Lu-Lu Belle

Wednesday was the thirteenth anniversary of Liesel moving to England. We didn’t mark the occasion, mainly because we didn’t remember until the following day. Oh well, maybe next year.

But we did have a fantastic and fascinating 9-hour long trip on board the good ship Lu-Lu Belle.

Lu-Lu Belle

It was raining when we walked across the road to wait, under cover, for departure at 11 o’clock. It rained on and off all day, but that didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the cruise and everything we saw. Captain Fred Rodolf has been cruising Prince William Sound since 1979 so he’s had plenty of time to perfect his commentary which was both informative and very funny.

He was very proud of the oriental rugs on Lu-Lu Belle, so we passengers all had to wipe our feet before going on board.

Just one of the oriental rugs

A boat’s wake is so-called because it wakes up any sea otters that happen to be asleep as the boat passes by.

And we did indeed wake up a few otters, in cold water, yes, but snugly warm with their 100,000 hairs per square inch.

Sea otters

We saw Valdez Glacier as we left the harbour, just, through the mist and the haze. Fred told us that the Valdez we’re staying in is not the original town. That was destroyed in the 1964 earthquake. But why is there a place here at all? Because it’s the northern-most, totally ice-free harbour on the Pacific coast of America. It gets very cold but the sea doesn’t freeze here.

We passed by Glacier Island where we were met by the sight and the stench of sea-lions, great big lumbering slugs lolloping on the beaches.

Sea-lions

Fred told us several times that sea-lions weren’t very popular because they eat the salmon. And the Alaskan salmon industry is second only in size to its oil industry. The salmon population is closely monitored and if one year, not enough salmon return to spawn, then the permitted catch is reduced accordingly.

Further around the island, the boat nosed into several caves, yes, actually into the caves, to try and find some puffins. It was delightful to see them high up, nesting in the caves but it was impossible to get a decent photo from a moving boat while looking up, trying not to fall over and desperate not to drop the phone.

It really is a puffin

Pictures of humpback whales turned out a bit better. There was more time, they were further away and I was more steady on my feet. One of the whales resurfaced pretty much every seven minutes, but where he would appear was anyone’s guess.

Thar she blows!

One of the other passengers was eating ‘gorp’. I don’t know if that’s a well-known term for it, but trail-mix really is a different animal in these parts. At home, trail-mix is just a mix of nuts and dried fruit. Here in AK, it has nuts and raisins, yes, but it also includes little chocolate chips as well as M&Ms.

As we approached Columbia Glacier, we saw ice-bergs. Mostly quite small but there were some large ones too. Their blue colour is lovely, brought about by refraction in ice when all of the air has been squeezed out.

Sunbathing otter

Ice-berg

Approaching the glacier was something I never thought I’d do. Columbia has retreated several miles over the last forty years, and the leading edge is a mile and a quarter wide. From a few miles away, we could see mountains behind but as we approached to within a quarter of a mile, its 200 feet height obscured those mountains from view. That alone gave us an idea of the immense size of the glacier.

We heard chunks of ice crashing into the sea before we saw any calving. As close as we were, sound still reached us too late to be able to turn and look at the right place. It was a bit of a guessing game, but I think everyone saw a few splashes. A couple were big enough to generate waves that reached our boat, but, thank goodness, not strong enough to threaten us in any way.

Captain Fred let us watch the glacier and the calving for a good hour and just as we left, a tall pinnacle detached and fell over, though not while I was filming.

Columbia Glacier

Klaus will talk to anyone and everyone and somehow the crew discerned that it would soon be his and Leslie’s 50th wedding anniversary. They wanted to do something to mark the occasion, but as only one of the happy couple was present, Klaus received the gift of a free muffin!

Yin and yang, though. At some point when Klaus was on deck, the wind carried away his favourite cap, depicting Oregon Ducks, the football team of Leslie’s alma mater. American football, that is.

In the evening, for the first time in AK this trip, we dined out. Fu Kung Chinese but also Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and presumably other oriental cuisine.

Fu Kung good food

The following day when I went for a quick walk before leaving Valdez, I bumped into Captain Fred again. I asked him to keep a lookout for Klaus’s cap. He said he would, it’s probably being worn by a sea-lion though!

We had to check out of the campground in Valdez by 11am, much earlier than the state-run places, but at least we had good weather for much of the journey today. We had planned to camp one more night, by Lake Louise, but in the end, it was decided to go all the way back home to Anchorage. Klaus thought nothing of the four-hour drive, but then there is a lot less traffic here on the highways than we have to contend with on motorways between London and Manchester.

Being able to see the sights today was wonderful too. The Horsetail Waterfall was very popular with visitors.

We saw lots of lakes and glaciers and mountains as we drove westwards along the Glenn Highway. In places, it looked like a sheer drop to the left, the other side of the road.

The trees were noticeably different from place to place. Tall, bushy white spruce and birches were dominant in places. But in between, where the ground was swampy and the roots less strong, the trees looked really weak and feeble. These are black spruce.

Black spruce

When I saw black spruce a couple of days ago, I thought they were just trees recovering from a bush fire: not much foliage yet and blackened, wizzened trunks. But no, this is what they really look like. If you imagine a nice, thick, leafy spruce as being a healthy, well-fed fox’s brush, then black spruce are the tails of mangy foxes.

We were delighted to see a few groups of cyclists on the Glenn Highway, including one group of about six German girls. They were all doing well even though the road was quite hilly in places. Helped of course by the decent weather we were all enjoying.

I learned something else in the last few days. Where the road is rollercoaster-like bumpy up and down due to melting frost below the road surface, the term used is ‘frost heaves’.

We arrived back home about 6.30pm, and after a chat and something to eat, Mom and Dad went to bed and for the first time in nearly two weeks, the TV was turned on. 666 channels of absolute tosh. Liesel settled for a Harry Potter film.

Someone left the kayak out in the rain

Richardson Highway

Mick: What time does AT&T open?
Liesel: Eight o’clock.
Mick: Oh, perfect timing. It’s quarter to eight so I think I’ll go and get myself a new SIM card as using my UK one to access the internet is proving to be ridiculously expensive.
Liesel: OK, dear, have a nice walk, be careful.

So I walked over to AT&T, the closest telecoms shop to the campsite, only to discover that it didn’t open until 10. Oh well, the girl at Verizon was very helpful the other day, even if she couldn’t provide Liesel with what she needed. The walk to Verizon was a bit longer, across two main roads. But walking can’t be that unusual here, there are pedestrian crossings in all the right places.

The sign in the window said “Closed for lunch, back at 4.30” and I thought, I could work there with lunch breaks like that! The bad news was, this shop didn’t open until 10.30. The only other one I knew of was GCI, just along the road a bit. It opened at 8.30 so by now, I only had to loiter for ten minutes or so. Then I saw the sign: No Loitering.

While waiting for the shop to open, I used somebody’s wifi to do internetty things. By the time I went into GCI, two people were being served and there were two more in the queue. They must have opened early.

The guy with the orange shirt was still at the counter when I left, nearly an hour later. I guess his problems were more convoluted than mine. I was dealt with within ten minutes once Melissa called me up. So, I now get a month’s 4G for what I nearly spent in just two days. Marvellous!

How ironic then that later in the day, when we were on the road, there was often no signal at all, of any sort. Even the campsite had nothing. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Before leaving the site at Fairbanks, we emptied the tanks, refilled with fresh water and I got bitten by a mosquito. I felt a tickle, brushed it off and it must have been full of my very best because it sprayed blood all over my hand. Ideal when you’re emptying that sort of stuff into a hole in the ground. The rain had stopped during the night, thank goodness, but the grey clouds were still hanging around.

Klaus drove us to the Richardson Highway which we then followed for the rest of the day. First stop: North Pole, AK, where of course we had to visit Santa Claus House. Here, it is Christmas all year round. We resisted the temptation to buy any ornaments or other tat.

Santa Claus House
Merry Christmas everybody

A well-known philosopher once said that Richardson Highway is just miles and miles of nothing. No, actually, it was Klaus who said that: nothing but trees and tarmac. On clear days, the views of mountains must be stunning, but we weren’t that lucky. The rain was back, often torrential. But at least the bug remains were being wiped from the windscreen during the day.

We drove by Eielson Air Force Base which has the second longest runway in north America, running parallel to the road.

We saw many mountains in the mist, and I realised that actually, they look brighter when you avoid looking through the van’s tinted windows.

Alaska is known as The Last Frontier, and it’s easy to see why. Apart from miles and miles of highway, there was nothing else manmade.

Apart from one of the wonders of the modern world. The Alaska Pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe in the far north to Valdez. In places, it runs alongside the Richardson Highway and we stopped couple of times to get up close and personal.

Still no good at selfies

The suspension bridge over the Tanana is the second longest of thirteen major bridges built for the pipeline.

We decided to camp about halfway between Fairbanks and Valdez, in the hope that it might stop raining long enough for us to go for a nice walk. Plus, Klaus was doing all the driving while Liesel and I were looking through the windows imagining the views that might have been.

The pipeline again
An old roadhouse

The campsite at Paxson was right by the lake and we were sure the rain would deter the mozzies. Mainly because none of us were keen to go out much in that rain. But other than the rain, it was very quiet.

Sleep was interrupted by rain and by the motorhome’s furnace turning on every couple of hours to provide some heat. We weren’t even disturbed by bears trying to break into the nearby bear-proof, metal food containers used by folks camping in tents. Braver souls than we are, camping in a tent in bear country.

Did I mention the rain?

Liesel heard a chipmunk outside and we saw a pretty green bird in the trees, which we later identified as a yellow warbler.

Day two on the road to Valdez was just as disappointing as far as the weather goes. From one viewpoint, you’re supposed to be able to see three different mountain ranges.

We stopped for a break and I, the bird whisperer, according to Liesel, had a grey jay eating out of the palm of my hand. Although, not necessarily eating: they store lots of food in secret places, a bit like squirrels do.

No, officer, I didn’t really drive it
Grey Jay way

Some of the great sights we did see include the Worthington Glacier, Thompson Pass with patches of snow still on the ground in places, and Bridal Veil Falls. It turns out Thompson Pass is the snowiest place in the state.

Worthington Glacier through the mist

We’re staying in a site near the harbour here in Valdez for two nights. It’s a commercial site, with all the facilities, but it’s just a glorified car-park, really.

We went for a quick walk to the supermarket, after which I went for a longer jaunt around the harbour. The water was milky, probably the grey-green of glacial silt.

Valdez, harbour, boats, mountains

So far, we’ve not seen any interesting large animals, no bears, no moose, no wolves, no wolverines, no zombies, nothing except small rodents and a handful of birds. We have to be careful out in the wild because we look quite tasty to bears.

And if the bears don’t get you, the tsunamis might:

If the tsunamis don’t get you, the feral bunnies definitely will:

One thing I never expected to see in Valdez was rabbits. I thought there were just a few cute little bunnies on the campsite, but no, they are all over town and they are having a mixed reception here.

Fair enough

Liesel and I along with Klaus, Leslie and Asa had a fun afternoon at the fair. The Tanana Valley State Fair is half funfair and half agricultural show.

The highlight of the day was the Giant Cabbage competition. The heaviest one we saw was 61lb and the leaves were old, gnarly, green leather.

Where’s Asa?

Actually, another highlight was the one ride I went on with Asa. The Zipper. Two people sit in a cage which swings around an axis, ten cages go up and down like a zipper and around another axis of movement, very fast and at times, you are upside down. It was today’s scary thing. Liesel joined him on a different ride, Startrooper, which was less violent but Liesel still came off with sweaty palms.

Asa and Liesel
Zipper

Actually, another highlight was bumping into Chad Carpenter doing a book signing. He’s Alaska’s top cartoonist, famous for the Tundra cartoons for well over twenty years. He even remembered meeting Klaus and Asa before!

Chad Carpenter

There were plenty of animals on show, sheep, goats, pigs, llams, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, cattle, nothing uniquely Alaskan on this occasion.

A big black cloud slowly approached and we feared the worst but in the end, I think we only felt half a dozen drops of rain.

We enjoyed fried zucchini (Scottish style), coffee and big, big bags of popcorn that was both salted and sugared.

In the evening, my itchy legs took me for a walk. I heard music close to the river and on investigation, I tracked down a Beer Festival at the Boatel, just along the road from the campsite. Did I have any cash on me? No, of course not, that would have required forethought and planning and I’d gone out on a whim, spontaneously! So no beer for me, nor I could I legitimately get closer to the live country music being played.

Later in the evening, Liesel suggested that we go over to visit Morey, Shylah and Addy. Morey is Aaron’s best friend from many years ago, Shylah is his wife and Addy is their teenage daughter who was also here to play football. I cannot vouch for the spelling of any of their names, I’m guessing, but someone will correct me, I’m sure!

We were offered wine or beer, I chose wine, Liesel declined, and we sat around the campfire batting away the odd insect and passing the time.

Sunday began with a drum solo on the roof of the motorhome. The long promised rain had arrived along with a much darker 8 o’clock in the morning than we’ve seen all week.

There were lots of us in the van for most of the morning and we saw the unusual sight of the windows steaming up. Lots of people plus a cooked breakfast.

The rain slowly eased off though: nobody wants to play soccer outside in that. And we weren’t all that keen on watching in weather like that, either, to be honest.

We stayed in the motorhome until we had to leave for the game: Asa’s last one. Unfortunately, they lost to the team that they beat yesterday, so the chances of playing in a tournament next year in Boise, Idaho, are vastly diminished.

We watched in dry conditions but the wind was quite strong. Fifty shades of grey were the clouds: much more texture than we usually have at home where cloud cover is often just one big sheet of metal grey.

After the match, Aaron, Jodi and their boys left for home: unfortunately, real life intervened and they have to go back to work tomorrow.

Liesel and I had a productive session in a local laundromat. What a big place, with over 60 machines in use. Back at home, we had pizza for dinner, our first takeaway this week. And it’s an American size pizza, wider, thicker, cheesier and way too much for this English person to eat in one go!

We heard some birds singing in the trees, but they must have been the native Alaskan bird of invisibility. Not like the ravens that flew around the football pitches, big and bible black against the clouds.

Sunday ended with another drum solo on the roof of the motorhome. Leslie is flying back to Anchorage.

And then there were three: me, Liesel and Klaus.

Some of my Relatives are Aliens

Liesel drove Asa and me up to her old University to have a look around. There’s a spectacular view from the campus that Liesel enjoyed for three years as a student here.

What a view

The Museum of the North includes a history of Alaska from before even the Russians became interested in the land.

The art exhibition was interesting too, lots of items made by native artists, some of it very moving but all fascinating, being different from the western art that we’re so used it. Our friend Monica had recommended seeing the Decolonization exhibit that’s only here until September, so we were very lucky with the timing of our visit.

Decolonizing Alaska is a multimedia visual art exhibit featuring contemporary artists exploring and responding to Alaska’s history of colonization. A collaboration of more than 30 diverse Alaska artists, both Native and non-Native, the exhibit introduces new ideas around Alaska culture.

And it was very moving. Why westerners think it’s ok to go around the world trying to change other cultures is beyond me.

After a coffee and a cookie in the café, we set off for the excitement of shopping in Safeway. They’re very helpful, here, the checkout assistant scanned all the items while someone else packed them for us into brand new plastic bags. Lots and lots of plastic bags. We’re so used to not seeing this any more, we reuse our own ‘bags for life ‘ (aka ‘shopping bags’) but here in Safeway, USA, you can use as many plastic bags as you like. Who cares if they end up in the oceans killing the fishes and the whales?

We walked over the road to Fred Meyer, another supermarket. Yes, let me repeat that. We walked over the road. Walked. You just don’t do that in America.

We tried to get a local SIM card for Liesel’s phone but it’s an old one, only on 3G, but all the Alaskan providers are gearing up to be 4G-only. Using our phones here other than on Wifi will be very expensive, but we’re only out in the sticks, away from home for a couple of weeks.

Asa and I walked back to the campsite, not a long walk, but another welcome walk, and Liesel drove back later.

It’s been a bit of a disastrous trip so far, and I hope we can start it properly soon. I left my reading glasses on the plane into Seattle but didn’t realise until we were in Anchorage. Then we had the problem with Liesel’s 3G phone. Now, the Logitech keyboard has decided to play up. Some of the keys no longer work. We thought it might be a problem with the batteries, but sadly, not.

I felt eerily cut off, being in a campsite, in a strange town, with strange people (folks I haven’t seen for years, I mean, but come to think of it…), without free access to the internet, with a duff keyboard so I can’t easily blog. And without reading glasses so I can’t relax and read. Oh, woe, woe and thrice woe.

Showering in the motorhome is a different experience. There’s a limited amount of water, so you get wet, turn the shower off, have a scrub, then rinse off. And the control is very sensitive, just a half a degree turn between freezing cold water and scalding hot.

Aaron, Jodi and Gideon arrived in the afternoon having made really good time. They lit a camp fire in the evening, where we all gathered along with some of the other soccer players’ parents and grandparents. A sudden inability to keep the old peepers open drove us to bed again while it was still light.

Woke up and it was already light: still not convinced it really got dark in between.

I went for another wander around the campsite and saw the first real native wildlife. Only a grey squirrel, but it still counts. Not as exotic as a moose or a bear and not quite as big and scary, either.

Fireweed

Merry Christmas, everybody!
Silver birches

We watched the first football game of the tournament, The Alaska State Cup, today. Gideon plays in goal and sometimes midfield.

Later on as Liesel drove back into the campsite, we saw a pair of red-tailed squirrels. Still small but slightly more interesting.

Friday woke me up with my first mosquito bite. I’ve felt the odd tickle and brushed a few away, but this one snuck in under cover of darkness. If, indeed, there was any darkness.

We had another soccer game today, this time Asa was playing for Arsenal ’05. It was a much more interesting game, and I was pleased to get some good pictures. Klaus shouting out “Push it up, Arsenal” made me smile.

I think it’ll be a while before these English ears of mine, even though not belonging to a football fan, get used to hearing the score recorded as “four to zero” rather than “four, nil”. And when enquiring as to the name of an opposition team, “Who are we versing?”

Only recently have the local teams been using the term “soccer pitch” rather than “field”, even though that’s the usual terminology at home. I believe “nice hustle” means “that was a jolly good tackle, old chap”.

Asa taking a free kick
Gid taking a corner kick

Between Asa’s game in the morning and Gideon’s in the afternoon, Liesel and I visited the Rasmuson Library at the University so that we could borrow their wifi and catch up with things on the internet. Using 3G or 4G all the time is expensive: compared with the overall cost of this trip, it’s a minor expense but we do object to large telecoms companies ripping us off like that.

Aaron brought his boat with him and in the evening, he took Liesel, Asa and me for a quick trip up and down the Chena River. The water jet pushed us up to 40+ mph and we travelled quite a distance. Everyone else on, or by, the river waved, it’s a very friendly community.

I wondered why so many of the bankside trees were falling into the water. Then I realised: there were beaver dams and houses here and there, and it was quite a moment when we saw two or three beavers on a beach, looking quite toothy and pleased with themselves.

The wake from our boat caused a kayaker to capsize which wasn’t very nice, but then Liesel pointed out, he’d done it on purpose, just practicing his technique. When we passed him again on the way back, sure enough, he headed straight for our wake.

We went downstream as far as the Tenana river, quite wide in places and according to Aaron’s clever device, there were plenty of fish there.

We passed a ‘Fire Helicopter’: presumably it’s one that picks up buckets of water to dump on bush fires, something you wouldn’t expect to associate with Alaska, but it does happen. We saw the aftermath of a large fire on the drive up to Fairbanks.

Someone else had a water plane parked(?), docked(?), landed on his back garden next to the river.

A paddle steamer passed by us moving in the opposite direction and it left behind a long, long stretch of very bumpy water which would have woken us up if we’d been asleep.

There was a fish wheel, based on a native device to catch fish. Basically, they just swim into the bucket and the bucket is retreived. Easy!

There are lots of houses on the river front, some look in better condition than others, but some are just plain ugly. (I wouldn’t say that to an owner’s face, obviously, this is Alaska and everyone has really big guns.)

On the way back to the campsite, Asa drove for a while, not as fast as his Dad, but very competently, neither of us were at all worried.

Saturday morning was an even earlier start than the previous day. Both boys were playing a game at 8am. Asa’s team won but sadly, Gid’s lost quite badly. Very disappointing for him of course but he is learning that he has 8 other teammates on the field that the ball has to get by before it reaches him, the goalie, and if they are not working as a team the loss is everyone’s, not just on his little 9 year old shoulders. Nevertheless, he had some great saves today and stayed after his game for a friendly scrimmage. (We snuck off to a local bakery to eat lovely pastry. A reward for watching 8 am games!)

So it’s Saturday lunchtime in the University Library again, nice and quiet, I think there are only two other people here in this room and one of them is Liesel! It’s a cloudy day, much cooler than when we arrived in Fairbanks but it’s very pleasant.

Wonder

Living in a new place or maybe the air quality or the different impurities in the tap water has affected my dreams. I wake up with a feeling of, that was fun, that was strange or that was exhilarating or whatever but with no recollection of what it actually was.

Saturday morning though, I remembered enough for it to make some sort of sense. Hah: a dream that makes sense? That’ll be a first.

A boy was seeking attention by repeatedly knocking on our door. He was about 13 or 14 years of age. He claimed to be a cycling champion in his age group. But he wouldn’t give us his name. We met his Dad at the gym. He’s been discharged from the Army, he said. While chatting, he was plucking the odd hair from his chest, the waxing wasn’t 100% effective. He didn’t seem to be all that proud of or supportive of his son, which we thought was a bit of a shame.

At home, we looked up ‘cycling champions’ and we found a photo of the boy straightaway. He went by the professional name Mex Tex and that made sense, his shirt had had the word Mex embroidered on the chest.

The next time we met his Dad in the gym, we said we’d found his son on the internet but weren’t sure of his real name. He blanched. He said that he was trying to keep a low profile and that was why he’d changed his haircut and was attempting to alter his whole appearance.

He said that he’d tried to impress on his son the necessity to change his appearance too. But so far, all he’d done was to change his name to Mex Tex, a ridiculous name.

We asked why it was so importent to look different and he blanched again. He told us that he wasn’t discharged from the Army, he’d deserted, and if he was caught, he would be shot.

That’s when I woke up. I would love to see the movie.

The weather had changed. It was raining when we woke up and it was still raining after breakfast. Even after a nice, long chat with Roseanna, we didn’t really want to go out.

I’m not generally one to knock religion, but as I walked up the stairs, I very nearly knocked a picture of Jesus off the wall. Oops!

We stayed in our b&b until noon and set off for Covent Garden for a coffee at the London Transport Museum. The plan was to meet Helen and Steve and watch the end of the Prudential 100-mile bike ride and the professional race afterwards. But the weather was unreliable. Instead, we walked along the Strand and over the Millennium Bridge again (no Bob Marley today), to the Southbank Centre. It’s Chorus Weekend, and we enjoyed listening to some choirs in the Riverside Terrace Café.

In fact, I joined one. Yesterday, I’d turned down the opportunity to learn some Spanish dance steps outside the National Theatre. My two left feet would have stomped too many other people. Today, though, we members of the public were invited to form a choir, learn and perform a song. I can’t sing for toffee, but I reckoned I wouldn’t cause anyone any actual physical damage. And someone said, once, a long time ago, that we should all do something scary every day. Well, this was my scary thing today.

First we had to do some strange choreography, though. Moving feet, stamping, kicking out, waving arms in the air, not my thing at all. Fortunately, this did not form part of the eventual performance.

The lesson was led by a guy from The Choir With No Name. Another member, Brian, sang bits of old songs while we volunteers joined in. Lazy Sunday Afternoon was fun. ‘’ello, Mrs Jones, ‘ow’s your Bert’s lumbago?’ he sang. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ three of us responded in an old lady’s voice!

We learned the Emeli Sandé song ‘Wonderful’. It contains a variety of whoas, woahs, oohs and other woah-oohs. Three part harmony, and I was with the lowest of the three, bass baritones, tenors and me. Whoa, oh, Whoa, oh, we ain’t falling under. Whoa, oh, Whoa, oh, we are full of wonder.
The final performance was helped out by a professional singer doing the solo parts, thank goodness. The thought occurred though that I’m glad to be leaving the country tomorrow, before I’m arrested for offences against the musical arts. If you ever come across a bootleg tape of The Riverside Terrace Café Choir, you can choose to leave it where it is or acquire it and I’ll sign it for you!

The Riverside Terrace Café Choir

We were joined by Helen and Steve for another farewell. We watched and sang along to the West End Musical Choir, still in the Riverside Terrace Café.

Afterwards, we went to Giraffe for our last supper in England for a while. The rain was still on and off and the farewells were again a bit emotional adding to the precipitation.
Monday morning arrived after a very fitful sleep, I got up 99 times to visit the loo, I think. Liesel, once she drifted off, slept quite solidly until it was time to get up. I set my own alarm this time, thanks, Martha, but in the end, I was up

well before it went off.
No time for breakfast at the b&b, we packed, repacked and left for a packed tube train to Heathrow. Butterflies were kicking in so thoughts of a really big, substantial breakfast dissipated and I just had a vegetarian sausage sandwich.

Red sauce, brown sause or no sauce at all? No, no and no: I had Tabasco. Liesel had eggs.

We have bulkhead seats on the plane, so we have plenty of legroom, but unfortunately for us, on this Boeing 787-9, the toilets are in the middle, not at the back. Right near us. As I type, we’ve just entered Canadian airspace. It’s dark on our righthand side but still bright out of the other side.

Going back to cycling again. Geraint Thomas did win the Tour de France, the first Welshman to do so, and a very popular winner too.

Manchester is All Abuzz

We drove into Manchester today and the car park we found was a bit of a challenge. The spaces were small, the corners were tight, the pillars were insulated by yellow concrete and the ramps from one floor to the next were nearly 45°. It stunk like a urinal, the only ticket machines were, of course, at the opposite end of the car park from where we parked. We worked it out. It was cheaper to park there for a couple of hours than to catch the bus. But next time, we’re definitely going by bus!

It was reportedly the warmest day of the year, so far, but I don’t think Manchester quite reached the 33.3° of the south-east.

We bought some American dollars and some Japanese yen. Guess where we’re going? It occurrred to me that it would be useful if every M&S had the same layout, then you’d know your way around. But then, you’d lose the sense of adventure. We also had lunch at Marks & Spencer. The restaurant there has a strange service system, not at all intuitive. You get an electronic device that we thought would flash when our beverages were ready. But no, it’s just to tell the waiters where to deliver the drinks. But not all drinks, only the cold ones. We had top collect our own hot coffee from the counter ourselves. Hot food would be delivered, but we carried our own cold snacks to our table. We got there in the end.

Manchester is full of bees at the moment. Not real, pollinating ones but a collection of sculptured bees each decorated by a different person or organisation. Bee in the City is only on until the end of September so get along while the weather’s good.

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As we found with the elephants and Paddington Bears in London, it’s hard to get good photos without other people in the way. But they’re probably very appreciative of our presence in their pictures!

Yesterday’s solitary walk around Northenden was interesting. It’ll take a while to find every all the little, interesting things around here: 33 years in Chessington wasn’t long enough to see everything there, never mind the rest of London. But Northenden is the place to come if you want something done to your body: face, eyes, hair, teeth of course, but especially hands, feet, nails and tattoos, such emporia are in abundance.

I found a few charity shops, so we’ll be able to get rid of, I mean, to donate more stuff as we get more settled here.

I thought this place looked interesting, but when I knocked on the door, they hid behind the sofa and pretended not to be in.

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Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Tour de France has just one week to go. Today was the second rest day and Geraint Thomas is still in the lead. it’s fascinating to watch: who will win? Him or Chris Froome? Or will Tom Dumoulin surprise us all? Six more days racing to go.But as there was no TdF on TV, we caught up on a couple of series we’re watching. Will we get to the end of all the serials before we go travelling? Will we have to try and use the catch-up services from overseas?? What new programmes will we miss???

Women, swimmin’ and trimmin’

Thursday was a busy day. The base of our new bed was delivered by a nice man from John Lewis and his grumpy junior partner. Liesel and I literally made the bed, thank goodness the instructions were fairly straightforward.

The mattress on top, lots of storage below, we were set for a good night’s sleep. The bed we left behind in Chessington kept us off the floor, but the last vestige of comfort disappeared ages ago. Liesel will say it’s never been comfortable, but it was OK when it was brand new, last century.

The other exciting event was the installation of our Internet connection. While Liesel was out taking loads of rubbish to the tip and returning an item to Ikea, I spent a couple of hours trying to get online.. So many usernames and passwords and so many places to enter them and over and over again it didn’t quite work. Every time the solid red light showed on the router, a puppy died. Such a palaver: it should just be plug in and go, by now, surely, in the 21st century? Eventually, it worked. Another one of those occasions where I have no idea what I did differently on the last go compared with several previous attempts.

How wonderful to hear Liesel come back home, walk in and say, “My phone’s got a wireless connection!” Just like that. After all that blood, sweat, toil and tears, her phone picked it up instantly. I think Liesel thinks I was sitting there while she was out, smoking my pipe, drinking Scotch and watching TV.

Online and in bed. Almost back to normal!

No lie-in though because on Friday, we went to London for the day. We joined the Women’s March to protest against Donald Trump’s visit to London. Liesel made her own placard, plenty of reasons why he is unsuitable to be a President, even if democratically elected by Russia.

The Virgin Train to Euston was packed: people were standing or sitting on the floor, all of which is unaccepatbel when you’re spending £60 or £70 to travel. I’ll know next time. If the online booking system doesn’t give me the option of reserving seats, it’s probably because they’re all taken. I think the system should say explicitly that all seats are taken, then at least you have the option of travelling later. But, standing for over two hours on a train was the worst thing that happened that day.

We made our way to Oxford Circus where we joined a large crowd of women, men and many others. The main focus of attention was the Baby Trump inflatable balloon that flew above Parliament Square for a couple of hours in the morning. Unfortunately, we’d missed that, but we did see the Baby before it embarks on, presumably, a world tour.

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Even Big Ben is hiding from Trump

We walked, slowly, down Regent Street, Piccadilly, Haymarket, by Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall to Parliament Square. The idea was to “make some noise” and sure enough, lots of people were banging their saucepans and shouting and chanting. Some of the placards were very funny, and most people were quite happy to have their photos taken. Liesel’s placard was snapped too by many people. We met quite a few Americans who were following the advice from the US Embassy to “keep a low profile”. Really? Not a bit of it, the consensus was that this advice was ridiculous.

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Liesel with some fellow Americans

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Mick and new best mate, Salena Godden

One highlight of the day for me was meeting Salena Godden, top poet, great performer, who I’ve been following on Twitter for a while and whose work I’ve enjoyed since hearing her on Radio 4 in the early days of Saturday Live.

We met up with Helen and Steve close to the Winston Churchill statue. Steve and I wandered off at times to hear the speeches, small the substances being enjoyed by others and to take more photos. A young lady approached Helen and Liesel and asked them to distract her child while she was strapped into the buggy. Helen and Liesel, neither of whom have extensive experience of child-rearing!

20180713_1528573526870392706878023.jpgSome of the 70,000 of us on the Women’s March drifted away, but many joined in the other, bigger march which numbered 250,000 at its height. Meanwhile, Helen, Steve, Liesel and I walked through St James’s Park where we were greeted by the sight of a heron (hooray!) chomping on a duckling (not so nice). He looked very pleased with himself afterwards.

We enjoyed a coffee and a late lunch before walking to Waterloo. We caught a train to Earlsfield as Liesel had an appointment with her physiotherapist: a good idea after standing on a train for two hours.

The climate of hate in the UK is getting closer to home. Liesel’s physio, Emma is Australian. So is Emma’s partner. He too is a physio and his application to have his working visa extended has been rejected. He has to leave the UK within a couple of weeks. He’s going home to Australia. Therefore, so is Emma. So we are losing two top, well-qualified medics because it’s government policy, pretty much, to deter foreigners.

It felt strange, after a day in London, to be coming home in a northerly direction. But at least we gots seats on this train, even if I did have to run to find them!

Saturday morning, I listened to Saturday Live live for the first time in ages. It was being broadcast live from Mousehole, where Sarah and I enjoyed our honeymoon in 1979.

Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed a big family gathering at Jenny’s. Liam’s parents Alan and Una were there, as well as his sister Andrea and her daughters, Annabel and Emily. It was a lovely, sunny day so we spent most of the time in the garden, forgetting that England were playing in the World Cup 3rd place play-off (they lost).

Sunday was another early morning: Martha’s swimming lesson this week began at 9am. She did very well as usual. We saw William swim in the afternoon too. It’s wonderful that they both enjoy it so much in the water. And in between, Helen offered to cut our hair, so we all had a trim. That grey stuff on the floor after she cut my hair? I have no idea what that was or where it came from.

In the evening, we had a lovely Indian takeaway, from Coriander in Chorlton. This was in part to mark the occasion of Helen’s departure today (Monday) to the old ‘hood in London to visit friends and to attend a couple of weddings. By the time she returns to Jenny’s, Liesel and I will have gone, departed, set off on our Travels….

 

Liam, Martha, Jenny, William, Mick and Helen

Yes, suddenly, we have less than two weeks to do all the admin that needs doing, to tell all outstanding bodies our new address and do whatever you do to a place before locking up and leaving it for several months. How many Es in eeeek?

Today for me was a lesson in patience, being kept on hold for ridiculous amounts of time, being told I didn’t need to register online accounts only be end up registering anyway because there was no alternative and then, being kept on hold for ten minutes only for the call to be cut off at exactly 5 o’clock.  But the good news is, this evening, someone came round and gave us actual cash for some of our old packing boxes.

Visitors

Very exciting day, we had our first official visitors. Helen is here from Australia especially to see our new flat. Well, that, and to attend two weddings over the next few weeks. She visited us this afternoon with Jenny, Martha and William.

Martha was in top form, very chatty and curious about the things lying around. William was asleep and after he woke up and was fed, he was fun too. So close to crawling forwards but not quite, yet.

Helen arrived at Manchester Airport first thing in the morning and was met by the three of them. Martha and Helen chat to each other most days on the phone and I believe Martha still thinks Helen comes out of the phone when she’s here in person!

Helen, Martha, William, Jenny

The other visitor we had was the washing machine engineer. The spin cycle wasn’t working and in the end we had a new pump installed. Still, this inherited machine is in a far better state than the one we disposed of before we moved!

Yesterday, Liesel and I built the chest of drawers that we’d bought at Ikea. It’s always satisfying when it all works out and there are no bits left over! Now a lot of our clothes have been put away and our bedroom is beginning to look like a bedroom rather than a storage unit. The second bedroom really is a storage unit right now! Wall to wall boxes, crates, cases and bikes.

Yes, we will get the bikes out soon, but this morning we went into Manchester by bus as we had a couple of things to do there. In a first for both of us, we have rented a safe deposit box. This will contain all our really valuable items while we’re travelling.

Manchester is, obviously, very different to London. We’re no longer used to paying fares on buses but that’s the norm here. Also, the buses don’t display the name of the next bus stop, something we just take for granted in London.

We noticed the pavements in the city centre are really dirty. Yes, lots of chewing gum but the surface just looks really mucky. Maybe it’s because of the long, hot, dry spell we’re having.

Piccadilly Gardens, a small patch of green, was very busy, lots of workers having their lunch breaks there by the looks of it. The heatwave continues. It’s tempting to ask, does it ever rain in Manchester? What were we worried about?

Part one of our new bed was delivered this evening. The mattress. The base arrives on Thursday and then, at last, we’re hoping for a good, comfortable night’s sleep! We’ll have our internet connection on Thursday, too and then, ta-daaa, we’ll be able to book our travels! There is a lot to do indoors still, but we’ve only been here a week and we feel we’ve achieved a lot.

Hello to our Fans

After two nights staying at Jenny’s place, we are tonight sleeping on the blow-up bed in our own luxury apartment. I carried Liesel over the threshold. There are only 32 stairs, not the expected 40, I don’t know where we got that idea from but the 20% reduction in climbing is a bonus.

It’s still hot and sticky and even after the long, long, wet Winter, we are being threatened with a hosepipe ban. But that’s ok, we no longer have a garden and we have passed on the garden hose to a nearby daughter with a nice garden to water sometimes!

The removal men were fantastic. They lost several pounds in weight by lugging all our stuff up two flights of stairs. I was on the phone when they arrived at Jenny’s to drop off a few crates, all Jenny’s and Helen’s old, old, old schoolwork, toys, books and so on. So Liesel drove to our flat to let them in there. I followed a bit later, walking the three and a bit miles. It was a nice, quiet walk, mostly through residential neighbourhoods. But then, the last half mile or so was a bit smelly. The tip is quite close and it was ripe. This would be a good cycling route, in the future, so that’s good!

Sainsbury’s on a Wednesday morning here wasn’t too frenetic, compared with all the supermarkets local to Chessington which seemed to be incredibly busy all the time, which is why we’ve been using Ocado for the last few years. A nice group of robots do our shopping for us and then a nice (usually) man (usually) delivers it to our door. We are not being paid for this endorsement of Ocado.

We rearranged the boxes and crates, seemingly hundreds of them, so the flat is now much more ordered. I rebuilt some items of furniture and there were no bits left over. Bonus! Liesel is making the best of a much smaller kitchen than we had before, but like most things, we’ll get used to all the differences, in time.

It was a delight to find and unpack one of our fans. We really need the air to move around, especially late afternoon into early evening, when the Sun shines in through the living room windows and the two main bedroom windows. It was even better to locate the second fan, so tht’s now cooling down the bedroom where we’re sleeping tonight.

Last night, we watched most of the World Cup football game between Colombia and England. As a Kirsty McColl fan, I was really hoping the score would be England 2 Colombia 0, but sadly not. England won the penalty shoot-out (hooray!) and will play in the quarter finals on Saturday.

Wimbledon tennis championships started this week too. But the sporting event we’re both looking forward to is the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday. Chris Froome is trying to win for the fifth time. And the good news is, we’ll be able to watch it on TV because that was unpacked, connected up, plugged in and retuned late yesterday afternoon. Priorities: get the TV working! But, really, we just wanted to be able to listen to the radio, which we can do via Freeview. We do have some actual radio sets somewhere, but despite some fairly rigorous labelling, all the boxes look the same after a while.

So here we are. New digs. It feels a bit like being on holiday at the moment, living in a strange place.

Liesel’s had enough though. She’s going back to Chessington tomorrow: she set up the Hook and Chessington WI Evening Book Group a few years ago and tomorrow she will attend a meeting for the final time. Will she finish this month’s book? There’s a two-hour train journey, so there’s a good chance she will!

I’ll be continuing the administrative chores: informing organisations and businesses of our change of address. Some have been very helpful and it’s not been a problem. Some have proved more difficult though. Naming no names. I’ll set up my PC tomorrow too, in anticipation of being connected to the internet. Which might take another week. Why so long? I have no idea. It’s not like they have to send an engineer round any more.

One advantage of moving away from Chessington is that we no longer have to look at the eyesore that is Tolworth Tower from our back bedroom.

Instead, we have this… thing… to look at! Oh well…

I think the Peak District is roughly in that direction so I hope this… building isn’t blocking the view, that would be really unlucky!

London is the place to be

London this lovely city.

This calypso was going through my mind as we set off for London this morning. Little did I know that later in the day, we would hear Lord Kitchener’s performance on a Pathé newsreel. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

Today was the day of the annual Hook Scouts fair on King Edward’s field, off Hook Road. You know, the field where the travelling community set up camp for a few days before the Epsom Derby. Liesel’s WI Group, the Hook and Chessington Branch, had a stall there. We went down with the chocolate brownies Liesel had baked for them to sell. We tried to help erect the tent, but the poles didn’t seem to be from the same set. So, reluctantly, we caught a bus towards Surbiton. While we’d been waiting for the other WI women to arrive, I’d walked around the field one final time. I gazed upon the playground where a young Jenny and a young Helen spent many happy hours.

I realised: today would be a day of reminiscence, of nostalgia, of remembrance. We’d been so caught up recently with all the packing and stacking, the boxing and coxing, that I hadn’t really thought about the enormity of the move we’re about to make.

In Surbiton, I suggested one final coffee at The Press Room: probably the nicest coffee around, and a nice place with nice staff. We’ve sometimes paid a coffee ahead, so that a homeless person can claim it later on. There’s a bell by the door which you can ring if you like the coffee. I’ve been too much of a coward to give it a go, but today, I applied a very light tinkle, there was a guy right next to it and I didn’t want to give him a heart attack.

This would be our final day in London before we move to Northenden. Lots of things to do, it was hard to choose. There was a march in support of the NHS. My favourite walk is probably along the South Bank. There was a food fair at Parsons Green. Then Liesel remembered there’s a temporary work of art in the Serpentine. Yes: In the Serpentine. I passed a lot of time in Hyde Park when I lived nearby in the 1970s, so I was more than happy to revisit one more time.

There seems to be a lot of finality here, today. I know we’ll be back as visitors, but it’s a strange feeling knowing that, after this weekend, London won’t be our home city.

We caught the District Line train at Wimbledon and got off at High Street Kensington, which is on Kensington High Street. By this convention, the next station along should be called Gate Notting Hill, but it isn’t, something that has baffled me since I first lived there in 1973.

We walked towards Hyde Park, and Liesel suggested walking up the road where all the embassies are, Kensington Green. I didn’t know if we’d be allowed to. I think in the 1970s, at the height of the IRA terrorsit campaign, we were probably too intimidated by the large numbers of police officers at the entrance to enter this road, so we never walked along it. Today though, a couple of armed officers, a barrier, several bollards and a sign telling us not to take photos did not deter us from walking up what turned out to be a nice, peaceful, quiet road, right in the heart of London. We tried to guess the embassies from the flags and we got most of them right: Israel, Russia, France, Norway, Finland, but we failed to recognise Kuwait and we don’t know whether the two crossed swords flag was Kenya or somewhere else.

But I was still too much of a coward to risk taking a photo.

We walked through Kensington Gardens, towards the Round Pond and we thought about visiting the Serpentine Gallery. The long queue put us off: no need to be standing around in the hot Sun when we could be walking around in the hot Sun! We crossed the road and had a quick look at the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain and lots of people were having lots of fun in it. One little boy splashed me and I was outraged. No, actually, I wanted him to do it again, but I didn’t say so!

Then we saw it. The London Mastaba. An almost pyramid-like structure weighing 600 tonnes constructed from specially made oil drums. And sitting right in the middle of the Serpentine. We considered getting a boat out so that we could get up close and personal but in the end, after lunch, we left the park and caught the bus.

On the way out, we passed the playground where I spent many a happy lunch hour watching the children play, when I worked in Knightsbridge. It was OK in those days to be a young, single, unaccompanied bloke in a children’s playground. Times, sadly, have changed.

Liesel was grateful for the bus ride, a chance to have a break from the walking. It was hot on the bus too, though, even though we sat at the back, on top, where we thought we’d benefit from maximum ventilation through the windows. It was hot ventilation. It was a hot day.

We disembarked at the British Library, a venue that we should have taken more advantage of over the years. There’s an exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MS Empire Windrush.

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land is on until October. It is fascinating, moving and in places makes you ashamed to be British. It’s not just the present Tory Government led by Theresa May that has created a hostile environment for migrants from the West Indies.

It was here that we heard Lord Kitchener singing his paean to London. It was one of many sound clips and films of poetry, interviews, reminiscence from and by the Windrush generation.

I looked around and noticed the wide range of people visiting the British Library, people from all over the world, some undoubtedly British, some visiting from overseas, but something you see all over London all the time. And my heart sank anew at the current state of western politics. Brexit and Trump are the dominating themes, both giving permission to the racists and fascists to be even more openly hateful than before. I can’t imagine anything worse than living and working in a place where everyone is just like me.

It was a bit cold in the room with all the sacred texts: old Bibles, Qu’rans, some books bigger than our suitcases, some of them really gorgeous, even if we can’t read the incredibly ornate writing, even when it’s apparently in English. Seeing works of art like this makes reading a book on a Kindle seem a bit underwhelming.

Another cup of coffee while Liesel spoke to her Mom then we caught another bus to Aldwych. We walked along the Strand, via Covent Garden, past Stanley Gibbons who sold some of my stamps a few years ago, and on to the Jubilee Bridge one more time. I had to take a picture of the view of course.

Waterloo Bridge. St Pauls Cathedral. The Shard. The Thames. The South Bank. London.

We caught a train to Kingston and dined at Stein’s, a German place. The vegan sausages and the vegetarian schnitzel were both off, so I had a cheese platter. It was nice, but there’s always too much cheese and not enough bread for me! It was filling though. And then we then caught the bus back home.

Altogether, according to the Fitbit, we walked over 9 miles today. This is much further than planned and indeed, much further than Liesel thought she’d manage with her piriformis injury. With exercise and physiotherapy, we’re hoping this problem will disappear over time, allowing us to walk much longer distances without discomfort.

Two more sleeps in sunny Chessington until we move away from the greatest city on Earth.