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Europe 2017 🇬🇧🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🇧🇪🇸🇬

Two hours to Brussels

(Backdated. Posted 26/8/2017)

Good morning! It’s 5:30am! Here’s your breakfast tray!

Actually the sleeper train wake-up call was not as perky as that. And it was fine getting up, despite being early, because I’d set my phone to beep 10 minutes beforehand.

I pulled up the blind and looked out the window. We were sitting in Paddington Station in London. I felt like I’d had a great sleep, and I certainly have no recollection of any noise as we arrived.

By 6:30am we were all dressed and leaving the train.

Having missed it the week before, we found the Paddington Bear statue – right next to where we’d arrived on platform 1, and decorated with cards and momentos due to the recent passing of author Michael Bond.

Paddington Bear statue at Paddington Station

At the Underground station we bought one Oyster card, and loaded some money on it, but the rest of us used credit cards, which despite being from outside the UK, worked perfectly for this short hop and for our travels around London the following week.

The tube to St Pancras didn’t take long, even with a change at Edgeware Road, because the Circle Line isn’t a proper circle anymore… hmm, Wikipedia describes it as a spiral.

I’d booked Eurostar tickets from London to Brussels which seemed pretty good value: 33 € (A$50) each on the way over, 41 € ($62) on the way back the following Tuesday. It’s hardly surprising that Eurostar has won a huge market share from the airlines.

It took a couple of goes to get the machine to work, but I collected our tickets (they look like airline boarding passes; perhaps no coincidence) and we joined the queue.

Eurostar ticket

Our train to Brussels was due to leave at 8:04. Eurostar staff were calling out for people for the earlier train to Paris to help them skip to the front of the queue, as their earlier departure time was approaching.

We went through a security check – presumably not quite as strict as airports, since there’s no checked-in luggage, so they can’t ban all sharp objects.

Then we went through border control: one UK (departing) and one France (entering). I guess with France and Belgium having an open border, it doesn’t much matter. In fact our train was scheduled to stop at Lille in France along the way.

At the desk adjacent, a lady with a recently expired passport was pleading with the French policeman to be let through. I could see him shaking his head, though later on I think I spotted her, so she must have convinced him.

We sat in the departure lounge for a couple of minutes, then they called us up for our train; we found the appropriate escalator for our carriage and up we went to the platform and onto the train.

St Pancras Eurostar station

I think we scored a new train; even in Economy/Standard class it had WiFi, powerpoints, and little TVs on the ceiling showing our speed and location. (The train back a few days later didn’t have these.)

Eurostar used to run along high-speed lines with overhead power in France, but revert to lower speeds and third-rail power in England. This all changed last decade when the fast line (known as High Speed 1) from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras opened. High speed domestic trains use the line too.

As we zoomed through the countryside at about 270 km/h, I was reading Twitter about the Metro meltdown occurring at home. A fault in the train control system had shut down the entire network. Yikes.

Normally I don’t live-tweet my holidays; I like to save most of it up for these blog posts later. But in this case, I felt obligated to post a sympathetic message.

I didn’t notice any Eurostar announcement when we reached the tunnel; I just noticed the windows had gone dark. Shades of that scene The Goodies “Orient Express” episode.

We zipped through Calais (lots of barbed wire around the rail lines to guard against unauthorised entry from attempted immigrants) and before too long reached Lille.

It appeared a group of 2 French and 2 Belgian police were on the train patrolling together. I don’t know if they share duties or they check who’s got jurisdiction (depending on location) if they need to apprehend anybody. It’s not so long ago that an armed attacker on a high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris was stopped by passengers, which did result in calls for more security on cross-border trains.

It was a reminder that Europe (including the UK) has suffered from terrorism a lot in the past few years. In Belgium we would see numerous troops on the streets, and as I write this on 26th August, there are reports of a man attacking soldiers in Brussels with a machete.

Brussels Midi station

We rolled into Brussels Midi/Zuid (South) (why does it have two names?) on time at 11:05 — discounting the time difference, that’s 121 minutes after leaving London.

Apparently the distance is 373 km. I make that an average speed of 185 km/h, with the top speed being 300 km/h. (In comparison, the fastest Melbourne to Geelong train takes 55 minutes to travel 81 km, or an average speed of 88 km/h, with a top speed of 160 km/h.)

Signs in four languages greeted us in the station, as well as a two Tintin murals – one a moderate size, one huge.

Tintin at Brussels Midi station

Despite the prior warnings of pickpockets galore around the station, I saw no signs of trouble – perhaps the strong presence of police and army personnel had chased the pickpockets elsewhere.

We walked to our accommodation, an AirBNB flat in nearby Saint-Gilles. Yes, I’d deliberately chosen something in walking distance from the station.

Much of the way was uphill, and it always seems further when you’re not familiar with the geography, let alone hauling luggage. A pattern emerged that would become common for the rest of the holiday, in the big cities: I and J would storm off ahead, with M and myself falling a little behind. I’d be navigating via my phone, and I’d occasionally get looks back from the boys for guidance as to which direction to go next. Mostly they didn’t miss any turns and have to double back. Mostly.

Chaussee de Waterloo, Brussels

Post box, Brussels

It was about 11:30. Officially check-in was at 18:00, but our host was only too happy for us to drop the bags and come back later after the place had been cleaned.

We went to have a walk around. I wanted to find an ATM to get some cash in the local currency, and by this time we were thinking about lunch.

I haven’t travelled all that much, and even less in non-English speaking countries. Actually in Brussels (no doubt in part thanks to the EU headquarters) most people speak English, but bear with me.

Having not been in a country where English was not the first language is something I hadn’t done since 1999.

Millions of people are in this situation every day, of course, having to live and work in places where they don’t speak the language.

But I found it confronting. And humbling. I was in a strange place, without a clue as to how to do something as simple as order a meal. I’d glanced at a phrase book on the train, but my French was pretty much nonexistent.

Tintin headlines in Brussels

We resolved the lunch situation by finding a chain store called Hector Chicken. Even I, not speaking a word of French and having no cash, could deal with saying “Chicken burger” and “Fanta” and handing over a credit card.

It wasn’t brilliant food, but it kept us going while we steeled ourselves to explore some more.

And the more we explored, the more we discovered how many Belgians speak perfectly good English.

We went into a metro station to buy a “Mobib” public transport smartcard. In fact we lucked out finding a staffed station – the bloke in the booth was enormously helpful, letting me know that we didn’t actually need to buy four of them – you can just touch the card multiple times to let multiple people through the gates, and pay the appropriate number of fares.

This was extremely handy for our group of four tourists. One card to buy and top-up, and it also means you more easily get the discounted bulk rate: 10 rides for 14 Euro (one ride is 2.20). I’m not sure any of the other PT smartcards I’ve used (London, Singapore, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, and certainly not Melbourne) can do this.

ATM not working, Brussels

But we still hadn’t found an ATM. Unlike in Australia where ING is an online-only bank, with no branches, ING branches were all over the place, and at least their familiar name made it easier to search on Google Maps for branches – since a search for “bank” or “ATM” or “cashpoint” didn’t seem to be working well.

One ING branch had all its ATMs out of service. Another one I tried didn’t like my card (though happily didn’t eat it, as had happened in Bath). Eventually we found one that worked.

Tram at Place Royale, Brussels

At a tourist information place we got a few brochures to look at later. We’d be in Brussels for 5 nights, so we’d need to find some things to do!

Nearby we spotted a gallery holding an exhibition of artworks by Belgian surrealist Magritte. This was a good escape from the heat, and as a bonus, I+J got in for 2 euros apiece, as they had a cheap “youth” (under 25) admission.

Near Place Royale, Brussels

Mont des Arts, Brussels

Mont des Arts, Brussels

After that we kept walking around. It was pretty hot, and at one stage I tried to order an ice cream cone from a street vendor (who unlike almost everybody else, didn’t speak English, and didn’t know the word “cone”), but managed to order waffles instead. Okay, my fault — roll with it. Tasty.

We looked in the very impressive Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (arcade) and the nearby Grand Place, which has some stunning 17th century buildings.

The Grand Place, Brussels

The Grand Place, Brussels

Near The Grand Place, Brussels

From there we headed back to our accommodation, spotting the Tintin mural along the way, as well as the Mannekin Pis, in a street teeming with fellow tourists, and (less interestingly) a supermarket to get some supplies.

Tintin mural, Brussels

Mannekin Pis, Brussels

Peak hour traffic in Brussels

A bit of a rest, then we went out hunting for dinner. At first we found a brasserie that had been recommended… but discovered they only serve drinks and dessert. Obviously in Belgium a brasserie doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as in Australia.

Sint-Gillisvoorplein, Brussels

Eventually we found a street nearby with lots of restaurants. And — jackpot — a whole row of ATMs!

We settled on a Turkish place, and ate well.

It was getting late, but not too dark – by the time we headed back to the flat it was 11pm. Time for some rest. With 26,000 steps behind us for the day, we’d earnt it.

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Epic bus ride to the end of the land

(Backdated. Posted 22/8/2017.)

Unlike the budget hotel in Bath, this hotel in Penzance included a full English breakfast, of which we availed ourselves. Very tasty.

We’d be spending the day in and around Penzance, but leaving in the evening, so we had to check-out. The hotel initially seemed a bit iffy about having the space to keep all our bags for the day. The station doesn’t offer left luggage, but the taxi depot across the street does, at UKP 2 per bag per day. After I’d arranged this, it turned out the hotel manager was in fact happy to mind the bags, but the taxi depot seemed more logical as it was much closer to the station.

The taxi depot seems to be linked to the gym next door, and we were instructed to knock there for admittance.

Okay, bags dropped, let’s explore.

The bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

Epic bus ride

We headed for the bus station. I had in mind two things for the day: St Michael’s Mount, a castle on an island just offshore, and Land’s End, the very western tip of Britain.

Various other buses depart from the bus station, including one to Mousehole, which apparently isn’t pronounced “Mousehole”, but “mowz ull”. Most of the buses on that route have a mouse logo.

The bus from Penzance to Mousehole, Cornwall

The bus to Land’s End was leaving first. In the tradition of the privatised bus companies with poor online information, the fare bore no resemblance to what was hinted at on their web site, but no matter, this turned out to be possibly the most fun bus ride I’ve ever taken.

As you leave Penzance, there’s a glorious view out the back window as the road climbs up the hill heading southwest, similar to an old travel poster that I’d bought as a tea towel the day before in a tourist shop.

View over Penzance

Between Penzance and Lands End, Cornwall

The road from Penzance to Lands End is about 10 miles of mostly narrow lanes. At least, Australians would call them lanes. The Brits call it a B road.

It would be tricky enough to drive a double-decker bus along this route if the roads were empty. But they were full of other traffic – cyclists, locals in their cars, bewildered tourists (some in left-hand drive vehicles from continental Europe), trucks, other buses…

It was epic. Many of the passengers sat in the open section of the top deck, watching with amazement as we drove along, each carefully orchestrated dance with the oncoming vehicles seeming more complex than the next.

On the bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

On the bus from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

Traffic from Penzance to Lands End, Cornwall

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Cars squeezed past us. Trucks had to find a slightly less-narrow section of road to get past.

At one point in a super narrow section we came across another bus from the same company – that driver reversed his bus back up the road to find a wider spot where we could pass.

Check this short video. I almost edited in a dramatic sting at the 30 second mark.

As we drove through villages, many with narrow or nonexistent footpaths, there was also the odd feeling for us on the top deck of rolling past people’s upstairs windows.

And I haven’t mentioned the low branches. Some sections of the route had a tree canopy over the road. I’m guessing the local authorities never trim the trees; they just let the buses do the job.

We noticed protective bars on the top front of the bus, designed to deflect the trees away from the front windscreen. Many London double-deckers seemed to have them too. Makes sense.

One passenger on the bus brought his dog, whom he said was happy to explore the local buses and trains. The dog sat happily in a seat, taking in the breeze, and would try and snap at low-hanging tree branches as they came past.

The trip was scheduled to take an hour – I’m not sure what fantasy land the timetablers are living in, as it ended up being closer to 90 minutes. Note for later: the bus back probably wouldn’t be on time. But it was all highly entertaining, and I can’t recommend this bus ride highly enough.

End of the Land

Lands End is the westernmost point of Britain. Unlike the geographically similar Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, there’s a kind of mini theme park, with restaurants, tourist shops, attractions (Shaun The Sheep was the current resident side show) and so on. Given it was Cornwall, we decided to have Cornish pasties for lunch, then went to explore.

There’s a very nice view off the coast, and we had a look around. Plenty of other tourists around. One bloke and his (possibly long-suffering) partner was lugging a drone around, then getting it to take photos of himself from off the clifftop.

Lands End, Cornwall

Dangerous cliffs, Lands End, Cornwall

Occasionally some brave soul/Darwin Award nominee would climb over the low fence and gingerly head out among the “Dangerous cliffs” sign to take photos.

A sign pointing to various locations around the world had a customisable arm on it – for a fee (and if you were willing to wait in the queue) you could add your name, or place of origin, or some other message onto it and have your photo taken.

Dalek at Lands End, Cornwall

Non-accessible path, Lands End, Cornwall

Some of the footpaths around the site were marked as “Red” (for able-bodied walkers) or “Green” (more accessible) routes – though it seemed some of the sealed Green routes were far steeper than the unsealed Red ones. I wonder how people with mobility difficulties actually find them.

I was able to set up this comedy pose.

Lands End, Cornwall

Lands End, Cornwall

Lands End, Cornwall

One building doubling as a tourist trap shop and ice-cream parlour looked inviting, and it was certainly warm enough for an ice-cream. Then we walked along the coast for a bit to take in some more views.

We got back to the bus stop, and it turned up (late) and we headed back to Penzance. Cue more traffic adventures.

On the way we got a better view of a stone circle I’d spotted along the way — I can’t quite figure out which one it was. There are no less than 17 around Cornwall, but this was right next to the south side of the road the bus passed along.

Stone circle, near Penzance

The castle

Back in Penzance, we then changed onto a bus to Marazion Beach, further east along the coast from the centre of town.

From there you can walk to St Michael’s Mount – a castle on a hill out in the bay – if the tide is out, but it was coming in, so rather than swim, we hopped onto a small motorboat to the castle instead.

St Michael's Mount, near Penzance

The boat operator (captain?) let us know the castle would be closing before too long, and rather than rush through, we opted instead to explore the grounds at the base, and have some afternoon tea.

It all brought to mind the The Goodies classic episode “Bunfight at the O.K. Tea Rooms“, where Graeme suggests they head to the “wild and woolly west” (Cornwall) looking for gold, but find cream, scones and jam instead.

The final scene is a bun fight using various foods, apparently actually filmed in Cornwall, with a great Bill Oddie composition providing the soundtrack.

Three brave men went searching
For a fortune in the west
Now they face each other in the dawn

The finale of their dream
In the land of clotted cream
Turned against their fellows
Who had a lust for jam and scones …. scOnes!

As we enjoyed our tea and scones, jam and clotted cream, we noticed a huge seagull nearby, drinking from others’ leftover milk jugs. A little bit freaky.

Seagull has afternoon tea, Cornwall

We boarded another motor boat back to land – ending up in a different spot due to the incoming tide.

St Michael's Mount, near Penzance

Marazion Beach, near Penzance

Rather than another bus ride back to Penzance, we decided to walk along the beach. It didn’t seem like too far, though 5 kilometres is actually quite a distance in the heat. Very picturesque though, and good to stretch the legs.

Trainspotters may enjoy the walk, as part of it is parallel to the railway line, including a GWR maintenance depot.

Shunting train near Penzance

Level crossing near Penzance

Penzance

Railway crossing warning sign, Penzance

High Speed Train at Penzance

Railtrack sign near Penzance

This Railtrack (defunct) sign intrigued me. I wonder if it’s a way of saying that eventually the railways might claim back the path?

Back in the centre of town, I noticed just how many shops have Poldark-inspired displays and products. Fair enough, might as well milk these things while you can.

Cornwall: Poldark country

The pub crawl

We started pondering dinner before catching our sleeper train.

Pub 1 was very close to the station, so super convenient. But there was a 50-60 min wait on food, they said. I didn’t mind this, but we decided to try elsewhere.

At Pub 2 we bought some drinks to cool down, then asked about food. Sorry, they said, they were booked out for food. Booked out? Yep.

On to Pub 3. Menu looks good. In we went. The kitchen already closed. Out we went.

Turks Head, Penzance

Pub 4. It was now 8pm, and after this impromptu pub crawl, I felt like we were in a hurry, as we needed to be at the station by about 9:30 as the train leaves at 9:45pm.

I mentioned that we were in a hurry to the barman, who said there were plenty of seats in the garden and he’d send someone down to take our order, as he couldn’t do it.

We read the menus and waited. And waited. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to ask if this must be why they call them wait staff… because you have to wait.

I went back up to the bar to buy some drinks and asked again if they could send someone to take our orders.

Eventually they did indeed take our orders, and we waited some more. Then the waitress came out and said the chef is not entirely happy with the way one of the meals has come out, but they won’t be long.

Have I mentioned we’re in a hurry?

At this point it becomes clear that we should have just bought our meals at the first pub, wait or no wait.

Honestly, I hate being in a rush like this, and my stress was no doubt starting show to my travel companions. When the food eventually came out, I’d actually lost much of my appetite, and I’m sure it was very nice, but I only ate half of it. The others ate their meals, we paid and then we legged it. It was 9:13pm.

Fortunately the walk back to the station isn’t too far, but wait! — first we needed to get the bags from the taxi office.

We knocked on the door. No answer. Tried the associated gym next door. Nope. FFS.

It was now 9:20 and the train was due to depart at 9:45. I found a phone number and rang. See, I told you I need a functioning phone when I’m on holiday.

While they were sending someone down, I went over to the station to pick up the train tickets from ticket machine (at least that went smoothly).

The bags were released and we went to find our carriage on the train. I was calm again.

The Night Riviera sleeper train at Penzance

The Night Riviera

The Night Riviera is one of only two sleeper trains left in Britain.

I used the other one, the Caledonian Sleeper, from Inverness to London way back in 1998. It was such good fun that I thought it’d be great to do it again, and drag everyone else along for the ride.

To be perfectly honest, this was the main reason we’d come to Penzance: to catch the sleeper train back. Given that it’s subsidised to encourage tourism to Cornwall, from that point of view, it certainly worked.

The conductor greeted us and showed us to our compartments, and explained how the various bits and bobs work. I’d booked two adjacent compartments for the four of us. They’ve got bunk beds, and, it has to be said, not a lot of space for anything else.

The toilet was at the end of the carriage (but proved to be nicer than the average British train toilet – Vileroy and Bosch porcelain!) and there was a lounge car elsewhere on the train.

We had a choice of breakfast: a croissant, muesli (which the Brits often call Alpen, which confused I+J a bit) or cornflakes. And we could nominate the time for it to be served (doubling as our wake-up call). Given in the morning we had to make a connection to Eurostar, we opted for 5:30am, which is appalling early for a holiday, but oh well.

The train was scheduled to arrive in London at 5:23am. You can sleep in later than that, but you have to vacate the train by 7am — after that, presumably they need the platform for peak hour.

The conductor noted that the power points in the cabins are really for shavers; for charging phones she recommended trying seats in one of the other carriages. Mind you, from the sounds of it you can actually use the cabin power points for phones if you have the right adaptor.

Cabin on board The Night Riviera sleeper train

The cabins aren’t very roomy, as you’d expect. Perhaps a little cramped for two people, and I wondered if I should have paid the extra and booked a cabin for each person (they have connecting doors so they can be paired up), but my travelling companions didn’t seem to mind – it was something new and different, after all.

The fares for the four of us? £168.20 (£42.05 each with various discounts including GroupSave) for the trip itself, plus £180 (£45 each) sleeper supplements for the twin-share cabins. If we’d wanted a full cabin each, it the supplement would have been another £100 – a total of £280 (£70 each). Maybe next time.

The train rolled out of Penzance on-time at 9:45pm. Normally by train it’s about 6 hours to London; the fact that it takes 7.5 on the sleeper train probably means they either run slowly, or perhaps they park it somewhere along the way.

I spent some time in a seat elsewhere in the train charging my phone enough to get us to Brussels the next day, catching up with the world via WiFi, and watching the darkening scenery of Cornwall passing by. The seats in that carriage started to fill up as we made stops along the way.

Then I headed back to the cabin and drifted off to sleep.

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Heading to the wild, wild west (Cornwall)

(Backdated. Posted 16/8/2017)

We bade our farewells to the family and my uncle K gave us a lift to Taunton station.

First step to our next destination was a train to Exeter, or to be precise, Exeter St Davids. As with Bath a few days earlier, Exeter is served by multiple railway stations, originally built by different railway companies.

Exeter Central is, as the name would suggest, more central, but it’s Exeter St Davids that opened first, and is now the busier main station. (Some people complain that Melbourne Central Station isn’t the main/central station. It seems that situation isn’t unique.)

We had to change trains at Exeter, but first we peered outside (pouring with rain, pretty much the first rain we’d encountered on the trip) and bought some sandwiches to eat on the way.

Our next train was heading for our destination: Penzance. It was the grandly named Cornish Riviera Express. Apparently this name has been used since 1904. It was mentioned on the station displays, though I didn’t notice any specific branding on the train itself, which was a standard High Speed Train (Intercity 125) set.

The train to Penzance, from Exeter St Davids

Grey and green, somewhere in Devon

We zoomed along through Devon, with some great scenery despite the grey skies.

Due to the hilly countryside, there are a large number of railway viaducts providing views over towns such as Plymouth. This is the view from the Keyham Viaduct – apparently it’s 27 metres up in the air. (Here’s what it looks like from below.)

Plymouth: rail viaduct over St Levan Road

Yet another grand bridge built by Brunel carried us across the River Tamar and into Cornwall. In fact we passed over numerous bridges, with some very impressive views along the way. Of course you can’t really see the bridges when you’re in the train, though in this case we got a good view of the parallel road bridge.

And then… we stopped at St Erth, one station short of Penzance, about 10 kilometres away.

For a while we didn’t move. My spidey sense detected something wrong. Then the announcement.

A truck (sorry, a lorry) had struck a bridge up ahead. The conductor, sorry train manager (fair enough, these HST trains are pretty long, and they actually have quite a few staff) got on the PA and apologised profusely, but we’d need to hop off the train here and wait for replacement buses.

We all got off the train in the drizzle and sheltered in the undercover part of the platform. The train manager and her colleagues were on their two-way radios trying to find out about replacement buses and/or whether the train would continue on once engineers had checked the safety of the bridge.

After a few minutes they said that due to the delay, the train would be short-shunting and heading back to London.

One of the rail staff suggested, given there was no ETA on trains resuming, that people exit the station and try their luck with the local buses. I checked Google Maps for buses – they ran about every 20 minutes from here to Penzance. I also checked the Uber app. Nothing nearby. So in light drizzle, we joined a queue of the braver passengers at the bus stop on the main road.

St Erth station, Cornwall

Bustituted on the way to Penzance

A bus arrived and a rail staffer hopped on first to check with the driver about them accepting rail tickets. The bus driver, who in fact is from the same parent company, seemed more concerned with just keeping to his schedule, and let everybody aboard gratis, so we squeezed on with our luggage and had a slightly more lurchy, cramped arrival in Penzance than expected.

We’d come halfway around the world and we’d been short-shunted and bustituted.

The train had been due in Penzance at 3:11pm. The line was shut until about an hour after that, but the bus got us there about the same time the line re-opened, so we probably ended up saving some time. As it was, the Train Manager had said we should be able to claim a refund on our tickets, so a few days later, I did just that. I haven’t actually had a response yet. (I don’t know how it works when the incident is outside the train company’s control.)

Update: On 14th September, GWR emailed me to say they’d be refunding us £60, by cheque. Will be interested to see if a cheque shows up in the mail.

GWR web site: Trains delayed

From the bus station, we walked to hotel, just off the main drag, which curiously is called Market Jew Street. Apparently the name is a derivation of the Cornish Marghas Yow meaning Thursday Market.

The bloke on the hotel front desk asked “Where from Oz are you?” Melbourne – “Ah! I had a working holiday there, lived in Hawthorn for a while.” Small world.

(Few people in Australia say “Oz”, by the way. It appears to be particularly British slang for Australia.)

Across from the hotel was a shop full of various secondhand goods, and a Dalek in the window. Nice. (Weeks later, regular Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss would spot it too, and if you Google for Penzance Dalek, it looks like everyone who’s been through town has seen it.)

Nearby was a house marked with a non-blue plaque noting that the aunt and mother of the Brontë sisters had once lived there. History.

We headed down towards the sea to explore.

Chapel Street, Penzance

Letter box by Penzance Harbour

It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining, but the weather was more than a bit breezy. Powerful waves were hitting the coastline.

I was keen to look closely, but keener still to keep my feet dry, as in an attempt to pack light, I’d only brought one pair of shoes on the trip. As you may be able to hear from my exclamation, this was not entirely successful.

Western Promenad, Penzance

No pirates were obvious, but they wouldn’t be, would they?

Trivia from Wikipedia on The Pirates Of Penzance: The work’s title is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort in 1879, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical “pirates” who had staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.

Apparently the lack of international copyright had caused problems for Pinafore.

Nowadays the locals seem enamoured of Poldark, which is filmed and set around Cornwall.

Other sights included a drydock, ship in situ, and various other shippy infrastructure which indicated it’s very much a working harbour.

Drydock, Penzance

Penzance Ship Repairers

Penzance Harbour

The Dolphin Tavern, Penzance

After a long walk around, we ended up back in the middle of town, and decided to eat dinner at a pub we’d spotted – The Dolphin, by the water. Most delicious.

Then some more walking around before we headed back to the hotel.

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Family reunion time, and the mystery of the Bath toastie

(Backdated. Posted 15/8/2017)

Sunday, and today was the day we were scheduled to meet all the English relatives – aged from 2 to 92 – this was one of the primary reasons for the trip.

But first – breakfast!

We hit the streets of Bath in search of food, discovering yet again that before 8am, almost nothing in this tourist town is open. Worse, being a Sunday, that cafe from the day before with the great cooked breakfast wasn’t going to open at all.

Another prospect we’d spotted the day before was also closed. We kept walking in vain trying to find a decent breakfast place. As we walked, we got hungrier, and we (or at least I) started to get quite cranky.

Toastiegate

I spotted a Pret, a sandwich chain well known in the UK. It said in the window that they sell toasties.

“Right!”, I declared, desperate for some sustenance. “I’m going into Pret, and I’m buying a toastie!”

The bloke behind the counter said, with surety in his voice, that they don’t sell toasties.

Suddenly I had self-doubt. Had I really seen it in the window? He pointed me to a cabinet full of things I didn’t want. I walked out.

I looked again at the window. No, it definitely says toasties. WTF?

Pret in Bath. They denied they sell toasties. Their window says otherwise.

We eventually found some “all day breakfast baguettes” at another fine establishment. Greasy spoon breakfast wrapped in bread. Yum. Washed down with an appalling cup of tea. Double yum.

Via a deliberately circuitous route (we were exploring, not lost), we went back to the hotel, packed up our stuff and checked-out, arranging to leave our bags until later.

By the riverbank, Bath

Water Is Best statue, Bath

Parade Gardens, Bath

Cousin time

Time to meet the cousins! Outside the Roman Baths we met up with cousin S and husband N and toddler A. They’d come from their village about an hour from Bath.

We decided to head to the nearby Parade Gardens. It’s a park by the river which charges for entry, but consequently is very well kept. Entry is 1.50, but it applies all day.

The gardens have deck chairs, and we sat in them and chatted for ages, while A ran around and burned off some energy. I’d met S before, but that was last century, so there was a lot of catching up to do.

Lunchtime was approaching, and we started exploring the streets looking for options. N remembered a place he’d been to about a decade before. To his surprise, it was still there, away from the maddening crowds of the warm weekend, and they still served his favourite meal.

After lunch we wandered around for a bit longer and found some ice-creams and milkshakes, and back to the park for a sit on the grass and more of a chat.

Bye bye Bath

Eventually it was time to head off, so we picked up our luggage from the hotel and headed to the station, heading for Taunton via Bristol.

The first train to Bristol was a short train, and packed, but it was only a short ten minute hop. (Its destination was Cardiff; it was the reverse of the train we’d caught two days before.)

Our second train rolled in, happily on the same platform, and had plenty of space.

We rolled southwest through Somerset, admiring the scenery and making liberal use of the WiFi.

I couldn’t help notice quite a few houses with PV solar panels. Clearly solar power is not just limited to places like Australia that have lots of sun.

Solar panels on houses, Somerset, England

Worle Station, England

A bunch of towns passed by that I’d never heard of (Yatton? Worle?) though we also rolled through Weston-super-Mare, which I know was where John Cleese was born. At some the Train Manager cheerfully reminded us to be at the front of the train, as the train was longer than some of the platforms.

At Taunton, where the platforms are longer than the trains, we were met by Uncle K, who drove us to stay with my other Uncle H for a couple of days. We had a nice evening catching up with some family members we haven’t seen in years, and meeting others we hadn’t met before at all.

Taunton, Somerset

Monday 10th July

Monday was spent with family. The morning was taken up seeing my grandfather and setting up some group photos, and looking at old ones.

Here’s me with a portrait of my great grandfather. We got wondering if the Bowens all have high foreheads?
Me and my great grandfather

A memory from when I was a kid, and I don’t know where it came from, are these two lines from “Up from Somerset“:

Oh, we’m come up from Somerset,
Where the cider apples grow

As it happens, one of the nearby highlights is Perry’s Cider Mill, so we headed there for lunch, followed by a walk in the surrounding area, a village called Dowlish Wake.

Looking very serious at Perry's Cider Mill, Somerset

Post box in hedge, Somerset

The New Inn, Somerset

We walked past a pub called The New Inn. Apparently despite its name it’s about 350 years old. (I guess it’s like The New Forest, which is almost 1000 years old.)

Then a drive down narrow lanes to nearby town Crewkerne, and a walk around there. For its size, it’s a very busy town, or at least, some pretty bad traffic congestion. The local buses running only once every 90 minutes probably doesn’t help.

Traffic jam in Crewkerne, Somerset

In an antique shop in Crewkerne, I noticed this old railway promotion (below)…

I wonder if it provided any inspiration for the Victorian Spirit Of Progress? Rocket was 1829, so this might have been 1929. Spirit of Progress started in 1937. But perhaps it was a semi-common phrase at the time.

Old railway promotional material: Spirit Of Progress

We finished up Monday with a big family dinner, featuring two uncles, two aunts by marriage, four cousins, and the four of us visitors.

On Tuesday we’d be on the move again, heading even further west.

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Canals and cathedrals

(Backdated. Posted 10/8/2017.)

The hotel, being a cheapie, didn’t offer breakfast, so we sprung out around 7:30 looking for food… and discovered that almost nowhere in Bath is open before 8am, at least not on a Saturday.

Eventually (eg at 8am, or just before) we found a great cafe near Bath Abbey just opening up, which made a delicious cooked breakfast.

We made a note to come back here the next day. (Spoiler alert: this plan totally failed, as they are closed on Sundays.)

I find this slightly amazing for a tourist town. Someone with the nous and energy to open up early every day and serve good quality food could clean up… though perhaps every hotel other than ours serves breakfast?

Then out to explore the riverside walk. I’d taken a quick look the evening before, and this time we followed it further, snapping photos along the way. It was quieter than the streets, quite tranquil, but no less scenic. (Mind you, at one spot we did notice a number of shopping trolleys deep in the water below.)

River Avon, Bath, England

River Avon, Bath, England

River Avon, Bath, England

Canal boat, Bath, England

A mile or so up, we found a lock, and a narrowboat was on its way through, so we (and others) stopped to watch the watery action.

There are still vast numbers of canals around Britain, now made largely redundant for shipping by railways and roads. Our accommodation in Cardiff was right next to former industrial canals, and this one in Bath connected into the River Avon.

While travelling the countryside by train, along the waterways we’d seen numerous canal narrowboats. They can be rented out as a floating caravan, which would be a pretty relaxing (if perhaps cramped) way to get around. Slow too, but that would be part of the appeal.

We followed the river back to the railway station, noting the turrets on the local version of skyrail.

Skyrail in Bath, UK

Next to the railway station, the main shopping centre was less busy (and less picturesque) than the more touristy parts of town around the Abbey.

They seem to have found creative ways to use the old telephone boxes, which presumably don’t get a lot of use as telephones anymore.

Telephone box, Bath, England

Telephone box, Bath, England

Bath, England

M decided she’d like to go and look in the Jane Austen museum. Without wanting to make any comments based on gender stereotypes, the rest of us decided this wasn’t our cup of Regency era tea, and we kept exploring.

In fact I had a goal: I needed to find a camera SD card, as mine had filled up, partly because I’d left the camera set to RAW (which I don’t normally use while sightseeing).

One of the things I remember from my youth, reading computer magazines from afar, sometimes you’d see ads for shops you’d never encountered personally. Watford Electronics was one, very prominent in BBC Micro circles. Another you’d hear about was Maplin Electronics, and unlike Australian electronics chains such as Dick Smith and Tandy, Maplin is still around, and we found one of their branches in Bath and had a browse. I couldn’t help noticing they don’t seem to have descended to selling kettles and toasters.

Mind you, the prices didn’t seem too good at Maplin, so I ended up buying an SD card across the street at a stationer’s shop.

Bath, England

Cheese Shop, Bath, England

Time for some lunch. Later on in the trip we’d be heading to Cornwall. As a taster, lunch was at the Cornish Pasty Company, a chain of fastish food restaurants selling… you guessed it… pasties. With mushy peas.

Now, what to do for the afternoon?

Plan A: I’d been trying to get organised to meet up with my dad’s cousin, who lives not too far away from Bath, near Salisbury. After some missed messages, we finally reached each other on on the phone. Alas, she and her husband were busy that day, but we had a good chat and promised to catch up next time I was in the UK, or more likely, when they were in Australia.

Plan B: There are bus tours from Bath to Stonehenge, about an hour away. We worked out that tickets are sold from the tourist information office, and went to find out if any were spots available for the day. Nope, sold out.

Plan C: How about we hop on a train to Salisbury (roughly an hour), and check out the town and the cathedral there, which has the tallest church spire in the UK, and also the oldest clock in the world, as well as having a copy of the Magna Carta.

So we walked back to the station, bought tickets and hopped on a train.

Scenery from the train near Bath

Salisbury Cathedral, England

It’s a pleasant walk from Salisbury station to the cathedral, but by the time we got there, we’d just missed out on the last tower tour of the day. Damn.

Instead we looked around the cathedral, and the Magna Carta.

I’d seen a Magna Carta a long time ago, at Brisbane World Expo in 1988. I remember long queues… not so this time – no queue at all when we looked. Apparently this is the best of the four surviving original 1215 copies left.

That is, there are four copies from the year 1215. Not 1,215 copies.

Salisbury Cathedral, England

Salisbury Cathedral, England

Salisbury, England

A drink and a snack in the cafe, then we strolled around the town a bit more, and headed back to station.

A little while to wait for the train. Perhaps we should have stopped for a drink in the Railway Tavern next door?

Railway Tavern, Salisbury, England

The platform seemed quite crowded, and the hourly train was late. It became apparent that the service before it had been cancelled, and when it finally arrived, it was packed. (The signs indicated another later train had been cancelled too. Great Western Railway was not having a good day.)

Notably on some of the stations we passed, the Passenger Information Displays (or whatever they call them in the UK) included text to say the train was “Service reported full and standing”, to warn passengers ahead of the crowding. Good to know.

Packed train at Salisbury

Packed train Salisbury to Bath

The crowd were grumbling but resigned to their sardine-like fate.

A father and son quietly sat in their seats with their gunzel t-shirts, no doubt acutely embarrassed on behalf of their preferred transport mode.

Gunzel t-shirts on a packed train

Packed train at Bath

We got back to Bath before too long. It could have been worse – signage indicated some trains were being bustituted that weekend.

Bustitution in Bath

I ducked into a department store to buy a hat. When packing I’d brought one too many jackets, and had left my sun hat behind. And it had been sunny every day since we’d arrived, and I was getting concerned about sunburn.

Next we headed for the Roman Baths. I was hoping the crowds would have died down, and this proved to be the case. It’s also a bit cheaper after 5:30pm, no doubt to encourage people to visit outside peak times.

We followed the audio tour, which as a bonus includes interjections from Bill Bryson, for a slightly less serious and straight description of some of the features.

They’ve really done a good job at presenting the history of the place, and the context of Roman Britain.

Roman Baths, Bath, England

Roman Baths, Bath, England

That said, you wouldn’t want to be dipping your hand in the water, let alone bathing in it.

Then we searched for a pub for dinner which we found in a place where the music a bit too loud (oh well, it was Saturday night), but food was delicious.

I tried unsuccessfully to order a Lemon, Lime And Bitters. The lady behind the bar couldn’t figure this out. “Lemon, Lime and Beers?” Apparently this is not known in Britain.

No matter. After dinner we headed back to the hotel – the next day we’d be on the move again.

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Time for a Bath

Friday morning in Cardiff, yet another warm sunny day — I was in danger of getting sunburnt. The locals all swore it was highly unusual to have this much sun — apparently “sunburn” and “Wales” are words not often found in one sentence.

Time to head elsewhere, but first, one more walk to Cardiff Bay to stretch the legs.

We walked past the BBC Cardiff studios, wondering if we might spot any clues as to the production occurring inside. No, of course not.

So, back to the house, we packed up our bags and walked to Cardiff Central station.

By the way, Cardiff Central, like numerous other British stations, has a platform zero… mind you, apparently it doesn’t have a platform five. I assume they’re very cautious about renumbering platforms when new ones are added. (Some Melbourne stations also have missing platforms.)

Cardiff Central railway station

The train to Bath arrived, and a crowd surged forward to board it, including a school group. It seemed most people were going for a carriage with lots of “Reserved” tickets displayed on the seats. Hmm well maybe they’d reserved those seats.

But I noticed the train was relatively empty in the first carriage, so that’s where we headed, easily finding four seats to settle into and enjoy the scenery.

At Newport I spotted a freight train running through an adjacent platform, doubling as a moving billboard promoting freight by rail.

Our train zoomed towards England (to Portsmouth, to be precise), under the Severn, then into the main station of Bristol, known as Bristol Temple Meads, named after a nearby church. “Meads” is apparently a derivation of the word “meadow”, rather than a reference to alcohol. Hic!

Something I don’t think we see at home: from Bristol our train reversed when departing. Our front carriage was now at the back of the train.

We arrived at Bath Spa, a small but busy station. Why is it called Bath Spa and not just Bath? Because there used to be a separate station on a separate line elsewhere in Bath called Bath Green Square, and they didn’t want people getting confused.

Bath Spa railway station

Polite Box - information booth in Bath

The streets were just as busy as the station. Clearly this was a tourist town. We rolled our suitcases towards the hotel and dropped our bags, as it was too early to check-in.

Backtracking, we found a lunch place on Pulteney Bridge, which is one of those stunning bridge structures you only see in Europe.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath

After some food we explored the busy streets of Bath. The whole place is just picturesque to the max.

There have been settlements in the area since the Iron Age, and the Romans developed baths around the natural spring (hence the city name, though they knew it as Aquae Sulis), but what’s most immediately striking is the architecture: near-identical facades using the local stone, built mostly in the 1700s, and largely preserved since then.

Yes, it’s touristy. But the rapid expansion of this style of building is actually due to tourists — as the spa waters attracted visitors, accommodation needed to be built to cater for them.

It’s just beautiful to look at, and proof that medium-density buildings don’t need to be ugly — though of course you’d struggle to build anything quite this aesthetically pleasing today.

Circus, Bath

George Street, Bath

Henrietta Street, Bath

What’s doubly amazing is that you look to the distant hills and see the same style, so it’s not confined to the centre of the town, though there are some spots out of view where less attractive structures such as big box stores, large car parks and other abominations have been placed.

Henrietta Mews, Bath

Booking hotels

In the past for hotel bookings I’ve used LastMinute/Wotif/Expedia — they’re all the same company, showing the same results using slightly different fonts and icons… This time around I wanted to book a double room and a twin room, and these sites don’t make it easy.

I discovered booking.com, which does let you easily search for different room combinations. This is so amazingly useful that I’m surprised the others haven’t got this feature. I’ll stick to this site until they do, at least when I need a mix of room types… mind you, having got home I’m now getting near-constant promotional emails encouraging me to book another hotel in Bath. Surely they must have the intelligence to know that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

So we headed back to the hotel to check-in. I’d booked this hotel for price and most importantly, location – I really like to be walking distance to the city centre and the station, it makes it so much easier.

Location was good, price was good. Facilities a little basic, but okay. And it was in a traditional Bath stone building.

But there’s always a catch, right? In this case, it was heat. After a warm spell, the hotel was very hot in the upstairs rooms, and the windows wouldn’t open very far to let in the breeze. Air-conditioning? Hahaha… no.

We found two fans in one of the rooms we booked, but when we asked if there were any more, the otherwise very helpful staff said no, they weren’t allowed to give us fans. WTF? In our case easily solved as we moved one of the ones we had to the other room, but you have to wonder what was going on.

At least there was WiFi. It’s officially only available in the lobby, but we managed to get it from one of our rooms on the floor two levels up.

I must say, the TripAdvisor reviews are pretty cruel. But I guess it’s the most annoyed people who bother to leave reviews. Ultimately, Bath is an expensive tourist town, and this was an affordable option near the city centre.

Henrietta Mews, Bath

Statue of Queen Victoria, Bath

To the tower

We headed out again, and I found an ATM (oh sorry, a cash point) to get some cash. This was not a success – the machine went through the motions, but at the end of the transaction gave me neither the card nor the cash. Fortunately the attached bank branch was open at the time, and I was able to plead with the staff to retrieve the card, which they did. Being without an ATM card so far from home would not have been fun.

Memo: don’t use another Natwest machine, at least not when the branch is closed. I found another bank’s machine and it worked perfectly.

Bath Abbey, from the Roman Baths

Exploring some more, we found ourselves in Bath Abbey — beautiful inside, but we also bought tickets to climb the tower.

It’s steps all the way up of course, of varying steepness and levels of comfort and spaciousness. I couldn’t help notice that the ladies in the gift shop who sold us the tickets were of senior years, but the guides (who climb up and down all day) were somewhat younger. It must be a good aerobic workout.

On the way up we got to see the clock from the inside, and the various bells, but by far the highlight was the view from the top, which was spectacular.

And by the way, if ever you want proof that a phone camera is out-done by a proper DSLR camera, this picture in particular should prove it. See it larger in a new window.

Bath, view from Bath Abbey

Roman Baths, Bath (showing viewing deck added in Victorian times)

Back down the bottom, we kept exploring.

We wanted to look at the Roman Baths, but they were very busy, so we left it for later, instead roaming the streets, continuing to admire the architecture.

Near the Roman Baths, Bath

Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Bath

I found a retail outlet of Charles Tyrwhitt. This is the mob who sell a lot of mail order shirts in Australia, and ever since I bought some (they’re quite good) have bombarded me with emails and paper catalogues every few weeks.

It’s like they expect you to buy shirts, lots of shirts, every month of the year. Guys, I love your shirts. But I don’t need any more shirts right now.

Charles Tyrwhitt, please stop sending me catalogues! (Nah, I love them really)

Queen Square is a small oasis of calm near the town centre, with an obelisk in the centre built in 1738 to honour the Prince Of Wales. We also found Royal Crescent, which has the Bath picturesqueness dialled up to eleven — I’m guessing the homes here don’t come cheap.

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath

Marlborough Buildings, Bath

And we encountered a squirrel, of which I took far too many photos.

Squirrel in Bath

Time for some dinner, and we found a pub to settle into, then a quick walk along the riverbank (more of that tomorrow), and back to the hotel to rest.

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Battling the buses

(Backdated. Posted 4/8/2017.)

We’d be leaving Cardiff the next day, so before heading out we decided to get some laundry done. This is one of the benefits of Air B’n’B over hotels – at least if you’ve booked somewhere with a washing machine.

Then, what excursion today? We’d considered trying to get to Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, which as many would know has the longest place name in the world, though it’s known as the far snappier Llanfairpwllgwyngyll for short. (Disappointingly the long version was made up for promotional purposes in the 1860s.)

Unfortunately, this is right across the other side of Wales, it was almost 5 hours by train to get there. Even driving takes over 4 hours.

Instead we decided on St Fagans museum, just outside Cardiff, which is a kind of multi-timezone Sovereign Hill (but without the gold). On a huge property they have 40-odd buildings from lots of different periods of history, from the Iron Age to the 20th century.

The bus to Pengham Green via Splott

We didn’t catch the bus. I blame Margaret Thatcher.

St Fagans is about 7km from the centre of Cardiff, and the only public transport mode serving the site is local buses.

Most bus services in Britain were privatised in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher — with London being a notable exception — they have private operators but planned and controlled centrally.

In most of the bigger cities, the network is split into multiple bus operators, and they all do their own thing. In most cases they do not have common fares or ticketing, and in some cities they’ve had disputes to try and compete for customers. As recently as last decade, some bus company managers were jailed due to related unsafe practices as part of their battles with other operators.

Consistent with this model of deregulation, Cardiff has numerous bus operators, and they all have different tickets and fares.

This works against public transport patronage. Can you imagine if every highway and freeway was run by a different toll company, with different incompatible payment options? Or if you could only send SMS messages to people on the same phone network as you? (Actually this was the case before April 2000)

Planning and operating a common network makes it easier for users to use the service, encourages more patronage, and more income for all the operators.

In this case, we wanted to get from Cardiff Bay to St Fagans. Frequent bus route 6 (“Baycar”) run by Cardiff Bus goes to the station (fare £1.80), and connects (in the spatial sense only) with buses to St Fagans run by Easyway. But they are run by different operators, so you pay two fares.

Depending on which bus you catch back, you could be using a third operator (New Adventure Travel), with another separate fare.

Timetable information is easy to find online via Google Maps and the official site Traveline Crymru. But for two of those three operators, fare and ticket information isn’t available (though Traveline are apparently working on it). I had no idea what I’d need to pay. Perhaps about £2, but was it cash only? Did they accept cards? Probably not. Did they give change? Did they accept large notes? What cash did I have on me, anyway?

So the prospect was trying to pay multiple fares with cash (awkward) and times four people (expensive) on a two-bus trip (time-consuming)…

(Later on I found there is a £8.30 Network Rider Ticket that’s valid on multiple operators… but not all of them. It covers all the operators I mentioned above, but not all their routes… confusing much? And if the plan was for three trips at about £2 each, then that’s not actually a very good deal. And where do I buy this ticket? On the buses, or elsewhere? Oh and by the way, at least one bus operator lists this at the old £8.00 price.)

And the clincher was we were late getting out of the house… so I gave up and called an Uber. It came a couple of minutes after we called it, took about 20 minutes, and cost £16.30, direct off my credit card. For the four of us, not much more expensive than the, perhaps, £14 in bus fares, but also quicker and more convenient.

Iron Age round houses, St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans, to rhyme with Baggins

We saw various parts of suburban Cardiff on the way to the museum (including, up close, for the first time since our trip started, a British railway crossing – rare in urban areas, but there are a few on the less busy lines in regional areas).

On arrival at the museum, our Uber driver remarked that he’d lived there for 20 years, but “I’ve never heard of this place.”

It was pretty warm, and we did a lot of walking around the museum looking at the various buildings, as well as some amusing placement of (fake, presumably) dinosaur tails.

St Fagans Museum: Dinosaur tail

It was kind of interesting. But it’s very widely spaced out. Admittedly this does give each site a nice sense of isolation, but it also means you have to walk a long way to see anything.

I may be a total philistine, but I have to confess, even though the museum was free, and parts of it were interesting, I’m not sure I’d go back. (Which you could interpret as: if you’re in the area, don’t bother trekking out there unless you’re super-keen and there’s nothing else to do.)

Plymouth Arms pub, St Fagans, near Cardiff

On the recommendation of some neighbourly builders, lunch was at the Plymouth Arms, a rather lovely pub just outside the eastern gate of the museum. Tasty. Mushy peas is a UK tradition I think we should adopt in pub meals here.

I thought we’d catch a bus back to the city centre. The buses from St Fagans back to central Cardiff are theoretically every 20-30 minutes, but I discovered that during school terms, there’s no bus between about 2pm and 4:30. Evidently the buses go off and do school runs.

This is perhaps understandable from a purely economic point of view. But it’s poor service to museum patrons.

Another bus runs from nearby, but only about every 2 hours. It was due in an hour.

I tried to call an Uber. A driver accepted (12 minutes away) then cancelled on me. I tried for a few minutes, but no others responded. Hmmmm. Could it be that, 7km from Cardiff City Centre, we were just too remote for Uber?

I had no idea what the local phone number was for a cab… nor whether they’d take a credit card. This of course is the benefit of Uber in an unfamiliar city.

So we decided to look around the museum gardens and mansion house a bit more (it’s all very Downton Abbey), then catch the bus.

The bus – assuming I’d read the timetable correctly – rocked up 5 minutes early – thankfully we’d reached the stop early. The bus driver seemed surprised to be getting any passengers :-/ Oh well, at least the fare was an even £2 each.

On the bus from St Fagans to Cardiff

War memorial, Cardiff

It took us into central Cardiff pretty quickly and we had another look around the shops to find a cold drink.

Then we walked up to the National Museum. Somehow the day had got away from us, and we only had about half-an-hour before closing time – only had time for a quick look around.

Doctor Who fans might recognise the museum as one of those used for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, the final episode of Matt Smith’s first season.

National Museum, Cardiff

In fact, there are Doctor Who and Torchwood shooting sites all over Cardiff and the surrounding area. Turns out there’s a web site tracking them all: Doctor Who Locations.

As we continued to wander the streets, we spotted another location: the University of Cardiff, which doubled for Bristol University in the most recent Doctor Who season.

Walking past the Cardiff Police headquarters we noticed a film crew packing up their equipment, including uncovering the “Cardiff Police” sign, which had been disguised as “Bristol Police”.

I’m not sure what had been filmed, but a number of productions are based in Cardiff apart from Doctor Who, such as Sherlock and hospital drama Casualty.

Police station, Bristol. No, actually Cardiff.

A little more exploring of the city centre, and grabbing a takeaway dinner along the way, we headed back to our accommodation to relax for the evening and prepare to head for our next destination.

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Cardiff Who?

(Backdated. Posted 31/7/2017)

Oh the joys of jetlag. Having gone to bed at 8pm, I woke at about 5am. But being summer, it was already light.

Eventually it seemed like a half-decent time to get up and out, and we prepared for our mission.

Why had we come to Cardiff in the first place? And at the start of the holiday? Because of the Doctor Who Experience. It’s been at Cardiff Bay since 2012… but the lease runs out this year and it’s closing.

For a family of Doctor Who obsessives, who on this trip would be coming to the west of England anyway to visit family, including this was a no-brainer.

Cardiff: Doctor Who Experience

Cardiff: Doctor Who Experience - bus stop
(Can I get a photo combining Doctor Who and public transport? Yes! Note the bus stop passenger information display.)

Back when I was planning the holiday earlier this year, they’d only confirmed open dates until the first week in July. Way back in 1999, we narrowly missed out on going to Legoland, and I wasn’t going to risk a repeat. So I planned the holiday around ensuring we got to Cardiff first for the Exhibition before it closed.

After booking everything in, including accommodation located about midway between the city centre and the Bay (an easy walk to both)… it was announced the exhibition will be open until September.

No matter, we’d made it there, and we were damn well going to enjoy it!

So on our first full day in Britain, we walked down and arrived just as they opened, for our pre-booked 10am entry.

The initial part of the Experience is a kind of interactive experience thingy. They ask that people don’t record/photograph, so as not to give it away. So I won’t blog about it either, but it’s good!

Then you pass into the exhibition hall, which is a bit like the Sydney Doctor Who Festival we went to in 2015: Lots of displays, costumes, monsters, models from the series, both the “classic” (1963-89) and new (2005-) episodes.

Being adjacent to the studios where they actually produce the show helps them keep the displays completely up to date – costumes from episodes only aired weeks before were on display. And there are plenty of opportunities for photos, with or without your own ridiculous posing with them.

Police boxes, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

1980s TARDIS console, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Monsters, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Two Davroses, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Costumes at the Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Costumes from "World Enough and Time", series 10, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Of course you exit (eventually) through the gift shop — merchandise galore, including some items you don’t normally see at other shops — it was only the thought of my limited suitcase capacity that stopped me going crazy with a credit card.

And there’s a chance to sample a welsh cake in the cafe. Nom nom nom.

Welsh Cake

It was lunchtime by the time we exited, and we grabbed a bite to eat nearby at a takeaway place, and ate in the park as we watched three blokes who, having a lunch break from a nearby office, tried to get their throwing toy down from a tree.

We then walked into Cardiff’s city centre to explore some more, and up towards Cardiff Castle.

St Mary Street, Cardiff

St Mary Street, Cardiff

One of the local breweries is called Brains, which results in some amusing signage around the place. Makes it look like alcoholic zombies have taken over.

Brains Beers advertising, Cardiff

The Goat Major pub, Cardiff

Cardiff Castle

At the northern end of the Cardiff CBD is Cardiff castle, an impressive structure, overlooking one of the main streets. And like many large old buildings, it’s evolved over time: it was a 3rd century Roman fort, then got an 11th century castle, with various changes and upgrades along the way, then the development of a Georgian mansion in the 18th century.

After a quick look at a display of wartime memorabilia under the visitor centre, we did a tour of the mansion, which showed off some of the amazing decorations inside the building.

Cardiff Castle

Decorations inside Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

Then a climb up into the keep. Signs warned of ever-steeper steps up – back in the day, they certainly didn’t design these buildings for ramp accessibility — more like to defend against attackers.

If you make it all the way to the top there are some great views of Cardiff.

Steps inside Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

View from the top of Cardiff Castle

After the castle, we had a somewhat early dinner at a nearby famed Italian restaurant called Cafe Citta – it’s lucky we were early or we wouldn’t have got in – this was utterly delicious. Thanks jetlag!

Laneway art, Womanby Street, Cardiff

Parking officer in Cardiff orders vehicles out of a pedestrian area

It was still light, so we walked back towards Bute Park, along the way watching a parking officer enthusiastically ordering a car and a van to leave a part time pedestrianised zone. I wonder if he’d like a job in Melbourne? We could do with some like him.

Bute Park sits between the Castle (it was once part of the grounds) and the Taff river. It was a warm evening, and lots of others were wandering around the park enjoying the sunshine.

Bute Park, Cardiff

River Taft, Cardiff

A walk home, and bedtime by 9pm – still jetlagged, and still sunshine outside.

With the long days, it would be some time into the holiday before we would actually see the night sky. Certainly not tonight.

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Go west! (to Cardiff)

(Backdated. Posted 28/7/2017)

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After a long flight from Singapore, we landed in London, and as we taxied I did my usual thing of checking out the exotic airlines you can see at airports outside Australia.

I particularly liked the Brussels Airlines slogan “We fly you to the home of Tintin” – apparently this is their “Rackham” aircraft.

Tracking the flight to London

Heathrow: Brussels Airlines Tintin plane

Hello Heathrow

During the lengthy walk from the terminal we found the airport WiFi and connected for a quick update from home. We would find WiFi was pretty common around the UK and Europe, at many small and large institutions, including airports, pubs, restaurants.

It was also ubiquitous on long-distance trains run by GWR, which covered all the places we’d be going in southwest England, Wales and Cornwall, and it was also available on one of our two Eurostar trips (the one where we lucked out getting newer carriages), some museums, as well as everywhere we booked accommodation (though this latter point was deliberate on my part!)

We cleared immigration via a chatty bloke from UK Border Force who wondered, since we were initially headed to Cardiff, if we’d be watching the test match. Cricket, I assumed? No, rugby!

Then through customs – notably on this occasion, the “Nothing To Declare” and “EU” entries funnelled into the same corridor. Presumably as with the EU queues at immigration, some changes are coming to this.

I found a mobile phone stand and bought a local SIM. It wasn’t quite as cheap as I hoped, but for £35 (basically £15 of fees for the SIM, plus £20 for the top-up), I got a Vodafone SIM with 4 Gb of data that would roam to Belgium with voice and data. They also sold the Three one I’d looked at with more data for the same price, but it didn’t do voice/text outside the UK… normally I wouldn’t be concerned, but it would prove to be useful in Brussels.

The bloke at the stand fitted it into my phone and set it up for me. Good service. He said some people walk past and don’t even notice the stand is there. I’d recommend it. It’s in the subway on the way to the Heathrow rail station, near the entrance to the Underground.

Which way from the airport?

To coin a phrase from Doctor Who, he who wants to get from Heathrow Airport to central London by train has three choices: above, between, below.

Below (cheap) is London Underground, though most of the route is not in fact underground. This costs £5.50 in peak, and is very frequent, but is also the slowest unless your final destination is along the Piccadilly Line. Which ours wasn’t.

Above (expensive) is Heathrow Express. Frequent, every 15 minutes, and takes just 15 minutes to Paddington Station – which is where we needed to go. But over-the-top in cost, at £22 for a single trip, per person, though there are discounts if you book many weeks in advance.

Between: Heathrow Connect. It takes much the same route as Heathrow Express, but stops at more stations, taking 27 minutes. It runs only half-hourly, so you might have to wait around for it. But at £10.30 per person (which is still a premium fare, by the way; non-airport trips on the same line are much cheaper), it’s a more affordable price if travelling in a group, so that’s what we took.

We bought tickets and were on the 7:27 departure, and being rush hour the train got pretty packed by Paddington a bit before 8am.

In comparison, the Heathrow Express trains we saw appeared relatively empty. I guess you’re paying a bunch more money for shorter average waiting times, a slightly shorter trip, and a less crowded train. Their own web site says they carry 17,000 passengers per day, and there are 150 services per day. So an average of 113 passengers per train? As with other premium-priced trains, that’s not a huge number of people. You could carry 113 in a double-articulated bus. I wonder if Heathrow Express is profitable? (Toronto’s much newer airport express is in deep trouble.) You wonder if it’d be better to combine the two services and run very frequent trains at a lower price.

Paddington Station, London

Paddington Station, London: filming notice

Heading west

We arrived at Paddington and joined the back of the queue to exit the platform. The fare gates took a couple of goes to accept the tickets (but it may have been jetlagged-user-error), but we got through and found some food on the concourse.

A quick look for the Paddington Bear statue was fruitless, but we found it on a later occasion. There was time to admire the architecture, and to note that a film crew was around somewhere, filming yet another one of those documentaries showing railway operations that the Brits love making (and which I find surprisingly addictive).

We bought tickets old skool (in the booking office) for the 8:45 train to Cardiff. I’d considered booking ahead, but it seems that in many cases there is no real price advantage, and some types of tickets may tie you to a specific train – tricky when they are every half-hour and I had no idea what time we’d be departing. Expect a separate blog post on the vagaries of UK National Rail fares. — Here it is

The train left on time for Swansea (via Cardiff). It’s not “high speed rail” by Japanese or European standards, but the train zoomed along very fast. There was a noticeable rush of wind and noise as we passed trains in the opposite direction. If you’re wondering, the schedule is: 8:45 London Paddington, 9:11 Reading, 9:39 Swindon, 10:04 Bristol Parkway, 10:31 Newport, 10:46 Cardiff Central.

This is partly Brunel’s Great Western Main Line, built in the late-1830s, and partly the South Wales Main Line, completed in 1903. To Cardiff is about 234 km, which the train does in just on two hours, so a pretty good average speed of 117 km/h, though apparently the top speed is 200 km/h aka 125 miles per hour – reflecting the High Speed “Intercity 125” trains used on the line.

Intercity 125 train at Paddington Station, London

These are a relative of Australia’s aging XPT, but clearly the trains and track are maintained to a far higher standard. The train wasn’t particularly crowded, and the seats in Standard (Economy) class were big and comfy, with free WiFi.

There are lengthy (7 km) tunnels under the Severn river along the way – it’s all very impressive. And before you know it, you’re in Wales, which of course is a separate country to England.

Newport station, Wales

Cardiff Central Railway Station

Welcome to sunny Cardiff

After entering Wales, we got to Cardiff pretty much on-time, and walked to our accommodation, an Air B’n’B place midway between Cardiff Bay and the city centre. For the trip, we’d booked Air B’n’B for the longer stays, with the aim of being able to make meals etc (which didn’t really end up happening apart from breakfasts) and hotels for the shorter stays.

Getting there involves a myriad of major roads, side streets and canals in that area, which is precisely why I’d wanted a fully-functioning phone: during the trip, Google Maps would prove its worth time and time again. For navigating a new city, an accurate map with a GPS locator to tell you exactly where you are is invaluable.

Okay, so sometimes it couldn’t tell you which direction you were facing. But walk a few steps and see which way the dot moved and you were set.

We dropped off our bags (as per agreement with our host, we were a little early to actually settle in just yet), and walked down towards Cardiff Bay. Some friendly neighbours directed us to the scenic route, via the old canals.

The Wales Millennium Centre is an incredible landmark, so we stopped there for some photos, and explored the surrounds.

Cardiff Bay: Millennium Centre

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre

Cardiff Bay: Detail on the Pierhead building: Cardiff Railway Company coat of arms

View of Penarth from Cardiff Bay

Old railway signals at Cardiff Bay

Cardiff Bay: Shrine to Torchwood character Ianto Jones

Fans of Doctor Who and its spinoff Torchwood would recognise the area, and there’s a shrine to Torchwood character Ianto on the pier.

Lunch on the waterfront lunch at a burger bar, then we walked back to have a post-trip shower and a rest.

Time to explore! This time we headed into Cardiff CBD, to help get our bearings. Finding a supermarket, and given we were all tired, we ended up with a plan to get some salad and a cooked chicken and take them back to the flat to eat.

But do Welsh supermarkets sell cooked chooks? One didn’t. One did, but they’d sold out. Eventually we bought salad (and other supplies) at a supermarket and a chicken at Nandos. We trekked back to the house with it. Dinner solved.

Jetlag was starting to kick-in, so after a little TV, it was bedtime by 8pm.

Why Cardiff? Some of you may have guessed, but if not, stay tuned.

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European holiday: Escaping the winter

(I am prone to do long overly-detailed blog posts about my holidays, perhaps more for my benefit and enjoyment than yours. Here’s the first instalment. This post is backdated. Published 26/7/2017)

This holiday was a long time coming. Co-ordinating with my sons (including university holidays) and work and M and relatives, let alone getting the money together, took some time… in fact it would be my first time in Europe since 1999.

But the day had finally arrived. After a flurry of packing, and wondering what would be forgotten*, we left the house about 11am, train to the City.

On the way through, I noticed some of the scaffolding had come off at Flinders Street Station, and showing the new, less mustardy yellow colour. I snapped a photo of it to post to Twitter.

A few days later the Premier’s Department rang asking if they could use the picture. Heh, you’d think own their media unit could get one, but oh well — maybe I happened to snap it just as it was in transition and nobody else did. They added some captions and posted it to Facebook:

I do like the new colour. Apparently the section on the right is also zinc sheeting rather than the brick, which explains the different look.

To the airport

Anyway, we hopped off the train at Southern Cross, then Skybus to Melbourne Airport. It’s expensive (currently $35 return, times three of us), but as long as you avoid peak times, it’s usually quick and convenient.

The Skybus driver said the trip would be about 30 minutes, depending on traffic. I timed it: it was actually 23, though I still felt a bit jipped because we didn’t get a double-decker bus.

While on the Skybus I noticed one bloke up the front was constantly looking through his bags, murmuring to his travel companion and looking ever more concerned. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten anything important.

M met us at the airport, and there was plenty of time for a silly selfie in the departures area — but first we had to get our luggage and boarding passes sorted out.

Silly selfie at Melbourne Airport; about to be over by a tram

Airlines and check-in

I’d booked with Singapore Airlines, based on the loose criteria of: wanting one of the better airlines, availability on the dates we needed, and not some weird route taking 40+ hours to get to Europe. They also have WiFi in their planes, though this is a paid extra.

It wasn’t particularly cheap – nothing is in July, thanks to Australian school holidays and European summer. But with other contenders such as Qantas/Emirates and Etihad all being a similar price, Singapore won out thanks to having slightly less cramped seats – apparently an extra inch of space.

I’d checked-in online the day before. The flight was pretty full, so there weren’t any practical choices of seats.

But I this I find a bit puzzling: The queue for those needing to check-in was really long. The queue for “Internet check-in” was really short. So we got to bypass the queue like rockstars despite booking Economy.

Once at the desk, they weigh your bags, ask you questions about what’s in them, tag them, and give you boarding passes. So what’s the difference between this and checking-in at the airport? Just the lack of seat selection, which wasn’t an option anyway? Oh well, it certainly saved us a bunch of queuing.

After grabbing a sandwich and a drink (at the predictably incredibly exorbitant airport prices – maybe next time we should just make a sandwich at home), we headed through the departures gate (quick selfie against the tram-themed backdrop – see above) and through security.

Unbelievably, at the automatic gates at passport control, the bloke in front of us had left his passport in the scanner. Perhaps he expected it to zip through the machine and come out the other side like an old school mag stripe ticket gate. We called out and passed it to him. That’s not a mistake you’d want to make without realising until later.

Then the looooong walk to gate 14 via the duty free shops.

Melbourne Airport in the drizzle

Melbourne to Singapore

Despite some rain outside, the flight was away on-time (3:40pm).

The food on the flight was pretty good – with actual metal cutlery! I read for a bit, watched some classic West Wing.

Note to self: always grab the airline earphones. They’re hopeless, but your own snazzy earphones, which actually cut out some of the flight noise, won’t work – you get mono sound unless you have an adapter. Honestly, would it kill them to wire the plane sockets up so they provide stereo sound for stereo earphones?

Before we knew it we were landing at Changi. Two hours to kill in the huge transit lounge, browsing the shops. You can also watch a free movie or visit the in-terminal butterfly house. Notably, one shop was running a promotion to win a trip to Melbourne.

Singapore Changi Airport - win a trip to Melbourne!

I tried to sign on to the free airport WiFi. It wanted to send an SMS activation code to my phone, which would normally not be a problem, but this was when I discovered that my phone roaming wasn’t working.

This would be a problem for another three days, as I tried repeatedly to contact Telstra to get it resolved. Their Twitter people are very helpful but unable to actively fix very much directly. Their online chat people try to be very helpful, but anything complex tends to outfox them.

In this case (I think on the second contact attempt, a day or two later) one of their so-called solutions was a suggestion for me to ring up another department. DUDE, I CAN’T RING ANYBODY BECAUSE MY ROAMING ISN’T WORKING. And even if I could, it’d be costing me $2 a minute to make that call.

Having a fully-functioning phone was important to me. Although I was planning to buy a second SIM (my phone can take two), some of the services I use, such as banking, use SMS for two-factor authentication. I also wanted to receive text messages and calls from home.

The hassles I had with getting it fixed is probably the sort of issue that convinced the Australian Government MyGov web site to suggest turning off 2FA when going overseas.

After a number of sessions on their online chat system over several days (well into the holiday proper), it was finally resolved, though frustratingly I don’t even know why it didn’t work in the first place, since roaming is meant to be on by default.

And there was a sting in the tail of this problem. Stay tuned.

So anyway, a little while later we boarded a huge bulbous Airbus A380 to continue on, departing Singapore at 11:30pm local time. I don’t quite know how these ridiculously big planes manage to get off the ground, but they do.

After the “supper” meal, I slept for a bit, though light from toilets kept made it difficult to get back to sleep once awoken.

We flew on into the night, headed for London.

*What got forgotten? My sun hat. Would I need it to prevent getting sunburnt? Yes, as it turns out.