Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘UK 2005’ Category

Back to the UK: Chester & Stratford, 6-7.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

 We were up early for the 8.56 to Chester. It was a Virgin train, not as fast as the GNER trains, and the service isn’t so good. The information booklet was so trendy and visual that it took us rather a while to realise that we had to collect a cup of tea ourselves. We are more used to *reading*…
The scenery was pretty, but it was overcast and rather bleak, which matched my anxiety that my back was playing up. (Must have been all the hefting luggage up and down railway stations without lifts.) We had brunch at the swish Grosvenor Hotel, briefly wandered around admiring the Tudor shops, and then took a sight-seeing tour. Tim remembers seeing the longest intact Roman Wall in Britain, and the River Dee, but for me it was a total blur. (Must have been the combination of painkillers and a stiff whisky.)

Back at the Mill Hotel I had a massage, and picked my way through our worst meal in Britain. The Mill is a four star hotel, but that’s because it has lots of facilities like a gym and a beauty bar and child care, not because the facilities are any good. It’s situated on the canal, with a bridge over to the restaurant, but the canal is dirty and smelly and not the least little bit scenic once you get up close.

The staff weren’t particularly helpful either, when Tim decided to hire a car to get me to Stratford…
The car turned out to be a little red Renault Megane, very comfortable, and just big enough for the luggage, which poor Tim had to manage all by himself. (We keep promising ourselves to travel lighter – but with three climate zones, and a fondness for buying souvenir books, it’s not easy.) It took the best part of the day to get to Stratford, driving through the back roads, and taking lunch in a quaint little cafe with surprisingly good food at Bridport. I put my feet up at our new hotel, the luxurious Stratford Victoria where the rooms are spacious and comfortable and the staff are friendly and very helpful, while Tim went out to reconnoitre the town.

Before long I felt better and so we spent what was left of the afternoon on the usual orientation tour on a city sight-seeing bus, but because most of the interesting bits of Stratford are pedestrianised, and the Shakespearean sites are too far apart in a sea of suburban houses, it was a bit disappointing. Another rest, and then went down to a sensational dinner in the hotel restaurant. What a contrast to the soggy pasta at Chester! I had duck for entree and Tim had a tian of prawn, crab and avocado, and then I had salmon trout and he had lamb, washed down with nice wines and followed up by further experiments with single malt nightcaps in the bar. We both felt rather better after this and felt quite benign about the last of our adventures in the UK!

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Edinburgh Castle, 5.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

 There was a much better guide called Bart on the Edinburgh Tour, who took us through New Town but along a different route to the earlier tour. We got off the bus at Edinburgh Castle, home of the Tattoo that we watch every year on TV at home. We were surprised to find that it is a much smaller area than it seems on screen, and that the ground slopes, which must make it all the harder to do some of the exploits we have seen…
 They say that people need hours and hours to see all that the castle has to offer, but too bad: we scampered round and took the panoramic shots & the shots with the the famous 15th century gun Mons Meg; checked out the Second Best Crown Jewels (only pearls!); tried again to understand the intricate history of the Marys and the Jameses and Civil War and the Restoration, and then had afternoon tea in the cafe, served by a vivacious young Aussie from Byron Bay!
Obviously there is much more to see, and we didn’t get to the war museum, but we managed to see the tiny room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the boy who was to become King James VI of Scotland and, after Queen Elizabeth I, James 1 of England. We also had a quick look at St Margaret’s Chapel, a tiny Norman building which – the oldest building in Edinburgh – has remained intact for more than 900 years – surviving all manner of sieges and bombardments including the hordes of tourists who descend on the Castle every year, (apparently second in visitor numbers only to the Tower of London).
I think my favourite part was the cemetery for dogs owned by soldiers stationed at the castle. There, in a special garden set aside just for the graveyard, are a dozen or so little gravestones for dogs buried there. This is the kind of British eccentricity I like.
 By the time we’d tramped all over the castle we were in need of a rest, but the Scottish Heritage Whisky Centre was conveniently close at hand. After a welcoming sample glass (only a blend), we got on on a conveyor belt of seats made from barrels and travelled around 300 years of whisky making dioramas. The best part, however, was afterwards when we went into the bar and tried some 12 and 18 year old single malt Islay whiskies – for comparative purposes only of course!
 For our last night in Edinburgh we dined at a fine restaurant called La Garrigue, just a stone’s throw from the hotel in Jeffrey Street. We had a quiet table in a little room off the main dining room, with a view of the courtyard. The restaurant specialises in cuisine from the Languedoc region, and the menu includes scrumptious dishes like a cassoulet of rabbit with juniper berries and a confit of duck. It was an excellent meal and the service was great.

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Edinburgh Museums, 5.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

 Things improved on our second day in Edinburgh. We began with a lucky accident – the discovery of the National Library of Scotland’s fascinating exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE Day: ‘Scotland’s Secret War’. I hadn’t known much about the bombing of Scotland, which was extensive in the shipbuilding areas, and especially at Leith, Glasgow and Clydebank. Edinburgh was largely spared, and the library played an important role in storing significant manuscripts and documents. There was a display about spies such as the Tartan Pimpernel (Donald Caskie) who helped soldiers to escape from France and Norway, and another about how Robert Watson-Watt helped to discover radar for the wartime defence of Britain. Then there was the story of how the Scots Home Guard captured Rupert Hess on his secret trip to Britain, and also on display, an Enigma Machine.

After that, we went to the New Museum of Scotland and took a brief tour. It’s in a new purpose-built building, linked to the old museum by lifts and galleries, and the tour itself was an introduction to the (often nationalist) symbolism of the interior features. The building, for example, is designed in the shape of a ship as an echo of Scotland’s industrial past.  There were some strange metal architectural scuptures showing the themes of the museum: community, trade, power and the spirit. They looked like massive robots with humanoid faces, but they also had items from the collection – such as a bracelet from 800AD or an ancient coin – enclosed in little display boxes attached as an integral part of their bodies. I liked them, but I have to admit they’d probably be incomprehensible if the guide hadn’t explained their significance.
From there we went up to the trade section, where we saw an assortment of huge machines and lots of bank notes – because the Scots pioneered the finance industry. After a restorative coffee and shortbread in a lovely light-filled cafe, we went to see the special exhibit, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Last Tsar and Tsarina.  There were some lovely things, including a 1999 Faberge copy of the imperial regalia, although not much that is precious had left the Russian museums on tour! I liked the menus and the vestments, though most of the dresses looked ornate but not especially valuable.
 What I thought was most interesting was their interpretation of how it all came to an end. According to the display, the Russians were at war with Japan, and things were not going well. Tsar Nicholas took over as Commander-in-Chief, not because he knew anything about things military but for morale purposes. (Not surprisingly) he made things worse, and they lost, and then WW1 started. The Red Bolsheviks were against the White Russians who wanted to use the Imperial Family for support, and so the Reds bumped them off to prevent them being used as a symbol, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. Perhaps if the Tsar had been a bit more willing to make changes the family might have survived, but there had been two attempts at having a Duma (parliament) and neither survived because Nicholas thought them too revolutionary. Ironic, eh? Nicholas abdicated in 1917 but he and Alexandra, their five children and servants were executed and their bodies buried in the woods. There they remained until five of the bodies were found and reburied in 1998 after the fall of the Communists.  After that we explored some more of the museum, the highlight of which was the fossils – brilliant! I bought a reproduction of a Faberge peacock as a memento before a superb lunch in an excellent French restaurant Le Sept , before we set off for The Edinburgh Tour, prebooked before we left home…

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Edinburgh, Newhaven Museum and the Royal Yacht Britannia, 4.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

 Edinburgh was interesting, but I didn’t like it much, and it didn’t feel safe out at night. There were loud, rough people about, and the streets were badly lit. It wasn’t that we were in a cheap area, because the Travelodge and Radisson were nearby, and there were expensive shops with kilts and Scottish designer clothes (not to be seen dead in)… No, it was the people. They were not friendly at all, and almost everyone on the street seems to smoke – ugh!
It’s a dirty city too. Lovely old buildings absolutely black with soot, such a shame. There are endless terraces all tumbling over each other – which could be really charming, but instead it looked melancholy and poor.
 We went on a city tour (where the guide justified the miserable appearance of the buildings as ‘historic’), and saw Robert Louis Stevenson’s House and Adam Smith’s grave. The Burns Monument, which could be magnificent, is filthy and they should be ashamed of it. Melbourne had the same sort of C19th sandstone buildings blackened by smoke and soot from coal fires, but has cleaned them up and restored them…it just takes money and a sense of city pride.
After that we took the bus down to a sad little museum at Newhaven. The museum is dedicated to the local fisherfolk, suitably romanticised for a modern age. No doubt the local schools bring children down to do its activities, matching model folk to their silhouettes or dressing up for photos,  but I was glad to get out of there. We took a photo of the Firth of Forth in the distance, where my mother used to drive WW2 POWs for detention when she was in the ATS, and then had a long, cold and bleak wait for the bus.
The Royal Yacht Britannia was both interesting and irritating. It’s very well set up with a sort of tower linking visitors to the yacht in dry dock, and we all obediently trooped through the audio tour with precision, but sometimes we were told more than we wanted to know about engines and laundries. Predictably for a staunch republican, I got fed up with the sycophantic commentary, constantly referring to everything and everybody with the prefix ‘royal’, and I thought some of the protocol traditions they were so proud of were downright absurd – officers having to change uniforms 8 times a day depending on whether they were in proximity to the royals or not.  The poor chap who scrubbed down the royal deck in front of the sunroom was required to do so out of the queen’s sight, which was often awkward to achieve – this despite the oft repeated claim that she liked things to be informal. (All the women I know are glad to have someone scrub down the decks any time.)
Still, I found a nice Xmas gift for daddy – a Nelson medallion commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a droll book about 1930s etiquette to amuse Jane.
The restaturants near our hotel (the Jury’s Inn) looked great but weren’t open so we found David Bann’s vegetarian restaurant nearby. It was very nice except for the woeful Argentinian wine – no wonder Australian wines are so popular!

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Off to Scotland! En route to Edinburgh 4.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

We had vague ambitions to go to the York Railway Museum (Tim) and the York Castle Museum (Lisa) but it was all too hard and so we took the 9.54 to Edinburgh. The scenery was much like before: little patchwork fields punctuated by small towns, and old stone and brick bridges over rivers and streams. There were signs of impending autumn: most trees were still resolutely green but occasionally there was a splash of yellow or red, and what appeared to be cotoneasters had little red berries.
Durham station was typical of the stations en route, with a great curved roof and steel lacework on top of Corinthian columns, reminiscent of some of our older stations at home. We caught a glimpse of Durham Cathedral amongst the rows and rows of terraces down in the valley…

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The Historic City of York, 3.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 16, 2006

York is delightful. We had a delicious lunch at Café 8, and then strolled along the parapet of the old city walls and pretended to be archers guarding the ramparts before going down into The Shambles – full of gorgeous little Tudoresque shops in the narrow laneways!

We had a quick look inside York Minster – but didn’t want to pay five pounds for the privilege of a closer look and then more to go down into the crypt and then more again to go up into the tower. I wonder how many tourists they lose by charging so exhorbitantly ? Never mind, plenty else to see, including remnants of Roman Britain, especially the statue of Constantine the Great – who was proclaimed Roman Emperor in 306, and by subsequently recognising the civil liberties of Christians, established the religious foundations of Western Christendom. Was that a good thing? Those that were on the menu for the lions in the Roman Colosseum thought so…

We loved the Jorvik Viking Centre! We travelled by ‘time machine’ down below the surface to 875AD and ‘visited’ a reconstructed Jorvik town with scenes of life at that time – all life size and with sound effects and very authentic smells (phew!). Upstairs, there was an impressive museum of old bones and assorted artefacts to explain the archaeological process and some dress-ups which Tim couldn’t resist!

By then we had reconnoitred the city so we knew that the best place to go to for dinner was Four High Petergate where there is a very nice bistro with a relaxed atmosphere, an excellent menu and friendly staff. For starters I had a partridge roll with melon in a scrumptious jus with beetroot leaves and greens, and Tim had Shetland Island mussels in a lemongrass sauce. For main course we both had the pheasant which was served with celeriac mash with a fig! They have a fine selection of Aussie and NZ wines, but we can have those at home any time, so I tried the L’Enclos de Chateua Lexongars 2001 Premieres Cote de Bordeaux, and Tim had the Chateauneuf du Pape 2003 from Domain Roger Perrin, Rhone. For dessert I had the bitter chocolate torte and a late harvest riesling, and he had the treacle orange tart with muscat. Bliss!

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En route: London to York, Monday 3.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 16, 2006

On Monday morning, we set off for York. At Kings Cross Station, a very nice railway gentleman, who seemed to have nothing else to do but guide bewildered travellers to the right train, took us to have our BritRail passes stamped, and then escorted us to our carriage! First class is very nice – the seats are plush blue, with little white antimacassars and there are cups and saucers all ready for a cup of tea and some shortbread – no nasty snack bar – it’s table service.
The two-hour journey was very pleasant, with lovely scenery rolling by at 200kmh. There was a partial eclipse from 8.30 till eleven, but it wasn’t at all noticeable except that the day just seemed slightly overcast.
Our new ‘home’ in York was the Hazelwood Inn – very central and we had a lovely comfortable room, with more space than the Montague, which was nice. Once we stashed the luggage, we set off to find some lunch and to see the sights…

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London, Museum at Docklands, 2.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 29, 2005


The Museum at Docklands is an excellent museum. It’s in one of the few remaining warehouses left standing after the war; it’s in the area devastated by the end of the Phoney War in September 1940, and it’s now all redeveloped as the Docklands estate, for rich people and the finance industry.

The museum tells the story of London with Roman Britain and the birth of Londinium. After the Romans abandoned Britain because their empire was falling apart, it lapsed, but a new port arose, called Lundovych, and then a further port developed later on in about 700-800AD. From then it grew and grew, with bridges and houses and warehouses, all along the Thames, until it became a massive port serving the empire. I liked the little model ships best, with their tiny people and animals and cargoes.
There was also a gallery called Docklands at War, with a video of the area during the Blitz, which aroused yet again those awful feelings about what it must have been like for my father, who lived in Rotherhithe during the war until he was bombed out.
After the museum we took the light rail back to Bank, and then the tube to Holburn. There we wandered around a bit and found the Lincoln Inns of Court, and a magnificent building that looks like a church but is actually The Great Hall. By then we were tired, so we had a muffin and a drink at Cafe Nero, and then en route back to the Montague we found not only Bertrand Russell’s flat at No 34, but also, next door, Lisa’s natural habitat – the London Review Bookshop (where of course, she bought a book. Or two.)
We dined in at the hotel for our last night in London.

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London, Rules Restaurant, 1.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 29, 2005


Rules is London’s oldest restaurant, and it serves traditional British food, specialising in classic game cookery, oysters, pies and puddings. We started with a Rules cocktail, which Tim thinks is based on Dubonnet and champagne, and then we had soup: wild mushroom & chestnut for me, and game with lentil & cumin for Tim. For main course, Tim had grouse with game chips, bread sauce, redcurrant jelly and a madeira jus, and I had a fillet of woodland roe deer with carrot puree. Our wine was from Languedoc: a Domaine Rene Rostaing Peuch Chaud. At 10 pounds, 95 per glass, with our exchange rate, this was close to the most expensive wine I’ve ever had. (Except for the Penfolds Grange I’ve been lucky enough to try a couple of times. Oh, and that very, very old cognac, at Domaine Des Hauts de Loire.)
The puddings all looked splendid, but all we could manage was to share a trio of ice-creams!

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London, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery 1.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 29, 2005


The National Gallery is a gem! We took the bus to Trafalgar Square and – like lots of other tourists enjoying the warm and sunny day, we admired Nelson’s Column and, from the balcony of the gallery, a view across to Big Ben. There are statues everyhere, even George Washington and Edith Cavell, whose heroism I admired as a child. I wish we had more of such statues at home in Melbourne, but no, we Australians don’t like to exalt our great men and women and so most of us don’t know what they looked like, even if we have heard of them. (Why, for example, don’t we have a statue of Howard Florey, who discovered penicillin, or Patrick White, our Nobel prize winning author?)
Tim navigated us through the gallery so we didn’t miss much, and I saw almost everything I wanted to. But when we stopped to rest our aching feet at the Espresso Cafe, we found a clever little interactive screen on the tables, that enables you to locate where particular pictures are and plan your visit. That’s when we realised we’d missed the Sainsbury’s Wing, and went back to find Bellili’s Doge and the Arnolfini Wedding – smaller than I expected but terrific – I even saw some details I’d not noticed before like her red shoes under the bed.
After that we went to the National Portrait Gallery, and loved it! Lots of daggy old British Chinless Wonders, but I liked Aldous Huxley, Churchill, Newton, Shakespeare and Thomas Marvell, and those royals that I’ve seen so many times before, like Henry II for example, but these were the real portraits. I have a soft spot for George III who donated his library, and George IV who built the Brighton Pavilion, which I really like. I especially liked a massive one of Elizabeth 1 in her white dress, standing on the globe of the world – you can see the jewels all over her gown as you can’t when you only see the picture in a book.
There were also some terrible pictures of the current royals, Charles looking particularly insipid.
We took a cab home and learned all about the Finnish language from our genial driver, who’d learned it from his wife who used it to speak to their children.

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