The border incident, and London sightseeing

Backdated. Posted 21/9/2017

Time to head back to London for the last few days of our holiday. We packed up our stuff and left the Air BNB flat.

A word about the flat. It had been chosen for its location (walking distance to Brussels Midi/Zuid station), which along with the price, which were its best features.

The layout was curious (one bedroom on the ground floor, stairs up to a small living area/kitchen, more stairs up to a second bedroom and bathroom). Outside the living area was a courtyard, and across from there was another flat, where our host lived.

The facilities themselves were basic, and while I shouldn’t have to, I had ended up spending a few Euros to buy an extra mug and some toilet paper, as it didn’t seem our host had thought to provide enough of either. That’s okay – he was friendly enough, and like I say, it was pretty cheap.

The flat, Brussels

The cat in the flat, Brussels - quite nice actually

And did I mention the cat? I didn’t catch the name or the gender, but he or she would regularly drop past for pats, and was mostly friendly (friendlier than this photo would suggest!), though didn’t like being told to get off the table.

The flat may have been low budget, but it had been a great stay in Brussels. The weather had been mostly kind. We’d overcome enough of the language barrier to manage fine, and personally I found it a bit humbling having to adapt to make myself understood. It was a learning experience. And we’d got to meet my new cousin!

Eurostar leaving Brussels

Brussels to London

Rather than walk, we used up some of the spare rides on the Mobib ticket to catch the Metro back to Brussels Zuid/Midi/South station.

At the station, we joined the queues for admittance into the Eurostar terminal. Through bag security… through the Belgian (exit) checkpoint…

At the UK checkpoint, over on the other queue, one family group from Thailand was getting quizzed by a UK Border Force official. No such problems for us, and we got through quickly.

Then I realised.

I’d left my bag behind. Across the border. In Belgium. Back at the security screening point.

For a split second, I actually considered simply leaving it behind. But no, that would be silly, and could cause all sorts of problems later.

Putting on my most polite, humble voice, I backtracked and told the UK official about it. He thought about it for a second, and said OK, to go back and ask his Belgian colleague. He in turn said sure go and get the bag.

It was right where I left it, thank goodness, and I grabbed it, and they waved me back across the border.

Yikes. At that point I think I’d almost had a heart attack.

After calming down, I ducked into a shop in the departure lounge to spend the last of my Euros on some snacks to eat on the train, while M did the same with her money and bought us some coffees/hot chocolates.

The train was a few minutes late leaving – there had been some disruptions on Eurostar earlier in the day, and looking at the real-time updates, I saw one of the services head of us had been altered to not stop at Lille, in order to make up time. Yes, station skipping.

Eurostar service disruptions

Old Eurostar carriage interior

Our carriage this time was older – gunzels may be able to age it based on the fact that the interior was decorated in brown, and there was no Wi-Fi.

At least the toilet was classy.

Eurostar toilet

View from Eurostar of wind turbines in Belgium

View from Eurostar approaching Calais

When you get near to Calais, the wind turbines in fields, and rickety fences separating the farms from the rail line give way to serious looking security, obviously designed to keep unauthorised people from getting into the tunnel and/or onto the trains.

Apparently the lineside flag in the picture above is part of the in-cab signalling system.

High Speed 1 commemorative stone at St Pancras International Station, London

Back in London

The train zipped along, and arrived in London just a few minutes late.

We’d booked another AirBNB, in west London, and headed there on the Tube – the tiny trains of the “deep tube” Piccadilly Line, with a change to the District Line along the way.

The flat was in Chiswick, near Turnham Green station, chosen for being the right side of town for a quick getaway to Heathrow later in the week, as M needed to head there earlier than the rest of us (a long story involving separate flight bookings).

This flat was less central, more expensive, but in much better condition, with much better facilities. And it was spotless.

View from our flat in London

Escalator warning, London Underground

After dropping off the bags, we got some lunch in a local sandwich place in Chiswick, then caught the Tube back towards central London to explore for a bit.

First stop, Earls Court, where I+J finally got to check out the Police Box just outside the station. According to Google Maps, it’s bigger on the inside.

Personally, I was equally fascinated by the facade of the station entrance, with its beautiful signage.

Earls Court Station, London

Piccadilly Line, London

Next stop, Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum.

The LT Museum is expensive, but for someone like me who is generally fascinated by public transport, it’s very interesting. (Tickets are actually valid for a year, so if I make it back before July 18th 2018, I can get back in.)

M wisely opted out of the museum, choosing to go for a walk instead, but the rest of us explored the museum for a bit, before we all met up again in the gift shop.

London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum: Why you should travel Metro (Metropolitan Line)

Early London Underground map, London Transport Museum

From Covent Garden we walked down towards the Thames to see what we could spot: the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses or Parliament – all the sights.

London bus on the Strand

Waterloo Bridge, London

London Eye

Cycle superhighway, London

We walked west along the river. There’s one of the cycle superhighways along there, and it was rush hour by now, and incredibly busy with cyclists zooming along en masse – very impressive to see.

We spotted Cleopatra’s needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is one of a set of three (the others in Paris and New York) stands out. Interestingly, despite the name, it was about 1000 years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime.

Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment, London

We listened out for Big Ben’s chimes – a few weeks later they would stop for some years for refurbishment of the bells.

Big Ben, London

Entrance to Houses of Parliament, London

At Westminster, numerous armed police were on duty – understandable given recent events.

Near Houses of Parliament, London

Westminster Abbey

We went past Westminster Abbey, then walked through St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, London

Near Buckingham Palace, London

Replenishing the Bike Share, London

From there we walked to Victoria Station and hopped back on the Tube to Turnham Green (we were very quickly starting to learn about the various branches of the District Line). We decided to grab fish and chips along the way for dinner.

Taking out cash in London: which currency?

To pay for dinner, I needed to grab some cash from a nearby ATM cashpoint. Something I saw at a few of them in the UK: they offered to convert my UK pounds withdrawal to Australian dollars, rather than let my home bank do it. I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, so I declined.

Anyway, we went back to the flat to eat our fast food and watch some telly before bed.

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.

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.

Oz Comic-Con 2015 – and marriage equality

Science fiction and fantasy conventions used to be a homespun affair, run by the local clubs, featuring broadcasts of rare episodes and out-takes (before it all got released on DVD) and fan films. If there were guest artists, often they would appear only if they happened to be in the country at the time, and fees for photos and autographs were unheard of.

These days it’s big business. Not that it’s a bad thing. I like that geek culture is no longer a hidden-away, niche enterprise, and those who are interested in it have big events like Oz Comic-Con and Armageddon, and SupaNova, and others to go to every year.

And yet for all the big budget exhibition halls and merchandise stalls and paid guest appearances, it’s still the fans and their costumes that make it what it is.

OzComicon 2015: Batman

On the train into OzComiCon on Sunday morning, we were keeping a lookout for others attending — of course it’s sometimes a guess as to whether someone’s in costume, or just dresses eccentrically. I’d had a plan for a costume but wasn’t organised enough to get it all prepared, so went in civvies, but it was just as well as at lunchtime I had to duck out to talk to Channel 9 about the airport rail link.

This year it was at MCEC (along with SpecTex15 — a trade show about specialist textiles… their attendees were a little less outlandishly dressed).

Given the number of Doctor Who fans out and about, it was a shame that there were no related guests or sessions, but I went to an interesting Star Trek: Deep Space 9 session with Terry Farrell (Dax) and Rene Auberjonois (shapeshifter Odo).

Mostly it was light-hearted, but at one point they noted Friday’s marriage equality decision of the US Supreme Court, and Farrell said she was proud of the episode where she kissed another female actress — although the genders of both characters was unclear, she said that it had provided a chance to indirectly have the show stand up for people who then might have been unable to be public about their own relationships.

I’m struggling to paraphrase it well; she expressed it in a much more graceful and passionate way, and got a round of applause from the audience. In any case, it fits in well with the generally progressive vision of future society that has long been the hallmark of the Star Trek franchise — everything from the once-controversial multi-racial cast to the absence of money.

Anyway, here are some photos from OzComicon… as you can see, it was pretty busy, and people in costume were only too pleased to pose for photos.

Who you gonna call?
OzComicon 2015: Who you gonna call?

Whatever you do, don’t cross the franchises!
OzComicon 2015: Whatever you do, don't cross the franchises!

Lego TARDIS! Lego Pac-Man!
OzComicon 2015: Lego Tardis and Lego PacMan

Captain Picard from Star Trek: Next Generation snaps a photo of a Star Wars Storm trooper.
Captain Picard snaps a stormtrooper

Lots of cosplayers pose for a photo outside… you can see the picture in this News.com.au story: Costume-clad fans flock to Oz Comic-Con Melbourne 2015
OzComicon 2015: Gathering for a photo
(View this photo at full size)

More media coverage:

Speaking of marriage equality, I’m somewhat surprised to see this that this tweet netted over 300 retweets and a similar number of favourites in 24 hours, and got quoted on Buzzfeed. Cool!

Geek central, Melbourne

They say geek is the cool, right?

Geek central in Melbourne must be the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets.

Why? Because within a few metres are no less than three pop culture shops:

Firstly, there’s the Doctor Who “popup” (eg temporary, until January) shop. Actually it has Sherlock merchandise too, which probably makes it more of a Steven Moffat shop.
Doctor Who Popup Shop, Melbourne, Summer 2014-15

Secondly, a little further up Little Collins Street is this shop, which as far as I can tell, has no actual name. At least, none prominently on display. (Professor Google says it’s called “Critical Hit“.)
Collins Gate pop culture shop

Thirdly, that old favourite, Minotaur. I used to shop there in the 80s when it was in Swanston Street. Then it moved to Bourke Street, and more recently(ish, well, probably 10+ years ago now) to Elizabeth Street — the former Melbourne Sports Depot, I think.
Minotaur

Also nearby:

EBGames in Swanston Street (also a former Melbourne Sports Depot?) has opened a geek section in their basement.

The ABC Shop has moved to Emporium.