Friday, April 16, 2010

Planes, bikes & houses.

The sky is strangely quiet over London at the moment - as I expect it over much of the rest of the British Isles & parts of Western Europe. I can't say that I mind too much; but I'm glad I have no plans to go anywhere near an airport in immediate future - for those that were planning on traveling by air, the disruption due to the volcanic ash floating on down from Iceland must be horrific. Two days of closure - unprecedented & surely a right nightmare for travelers & the airlines. On a brighter note with regards to air travel (pending the clearing of the ash in the next four weeks) - the paper work for my application for a one-year working holiday visa to Canada came through a few days ago & I have since booked my flight to Calgary (May 15). It would be fair to say I'm more excited than a "Frenchman who has just invented a pair of self-removing trousers".

The weather has continued to improve & that has made the days out in the last ten days nicer & in some cases possible. Trish & I have also managed to watch quite a bit of Hornblower, I've got hooked on Alexander McCall Smith's second series of books (the 44 Scotland St series) - set in Edinburgh & full of very interesting interconnected (as I suppose most are in novels) characters in which one often sees parts of one's self reflected, been sorting a few things out for Canada & we have played quite a few visits to Trish's mother, Nora, in hospital. Such hospital visits are still consisting of countless games of gin-rummy, which is good for Nora as she remembers how to play & is known to beat us on occasion; sadly, it looks as though she will not be going home after being discharged, rather she will only be discharged when she has a place to go to in a residential care home.

Eltham Palace is but a few miles from home & I had been meaning to visit for some time. Trish & I took the opportunity last Tuesday as the sunny day was good for viewing the extensive gardens. It's a slightly strange palace, as while it was originally built for Edward IV in the late fifteenth century & Henry VIII spent a lot of his childhood there, it fell in to disrepair in the 1800s (the Great Hall being used as a barn) before Stephen & Virginia Courtauld extensively renovated it in the 1930s. The Great Hall was restored in medieval, the buildings were extended & the exterior kept in the right period, but the inside is a bold mixture of Art Deco, ocean-liner & Swedish styling. It makes for a rather curious contrast - but it's fantastic. The house has been restored well by English Heritage & they have a lot of the original furniture & paintings. As well as the great design work (the huge glass dome in the entrance foyer is spectacular), the house had a lot of up-to-the-minute technology - underfloor heating, multi-room audio system, central vacuum & an early PABX. As expected, the gardens were beautiful & very pleasant to walk around - there were even some tunnels surviving from four or five hundred years ago.
Battle was to be the next place visited, but as Andrew was taking his two young daughters (Shelley is now back at work two days a week) to see all the planes at the RAF museum in North London, I thought I would tag along & tick that off my list. In the end I only got to half tick it off, as there are so many planes & so much history to read that I still have the Battle of Britain hall & the History of Flight hall to go back & see. The collection of WWI era aircraft was quite fascinating, as it is not so often one sees surviving examples of these plane. A couple of them had no fuselage - just a cockpit, then a big gap & then the tail. I quite liked the Bomber Hall too; it's always quite difficult to get photos of planes in museums as it is difficult get far enough away from the planes (particularly bombers) - but here is a Lancaster (WWII) & a Vulcan (built to drop nuclear bombs in the '50s & '60s). There was a good doco film about the Dambuster raids - an event, that if not entirely successful, never fails to catch the imagination. That Barnes-Wallis sure was a smart guy - also was able to appreciate the size of a Grand Slam that he designed (a massive bomb that only specially modified Lancasters could carry that would penetrate deep in to the ground before exploding with earthquake effect - used against infrastructure [bridges & so on]). I was impressed that the girls were so well behaved - hardly heard a peep out of Amelie & Vittoria was able to be amused most of the time, even if she did seem to think she had spent the day looking at dinosaurs. Andrew was pretty good too.

Saturday was perhaps the warmest day of the year so far, & I took the opportunity to go for another ride through the northwest Kentish countryside. I managed a loop down to Shoreham & up the other side of the valley (good views out towards the Thames Estuary), through Eynsford again (brief stop at the ruins of Lullingstone Castle). It was a great day to be out & plenty of other people thought so - a lot of ramblers, people sitting roadside at pubs & it would seem every one in a twenty mile radius with convertible drove past with the top down. I managed about forty kilometres & some reasonable hills in there too - but not particularly long. Along the spine of the hills back down to Eynsford I was intrigued by the sound of a motor behind a large hedgerow - it didn't sound like farm machinery, more like a circular saw. As I reached a gap in the hedge I spied a group of people gathered in a field for an afternoon of model helicopter flying. At first, the helicopter looked barely in control as the pilot (I suppose you could call him that) took it flew a whole lot of turns, dives, spins, loop-the-loops; but as I watched it fly around in a cloud of smoke the manoeuvrability as it seemed to bounce around on thin air was quite incredible. That's more than enough of that.

Another outing I had been meaning to go on for a while was to ride to Down House near Biggin Hill. Down House was of course the home of Charles & Emma Darwin for about forty years in the nineteenth century. I went for the just-about-countryside-all-the-way route to get out to Downe & some how managed to get another forty-odd kilometres of road riding in. The house itself is recreated as it was in Darwin's day downstairs with a lot of original furniture, paintings & decor; while, upstairs is an very good exhibition on the family history, the Beagle voyage & his subsequent work. The garden was also quite interesting (unfortunately a bit of it was closed, so good photos of the house were difficult to take), as quite a few of Darwin's experiments were done here over many years. It seems Darwin was not the typical Victorian father, so there quite a few amusing family-life anecdotes.

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