Tuesday, July 24, 2012

London weekend

The chance to see Rhys Darby (a NZ comedian best known as Murray, present, from Flight of the Conchords) near the end of his UK tour had me in London for weekend last. Saturday either side of noon was spent doing an unhealthy amount of clothes shopping (which in my book is setting foot in a clothes store), with the redeeming factors being tapas for lunch and Trish's eye & advice.

I met a few other Kiwis in SheBu for a drink & meal before the show - I think that's the first time I've been in a Walkabout pub, not bad for all this time in the UK. I only knew high school friend Jeff, but as it turned out one of his other friends couldn't make it so I got a significant upgrade in my seat. The show was fantastic, not quite as side splittingly funny as I perhaps expected - but hilarious all the way through & a couple of tears of laughter shed.

Second-cousin Catherine & Chris have recently finally found a house to buy in NE London, so I was keen to visit & catch-up, almost a year since I saw them shortly after returning from Canada. Summer finally arrived with vengeance on Sunday, so Trish & I set off to lunch. Olympic preparations were obvious & our drive took us past the impressive stadia - the journey was a bit slower than it otherwise might have been, but not any slower than taking the trains & walking at each end. I'm just glad that I'm well away from the Olympics & won't have to deal with all the congestion as I choose from thirty-odd BBC channels to watch whatever might be going on.

Duly impressed by the new house & all the work that has obviously been done quite recently, we settled down for a great lunch on the patio overlooking playing fields & woodland. Silly me, didn't even consider that it might be worth putting in a hat when I packed Friday night - but after the last two months, I think it's understandable. Chris apparently has been wanting to used their not-insubstantial charcoal barbie for some time, so it was put to good use.

I do like that people choose to cook lamb when I'm over, I'm pretty sure I've had more lamb since leaving NZ than I did living in the country - it's fantastic. The large piece of lamb served up didn't disappoint & we were all well fed. Even though there were six of us, I imagine that there is still lamb in the fridge at Chris & Catherine's. With all the new potatoes, asparagus & various salads - it turned into quite the feast that I wasn't expecting, I'm hardly going to complain about that.

A not very well timed photo - that's a large piece of lamb, & Chris too
So a most pleasant afternoon catching up with Catherine, Chris, Carol (Mum's cousin & Catherine's mum), Barry (Catherine's dad) & Trish (also Mum's cousin, but you probably should know that by now) and being well fed while sweltering in the sun.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


A little sick of sitting at home in the weekends just in case I was needed at work during the annual maintenance shutdown, I somehow decided that a weekend trip to Jersey wasn't too far to go. Technically not a foreign country, although in some ways it felt like one, it was still sort of overseas - an easy half hour flight over the Channel from Southampton after work on Friday.

Although a small island, it turns out Jersey is a maze of narrow lanes - even a Focus was feeling a bit large. The open road limit is only 40 mph, but most of the roads are restricted more than that - some down to 15 mph. Driving was interesting because most of the intersections were blind due to various walls, so there was a lot of creeping out in to the next road hoping no-one was coming along in a hurry - which, invariably, they weren't. Navigation wasn't exactly straight forward, even with a pre-cached map & GPS on my phone - I was told that people that have been on the island their whole life can still get lost. I did manage to find where I was staying out on the east of the island & got a very warm welcome from my airbnb hosts - I was surprised to see a bottlebrush growing in the garden, a reminder of home.

The number plates are even more simplistic than back home - although not nearly as boring
Having settled in to much larger accommodation than I'm used to for just one person, I was keen to head out & explore a little & find some dinner as the evening was brightening up.  It wasn't a long drive, nowhere is I suppose, down to the small harbour at Gorey.  There's rather an imposing castle, Mont Orgueil, right behind the esplanade and a long breakwater that shelters the fleet of small boats harboured.  At the end of the pier there was the smallest customs facility I think I've ever seen - there are occasional ferry sailings to France (which is a whole lot closer than England).

Waking to drizzle that had well & truly set in, a day of indoor activities was dictated to me.  I started off at Jersey's most popular & well known attraction - the Jersey War Tunnels on the other side of the island.  The Channel Islands were the only part of the UK that was occupied by the enemy (the islands having been left demilitarised, as there was not much strategic importance in defending them) during WWII & Hitler was apparently so keen to hold on to this little bit of the country, that it was in the process of being turned in to a fortress.  This complex of tunnels was built as a large underground hospital - but it was never used as such.  Now it holds a fascinating account of what life was like for the islanders under German occupation; it's really well done, the unexpected loud sound effects of screeching bombers & explosions can be a little disconcerting - but that's probably the point.  I expected a bit more of the history of the complex itself, but I suppose there's not much more to say than forced labour dug it out & it was turned in to a medical complex.

Without getting too lost I made it next to Hamptonne Country Life Museum.  I was interested to see how life might have been for my great-great-great grandfather, who was a farmer on the island (my great-great-grandfather left in 1863 for New Zealand, he was a mariner - I assume there wasn't enough land for all the sons to carry on farming; this is the reason at least one other of my forebears made it all the way to NZ at a similar time).  There are some really well preserved & furnished farm buildings from the late seventeenth & early eighteenth centuries, I was a little surprised to pop my head around a dark corner & find a large sow suckling ten or so piglets.  There was also a fascinating display on the Jersey cow, the island's greatest export and one I'm reasonably familiar with having grown up the son of a dairy farming expert - not to mention having milked a few after leaving school.
Horse powered wheel for crushing apples to make cider.

Having spent enough time out in the rain for a little while, I returned home to regroup & watch some of the Wimbledon finals before wandering down the lane a bit to Le Hougue Bie.  The largest archaeological attraction here is one of the best remaining passage graves in Europe - used in the Neolithic age (six thousand years ago) as more of a church than as a grave.  On top of mound covering the passage grave there is also a medieval chapel - that once had a big tower built around & on top of it in the 1800s, but that has since been pulled down.  As this is one of the high points for the east side of the island, it's a good observation point - so there is of course a bunker from WWII.  This now houses a poignant display commemorating all the forced labourers that were transported to Jersey.
The entrance to the passage grave - one could stand up inside it in certain places

Being an island, seafood is of course a staple - the oysters & scallops I had for dinner that night were glorious.  The aptly named local ale - Liberation - was also pretty damn good.  Returning home that evening, my hosts Lesley & Peter were only to happy to hear about NZ over a bottle of wine - so I happily obliged while we pored over an atlas that was surprisingly detailed (why was Pongakawa on there?) & then gradually we drifted through the atlas sharing travel stories.

There was actually blue sky on Sunday morning, so it was back to Gorey to have a proper look around Mont Orgueil. The castle has been around since the early 1200s, but with many changes - as you would imagine - over the last eight centuries.  In a great defensive position initially, once gunpowder & cannon became more useful the hill overlooking the castle to the north became rather pesky & rendered it only useful as a prison for quite sometime.  Of course, the Germans found a use for it, raising the observation towers.  The castle has only been reopened since 2006 & there is a really good mixture of social history, architectural/military history and more recent artworks.  The morning I visited Jersey Heritage was running a program for children so there were plenty of people dressed up using olde worlde words and masses of kids running around with wooden shields & swords trying to find the Crown Jewels.

Back over Gorey
Just to show that there were actually some Jersey cows left on the island - they're not all overseas
After packing up, lunching, more chatting over table-tennis on the lawn in the sun I had a few more hours before the flight home.  A rather famous conservancy & zoo (Durrell) was not far away, so I popped in to have a look - mostly because I couldn't really believe that there were gorillas on the island.  There were, it turns out.
There were also these red river hogs from west Africa

So I pottered around in the car exploring the few areas of the island I had not visited yet before returning the car & watching more Wimbledon before the quick hop back home.  Jersey was a good visit & a welcome break from home, a pity the weather wasn't a little better - but this is the UK after all.  It was a strange mix of English & French - so close to France, most of the street names were in French (I remember two that weren't) and most of the houses are made of granite & look decidedly French; yet English is the predominant language & accent and they drive on the left.  For some reason, that no one could explain to me, there is also a strong Madeiran influence - plenty come over from Madeira & work, but I don't know why.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Grand Event

Last week was P&O's 175th birthday & to celebrate they'd spent a couple of years planning to bring all of their fleet of cruise ships to their home port, Southampton, Tuesday last week for a bit of a party. As it was another cool, miserable wet day of the summer-I'd-be-more-annoyed-with-if-I-could-go-biking - I thought it was worthwhile to pop down the road to Calshot (the headland where Southampton Water meets the Solent) to see all seven ships head out on their various cruises in formation. I didn't really count on Southampton's affinity for cruise liners & just how big a part of this city's history shipping has been.

So I was surprised to see so many turn out on this rather bleak evening to watch the spectacle - the traffic stopped before Fawley powerstation. From listening to the local radio, I could tell I had a bit of a wait in the wind before the first ship emerged from behind the Calshot Activities Centre. Judging from traffic reports (Southampton jammed up & all roads around Hythe waterside closed), this event was even bigger than I imagined - it sounded like quite the party down at Hythe pier & even better if you happened to be out on the water. All the traffic build-up isn't too surprising considering Southampton saw thirty thousand people either embarking on or disembarking from the seven ships that day.

Unfortunately the inclement weather had forced the Red Arrows to continue sitting at Bournemouth Airport & then cancel their display - aerial acrobatics aren't much good if no one can see them. Eventually the vanguard edged out in to the Solent, it made sense Adonia led the fleet out as she is less than half, & in some cases almost a quarter, the size of some of the ships that followed. Once all seven filed passed and navigated Bramble Bank, they assembled in a nice flying-V - one could finally see all seven ships at once, even if my camera couldn't capture it. By now the mist rolled in again & it was time to head home.

In the end I saw a lot of really big ships with plenty of people waving from the beach & decks. A different sight & one I'm not likely to see again. Something different for a Tuesday night, not sure the forty-five minute, few mile, drive home was a good way to finish it off - pity it wasn't sunnier & I'm not bike fit or else it would have been faster to bike.

Naval ship that kept providing resounding salutes

Spot the Isle of Wight ferry