Monday, April 5, 2010


If I thought I was coming back to England to reduce my food intake, I was badly mistaken on my first day back from Spain. Andrew had organised a surprise birthday party for Shelley the day after I got back (that timing was planned, I would have stayed longer in Spain otherwise). Heading out to West Harrow I was quickly reminded why I rarely travel in to the city on a weekend - Transport for London find it necessary to take down half the tube lines on a regular basis for engineering work. Just as well I had given myself plenty of time - a train from Marylebone to Harrow-on-the-Hill (with a lot of waiting) & I was, somehow, at the venue first (I never could pull off fashionably late - it's pretty difficult when you are never fashionable & usually are punctual). Anyway, Shelley was suitable surprised & it was great to finally meet some of their London friends that crop up in conversation when I am visiting. Plus there was a huge meal laid on by various people.

I think the calorific intake of the previous week inspired me to replace the rear brake pads on my bike - the current ones having been all but destroyed on that wet Farnborough ride. Even though I had bled the brakes quite recently, there was no way that the new pads were going in - no matter how much I tried to persuade them. Somewhere in the act of persuasion the centre of one of the pistons snapped off, rendering the brakes inoperable. Damn, no riding for a little while. I wasn't overly keen on forking out eighty to a hundred quid for a new set, so was pleased when I eventually got a secondhand set of similar vintage off eBay for about half the price. These are now on the bike (an easy switch) some two or three weeks after returning from Spain - but more of the resulting (road - boring, I know) rides later.

A few days later, Louis (a friend I grew up with in Te Puke & then flatted with during some of my time at university - now living in Ipswich with his wife, Emma) was in the city for a training day for work. We arranged to meet late in the afternoon at one of the NZ stores after he had bought Emma some NZ goodies of the confectionery kind. The days were finally starting to get a little longer & more pleasant in this part of the world, so I made the most of it by heading in & trying to get some value out of my English Heritage card (bought all those months ago at Osborn House, Isle of Wight). First stop was Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner - the home of the Dukes of Wellington since the early 1800s. This was quite fitting as I had seen signs on the coach drive back to Madrid to places where notable battles of the Peninsular War had taken place - specifically Talavera & Salamanca. The house was gifted to the nation in 1947, but the family still has use of some of the building as their London home. I quite enjoyed my visit to the house as there is a good collection of art, & plenty of gifts from various nations & interesting artefacts from & commemorating many famous battles (such as swords that both Wellington & Napoleon carried at Waterloo). It was interesting to learn that Wellington & Nelson only met once - & that was while waiting to report to senior officer & at first Nelson had no idea who Wellesley was. Opposite the house is Wellington Arch, which gives good views of the royal parks in the area & over to Westminster. Inside the arch - as well as a display detailing the history of the arch & one explaining London's blue plaque system - there is a small display devoted to the nearby NZ Memorial, which is always nice to pass by & remind one of home (the Australian memorial on the opposite side of the arch is pretty neat too, but of course does not have as much significance for me). I still had a bit of time to kill before meeting Louis, so a pleasant stroll down the side of St James's park took me to Westminster & a couple of small English Heritage attractions in the abbey complex. Walking back through Trafalgar Square I was pleasantly surprised to see a new Jack Reacher novel in the window of Waterstone's - buying that straight away & going & sitting in St James's Park & reading for an hour was a bit of a no brainer. Met Louis eventually & had a good catch up while walking around trying to find a GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) for dinner.

I've been racking my brains to remember what else has filled the last few weeks & then I remembered that for a while I was actively looking for gainful employment. So that was a few hours every day trolling through various websites, ringing recruiters, preparing CVs & cover letters and so on. As one would expect, the job market over here is a little on the tight side (which is akin to saying I like mountain-biking a little bit) & I didn't really find any jobs that appealed a great deal. Not having much of a clue as to what I really want to do either doesn't exactly aid in narrowing things down. Somewhat out of the blue, I landed an interview up in Tamworth (about twenty minutes north-east of Birmingham) for the role of process engineer for at a small (compared with the steel mill anyway) factory that makes PCBs (printed circuit boards). At about that time I was really starting to wonder if I wanted to head back to a real job, settle in one place, get a car & all that. I started tossing around the idea of going back to Spain & teaching English - while an attractive option for a variety of different reasons, in the end I really didn't want to have to study for a TEFL qualification & while I really enjoyed the one-on-one tutoring style of Vaughan Town, I hate teaching classes. Working on a farm up in Scotland or north England even crossed my mind, & then I got a reply to an email I had forgotten that I had even sent. It turns out that, even though the website isn't very clear on the issue, applications for NZers wanting a one-year working holiday in Canada were still open for 2010. After the fantastic (dislocated shoulder excluded) five weeks recently spent in Canada, I always thought I would return one day, I just didn't expect that it may be so soon. I've really missed being able to get out of the house & go for a mountain-bike ride in London & a summer spent riding in Alberta & BC just seems fantastic - not to mention the next ski season. You can only apply for this visa before you turn thirty, so I figured it was better to do something about it now while I am not settled in a real job - I can always come back to Britain & Europe any time I wish thanks to my British citizenship. So in the space of about two days I had gone from not really thinking about Canada, downloaded & completed the forms, got my ugly mug on a couple of passport photos & posted it all off to Mum & Dad for them to organise a bank cheque for me. So with a bit of luck, this will go through easily & I'll hear back in five or so weeks.

So that took any impetus that there was out of the job hunt - but I still had an interview to go & do. I went mainly just for the experience & to see if the job was a blinder. Consequently, the suit (yes I only have one & I hardly need that) came out of its bag for the first time since August, I drove a few hours north (all motorway driving - enough of that boredom to make me want to go to Canada even more), checked out the small town of Tamworth (not too bad, but I struggled to kill the two hours before my interview) & rocked up for the interview. It was a strange experience - having a interview for a job you really don't care if you get or not, actually one you would prefer that they don't offer you - I was super relaxed & had to stop myself lounging on the arm rests of the chair & wasn't at all concerned with how it went. It seemed to go pretty well, but that was mostly due to my indifference. The factory was so clean compared to the Iron Plant & the process so much more precise. The making of PCBs was quite interesting with a lot of baths & electrolysis for coating the boards with various things - copper, gold, platinum, tin; it was a nice change to be thinking of such geeky things. Was quite happy to get back on the road & visit Carol (first cousin once removed), Barry & their daughter Catherine near Stansted for a great dinner & a very talkative evening. Home exhausted from the six or so hours of driving.

I've become disturbingly well acquainted with the local hospital, Queen Mary's over the last few weeks. (Incidentally, it started off as a medical camp during WWI & a Kiwi, Harold Gillies, performed a lot of pioneering plastic surgery work with facial reconstruction of servicemen badly burnt in the war.) Firstly, Trish has to go there every so often with the recovery from her broken leg - last time it was to have a screw removed. Secondly, I've finally started physio there - trying to strengthen my shoulder up so it is less likely to dislocate; I'm a little ashamed to say I've had to buy a Swiss (gym) ball as part of the rehab, I hate gym equipment - I would much rather be outside riding or even walking. But most of the visits have been to do with Trish's mother, Nora (my great-aunt) & my role as taxi-driver & errand-boy (as Trish can't drive at the moment). There was one eye appointment, & then Nora had a fall walking home from Tesco & ended up in A&E with nasty bruising above & below her right eye & low blood pressure. I think Trish & I were there until midnight that night. Almost two weeks later, Nora is still there - but that is more to do with social work & OT assessments. So there have been quite a few visits & countless games of gin-rummy.

Much of one week was spent doing the most physical labour (although not particularly onerous) I have done in a long time - Ray (Trish's brother & another first-cousin-once-removed) & his wife, Jill own & run a cattery. I'm not too sure who builds roofs out of plywood, but one of the catteries had a rotten roof so I spent all of one Sunday removing the rotten roof & cladding & installing a new roof with Ray & his son Tim. My thighs hurt for days after that - from all the crouching & going up & down ladders. I was out at Ray's for the few days after tidying up the mess we had made & cleaning out the cattery & doing other odd jobs. If the weather improves - that is, if we manage to have a day that isn't rainy or windy - I'll be back out there this week doing a spot of painting. It was great to be working outside for the week. Trish & I also had dinner at Clare (Ray & Jill's daughter) & Mark's recently - great to catch up, as although they only live half an hour's bike ride away, I hadn't seen them since late September.

It was cool to spend a bit of time at Andrew & Shelley's over a couple of days at the beginning of last week. The first was a Sunday afternoon/evening & strangely, the weather was pretty nice. I think we had a good time keeping the girls amused at a nearby park - even if Vittoria did have ten or fifteen minutes of the "terrible twos", something I never mind too much as I'm very much an avuncular figure & don't have to live with screaming kids & can quite easily ignore them (reminded my a lot of my time in Pennsylvania!). Shelley soundly beat Andrew & me in a game of Knights & Cities - a step up in complication from normal Settlers of Catan & one I haven't quite mastered yet - which I will tell you is because I have not played it very much, a good story & I'm sticking to it. The Tuesday after I was back at the Patricks' house, after a day in London, for a spot of babysitting. The day in London is probably of more interest to you (& me) - it started off at the Tate Modern. The level of my appreciation of modern art is easily illustrated by the fact that I found the most interesting part of the whole gallery is that it used to be a power station - what was left of the turbine hall had me imagining boilers, turbines, steam lines, pulverisation & so forth. I popped up to Euston to complete my look around the British Library galleries - quite a few months since I had last been there; saw two of the remaining four copies of the Magna Carta, some pretty cool Shakespeare & Beatles texts. With a bit of time to fill before heading out west on the Metropolitan Line, I spent an hour brushing up on my British royal history, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery's first eight rooms & the placards that go with the great pieces. The Patrick girls were as well behaved as usual - Andrew & Shelley seemed to return with most of a normal sized store after their shopping trip, just as well it was a large store that they went to.

Thursday last was forecast to be snowy or sleety, but I awoke (eventually) to a clear blue sky - enough for me to get on the aforementioned fixed bike & go for a ride. Of course, by the time I got organised it had clouded over - but I managed to avoid any rain lingering around SE London & NW Kent. It was great to be out pushing the pedals around again - even if it was only a twenty-two mile (close to 35 km for those of you in more sensible countries - really, who thought it was a good idea to use a mixture of imperial & metric units? What a royally stupid idea.). I headed east past Swanley, over the M25 & to the small village of Eynsford. Pretty flat generally, but with a few long gentle hills on which to push the legs a bit harder. By the time I got to Eynsford, it was well past lunch time & with no cash & a £10 minimum on the debit-card (eftpos for the Kiwis) machine I had to force down a large mexican pizza & a bowl of fries (I say force, but it was pretty nice & I was rather hungry - not too much of a hardship really) while enjoying banter at the bar with all sorts of accents you wouldn't expect in the Kentish countryside. Before returning home, I checked out the ruins of the Lullingstone Roman Villa - which was started in about 100 AD & expanded over the next three or four hundred years as the owners grew more & more wealthy. What remained of the mosaic on the floor of the dining room was quite impressive, as were many of the other artefacts that had been excavated over the last sixty years.

Saturday just gone was the famous Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race up the Thames. Happily I didn't have a lot planned for the Easter weekend so was able to go & take a look at this British institution. With way too much time on my hands, wanting to spend some time on the bike & as a chance to see a different part of London (even if I was mostly constrained to the Southern Circular route - the A205) I decided I would ride out there. This didn't look like a good idea earlier in the week with thunderstorms forecast, but thankfully British meteorologists seem to be even worse at their jobs than their Kiwi counterparts & the weather was quite reasonable. As pointed out by Andrew earlier in the week, on my bike I would be able to move down the course as the race progressed. It took me ninety minutes to ride across south London & arrive at Putney & find a good spot on the south bank of the Thames to sit & wait for the boats to come past - I could just see the start. Unfortunately, I overestimated how long it would take for me to get there, so I had an hour to while away (without my iPod, dammit - I have three Hamish & Andy episodes to catch up on) - it did get a bit colder, so I was glad I had put the leggings on under my Dobies (I was quite the picture of NZ MTB clothes - Krank top; Ground Effect leggings & socks; NZO shorts & gloves & Buff - with an Icebreaker layer to top things off). There were plenty of people about & every one was pretty well behaved - just over the river was Bishops Park (which featured on one of my earlier walks) & Craven Cottage - home of Fulham FC. The tide was well in & the race started at 4.30 - Oxford in the dark blue on the near side (Surrey side of the course) & Cambridge in the light blue on the far (Middlesex) side. Oxford had the better of the early part of the race & I was on my bike shortly after they passed & riding across to Barnes Bridge to see them come past again. There seemed to be many more people at Barnes Bridge - probably as it was closer to the end of the just-over-four-mile-long-course. By this stage, Cambridge was ahead by about two-thirds of a length - a lead that they would not relinquish as the race ended, just short of Chiswick Bridge, to win the race against the bookies' odds & prevent what would have been a three year losing streak. The ride home took slightly longer, but thankfully summer time has started here in the the UK & there was still plenty of light when I made it back at 7.00. A good afternoon out & I was pleased at how well I had stood up to over sixty kilometres of road-riding - not that there was any real pace involved.

Easter seems to be a bigger deal over here than at home - I've had so many toasted hot cross buns & so much chocolate; Easter Sunday saw Trish & I drive out to Jan's (Trish's sister) place just north of Dover. Last time we were out this way it was Christmas & the M20 was similarly quiet. While the Sunday dinner was being prepared, I skived off to visit Dover Castle. Being Easter Sunday & the start or middle of the school holidays (depending on the school) there were plenty of people around - just as well it's a pretty big complex. The castle, perched atop the white cliffs, commands great views of the Channel & over to France. There have been fortifications here since shortly after William the Conqueror successfully invaded Britain in 1066 & the main castle dates from the reign of Henry II in the 1160s. Garrisoned until 1958, it was a military installation for nine centuries continuously until 1958. At the centre of the castle is the Great Tower that Henry had built - a symbol of his power, greatness & wealth. The Great Tower has recently been recreated as to how it would have been to receive important visitors in 1184 (Dover Castle was on the pilgrimage path to Canterbury from the continent); the six large rooms recreated include the King's Hall with the throne & numerous wall hangings & banners - all quite splendid.
Being a bank holiday weekend there was a bit more than usual going on around the castle - including a small group dressed up as Grenadier Guards of the Napoleonic War period. After having watched too many episodes of Sharpe (a bit like Hornblower, but in Wellington's army not the Royal Navy) I was interested to see them loading & firing their muskets at three rounds a minute. Considering there was only five muskets, the noise was tremendous (I wonder if they had extra loud blanks - in case they wanted to "deafen them to death"); I can't begin to imagine what it would have been like in the ranks - the smoke was something else too. A part of the complex that I wasn't expecting to encounter was the secret war time tunnels. Tunnels had been made in the cliffs from 1797 to provide extra accommodation for two thousand odd troops. Come the second world war, these tunnels were recommissioned & used for the command of the defence of the south-east coast. It was from here that Vice Admiral Bertrand Ramsay organised & commanded over the space of ten days the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French & Belgian troops from Dunkirk in 1940. There are three layers of tunnels & access was open to the top two - a field hospital & the command centre. I managed to make it back in time for dinner & then Jan's eldest son Luke & his wife, Katy, dropped round to say hello & show us photos of their recent wedding in Antigua. After all that & way too much food, it was a struggle staying awake on the couch - just as well the drive home was uneventful.

So now I'm in a state of limbo waiting to hear about my visa, not looking for jobs in the UK, not wanting to waste my (potentially) last six or eight weeks in the UK for a year & not really wanting to spend too many pounds as I will need them to get in to & set myself up in Canada. But I seem to find enough to do around London; who knows, maybe another week in Spain at Vaughan Town or elsewhere could be a good option. That is an exceedingly long post (pity I haven't taken heaps of photos - damn clouds), I really didn't think I had been up to all that much - just as well I didn't detail all the books I've read, TV & movies I've watched (although I am back on to The Young Ones - "I better get back to the lentil casserole before I get disorientated") & so on.

Finally - go Lyon!

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