A Tale of Two Cities, and Beyond

It was the best of times.

Well, it really was, and while the rest of Charles Dickens’s introduction to A Tale of Two Cities is without doubt, beautifully written, it doesn’t apply to our gap year experiences. Long may this feeling of travelling, exploring and enjoying life, continue. Even though we are back home, back to normal and back to a certain amount of responsibility, we are looking at everyday things with a refreshed set of expectations. Great Expectations, you might say, if you wanted to acknowledge to enjoyment and entertainment provided not only by Charles Dickens, but by Tasmin Archer, many years later.

Living in Northenden is indeed slowly becoming the norm. The holiday feeling still persists, even if we do miss the temples, castles, crocodiles, wombats, kiwis, lizards, bullet trains, mangoes and sumo wrestlers.

Helen arrived from Australia, failing in her duty to bring some decent weather. It was quite cold and damp when we returned, and sadly for Helen, the weather hadn’t improved much since then.

Helen and Jenny needed some peace and quiet so they could enjoy their massages. We looked after Martha and William, always a joy but always exhausting. The advantage of being grandparents is, we can hand the children back later in the day, apologise for feeding them too much sugar, and leave the parents to fix the damage caused.

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Martha’s hand

We visited the Northern Den café where Martha asked for “A babyccino with marshmallows, chocolate sprinkles and a Flake bar on the side”. Well, no chocolate sprinkles here, nor a Flake: this child is more familiar with Costa’s offerings. And then, while looking for Flakes in the nearby Tesco, Martha spotted the Kinder eggs so that’s what we bought instead. Martha walked home with hers in her right hand and William’s in her left. She enjoyed her molten chocolate, William slept through the whole episode.

Later on, we all had pies at Jenny’s, yep, more pies. Who ate all the pies? Well, I’m trying!

We’re still moving in and before we unpack the last few dozen boxes, we need storage space. That means shelving. A sales rep came round from one of the big bespoke furniture manufacturers, measured up roughly and gave a rough estimate of more than twice our anticipated budget. Instantly, we translated the amount into so many flights to exotic, interesting places. We’ll get shelving installed, but from somewhere more reasonably priced.

Another visitor was the lady who will make Roman blinds for both our living room windows. She was very pleasant and friendly and made us realise how brusque the shelf person had been.

Helen and Jenny took William and Martha out. Both children are very curious about the world. Martha demonstrates this level of interest by asking questions. William’s method is to take things apart. Sometimes, those thngs can be put back together again, but not always. RIP one of our Red Nose Day Comic Relief Red Noses, rent asunder.

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William demolishing an ice cream

Liesel and I went into Manchester to collect our valuables from the Safe Deposit box. This included some cutlery which we needed, as we didn’t otherwise have enough for everyone to eat with, at the same time. Yes, we were invaded by the children, their parents and their Aunt Helen from down under.

Hooray, I did some DIY. As ever, all jobs took three times longer than they needed to, but I got there in the end. We can now hang mugs up in the kitchen. We have a much better storage unit in the bathroom. And the light fitting in the bathroom looks much better. Such a shame, then, that the light bulb we had won’t physically fit inside the globe. Add ‘slightly smaller bulb’ to the shopping list.

The weather was slowly improving and it was a pleasant walk back home from Didsbury one morning, along the Mersey.

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Tree reflected in the Mersey

There were spots and even larger patches of blue sky by now. I donned my hat at times to protect the top of my head from actual beams of sunshine.

I walked past some bindweed happy that my 30+ year war against the stuff in my Chessington garden was now over. And yes, I lost.

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Bindweed

I’m very happy for other people to continue the bindweed wars if they wish, but I’m more convinced than ever that it will one day take over the whole planet.

Myra came up for the weekend, that’s Sarah’s mother, Martha and William’s Great-Granny. We planned to collect her from Stockport station but due to ‘an incident’, trains weren’t stopping there. So we went to pick her up from Manchester Piccadilly. This was no problem but Myra’s ticket was for Stockport so the electronic barriers at Piccadilly wouldn’t let her through. Nor anyone else with the same ticket. Why they didn’t just open the barriers and let everyone through, I don’t know, they just carefully opened the barrier for each passenger, one at a time, very slowly.

Back at Jenny’s, the shouts of ‘Great-Granny’ echoed around the house: we think they both just like saying the words!

In the garden, Martha did several roly-polies, insisting ‘They’re not head-over-heels, Grandad’. I had a go myself, just the once, but, er, I didn’t want to belittle Martha’s achievement: no problem with the disorientation I felt at all, oh no.

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Martha’s roly-poly

In the evening, we went to the Istanbul restaurant for dinner. The food was great, the service was good, the waiters seem to like young children, and we confirmed that William is a fast learner.

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William finishes his ice cream

William drank the last of his ice cream from the bowl, following the example just set by his Grandad (me), to all the other grown-ups’ consternation and dismay. I’m just glad I didn’t lick the bowl, which was my first inclination.

We took Myra to her hotel for the night and collected her in the morning. But she was locked in her room. Once released, it transpired that she had just not pulled the heavy door quite hard enough. Hanging out of the window to get someone’s attention was the best she could do, as there was no phone with which to call Reception.

We watched Martha and William swim really well, before driving over to Dunham Massey, a National Trust property not too far away.

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Old oak tree

It was good to see that Myra and I weren’t the oldest objects here: the oak tree is over 500 years old.

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Foxgloves

It was a gorgeous day for a walk around the gardens. Martha and William sniffed the flowers, admired the bees, ran around, and scootered around while the rest of walked at our various, individual speeds.

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Busy bee
Hosta Fire and Ice

We found a nice little bridge over a stream, ideal for playing Pooh Sticks, so Martha gathered up a few sticks and twigs. Fortunately, the disappointment wasn’t too bad as all the sticks just got stuck in the sludge where the stream used to be. William had no idea what was going on, he just wanted to jump in, I think.

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William looking at a disappointing Pooh Sticks stream

The flowers were very pretty and as usual, I took too many photos of the bright colours. Despite the labels, I can’t remember the proper scientific, or even the common English, names for these yellow and purple blooms.

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Yellow and purple blooms

Some flowers have so many different names. though, in various parts of the country, so I could probably make something up and nobody would know.

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Busy bee on a rare example of Auntie’s Knickers
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Martha being attacked by an Alien Facehugger

When we dropped Myra off at Stockport station the following day, we were surprised and delighted to encounter some frogs.

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Frogs at Stockport Station

This is all to celebrate Stockport’s Giant Leap into the future. Maybe we’ll find more frogs in the city centre on another occasion.

Meanwhile Helen flew off to Edinburgh on a purple aeroplane. Her flight back was on a disappointingly plain white plane. She is the last to have been nearly blown over by the strong wind up on Arthur’s Seat: Sarah and I in the early 1980s, Jenny while she was pregnant. Liesel is looking forward to the experience.

Liesel and I had a very pleasant trip to Ikea. She pointed out that the first route she learned to drive when she moved to the UK was to a branch of Ikea. History repeats itself. The first route she knows here in the north is the way to Ikea.

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The view from Ikea, Ashton under Lyne

Helen was kind enough to cut our hair, as well as Jenny’s, Martha’s and William’s. Liesel and I stayed for lunch before going into Manchester. The International Festival began with a Yoko Ono installation.

In Cathedral Gardens, thousands of people rang Bells for Peace, as requested by Yoko via video. Some of the ceramic bells had been hand-made at workshops during the last few months. Yoko asked us to talk to each other, to talk to the trees and to name the clouds. Well, we were underneath one great big, grey cloud, 100%, so that raised a small laugh.

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Bells for Peace

From Manchester to London, then. This has been the longest period I can remember without visiting our wonderful capital city, since I first moved there as a student nearly half a century ago.

The drive was much more pleasant than anticipated. The roadworks on the M6 have finished. Oh, hang on, no. They’ve just moved further along. We did miss the long purple sausage that used to live on the central reservation during the construction of the so-called ‘smart motorway’.

The first port of call was to visit my periodontist Emily in West Byfleet. Teeth cleaned and polished, I joined Liesel with Helen and Steve in the garden of the nearby Plough pub. (This is our friend Helen of course, not daughter Helen, she’s still up north with Jenny.) I couldn’t eat or drink with a numb and tender mouth but that didn’t prevent me from salivating.

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A tegestologist’s dream wall

We went to Claremont Gardens, probably the closest National Trust property. It was a good place to let my mouth thaw out and to walk around dodging the goose guano. I told one of the geese that I hoped I would be able to eat soon. He said he’d keep his feet crossed for me.

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Feet crossed, Mick

A black swan swam over and said “G’day, mate” and for a moment, I was back in Australia.

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G’day, Black Swan

Steve and I walked around the lake while the ladies, well, Liesel and Helen, sat on a bench for a chinwag, a natter. A great opportunity to take pictures as if I were visiting a strange place for the first time.

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A tree reflected in Claremont Lake

I think we were both waiting for someone to fall out of a boat, especially one of the more obviously unbalanced ones, but we were disappointed.

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Unbalanced boat

The lake is home to mallards and coots as well as the swans and geese. But even where the water was clear, we didn’t spot any fish. Helen’s Dad, Nigel, who lives in Ewell, had very kindly offered to accommodate me and Liesel for a week so we rubbed our hands while planning how best to pester him.

A long anticipated visit to an exhibition in London dragged us out of bed quite early. Something we really didn’t need to see as soon as we left Waterloo Station was a seagull tucking into a struggling pigeon. We had been in London with Helen and Steve the day we witnessed a heron swallow a baby duck too. Coincidence?

The British Museum was hosting the Edvard Munch exhibition, Love and Angst. As an artist, obviously he was a tortured soul, that’s a given, but he produced much more than The Scream. I for one was hoping for more examples of that work, but there were just two versions here, buried in the middle of the display, potentially easy to miss.

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The Scream, woodprint, Edvard Munch

He liked red skies, but ladies’ long, red hair, he found threatening. Probably the saddest painting was The Sick Child.

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The Sick Child, Edvard Munch

His 15-year old sister, Sophie, died from TB, and his Aunt Karen is mourning. Karen had looked after Edvard and his family following the earlier passing of his mother.

We caught a bus to the British Library to see some imaginary maps, based on real maps of old London, old New York and other old maps of old cities. I also found a new book to add to my Kindle list.

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One day, I might be a Manchester Man

I was on my tod walking round and enjoying the Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion exhibition.

Every time I see what he achieved, studied, deduced, created, invented, I become more convinced that he must be a time-traveller from the future. He wrote backwards, from right to left, an unintended side-effect of his journey back through several centuries, I suspect. His scientific mind was way ahead of its time.

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Why seashells on a mountain?

His study of water flow and rivers, on its own, is a solid body of work, even now. Not that water is solid, but you know what I mean.

For the first time, I wore some VR, Virtual Reality, goggles. I didn’t think this technology and my eyesight would be compatible, but this gentle introduction worked well. I was ‘walking’ through an imaginary city with hundreds of skyscrapers, blue sky and the Moon. I held on to the cable so I was tethered to real life, just in case I walked too far and collided with a real wall.

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The VR view is better IRL with VR goggles, the photo doesn’t do the image justice

Surbiton beckoned. I had an appointment with my optician. While there, of course I had to visit my favourite coffee shop, The Press Room.

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The Press Room under construction

Well that wasn’t planned very well. It’s being refurbished and I had to postpone my coffee until later in the day. I met up with another old friend, Marie, in Orpington, for lunch. Oh, and for a coffee. I hope she visits us up in Manchester soon.

On the way back through London, I bit the bullet and did one of my least favourite things. I went shoe shopping. For sandals, to replace the old ones which have apparently acquired a slightly cheesey tang after walking around the tropics for several months.

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Pretty alleyway near Covent Garden
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My dancing shoes don’t need replacement yet, even at this fab shop
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The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

From Wikipedia: [On the fourth plinth, there is a] recreation of a sculpture of a lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 by Isis, along with other artefacts in the Mosul Museum. [Michael] Rakowitz’s recreation is made of empty Iraqi date syrup cans, representing the destruction of the country’s date industry.

Yes, of course, I had to walk through Trafalgar Square. It, together with Waterloo Station, was London, to me, when I was very young. But I am so pleased I found the rest of the wonderful city later on in life.

And so to Chessington, our own ‘hood, the place I lived for 33 years. It hasn’t changed much, but, ooh, there is a KFC where my old favourite caff, Unique, used to be.

The massage from Dawn was very welcome and well-timed as I had cricked my back somehow a couple of days ago. Afterwards, it felt much better, thanks, Dawn!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced more medical consultations than I’ve had hot dinners. Two hearing tests, bowel cancer test, blood pressure check, ECG, optician, periodontist, prescription renewals and a quick examination of ‘the warty thing’ growing on my leg. (Plus a haircut of course, thanks very much, Helen!) The main lesson that I learned from all this (apart from ‘don’t get old’) was: modern day scientific nomenclature isn’t as rigid, precise nor robust as it once was.

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Bindweedy thing growing through a fence

After Liesel and I had been respectively beautified and fixed by Dawn, the plan was to visit a showroomy place in Crystal Place to look at shelving suggestion. Liesel likes it, but I wasn’t so keen, just looking at pictures online. Unfortunately, the showroom was closed today. Instead we visited John Lewis in London’s Oxford Street. We found the same kind, String Shelving, spoke to a really helpful assistant, and yes, I am now a convert. It looks better in the flesh, with real things on the shelves, not so stark and industrial.

We also had a quick look at all the loudspeakers and other hi-fi components to replace the 30-year old system that we discarded when we moved house, since most bits didn’t work anyway. It’s quite exciting, buying new stuff for a new home! Who knew!

We had a Chinese takeaway at Helen’s house, while watching sport from Wimbledon and from the Tour de France. We drove past our old house and it seems to be occupied by a family of Japanese warriors. There are Samurai swordy things in the window.

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Swords in the window

With grim inevitability, we noticed that our erstwhile neighbours are still parking their cars in the shared drive. Not our problem any more.

We were pleased to catch up with Stella and Ian for coffee and cakey things, in their garden, in the sunshine, in Chessington. Their bathroom is being refitted and that’s a noisy process, but it will be great when it’s finished.

On the way home, I got out at Hook Parade shops to buy something. I visited Hook Café in the library. The owner’s doing very well. He recognised me, thought I’d won the lottery and emigrated!

We dragged Helen out of her house and took her to Hampton Court, where we admired the Rose Garden, the kitchen garden and had a late lunch. It’s an obvious thought, but I think for the first time since we returned, a month ago, I consciously registered just what a brilliant, beautiful, interesting, fascinating and historical place England is. I think living here, we just take it for granted much of the time.

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Some flowery things
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Here’s Abundance, feeding a child from her breasty thing

By mistake I tried to enter the children’s playground without a ticket: it must be a new attraction. I did like the nearby guard dog though.

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Hampton Court’s Guard Griffin
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A leafy thing
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A bee with, literally, a legful

While Liesel and Helen went off to Tesco, I walked to Kingston along the Thames tow path.

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One of Hampton Court’s back gates

It was a pleasant walk in the Sun, not many other people about, but as we’d seen at Hampton Court, there were plenty of bees and butterlies.

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A butterflyy thing

I saw an animal run across the path, too big to be a mouse, but I don’t think it was a rat, there was no tail to speak of. I communed with the blackbirds and robins too, but tried not to disturb the bicycle having a rest.

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Lost or discarded bike

We’d all planned to meet up later on for an evening meal. Queen Anne watched as I sat in Kingston’s Market Place and wrote some words, enjoying the sunshine, watching people, not seeing anyone I knew from the olden days.

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Queen Anne

She doesn’t really look like Olivia Coleman who portrays her in The Favourite but here was another tenuous link back to New Zealand, where we saw the film with Pauline and Andrew.

At Riverside Vergetaria, there were six in our party, Helen, Steve and Nigel, Liesel, me and our Helen. Ritchie, the owner, seemed pleased to see us again after all this time.

I walked to Epsom while Liesel drove Nigel to hospital. The old market here is currently a building site and judging by the angle of the Sun, I was here at about a quarter to midday.

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Epsom market and clock tower
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A celebration of Epsom horse racing

After a brief writing session in the library, I decided to visit the South Bank for a wander. Congratulations to the graduates from the London Business School who were gathered in and around the South Bank Centre, taking photos and looking gorgeous and justifiably proud.

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Selfie of the day

It was great being back here, walking by the river, looking down on the beach, trying not to make eye contact with the street entertainers who were later, sadly, moved on by the police. I found an unoccupied bench, sat and wrote for a while. I think I’ve sold the idea of using a stand-alone keyboard connected to a phone by Bluetooth to a very nice young lady who asked.

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The London skyline

The Turbine Room at Tate Modern has been home to many interesting installations over the years. It was empty today, though, unless the two small children running around were both, appropriately, named Art. Sixteen years ago, we lay down here and basked in fake sunshine and fog, an installation called The Weather Project, by Olafur Eliasson. There’s currently a retrospective show of his work here at Tate Modern. His latest idea is to bring in a million white Lego bricks with which we are invited to build future cities.

The seagull that ate the pigeon a few days ago was back. This time, he caught a pink fish from the Thames and proceeded to chow down here, on the beach.

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Seagull v fish

This is why we love nature so much.

It’s good to see they’re still selling second-hand books underneath Waterloo Bridge by the BFI. The skateboarders and cyclists are still having fun in the Undercroft, below the Royal Festival Hall, a facility that was under threat a few years ago. The Spread Riverside is a Street Food Market, open five days a week, with every kind of street food you can imagine. I’ll definitely be back. I had a small pie today, natch.

We drove to Salisbury to meet up with Sarah, a friend who used to live close by but moved to Exeter some years ago. Salisbury is a good midway point to catch up.

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Salisbury Cathedral

We sat in the Cathedral refectory for over three hours, eating, drinking but mainly talking about our travels.

Salisbury is a busy little town, despite its recent reputation for attempted political assassinations.

In the grounds of the Cathedral, people were resting, playing, sunbathing and picnicking but there were also some works of art. They’re all interesting to look at but it was difficult to view them without something in the background to spoil the view. An old gothic building is OK, but boring old semi-detached houses not so much.

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Sky Circles by Diane Maclean

Maybe ‘art critic’ is not the career for me: that last sentence was written with far too much snobbishness!

We spent the night at The Talbot Inn Hotel in Ripley. A hotel named after Mick from The Style Council in a village named after the heroine from the Alien films: how cool is that?

We stayed on the top floor of this old coaching house, in a room complete with sloping floors, very low ceiling and beams. This is where Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton became ‘good friends’. In fact, our room was named Horatio.

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Lord Nelson, potential room-mate

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Yes, we were being watched and the Martians did soon invade the Earth. We humans won The War of the Worlds, of course, and one of the Martians has been displayed in Woking as a warning to others.

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Martian

There’s also a statue of HG Wells, the author of the book as well as a pub named in his honour. Why Woking? We were here to have breakfast with Rosie but the short drive from Ripley was greatly extended by the difficulty in finding a parking place.

We broke our fast, I felt rotten eavesdropping on Rosie and Liesel talking shop, but so pleased to be well away from office politics.

The drive to Polesden Lacey was quiet, and followed some roads where I have often cycled in the past. We met up with our friends Sandra and Fred, their dog Clyde, Sandra’s Mum Carol who celebrated her birthday yesterday as well as Liesel and Sandra’s former colleagues Vicky and Diane.

One day, Liesel and I will go inside the house at Polesden Lacey, but again, we just went for a walk around the grounds. Last time I was here with Sandra, ten years ago, I did my back in and was off work for three weeks, a personal best for me. I also missed a Mott the Hoople reunion concert at Hammersmith Odeon where I’d seen them in 1973, supported by Queen.

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The view from Polesden Lacey
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An orchid at Polesden Lacey

The rose garden and the lavendar were very aromatic and my sneeze organs began working overtime. The gardeners here though do a really good job.

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Lavendar

And so, after an ice cream with Helen and Steve back at Nigel’s house, Liesel and I set off for home, hoping to arrive before the Sun set.

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The setting Sun as seen from the glamorous M6

Success! What a great drive: we didn’t stop at all, there were no traffic jams, no hold-ups, straight up the motorways, then straight up the stairs and then straight to bed.

Since we’ve been back in England after our adventures overseas, many, many people have told us how well we’re looking and how happy we seem. That is all undoubtedly true, though I for one find it hard to take compliments. I don’t know how to respond when someone says they’ve enjoyed following the blog: all I can manage is a weak, embrarrassed ‘thank you’.

But this morning as we watched Martha and William swimming, I was again reminded of my own inadequacies. Three-year old Martha has, voluntarily, swum further under water than I have in all of my 29 long years on the good Earth. Driving home from swimming, we were overtaken by this gorgeous pair. I think William was, by then, fast asleep in the back!

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Jenny and Martha

The rest of the day consisted of writing, washing, watching cricket and cycling on TV, and relaxing after a fun-packed week down south.

Cricket? Yes, we’re proud to say we witnessed the England Team win the ICC Cricket World Cup for the first time in a nail-biting finish against New Zealand, in a game during which a couple of very obscure rules were revealed. Marvellous! One of England’s top players is Joe Root. His One Day International number is 66. So the back of the pyjama top he plays in says ‘Root 66’. Wonderful!

Cycling? Yes, one week into the Tour de France and we’ve caught up. No Mark Cavendish nor Chris Froome this year, so I guess we’re rooting for Geraint Thomas again.

Settling in

The ‘holiday mood’ persists and that’s not a bad thing. We’re back in our own place, yes, but because it’s still new to us, it feels like we’re still Airbnb-ing. We’re exploring the local area as if merely visiting. It makes me realise that once you’re settled, you tend to take your local neighbourhood for granted.

The Trafford Centre is as big as a small country. Most of the shops have no interest for us, but the mall itself is fascinating.

Trafford Centre welcoming committee

We were looking at armchairs, we know how to have a good time. Not to mention curtains, blinds, other window accoutrements, lamp shades and light fittings.

Not sure this one will match our curtains

There were some great photos to be taken, so I’m afraid I was looking elsewhere while Liesel was focussed on the main job of the day.

Little Greene Paint and Paper

Yes, we’re in the north now, so it’s only to be expected that on a relatively cold, wet day, the young ladies out shopping will be woefully underdressed.

Marble statue

We thought we were going into an old Egyptian tomb or something but it was only a lift taking us to a whole new level.

Going up
Nooses for curtains

Barton Square is partly a building site, but I’m sure it will be lovely when it’s finished. The glass dome promises to let in the light but not the rain.

Barton Square dome, under construction

Again, we ventured into ancient Egypt, a fantastic theme around the centre. It’s just a bit worrying when a young child screams for ‘Mummy’, you half expect a sarcophagus to creak open.

Spirits of Ancient Egypt

We later met Jenny at Costco where I made sure to get my steps in. Not as fascinating nor as glamorous as the Trafford Centre, of course.

Vegetarian magazine plus unsuitable free gift
They’re making peanut butter out of kangaroos, now

Other than settling in and finding our way around the local area , our main project is getting to know and looking after our two delightful grandchildren.

Martha and William came round while their parents, Jenny and Liam goofed off, I mean, while they enjoyed some quality time together.

Martha channelling Salvador Dalí
William channelling Sherlock Holmes

Both are very curious about the world. Martha barely stops talking and asking questions. William just tries to take everything apart. But they are both great fun, we are very lucky grandparents!

Liesel and I took advantage of a small hiatus in the late April showers and walked to Didsbury. We stayed away from the main roads as much as possible, venturing along narrow, overgrown, nettle-infested, sometimes muddy paths. We knew we were back in Manchester when we found a shopping trolley nowhere near its supermarket.

Modern art? Or rubbish?

Part of me must still be in Australia because when I saw a ripple on the surface of the river Mersey, in the distance, my first thought was ‘crocodile’. No, of course not, it was just a family of ducks.

Ducks cross the Mersey

In Didsbury, I could not resist the temptation to have coffee and cake at a place called FFS. I think it’s a front for something.

The first coffee I ever tasted, mid 1960s, was Camp Coffee: sweet, with chicory. It came as a dark brown liquid in a bottle and was alright, I suppose. At this point in history, we Brits drank tea and Americans drank coffee: that was the law. It was much later that I acquired a fondness for proper coffee, even though, in the UK, it was often over-roasted, burnt, too strong or just tasteless. But during all those decades, I was desperate to be able to send a message by telephone, ordering my coffee, so that it’s ready when I roll up at the café. Well, hallelujah, my dream has come true!

The wait is over

Our sleep patterns are settling down, we’re getting used to the rain but we really want a proper, warm, sunny Summer. One place in Lincolnshire is suffering badly after having received two months of rain in one day. Rivers bursting their banks, sandbags not doing their job. It’s not that bad here in Northenden, but even when it’s not actually raining, it looks and feels like it’s going to start again any minute.

Raindrops and full Moon

Not only was Sunday Fathers’ Day, it was also the day of the Tour of Tameside 7-mile run. I watched the participants with just a hint of envy but with plenty of admiration.

Lucky devils running seven miles

We watched Martha and William swimming too, always a joy, they are both very competent and enjoy their time in the water.

Three of us fathers gathered together at Jenny’s for the big celebration. Liam, his Dad Alan and I all received chocolatey gifts from our respective offspring. Chocolate. Oh well: the diet starts next month!

I’m forever blowing bubbles

We enjoyed playing with Martha, William and bubbles in the garden. Wimbledon tennis championships begin any day now, and we were in training for that too.

Smashed it

Jenny came up trumps again with pies and roast potatoes and vegetables! It was good to catch up with Alan and Una too after so many months away.

Another day, another opportunity to look after M&W so we took them by bus into Manchester. We visited the Museum of Science and Industry where their natural curiosity caused them to press all the buttons, turn all the wheels, move anything that wasn’t tied down. Martha was genuinely surprised and pleased that by turning a handle, she could lift a car into the air. Too difficult to explain gearing systems, but one day…

Red Arrows simulator

When we first entered the Museum, Martha pointed out the train. It wasn’t any old train either. Only the original Stephenson’s Rocket, back in Manchester for the first time in 180 years.

Stephenson’s Rocket

Both children fell asleep on the bus home. Liesel and I managed to stay awake but as soon as Jenny took them home again, we slumped.

We’re looking forward to our first musical performance since coming home. Hard to believe that during the ten months away, we only saw a couple of concerts and one theatre show. Next time, we’ll go out more often. Next time!

Back in Northenden

It’s going to take a while to acclimatise to Manchester. We expected some rain, eventually, not this much in just a few days. Luckily, we’re on the second floor, so we don’t need a boat, yet.

Learning the local language might take some time too. I visited Northern Den, the local coffee shop, and asked for a fried egg sandwich. Oops. I was given an egg barm. A barm cake is like a hamburger bun, a big, soft bread roll. Luckily, the word for ‘latté’ is ‘latté’.

We’ve had a chance now to process our ten months away from home.

We left home at the end of July, Day 1 and we left Melbourne for home on Day 316.

During that time, I walked 3,603,072 steps, a distance of 1665 miles. Liesel walked most of that distance with me. The hardest part was counting paces for that length of time, so it’s a good job I had a Fitbit to confirm my enumeration.

We enjoyed 27 separate flights, if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, with a wide spectrum of comfort. Often, you just have to write off the whole day if you’re flying somewhere, with all the queueing and waiting at airports.

We slept in 78 different beds during our travels, and again, with every possible level of comfort from hard on the floor, to mattresses made of marshmallow, with nylon sheets. But how lucky are we: our own bed at home is the best!

Yes, next time we may do some things differently. We’ll make more of an effort to learn some of the local language. We’ll do more research into the local food: finding vegetarian meals in Japan was a nightmare.

We managed well carrying just one small bag each, with one week’s worth of clothing. Liesel is delighted to be wearing something different here at home.

On just a few occasions did we wish we had a pair of binoculars. A proper camera with a decent zoom lens would have given better quality photos of small, faraway objects, but the phone camera was brilliant 99% of the time. I even managed a few shots of the stars at night.

While driving and even sometimes when hiking, there were a few times I wished I had my bike. But that would be a different kind of trip.

Overall, we had a marvellous time, it was a wonderful experience, and we would recommend a gap year adventure to anybody of slightly advanced years, who missed out in their youth.

There are quite a few places that we’d like to revisit and spend more time in. There are very few places that we have no desire to return to, but I think we’ll try to avoid extremely hot places where your energy is sapped, and you can’t fully appreciate the place.

As I think I said early on, I’m no good at remembering names of things, notably flowers and birds and trees. So I apologise for any mis-captioned photos: this blog was never meant to be a guide to the natural world, there are plenty of those already!

Some converstaions are universal. I think I’ve used every possible pronunciation of ‘latté’ over the ten months, and I’m sure some baristas just pretend not to understand this strange Englishman’s accent.

So many people commented on the colour of my Monzo card: hot coral. “You’ll never lose that”, they’d say.

When asked, I’d sometimes say I was from the UK. “Brexit? Hahaha! Theresa May? Hahahahaha!” So embarrassing.

When asked whereabouts in the UK do we live: “Manchester”. “Oh, Manchester United!!” or “Red or blue?”

We saw Fuji, Fiji and Coogee but bypassed Mudgee and Nadgee, ate a dodgy bhaji, listened to the Bee Gees, fed a budgie but not a geegee, used a squeegee in a shower.

We incurred no major injuries, although Liesel is still occasionally in pain if she walks too far, or sometimes even if she walks at all. Insect bites, splinters, sunburn once, minor cuts and a few broken nails are as bad as it got.

We’ve had a couple of days of medical appointments, walking around the local area and trying to find our way around the luxury apartment that we’ve hardly lived in!

Please drive carefully but feel free to park on and block the pavements
Ducks on the Mersey

Christchurch

A rainy day in Christchurch, it seems like it’s rainin’ all over the world. We’ve been so lucky with the weather during the last few months, so we shouldn’t really complain but this rain in Christchurch is just so ///wet/// and penetrative and persistent. We could have stayed in all day and looked miserably through the windows but we had to go out for reasons of health and beauty. I was forced to wear my actual waterproof coat, the weather was that bad! So, if you’re not interested in bodily or medical issues, just scroll down to the first picture.

It’s three months since my last visit to the dental hygienist so it was time to have another session of oral torture. She was very good, realy, a couple of sensitive spots, but mostly OK. She didn’t know my kiwi periodontist back at home.

I also visited the local GP to obtain a prescription for my next three months of medication. The limit of three months at a time seems to be universal.

Liesel was attended to from top to bottom. Eyebrowsn and eye lashes all polished up and then a pedicure which was different to the ones enjoyed in Alaska.

Liesel also wants a massage and/or some physiotherapy. Her ‘slipped disc’ / piriformis muscle issue is still not resolved. We didn’t walk nearly as far in Fiji as we did in Japan so that helped a bit, but those two days in Auckland reminded us of the level of discomfort that can be felt.

On the other hand, I feel pretty good. I’d like a massage but don’t feel I ///need/// one right now, but they usually find something that needs loosening up, in the shoulders or thereabouts.

Occasionally, one of my feet complains. It’s like there’s a length of string between the second toe and the heel that just doesn’t want to stretch for a while, so I have to walk funny, almost limping. Pauline said I always walk funny anyway!

That is the end of the medical news! Spoiler alert: there’s a haircut coming up soon.

Rain on the decking, in case you don’t know what rain on decking looks like

We bought some groceries and then hung around waiting for the rain to stop. And waited. And waited. We had coffee and tea and muffins. And waited.

In the end, we started walking home but just as we left the shopping centre in Barrington, a taxi pulled up in front of us. The driver dragged us in, kicking and screaming, and reluctantly, we took a ride home to Pauline’s house.

When my sister asked me a while ago what food I wanted in New Zealand, I suggested PIES! I have missed pies, with proper pastry, and I’ve missed proper, tasty, crusty bread.

Tonight for supper, we had a pie. It was fabulous. So pastry-y and tasty. There was a filling too, apparently, but the pastry… mmm.

While walking to The Tannery the following day, we were in danger of an attack of homesickness. (No, not really.)

Palatine Tce

Palatine Road is the main shopping street near where we now live in Northenden. And this poor old postman still has use of a bicycle. I think if he tried harder, he could really load it up.

Kiwi postie’s bike

It was a pleasant walk, not sunny, but at least it was dry. There are many areas around here that share their names with parts of London: Sydenham, Beckenham, Waltham, Edgeware, even a St Martins.

We always go for the low-hanging fruit. Well, Liesel does as she’s so short. But I think this is the first time we’ve been scrumping, for plums, in New Zealand. Small but sweet, and if any officers of the law are reading this, it was Liesel’s idea.

Small plum tree. The plums are small, the tree was quite big
Small plum or big fingers

One local sport seems to be fly-tipping. These guys parked across the pavement, forcing us to walk in the road, while they threw hundreds of plastic bottles over the fence. It might have been a legitimate place to dispose of the waste items, but what a bizarre way to go about it. They could have driven into the yard, just along the road a bit.

Let’s park on the pavement while we’re fly-tipping
The owner needs a p

The Tannery is a cute, little Boutique Shopping Centre in Woolston. There are bars and restaurants too. When we arrived, there were two girls performing but they soon disappeared, unfortunately: they were making quite a nice noise.

While we ate lunch, we enjoyed some classical music but as there was so much background noise, Shazam was unable to confirm it was by Mozart.

While Liesel went window shopping, I found a barbershop and had a haircut and a shave. The girl was from Greenwich, has been in NZ for twelve years and hasn’t lost her accent. Yet.

Pauline joined us after work and we had drinks at the chocolate shop.

The Tannery
Trompe l’oeil great tiles

In the evening, while Pauline was doing stuff in the kitchen, Liesel, Andrew and I played a game of Scrabble. Then, Andrew taught us a new card game: 500s. I don’t think I’d heard of it before but it was fun learning a new game. Especially one in which, under certain circumstances, the jack of clubs pretends to be a spade.

Friday was Pauline’s last half-day at work this year and to avoid meeting her just after lunchtime, Andrew drove us into town. He joined us for a short while in the Botanic Gardens and we continued after he left for home.

Very colourful Botanic Gardens
Southern hemisphere Sun dial
Invisible reindeer
Chaffinch
Diminish and Ascend by David McCracken, 2014
Waxeye

We continued our slow walk into the city centre.

Rubbish selfie of the day, in front of big bubbles

It’s all new to us of course, and I don’t suppose the earthquakes were at the front of other people’s minds. There is a lot of building work going on, but apart from that, Christchurch is a lively, bright, functioning city. It’s not as busy as usual because at this time of the year, many people go away, especially to Nelson at the north of the island. There are plenty of visitors such as ourselves, of course.

This building needs a lot of support and love
Cathedral and cairn

There is a great window display in the big department shop, Ballantyne’s, and plenty of other Christmas decorations, but it doesn’t ///feel/// like Christmas to me. I know it’s the middle of December, but this whole adventure of ours sometimes feels so unreal, it’s hard to add more excitement to it.

Christchurch Christmas tree and bauble
The Merry Mice of Dunstable House, window display

We took the bus home and arrived an hour before the rain. Pauline was in the garden pulling up some big weeds. I was not at all gallant, I didn’t offer to help. I would only pull up the wrong things.

Adventure before Dementia

It’s sad, so sad, it’s a sad, sad situation. It makes me feel a little bit guilty, asking to be removed from the Rose Theatre mailing list after all this time. We’ll miss Kingston’s own little theatre. I was a Founding Friend too: there’s even a seat with a memorial plaque for Sarah, so have a look the next time you go. But we have to move on, change is difficult sometimes but it’s worthwhile in the end.

The Government website is a vortex of looping, self-linking pages telling you that you should do something but not how to do it. That’s another two hours I’ll never get back. But the good news is, when the time comes, I will receive the maximum possible state pension in the UK, just over £9000 pa. In Sweden, I’d get nearly three times as much. Here’s an old but interesting article. Yes, I wasted more time reading up on this and trying not to feel cheated.

But in eight days, we’ll be leaving this little nest of ours for a while. As we have to fly out of London Heathrow, we throught we’d spend a couple of days in the capital before we jet off. Sunday is the day of the Prudential 100-mile bike ride around London and Surrey. We’ll probably watch them roll in on The Mall, just as I did myself four years ago. And hope to do again one year.

Then early on the Monday, we’ll fly to Anchorage for Part One of our Gap Year Travels. This is why we’re trying to tie up all the loose administrative ends this week. We don’t want any important mail to end up in Chessington, after all. And we want the flat to be secure. Plus, the car will have a nice little holiday of its own somewhere. For a while, we thought about selling it but having lived here for a whole two and a bit weeks now, we accept that we really do need our own set of wheels. Public transport is OK, but we’re quite a way from the nearest train stations and tram stops.

The other day when we were driving somewhere, we passed a campervan with a brilliant sticker on the back. “Adventure before Dementia”, it said. And we thought, that’s great, that’s our philosophy right now!

This morning, I needed to go out to get some milk. I asked Liesel if she fancied going for a walk, and she said “Yes”. So we walked to Palatine Road, the main street, bought some milk and enjoyed our first coffee in the coffee bar, The Northern Den, recommended by our old Airbnb host, Iris, a few weeks ago. Liesel bumped into our old Airbnb host, Iris, just along the road. She’d left the café just before we arrived. What are the chances?

Instead of walking home, we walked further along the main road and after the bridge under the motorway, we started to walk along the path by the Mersey, towards West Didsbury. Liesel thought it would be great to have lunch at Greens, a fab vegetarian restaurant that we’ve been to several times with Jenny and Liam. It was a nice walk, yes, but poor old Liesel’s piriformis was playing up again.

We had a lovely lunch, the food’s always good. But it was so much quieter at lunchtime than it’s ever been in the evening. And as there aren’t enough pictures of food on this blog (said absolutely nobody, never ever), here’s one of what was left of my double chocolate sponge cake with chocolate sauce:

20180720_2100299153499316099614140.jpg

On this day last year, I was in an MRI scanner watching a silent Buster Keaton film while strange beeps, whoops and other sounds were being played. I was worried I might fall asleep, but I manged not to. This was some research being conducted on perception of sound by people and how it changes with age. I hope the right bits of my brain lit up while I was processing the information.

One thing we won’t miss from Chessington is our old neighbours’ frequent habit of cooking up fish curry outside. A big cauldron of pink goo that can be sniffed from hundreds of yards away. Such was the case on this day 9 years ago. It must have been especially strong that day because I mentioned it on Facebook. Pee-ook. I hope they enjoyed it, we didn’t!

Water Sports

Early Thursday morning, I drove Liesel to the railway station. Gatley is the closest, but Stockport made more sense. From Gatley, to go to London Euston, you’d have to change at Manchester Piccadilly or Crewe. It’s a 2-hour trip from Stockport. The train was packed, and Liesel had the pleasure of standing up in the train manager’s special little compartment. She was standing and chatting with a barrister, both really needed a seat for medical reasons. The train manager gave them permission to go and sit in First Class. Which was great, but the air conditioning was on full blast. But it would have been churlish to complain about that, so they did the British thing, whinged to each other, assumed stiff upper lips and enjoyed siting down, at least!

Meanwhile, I was having more fun, taking the first car-load of rubbish to the local tip. Lots of our packaging material that can’t really be reused, although the hundreds of emptied cardboard boxes are up for grabs.

The long process of informing businesses of our new address continues. Thames Water have sent their final bill from our old house. Great. But somehow, we have acquired two different account numbers with United Utilities, our new water supplier. This is the company that didn’t even know it had installed a new water meter here, so that I wondered whether I’d just read the wrong one! Fun and games with water companies!

Our solicitor sent another form for me to sign. He sent it by email, a PDF attachment. I was to print it out, sign it and post it back. So I had to set up my computer and the printer. But before that, I had to build the desk for the PC, the shelf unit for the printer and find all the other bits and pieces and cables. Here’s a tip: make sure all the tools and the nuts and bolts and screws for furniture are easy to find!

And we have no internet yet either, so it was with a great sense of relief that I was able to copy the PDF file to the computer via a USB cable. Not sure I could have done that with the old iPhone: top marks, nice, new Samsung Galaxy!

Form printed and signed. Now, where are the envelopes and the stamps?

In the local newsagent and the local Post Office of course. This was my cue (and excuse) to go for a walk in the local neighbourhood. Errands complete, I continued along Palantine Road to the bridge over the river Mersey. Yes, that river Mersey, the famous one. I followed it for a while and took the first interesting photo in this neck of the woods.

Mersey at Northenden

I suspect, in the fullness of time, when we’re more settled, we’ll be walking and cycling along the towpath a lot.

On Friday, I waited in for the Futon to be delivered. I was told it weighed 250kg and my first thought was, I hope it doesn’t fall through the floor.

I knew I’d never carry it upstairs on my own, and I suspect Liesel and I would have struggled together. So I went onto Grindr and looked for two, strong, strapping young men to come round and (help me!) carry the Futon up two flights of stairs. No, not Grindr. Google. I Googled a local removal company in the hope that they would help out at short notice. And I found one.

The delivery guy left our furniture on a pallet outside at the back of the flats. He wasn’t allowed to enter the premises for cock and bull ‘not insured’ reasons. So thanks to Dave and his mate who came by and did the heavy lifting for me.

And just in time too. I had to collect Liesel from the station after her very short return visit to Chessington.

She’d met up with our friend Sarah, up from Exeter, at Waterloo Station. Then in the evening, she went to the WI Book Group meeting, and they were kind enough to give her a £45 book token for Waterstones. This, plus the M&S vouchers she was given by the WI group as a whole is a sign of real affection and gratitude. Much more generous than Liesel’s former employers: she’s well out of that company.

It took Liesel and me about an hour to construct the Futon and it is really comfortable. Much nicer than the sofa we’d left behind 😉

We went round to Jenny’s for fish and chips (cheese and onion pie for me). Poor Martha was heart-broken when Mummy and Daddy ‘went out to the shops’. I remember when Jenny was inconsolable whenever her Mum went out too. I know it’s just a phase, but it’s horrible to watch, because there’s nothing really you can do. Except, on this occasion, they took Martha with them and she fell asleep in the car.

Today, Saturday, though, we went round to look after the children again. And again, Mummy and Daddy went out but this time, they couldn’t take Martha. It was lunchtime, and all we could do was try and distract her with Peppa Pig and encourage her to eat her lunch.

Which she did. Hollow legs has Martha: two Babybels, yellow pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, bread, crisps, cake, water melon, ice cream with a Flake. She was, by now a really happy bunny!

Martha

William’s a wonderfully laid-back little guy. He’s really happy playing by himself but he likes company too. Liesel had her first really dirty nappy changing experience with him! He is so close to crawling, but he just can’t quite get pushing his little legs. He can push himself backwards, rotate on his belly, roll over onto his back and onto his front. But not move forwards, yet!

And fidget. Boy, does he fidget. Always moving, arms twitching, legs kicking. I can hear my old teachers saying to him in the future, “Sit still, William”, “Stop fidgeting, William”, “Have you got ants in your pants, William?”

William

It’s been a joy to spend time with both of them after being so caught up in our own little house-move for so long. In the garden Martha had a great time in her paddling pool. Even William had a bit of a paddle. Fun and games with water!

In the pool

After a while, I realised he was in need of a kip, so I carried him back inside and he very quickly fell asleep.

But all good things come to an end. And when Jenny and Liam came home this afternoon, Liesel and I went to a little bit of Sweden while their football team played England in the World Cup quarter finals. Yes, we bought some more furniture and other bits and pieces from Ikea. More heavy stuff to lug upstairs, but we manged this time. Here’s a tip: it’s OK to unpack Ikea furniture at the bottom of the stairs and carry it up piece by piece!

Never mind the World Cup, though, the Tour de France started today. Unusually, today’s first stage was a proper road race in which most of the main contenders fell off, broke wheeels or got held up by other crashes.