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.

Two Museums

The Museum of London is onre of those places we ought to visit more often. We’ve seen the Roman artefacts before, and the state coaches, but there is a lot more on offer. On one of the lower ground floor, some of the exhibits are from ouyr own lifetime. I visited the then new Post Office Tower in 1966 and I still have the brochure from that visit. It cost 2/6d. They have a copy in this museum.

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Post Office Tower brochure

The London Stone is usually hidden in a cage, at a bank in Cannon Street. While building works are taking place there, the London Stone is being exhibited at the Museum. It’s just a stone, yes, but there are so many stories round it, and it was good to see it close up.

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The London Stone

The other ‘main attraction’ is a small sample of the famous 130-tonne fatberg excvated a couple of years ago from the sewers of London. Not at all photogenic but we were pleased that there was no assault on the olfactory senses.

I used to watch Watch With Mother with my Mum half a century or more ago, and it was great to see some of the puppets here. If I remember correctly, the schedule was:

  • Monday – Picture Book
  • Tuesday – Andy Pandy
  • Wednesday – Bill and Ben
  • Thursday – Rag, Tag and Bobtail
  • Friday – the Woodentops

There’s nothing like seeing your childhood in a museum to make you feel old.

But being a museum exhibit yourself is a whole new experience.

The Museum of Futures in Surbiton is currently hosting the Wheels of Time exhibion, describing the history of cycling in the Royal Borough of Kingston.

This video talks about a couple of local cycling heroes.

Liesel and Mick attended the opening night of the exhibition which was very well attended. Mick’s mugshot is on the wall with a transcript of the interview conducted a couple aof weeks ago, about his experience of using a bicycle for his job as a postman. Snippets of the interview are available to listen to too, and are as embarrassing as you would expect. So embarrassing, I didn’t want to draw attention so I took a few photos with my phone, but not using the flash.

It was interesting to learn that there used to be a couple of tracks in the area, in the very early days of cycle racing.

A second visit is on the cards, not least so I can get some better pictures. If you can, go along and have a laugh at my bits look yourself.