A long way from home

It was time to introduce L and the kids to my most legendary relative ever: the sublime UK in the UK: Uncle Kevin. Grandad and Gran drove us over to Chichester, where Kevin and his wife Liz and son Luke live.

Getting over there was a good chance for Isaac and Jeremy to have a good play – one of few good plays on the holiday. Kids need that sort of thing, otherwise they gradually go crazy. And adults need to prevent their kids going crazy to stop themselves going crazy. They revelled in Luke’s toys, both indoors and out, while we adults chatted and drank numerous cups of tea.

Uncle Kevin
The legendary Uncle Kevin
Gran and Grandad
Gran and Grandad enjoy a cuppa

Then Kevin was due to go to work, so we wandered off into the town centre of Chichester, got some lunch and explored the streets, poked around the very impressive cathedral, touched the Roman wall, nosed around the shops, and dodged a small army of charity collectors (no, we can’t make regular contributions to your charity, we don’t have a UK bank account).

Chichester is thankfully home to a very decent Internet Cafe by the railway station, and I spent a few minutes in there catching up on the news and e-mail from home. The machines and connection were fast; heaps better than the dingy place in Croydon that I’d used a couple of days earlier.

Nearby we found the bus station, and we caught a bus back to Bognor Regis. It was single-deck bus which was a shame – I love the idea of riding a double-decker bus through the countryside, but it didn’t seem worth waiting another 15 minutes for that one. Once in Bognor, we proceeded to wander around the shops there, at least those that were open, which wasn’t very many. There wasn’t much choice for dinner either, and we eventually settled on a Kebab place.

It was after 6pm and getting dark, but thankfully Safeway was still open, which meant we avoided the ugly scene of me on my knees, hammering on the door with tears running down my cheeks, pleading for the love of God to be let in to buy some nappies. We trotted in and stocked up on a handful of supplies, then joined the express line – which turned out to be anything but – they should have called it the Snailspace line. But we did eventually get to pay for and wrap up our groceries, and wandered up to the bus stop.

The bus to my grandparents’ house arrived and we got on, with me, the official fare-payer, fumbling with the currency, and failing to notice where to rip the ticket from the dispenser. But the bus driver was sympathetic, and seemed to understand when I told him I was a long way from home.


Today after much wrestling with my PhoneAway card, I finally managed to get it working (Telstra had provided the wrong local number to dial) and checked our voicemail at home. 14 messages no less, the most immediately significant of which was that the ticket for L that I’d booked through the Ticketmaster UK
web site for a concert with Lyle Lovett that Friday at the Royal Albert Hall had been cancelled – it turns out due to the death of his father. What a bummer. Tell you what though, full credit to Ticketmaster. In the following days and weeks we would discover that apart from the phone message, they also e-mailed several times AND sent a registered letter about it which was waiting at home in Melbourne. Plus a refund of course. Shame about the concert though, L would have enjoyed that.

Peeking over the gate to the sea at my grandparents house
Letting the kids peek over the fence to look at the sea at my grandparents’ house.

We packed up some of our stuff for a few days on the south coast of England with my grandparents. We took the bus to East Croydon station, and after a quick stop at Safeway and Boots for supplies, got on the train, with me assuring L all the while that we’d be able to buy sandwiches on board. Nup. No trolley service. D’oh! Thank goodness for L’s hastily bought emergency chocolate supply.

We rolled into Bognor Regis about an hour and a half later, and while waiting for my grandparents, availed ourselves of the very excellent (if a little slow on the service) Whistle Stop cafe in the station. Why do all cafes in railway stations invariably get named the Whistle Stop? Aren’t there any better names that could be used?

Grandpa and Gran arrived a few minutes later, and we piled into their Fiat for the drive to their house by the sea, with no close calls at roundabouts this time. After unpacking, we attempted to take a walk along the sea, but it was far too rainy and windy. Ah well. Eventually the rain let up, and after playing with the kids in the garden, we took a walk to the local village shops and got in some supplies – a newspaper, snacks, and some toys to keep the kids at least mildly amused and stop them destroying the house.

After dinner we settled down to a quiet evening of chatting, watching telly, drinking sherry, that kind of thing.

The dragon and the volcano

We caught the train into London Blackfriars – an interesting name for a station, though I didn’t spot any black friars walking around it. It was pretty quiet, being Sunday morning, and we strolled along the Embankment, which is a rather less interesting name for what is undeniably, an embankment.

One of London Transport’s youngest drivers, Isaac.

We walked through the Strand, past all the Australian icons – the Qantas office, Australia House etc, to Covent Garden. Our prime goal for the morning was to visit the truly wonderful London Transport Museum. I raved on about it the last time I visited, and it’s still just as good, the ideal spot for kids of all ages etc etc etc and all that usual hype. The kids loved it of course, and we all had a good nose around through the exhibits.

After a spot of lunch we roamed around the rest of Covent Garden. By that time it was much busier – crowds of people milling around the shops, munching on food and watching buskers of varying degrees of talent. A truly awesome rock band had set up outside the museum, and was blowing away the crowds, while inside the main shopping building there was a more refined form of music, a string quartet.

A few streets away, wandering through China Town we came across a dragon, accompanied by noisy fireworks and an honour guard of martial arts people, moving from shop to shop as Chinese dragons often do, blessing each in turn. It reminded me of home in Melbourne during Chinese New Year, in fact.

From there we walked down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square, and Isaac, showing a rare burst of energy, had a good run around chasing the pigeons. We dipped into the Underground station toilets at one point, and I noticed that they had a sign up proclaiming that they had been "Loo of the Year 1996/97". Maybe they’d let their standards slip a little since then – it didn’t look all that outstanding to me. Or perhaps the competition was really shitty?

Down Whitehall towards the river we went. I’d been telling L about how big Big Ben is. It’s a Grand Canyon-type scenario – no matter how many photos you see, you’re never really quite ready to see it in person. It’s big. Hence the name. L seemed a bit doubting, until we came around the corner and she looked up and – "Holey shit!"

We found a park next to the adjoining Westminster, and Isaac and Jeremy had a good run around. Then we caught the tube back to Victoria. Everyone was hungry, so we went into the shopping centre above the station to look for dinner, and discovered that despite the silly name, "Spud-u-like" aren’t bad, as far as potatoes go.

Somewhere on the train between Victoria and East Croydon, one of our Travelcards went AWOL. Thankfully it was only the tail end of a Weekend Travelcard, but it was annoying nonetheless. We put on our "poor tourists don’t know what we’re doing" faces at East Croydon station and the ticket collector let us through the gate. 

There were a few groceries we needed to get on the way back to Hew’s, but we figured we could probably get them at the Safeway near the station. Nope: closed. Another convenience of home, that all big supermarkets are open until midnight every day of the week, obviously didn’t apply. While L went to look around for any open shops, I popped in to an Internet Caf� next to the station.

The computer they gave me was mindnumblingly slow. After ten minutes I’d only managed to read two e-mails, and I gave up after fifteen minutes. As I paid up my £1.50, I asked "Is that computer always that slow?"

"That one on the end is a bit slow, yes."

"I wish you’d have told me that fifteen minutes ago", I replied, and stormed out, silently vowing never to return, a vow I was to break a few days later.

L hadn’t been able to find a single open shop. This was a dire situation: what we needed was baby wipes and nappies. When you’re stuck in a strange land as guests of someone with no little kids, with a toddler who let’s face it – like all little kids – can erupt like Mount Vesuvius in the bottom zone, you definitely need nappies.

We got on the bus (the right bus this time) anyway, and asked the driver if there would be anywhere open. He spotted a late-night supermarket and let us off. Thankfully, they had the necessary provisions, and it was only a short walk to Hew’s place from there.

So if you’re reading, the bloke driving the 466 that night when some Aussie pleaded with you to find a late-night supermarket or chemist, I just want to say thank you Mr Bus Driver, thank you. You probably saved a fellow Englishman’s house from a devastating eruption.

Carn the Blues

HewWe set off into central London from my Uncle Hew’s place, with Hew in tow. We got off the train at Victoria, and strolled around to Buckingham Palace. Buck House is kind of impressive to people who’ve grown up elsewhere in the Commonwealth, and seen it on the telly every time there’s been a royal wedding. And it’s always a laugh to see the guards strutting around in their very tall hats.

The hotdog sellers were doing a roaring trade (a ludicrous UKP 4 a pop if I recall correctly), though I’m surprised they allow such blatant commercialism so close to the Palace. They appeared to be the only vendors. Perhaps they let just one set of food vendors operate there for fear of a starving tourist populace jumping the fences and ransacking the Palace in search of food. Or perhaps it’s just another way of raising revenue since they got their pay cut. Though I didn’t spot a "By Appointment To Her Majesty The Queen – Greasy Freddy’s Hotdogs" crest on the side of the carts.

So did we shell out these exorbitant amounts of money for mere sausages in buns? You bet – we were starving.

We carried on, following in reverse (if that makes any sense whatsoever) my footsteps the first day I had ever come to London, through Green Park. Then we strolled along Piccadilly towards Piccadilly Circus, looking in shop windows, and stopping off to look at an arts and craft market which was running in a churchyard. Can’t say I saw anything particularly inspiring there, but we did pick up some wacky and tacky English postcards in a shop a bit further along.

The plan had been to meet Josh and Cathy, who were over from Australia on a more long term basis (living, working, the whole bit) at a pub in Bayswater to watch the delayed telecast of the AFL Grand Final. I had a vested interest in seeing Carlton (the Blues) win – I got them in my office sweep. No doubt all my colleagues at home were hoping for the Blues would get a pummelling by the Kangaroos, since I had won the pre-finals footy tipping competition.

I was going to let L and the kids take in some more of London while I enjoyed a few beer soaked hours watching the footy with some mates. I even thought of dragging Hew along for some of this fine Aussie culture, but he wasn’t feeling very well, wasn’t too keen and decided to go home early.

L seemed a bit overwhelmed by Piccadilly Circus on a fine weekend afternoon (well, most people would be the first time they experienced it – Oh the humanity!) and somehow it didn’t quite seem fair to leave her with the kids in the middle of this strange chaotic metropolis. So I elected to ring Josh with my apologies, and we tramped off to find a less chaotic bit of London to explore. I rang Josh later, and he said the Kangaroos trounced the Blues anyway, so there you go.

We explored the shops of Regent Street, nosing through the massively fun toy shop Hamley’s, and also taking a detour around the very fashionable Carnaby Street. The BBC Shop further up Regent Street also got a look-in, and then we went exploring a little more off the beaten path, down an obscure street called New Cavendish Street, which turned out to have almost no attractions at all worth looking at (probably why they don’t mention it, let alone rave about it, in the guide books).

But we did get very close indeed to the structure formerly known as the Post Office Tower. I know it used to be the Post Office Tower because I remember it from that Goodies episode, Kitten Kong. My A To Z labels it as the Telecom Tower, but you can just bet that by now it’s called the BT Tower. The habit of renaming utilities and their associated infrastructure must be a worldwide thing – no wonder my neighbour is confused about who runs the phones.

We found Tottenham Court Road, and a tube station to get us back to Victoria, where we took a train back to East Croydon. Then we got some groceries from the Safeway there, and waited for a bus back to Hew’s house. From the multitude of buses leaving from East Croydon station, I made an educated guess about three I thought we could take, and we boarded one and ended up at the wrong place. Not far off course though, and not far from Hew’s house, so we walked the rest of the way. I made a mental note to try the other two routes next time.

So long Brum…

Time to leave Birmingham, but first of all we needed to settle the bill. I realised I was a bit lacking in the cash department, so had a quick consultation with "Basil", our host. He apologised for not accepting cards, but gave me directions to a cash machine, and then asked "Are you sure that’s okay?" with the kind of tone that suggested that if it was too hard to walk there get cash, he was almost willing to let us leave without paying.

[Having fun in Birmingham - err, okay, so this might have been the day before. I seem to have had a camera lapse on that Friday]
We found the fabled Natwest machine, just as per his instructions, and returned to cough up the dosh. Then we set off for the bus stop, and caught one of the many going by to Birmingham City Centre. We strolled along Corporation Street to New Street Station, and checked the times of trains back to Oxford (yes, that old make-use-of-the-railcard thing again). We had just missed one, so we took a look around the shopping centre above the station, the (s)wankily named Pallasades Centre. Ultimately, it was just another shopping mall, but it kept us entertained until it was time to get on the train and say, naturally, "So long Birmingham – You’re my kind of town!"

Courtesy of another of Richard Branson’s train sets, we rolled into Oxford a bit later, slurped down a drink and then rolled out again, bound for London on board a very streamlined and fairly empty Thames Turbo express. We bought some sandwiches off the jovial on-board catering bloke, and had munched our way through them by the time we reached London Paddington station.

Back on the Underground to London Victoria, then we wandered around and found the Sainsbury’s not-quite-big-enough-to-be-a-supermarket nearby and bought some food for dinner.

Then we went and did the Victoria shuffle, a little dance without music that sees people gazing up at the departure boards looking for the station they want to get to, then scurrying off towards the platforms when they see it, hoping that there’s actually time to get onto the train before it leaves.

We got to our train, but the on-board announcements left us in some doubt if it would actually be stopping at South Croydon. The quintessential City Gent sitting opposite deftly whipped a timetable from his briefcase and inspected it, and told us that it should do so; and indeed it did. He was very cheerful and helpful, despite Jeremy doing a toddler scream at him (well okay, not at him, but in the vicinity) and us nearly breaking his legs as we manoeuvred the pram past him to alight.

It’s refreshing to know that at South Croydon, the painted signs on the platform saying "MIND THE STEP/GAP" actually warn you of a considerable gap (and step), not just a teensy tiny ant-sized gap of the type elsewhere in London that the signs and railway people seem to be at pains to warn you about. No, at South Croydon, they have a real gap.

From the station we walked back to my uncle Hew’s place. He was almost as delighted to see us as he was delighted to discover that L had volunteered to cook chicken for dinner, which we made very fast work of, before settling into a relaxing evening of wine and telly (vision, that is, not savalas).

My kind of town

The first B of the B&B, the bed, was very comfy, and we slept well. The second B was a great big artery blocking cholesterol bomb of the full English variety. Thoroughly delicious, and the ladies serving it were marvellously friendly, and promised to call an ambulance if anybody collapsed with heart failure. They had the kind of Midlands accents that reminded me of the old TV adaptation of Adrian Mole.

As planned, we met Ian, who we would come to know by his nickname, "Jelfie", and piled into a bus bound for the city centre.

I often rave on about Telly Savalas and the voiceovers he did for films in the seventies promoting various English cities for business and tourism. The pictures would show the grey boxes and motorways of what passed for good town planning back in those days, and Telly would wax lyrical about how marvellous it all was.

He would never actually appear in shot, and it was pretty obvious from watching them that he’d done the voiceovers from a long way away; probably at home by the pool in Miami, or somewhere like that. In fact it was doubtful that he’d ever even considered going to any of these places. But he’d sign off with an enthusiastic "So long <city name> – you’re my kind of town!"

Clive James showed a number of these promo films on his show a few years ago. And I’d swear one of them was for Birmingham, promoting its terrifically rectangular grey office blocks and cold grey arterial roads as the best thing in Europe since Spam.

Happily for the citizens and visitors of Birmingham, that’s changed. They’ve seen the light. The city’s getting open spaces, the canals are being re-developed, the ugly ring road is being moved underground, and the grey office blocks are being torn down in favour of groovy curved and colourful architecture. And I think that’s what most English people don’t realise: Birmingham isn’t grey any more; it doesn’t smell, and its streets are bustling with people.

The benefit of being shown around the place by Ian, a very friendly soul who is actually a professional tour guide (heck, here’s a plug for his web site - next time you’re organising a trip to that part of the world and have no idea where anything is, drop him a line) was that he knew where everything was, how much it all cost, who designed it, why it was there, what had gone wrong when they built it, and so on and so forth. We tested him later that day when Isaac announced in his usual abrupt manner that he needed a toilet. "Ian, where’s the nearest toilet?" Without hesitation he pointed up some steps. "Right there, it costs 10p". And there it was, well concealed inside an advertising column.

So we roamed about the canals, through the convention centre, around Victoria Square (England seems to have almost as many things named after Queen Victoria as the United States has named after George Washington) and the museum, and along the city streets. We boarded a double-decker bus, and grabbing the optimum tourist seats (front seats on the top deck) rode to another part of Edgbaston, that is, a part of Edgbaston which didn’t contain our B&B. We went past the cricket ground for which Edgbaston is best known at home, and wandered around some gardens and had lunch.

While waiting for another bus back to the city centre, L performed one of the lightning fast nappy changes on Jeremy that she could well become famous for, on a narrow sloping bench in the bus shelter. A true feat of speed and balance. The bus came a minute or two later, and we headed back to Corporation Street, and then down to the brand-spanking new and very colourful Birmingham Metro, though someone from Melbourne such as myself could be forgiven for thinking it was just a tram.

We boarded the tram, err Metro and took a joyride, wondering how long it would take the locals to get sick of the automated voice announcing the current and next stops at every station.

We ended up in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where all the jewellers hang out, which makes me wonder if they have proportionately more armed robberies in that area. Just a thought. Then we caught another bus back into the city centre and found a lovely little cafe to have afternoon tea. Or afternoon hot chocolate in my case.

A stroll up to Victoria place and back through the convention centre, then the kids had a short play in a park behind it. Then we started thinking about looking for dinner. It was getting dark and had started raining at this point, but we didn’t have to walk far before we found Pizza Express, which from the name sounds like a cheap fast skanky pizza place, but as it turns out is a medium-priced quite nice pizza place. Pizza for the second night in a row? Why not – we were on holiday!

By the time dinner was over, it had stopped raining, and we caught a bus most of the way back to the B&B, getting off a little early to drop past the shops and buy a newspaper. Ian showed us a back way to the B&B, which took us past a strange little tower built in a previous century for unknown purposes, which together with another nearby may (or may not have; we may never know for sure) have inspired J.R.R.Tolkien, a local lad, to write the Lord Of The Rings-series book "The Two Towers". See, if you didn’t have a tour guide (or at least a fairly detailed book) in tow, how on Earth would you learn such a thing?

We thanked Ian profusely for the day, and promised if he ever got down to Melbourne that we’d give him a tour of some of our local sights, though undoubtedly with less reliable accompanying trivia.

Into the Midlands

We set off from my uncle Hew’s place, not excessively early, but early enough. Our eventual destination this day was Birmingham. All the English people I spoke to wanted to know why on Earth we’d want to go to such a hell-hole, but as it turned out, Birmingham’s reputation for being grey and very nasty is unfounded. At least, it’s not very nasty.

But more of that later. We trudged to the station, and caught the train into London Victoria, followed by a tube ride on the aptly named Circle Line to Paddington Station to catch a train to Oxford. Why Oxford? Well, apart from the fact that it sounded like a delightful place to do a bit of sightseeing, it was also because it’s roughly on the border of the area covered by the BritRail SouthEast passes that we had in our possession. We’d bought them when we’d thought we’d be doing a lot more rail travel than we actually ended up doing. So we thought we’d better use them at least a bit.

We’d actually tried to get the passes stamped at South Croydon. The bloke there had no idea what they were, and we waited until reaching Paddington to do it. A tip when at Paddington: there’s a really long, slow queue for people booking tickets in advance. And there’s a very short quick queue for people travelling that day. After a 5 minute wait, I looked around and found the latter, which proved to be suitable for my pass-stamping purposes.

The Thames Turbo train zoomed out of Paddington, and we got to Oxford around an hour later. I’d had the crazy idea of putting the rather heavy backpack into the left luggage lockers, but in a country in fear of IRA bombs, wouldn’t you know it, they were closed. So we went for a walk around Oxford, the type of walk that you generally take when you’ve got a big heavy backpack on your you-know-what, a four year old whose saying of the week is "I’m too tired of walking" and a sleepy toddler in a stroller: a short and slow walk, but not too slow.

Oxford buskers
Oxford reminded me of Cambridge, because it looked almost the same. Narrow streets, bicycles, canals, punts, and picturesque spots just about everywhere you turned. We stopped at a pub and enjoyed some fish’n'chips’n'Guinness, which was a mighty fine thing, even when the rain started. After a quick look around the shops, a listen to some extremely skilful buskers, and a look at some of the local constabulary dealing with a drunk, we headed back to the station and caught a train on to Birmingham.

Birmingham is apparently known as "Brum" by the locals. A curious shortening, it sounds like they just can’t be bothered pronouncing it in full, in much the same way that people in Melbourne call the Melbourne Cricket Ground not the MCG, but simply "The ‘G".

It was mid-afternoon by the time we rolled into Brum New Street, stumbled out of the station into a cab and headed for our B&B, a little place going by the name of "The Kennedy" in Edgbaston, a place I’d only ever heard of before in relation to cricket.

I’d booked the B&B a couple of weeks before after having found it on the very marvvy British Tourist Authority web site. The bloke on the phone had sounded pretty cheerful, and hadn’t even asked for my name, a deposit, a letter of confirmation, or even a return phone number where we could be contacted. He was obviously very trusting.

The place looked a bit dishevelled from the outside, but it was very nice inside, very clean and tidy, and the manager bloke was very nice in person, too, even though he reminded us somewhat of Basil Fawlty. He gave us a little map of the area, and pointed out where the shops and things were, and we wandered off down the road to find them. We settled on a pizza shop, and ordered a pizza to take away, because it was just about time for my friend Ian to meet us, but he was expecting us back at the B&B.

We trotted back with the two pizzas (they threw in a second one for free), found Ian and sat on the wall outside the B&B, chatting with him and munching happily on pizza. Ian foolishly volunteered to be our tour guide for the next day (at least we knew he was qualified to do it – that’s how he makes a living) and before saying goodnight, we agreed to meet up bright and early(ish) the next morning for a look around the sights of Brum.

So long Roma

Just as we were getting used to Roma, it was time to move on to pastures new. We packed everything, somehow, back into our bags, disposing of whatever stuff we thought was surplus to requirements (those two huge books all about the pasta museum, for a start) and set off for the station.

On the way I took what would be the last chance in a while to get a picture of an "SPQR" drain cover. I remember as a kid reading The Eagle Of The Ninth, and wondering what SPQR stood for. And now I think it’s so damn cool that 2000 years later they still use the same initials for the government of Roma.

Termini station seemed a tad more chaotic than usual, but we found our coffee-company-sponsored airport train, and lumbered aboard. It was standing room only, and given the service is only hourly and earns the FS (Italian Railways) about 14,000 lira for every man woman and child aboard, I bet it’s a pretty good money spinner.

A friendly and knowledgeable American on the train helped dispel the cliche we’d seen a little too much of in the previous few days – that of hordes of elderly Americans wandering around Roma, loudly looking for a steak house to stuff themselves in.

Despite the train leaving late we made it to the airport in good time, and sauntered over to the terminal, echoing those classic old Telly Savalas promotional films for UK cities that he’d obviously never been to, by declaring "So long Rome, you’re my kind of town!".

L was to tell me something rather unnerving a little later: that while queuing for check-in, she had noticed the laser target of a police sniper’s machine gun cross her chest. I can tell you now, that would have absolutely scared the shit out of me.

The plane ride was a noisy (well, until Jeremy fell asleep) two-and-a-bit hour jaunt to Heathrow. We found our luggage, zipped through Immigration and Customs, then headed for the tube station.

I tried to negotiate with the booking office man for a family Travelcard, which would have been slightly cheaper than two adult Travelcards, but because the kids are both under five and would travel free anyway, he wouldn’t sell us one. Hmmm. Ah well, it was only about 10p difference.

So we rode the tube into London, amused for a while by the driver’s constant reminders to mind the gap (the gap?! You call that a gap!?) and to not give money to beggars. This was followed by a train ride (which is, of course, a completely different thing) to East Croydon, where we climbed into one of those ol’ London black cabs and I quoted my uncle’s address in South Croydon, giving away no clues, just to put his "knowledge" to the test. The driver didn’t come through with flying colours.

"Ahh, now, I know I’ve been there before, but…", he hinted.

"Off Haling Park Road."

"Oh, right, of course. Thanks very much", he replied, sounding as if he hoped I wouldn’t tell anybody at all that he’d ever needed to ask.

Uncle Hew arrived from work in his tiny VW Polo just as we got there. He was, as ever, most hospitable, setting up the rather cosy spare room, which we fitted ourselves and our luggage into with a shoehorn. Then we ate, drank and made moderate merriment until it was time for bed.