January 2016


We were out early after a good breakfast, enjoying the winter sun and the quiet of Bath on a Sunday morning. The grey clouds on the hills were threatening, so we were anxious to take some photos, and we weren’t disappointed. The river Avon was overflowing and the rushing water, patches of blue and the early morning light set the Abbey, town and bridge off marvellously. 

Our goal for the day was to see as much of Bath as we could squeeze into a day. We had already been realised that this would be a great place to spend a week in spring of summer! But needs must, so we had found one of Bath’s hidden treasures to help up out. The local council arranges volunteer tour guides, so we met our guides outside the tea rooms in the Abbey court and discovered that the spirit of volunteering triumphs. The guides were passionate, knowledgeable and local and we spent nearly three hours wandering around the city and hearing its history and admiring the buildings of the two Woods.

   
Avid Jane-items, we were thrilled to be on the gravel walk and relive bits of the novels. We went to the Combination Rooms and, rather nicely, there was a tea dance going on, so we had a glimpse of whirling dancers in the magnificently restore rooms.

 

 


The Roman Baths occupied most of the rest of the day, walking down through the 18th Century structures into the remains of the medieval and Roman baths. It was quite inspiring to take pictures which had the tea rooms, the Abbey and the baths in one frame.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And then it was over, all to soon, because we had realised how much more there was to do and see in the surrounding countryside. Perhaps it as a gesture of defiance to find the town’s only Morrocan restaurant for dinner and leave all the other eateries for another trip. Farewell, Jane; see you soon.

Saturday came, another grey and mild day. We left our comfortable flat, very silent after Graeme and Sal’s departure, and headed for Paddington. It has turned out to be a most worthwhile way to stay, whether with friends or on our own: apartments give you much more than you get with a hotel and a much better price, and these two weeks have been brilliant. We are holidayed and rested, and the two don’t always go together.

Last night I managed half an hour of night photography, and Docklands proved an ideal place, particularly around the basin and the locks of Limehouse.

  

Paddington beckoned, and we made it to the station without the need to drag our 30 kg suitcases up stairs, a marvel of foresight and planning, given our past history one public transport. We had an hour or so at Paddington, and I wandered around looking at the surviving features of Brunel’s train sheds, which have survived neglect, nationalisation and new ownership remarkably well. There are marvellous minor features in the iron work which would never be contemplated inn a more utilitarian age. The ghost of Great Western lingers – especially in the toilet department, where the conveniences are hidden near the First Class Waiting Room (what?) and cost 50p. I prefer to pee for free, so I waited for the train.

It’s remarkable that you can belt across England in 90 minutes to Bath, in comfort and relative quiet. I think the English are rather getting the hang of rail again, after 50 years of ruining it. The trains are full, fast and frequent. We alighted at Bath, letting the express fly through to that magic terminus, Temple Meads (no one does names better…). A short taxi ride and we were in our hotel, Henrietta House, redeveloped from an early 19th Century row house. Thank God, a lift… but no, sadly awaiting repair, so up two and a half flights to our room – large and comfortable.

  

We did the standard reconnaissance mission, with a quick trip to the outdoor shops for new shoes and some warm gear, for which we were grateful the next day as the temperature dropped, the in to the Abbey. It was truly marvellous, and – for some reason – I didn’t have my camera, so the record of the good and great of King George’s forces were somewhat lost in the iPhone. But here was Arthur Phillip and a host of Admirals, Generals and Archdeacons, all retired to flush their kidneys after a lifetime of bully beef and bad water.
  
We decided to do God in the local Catholic parish, which was a nice neo-Gothic pile with a pleasant parish priest who turned out to be a card carrying activist for the anti-abortion movement. Rather uncomfortable with campaign for finances for for the rights of the reproduced, we slipped past under the disapproving eyes of two young true believers waving baskets and walked 15 minutes to a nearby village for a very good dinner.

For all the toughness of the Coast to Coast, both of us have amazing memories of the countryside – in between swearing at some of the ascents and descents that the fells sometimes threw at us. While I would love to do a couple more big walks before I check my knees in for a set of titanium joints, Paula is not so keen on the sheer grind that real trail walking entails – and at our age, it is strictly voluntary. But the memory of sharing a path in the country remains, and the best we could do this trip was to walk over a wintry and muddy Hampstead Heath for our last day in London.

It’s quite a little miracle – a large open space, still farmed in part, set amidst the high-priced outer suburbs and complete with all the things one associates with London open-space. None of your Olympic swimming pools, no… when you could have mixed swimming ponds (fancy); none of your dog-free zones when the well-behaved English dog would want nothing more than a romp in the woods and the chance to come back – after a dip in what I hope wasn’t the mixed bathing pond – wet and muddy to lie in a warm spot.

Of course (Mr Taxman), we were really there to see the Keats House and pay a bit of homage to the lad and his young lady. The area now is quite gentrified, but stunning with it.

 
 

We wanted a really good hit out, even with the mud, so we planned to walk about ten kilometres through the morning and finish up with a nice lunch in Hampstead. Our London walks cards had suggested Kenwood House as a possible destination and turn-around point, but all this went to pot when we realised just what Kenwood was – a stately home within greater London, actually open unlike every other stately home we wanted to visit.

  

We had not done our homework and so were completely unprepared for the history of the house, which really centred around Lord Mansfield and included the story that has been turned into the movie Belle, and the obstinacy of the Iveagh family who refused to allow it to be demolished in the Twenties for flats and bequeathed it to the nation – I suppose the start of English Heritage. The preservation of the house is immaculate and the various collections that fill its public rooms are quite exceptional (and sometimes a tribute to the quirkiness of the various collectors, in the best English tradition). So it is that a matchless collection of Old Masters and English 18th/19th Century portraiture shares the house with eclectic cupboards full of enamel miniatures and shoe buckles (and much more).

  
I could rabbit on a some length about the Dutch Masters (a Rembrandt self-portrait and some excellent maritimes) or pretend I really know what I am talking about with the Gainsboroughs and Stubbs (but I love his dogs!), but the real treasure is Mansfields Library, restored to something like the condition it was in during his lifetime. I remember Mansfield from Legal Institutions in first year of Uni., but seeing this beautiful room with its perfectly English views rekindled my interest in his work, so I will be chasing down a biography in the near future.

We spent far more time that we thought we would on the Heath because of this gem.
 

A very satisfactory lunch at Hampstead followed before we tidied up the appartments and started the packing process. It was a very quiet evening after the company of the past couple of weeks, but it looks like Sally and Graeme have found the snow!

Graeme and Sally were due to catch a train to Gatwick at the crack of dawn on Friday, so Thursday was a day to take it easy and get ready to leave the appartments. We pottered over to St Paul’s and did the magical walk around to the side of the building and over the Millenium Bridge to the Tate. It is one of my favourite views in London, looking along the axis that the bridge creates between the Cathedral and Southwark.

The weather was on the turn, and as we walked out of the Tate’s shop it poured. We battled wind and rain and admired both the Globe (so sad not to share this with Paula in a sunnier time) and the Golden Hind (notable for Sir Francis Drake’s innovation of a Diesel engine and propeller that allowed him to cruise around San Francisco Bay so easily) and on to our destination, the Borough Markets. I have to apologise to Dom that we never managed lunch here while we were doing London in September, because it more than lived up to our expectations. We all got something warm and yummy (a great Malaysian curry for me) and f0und an incredible array of everything culinary you could imagine. From fish to meat to bread to everything – the alley of cheese stalls was indicative. No market in Australia gets close.

 

Then it was a gentle wander to Covent Garden Markets, which I rather liked but Paula thought was a bit over-priced, with an on-the-way stop at Forbidden Planet, quite possibly the geekiest/dorkier place in the universe. For the uninitiated, the shop focuses entirely on Science Fiction and Fantasy franchises, from film, television and print. For Trekkies, Star Wars, and even X-Files (this means you, Paula), it is the best shop in the world. I got a great mug (“I like my coffee on the DARK side”) and I insisted that Paula get a Rey bobble-head for her desk at work –an inspiration for young women everywhere.

  

 

We also dropped into the London Transport Museum and I couldn’t resist a pair of cuff links with the Underground symbol. I’m also suffering from train-itis at the moment – I have a large history of Rail in Britain at home and I’m fascinated by the development of the Tube of the years – so I bought a book on abandoned bits of the Underground (Do Not Alight Here) as a bit of a keepsake.

Then home to cook the Selmes a farewell meal of roast chicken and veggies – pretty decent effort considering what we were working with!

I’m not qualified to judge whether this was somehow an outstanding restaurant from a foodie’s perspective, but it was certainly a memorable night with food that was uniquely selected and brilliantly prepared and presented. This was very much Graeme and Sally’s treat, but we are a bit converted to the idea that there should be one big splash on a holiday. This was certainly it.

Dinner, by Heston Blumenthal is in the Mandarin at Knightsbridge and has two hats. I don’t expect to eat at a three hat, so this is a bit of a pinnacle. It is in Knightsbridge, so one of the things we did before heading in was to go car spotting. A family sedan in this part of London is a Merc with lots of numbers and letters; we were probably the only guests who arrived by Tube. This gave us the freedom to count Bentleys, Ferraris and an Aston Martin before walking up the steps.

You couldn’t fault the service – they played it up to the customer, snooty for the snobby, warm to us, helpful to the callow types out to damage their credit cards and impress the girlfriend. Very clever, I thought, and just the right level of attention. The decor? Stunning. The kitchen – eat your heart out, Fiona M, Ali P and Ingrid J – was amazing. The sheer number of young chefs at work on the entrees was out of this world. The wine list? A bank manager’s nightmare but the young somelier (a young lady from Hong Kong) found the right wine for everyone.

 

We got incredibly lucky and were offered a tour of the kitchen at the end of the evening, so we did a certain amount of oohing and ahhing at what we saw. And that was only the final prep kitchen!

The menu was simply engrossing, because it was a research project in this history of English cooking. All the dishes were sourced from cookbooks from the 14th Century to the 1850s, cooked in the rather specialised Heston way.  

We kept our menus as a souvenir: the least they could do at the price! We committed all sorts of crimes against good manners by taking pictures of the extraordinary food. I had the Crab Loaf and the Fillet (quite possible the sweetest and most tender meat I have ever taster), while Paula had the Meat Fruit and the Ribeye. No prizes for guessing the desserts we picked! The biggest shock was the tea menu – there was a serious pot of tea costing £25! But such flavours (not the tea, I had a pretty standard espresso).

   
    
 It was a wonderful evening and we felt very lucky to have been invited along!

  

We were a bit dusty this morning (something in the water?) but the train was all organised (thank you, group discount) and the Hampton Court tickets booked, so there was little choice – but we were all interested in this trip. All four of us associated Hampton Court with Wolsey and Henry VIII, but as chance would have it – add an F-word and you have a Billy Mack quotation – his appartments were closed for cleaning. It’s amazing how much mess a dead dude leaves.

  
  One of the reliable and very funny things about Sally and Paula is that they are always interested in dogs, and the well-bred and well-brought-up English dogs in particular. Paula will always compliment a dog’s owners if we walk past; Sally, however, will insist on walking over for a pat.

  

You can see by our garb that the temperatures have at last started to fall and the prediction for Graeme and Sally is for snow when they leave on Friday. Paula has staked her reputation on snow in Scotland when we get there Thursday week – it is still a Southern HIghlands kind of cool, so I’ll believe it when I feel it!

Henry VIII might have been indisposed, but there was a side to Hampton Court of which we were woefully ignorant – the Stuart and Georgian wings. The Palace had been the favourite of William and Mary and Wren reconstructed significant sections for  the,, although Mary sadly died before her apartments  were complete. We went on two guided tours led by two costumed apparitions: excellent!

  

It was bloody freezing in the gardens and more open areas, like the Tudor kitchens. These were a bit of a hit, because after the fridge-like Fish Alley, and the spaces of the pie kitchens, a big open fire in the roasting rooms was welcome.

  

Audio guides were amazing and the apartments themselves quite extraordinary. It’s hard without a bit of work to get the photos to tell the story of the Stuart and Georgian rooms – the light is never good in historic houses. 

   
   

We had a lot of fun wandering around. The gardens were a bit chilly to really enjoy (shades of Versailles six years ago!), but the days are so short, it wasn’t as if we had a lot of daylight to fill!

  

We decided that it would be good to separate for the day and do our own thing, probably because Graeme and I had run out of war museums or something. There was also the small matter of the ring, if not for eternity, certainly to commemorate the miraculous ten years that Paula and I have spent together. I had certainly intended to find something for Paula while we were away, but so far to no avail; and so, even though the Selmes had offered to hold my wallet hostage, Paula and I went wandering east from Marble Arch.

The ring continued to be elusive (and will probably inspire a three volume blog post with a diminutive hero and villain if I’m not careful), but pottering through London was altogether good fun. We found all sorts of things – Saville Row, Hamley’s (and we could have spent hours there), the ins and outs of the theatre district.

   

We had a very relaxed morning, just window shopping, and then we celebrated by seeing the latest film in the Star Wars franchise. Because we both grew up with the original trilogy and were well and truly disappointed by the narrative failures of the prequels – and who could like a galaxy with Jarjar Binks, although our galaxy does have Donald Trump – we were a little wary, notwithstanding the enthusiasm of some of our younger friends and relatives. But it di not disappoint, and jump some significant barriers in blockbuster cinema culture by having the two heroes as black and female. Great performances by all the oldies, and we are fans of Daisy Ridley. Paula has a Rey bobble-head for her desk at work… but that’s another story.

In the evening, we walked over to Canary Wharf to one of the pubs by the old Pool. Now before all the wise ones tell me that there are no good pubs in Canary Wharf, I’m happy to give the Cat and the Canary a thumbs up. A bit weak on the craft beer, but good atmosphere and some seriously good pub grub.

  

So, home via the Canary Wharf Christmas lights and the Thames Path, admiring the lights in the river. Must get back for some night photography.

  

  

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