Friday, October 9, 2015

Day 38 - Newark Park, Bourton-on-the-Water and to Heathrow via Burford

Our last day. Let’s make it great. I had all sorts of intentions of getting away nice and early and going like the clappers. We don’t. We’re repacking. Hubby’s been banished from the process more or less. This takes packing skill. I’m not quite to the level of expert that my son-in-law is with trailers, boots and sheds, but I’m good. Everything out. Redistribute the weight. The carry-on bag that can be 23 kg is getting the heaviest books, lighter books and a few more books buffered by my souvenir Isle of Mull hoodie. We can only carry food and fragile on the plane this time along with the essentials like noise cancelling headphones, which although excellent are reasonably bulky. Done. But look at the time. We’ll be right up against the 11am check out limit.  Oh. Well that’s not all bad. We can go to have a quick look at Newark Park. It doesn’t open until 11.
It’s only 10 mins to Newark Park. Lovely scenic route but that goes without saying doesn’t it? We’re in the Cotswolds. Heck we’re in England, Britain, divvy it up however you like we haven’t come across an ugly backroads landscape on this island yet. A large paddock has been nominated as the parking area and a little temporary ticket hut and toilet block has been set up. We do the usual National Trust entry routine and head on. There’s a number of what look like lovely walks around the Estate. Obviously we’re not doing those but I’m sorely tempted. 
I go through the gate to the start of the shorter of the walks called into the dim shade by the siren calling of the local birds. I realise the peril and tear myself from the grasping, feathered claws and break through the gate back to safety. Let’s just go to the views and make this quick. An attractive stone walled ditch crusted with moss, small ferns and other greenery underlines the row of trees lining a boundary. 
A carpet of pink where tiny cyclamen are naturalised,it is highlighted where the mowers have stopped. Others bravely poke their flowers up daintily through the roughly clipped grass here and there. A café has been established at the edge of a large rough grass lawn. Tables are out in the open, chairs tilted to avoid sitting water.
I’m making straight around the house to find the view which drifts on forever as far as the Mendips. Or so the sign tells us. It’s not all that clear today but it doesn’t really matter, the view is lovely. A Buddleia nearby is flowering fitfully, its cultivation seemingly limited to an occasional clipping. It is none-the-less attracting the attention of the butterflies who sit uncurling their long tongues in the deep tubes then flutter and settle again and again. It feels like coming full circle and my mind is thrown back to the abundant and cossetted Buddleia at Dalqueich Farm early in our trip and the frenzy of butterflies there seeking a sugar rush to power their short lives. It takes almost no time to walk through. A small garden is walled in from the view, herbaceous border basking in the sun against the bricks. There’s a touch of whimsy from a sheep statue painted in convincing zebra stripes and a promise of autumn bounty from immature bunches of grapes on a vine over a small folly. The whole is presided over by a man sitting smoking on stone steps that run down from French doors out of the house. The flowers in the herbaceous border are mostly past their best display. We’re not the only ones in wind down mode today.
We backtrack around the house and notice a feature we’ve been told to look out for in our travels, the fake exterior windows. Many houses had windows bricked up when the window tax was implemented. They are not immediately obvious at a glance, but there’s plenty of black checked faux windows on Newark House.
On the steps into the house a coarse mat is provided for us to wipe our feet and step into the interior. There’s clearly a good training program for National Trust workers, we again go through the guest reception script, it is so consistent across the various properties. We’re welcome to get some refreshments from the café and sit in the interior of the house to consume them should we wish. Highlights of the house are explained. The whole was constructed over several key periods, starting with a Tudor hunting lodge that retains many original features, later extensions added to the house rather than overwriting it.
We spend a half hour or so quietly moving from room to room, reading the information boards about the families who lived here across the hundreds of years since the hunting lodge days. Most information is about the period from the 19th century with a particular focus on the two world wars and the roles that the house played in these intense periods of national trauma and loss. There’s clearly not been much chance yet to progress any significant program of restoration work. We chat with a staff member in the master bedroom where redecoration and modification for a Laura Ashley photo shoot has left its imprint.  As much as I like schmick, it is interesting to see Newark Park in its state of faded glory.. which should not be interpreted as my thinking it should be left as it is...
A friendly man makes sure I go right into a little cubby hole and get the full appreciation of the medieval garderobe. …No you need to go right over and look right down… I go back in and do as he watches on in satisfaction. How extraordinary that was never filled in. The stink was thought to protect the clothes hanging in that space over the hole from moths. Gosh people must have reeked back then. Possibly my favourite feature is the water closet. I’d come to think of WC as a term for toilet, but this closet is located towards the top of the stairs and served as a water point for the filling of hip baths. I think of the tour we did of Como House in Melbourne years ago which in the mid 19th century had showers installed. To have a shower the staff would have to carry many gallons of hot water up across the roof and into the ceiling and manually fill the water tank for each person. What a boon it would have been to have this water closet and a family still happy to have baths, and again, how extraordinary that it is still there in what looks like pretty much original condition. In all the many houses we’ve visited we’ve never seen a water closet before. On the final level there is an art exhibition. Just a low key affair of local amateurs by the look of it.
We are all done by 12:30 ish. We’ve browsed the room where a little gift shop is operating and carry a teeny little wooden jigsaw puzzle of the glass feature window in the house across to the young girl serving.  It’s not expensive and I have cash, reaching into my wallet for a £5 note I had across the pounds Stirling. That’s Scottish money, I can’t take that. She says. You’re not serious. I say. Nope, she’s never seen one of those before so she’s not accepting it. Don’t I have some English money? But this is a 5 pound Stirling note. Sir Walter Scott stares blankly out of the blue. I do have an English fiver and just shake my head and hand it over. What the? So now we’re wondering about this system were the notes are issued by the banks. Scottish by the Bank of Scotland and English by the Bank of England. Well, I say, perhaps Scotland needn’t have worried about losing the pound had they voted yes, if their money isn’t good enough in England anyway. I wonder how many everyday slights like this go on around the place. Time to go. We’ve spent more time here than we really intended but it’s of no real matter. Where next?
I check the manifesto. It’s now after 12.30. We’ve got all afternoon to kill but quite a long way to drive and I have no intention of taking the fastest route. We program Tommie to head for Burton on the Water. I’m thinking perhaps of seeing the penguins fed at the Bird Park. We mosey on over, no music this morning, we’re just enjoying the countryside and I’m vege-ing out. 
As we near I’m expecting some sort of park and ride but Tommie takes us to the council parking lot and we pay and display. More than we need to as it turns out. The entrance to the Bird Park is close by but first I want to take a wander down along the water and see the village. Hubby parks himself on a bench. The water is a wide, shallow, man-made affair. Obviously cleaned regularly. No slime or life in it as far as I can see. In fact I’m rather surprised people don’t throw money in it. Perhaps they do and the local council is proactively banking it. I walk up as far as the pedestrian bridge. Watch as a 4WD splashes through the water next to it. Up a little further so I can see what else is around other than the hordes of people. 

There’s some ducks paddling about looking hopeful. Nice homes with frontages to the footpath along the water. A few cafes. The ambience is somewhat lacking though it feels like a theme park. Quite sterile. Yeah, look, I hate to say it but I really don’t like this place. I head back to Hubby. He’s walking this way now.  We head back to the entrance of the Bird Park. I study the map. I just want to be somewhere else. Hubby’s decided he wants a look for himself up where I’ve been, feet or no feet. I go with him and we stroll along the water again. My antipathy is rising. We should get some lunch given it’s now after 2pm. I have a half-hearted look at the menus along the way. Meh. I am developing a strong urge to get out of this place. We opt for a pastie and a sausage roll from a place that has both small shop entrance and hole in the wall servery for ice cream. We’re eating our food as we walk. Yeah. Well, it wasn’t very nice food really. Back at the carpark Hubby want’s to take the opportunity for the facilities seeing as we’re here. Another place where you have to pay, this time it’s a turnstile sort of situation and you have to put in your money to get the turnstile to work.
OK. Get me out of here. 
Well, let’s drive to Heathrow via Stow on the Wold and Burford. I don’t know what Tommie means by Via. We didn’t see anything that looked like a Stow let alone one that’s located on a Wold or park and ride or anything that would tip us off as to where to go to visit the village. We drive on. I don’t care.
Heading to Burford is more interesting. We particularly enjoyed some of A361 and pull over to enjoy the expansive views. We pass carefully through nice little villages quietly keeping their light under a bushel. Good for them. A Porsche goes screaming past us, travelling like a bat out of hell. Moron. We hope the cops get him. By a quarter past three we are driving at traffic speed down the main street of Burford. Ooh, I like this place a lot. There’s lots of people but reason for them. The street is lined with interesting businesses and it just feels like a real, timeless place.  Lots of character with bustle. I guess we should stop for some afternoon tea, but we don’t. 
Given how much we’ve enjoyed the driving I think perhaps we should go see Banbury Cross. We tell Tommie about it. It’s all a bit ramshackle and incompetently conceived but in my defence I am sick. We get on and off and on the motorway and rapidly give up.
As drive we discuss the things we haven’t seen yet, which includes Oxford and Cambridge, they are things for the short list next time. In the end illness and apathy overwhelm the desire to eek every last moment from our time on the ground. We just let our robot master take us to Heathrow the final stages now somewhat familiar along 4 lane each way high speed motorway. We hit a very small period of congestion but we’re pulling up to the Enterprise depot to hand in our car half an hour early. 
I muck up the check in and Hubby mucks up security. We're a sorry old pair of travellers. Just as well we resolved not to leave our travel until we're retired. God knows what condition we'll be in by then. We're incompetent enough now. 
I'll spare you the blow by blow detail of our flights home. When we finally touch down in Sydney immigration and customs are a total shit fight. Conditions aren't suitable for flights such as ours to land during curfew as scheduled so we had an extra hour sitting on the tarmac at Singapore and now the processing arrangements are overwhelmed as the planes which have been backed up spew forth their passengers all at once.  The layout with the machines is confusing for people as well. What a debacle. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Day 37 - Highgrove Garden and Chedworth Roman Villa

We’re supposed to be exploring Tetbury this morning. We’re in no hurry to get out again and are taking it slow. Anyone would think this was a holiday. Hubby checks the manifesto to make sure we’ve got it right about the time for our garden tour at Highgrove. Yep it’s not until 2 pm. We’re slowly getting ourselves psyched up to wander about in Tetbury. Better get the tickets out of the blue folder I suggest. We should have them ready so we don’t have to come back here. We don’t want anything to go wrong. Hubby can’t see where the folder is so I retrieve grab it and extract said tickets. A deep yawning pit opens up in my stomach and my heart falls through it to hell. Our garden tour is at 10 am. Please don’t arrive until 9.45. I already know we’ve missed it but what time is it now? 10.20. There aren’t words to encompass what this feels like. I am not sure I can feel anything at all. It’s one of those awful situations where emotion has to be suspended and you just cling on and get through. The whole time since London has been to put us in this place on this day to do this tour. To make sure that if I never manage to get back to the UK I have at least seen Highgrove even if it’s not at the best time of year.
Hubby groans when prompted but phones the number on the tickets. They can’t do anything as they are just a ticket office. They give him another number to ring and he speaks to a lady at Highgrove. Where are we? Tetbury. Oh good. They can put us on the next tour. It’s a shame because they just had a group go out with only 11 people on it. We hightail it out of Tetbury, making sure we’re armed with the instructions for how to find the entrance. It’s only a 5 minute drive but we don’t have long until the tour starts. We miss the turn at first, reread the instructions turn around back along the road and turn in. I’m living on the edge of panic now and it’s threatening my ability to think and interpret the instructions clearly.
Our names are with the policeman on the gate and he tells us everyone’s waiting for us. We park. We hurry over. The rest of the group is watching a video welcome by Prince Charles. I’m sorry to have missed any of that but we get the end and better to miss a little than the whole tour. I’m so grateful and relieved they were able to accommodate us. It’s not the best of weather today. Perhaps that’s helped.
Video over, we file out and meet our guide whose name if I recall correctly is Lisa Nicole. She’s got an upper crust accent and a rather sarcastic sense of humour. We are not allowed to use either our phones or cameras anywhere during our tour. With all the rain recently she hopes that we’re prepared for some wet ground. If your shoes are immaculate now, they won’t be when we’re finished. She is herself wearing a style of Wellington boot that has fasteners on the side of the calf to bring the boot in snug and not leave that gaping cavern that so craves things dropping into it. They look pretty stylish really.
It’s just as well I plan to return to Highgrove some time because I was fairly slack on the note taking. No doubt I’ll have forgotten a lot. On the day I thought perhaps you should just relax and enjoy the tour. Stupid. Lazy. Imbecilic. Sigh. Well, I suppose I was a bit less than 100%. I don’t remember the order that we saw the various garden sections in, so I’ll have to resort to a grab bag of memories. There’s a few things I did note down... Ah yes, the yew hedges are being clipped today so sorry about the noise but the work must go on. The hedges are clipped once a year and there’s a lot involved in it logistically because the clippings are used for the production of the cancer drug Tamoxifen. Obviously the makers of the drug don’t want small quantities and they need it fresh so the whole activity needs to be coordinated and you need a fair bit of room to be able to do it.
There’s a team of 14 gardeners. 14! Oh wouldn’t it be fun to be a royal gardener! There’s plenty of topiary. Of course. Prince Charles makes no secret of his love of topiary and there’s new works in the making. Some, we are told, are Archimedean shapes representing the elements. The topiary seems to principally be done with yew, as are the hedges. Yew does seem like a very useful plant. Some of the hedging was designed by Roy Strong and I can see the similarity to elements of The Laskett (his famous garden).
The wildflower meadow is a cropped green pasture at the moment. Sheep graze contentedly under the trees. At this time of year the sheep grazing helps to impress the fallen seeds of the wildflowers into the ground for germination. At first they had a sort of wild unimproved sheep breed. But they were, well, too wild. They tended to eat the bark on the trees and be a bit destructive so they had to go. Then they tried Welsh sheep but they were wanderers and would bolt for the exit the minute an opportunity arose. Accomplished escapologists, they too had to go and make way for these cut little dumpling Shropshire sheep who are very well behaved.
The sheep aren’t the only inhabitants of the home farm. Another paddock is home to rare breed cattle. We look over the gate in an opening in a pointy topped hedge. Lisa drily observes “…they’re very rare today.” There’s not a single beast in sight. There’s a point to the hedges in more ways than one. They’ve found that clipping to a point helps keep moisture out of the centre of the hedge and thereby helps to prevent disease, which is obviously very important in any context but especially so in an organic garden. We’re standing near a large urn that grows flowers in season the centre piece of which is always a beautiful rich magenta Dahlia. In the colder months the whole enormous thing is moved out of the elements. We also hear about the sewage garden. Unfortunately it’s not part of the tour. I’m disappointed not to see that. I’ve always wanted a sewage garden. They’re useful here but just imagine how precious the water re-use is in a dry Australian garden. Our guide tells us that it is very attractive and it handles all the waste from the visitor facilities as well as the house.
Here and there access is barred by arches of bent willow coppiced in the sewage garden. This is to protect the grass which under the wet conditions and high visitor numbers would turn to a muddy track. Our route takes us past good viewing spots for the Thyme Walk and through what was originally a “mushroom” themed garden. There’s a seat that reflects the theme but lately it’s been decided to change the shape of the topiary so the Prince has invited some student artists to come in and come up with ideas.
Across in what was the Southern Hemisphere garden a heavy winter has cut through the collection of NZ tree ferns that were a gift to the Prince for his birthday. 60 tree ferns for 60 years. Those that remain look far from happy. The climate is simply too harsh and they have had to supplement plantings with hardier items.  One of the group comments. “There’s not many hydrangeas in the garden is there.” Lisa, quite understandably confused says “You’re being sarcastic aren’t you?” or words to that effect. With a straight face he says he’s not. I can understand her bemused reaction. The garden has so many hydrangeas of different varieties, it is hard to fathom how he’s missed them. More are to come, our guide assures the unobservant fellow. You’ll be eating your words very soon!
In the walled garden apple trees are trained over a framework that is arched across the path. A couple of the gardeners are picking the ripe apples. Someone asks what they do with the apples, then follows with a question about the crab apples. The crab apples are Golden Hornet and they are purely ornamental. We have some free time to wander about in the confined area within the walls. It’s a productive vegetable garden mainly but in a creative way mixed with some lovely flowers. The tour group takes off in opposite directions craving some private time to enjoy their visit. We regroup and head on and the little terrier takes his chance to get out and about with us, despite the care that our tail end takes to close the gate behind us. There’s numerous gates along our route as we move from area to area.
The final garden is another where we can wander about briefly. It’s another walled garden that was done for the Chelsea Flower Show. It was inspired by a Persian carpet in the house and the prince thought that it would be good to design a Persian garden with features based on the pattern of the carpet. There’s an olive tree and a lovely fountain which is based around a huge polished marble bowl, scalloped like a flower. It must have cost a bleeping fortune to make the various elements of this space, let alone put it at Chelsea and then dismantle it all and ship it home. I wonder if the mosaic tiles are made especially for it. We wander to the far end and look back toward the gate. This is where a seat is positioned and it is indeed the best aspect.
Our tour concludes and we adjourn to the Orangery restaurant where an area has been set aside for our group. It’s quite a slick affair.  A young girl comes and takes our order.  Oh lord, now what did we eat? There’s a range of things offered, some more substantial and costly than others. In the end I went with a cheese scone. I seem to recall it came with other things: salad, and butter …and that I took great care to eat the salad first and leave myself some scone to finish and savour. Gosh it was a good scone. Lighter than we’ve found typical and the most delicious cheesiness. I’d be a happy woman if I could make a cheese scone as good as that one.  There’s no cameras or mobiles allowed anywhere and we discover this applies to absolutely everywhere on the property when we go to check our messages and are politely reminded. Well, it wasn’t actually clear that it was everywhere and not just on the actual tour. Never mind. Hubby has chosen some breaded chicken croquettes which are also of a particularly superior quality. You wouldn’t want to visit Highgrove and skip the Orangery.
The cheese scone was so good we decide to spend a bit more time admiring the portraits of the royal family that are hung around the room and sample the cream tea. The artwork is quite impressionistic and pretty good. I wonder if they are also by the Prince.  Our cream tea arrives and it is good but not such a stand out as its cheesy relative. I think I prefer whipped cream with scones rather than the clotted cream.
Now all there is left to do is check out the gift shop. They have so many lovely things. I throw caution to the winds and buy a glass bowl by a local artist who has designed a lovely pattern of wildflowers that she has cut into the interior of the bowl. It’s similar to the glass vases I have a little collection of, decorated with Australian plants and flowers and I presume is made the same way with two layers and glass, a stencil and sandblasting. I take a leap of faith as to my packing abilities and it’s coming home with us. The expense of the bowl means that I pull my head in on the dreaming of other items from the Highgrove range. So many beautiful things.
It’s after 2.30 by the time we’re back in the real world and deciding how to spend the rest of the day. Thinking of browsing the antique stores in Tetbury makes my wallet flinch. What if we find something irresistible? Better stay away!  Let’s go take a bit of a reccie at the Westonbirt Arboretum. This isn’t difficult or far, we’ve passed it on the way to Highgrove. We go in briefly but figure it’s a place that requires you to be on your feet, talking a walk among the trees. I want keep us off our feet if I can. 
Let’s just go wandering about in the Cotswolds. Hubby’s generally just happy to do what I suggest. We head for Cirencester, favour bestowed by the appearance of a rainbow resplendent over the road, then I think, why don’t we check out Stow on the Wold or Bourton on the water. Tommie is instructed accordingly. However we get waylaid by brown tourist signs suggesting that we turn ahead if we’d like to see Chedworth Roman Villa. Turn!  …and he does! 
We’re doing the motoring version of ambling along delightful quiet and narrow roads alongside pastures and cropping land, a burst of autumn woodsmoke in the air . There are some fairly decent slopes along the road and views out across the beautiful patchwork landscape. A field of stubble is absolutely crawling with pheasants. There must be hundreds of them. They congregate at the edge of the field and wander across the road at their leisure. We slow, no-one behind us and stop to watch and photograph for a minute or two, Hubby keeping his eyes on the road ahead and behind us. Chedworth Roman Villa is at the head of a beautiful small valley, nestled among a stand of woodland. We park at the first obvious spot and I start walking in getting a bit ahead of Hubby. There’s heaps of parking spaces much closer to the visitor centre so I let Hubby know before he gets too far and he brings the car up.
We arrive just before 4pm which is just enough time to follow the trail using the audio guide. We’re too late for the guided tours. My long standing antipathy to ancient cultures, well, let’s be more accurate, any culture that smacks of association with a biblical period, is well known but I’m determined to conquer it. This site is small. Distracted by the Tits feeding on the seed heads growing among the stone ruins I eventually snap out of it and press the next audio guide number.  
There’s different options you can choose. A narrative by a character from the Roman period who would have visited this site or a more factual curator lead exploration, or indeed if you’ve got kids along, there’s an option specifically designed for families. I sample the first two options and settle on the curator led trail. The mosaics are beautiful and make me think that it might be rather fun to do something similar at home some time. We’ve learned about the underfloor heating technology at Bath but a refresher doesn’t hurt and they have examples of a number of different luxury levels for room heating. The ruins are complemented by an exhibition of art works and of course, there’s the birds. And picnic tables, and views down the valley. This would be a completely brilliant spot for a picnic. Wealthy Romans weren’t stupid, they chose a lovely situation for the villa and a convenient one. Apparently this is more or less on an important hub for routes between important places back in the day.
Well there’s no surprises is there. There’s a bird feeder hanging from a tree over on the lawn and a bench seat close by. Maybe too close by. I take a seat and withstand some light rain. Pulling my hood up on my rain jacket. There’s a Nuthatch hanging about and at least one Great Tit alongside the Blue Tits. I’m armed with a camera. I’m sure when I’m dead and the children are going through the photos they will laugh. Oh God no, not more terrible photos of British bird feeders!
Hubby’s prowling around the outside of the Victorian era museum. It’s not long to closing time. I give up my pointless bird feeder obsession and head over to talk to Hubby. He fills me in on what he saw inside the museum. I can live without it. There’s signs around talking about the local wildlife. They have a good variety of bats that come out in the evening and activities aimed at enjoying them… or was that studying them. No substantial difference in my book!
We hang back to the last minute and then head back through the doors, not the last of the visitors to come out. We were the only ones here when we arrived some people came in a little while after us and they’re hanging on to the end and are still exploring.
I browse the gift shop and chat to the friendly lady on the desk while Hubby ducks off to use the facilities. It’s the usual sort of conversation. Are we visiting the area? Where are we staying? Have you been here long? That sort of thing. We fly out tomorrow I say. Have you visited Newark Park? She asks when I say we’re staying in Tetbury. It’s only recently opened after having been leased to caretakers for a long while. It’s a delightful spot with beautiful views and there’s a café there. You can sit in the house. She hands me a leaflet as Hubby walks over and we say goodbye.
We walk back to the car chatting. I ease his curiosity about what we talked about, then we get on our way home. It’s been a lovely drive and I’m not quite ready to end it yet. As we’re passing the pheasant field a little flock wanders across the road. Hubby comments on their behaviour noting that they couldn’t be bothered flying out of the way. I glance at what he’s talking about. They don’t fly because they are not pheasants. They’re quail I venture. Then a better look. No. They’re not quail. What are they? I think they might be Partridges! The birds reach the other side of the road and most of them hop over into the stubble field. One bird sits on the stone wall staring us down.  I exclaim as I desperately snap away. Yes, I think they are Partridges. A flock of Partridges! Fantastic! We move along when a car starts approaching on the road behind us.
Ha! Hide your legs! You can't fool me Red-legged Partridge!
It’s another lovely drive through quiet roads most of the way back. I sit revelling in the beautiful scenery. A wide gate hangs open against a fallow field. The brown earth laid bare in welcome to teasing clouds overhead, awaiting the life giving kiss of rain.
I am generally not a huge fan of covering the same road twice so I direct Hubby to take the turn to Chedworth. Let’s have a look and go back a different way. We travel slowly down a steep and narrow hill and where Chedworth (I assume this is Chedworth) is nestled in the crook of a valley. Utterly charming. I’ll be looking up B&Bs here… just interested to know what’s around.
I’m tempted to keep wandering but Hubby is tired and the sensible part of me asserts itself and we just program Tommie for home, arriving at pretty much bang on 6pm. Hubby’s keen to eat. I’m keen to just chill out for a bit before going downstairs. We’re not being adventurous tonight, just heading back to eat in-house.
We creak open the door to the pub and wander in. Well, the door doesn’t actually creak, that’s just its emotional repertoire. It’s an old fashioned thumb operated latch on the door into the bar from the airlock after you come in through the front door proper. There’s no obvious places available to sit. Hubby enquires of the staff. All full, sorry there’s no tables available. We’ve been reading the compendium in our room. 1. No reservations are allowed for tables in the bar. Really? Looking around numerous tables are empty with reserved signs on them. 2. Reservations can only be made for the dining room upstairs. Really? What dining room upstairs would that be? 3. The start for breakfast time is also different. Someone needs to update that compendium methinks.  Our expression probably says it all for us. An executive decision is taken and instructions are given to open the dining room upstairs. Could we just hang on a tick while they get it ready for us. This seems to take a surprisingly long time and I’m feeling pretty p’d off and probably look it. I’m getting to a point where I’m tempted to just go eat somewhere else. There’s other options. We’d rather not though really. In any case, as I’ve mentioned before Hubby is nicer than me, he’s prepared to be more patient and in reality it probably wasn’t long at all. I’m in danger of reaching fully fledged grumpy old womanhood. We are directed upstairs all apologies for the wait. Naturally we have our pick of tables which is nice. It’s a beautiful space. This is without question a lovely property and let’s face it, after a long trip of endless self-indulgence the poor old Royal Oak is competing against a pretty high bench mark. 
We’re talking among ourselves for a while, drinks on the way. Hubby’s going for that Camden Stout again. He really enjoyed that last night. I don’t remember the last time he was so effusive in describing his beer. That is clearly a memorable drop.  In a short time, when I’ve had time to settle down, the owner of the establishment comes up and introduces herself.  Sorry about my dog last night. I recognise her. She’s the owner of the big mostly well behaved dog. Oh, yours was OK. The others were a bit of a pain though. She’s done the right thing. She’s engaging with us and showing us some excellent hospitality. We chat about how they came to buy the property and do it up as a pub. They’ve done a brilliant job of it. I’ve seen A frame oak roofs like this on grand designs with Kevin McCleod gushing about their rarity and beauty. They are beautiful. It’s been a steep learning curve running the pub. My mood is lifting. Their heart’s in the right place. I let her know about the compendiums in the rooms.  The communication is so important and the non-conformance to what it told us is well, it is just not good is it. Apparently this southern end of the Cotswolds is a bit more industrial than the tourist magnet northern Cotswolds. Really? Industrial? Nothing whatever lacking in charm in Tetbury. Nothing at all.

Tonight I decide I’m trying that burger but not after I confirm that there’s more on it than is described on the menu.  Hubby goes for steak and chips. We’re too full for dessert again. We’ve had a nice meal. This is a nice place to stay run by nice people in a lovely Cotswolds town. I’m prepared to cut them some slack. A few minor wrinkles that’s all and our room is very comfortable. The ratings are high online and I won’t challenge them. I’m pleased we chose to stay at the Royal Oak and I would do so again. Good on them for having a go and having the decency to come talk to us when we were clearly unhappy. Ah, isn’t the interpersonal connection just so important.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Day 36 - The Hawk Conservancy, a drive and arrival in Tetbury

It’s a rainy day today. We have a decision to make. We could hang about in Portsmouth until we need to drive up to Tetbury or we could just head off and make a day of the drive. I’ve got my eye on a couple of potential stops and scenic routes. There’s still plenty we think would be interesting to see at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Hubby’s leaving it to me but I’m tired of being on my feet and I’m worried about his after weeks of flogging shanks pony. We decide to head off and make a day of the drive.
After a lovely breakfast and a nice farewell chat with our hostess we tell the TomTom to take us to Petersfield. It’s the scenic route and I have an agenda. I need to find some Bassett’s Sherbet Lemons to take home to my mum. Last time I was here I found them at the servo up near Petersfield heading in the same general direction.  When we come to a service station Hubby pulls in to fill up and I go into the store. Sure enough, a rack of my target prey. There you are my little beauties, you’re mine. Excellent. A couple more of the Fry’s Turkish Delight to take back for Mum as well and we’re away again.
Gees, what is it with this thing. The phone keeps insisting on randomly selecting Australian tracks. Gurumul, John Williamson, I draw the line at Down Under, skip that today. Is the music reflecting or creating my melancholic mood? The rain feels like the tears that brim and betray my private thoughts. Galleries of pink galahs, crystal nights with diamond stars, apricots preserved in jars, that’s my home. Land of oceans in the sun, purple hazes, river gum, breaks your heart when rain won’t come, it breaks your heart…”. When Aussies get mournful we sing of drought. I’m half home-sick half just sad to have to leave the UK very soon now.
We’re heading for Andover and the Hawk Conservancy.  Aiming to arrive in time for the first flight show of the day but I’m half inclined to just keep driving. It’s the mood.  We’ve arrive in plenty of time. I give myself a mental slap. Snap out of it woman. We make our way in but not until I've stopped to appreciate the song of a robin in a nearby shrub. 
We check out the gift shop briefly and then slowly make our way in the general direction of the Savannah flight arena via a look at the aviaries in that general direction. Along the way we pass a ferret enclosure with little wire tunnels for the animals to run through and a sign advertising regular ferret races. That looks like fun!
They’re very keen on vultures at the Hawk Conservancy and they have a number of species. The King Vulture is pretty spectacular, they are all impressively large. Eagle Owls are not something we get at home whether captive or free so that is interesting. It seems like no time at all before Hubby is hurrying me a long with an alarm about the time. We need to get into position at the savannah flight arena. There’s not a huge number of people here today, it’s school term and not the most inviting weather. The rain threatens but so far holds off. This is a new flight arena and it is incredibly well done but sitting waiting for the show to commence we don’t know the half of it.
The first bird to make its appearance is an African Fish Eagle. This bird we are told is virtually synonymous with Africa. Food is thrown into the water and the eagle neatly drops down and picks it up and is away in a graceful arc. We are even given a count down for photographs but I’m unco-ordinated and repeatedly miss the moment. After a few rounds and a good wing stretch the bird heads off and we await our next visitor.
Tolkien the Milky Eagle Owl flies in. This bird’s specialty seems to be flying very low above the patrons virtually brushing them with its wing tips. He’s another large bird with a very prominent beak for an owl. He swoops back and forth drawing gasps from the audience.
Our next performer is an African Tawny Eagle who makes short work of cleaning up the opportunities for a bite to eat as he flies back and forth and sees what’s going near the mock up buffalo carcass. It does a good job of warming us up for the next, enormous pair of wings to fly towards us from behind the crest of the hillock. This is a White Backed Vulture and it is massive. It has a wing span of around 2 metres. It is an amazing bird to see in flight. Gosh you’d have to have some nerve to handle one of those and support it on your arm with confidence.
But wait, the dry season has reached a point when the savanna is beset by fires. Smoke erupts and several Yellow Billed Kites fly over the burning ground on the look out for food. The handlers throw food skyward and the hawks catch it on the wing in an instant. The fires are followed by replenishing rains and the flight arena bursts into fountains of spray over the pond and surrounding ground.
Meanwhile a couple of meerkats have popped their heads up out of their burrows and appear to be feeding on something. This facility has done a simply marvellous job of putting together this presentation.
Our last demonstration is half performance and half training flight. The flock of Sacred Ibis are coming out and with them a bird that is free flying for the first time so who knows what it will do. The main flight troupe perform immaculately, the new bird nicks off quick sticks to the land behind the hill. The show progresses to its natural conclusion and then we’re told that it’s now a training situation and hopefully the bird will come back.  We smile. It reminds us of the bird show in Darwin where one of their birds of prey, I think it may have been a buzzard, would just routinely leave and not come back. No training situation just that the bird had a mind of its own. It was well known in surrounding districts and people would phone the park to tell them where it was or the bird would just come back in its own good time.
Looking at the program of events across the day it would be just so easy to spend the whole day here relaxing at the tables or picnic ground between items. There’s two more shows and they will go ahead whatever the weather although if the rain is really coming down they may relocate them to the savannah arena where there is some shelter for the visitors.  We are invited to have an English Barn Owl sit on our hand after the show. I get distracted at first and nearly forget Hubby prompts me to get on over there and take my turn. The Owl has the most beautiful plumage. It’s like it’s overlaid with the finest delicate lace. What an exquisite bird.
Hubby and I consider our options for the afternoon over lunch. There’s a large cafeteria onsite with a nice area of outdoor tables for use on sunny days. Hubby goes for Sausages, beans and chips and enjoys that. The chips don’t look all that flash but are actually excellent. I ordered a bacon roll which comes with a reasonable salad. The roll itself was a bit pathetic, one rasher on a huge baguette. It improved a little when I put both halves of the rasher on one half of the baguette, but honestly… someone pop up to the Glencoe Café or the café at the People’s Palace in Glasgow and have a look how a good bacon roll is put together.
It’s a tough decision but the weather looks like it’s deteriorating rather than improving and we decide that we will head off. We’ve had a wonderful short visit. Well worth going out of your way for. Really impressive. You’d never see a better flight show than that.
Where to now? Well. We decide to do something crazy. It’s something I’d looked at and ruled out when planning this day. We pass very close to Stone Henge and we’re no more inclined to stop there today than we were last time. There's also an option for Wood Henge, or so a sign tells us. A large visitor centre appears on our right, is that Wood Henge? We pass through Larkhill, home of the Royal Artillery and it’s obvious from the properties and the people we pass. Where on earth are we heading? I just have the most overwhelming urge to drive back through Somerset and go back to Mark. We’re so close. What if I never get the chance to come back. I know a lot more about the rellies from Somerset and their extended families than I did back in 2012. It seems that I must be prone to this sort of wild scheme as departure approaches. There’s no more denying this than leaving Bath in favour of Blenheim on our last day of our trip in 2012.  I’m selecting destinations and then changing them to make sure that Tommie keeps us off the Motorway. Aim for Muchelney for a while, no, Tommie now aim for Wedmore. We travel along Reynolds Way, through a tunnel of greenery along a ridge. As we head west the rain only gets worse. Eventually we come through the rain and are in sunshine. Look back east the sky is dark. Glad we didn’t stay hanging around at Andover it looks like that rain depression is headed that way.
A flash of recognition as we get to Shapwick. A rush of adrenaline, should we stop and see the reserve? We keep on. Through Burtle and here we are in Mark.  A different angle on the approach, I realise as we near the end that we’ve been driving along Southwick, so familiar from the census records. 
We head for the Anglican church. I didn’t bother with it last time because our lot were non-conformists. But I regret not just taking the time to get to know the whole village better. I fancy taking a look through the churchyard. I figure there might be some familiar names even if not my actual family.  Luckily there’s a church parking area down a little side street, by a property with a large apple tree in the backyard covered in fruit.  Autumn is making itself felt. Creepers climbing the stone wall of a cottage are turning red. Green in the portions where they are still protected by the overhang of the leaf above.  There’s not a lot to the heart of Mark, a pub, a small post office. I toy with maybe going in but I’m not in the mood to be social or answer questions. A little quiet time among the graves is all I’m wanting.
Puddy. Lots of Puddies here. And a few Coleman’s. Some of the cousins married Colemans didn’t they? Harriet Popham worked for some of the Colemans along Southwick, related by marriage I think they were. It was obviously a tight little community back in the mid-late 19th century. Here’s a grave for someone Stephens. I have come unprepared but does it really matter who these graves belong to? I read and consider the lives reflected on the stone memorials. Perhaps those Stephens are related to my great grandfather’s half brother. I take a photograph to check later. I’ve photographed the Coleman’s too. Most graves are too recent to be those I feel I’ve come to know a little delving into the documents their lives have left behind. No Tidballs. Should we go across to Banwell where Permela ran a shop. Maybe one day but not today.  There’s just a couple of Pophams scattered here and there. Probably not connected but I’ll check just the same. I should come back properly prepared and find the rental house that used to be the church where I expect my lot worshipped or at least celebrated their life events. Surely Joseph and Merinda Popham would have had the resources to erect a gravestone over two year old Matthew when he drowned and surely Joseph himself has a headstone, they weren’t poor and his daughter and son in Australia were well off, surely they would have ensured a gravestone was erected.
Hubby’s made himself comfortable on a seat. I stalk around. Enjoying my solitude. After a short while I head back. We consider maybe relaxing in the Packhorse Inn for a short while but it’s closed at the moment. It’s time we started to head back across to Tetbury. It’s almost four o’clock.
Looking at the route Tommie has in mind I’m pleased that it is delightfully low speed and takes us back across via Wedmore.  Tunnels of hedges with occasional stone villages along Wedmore road. Views of the Mendip Hills. Paddocks of stubble with baled hay in autumn tones. Soon we’re climbing up through streets of bath stone. 
Crest a hill. Oh look at that! Gloucestershire laid out. Hubby whizzes on. Turn back, let’s stop and take a break back at the view. Hubby waits for a safe opportunity and we backtrack a few hundred metres to Tog Hill. The facilities here are welcome but we’ve found the low point of our UK toileting experiences. The antithesis of the appliances of Thomas Crapper. Simply awful.
The view is deciphered by a plaque at the survey marker. All meaningless names to me.  The trees and shrubs protecting the picnic area from the wind are growing up and obscuring the view. Trimmed back a little there would 180 degree views. Maybe that’s a job for the winter.
Our journey continues much the same. We resort to Dr Google to find the Royal Oak in Tetbury, enjoying exploring the little stone town with so much atmosphere and a beautifully consistent style. The Royal Oak is beautiful too. They’ve finished the new parking arrangements they mentioned as being in the offing back when I booked. We would have pulled up on the cobbles at the door of the pub but someon’s already parked there. I linger at my car door listening to the bird song drifting over from the little vegetable patch next door. Hubby’s hurrying me along. He’s got his cattle prod at hand a lot lately!  Yeah, righto. Hold your horses.
Check in is across the bar of the pub. We’re on the first floor of the adjoining building and the live in Inn Keeper takes us across and shows us the ropes. I’m keen to settle in for a few minutes and have a look at the information folder. Hubby’s keen for dinner. It’s already well after 6 pm so it’s fair enough we head over to eat.  The upstairs dining room is closed tonight so dinner is being served in the bar. We can take our pick of um… that table over there. The others all have people or reserved signs on them.  We settle down and consider what to have.
I am running out of time to have a fish supper, so I go for the house favourite Real Ale Battered Fish of the Day, Hand Cut Fries with Homemade Tartar Sauce & Garden Peas £13.50.  Now for the life of us we cannot remember what Hubby had. Whatever it was he had plenty to eat because my fish and chips was large and there was plenty of that to share. Hubby’s beverage tonight is Camden Stout, which he says is very good he likes it. It is light and dark, not heavy like most stouts.
The Royal Oak is a dog-friendly pub for friendly dogs and accordingly, patrons have brought their canine friends out for dinner. This is OK until a new dog comes in and its owner takes up a spot at the bar, not far away from another person with a dog. Our meal is accompanied by some quite aggressive barking, which gets a bit tiresome very quickly for non-doggy diners and drinkers. Another lady pulls up on the cobbles and comes in. She’s not only got a dog she’s got an enormous dog. It’s mostly well behaved but gets a reprimand when it too lets out a loud complaint over some matter of offence. Another patron suggests it wants some dinner. I’m thinking perhaps it has got the idea that barking is tolerated so it may as well speak up too.
We’re too full for dessert and I’m not the full quid health wise.  My cold has gone onto my chest though not in a way anyone around would notice. Bed is welcome. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Day 35 - Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

It’s a glorious morning with bright blue sky and lovely cool temperature. St Pancras Station clock tower shines at the end of Argyle Street as I wait with the luggage on the footpath while Hubby goes in to check out.  When he returns I’m successful in persuading him to get a cab rather than drag our luggage on the tube with sore feet. I suspect I’m suffering as much as Hubby these days. Why oh why did I buy new waterproof shoes. I haven’t needed them.
Our route to Victoria Station takes us along an interesting route past Brunswick Square and ornate Australia House and onto the Strand. We have unwittingly been so close to Australia House and not realised it. We round the corner and we’re at Somerset House. We keep on and pass Trafalgar Square. I think how very fitting today when we’re on our way to Portsmouth to see HMS Victory. I notice the statue of a horse skeleton. What’s that about? Down along Horse Guards Road. Past Buckingham Palace with the Victoria Memorial, the gilded pinnacle resplendent in morning sunshine. If I could have devised a route to make the most of our drive on the way out of London it would be hard to come up with a more lovely one thismorning.
The journey south is something of a blur. A large ancient building on hill north west of Lancing makes an impressive sight viewed from the train and I resolve to look up what it could be.
Our arrangements require us to get off at Fratton where Enterprise will meet us at the station with a hire car. If they’ve told us to call when we get there I’ve forgotten all about it and can only remember that they said they’d pick us up at 11.30. By the time we ring to see what’s going on and they’ve made their way down here we’ve slipped a little but nothing drastic. Back at the car rental office we are doing paperwork. We have a little Ford number and what a tinny piece of crap it is compared to the Seat we’ve been driving around in Scotland. Hard to believe they are both in the same class and same price per day. This one doesn’t fit our luggage in the boot so one suitcase needs to go on the back seat. The service isn’t as good as the Enterprise outlets in Edinburgh and Glasgow either. For some reason here they feel they need to underline that the change we made to our original prepaid booking is not normally allowed and how good are they that they met our need. Then a little lecture about making a flexible booking if we’re not sure of our plans. Patronising little squirt. It’s not good service to point out how grateful we should be for the service. Luckily it’s not long before we are in the car and driving away because that bloke was really giving me the shits. I make a conscious decision to let it go and enjoy our day.  We’re making directly to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
There’s a couple of obvious parking options near to the Dockyard but we take the official Dockyard one even though it is slightly further away from the Entrance. We hobble around high brick walls that have shards of glass embedded in the top to deter trespassers. I’m diverted by a strange statue of a child lifting her skirt and handing a coin to a man. What the? I head over to investigate and find that there is a longstanding although recently defunct tradition of “mudlarking” that is children touting for people to throw coins into the mud for them to retrieve. Tricks and schemes to induce greater sums are all part of the game.  Looking out at the water we can see the tall masts of HMS Warrior. What an impressive sight she is.
We head on in past a man on gate duty retrieve our tickets and a map and consider our plan of attack. Warrior is tempting and so beautifully close by but conscious of our ever limited time we decide we’ll go to the furthest point of the dockyard and tick off the sights in priority order. That means we’re headed for HMS Victory. Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s quite a long way and we’re diverted for a few moments to watch the boats that visitors can drive around outside the Action Stations building. Wouldn’t this place be fantastic fun for kids.
I’m a little disconcerted to find the Victory dismasted and in dry dock. She’s currently undergoing restoration work. The information available to us suggests this was supposed to finish long ago but she’s still clearly being caught indisposed. I try to imagine her with her rigging in place. There’s a large display board alongside her that explains the masts, rigging and sails of a first rate ship of the line. I’ll study that at my leisure later. I am usually pretty good at visualising things but it’s a struggle to see Victory as she would be fully ship shape. Even with her masts off, the scale of the ship makes her impossible to capture in a photograph away from the hoardings and construction scaffolding used for her repair. She is very large indeed. We flash our tickets again and this time resist the offer of a souvenir guide book. £6.50 is pretty steep and fresh from carrying our excess baggage that is largely composed of attraction guides, I resist.  Up the gangway and through an ornate opening in the ship’s hull, we’re into the ship and right amongst the guns which are lined up facing the gun ports as far as the eye can see. Wow. Even indisposed she is one magnificent vessel. Easily the most impressive we’ve seen and easily the most important as well. The leather buckets and ram rods for firing the guns are all there awaiting action. This is really worth seeing. Myths are dispelled about gun recoil and detailed information provided about the various guns. What an extraordinary thing it is to walk these decks. I am experienced now and I know that this time spent stalking the ghosts of an 18th century battleship is going to mellow and mature over time, my appreciation will expand as I finish reading the beautifully written two volume biography of Nelson I have waiting for me at home. I only managed to get through his childhood and some of his very early career before we came away. What an amazing thing it would be to see this ship in full sail. What a dream to see it with a full complement of seamen lined up at action stations.
We head down the stairs, which are pretty generous in their proportions, to the gun deck below. A sign explains the conditions during battle. There’s less light down here. I marvel again at the extraordinary developments in camera technology. A film camera would never in a million years manage to capture most of the interior spaces.
We move along, guided by the ropes that corral visitors along the carefully thought out route around the ship pausing to read information boards here and there. There’s also a number of guides stationed strategically on the different decks but mostly they seem to be slacking off and for a long while I don’t realise that their job is actually to engage with us and tell us about the different areas. One fellow is making himself useful measuring the distance the chairs are from the captain’s dining table, concerned that lest he do it right it just looks a mess. The chairs nearest the ropes suffer most from people feeling a compulsion to move them. Across the way Nelson’s dress uniform is on display resplendent with high honours. Is that original? I suppose it must be. Wow. …Wow. Nelson’s ghost haunts this ship. Resting on the table a display case contains the ceremonial sword of the First Sea Lord, here on his flagship. It just blows my mind that HMS Victory is still the flagship of the Royal Navy.
Recording these impressions a few weeks later, looking at the photos already I don’t recall if there was information to explain what the box like tented hammock affair was. Maybe it’s Nelson’s bed? It’s beautifully embroidered so perhaps it must be. 
Hanging in a position where most sane people would be tempted to have a go at it, is the drum that I guess was used to beat time for the gun drills. Naturally there’s a sign saying not to touch. We move along to see the bilboes where offenders were constrained prior to punishment.
It is fascinating to learn about the sick bay and the changes that were quickly made to the ship for battle. Once again I am struck by how fantastic it is to learn about this history with the benefit of seeing the real thing. To consider Naval warfare on this of all gunships. I will never tire of the urge to congratulate British people on their extraordinary commitment to preserving their heritage. It is truly humbling to see the nationwide evidence of just how proud the community is and the enduring reverence for figures like Nelson and Wellington or for that matter Robert Burns or William Wallace.
Our tour continues past the galley which is large and equipped with state of the art equipment for its day. It’s a really pleasant space actually and I can think of far worse set ups in which to prepare food. It’s all in very good condition also. Very evocative.
We go down again and again exploring the quarters of the young gentlemen (midshipmen), visit the storage areas and learn how they managed the gunpowder and the risks associated with it. As we descend the light gets less and less and eventually the camera is defeated. Flash photography is not allowed. The lower echelons sleep in almost total darkness. In the lowest depths of the ship is the area for bulk storage of food and coal and other general stores. I never imagined that gun ships in the days of sail were so sophisticated or so large or with so many levels. If we include the open deck there must be at least 5 levels to her.
The most affecting area of the ship is the presentation on the death of Nelson. The original is long gone, but they have on hand for viewing a large cask of the type that Nelson’s body was placed in, submerged in alcohol for the journey back to Britain where he was buried in Westminster Abbey. I had never given the remotest thought to the logistics around repatriating a body in those days but apparently this was the established practice for senior officers. This information is given to us by a guide who is actually working.  The personal interaction really enhances the experience. Standing here on the Victory, I feel extremely saddened to think of the nation’s loss and how sombre it must have been on board carrying his remains home.  It’s amazing to stand at the place where Nelson was killed and where earlier in the battle the ship’s secretary was cut in two by flying shot, his lower ranked remains promptly and without ceremony flung overboard.
Victory had suffered some damage in the battle and having returned safely was then sent back to where she was built at Chatham for repair. That’s where she should be now. The place where her refits were done in the past. Chatham. We know from our visit there that the Chatham Historic Dockyard is very much of the view that she should return there. It makes sense that should be so and I emerge from the ship in agreement with Chatham. Victory should be at the dockyard where she was built when she is undergoing work. It's not likely that's going to be taken away from Portsmouth. Still, wouldn't it be fantastic to see continuing to sail back and forth. 
Done with HMS Victory our next target is the remains of the Mary Rose in its purpose built museum. We pass by the ship’s bell and on into a gallery with some information panels containing contextual information on the ship. To move into the Museum proper we need to navigate some doors that open every few minutes and close again while we watch a short film of the Mary Rose and her demise which open again to let us on our way, sending pulses of human visitors into the gallery.
We peer into the enormous chamber where the remains of the hull are now being carefully dried after a couple of decades of being sprayed with a sort of wax solution with which the salt water supporting the now fragile structure of the wood has been replaced. It’s in an advanced state of destruction. Along the opposite wall are items recovered from that area of the ship. Guns quite often but a myriad of other treasures, large and small. The museum is designed on levels coinciding with the levels of the ship and the remaining hull. The hull I can live without. The relics are absolutely extraordinary as is the excavation and the magnitude of the task they set themselves raising all of this from the sea bed. We spend a couple of hours slowly moving around the exhibits and reading about what they are and what has been learned from them. It’s almost unbelievable what has survived. They have everything from skulls and a skeleton of crew members and forensic mock ups of what they may have looked like. Most on board perished due to the anti-boarding netting that was in place to prevent the ship being boarded and taken by hostile forces. Not only humans but animals too. The skeleton of the ship’s dog sits in its glass case 570 years after death. And they believe they know who some of the skeletons are as they were found within spaces and alongside belongings that give strong circumstantial evidence to back up the forensic analysis of the affects of their occupation on their skeleton. The whole presentation is fascinating. We are completely absorbed. I am amazed when we come to the display about the long bows. The wreck contained cases of long bows and cases of arrows. Presumably this is the best of them arranged so beautifully behind the glass. What they’ve found has revolutionised understanding of long bow technology. There is also a hands on experience where a member of staff guides you having a go of a couple of newly made long bows of different hardnesses. I am quick to accept an offer of a turn and others follow me.
We read and watch with interest the displays and presentations about the salvage of the Mary Rose. Surprise surprise, the President of the Mary Rose Trust, which gets no public funding, is Prince Charles and he was also among the volunteer divers who contributed so many thousands of hours to painstakingly reveal the treasure beneath the silt.  Is there no end to the heritage projects the prince champions.
Absolutely gobsmacked at what we have seen, the Mary Rose Museum has completely and comprehensively exceeded our expectations, we talk to each other about our wonderment and our admiration of the conservation effort as we make our way out through the gift shop.  It’s unbelievable. Outside once more, Hubby heads back to buy the guide book. Obviously we have to have the guide book on the Mary Rose. 
It’s now approaching 4:30 and I commence an earnest search for some toilets. Every facility I can find is closed for cleaning. There follows a ludicrous hunt around the enormous scale of the dockyard in search of an accessible toilet. In the end in desperation I just go in and ignore the bloody sign. It’s not all bad though because the hunt has brought us to the coin operated machines in Boathouse 4 and we waste 10 minutes or so watching them operate. Most are pretty funny, a definite favourite being the one that presents a hanging!
What now? We check out our map and note that we have the narrowest of margins to make last entry to the only possible further exhibit today. It’s way back down the other end of the dockyard though. Hubby’s inclined to leave it for today and I’m inclined to agree. We’re in wind down at the end of a long, exhausting trip. Let’s head home, or really, let’s head over and check into our B&B. Hubby leads us back to through the gate that is patently not closed despite the signage.
We’re staying tonight in the historic area of Portsmouth and in particular the highly rated Fortitude Cottage. The operator’s son who’s home from the Army at the moment gives us the run down on breakfast and parking (glad we didn’t pay and display before coming in and seeing our hosts). We’re keen to get something to eat so we put the parking permit on the dashboard and head down the street. It’s a beautiful mild day. There’s a fabulous view of the Spinnaker Tower and the Historic Dockyard over the water. The light has that golden glow about it and people are congregated around the pubs enjoying a sociable drink. It’s a beautiful spot to get together that’s for sure.  We’ve been advised to continue past the Spice Island Inn and on to the Still and West just around the corner which is just as busy at the outdoor tables. 
It’s tempting to just sit outside but it will cool off as the evening progresses so we head inside to the dining room slightly delayed by stopping to admire a beautiful vase of fragrant oriental lilies, richly pink offset by blue Delphiniums. We have a choice of tables at this early time. It’s only just after six.  We take a seat and peruse the menu waiting for the staff to bring the portable specials board over for us.  It’s a beautifully relaxing ambiance and the views across Portsmouth Harbour are wonderful. I spend a little time considering how difficult maintenance of the paintwork on the sea side of the room must be. It seems to be a pretty sheer drop to the rocks below.  Watching the Wightlink and Channel ferries coming in to their dock is really impressive.  We’re in no hurry here. Really I cannot recall the last time I ate somewhere that felt so relaxing. And this despite my chair not being all that comfy for my particular bottom. 
To start we have decided to share a serve of salt and pepper squid. This arrives on a bed of leaves, tentacles upper most and rings beneath, a lovely little dish of aioli on the side for dipping. Well. This is unexpected. Remember the squid at Fritzel’s Schnitzels? I say to Hubby. Over thirty years ago there was a schnitzel house in Sydney that we used to go to when we were dating. Sometimes we’d just go for the calamari (squid) and leave, raising the eyebrows of the staff. It was the BEST calamari. We still talk of it often. In all our lives we have had a lot of calamari most of it very good, but a couple of places it was amazing and truly memorable. Best of all was at Dining Room 1, one of Stefano’s restaurants in Mildura in regional Victoria back in 2005. Second best for quality, but unbeatable as sentimental favourite was at Fritzel’s Schnitzels. It was baby squid. It was superbly tender. The coating was crisp and light and in perfect balance to the squid. Well. I’m sure it’s obvious by now that this squid at Still and West is as good. Not nearly as good. It’s as good. I wish we’d ordered a serve each. It is absolutely beautiful.
Looking out at the golden light falling on the harbour that stretches off into the distance reminds me of home and Sydney Harbour. Portsmouth Harbour is extremely impressive and scenic too. Hubby sips his beer and I’m doing the same with my cloudy apple juice watching the sun set.
All of a sudden our reverie is interrupted by the arrival of our mains. Hubby’s done what I’m thinking could be risky. He’s having the roast with Yorkshire pudding. I’ve opted for bangers and mash after bit of a struggle. I was tempted by the fish and chips. We haven’t had much fish and chips this trip – much to my surprise.  I can’t resist nicking a bit of the Yorkie. It’s as crisp as it looks. Hubby really enjoys his dinner. My bangers and mash are delicious too and the caramelised red onion gravy is beautifully sweet and tangy. It’s a beautiful meal. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I really was not expecting to have one of the most enjoyable overall dining experiences of the trip here, I really wasn’t.  We tie.
We get cocky. How about dessert? I’m tempted by the apple crumble but I’m still wary. I take our waitress by surprise and ask whether the crumble topping is cooked on the apple or added later. Cooked on. Right easy choice for me. I’ll have the apple crumble. I look expectantly at Hubby waiting for his selection. He’s going with the Lavender panna cotta with berry coulis and shortbread. He wins. Easily. My crumble topping is cooked on and the dessert arrives in a hot ramekin that has just come out of the oven, but the crumble topping is hard like finely ground bullets sprinkled over the fruit. Sigh. How disappointing. It’s still a cheat’s apple crumble. Perhaps I should just send them a recipe. I couldn’t discern much lavender scent in the panna cotta but it was at least nice and creamy. It’s a shame about the dessert. We’re keen to get home and rest today. We have no joy getting the attention of someone to bring us our bill so Hubby wanders over to the bar and I sit in the comfy… oooh that IS a comfy sofa. Gee I can see myself just chilling out here over a drink. The friendly host has come over to help us and he agrees. The sofa is deadly after a long shift. You sit down in it and just don’t want to get back up.  But we drag ourselves out.
Down at ground level the Spinaker Tower is lit in bright colours that rotate through a spectrum, the colour shifting gradually to the next every ooh, maybe 20 seconds or so. It’s beautiful. The evening is cool but not cold. We stand and watch as we stroll. Hubby’s feet are sore so he’s keen not to be standing in one spot. Standing is harder than walking for him so he goes across to a bench to sit down. I’m mesmerised by the display. It’s a beautiful night and a beautiful scene.
We’re on our way in, all set for the night, having made sure we’ve got what we need from the car before going inside.  Our room is very comfortable. What a lovely day we’ve had.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Day 34 - Queen's Gallery, State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, The Importance of Being Earnest and Dinner at Spring

There’s no room for error today. But we make room and leave a little later than we should have. We’re heading to Green Park then we have a walk through the park to get to the various attractions of the Royal Collection.
Green Park is a lovely swathe of green in the city. Hubby's hurrying me along as I dawdle admiring the Diana Fountain, glossy green saw-leaved fruiting trees and watching a squirrel bounding across the grass. I enjoy the simplicity of this park. It's not over groomed or formal. People sit, relaxing on park benches.
Hubby's chore of dragging me along gets just that bit harder as we come within the sphere of influence of the Victoria Memorial. How proud Londoners must be of their city.
We have a 9.30 time slot for the Queen’s Gallery and rock up at 9.40. Not a drama we just line up among the people who’ve arrived a little early for the 9.45 slot. The exhibition is called Painting Paradise, The Art of the Garden. I’m keen to keep our time here fairly brief and move on to the State Apartments at Buckingham Palace.
Once again we set out with audio guides to explore the gallery. The style of the gallery is very different to the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh. It’s much older and was purpose built as a gallery. The ornamentation is very formal with some beautiful moulded or carved features in the ceilings and there’s some beautiful railings as well.  The other thing that always strikes me in these formal spaces in Britain is the bold use of colour. The dark greens and reds used look great and I think work much better in the soft light and large spaces.
Given we don't have infinite time, we need to prioritise so I start out just going around looking at, reading about or listening about the things that I like best or that peak my interest for some reason.
This time there’s a lot of really fascinating objects that don’t seem to have an audio guide commentary. These are usually my favourite things of all.
Probably foremost among them is a little illuminated presentation copy of Francis Bacon’s essay Of Gardens given to Queen Alexandra. It is absolutely exquisite. Then there’s the fabulous porcelain. A Minton encrusted pen tray that belonged to Princess Victoria catches my eye, the fine detail in the individual flowers a work of wonder. The same applies to the enormous floral clock from the Vincenne’s Porcelain Factory. All you can do is shake your head in wonder at the perfection and craftsmanship. A rare and beautiful chandelier bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert hangs from the ceiling.
Another aspect of the exhibition I particularly enjoyed was to see the portraits of various royal gardens at different points in time. Having done the garden tour at Hampton Court it was great to see the layout in 1710 and listen to the curator’s remarks.  Hubby’s taking longer in the earlier parts of the gallery than me so I go and find him and let him know I’m pretty much done. He works his way through what he’s yet to see and I point out some of my favourites to make sure he doesn’t miss them then we really need to get away.
We head for the entrance to Buckingham Palace and line up in the entrance queue, pass through security which this time includes x-ray and the whole bit. Then the queue snakes it’s way around the courtyard and a long series of billboards with information about the house and portraits of the Queen. There is a particularly beautiful portrait of her taken in her old age and dressed in the rich green velvet of the Order of the Thistle standing by a little burn and the rising ground behind her covered in flowering heather.
As we get to the main Entrance the Australian State Coach is on display. It’s good to see it again. I last viewed it in Australia in 1988 when it was on display at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney before being shipped to London. It is actually made of metal and has electric windows and air conditioning. The ornate gold is shaped as a garland of native Australian flowers.
We move along with the crowd and make our entry into the palace up the grand staircase and into the green drawing room listening intently to our audio guide. We continue to move along with the steady pace of the crowd who, obviously, are also pacing their exploration more or less in accordance with the audio guide. As we leave the Throne Room Hubby, who is behind me leans forward and says “This leaves Versailles for dead, doesn’t it.” It does. This is a working royal palace. Everything is so supremely tasteful and more importantly completely schmick. This is the unifying aspect of the Royal Collection attractions (other than The Palace of Holyroodhouse) it’s quality and good taste at every point. These are things that Britain should be and I am sure is extremely proud of.  I suppose as an Australian I feel a good measure of pride in them too we have nothing like this at home and the Queen is our head of State also, but it’s a fractured situation and we pay nothing toward the upkeep of this place as far as I know, other than our entrance fee, so any sense of personal pride is rather irrational and misplaced.  Part of the mixed feelings of many Australians I should imagine.
Our tour continues through room after room of spendour until we come to some exhibition displays to do with preparing for a State Banquet. In these spaces we appreciate the opportunity to sit down as we listen to our guide and look at the items arranged in portable display cases. We move on from the preparation to the Ballroom all kitted out for the Banquet. It’s superb. Surely nowhere on earth does a better job of pomp and pageantry than Britain. Long may that continue.
We emerge from the Bow Room out onto the Terrace. We don’t have time to sit down and eat at the café so we refresh ourselves at the facilities and start the fairly long walk down along the garden path to the exit. Hubby’s lobbying for skipping lunch again. What happened to your learning from last trip I ask. I thought you said wandering about without lunch is something you didn’t want to do. He shrugs. We take our time walking the path. I’m entranced by the flocks of geese grazing on the lawn by the lake. They're a long way off but some look like Canada Geese. Are the others Greylags? I zoom in. 
Ah, they're Egyptian Geese
A sign lets us know about the less tended areas of the garden. I wonder what, if any, influence Prince Charles has had on this approach. It's so much in line with his philosophy and experience in regeneration of the wildflower meadow at Highgrove.
We sit on a bench and eat a tub of their extortionately priced ice cream. Glad I carry a spoon in my handbag once again. In due course we make it to the end of our visit and sign over our entrance fee as a donation to get our tickets stamped as annual entry. Others doing the same are firmly encouraged to ring before just rocking up because sometimes the free entry cannot be accommodated and they would hate people to waste a journey. 
We’ve got another walk back around toward the Royal Mews. We’ve not got a lot of time left before we need to move over to the Strand. In the end we decide there’s not enough time to brave that queue and take the risk of getting stuck in the crowd. Our next treat has cost us a bomb so we’re not missing that. The Royal Mews can wait until another visit to London.
By now we’re in position to need to head to Victoria Station, which seems particularly appropriate given that our destination is the matinee performance of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring David Suchet as Lady Bracknell. As we make our way through to the tube I can hear in my mind Judi Dench’s strident …”Prism!! Where is that baby!” I can hardly wait to see this great classic of English wit on the stage in London. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, or how fluently you can recite the lines, this is a wonderful treat and it’s going to be such fun to see how David Suchet handles Lady Bracknell.
We’re not late but we’re later than all the other people in our row and yep, we booked early and have seats in just about the perfect position in the middle of the row. Awkward excuse me’s, and sorrys, and we all sigh with relief as we take our seats. There’s not a lot of room to get past people. Happily seated we’re not moving from here until the final curtain!
Well, what’s to say other than Oscar Wilde is the star of the show. David Suchet fairly spits out some lines, especially when referring to her precious daughter forming an alliance with a parcel. He camps it up with an extravagant performance and the audience is with him. Fantastic stuff. A real treat, funny and feelgood.
We file out taking our time, we’re in no hurry for our next deadline. It’s another walk down the Strand to Somerset House. I had no idea Somerset House was on such an enormous scale. We’ve walked past it before but not really looked in. We wander in to the courtyard and spend some time admiring some shiny seashell sculptures which later research tells me are by Marc Quinn. Much of the artist's intent is invisible to us as we admire the immaculately polished stainless steel and the fountains are not running today which enables us to get in close among the work. 
As our reservation time approaches we find our way to the entrance to Spring restaurant, Skye Gyngell’s new project. Well, new since we were last in London anyway. We have an early reservation so not too late a night and given that we have no deadline for departure we are free to indulge in the a la carte menu.
The décor is predominantly white and I was a little bit worried when I was looking at the website that given the prices and the elegance of the set up it might be a bit formal and stuffy. Not so. The service is beautifully friendly and laid back. Just what we want. The light fittings are like suspended clusters of cuttlefish spawn.  A young lady shows us to a comfortable booth by the window. We’re nicely out of the way. We start out with some water while we peruse the drinks menu. After the delicious apple and sea buckthorn juice at the Three Chimneys I’m keen to see what Spring has in mind for us. House made  Fern Verrow Apple and Pistachio juice. I’ll try that please. It arrives in due course presented in a funky glass that has vertical stripes of clear and brown glass. With the glass full the stripes are, obviously, green and brown. It looks almost as good as it tastes.
We have a few questions about the menu. What’s nduja (soft pork sausage)? How about datterini (a richly flavoured tiny tomato)? And can you tell me about Halibut?  Our waitress is clearly familiar with what’s on offer and is able to confidently describe the texture and style of the fish. Impressive, but even so, at this price and with a 12.5% service charge routinely added to our bill that should be expected. OK. Down to business.
I throw out the challenge. I’ll have the Ravioli of onion squash and buffalo ricotta with marjoram butter £13 followed by the Wild halibut with deep fried Jerusalem artichokes, rocket and datterini £34. As you can see I’m taking another risk and ordering the fish. If a chef at this class of outlet can’t make your fish delicious for you, then you’re beyond help.
We’re entertained by beautiful bread and house made butter as we wait. Our table is adorned by a beautiful giant squash.
Hubby’s eyes narrow as I finish outlining my plan of attack. As our waitress turns her attention to him he turns his attention back to his menu. Courgette flowers with ‘nduja and crab £21 he glances in my direction smugly. I have to confess that’s a safe and reliable course of action. Then he takes a daring detour from his usual reflex which would be the pigeon.  Slow cooked veal with artichokes, preserved lemon, olives and polenta £30. Ooh, I say, that’s not your usual. “No.” He replies with a quick flick of the eyebrows.
My ravioli is thick and silky and rich served in the thickly liquid marjoram butter. Hubby’s generous with his serving of three courgette flowers and simply lets me have a whole flower. We tie.
Onto our main courses. The portions are generous and reduce us to equally generous mms and entreaties to try this. The flavour of my fish is enhanced by the tiny tender little olives. I don’t like olives usually either. The blending of flavours creates a culinary synergy, the rocket and, ah, I guess you might call it a gremolata and a touch of the creamy butter and lemon create a beautifully balanced dish. The fish is cooked to perfection.
How’s your veal? Try it. Mmm. Nods. That’s great.  Huge portions for high end isn’t it. I hope I’m not too full for dessert. Another round of the juice please. I notice that this is a regular item on it’s way to tables around the restaurant.  I absolutely love this trend I’m noticing on this trip for high end to include non-alcoholic non-fizzy delights among their offerings.
Our dessert arrives. I’ve chosen Peach and Toasted almond cream with cat’s tongue. £9. It’s reasonably similar in overall style to my dessert last night. Simple and adorned with a lovely viola flower to complement the rich claret purple of the surprise berries, but look, I have to admit, I would normally expect a little more technical difficulty for £9.  The cat’s tongue makes it without that it would seem a tad pedestrian. Hubby’s Chocolate Mousse with Jersey cream and candied cumquat caramel is rich and thick. The mousse is dense and dark and white violas are an important presentation touch. Again we tie. Once again the kitchen is the winner. You really shouldn’t have winners at a meal in this class and we don’t.  I don’t check the bill. I think I’d rather not know what this meal cost in total. No mental mathematics going on in my head today either!

We settle our bill and have a final little chat with our waitress, complimenting her on the friendly service that she and her colleagues have provided. She’s clearly so enthusiastic about this restaurant and loves working here. She tells us that it is a reflection of the fact that this is such a happy place to work, you can tell when the staff love working at a restaurant. Haha perhaps that’s why Hubby’s cappuccino was delivered with a love heart as noted by the man who brought it out! We share the rich chocolate truffles and we’re away home by 7:30. Our meal has also been nicely efficient. I’m not entirely keen to spend 3 hrs over dinner as we did quite a bit in Scotland.
Our last item of business is to claim a copy of the menu from reception on the way out. A souvenir of a beautiful and memorable meal.