January. After negotiating the tube & trains back to Sidcup, we made use of what daylight remained cleaning, dismantling & packing the bikes in to Tardis's (the same bike bag I use for my travels, but they were in much better condition & the adjustable shoulder strap of the new version looked quite good) . It was great to hear various touring stories & have bikes to tinker with & scratch knuckles undoing tight bolts, get covered in grease & brake dust (just another thing not to miss of vee &, would you believe, cantilever brakes). Trish cooked up a storm & heroically volunteered for the drive to Gatwick at half-past four the next morning. After being the geeks we are & having a Trivial Pursuit quiz, there wasn't much time for sleep before we were all up again & off to the airport - I was very surprised that a Tardis fitted in the boot of the Micra.

Friday started again at about ten o'clock for the rest of us (Alex was in the air by then) & Megan & I continued to cleaning & packing of her bike - it got called off the previous night when I dropped a bolt on the pavers & couldn't find it - trying to shed as many parts as possible due to QANTAS's stingy baggage allowance for bikes (we managed to discard most of the drivetrain as it was showing the signs of a very long trip - the chain was almost as bendy crossways). We also worked out that Megan's grandparents knew Trish's parents from the cycling club they used to belong to - my grandfather was also part of the same club & I assume that is how Mum & Gill met; somewhere along here Trish was showing me photos & documents relating to my great-great uncle Stanley who was killed at Passchendale & we came across many Christmas letters that my Mum had sent from just before I was born & spanned over twenty years - they were fascinating & quite amusing in parts & brought back a lot of memories of growing up on the orchard in Papamoa & then later in Te Puke. My attempts at learning to swim & participation (a euphemism) in sports through school were recurring subjects! We are just back from dropping Megan at Heathrow at the more respectable hour of nine-thirty & after two nights of a full house (Trish's sister Jan also stayed last night), it's a little quieter now - which is useful as the last five paragraphs of this discourse had been left unwritten for a few days.

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