Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Christmas 2018

Christmas 2018 and our first Christmas as retirees.  We spent Christmas itself in Edinburgh, then called in to Stirling on the way up north, then again on the way home!  So let's take those a bit at a time, shall we.

Christmas Eve was at the Edinburgh Christmas Market, which was lovely - if cold!  Edinburgh is a truly wonderful city... but is can suffer because it's starting to become a victim of its own success in that everyone wants to go there.  We'd heard some horror stories of the crowds at the Christmas Market this year, so went with a little trepidation at around 4:00 on Christmas Eve.  In fact, it wasn't so bad - perhaps the cold kept people away a bit, or maybe people are starting to learn that the crowds can be formidable and kept away.  Either way, it was quiet enough for squirrels to be gambolling about.

Sorry about the look on my face - I'm not good at selfies!  The point is that in the background over my left shoulder is a squirrel eating some discarded food it had found lying about.

Here's a closeup to prove the point.
Anyway, bad seflies and optimistic wildlife aside, the atmosphere was just lovely and the food even better.

The pic on the left is of Lois and Hannah with the whole Christmas Market behind them and the Scott monument and the Scotsman Hotel as a backdrop.  It really was very nice indeed.

We positively feasted on exactly what we wanted - there was a lot of very diverse food available!  Ian had lobster and chips (I kid you not), Lois had salmon salad in soup (again, I kid you now) and Hannah had a large German sausage (perhaps no further comment is necessary).

We then returned to Hannah's flat in the Fountainbridge part of the city, to enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve movie - Love Actually - which was nice, before returning to the Leith Premier to bed.

The next day - Christmas Day - was a lovely day to start with.  We drove through to Fountainbridge and met up with Hannah, opened our prezzies and then went on to the Grand Cafe at the Scotsman Hotel for lunch.  We had decided to push to boat out a bit!

On arrival, the welcome was perfect.  Nothing gushy, just a genuine welcome, taken to our table, coats dealt with and drinks sorted.  All done professionally and with a lovely smile from everyone … and of course many “Merry Christmases” too!  Even though we got there and sat down about half an hour early (car parking was far easier than we thought - we easily got a space on Chambers Street - well worth remembering that there's a lot on on-street parking there except at Festival time when it's taken over for buses), the food was not long in coming.  Between us we had the crab and lobster salad and the roast partridge.   

Both dishes were perfectly prepared and served.  To follow we variously had the roast beef and the halibut.  The fish was reported to be excellent but the roast beef, served very nicely with Yorkshires, potatoes, veg and gravy to die for, was perfect.  Goodness knows how they cooked it, but it was just wonderfully tender and tasty!  Then to finish we had Christmas pud, apple tart and cheesecake – again served beautifully.  All accompanied by good wine (at a sensible price).

The surroundings are wonderful!
Now, you’ll read that and think “OK, looks nice but what’s so special”.  Well, special were the surroundings – marble and accoutrements and stuff which made “The Grand CafĂ©” properly grand - the fact that everything was done properly (no tacky Santas or cheap decorations) and above all the service.  The service was just great.  Our waitress was Sarah, and she was a real credit to the place, but she didn’t bring the food out.  Oh no – she supervised the food being brought out by another team.  Not had that before (maybe we don’t go to sufficiently grand establishments normally, which is true), but it worked really well … really well, such that everything that was supposed to arrive together arrived together rather than in stages.  Put those together – the food, the surroundings and a highly professional waitress – and you have the makings of a perfect meal.  And it was all of that.  Thank you Scotsman – we’ll be back again without question. 

On Boxing Day we had breakfast with Hannah and started north, calling in at Bridge of Allan for tea and to see some old friends, Pete and Rachael, who were staying there with family.  That was a lovely break to our journey.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Midnight, 26th June

No reason at all to post this as a blog entry, except that it's a lovely (if grainy) picture.  The moon is full (very nearly), the sea is calm and the sky clear.

This is from near Gairloch, looking out towards Port Henderson with Longa Island in view.  If you squint you can just about see Skye in the distance.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Honiton Premier (our Tripadvisor review)

We stayed here for three days while visiting friends and family and doing a bit of sightseeing. For us, this was the very best Premier Inn of the network (and we’ve stayed in a lot!) The welcome was terrific and very helpful, the room was spotless and perfectly made up – and remained so throughout, the airconditioning was excellent as was the soundproofing. The room was quite large, too. And to cap it all, the breakfasts were superbly cooked to order and served by Jack and the restaurant team. This was just a “all the ducks in a row” experience – the manager and team have simply got everything right here.

Surprisingly we heard no noise from outside or inside the hotel – perhaps the guests are quieter here, maybe it’s just well-built or perhaps it’s just a general shared respect for other people that the hotel engenders.

The hotel was trialling a “smart TV” system, where the TV could be controlled via your phone to display pictures from the day, get the guide and so on. It also allowed BBC iPlayer, Youtube and other apps to operate direct on the TV. It had the usual direct USB and HDMI connections too, of course. We hope that they extend the trial to all the hotels as they can – we found it really good.

The location is handy for the A30 and close to Honiton itself, which is lovely. The hotel has an M&S food outlet next door and there’s a big Tesco nearby as well.

We really enjoyed our stay at this Premier and would highly recommend it. We will certainly be back.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Beer! In Devon.

Down in Devon, down in Devon,
There's a village by the sea.
It's a little piece of heaven
And the angels call it Beer.

In many ways, this part of our post-retirement odyssey is the “biggest deal”.  That’s not to say that London or the Gairloch muirburning  are trivial, it’s just that this trip was LONG overdue (about 50 years, really) and it’s a long way away.  If you’ve read the last entry, you’ll know that we stayed at Honiton – itself a lovely little place – in a Premier Inn that was one of the best we’ve ever stayed in.  We’ll pop the tripadvisor review up if you’re interested.  But it was Beer that brought us to this part of the country.

A little background might be helpful to give context.  The family (Lois’ side) has been associated with Beer for a very long time.  We have a photo of her here as a baby, and she visited family here at about 13 too.  That was the last time she’d been (hence the 50 year overdue comment above) and she’d lost touch with that chunk of the family.  As you know, one of the aims of this odyssey is to get back in touch with family – so here we are.

A little about the area, then – it’s hung its hat on the Jurassic Coast peg.  There are lots of references to it, and with good reason.  There are loads of fossils to be found here.  No, it’s not a retirement village – far from it – it’s geological fossils I mean.   It’s a world heritage site, no less, so is alongside the Great Barrier Reef in that respect.  It has “proper” history.  Wikipedia says “The Jurassic Coast ... stretches from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset.  The site spans 185 million years of geological history, coastal erosion having exposed an almost continuous sequence of rock formation covering the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. At different times, this area has been desert, shallow tropical sea and marsh, and the fossilised remains of the various creatures that lived here have been preserved in the rocks.”  OK, we have to point of that 185 million years is a drop in the ocean compared with the 580 million years of the Lewisian Gneiss we experienced on Lewis and Harris, but for this end of Britain it’s not too shabby.  The QI fact you might remember is that Mary Anning, who supposedly inspired the song, came from here:

All day, all night, Marianne
Down by the sea side siftin' sand
Even little children love Marianne
Down by the seaside siftin' sand.

She started the fossil-hunting industry and, perhaps, inspired the new interest in this coast.   As an aside, two points - first, there isn't a lot of sand round here - it's mostly pebbles, and I prefer the Trini Lopez version to the Harry Belafonte one.  

But I digress.

Beer, then, makes a lot of the pun that's available.  There’s plenty of plays on the word in the pubs there.  Let’s not hold that against the place which, in reality, is rather more grown up than that.  In any case, it’s only recently been called Beer – it used to be called Bera, Bearham, Byr, Ber and, remarkably, Brereworde.  I’d have stuck with the last!  Whatever it’s called it’s an absolutely delightful little fishing village.  They even still fish there – unlike many of the“pretty fishing villages” in the rest of the country that haven’t seen a fishing boat in years.  And you can buy fresh fish, which they still refer to as “wetfish” at the harbour.  There’s even a place where you can hire a deckchair – a proper wood and canvas one – for a pound a half day.  And buy an ice cream to eat in it too.  Or a cream tea, or a crab salad.  It’s just lovely.  

Mind you, the notice erected by the harbour authority tells you more about what you shouldn’t do than what you could, but it still manages to be welcoming. Ish.

The place Lois worked by some 50 years ago, then called “The White Rabbit”, is now
“Ducky’s”.  It’s pretty much the same building, notwithstanding some repairs after year after year of storm damage.  The people who run it now didn’t remember her, but they’d only taken it over 25 years ago! 

When Lois saw it, she recognised it immediately and we had a very agreeable cup of tea there.  Probably using the same crockery which was lovely and quaint.
The village itself – and it really is a village at 1300 people, not like the village of Loughton which is more of a large town really – has all the makings of a thriving, community-led place.  It has a couple of nice pubs, some restaurants and not too much tat, which is refreshing.  One irony we saw was a shop selling buckets and spades for the beach – which given that it’s a pebble beach would be tough to use.  We wonder how many people buy them on the way down to the beach and try to return them later; they could use them elsewhere in Devon, I suppose.  But that was the only oddness we saw, everything else was just “nice”.  A particularly interesting sight is the stream that runs by the main street to the sea.  It runs in a stone gulley most of the way, crossing under the street through gullies from time to time.  It runs the length of Fore Street and alongside Sea Hill, then disappears underground.  Pooh sticks would be amazing here!

We had a lovely time here, not least the catching up with cousins over copious amounts of tea (thank you Carol) and cake (thank you Susan), being regaled with stories of derring-do (building and then crossing the Atlantic in a catamaran), the building of a full-size stone circle (I kid you not), stories filling the gaps in our history (not all wholly accurate, but I still stand by my completely inaccurate story of a relative losing a leg in the SOE!) and so on.  It was one of those afternoons that one didn’t want to stop – but it’s always nice to leave these things wanting more, isn’t it!

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Budleigh Salteron

We'd heard of this place - who hasn't?  It's a name, to us, full of romance and intrigue.  We hadn't intended to visit during our odyssey, but as soon as we saw it on the roadsigns, we had to have a look.  

We found out that the name comes from the salt that it used to extract from the sea, using big salt pans.  We still have no idea where the Budleigh bit comes from.

According to their own blurb, "Budleigh Salterton was made famous by a painting by Sir John Everett Millais. His picture ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ was painted from the Octagon, situated in Fore Street. The ancient wall featured in the background of the painting still stands today!"  Being culturally inept, we'd never even heard of John Everett Millais or his picture ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’, but we had heard of Budleigh Salterton.

Anyway, we came here, stopped for a photo or two, and moved on - slightly disappointed.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Bradley Stoke. Or - how the hell do people drive down here???

Well, what can one say about our visit to Bradley Stoke.  To be honest, not a massive amount ... Wikipedia says that it’s ”...Europe's largest new town built with private investment” and that it “ bordered by three motorways on three sides -the M5 Motorway to the north, the M4 Motorway to the east and the M32 Motorway to the south ... The town is predominantly residential with some retail and commercial areas.”  So there you have it.  But there’s a bit more to it than that – the road names give something away – it’s rammed with hi-tech aerospace stuff – Concorde, Airbus, that sort of thing ... that’s what they do here.  Despite its initials (surely someone thought of that???) there no bullshit about the place.  It’s clearly a place that is making a significant contribution to something.  We weren’t here for that, though; we were here to visit family as part of our odyssey, on our way further south-west.  

Our first reaction to the place was that it’s a nice little dormitory town kind of place.  We were here at the weekend, so there were people around mowing their lawns and chatting over their fences.  It’s clearly a newish area – it was started in 1987, so nothing’s very old.  But it was clearly built in that era when the planners knew that private space was important so the houses have garages and gardens.  It felt nice and clearly there was something of a community spirit at weekends anyway – we saw it.  We also heard that there isn’t much community during the week, but we can’t comment first-hand on that.  It’s certainly better that other new towns we’ve seen and experienced.  

What we would say is that it has a really interesting-looking Community festival annually ... and there aren’t many new towns that have those.

But really what we wanted to talk about in this blog entry was the driving and associated things.  Now, we are northerners (now).  We admit freely that we don’t do much driving south of York nowadays (none at all if we can help it) so we were prepared for the aggression on the road, even on a Sunday when we went down the A1, M18, M1, A42 and M5.  Pushy is a word, too.  “Indicators” isn’t a word, however, that gets much use, and that stuff one learns about Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre is translated down here as Manoeuvre-Signal-Mirror.  Same abbreviation, I suppose and at least the signal bit gets in there somewhere.  So many close calls!  But the other thing that’s worth commenting about is the service areas on the motorways.  Twice we either failed to find the entrance or the exit !  Leeming Bar (used to be a service area, but it’s now been downgraded to a “Rest Area”) has a sign off the motorway, but then no more.  We could see it but never found it!  Nary a sign to be seen.  We wondered how much trade they get!  The other one was Gloucester Services where they let you in OK, but then signpost you away from the motorway when you try to get back!  Hotel California, maybe. 

One more mention of MSAs, and that’s Bridgwater Services ... which has a multi-storey car park!  Never seen one of those in an MSA before!

That got us down to Devon.  Honiton, to be precise.  More shortly.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

West Dulwich ... and a tube journey

As the latest part of our post-retirement odyssey, we visited West Dulwich.  This was actually part of a visit to London which included mostly suburban towns such as Buckhust Hill and Loughton – but we’d been there before.  West Dulwich was new to us, and so, in this new era of our lives, was exciting!

Getting here was interesting – Circle and then District underground line to Victoria followed by a change to an overground train to West Dulwich itself.  It’s a while since we travelled on the tube in rush hour.  Previously, we’ve both visited central London for work but that tended to be arriving at King’s Cross at around 10:00 and then using the tube for onward travel.  This time we were earlier than that and it was horrible.  The Central Line train was packed and was very, very noisy.  It seems to us to have got a great deal noisier recently – we didn’t remember the rail noise being as bad as this before.  And the sway and shudder of the train was alarming.  Are they going faster now?  Or is this old age of either us or the trains?  We don’t know, but it was horrible.  What was even more alarming to us was the demeanour of the people on the train and the energies in the carriage.  We were reminded of some of the post-apocalyptic dystopian cities of the movies – except that this was more far-fetched.  Spirits were being destroyed here and we had it brought home to us why we like the north-east of England and north-west of Scotland.  We felt very sorry for Londoners who have to endure this every day.  In fairness, they probably are very happy living here and will find these comments rubbish … but this is our blog and we’ll speak as we find.  Changing to the District Line was better in that at least the trains felt like they would stay upright and  didn’t have a noise-level similar to a pneumatic drill … but the trains were still very crowded!   

Then there was Victoria Station.

Victoria is one of those places that everyone knows about, but maybe doesn’t know why.  It’s on the north bank of the Thames so has a draft of fresh air blowing across it.  Of course, this being London we didn’t see much outside it, emerging from the underground and then going straight in.  We should have – this is an area of London that is surrounded by famous places … and the Palace of course; but we felt we needed to get out of London quickly.  The departure boards were fascinating – places like Penge, Chislehurst and Orpington ... this really was the world of Reginald Perrin!  We had to ask a couple of times where our train would go from and in doing so found something out about London Stations that we hadn’t come across before because we have only ever really experienced the big more or less single-operator mainline stations like King’s Cross and Euston – Victoria is a sort of “department store” of operators.  Bear with us on this…  In the old-fashioned department stores, one went into a big building and then found the department one wanted to buy something from.  Each department was separate – one couldn’t take stuff from one to another to pay for it.  You made your purchases from one department then move to another to make the next purchase.  So with Victoria – it serves Southern Railways, Southeastern Railways and the Gatwick Express.  Each of these appears to have its own platforms and has its own staff.  Each team of staff are very nice, and are helpful and welcoming, but don’t know anything about other operators except roughly where to find that operator’s team.  Me to a Southern Railways lady: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to West Dulwich, please.”  Southern Railways lady: “Sorry, I don’t know.  Where’s that? Is it out west?  Not one of ours.  Try over there (pointing to a different set of platforms).”

Having found the right area of the station – it was Southeastern Railways that we needed; West Dulwich is on the Orpington line - we then found one of our amazing new facts about London.  One can use an Oyster Card on suburban trains!  Not only that, when one does (so long at not too much time has elapsed) the journey is logged as unbroken between where one got on the tube and gets off in the depths of suburbia!  That makes the journey very easy – and a whole lot cheaper because the Oyster price cap hold the overall price down!  Amazing.  We’re not sure whether that made the whole torrid tube experience worthwhile, though – for us the idiosyncrasies and excesses of the Arriva buses charging policy isn’t so bad after all.

Then we got to West Dulwich.  

It’s a lovely little town, bisected by the London South Circular road.  Lots of trees and open space, not least because of the proximity to Dulwich College, an independent school for boys which seems to be quite affluent and has retained a lot of greenery.  That all makes it a nice place to walk through.  We were visiting friends here, a short walk from the station.  We came across this local artwork on the way
but we think that is not part of the Dulwich Picture Gallery which was the first public art gallery in Britain. 

Here’s some blurb from Foxton’s local guide:
West Dulwich is an area in southeast London, that straddles the London Borough of Lambeth and the London Borough of Southwark. Croxted Road and South Croxted Road mark the boundary between London Borough of Southwark on the east and London Borough of Lambeth to the west. Best known for the respected Dulwich College, the Dulwich Estate is a relatively affluent residential area which has a sleepier feel to it than that of neighbouring areas such as East Dulwich or West Norwood. West Dulwich has two main parades of shops, the main one being on the Park Hall road junction, where Croxted Road becomes South Croxted Road. The other parade is on Rosendale Road which features more typical local shops. Dulwich Wood, Dulwich Park and Brockwell Park are all within walking distance of West Dulwich. Thurlow Park and Belair Park are by the south circular where it enters and leaves the area. Being so close to Dulwich Village means that there are many small pockets of greenery such as those on Park Hall Road, Rosendale Road and College Road.

That’s probably all there is to say.  We added West Dulwich to our post-retirement itinerary because we’d never heard of the place!  We now have visited … couldn’t have done that without being retired!  We also know some nice people here and for that reason, we’ll hopefully be back.