A Brief Brexit Break

Posted in Uncategorized on Apr 16, 2019 by David Palmer

The one benefit of being on a long cruise was that Sue and I didn’t have to listen to the daily bombardment by politicians and supporters from both sides of the Brexit argument, continually manipulating the news 24/7 to further their own agenda. Thankfully, the topic was rarely discussed by our fellow passengers and when it was the chatter was principally concerned with the shame the nation felt being represented by a bunch of self-interested yapping buffoons who lack the moral courage to work together for the betterment of the country in which they were elected and charged with the responsibility of carrying the mantle of democracy. Foolishly, we all assumed that by the time we returned to the UK the matter would have been resolved. Oliver Cromwell aptly summed up the situation better than I could ever do in his speech to Parliament on the 20th April 1653:

‘It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!’

Well the issue is still not resolved and doesn’t look like being any time soon, so it seemed like a sanity saving move to escape the nonsense and visit Phil and Joan in Italy, so we booked some flights!

Rant over.

Mother’s Day saw Sue treated to afternoon tea at a lovely venue in Market Bosworth, with Charlotte, Jamie and Sarah. I had another reflexology session with Doreen and the following day (April Fool’s) an appointment with the doctor. I came away with a prescription for Naproxen (strong anti-inflammatory).

On the 2nd April, despite an awful weather forecast, Sue joined her U3A group for a walk from Launde Abbey. Her gamble didn’t pay off as she and the group got a thorough soaking on a particularly cold day. On her return to a warm Willow Bank log fire, we both spent the late afternoon packing and sorting out the house in readiness for an early night and an even earlier start before our drive down to Stansted Airport the following morning. As we were getting ready for bed we had a phone call from Salford informing us that Uncle Stan had fallen at home and broken his hip, he was now in hospital and was recovering from an operation. There was little we could do so we resolved to visit when we returned

We rose at 1am and as it turned out we were fortunately on the road (A14) half an hour later. All went well, until after passing under a closed A1 (both North and South) which ironically turned out to be an indicator that the Highway Authorities had decided that night to go mad. As we approached Cambridge the road narrowed to a single lane and we entered a series of three large roundabouts. There was only one exit on each of them (other than the one we had entered by) but the signage displayed was confusing, informing us that we were exiting onto the A14 West AND the A14 East! I circumnavigated each of these twice to check that I hadn’t missed any other exits. Despite updating my TomTom the previous day it had no such roundabouts displaying and only returned from oblivion as we exited a fourth and smaller roundabout. Thankfully we sped on with reassuring A14 Diversion signs at regular intervals, until TomTom asked me to turn off the dual carriageway. This I did. A couple of miles later we came across lorries parked up on both sides and the road ahead shut. Returning to the point where we diverted, we again followed the signs for A14 E and confusingly we returned to the same sequence of roundabouts experienced half an hour prior. Tensions rising rapidly. This time we sped through them at speed and ignoring Satnav we ploughed on into the dark following the yellow A14 E Diversion signs. Relief at coming across a diversion sign that pointed to us exiting the dual carriageway was short-lived as within a mile we again came across lorries parked up on either side and the road again closed. Yes, we were now 5 miles further on than before and it was a different lorry park. Trying to make sense of where we were a kindly (and equally confused) lorry driver knocked on the window and told us to ignore Satnav and the last detour sign and keep going on the A14 E. Returning to the dual carriageway we again followed the yellow signs for A14 E and crazily ended up back at the sequence of roundabouts! How can this be? With growing depression we sped through them again and ignoring the Satnav turn-off and then the A14 E detour off the dual carriageway we rocketed on into the night, again coming across the reassuring A14 E signs. After many more miles and signs, imagine the shock when we came across a road sign saying Kettering ahead!!!! We had been beginning to suspect we were going west and this was proof! Pulling off at the next junction I stopped the car and consulted the map on TomTom and set it to take us to Royston which I knew was directly south and away from this madness. In Royston, I adjusted TomTom to shortest route to Stansted so that it would not take us anywhere near the A14 or M11. Rallying down country lanes through small hamlets and villages and several fords, luckily only meeting one other car on route, at around 10 miles from destination I adjusted TomTom back to fastest route so that there was no danger of any further surprises.

As soon as we parked up in JetParks the shuttle bus thankfully arrived. Racing through security, the gate number was up and miraculously it wasn’t closed. We joined the queue and soon afterwards with shattered nerves and thoroughly exhausted, we boarded the plane. It took off on time at 6.35 am.

In the past Phil and Joan have picked us up at the airport and taken us to Santa Vittoria, but on this occasion we had hired a car at the airport and booked a hotel in Ancona for a couple of nights as we thought we would explore the town and area before driving to Joan’s. We stayed in the EGO Hotel, chosen because it was close to the airport and town and had its own on-site parking. It turned out to be an excellent choice with a lovely breakfast and staff that were amazingly friendly and helpful, much-needed after the trauma of the A14 E.

We checked in early and took a walk around the area to orientate ourselves before driving into Ancona and visiting the rather impressive Cathedral. It is situated on the hill above the town and gives impressive views of the port and across the bay back towards our hotel. There was a large cruise liner being extensively worked on below us, it was fascinating to watch the workforce clambering all over the ship and trying to figure out what they were doing. Inside the cathedral we came across a school group being instructed by their megaphone toting teacher. In the crypt there were several macabre but interesting, elaborate and gold encrusted sarcophagus containing previous abbots (or equivalent). As with most Catholic churches there are plenty of paintings and murals to see, many with a liberal amount of gold leaf embedded into them. But by far the most striking effect was the shadow cast onto the wall of an apse by a judiciously placed spotlight in front of a statue of Christ on the cross. Worth visiting this cathedral for that alone.

From the cathedral we walked to the nearby amphitheatre. Though it wasn’t open (far too early in the year) it wasn’t a disappointment as all could be seen from the peripheral wall and the information boards were in Italian and English. It was obvious that the town had made much of this feature of their history in the past, but you could tell that of late they had neglected to maintain the site as a viewing auditorium set to one side had several bushes growing out from the modern seating. A shame.

We moved on up the hill, passing an ancient Roman cemetery with block head stones scattered across the site and fenced off from the public, eventually arriving at the old lighthouse, from which we could see the outline of the ancient port below. We took shelter under a large holly tree during a brief shower and then returned to the comfort of our Fiat Panda.

That evening we aptly ate Italian in the hotel before retiring for an early night.

The next day we drove a short way down the coast along a winding and spectacular coastal road to Portonova. What a stunning route down to the beach from the towering cliffs above. This former fishing hamlet is at the foot of Monte Conero in the beautiful and unspoilt Conero Nature reserve. The place was formed many millions of years ago when part of the mountain slipped into the sea and formed this gorgeous spot. Well worth a visit. We came across another group of students, this time with quadrats and busily engaged in counting shells on the beach. We stood awhile and watched some wind surfers flying along in tricky conditions with a stiff breeze making their sport a little more exciting than usual. Satisfied with the pebbly beach we briefly took a trail into the woods behind the car park and discovered a small lake, very pretty with a couple of sleeping ducks our only company. The path was a circular one of quite a few kilometres but today we were not to walk it, my knee was sore and if I was to continue driving it wasn’t worth the risk. We moved on by car to the far end of the beach and sat contentedly on a sunny bench chatting and watching the cormorants diving for fish. A friendly dog came to say ciao but couldn’t understand English, so quickly returned to it owner, what do they teach them at kennel school nowadays? On the way back to the car, we again sat and procrastinated, this time by another small reedy lake, listening to the noisy mating calls of several hidden Casanova frogs.

We returned to the hotel by a different and less interesting route, made worse by having to negotiate a couple of uniquely Italian road junctions, where you roll a dice and slam your foot on the accelerator and cut across several lanes of oncoming traffic, hoping you threw a 6. I did, twice!

That evening we ate in a small restaurant below the hotel. Sue had a good, meal I didn’t. Apparently Pizza Pecorino is a flat, dry, burnt, bread base, heaped with a 5cm topping of rocket leaves with, 4 x 2cm cubes of brie and a small twirl of spiced ham in the centre and not the delicious strong-tasting cheesy pizza I was expecting. Hmm, I wish my Italian vocabulary extended beyond Gratzi!

After breakfast we were to travel to Santa Vittoria, so we hit the road again just after 10am. Italian roads (including motorways) in April are very, very quiet in comparison to British highways. If it wasn’t for the necessity to continually check your rear view mirror to gauge when the Roman charioteer a metre or two behind your rear bumper has made the decision to overtake, then you could probably catch a nap or two on a journey of any length. However, it wasn’t too long before I cottoned onto the Latin psyche for overtaking; when there is a blind bend, preferably on or near the top of a blind hill and you are absolutely certain there is oncoming traffic, that is the best time to overtake! If there are a couple of slower cars in front of you, that is even more advantageous. I guess they consider that all Italian cars have engines built by Ferrari, mine certainly did.

We took the motorway down the coast to Porto Civitanova and spent a pleasant couple of hours enjoying the warmth of the sun and a few of the sites this pleasant seaside holiday destination had to offer. Most memorable was the midday chimes emanating from an over large imposing tower, fronting the town church, situated next to the marina. The melody played was pleasant but must have lasted a good five minutes. Not good if you work shifts and want to sleep during the day, but I guess you would get used to it and in defence, it was quite tuneful. We stretched our legs and walked the harbour wall all the way to the little green painted lighthouse at the end, before stopping to cogitate on the large graffiti/murals/artwork seen on the opposite sea wall. We agreed which we liked and considered the rest as ‘Banksy’ wannabees.

Returning to the car we headed inland, deep into the countryside. After leaving the coastal plain, we began to steadily rise, at first passing around and beneath the hilltop towns so characteristic of Tuscany and the lesser known Marche, before we eventually began to wind our way up through these very pretty medieval settlements. We stopped to investigate a few of them, always admiring the spectacular views that could be seen from a central piazza or pinnacled church. As we were to discover during the next few days, though each of these small towns are in their own way quite unique, they all seem to be devoid of inhabitants. Only on the Sunday did we witness more than half a dozen people at any one time and as you can guess they were on their way to church.

It was around 4pm when we parked up next to Phil’s car outside the renovated and very white farmhouse that Joan and Phil have lived in for the last 12 years. Many of the less solidly constructed buildings in the area, particularly in the town above have succumbed to frequent earthquakes and have either collapsed or are now heavily supported by huge wooden ties. It is a with a sense of bewilderment that we none Italians (or Catholics) find it difficult to comprehend that priority is given to the repair of the churches before the homes that people live in. Many families and individuals find themselves in hotels and B&B’s with the likelihood this will be the case for many years to come. Why the people accept this situation is beyond me.

We had seen Joan and Phil just before Christmas and they had changed very little, seemingly pleased to have some company after what had been a particularly cold and inhospitable Italian winter. They have fully embraced the rural Marche way of life, living simply, eating fresh food, drinking local wine and enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a rustic life style. Phil has his music (a vast selection of CD’s) and technical magazines, Joan has her books and a more than the average garden to exercise her horticultural skills. Oh yes, and they have a cat. Cat lives outside under the veranda, it was one of several pets owned by a British family down in the valley, but when they left to return to the UK a couple of years ago, it sensibly made its way to the white house below the town where it knew it would find a home. Though on the surface Joan and Phil appear to discourage the animal, it is well fed and watered and provided with a comfortable place to sleep, and the cat knows better!

We stayed five days. The weather was kind to us, certainly better than that being experienced by those back in the UK. For most, the days were bright, sunny and warm, though on occasion at the more exposed sites we visited, a northerly breeze invite us to add an extra layer of clothing. As we had our own transport we took the opportunity to visit the surrounding towns that I had visited with Joan and Phil when Roger and I came to visit in the early years of retirement. As expected little had changed other than many buildings were now shorn-up and there was fewer people about. Some of the churches were open and we always took the opportunity to investigate their interiors, often coming across some beautiful frescos or interesting architecture and occasionally a description in English to aid our understanding. A favourite haunt are the cemeteries attached to each settlement, we can spend ages discussing how the deceased met their end from the dates, ages and photograph supplied on each internment. Identifying family names is another fascinating habit we have acquired as a diversion.

Here is a list of the hill top towns visited: Montelparo, Monteleone di Fermo, Servigliano, Montefalcone Appenino, Smerillo, Monte San Martino.

On one morning there was a vintage car rally passing through Santa Vittoria so we spent pleasant hour watching the rather noisy but lovingly restored and polished vintage models rumble into the town square, collect a ticket before roaring away under the clock tower.

We also spent several hours walking around Lago del Tenna (lake). Both Sue and I and Roger and I have eaten at the lake side restaurant in the past with our hosts, but never circumnavigated it. There is a well-marked and path that takes you on a complete circuit of the lake, but today part of the path has been washed away by the river that runs into the lake and prevents you from following the mapped route. This must have been the case for a number of years now, as evident by the tree growth on the eroded section, yet none of the signage has been changed to show that you can no longer complete the route. As we had trekked more than half the distance we returned to the car by the less satisfactory roadway. I guess, with the earthquake damage the authorities have more pressing issues to attend to.

Both Joan and Phil (despite being vegetarians) are exceptional cooks and eating with the Smiths is always a treat and coupled with their own blend of wine, the evenings pass far too quickly. As two couples, we did sample the local cuisine; an evening meal in the Farfense in the town and lunch at a roadside café in Ponte Maglio. Both meals were splendid (though Sue was less impressed by the latter), but neither could match those that our hosts provided for us daily, casually described as simple fayre, worthy of a Michelin star or two. I can see why Phil has put a bit of weight on.

Our short time in Santa Vittoria came to an end at 5.30am on the 10th with Phil, Joan and Cat waving us goodbye under a chilly star bright sky. We made good progress back to Ancona, with little traffic encountered on route, we stopped briefly just before the airport to fill the tank up with fuel and finding the rental car park we popped the keys into the drop box as the staff were yet to come on duty.

After a breakfast snack we made our way through security and waited for the flight, which left on time. Though allocated seats in different part of the aircraft I had no one either side so Sue joined me. I slept most of the flight away.

The drive was interesting from the point of view that we didn’t encounter the dreaded roundabouts (they were being worked on) but we did pick up the maliciously inaccurate A14 E signs all the way to the Wellingborough turn off, before Kettering! I can only guess that some idiots had been given the signs to indicate an A14 diversion East, but the clowns had (in the dark, like us) taken the west bound carriageway by error and dropped them off at all the turn-offs until the had run out of signage. I can’t think of any other reason, but why are they still there after a week, too scared to admit the error and collect them? I will never know and don’t care now.

Since returning we have been looking after Ellis (who is on half term) and Harry (the greyhound) while Charlotte attends to her clients gardens. The weather has been good, the grass has been growing, the blossom bursting and my onions and broad beans have all poked their noses out of the soil just in time for a run of night frosts.

Not a partridge in a pear tree, but two pheasants under a fir tree!!

On our return from Italy Sue telephoned the hospital that Stanley was in to find that he had gone rapidly downhill. The nurse didn’t think that he was long for this world. We scheduled a visit on the 17th as this was the only day we didn’t have prior commitments.

On the day before our journey north to Salford Royal Hospital I, Peter and Harry travelled to Newbold Verdon to work on Sarah’s summer-house while she was incapacitated after her operation. Sue took Ellis to see Dumbo at the cinema in Kettering while Charlotte worked on a large garden in Harborough. Sue again contacted the Salford hospital to find that thankfully Stanley had rallied and was doing better. We shall see for ourselves tomorrow.

Update: We visited Stanley for around half an hour, he is now blind and has difficulty hearing. He finds it difficult to breathe with quite a lot of fluid on his chest and spends most of his time asleep. He is quite cantankerous and complained in the brief time we were there about the surgeons, doctors, nurses, food etc. etc. His mind seems as sharp as ever. He clearly had enough of our visit and after awhile politely asked us to go. He surprisingly looked well, though he obviously is not, according to the nurses he is not eating much.

Prior to our hospital visit we called in to check on Stanley’s house, it had been cleared, cleaned, painted and re-carpeted and seemed in good order. He had put a couple of mats down in he lounge by the kitchen door and we guess that these contributed to his fall. We only made a brief visit as everything seemed fine before driving to Blackleech Park to eat our packed lunch as it was too early for the hospital visiting times.

On our way back to Harborough we called in to see Sarah and I filled the back of the car with fire wood that Lee had been saving for us.

The Trouble with Bones

Posted in Uncategorized on Mar 29, 2019 by David Palmer

Our return to the UK went without a hitch. The taxi transfer to the airport arrived early and the Etihad flight took off on time. Our transit through Abu Dhabi went smoothly and the chill of a Heathrow landing was an apt wake-up for our onward journey, first by underground to St Pancras and then fast train back to Harborough. A much fitter and happier Charlotte greeted us with Harry (the greyhound) on the platform to give us a lift back to Willow Bank. She informed us that the last week had been rather warm and that today was going to be last before a cold spell was due (she proved to be right!) It was quite a while and a struggle before we acclimatised to northern hemisphere late winter temperatures and our internal clocks adjusted back to Greenwich Meantime.

A few days later we were treated to Sunday lunch at Charlotte’s and distributed a few presents before  travelling to Desborough to see Jamie and Ashton in their new home. They were in the middle of decorating and some of their furniture was yet to be delivered but it is a lovely starter home for them and it looks easy to maintain. A few days later I spent an afternoon helping Jamie re-roof  his garden shed with felt, then build a shelf inside the airing cupboard before providing moral support as he finished off painting the staircase wall.

 

The following day was my birthday and I celebrated it with a trip to the Leicester Royal Hospital for an eye check-up. A scan showed that everything was stable and I no longer required any further injections and have been placed on the regular check-up list. Not a bad birthday present I thought and I celebrated with a sausage roll from Greggs. I spent the rest of the day shopping in Harborough for seeds, in readiness for the growing season.

Sue and I travelled to the Black Horse in Walcote for a delightful meal that was a very late Christmas present from Sarah and Lee, the following evening Jamie took me for a birthday meal to the Mexican restaurant in Harborough. Having just completed two months of a continual sea-borne feeding frenzy, within five days I had negated my promised fast with three substantial meals in five days!

On the 10th March we journeyed to Newbold Verdon to inspect Sarah and Lee’s decorating skills in their new home and were quite impressed with what we saw. They had been putting in a lot of hard work over many late nights to decorate the rooms downstairs to their own taste and style, the upstairs and the outside would have to wait until the spring arrives. That afternoon the four of us had a very pleasant and substantial four course Sunday lunch at the Bosworth Hall Hotel in nearby Market Bosworth. Later that evening Sue and I went to De Montfort Hall in Leicester to see the British Pink Floyd. It was a birthday present from Charlotte and Sarah and what and a thoroughly enjoyable one it was too. The band was magnificent, I have seen the real Pink Floyd twice as I have the Australian version twice, but the music and blend of theatre in the performance by the Brits was something rather special. We shall see them again in the future, I am sure.

On the 14th, Charlotte invited Sue and I over for an evening meal, Suraj was away for the week up in Leeds on an IT course and she fancied a bit of adult company to dilute the energy of two boys and a greyhound.

On the 15th Jamie bought a new car, sadly he had sold his Aston Martin the previous week to an employee of Aston Martin itself from London. He now has a black V10 Audi R8. It certainly is a beast of a machine, but I did love his Aston and there was a time when I would have made an offer for it, but not now, my little Fiesta rarely leaves the garage and when it does it spends most of its time in an airport long stay car park, where would I put my grow bags and grass cuttings?

On the weekend of the 23rd, Sue drove to Tenbury Wells for the weekend. She was attending a  re-union that had been arranged by old school friends. She stayed with Sheila on the Saturday night after a buffet meal and disco at the Fountain Inn in the town. Around a hundred or so of her past school chums attended, many of whom she has kept in touch with through a website where they share photos of their school days and also of the various activities in the town during the same era. She particularly enjoyed chatting to the teachers that attended, they were in their 80’s and 90’s and still apparently quite spritely, taking to the dance floor with energy.

As Sue was still in Tenbury on the Sunday, Charlotte kindly invited me over for lunch with Suraj, the boys and Harry. Much better than the bowl of tomato soup that I had been planning on!

During the three weeks since returning from our cruise we have gradually settled back into our Harborough routine. I have planted 5 rows of potatoes, 3 rows of broad beans and 10 rows of onions at the allotment. As usual I am risking the late frosts, but only time will tell if the gamble pays off. The pool has been cleaned, though the pump did have to be disassembled and sprayed with WD40 as it had somehow managed to seize while we were away. The lawns have been mowed though a more accurate description would be that the moss has been cut shorter!!!! Sue is back walking with the U3A and has already attended a couple of lectures too. We have attended several Silver Screen films at the Odeon in Kettering of which I can recommend ‘Stan and Laurel’ and ‘The Green Book’ as being worthwhile the effort of seeking out.

We have had the company of both Mia and Harry several times, while their respective owners have been working, though not at the same time. Mia is naturally adorable and we are well used to her cheeky ways. Harry is a different kettle of fish, he is so laid back that he spends a great deal of time sleeping, but when he is awake he is keen on his walks, while being well-behaved on the leash, off it is another story. He was a racing greyhound and you can see why when he is released. At present he has to be let loose in an enclosed space until he learns to come on call or I doubt we would see him ever again, he just flies! He has a lovely nature and enjoys his cuddles and strokes and it is still very early days for him, he is used to kennel routines and the company of other greyhounds, it is a very steep learning curve for all.

BONE TROUBLE

I have returned intermittently to my morning cycle rides, but a peripheral bone foot injury picked up before Christmas and a medial knee ligament injury picked up on the running machine on board the Columbus has made most physical activities a painful and difficult experience. Despite taking bucket loads of Ibuprofen and resting as much as possible, healing is slow. In desperation I have had several sessions of reflexology with Doreen in her new penthouse apartment. Though I don’t think the sessions have helped my knee, my foot has shown a marked improvement since. Plus, it is a totally relaxing experience and I am sure is good for the inner me. I find driving particularly painful, though after 15 minutes or so the pain subsides to a tolerable ache. I have an appointment with the doctor on April Fool’s Day, and two days later I shall be driving down to Stansted to catch a flight with Sue to see Joan and Phil in Italy. I have hired a car for the week, I just hope that there is a marked improvement before then!

Charlotte has returned to her gardening job and is obviously enjoying being back among the plants . However, she has been experiencing hip pain for quite a few years now and this week she had a scan of her hips at a private hospital and the diagnosis was not good. The joints are showing evidence of arthritis and severe wear, with larger than normal gaps in the ball and socket joints. The specialist has diagnosed that she will probably be needing artificial joints by the time she is in her 40’s and that she will require strong painkillers in the future. She is quite worried that when she does eventually require surgery it may not be available or speedy enough through the NHS. We shall see when the time comes, but we won’t let her suffer and if she has to go privately than that is what will happen.

Sarah went into Glenfield Hospital for an operation on her ankle, both ankles have been giving her problems the last few years and surgery is the long-term solution. The operation took place in the morning, late in the afternoon she was discharged home in a full leg pot. She will be off work for eight weeks. However, the following day  she had to return to hospital as the leg was giving her great pain as it had swollen and there was no room inside the pot. The cast was split down the front, allowing the blood supply to be less restricted and ease the pain. She was again discharged back home.

The following day Charlotte and I drove up to Newbold Verdon to see Sarah and help sort out her garden. Harry accompanied us. It was obvious by the drawn and pained look on her face that she was suffering from the operation, but it was reassuring to see that by the end of the day she seemed a lot perkier and more her old self. Charlotte was keen to clear the moss from the top of the patio roof and was soon up the ladder and jet washing while I busied myself mowing the lawns, then cutting down a large bamboo that was shading the greenhouse. It was a lovely sunny day, just right for a spot of gardening. For lunch we visited the local fish and chip shop and brought back our individual fayre to eat on the patio. Afterwards, Charlotte tackled the fishpond, cleaning it out and then seeding it with some bedraggled tadpoles, whose container Harry had knocked over earlier that morning. Hopefully they would survive, but it looked doubtful. After carrying the bamboo cuttings and other bagged up rubbish to the front of the house, ready for disposal, I helped Charlotte  pull out a weeping willow and plant a magnolia in its place. Bent on destruction she then ripped out a good section of conifer hedge, before pruning a pear tree and moving back onto the roof of the patio. Doesn’t she ever stop for a rest I thought! Lee had come home from work and it was getting dark before we set off back to Harborough. Sue had picked Ellis up from school and given him tea while Suraj had taken Lucas to football practise. I had a very early night!!!!

 

 

 

An Alternative Sydney

Posted in Uncategorized on Feb 25, 2019 by David Palmer

(25th – 25th Feb)

The Columbus took on her pilot outside Sydney harbour at 5.30am, many of the passengers were up on deck in the dark to watch the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge pass by as we made our way to a berth in White Harbour, but to their disappointment the Opera House was in darkness and the usual brightly illuminated bridge had just the navigation lights lit, though its outline was clearly visible. Sue and I watched the bridge slowly progress towards us from the comfort of our cabin bed, before making our way up top for breakfast as we made fast to the wharf.

We were jumping ship today and had packed our cases the previous evening, during breakfast they were being transferred ashore in readiness for our collection. We left our home of the last two months around 8.45am and after passing through customs we collected the cases and found our taxi transfer to the hotel in Castlehills. The journey there was surprisingly long (nearly an hour) and if it hadn’t been a Sunday it may have been even longer.

The Hills Lodge Grand Mercure is a very modern hotel built to look like an authentic British mansion, but the climate and flora betrays its true origin. We were disappointed to discover how far out from Central Quay it was located, but we were determined to find the best the area had to offer. It seems that during the coming weekend, Carnival was coming to Sydney and the hotels in the centre were 100% booked and had been for a year. It is more popular than Australia Day and the New Year celebrations and is held exclusively for the Gay community. How the world changes.

The hotel reception were brilliant at providing us with Opal cards, cash and a taxi soon after our arrival to take us to Parramatta Ferry, where we were to visit Cockatoo Island. The ferry takes you down the Parramatta River, eventually ending up at Central Quay, though our destination was two stops short. The ferry is much used by locals and visitors alike and is usually quite full, with an ever changing number due to the large number of stops along the route. Our journey took 1hr and 5 min. To off load and take on new passengers never took more than a moments as the crew had the procedure of coming alongside the wharfs as efficient as it could possibly get and they hit their timetable targets every time.

At first the river was fairly narrow, around 40m in width and mangrove grew on either side, our speed was limited here to 5mph as not to create a wash that would destroy the shoreline vegetation. The mangrove teemed with bird life, pelicans, herons and cockatoos were prevalent but there were many other colourful species that I don’t know the name of. As the river broadened and the banks became reinforced with rocks the ferry picked up speed and the stops became more numerous. Some having names such as Kissing Point, Abbotsford and Dulwich. The houses and settlements along the shore were certainly upmarket and under a warm sun and clear blue sky were seen at their best. It must be a lovely place to live, if you could afford it. After passing Sydney Olympic Park we started to see apartment blocks, presumably built for the athletes but now used by resident Aussies. Glass seems to be the most used material all along this river.

Cockatoo Island is very close to central Sydney, originally a inhabited by the aborigines (it is sacred to them), but when the British came we used it as prison for those miscreants who were rejected by other gaols as being too violent or disruptive. Soon after wards a dry dock was built there to furnish and repair the British fleet. Of course the prisoners did most of the work in building the facilities and on the ships themselves. The conditions for the prisoners were the worst in the British Empire and deaths were common. The warders had a fearsome reputation for brutality. When the prison was closed it remained a place where ships were repaired and built, before briefly becoming a prison again. It has also been a school for girls. During the 1st and 2nd World War it again become important for ship building for the Australian navy, before being abandoned in the 60’s. Today, it has been recognised as an important heritage sight and work is on going to preserve it.

The island is free to visit, the only charge is $5 for a headset from the Tourist Information office that provides information along the various stopping points on the marked routes of a provided map. We arrived early in the afternoon and there were few visitors, but as the afternoon wore on it became quite busy. Most of the buildings concerned with ship building remain, though most in a poor state, many of which you cannot enter, those concerned with its past as a prison seemed to have had quite a bit of restoration work done on them. The information boards on most of the buildings were excellent and really gave you a feel of the past.

There are three tunnels that go from one side of the island to the other, only two can be walked through, which we did, noticing the chisel marks evident on the walls, chipped out by criminals of the past. From the top of the island you get great views of the Parramatta River, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the central part of Sydney, you can even see the Opera House.

It was lovely way to spend and afternoon and to get to know and experience a bit of Aussie history that the Aussies themselves are only just waking up to, the trip up and down the River are worth the effort alone. It was this river that Captain Phillip sailed up and created the first settlement in Australia on the site of present Parramatta.

Returning by way of the ferry again, we stopped to have a meal in a little restaurant by the river before taking a taxi back to the hotel, we were very tired, it had been a long day.

We decided to spend our final full day in Castlehill visiting the Koala Bear Reserve. Armed with our Opal cards and Google maps on my mobile phone we caught a bus to Castlehill Terminus then caught another almost immediately to the Reserve, just a few kilometres away. They have a very efficient transport system here.

After paying the entrance fee of $28 each we set off armed with a site map and schedule of feeding times to enjoy ourselves. Highlights were; stroking the koalas, feeding the kangaroos and an emu, talking to a very friendly kookaburra and penguin, spotting an echidna move, woke up two wombats and watched a sheep being sheered. Plus a lot of other animals like bats, that just hung around and didn’t want to interact with us. Nearly forgot, Sue stroked the obligatory snake that she always seems to find.

We had lunch in the Reserve restaurant after seeing everything, then went around again to see our favourites. A lovely way to spend a day and there was plenty to see, even shetland ponies, but we couldn’t work out why they were there.

We retraced our steps to return to the hotel, stopping to have a look around the shops in Castlehill on the way.

That evening we ate dinner in one of the local bars before returning to our room and packing in readiness for our transfer to the airport the following morning.

NZ to OZ

Posted in Uncategorized on Feb 25, 2019 by David Palmer

(21st – 24th Feb)

Quite a few of the passengers disembarked in Auckland and were replaced by new faces, not Kiwi’s as you would expect, but Aussies taking advantage of a shortish cruise back home. We are told that there will be a further 200 disembarking in Sydney and we will be among their company. On the 22nd we met a couple during lunch who we discovered had been allocated to our evening dinner table, not unusually they were Brits that had relocated to Australia quite a few years ago and were at present about to downsize their home near Sydney to another, a short distance away. They were taking the cruise to escape the stress of the lead up to the moving day. Not an option open to Sarah or Jamie on their recent house moves, but I am sure they could see the benefits of doing such a thing.

Unfortunately, on what should have been our first full compliment of evening diners on our table, Ian and Diane were guests at another couples’ renewal of their vows and had been invited to the celebratory meal and were absent.

As we ploughed our way towards Australia, the weather cooled down to a more reasonable 25 degrees, but the swell increased to around 3m which made for some erratic movement of the ship. Whilst walking along the decks you would suddenly get the sensation that you were walking up hill with a heavy body and then a few moments later one of descending downhill with a floating sensation, though there are no visual clues as to what is happening other than a feeling. Whilst lying in bed, this rhythmic fluctuation from heavy to light has the benefit of lulling me to sleep, I am not so sure about Sue. However, on cruises in the past I have occasionally had to dine on my own due to Sue’s seasickness, not so on this trip, so far.

A funny thing is coincidence. Our cabin is located on deck 6, our lifeboat is also number 6, but much stranger is that on each of the shore tours (every single one) we have been allocated number 6. So guess what our allocated three digit number dining table is? 666? No, it is 111. Also, the other day I noticed that there is no deck 13, it took 50 days to spot that. I wonder if Chinese cruise ships are missing deck 7?

On the final evening before landfall in Australia the captain gave an announcement during dinner that they had been closely watching a cyclone developing over the Tasman Sea and this had now led to his decision to stay two nights in the safety of Sydney harbour rather than one and miss visiting Hamilton Island. I was surprised by the amount of cheers that went up, indicating that this decision was most welcome. I know Sydney is a great place to stay but I have never been to Hamilton Island so I would have been disappointed, but a cyclone is a cyclone and in a ship it isn’t wise not to take them seriously.

A Delay in Picton

Posted in Uncategorized on Feb 20, 2019 by David Palmer

(21st Feb)

Our departure from Akaroa was severely delayed due to the late return of the tour buses to Christchurch. The traffic had been very heavy and one or two other problems ensured that the Columbus did not sail until much later in the evening, putting into jeopardy our arrival time in Picton. Though we could feel that the captain had put his foot down during the night, we were woken by an early morning shipwide announcement (unusual) confirming that indeed we would be arriving an hour late and that due to the wind and swell conditions we would not be berthing at the town pier but instead would be using the one used by container ships, a little way outside the town. There would be shuttle buse laid on to aid our access into Picton. We berthed alongside what appeared to be a harbour dedicated to the export of huge piles of cut logs and could smell the not unpleasant aroma of freshly sawn wood from the outside decks.

Our route into Picton had been along the very pretty Charlotte Sound, exclusive and quite remote summer houses could be seen clinging to the sides of the mountains, reachable only by boat and owned no doubt by those wishing to escape from the rest of the world, at least for a while. The surrounding landscape, we were to find out later was very different 75 years ago. The early settlers had cleared away all the tree cover to make way for Merino sheep to the detriment of the eco balance of the area. Birdsong had not been heard here for over a century. A climate of heavy seasonal rainfall and occasional violent tectonic plate movement (earthquakes) had washed away much of the soil cover into the depths of Charlotte Sound. Since the sheep herders had left, the land had been left mostly to its own devices to return to its natural state, though a further problem was created when parts of it were planted with Californian pine to provide a cash crop. However, this tree grows at 5 times it’s usual growth in this climate and soon its seed was being spread into the protected areas, with an unforseen problem. The roots of this species produce a toxin which prevents the growth of anything beneath or near its canopy, so the expected regrowth of the indigenous species and a return to the natural flora and fauna of the area was being impeded. The solution is to drill four holes into the base of the trunk and fill them up with poison, not an easy job as reaching them in such difficult terrain and heat was something I wouldn’t fancy doing. Today, the surrounding hills and mountains are covered in a lush green canopy of tree ferns, manuka and black birch trees among many others, punctuated here and there by silver grey, stag like, dead pine, fingers seemingly reaching to the sky, asking, “Why me?”.

Watching the preparations from up on deck 14 of the shore-side crew getting ready for the departure of the Columbus’s guests I couldn’t help noticing that there appeared to be no wind and the sea seemed flat calm, what was this nonsense of dangerous conditions for not docking in the town? Sue and I had booked a tour which was not due to leave until 12.30pm and we were hoping to visit Picton in the morning to have a look around before returning to the ship to catch our tour. However, with a late arrival and having to acquire a shuttle bus ticket to transit into town (10 minutes away), we thought that our ticket ‘H’ was too far down the list to be viable and this proved the case. At 10am I gave away our tickets to a couple holding ‘O’ and we settled down to coffees and watching the buses shuttling to and fro, we later supplemented this with some burgers (shocking isn’t it?)

Our eventual transfer to the town dock to catch our catamaran ride to Mistletoe Bay went smoothly, we even had half an hour to take photos and wander around the local outdoor market conveniently situated next to the quay. Sue and I managed to secure prime seats on the top deck of our craft, giving us a great uninhibited views of our journey. We called in at various beaches and slowed on occasion to ogle at the plush waterside residences on our progress to the dropping off point in the bay to begin our walk through the New Zealand bush country.

The small Mistletoe Bay is also the home of an equally small eco-friendly settlement, whose residents live here all the year round and are completely independent of most of societies’ comforts. They do take in small groups and individuals wishing to experience this kind of life, for a brief time. Today, a small part of school children seemed to be enjoying its lack of facilities.

Once on the shore our party, split into four groups each with a guide to walk part of the Charlotte Sound Trail, which in its entirety takes 4 days to complete, we were going to spend just 1.5 hours along its route. We were lucky that within our small group of ‘would be trekkers’, there were no infirm among us and all kept up a reasonable pace ensuring that we didn’t have to periodically wait for people to catch up. The one reason I dislike walking in groups.

The path itself was sufficiently challenging to make it a nightmare for anyone who wasn’t reasonably fit, and gave us as real an experience as you could get in such a short time of the rigours of bush trekking. Our guide was very knowledgeable providing all sorts of quirky information on the flora and fauna we were passing through. The black, silver birch is the host to a very strange creature, it looks like a sting ray, sits under the bark of the tree with its thread like tubular tail protruding with a drop of honey evident on the very tip. The creature sips the tree sap to produce the honey, which in turn attracts ants and wasps,which in turn help to protect the tree. How neat is that?

Another gem of information concerned the leaf of one of the trees, the Maori use it as toilet paper and having felt it and confirmed that it is indeed soft and hardy enough for the job, I am sure that if we lived here Sue would be making a great saving on our toilet roll budget.

I thoroughly enjoyed this brief escape, wishing we had longer to enjoy the New Zealand bush, but we were all too soon sat back on the catamaran enjoying the sun and sipping coffee and chocolate biscuits. We were the first group back, the last one being close to an hour later, why would undertake a trip involving a bush walk in flip flops?

On our return journey, as were were skimming along at pace, our captain gave us a running commentary. We discovered that he had been listening into the radio chatter between the Captain of the Columbus and the Picton Pilot, it seems that the reason for our berthing at the container dock, was not because of the sea conditions, but because we had mechanical problems and the ship didn’t have the manoeuvrability to berth at the narrow town berth. That would account for the loud bang that woke Sue up at 6.30am when the ship would have been using its thrusters to turn around in the narrow sound. I slept soundly through it all. I hope they fixed it while we were ashore.

We had just over an hour to spend in Picton before shuttling back to the ship. We walked along the narrow foreshore then explored a small and pretty quay side garden, before heading off down Main Street for Sue to experience some retail therapy along with other cruisers. I visited the pharmacist and bought some syrup that I was assured would stop my annoying tickly cough that I have picked up, it tastes lovely, but doesn’t work and at $25 I shall be exploring the New Zealand trades’ description legislation!

We left the port of Picton with just a small delay. We were missing one of the passengers, she had been hospitalised while on shore, from the top deck I watched her husband (with police escort) arrive at the quayside to collect her passport from the ship. I guess this sort of thing happens all the time on cruise ships, but it isn’t often we get to know. I hope the couple have sufficient insurance and things go well for them.

We now have three sea days to chill out on before we reach Sydney.

Akaroa, a walk around a submerged volcano.

Posted in Uncategorized on Feb 19, 2019 by David Palmer

(19th Feb)

Akaroa is a picturesque seaside settlement, south west of Christchurch. It is situated on a spectacular peninsular made from two extinct volcanoes whose craters were flooded by the sea over time. The small settlement has a French flavour as it was settled originally by French whalers during the time of the Waitangi Treaty, but wisely chose to live under British rule. Today the town survives mainly on tourism with some fishing. Lyttleton is the usual port of call for cruise ships to this part of the South Island but the earthquake that devastated Christchurch a few years ago also badly damaged the harbour and Akaroa is now the default stop.

Our journey to the peninsular was marked by the largest number of dolphins that Sue and I have ever seen at one time. On the day before our arrival, we were playing scrabble in the observation lounge high up on deck 14 and noticed a pod of some 10 or so dolphins swimming and leaping in front of the bow of the Columbus, we then saw numerous more pods of leaping dolphins racing from all points of the compass, desperate to leap in front of our bow. There had to be over a 100, all intent on passing beneath the Columbus. A spectacular sight to see so many. Sue was concerned that they would be minced by the ship’s propellors, but we learnt during our evening meal that they continued to provide entertainment for those sunbathing at the stern of the ship.

Waiting for our tender transfer to the small port of Akaroa I amused myself by watching Hector’s dolphins swim around the ship. They are the smallest and rarest of dolphins.

The transfer took around 15 minutes through a placid bay, protected from the ocean by the surrounding volcanic geography. A very pretty way to visit the settlement. The Columbus seemed tiny in comparison to the back drop of mountains and volcanic plugs.

After disembarking we left the pier and walked into the town, first visiting the small wooden Methodist church to enjoy the cool interior and admire the stained glass windows. A little later we entered the Catholic church, though didn’t investigate further as the priest was getting ready for a noon mass and we left him to his preparation.

The Akaroa Museum was our next stop and what a gem it proved to be. After watching a very informative video in the history of the settlement we spent time considering the many artefacts and displays. A must visit to any one new to the area.

We had decided to do two walks on this port stop, so on exiting the museum we set off through the town to the shore and then followed the path that took us to Children’s Bay. A sandy strip of sand that was rather spoilt due to swathes of dark brown washed up seaweed. Not suitable at all for children’s bathing and probably why there was only a woman with her dog making use of it. Our path began here and wound its way upwards into the hills. It was midday and hot, Sue gave up after a few hundred metres and retired back to sea level and the shade of some trees while I pressed on to the top, hoping to take a good panoramic photo of the bay, but was disappointed that the summit was covered in forest and I couldn’t see anything but trees. Returning to Sue we retraced our steps back into the town.

Finding a restaurant with a pretty garden we stopped for refreshments. I had a beer called ‘Red’, I was so impressed with it that I ordered a second one and Sue took the opportunity to peruse the shops along the main street. Knowing she would be a while I took my time people watching and sipping Akaroa’s finest craft ale.

Working our way along the retail establishments on the main street we passed the pier where our tenders were regularly ferrying fellow cruisers to and fro, before continuing on towards the lighthouse situated on the outskirts of the settlement. It had been moved to this location some decades prior when it was replaced by a much more modern version. From here we visited the nearby Garden of Tane, this was mainly woodland with steep paths leading up into the hill side. As the heat of the day was getting to Sue she returned to the pier while I further investigated the garden and viewpoint. I also made a brief visit to the associated Catholic cemetery, thinking how thoughtful the designers had been by cutting away part of the forest, affording the residents of the graves a good view of the bay below. Now that is attention to detail!

Finding Sue munching on a huge ice cream we caught the next tender back to the ship and a double beef burger and cheese. Now that is becoming a bit of a bad habit, and will have to stop, when we get home! Perhaps.

Akaroa is sleepy town set in beautiful soft volcanic scenery, no harsh lines or bubbling cauldrons here, thermal activity has long since subsided and nature has smoothed out the aggressive nature of earth’s core, just the odd earthquake. However, seismologists predict that they are due for a big one, any year now. Access via road from other parts of NZ doesn’t appear straight forward, long winding roads with few settlements on the way. The car park did contain quite a few RVs and we did see a couple of small but dated hotels, there have been plans in the past to bring the railway here, but until they do I think the cruisers are keeping the place viable. It is a lovely place to relax in as long as the ground below your feet behaves itself.

To Climb a Mountain

Posted in Uncategorized on Feb 18, 2019 by David Palmer

(18th Feb.)

Steaming south overnight brought us to Tauranga, the most populous city in the Bay of Plenty region. We docked as usual at breakfast time in the tourist suburb of Mount Maunganui, it was another cloudless day with a gentle refreshing breeze to keep us cool (at first!).

I had been here with Jamie on a previous road trip and was looking forward to visiting again as it left a lasting impression as a beautiful place with a gorgeous beach, according to the literature it is NZ’s number one stretch of sand. We had no trips booked, I wanted to show Sue the views from the top of Mauao, visible from the ship and is a long time extinct volcano, I knew she would be impressed as we were. Straight after loading in the calories necessary to undertake such a climb we set off along the boardwalk separating the sheltered beach from the plush residential housing that stretched along the south west side of the resort. At the base of Mauao I gave Sue the option of climbing via the harder and more direct route that Jamie and I took or the easier route that we used on our descent. Thankfully she chose the latter.

Early morning is the best time to ascent this deceptive monster as much of the path at that time of the day is in the shade of the mountain. Considerately the town council have positioned benches for weary climbers to rest and enjoy the views at reasonable intervals and we took advantage of these when needed. Part of the way we were joined by a fellow cruiser who unfortunately had grossly misjudged time needed to climb this rock. He had thought that one hour would be suficient time to summit and return in time to catch one of the ship’s tours, he retraced his step safter a third of the way up. As in my previous visit this is proved to still be a popular Kiwi activity and many families were accompanying us upwards, most at a quicker pace.

The last quarter of the climb saw us in full sun and the fatigue started to set in so it was with relief that we were once again into a cooling breeze, unforunately though, all the benches and suitable rocks were occupied by equally tired mounaineers. We stayed awhile looking at the views, read the sad epitaph of a lady who had recently lost her battle with cancer on a temporary board surrounded by beautifully painted pebbles, taped to the summit monolith, before selecting the faster route down. From memory I knew by the time we had reached the bottom, we would be heartily fed with steps, and this proved to be the case. The exertions of the previous two days port visits, had left both of us with sore feet and painful knees, this route did not help with either of these self inflicted ailments.

Passing the RV site that Jamie and I had previously camped in, we found a bar and rested weary our bodies with appropriate limb numbing and refreshing beverages. As I went to pay for the bill I discovered that I had left my wallet back in the safe on board the Columbus, oooooops! However, confessing to the waiter I offered to return to the ship and return with the cash, he shrugged his shoulders and said there was no hurry. With no pressure to return to the ship we walked the board walk of Main Beach (N.Z.’s no. 1) watching the surfers and others enjoying the surf. Kiwi’s tend not to sunbathe, they are far too busy enjoying the various physical activities that the climate permits. In fact, you can tell the locals from the foreign visitors by how much they are wearing, if they have hats, t-shirts and long shorts, they will be Kiwi’s.

There is a small island connected by a thin ribbon of sand to the beach and we took some time walking through the cool of its trees to the rocks at the very end, we were not alone, as the heat began to build this activity was becoming popular. Returning to the beach we crossed the road intending to climb the much smaller Mount Drury situated in the centre of Maunganui, but were briefly halted by some intense activity on its seaward slope. Seemingly, hundreds of children and grown ups all dressed in shorts and bright orange shirts and involved in a strange ritual, incorporating music and intense actions. After asking a couple who had just completed their rites we discovered that it is called X Racing, families and groups have to complete a variety of physical and mental activities and we witnessed the final set which included frenetic popular dance steps before sprinting to the finish line. Why do we not have this in the UK? It looked such great family fun.

After topping Mount Drury we passed through the shopping area on our way to the ship and a not so light lunch.

Returning to the bar to pay my bill of earlier that morning we returned to the town shopping area as the heat had really started to build up and Sue wanted to purchase a new hat that better protected her head and neck. Popping in and out of the various outlets, she eventually found one that suited and appropriately it was made in Nepal and some of the money would be returning there to help with the rebuilding of the country. It didn’t go unnoticed by the staff that I happened to be wearing my ‘Yay, Yak, Yak, Yak’ T-shirt bought in Kathmandu.

We headed to the beach so that I could have a swim, but we got way laid by some excellent NZ ice-cream that we had heard so much about by other passengers, they were not wrong. Afterwards, cooling off in the water didn’t seem so necessary, so we returned to the ship for a cold beer.

The Columbus left the port at 5.30pm. There was a stiff offshore breeze that up on the top deck felt quite chilly and necessitated two tugs pulling the ship away from her berth before engaging her own motor to sail out of the narrow channel and into the open sea. Sue and I watched these proceedings until it got too breezy for our now heat acclimatised bodies and we retired inside the warmth of the observation room and continued watching from there until there was nothing left to see except sea.

I loved Mount Manganui when I first came and I haven’t changed my mind, those Kiwis fortunate to live here, as well as in Devonport and Russell should count themselves lucky, if Sue and I had discovered you earlier one of you would have been our neighbours.

We have one more sea day for our battered legs to get back into shape before we start again!