Saturday, 23 July 2016

Murcia


Still stuck here in Cartagena waiting for a new switch and for a diesel mechanic to finish replacing our corroded exhaust pipe, so we decided another little excursion was in order. This time we just took a day trip on the bus to Murcia, the capital city of the Murcia region of southern Spain. After a pleasant hour cruising through farmlands and over the mountains, we arrived just a short stroll from the centre of town for a late Spanish breakfast of coffee and tostas. Like everywhere in Spain, you are rarely more than 100 metres from a café, bar or restaurant, which are hard to distinguish because they all serve coffee, beer and food at any time.

First off we headed for the Salzillo Museum, as it is only open in the morning. Francisco Salzillo was a Spanish sculptor who lived and worked in Murcia (then a kingdom) through most of the 18th century. He trained as a painter, but later took up sculpture in clay and wood. He specialised in church effigies, particularly the icons that are carried by worshippers around the old towns on saints’ days and at Easter. Many of these are collected here at the museum, which is also a chapel. The first display we come upon is an extraordinary Nativity scene which is also a vignette of Spanish village life. 556 figures include the usual shepherds, wise men with entourage and holy family with angels, oxen and donkeys but also the local markets with sellers of every kind of produce, bakery, fishermen, winemakers, pottery, butcher … all beautifully painted and crafted in incredible detail. You could spend hours looking at it, both for its beauty and the record it provides of the clothing and customs of times past.


Moving on through the display, the life size figures of John the Evangelist and St Veronica with the shroud of Christ appear, looking as if they could step down off their pedestals any moment. Several of the figures on display are dressed in sumptuous silk clothing, a product for which the local Murcian mills were famous. Even these superb figures can’t prepare you for the chapel, however, which contains full size effigies of the betrayal and crucifixion designed to be carried by penitents during Easter week. With vivid costume, and powerfully evocative gestures and facial expressions, Salzillo has captured all the drama and emotion of the story. In times when few were literate, these tableaux would have served to educate/ indoctrinate the populace with the correct ideas and attitudes. It is surely no accident that all the bad guys – supposedly Roman soldiers - look decidedly Moorish.
St Peter takes down a guard

Amazing detail
The museum is designed to allow you close views of the figures, so you can see the details such as eyelashes and lacework. Salzillo’s clay ‘sketches’ are on display, along with drawings, embroidered church vestments and interesting things like the glass and precious stone eyes used in the sculptures. Well worth a visit if you’re near Murcia.
The Cathedral



Palacio Episcopal

Also worth seeing is the cathedral, its façade an amazing baroque confection of saints, demons and symbolic figures; and near it the Palacio Episcopal. The cathedral square is surrounded by pleasant shopping and café areas, with the Placa de Flores and its restaurants close by. We walked down to the river Segura with its avenue of trees and variety of bridges, then back to the station via some of the city’s public gardens. Well worth spending a day in town.

Segura River




Sunday, 10 July 2016

10 Helpful Items for Living on a Sailboat


Life on a sailboat is simple, but not easy. On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about the complexities of living and working with multitudes of people and lots of possessions. Your focus narrows to the weather, keeping the boat afloat, feeding the crew and how to get to your next port of call. On the other hand, constraints of space and limited power, gas and water mean that you need to conserve, you don’t have a lot of labour-saving devices and you must be quite resourceful in your approach to everyday tasks.

The following items are not specialised boat gear, but ordinary things that have proven useful in adapting to the challenges of the cruising life.  They are in no particular order, but the pressure cooker is the only one that could be considered a significant expense.

  1. Pressure Cooker
    This was one of those purchases that makes you wonder what you did without it. A pressure cooker enables you to increase the cooking temperature (Charles’ Law or its corollary, from memory) so that cooking time can be dramatically reduced. This is a great asset on a boat where you may have limited gas and you don’t want to heat up your cabin, especially in hot weather. We often prepare a simple dish of chicken, stock and vegetables before we head off on a longer passage. Once you’ve brought it to the boil and let it steam for about 10 minutes, you simply leave the closed cooker in the sink, wrapped in a towel. When you need a hot meal after a long day at sea, voila! Your chicken stew is ready and waiting. Thanks for the recipe, Jane!
  2. Hercules Pegs                                                                                                                                                                I haven’t lost a single towel or pair of undies overboard since we discovered these in a Greek supermarket. I think they are a response to the fierce Meltemi winds in the islands, perhaps, but whatever their origin they live up to their name. The nice rounded clasp seems to be designed for boat rails, and unlike ordinary pegs, they don’t break easily and they seem quite resistant to sun damage. Hercules pegs are also great for rigging up a sun shelter from your bimini using a sarong or a Turkish towel.
  3. Small Canvas Bags
    These are great for separating and organising your tools and materials for specific uses. They save having to drag out a heavy toolbox and sort through random stuff to do a simple job.
     
  4. Zip-Lock Bags
    Everyone knows how handy these are, but on a boat, where certain things really need to be kept waterproof, they are essential. We use them to protect food in the dry store (they also prevent the spread of bugs both to and from stored food, as well as moisture damage) and also tools, electronic cables and parts, papers, and lots more. Strangely they are virtually unavailable in some European countries, so order a good supply of several different sizes on-line. They are much cheaper on-line than in supermarkets.
     
  5. Flexible Plastic Tub
    This is our washing machine when we’re not in a marina. You put in the minimum amount of water you need, then use the grape-crushing method (ie your feet) to get the clothes clean. They are also great for washing ropes (a bit of fabric softener works a treat on stiff crusty old lines) and for carrying stuff. Ours fits into a corner of the dodger and is used to store things you might need in a hurry like mask and fins, bits of rope, cleaning cloths, clogs, clothes pegs. When you’re at anchor they can also be used as a water-conserving way to have a good wash as a kind of standing bath. (I have tried to sit down in one, but that didn’t end well. Not recommended.) They fit inside one another so you can have several without wasting space and they only cost 3 euros in Ceuta – thanks Marg!
     
  6. Bialetti Coffee Maker
    This is probably just a personal preference, but I think the good old Italian classic coffee pot makes the best coffee quickly, easily and without waste. I can make a pot of coffee before I actually wake up! It is small and compact for storing and replacement filter funnels are available everywhere.
     
  7. Hanging Shoe Storage
    This one is from Ikea in water-resistant nylon so it is easy to clean and doesn’t easily succumb to mildew. Shoes, belts, headbands and other everyday items are stowed yet visible, easily accessed and less likely to moulder away as they tend to do in dark airless cupboards. You can roll the whole thing up and stow it if you need it to be out of the way to make room for guests or when you’re a long time at sea.
     
  8. Cable Clamps
    These are especially good for preventing tangles in stored lines that are used infrequently, like our dinghy hoist and boom brake. They come in several different sizes.
     
  9. Stretch Cotton Fitted Sheets
    Making beds on most boats is really hard because you can’t get down the sides to fit or tuck in sheets. You end up doing all sorts of contortions on or in the bed to get the sheets on so once you’ve finished you really need a lie down. Oddly shaped bunks also make it difficult to find sheets the right size (our forepeak bunk is shaped like a fat coffin) so these stretchy king-size ones, found in Spain, have been a great find.
     
  10. Eraser Sponges
    I discovered these when we were at home, cleaning my mother-in-law’s house for sale (thanks Pauline!) Sorry to anyone I bored witless going on about them - I became a bit of a fanatic. Made of melamine foam, they are the most amazing cleaning product I’ve seen for a long time. They are brilliant for boats as you don’t need anything except water to remove scuff marks, oil, ingrained dirt and serious sticky grease. The melamine absorbs dirt and gradually wears away, so you do need a good supply, and fortunately they are available very cheaply on-line. Just be careful of things like loose paint (they will strip it) and test surfaces you’re not sure of. They also remove stains from clothing really well, so take one along for when your partner orders spaghetti or curry at a restaurant.
This list doesn't include blindingly obvious things like cable ties, superglue and duct tape, but I hope there's something useful here for you, or that it gives you a little insight into the cruising life. I'd be very keen to hear other people's suggestions for useful things to have aboard.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Terry's Beer Tour of the World #15


There's more to life than beer


Maes

 

A Belgian but unremarkable.  I suppose they can’t all be good.  Had it in a bar in Siena.  Perhaps the keg offering is not as good as a bottle?  Would have it if it was given but I wouldn’t outlay cold hard for it.

 

 

Fahnen Brau

 

Supermarket beer bought in a chain simply called “CoOp” in northern Italy.  They are very cheap.  Surprisingly, the can has all the details of its Australian importers??  What gives?  This is northern Italy?  Anyway, it is wet and has a taste of hops but other than the fact that a 500ml can cost €0.71c there is little else to recommend it.  Not unpleasant, like an overhopped “peach/fruity” IPA but not much punch behind it.

 

 

My friend Stephen was given one of those assorted 6-packs that are popular at Xmas.  Being a friend, he waited for me to arrive before we hopped into it.

 

Ballast Point.  Big Eye India Pale Ale.  7.0% We poured it down the sink.  Undrinkable and not unexpected of an American IPA.


Pintail Pale Ale.  San Diego again.  Called a Pale Ale but really more like an IPA.  A bit too "floral" for mine.  Almost got poured down the sink but we just made rude comments about the brewer’s parentage.


Vale/Ale Australian Pale Ale.  McLarenvale.  Strange hint of smoke?  Adelaide Hills fires?  OK to try but not near as good as the SA stuff that comes out of Coopers.


Nail's "Golden Nail"  5%.  Called a "Hoppy Summer Ale" but again a sweetish overhopped beer.  What is driving this obsession with a massive hop input?  I can't abide it.


James Squire Nine Tales Amber Ale.  Less hoppy, a bit more caramel.  Not bad at all. Despite now being part of a major brewer of rubbish, they have left the Squire taste to itself and it is a very worthwhile pursuit indeed drinking Squires of several styles.


Leffe Blonde. Didn't like it all that much but it was interesting.  Sharpish.  Initial taste was a bit of an assault but the aftertaste was quite pleasant.  Not the “craft beer” you might imagine – owned by AB and made from a “pretend” ancient recipe, which was actually resurrected not that long ago and made to seem old.


Moretti la Rosso.  7.2%.  I don't mind a red or three.  Peroni's is quite good, as is Greece's Vergina (even though I do not like their lagers).  This Moretti is just a bit nothing.  No taste, no caramel, just alcohol.


Risotto

In Scario, there is a restaurant at the end of the quay that specializes in Risotto.  The chef and his wife, who spent 10 years in Sydney before returning to Italy, claim that their risotto is the best in Italy. It is good.





 
The King of Risotto and his Queen


Birra Pietra - Corsican.  Nothing remarkable, just rich and well rounded.  No over-hopping so no fruity stuff.  Decent head that goes quite quickly.  Recommended if you see it.



Birra Dell Elba.  There are about 8 of these.  Not cheap at €7 a small bottle but that's the price for small breweries. I had the Maestrale but it had a little too fruity a taste for me - peaches from the hops.  They even have a Stout.




Elba on Elba


Isenbeck.

In Genoa, in front of the 518 Submarine, is a small bar.  I had this there from La Spina.(The Tap)  In fact, I had two as it was so good.  The lady said it was Dutch but apparently it is Argentinian.  Bubbles last for ages, like a good champagne.  Rich and smooth with a slight bitter aftertaste.  This is to be hunted for.!!




 

Konig Ludovic Weissbeer

Another Dark wheat beer, which I don’t mind.  Up front, lots of caramel but it fades quickly and not a lot left after that.  OK but nothing special.



Facial expression is a subtle gauge of quality


3 to be forgotten

We found a small gourmet shop on the waterfront in Genoa, under the covered archway that runs the length of the quay.  Tried three of the rather expensive craft beers there,

Geans American Pale Ale 5.5%  a beer by Che L’Inse, a Genoese micro-brewery

Bronze Ale – Officially “Bronzin” Ale, another Che L’Inse offering

Isaac 3.3%.  The 5% seems to be the most widely available but this was definitely 3.3%.

The Geans was “peachy” and sweet, the Bronze was OK but not worth €3.50 a 330ml bottle and the Isaac was OK but only just.

However, it was pleasant just sitting out in the walkway watching Genoa go by.

 

 

Birra Dana.

Can’t believe I haven’t commented on this before.  Been drinking it for a year now.  A “Made for” beer for Conad.  Don’t know who makes it but it’s not all that bad.  Perhaps a little on the flat side (cans only) but the bottles are good.  It’s sold in Conad Supermarkets for 0.67€ per 500ml can.   If you’re looking for something to take to a BBQ, pick this.  It’s fine.

 

St Thomas Abbaye

Had this in a bar alongside the Petanque rinks in Bormes e Mimosas. We put in to Bormes when we lost propulsion and had a mechanic work on CS.  The Petanque courts are well used in the summer holidays and many of the French tourists (it’s not a foreigner destination) had organised teams and a tournament. You can sit quite close to the action to watch the games, and the seriousness with which the players take the outcomes.

 


I had a litre, in fact, for €13.80.  That’s about what some Perth pubs charge for a glass.  This was very good indeed, a great example of a light-ish Abbey beer.  Look for it.
















Hertog Jan Grand Prestige

Can’t remember where I got this but it was in the Engel for a while before I tried it.  Not as old as the labelling would pretend it is but nice enough.



 

 

Birra Italiana

 

This is one of those “made-up” beers that supermarkets in the Med have on order from major breweries.  You just don’t know which brewery makes up the store brand for them.  This one, despite its name, is actually quite good.  It is on the edge of getting sweet but not there yet.  It is made for a Co-op in northern Italy called….. Co-op!  Surprise surprise.  These guys have good, very low cost grocery items and this is one of them.  0.69c per can, 500ml.  Seriously, you could do worse quite easily.  If you find yourself in a B&B in Italy, and there is a Co-op around, stock up on this stuff and fridge it. 

 

Back in Australia beers

Hawthorn Brewing Pale Ale.

They say Pale Ale, and describe it as “A unique Pale Ale boasting a harmonious blend of specialty malts infused with fresh fruity hops.”  In other words, they lied, it’s an IPA.  And I hate IPA’s of the sort “young” brewers are making today.  Atrocious stuff.  Should have looked at the description and not the stated type. Not a Pale Ale at all.

 

Burleigh Brewing Company”s “My Wife’s Bitter

My mistake here – I had it on a hot Bunbury evening.  Should have been kept for a winter’s night with a casserole or a roast.  In season, it would be an excellent choice.  Mark it down as a buy in winter.

 

 

London

 

Wimbledon Common Ale in The Prince of Wales.  OK but at English prices I wouldn’t bother too much.

 

Hop House Lager.  A lager from Guinness.  Nothing to write home about.

 

Drayman’s Drop.  Had this ale in Wibbas Down (a chain bar).  Not too bad.  Would line up for more without a problem.  Wibbas Down is cheaper than its competitors – can get a bit willing on Pension Day but good cheap food and a great selection of tap beers and cider.  They don’t put on enough staff for the demand, though, and you usually have to wait a while.  Good breakfasts, too, at way lower than most London prices.

 

Theakston XB.  Had this in the King’s Arms in Greenwich (we put a bad review of this place on Trip Adviser for other reasons).  I assume the XB means extra bitter.  Very nice ale.  Don’t mind Theakstons Old Peculiar, either.

 

Boddingtons – they sell this in large quantities, not small batches.  Easy drinking ale you can depend on.  Very drinkable.

 

Carling Lager.  One of the few large-volume English lagers.  Very nice, if getting a tiny bit towards sweetness.  Good choice for a take-home pack in the supermarket.

 

Old Crown Bitter.  Went into the Old Crown on the corner of New Oxford Street and Museum Street (just before Drury Lane).  Pub is 360 years old.  This was a very nice accompaniment to our fish-and-chip lunch.  So nice I had two.  Nothing “in” it, like extra anything.  The brewer, reportedly a young chappy, has shown admirable restraint by not loading this up and letting it be a simple bitter.  Would that more “young brewers” did the same and put away the shovel they put the hops in with.

 

Pistonhead Kustom Lager.  Made in Sweden.  Nothing remarkable.  OK but not at Gatwick Airport prices of £5 a 330ml can.

 

Back in Spain again……

 

We stayed overnight in Alicante as it was too late for the bus back to Cartagena.  Needing some food, we wandered around our neighbourhood and found a small bar run by mum-and-dad.  (he had braces in the colours of the Spanish Flag!).  They had a casserole dish of something on the bench and I asked what it was.  He said three things I understood – chorizo, jamon and garbanzo.  Three out of whatever was in there sounded good so I asked for two bowls, caliente.  He agreed and took the dish over to his wife to be heated up in the microwave.

 

He must have thought about this a bit and decided that two bowls of the same thing was a bit of a waste of time, so he came back over and asked me to come behind the counter to the fridge.  There he showed me other dishes of food, some of which I had no understanding of.  I asked which were patatas and he showed me two.  I selected one that looked like the French dauphinoise dish. 

 

The potato dish turned out to be garlic and lemon bashed-up potatoes which was superb, and the bean ham and chorizo dish had a great gravy in it for us to soak up with our crunchy bread.  Carol had a glass of red (he left the bottle on the table) that cost €2 and was magnificent.  I had my usual Estrella Levante for €1, but I had two. Total cost - €14, or about the cost of 1 beer in London.

 

Gordon Highland Ale

There is a bar in Cartagena called the Yellow Submarine.  It exists for the cruise liner tourist trade and is right where all the touristas enter town.  It does have a large range of foreign beers.  They are a little expensive but that’s understandable given the lower turnover.  This one was quite nice but would have been better farther north of here with a roast dinner instead of tapas.



 

Estrella Galicia, Estrella Damm, Estrella Levante and CruzCampo.

 

Spanish beers usually defined by region but in a modern world they can turn up anywhere.  Pick any one of these and you have a good quaffing lager.  Estrella Damm is called “The Beer of Barcelona” but it is widely available down here in Cartagena, which is supposed to be Estrella Levante territory.  Of the three Estrellas, I probably lean towards the Levante as it is a bit sharper, while Galicia and Damm are a bit more towards sweet.  CruzCampo is very nice indeed and now comes in a trendy can which has a “button” on it that goes blue when it’s at ideal coldness.  Wonders will never cease my mother used to say, but that was mostly when I did something good.  Which was not often I might add.




 


Moritz – a nice enough Barcelona beer but again tending towards a little sweetness.  If your choices are limited and this is on the tap, it will be fine.  Sweeter in the bottles I think.  First came across it when we entered Spain last year in Palamos.




 

Carrefours – 13c a can.  Ok, so it’s a bit on the light side but I do draw your attention to the price.  Unfortunately, it can range to stratospheric heights and it is often 0.21c per can.  No shit, Sherlock, even the ½ litre can is only 0.38c.  Drinkable for sure.

 

 
All yours Cal, I'm drinking beer 6 euros a jug.




They  wouldn't sell this to me in Burriana - display only


 


 If you're going to run a bar, you really have to get serious about your beer storage

 






 

 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Cartagena




Cartagena, Common Sense's winter port, has been inhabited for well over 3000 years. It was the Carthaginians' European home away from home, as the name suggests, and has seen the typical waves of conquest and settlement - Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Moorish, Spanish, Fascist - which have left their layers in the landscape and the culture. It has always been a busy seaport and from our slip we can watch the fishing boat harbour, container ships unloading, huge cruise ships blocking the view of the mountains and the comings and goings of Spain's considerable naval fleet including its submarines. It's an interesting place to just sit and watch!
It's all happening here - Yacht Port Cartagena

There are remnants of Roman and Carthaginian cities everywhere, including the basements of restaurants and public buildings. An entire Roman theatre was discovered while they were trying to build a cathedral - and now the remains of both sit side by side, overlooking the city. Once you've explored a few of the sites you have a sense of a whole ancient world buried beneath the streets.






What lies beneath the city?


Cartagena offers a lot to see and do. We recommend getting a Cartagena Card for about 20 euros. It is usable over nine days and gets you into quite a few attractions, including a bus tour of the city and a cruise on the harbour. There is quite a good naval museum, but its main attraction is housed in an outside annexe and is easy to miss: the first fully functional, navigable submarine, designed by Isaac Peral of Cartagena and launched in 1888. It is a surprisingly modern-looking vessel.















Another highlight is the central fort that overlooks the city, offering great views and the shrieks of the resident peacocks. Within it virtually the whole town sheltered from Franco's troops during the Civil War, and it is now a refugee museum. Particularly moving are the stories of elderly survivors recorded on video. One old fellow recalled eating lentils for months on end - and never touching another lentil once the war ended! 

The old town is quite beautiful, with many of its streets paved in coloured stone, massive gnarled ficus trees shading the squares and lovely buildings of several different periods. I love the first floor bay windows or box balconies (no doubt they have a proper technical name) where it's easy to imagine the senoritas of a bygone age sitting and flirting with passing caballeros from behind their fans. The wonderful Mediterranean tradition of the evening stroll (paseo here) is in full force and everyone from newborns to the very ancient and decrepit can be seen on the waterfront or the main promenade, showing off the latest in flamboyant Spanish fashion.





 
From a cruising perspective, Cartagena has been an excellent winter port. First and foremost it is safe, sheltered and secure for all vessels. There is a bit of chop when the wind blows directly into the harbour, but as you can see, breakwaters protect boats from any serious swell.





There is a small but friendly international community of cruisers and, of course the usual opportunities for Happy Hours, Sunday barbecues, excursions and so on. Importantly for us, Cartagena is a real city, not a tourist town that only functions for the summer season as many marina 'towns' seem to be. It has a university, hospitals, all the usual infrastructure and, as a 'Cuidad de la Cultura', there is something happening all the time - festivals, concerts, street dancing, religious parades, theatre. Sadly we just missed the famous Festival of Romans and Carthaginians, which sees the whole populous in role, acting out fully costumed dramatic scenes from their city's ancient past.

So that's it for the moment. Next blog we'll do a bit of a photo-tour around the city - and I think it's about time for a beer blog from El Capitano.




Wednesday, 1 June 2016

London

 


For those of us who grew up with the BBC on radio and TV (transmitted via our ABC), read Enid Blyton books then graduated to Dickens and Austen, cheered on the brave chaps in grainy old war movies, saw the Royal Family featured in every women’s magazine and studied a British-centred History curriculum, visiting London is a little bit like coming home at last.  And I know that’s quite a ridiculous thing to say about one of the world’s great metropolises where you are just as likely to hear Urdu or Croatian spoken as English, and much more likely to see a sari or a hijab worn than a bowler hat, but London seems to carry traces of all its past incarnations. The memory of Roman roads lives on in the layout of major streets; the streets themselves are named for the old trades that were conducted there. There are remnants, ruins and scars of centuries: relics of the Great Fire; the blackened bricks from the Age of Steam, clusters of gravestones from countless plagues, bomb damage from the Blitz as well as all the official memories – plaques, statues, dedicated buildings, portraits, libraries and museums. Peter Ackroyd develops this theme in his wonderful Biography of London.  Places seem to hold a memory of their previous uses – a church is likely to have been the site of a temple, and perhaps a holy site long before that; an Adult Shop occupies the space where an Elizabethan brothel operated; auto repairs are carried out where coaches used to be made, which no doubt made chariots in earlier times. It would take a lifetime to explore this amazing city, and even that wouldn’t be enough, because it creates something new every day.


We decided on a ten day visit to London while Terry was recuperating from his heart surgery and not allowed to put any strain on his chest (lines, winches, outboards etc) – and it seemed like the perfect time. After all, Shakespeare warned us “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” And perfect it was, mild weather, several days of outright sunshine and everything green and in bloom. Lines of poetry about bluebells, lilacs, ancient oaks and chestnut trees kept popping into my head at every turn. AirBnB came up trumps with a lovely Victorian house in Merton Park near Wimbledon, home of Bernadette and Tudor, their son and Fred the cocker spaniel. Both history graduates and enthusiasts, Bernadette and Tudor were able to advise us on interesting things to see and do, besides filling in the fascinating stories that surround almost every building, street corner and field.
Our B&B in Merton Park

Merton Park, for example, was the estate of Horatio, Lord Nelson, and though there is nothing left of the house he shared with his mistress Emma Hamilton, we were able to see their pew in the beautiful old Church of St Mary the Virgin, just down the road. William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, lived nearby, and William Morris had his model factory and design studio here. Emma Davison, the suffragette who died under the hooves of the King’s horse at Epsom, spent her last night at a house on the corner. And so on.
Terry managed to find four Geocaches while wombling around Wimbledon Common, and several others around Merton Park and London. The Geocache locator looked like a massive Christmas tree with thousands of lights, so a token effort was good enough for the moment. Hundreds of people were out on the Common, walking, riding bikes and horses and generally enjoying the perfect weather.

Inscription on Nelson's pew in Merton Church

A walk down a country lane - lilac, wisteria and forget-me-nots





















Churchyard, Merton church

We were about ten minutes by train from central London so we could do daily forays into the busy, teeming city then retreat back to a leafy haven of peace and quiet. Perfect! We managed to see most of the obligatory sights that seemed so familiar – the Tower, the Palace, the Abbey, all those Monopoly board streets – but I’ll just write about a few highlights here and bore everyone with all the rest when we get home.

One of our first outings was into the City proper for Terry to make a pilgrimage to the Bank of England. It really was very interesting – a walk through their museum is a journey through the history of Empire, the financing behind the great expeditions, the slave trade, the South Sea Bubble, centuries of wars, the trading dynasties. Walking around the streets you can’t miss Lord Nelson atop his column in Trafalgar Square (where I was spattered by a pigeon, just as I was in Times Square – the bastards missed me in St Mark’s). The Admiral was a bit of a theme on our visit. We saw his blood-spattered, bullet-holed jacket at Greenwich along with other memorabilia, the Great Hall where his body lay in state and his tomb at St Pauls. We actually sailed over the site of the Battle of Trafalgar on a very rough day after a failed attempt to reach Tangier in 2012, managing to spare a thought for the great man and for all those who lay below in the depths.

Nelson's jacket




Darwin presides over the Natural History Museum

London is an expensive city, but a lot of its museums, galleries and parks are free. We went to both Tate galleries, the National Gallery (to see Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, to me the world’s most beautiful painting), the British Museum, the Natural History museum, the Victoria and Albert (loved the history walk-through and the costumes) and the National Portrait Gallery. I really like portrait galleries. There’s always a few good stories to go with the faces, often of people who have made a really significant contribution to humanity though you’ve never heard of them. (Previous discoveries include Douglas Waterhouse, the blessed inventor of Aerogard and supervisor of George Bornemisso’s dung beetle project who made it possible to go outside in Australia in summer, in the Australian National Portrait Gallery; Charles Drew the African-American inventor of the Blood Bank who later resigned from the Red Cross when it refused to desegregate blood (!) at the US National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC). London’s gallery was predictably full of royals, military men and a few literary types. The change in portrait style over four hundred years was fascinating in itself, but my favourite was Beatrix Potter, as your dear old aunty who’s gone a bit batty.
QE1
Beatrix Potter
We had hopes of getting to a few shows but being a Parky and a recovering heart patient took its toll of both of us. We ended up just getting to one, but “Sunny Afternoon”, based on the story of The Kinks, was wonderful – great music, high energy and according to Terry who actually saw The Kinks back in the day, the cast nailed it. A mind-boggling array of plays, musicals and exhibitions is on offer, and constantly changing. Next time we’ll be better prepared and ration our energy.
Food was expensive and not great, though I’m sure there are wonderful top end restaurants if you want to pay the price. On the other hand there were plenty of great pubs, many with endearing names, an honourable history and some good hearty beers and ciders, to be reviewed by the Captain in a later blog.
We did a lot of walking around, just taking it all in. And on one such walk, it just happened to be the Opening of Parliament and I was strolling down Whitehall when through the massing crowds I saw a carriage accompanied by Horse Guards. It was Charles and Camilla heading to Westminster. And, as I perched precariously on a sort of kerb, a golden carriage appeared bearing Her Majesty! So I really did get to see the Queen! She looks a little different from the first time I saw her in 1962, but for ninety, she’s doing very well.
Sorry, best I could do. Charles and Camilla are in there...
We ran out of time, of course, to do everything, and towards the end we had to split up to see the things we really wanted to see. So while Terry headed to St Pauls to pay homage to Nelson, I took a tour of Westminster Abbey (Do book ahead through their own website to skip the long queue.) This was a highlight for me, a place I’ve wanted to see for about 50 years. And it didn’t disappoint. The majestic old building, with its familiar spiky towers, parts of it dating back to before the Norman Conquest. Edward III (the Confessor) rebuilt it in the 11th Century and is the earliest of the monarchs buried there. It really is awe-inspiring to stand beside a stone sarcophagus holding the nearly one thousand year old bones of a king, and to reflect that this is where William the Conqueror was crowned. I love those stone sarcophagi with effigies of the deceased carved life-sized on the top. They are generally remarkable likenesses, and the small details – a woman piously reads a book, a knight’s faithful dog curls at his feet, a couple clasp hands - serve to humanise these long-dead aristocrats. (My favourite ever was a Roman tomb in Elmali, Turkey, where a stone couple are engaged in the familiar battle of the bed-covers. The husband has hogged the quilt, exposing his wife’s bedsocks for all eternity.) Elizabeth I is there in Westminster, and the two Marys, the bitter divisions of faith resolved in the grave. Chaucer is buried in this, his workplace, and he commands what has become Poets’ Corner, resting place of many great British writers including Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Hardy and Lord Tennyson. Great scientists including Darwin, Wallace, Rutherford, Faraday, Lister, Florey and Newton are interred in the Abbey and many other greats have memorials. One of the most moving memorials is a beautiful stained glass window commemorating those who died in the Battle of Britain; it replaced a window destroyed in the Blitz. I could happily spend another day or ten exploring this wonderful Gothic treasure trove!



So, we barely scratched the surface of this great city, let alone the whole of the UK that is still beckoning. We will be back soon for sure.

Nelson surveys London from his column