Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reconnecting with my roots

Now that we have a car, and with itchy feet because we are not travelling any longer and not seeing new things every day, we had planned a day taking the two mums over some of the country that my mum grew up in. We get away in good time and are on the road after breakfast about 10 am. First stop is to say 'hi' to Dad and check on his grave at the largest cemetery in Newcastel, the Sandgate Cemetery. All looks in good condition and it is hard to believe that it is almost 9 years since we lost him to Motor Neurone Disease. We pass by the graves of Mum's parents - George and Annie Stevens as well and it is nice and clean as well. They are not at all like the cemeteries that we saw so often in Europe, adjacent to the churches and filled with flowers growing on the plots. Here the cemeteries are sited on seperate land are are somewhat stark, just row on row on row of gravestones with little colour - I guess we are following somewhat the example set by the early English settlers.

So we push on, knowing that we want to cover quite a bit of territory today. Our next stop is at Bulahdelah, north on the Pacific Highway about 80 kms from Newcastle. There are major highways works underway around here with a bypass planned doe the town. But at the moment, we still pass through and there, in the same spot as he has had for the last 20 years or so is a cherry seller, next to one of the local petrol stations. We stop, eager to taste more of the amazing fruit that we have available to us here in Australia in summer and buy two half-kilo bags. One for Michael and I in the front of the car and another for the mums in the back. The next half hour or so is very quiet as we all stuff our faces. Gosh they are good. Thick and firm, they burst their juices into your mouth with the first bite, full of deep cherry flavour. Yu-um!

We leave the Pacific Highway and head on to The Lakes Way that will take us around the Myall and Smith Lakes system to reach Forster and Tuncurry where the lakes enter in to the ocean. Long known as caravanning beach holiday towns on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, these have grown to include many medium density holiday apartment complexes and all the mod-cons that the modern holiday maker seems to need - clubs, cinemas, shopping centres. But if you leave the main street in either of these twin towns that straddle the Wampoola River mouth where it connects with the draining Wallis Lake, connected by a bridge that is clowly sinking in to the sandy depths, then little has changed - there are streets and streets of holiday homes waiting for the arrival of the summer holidays, getting ready for their owner families who will spend much of the 6 - 8 weeks living a very casual beachside lifestyle. First time visitors to Foster-Tuncurry are usually amazed at the colour of the water that break out from the lakes under the bridge and out to sea. With a sandy base, this water is some of the clearest, bluest and aqua water that you see in this part of the country (you need a sandy base to get a blue river, when they have a mud or dirt base then it looks muddied).

We continue our trip a little further north to Old Bar just outside Taree. This was where my Dad grew up and I have fond memories of a holiday with my sister Donna when I was about 13 or 14 staying with our great aunt and uncle on their dairy farm at Pampoolah just down from Grandma and Granpa's home. Of course this once very rural area is changing with more new subdivisions springing up every time I come through here. We head right down to the beach, exposed to gale force winds today, whipping up huge seas with very obvious rips - but it doesn't deter the board riders who seem to take great delight in the less than safe seas - thankfully there are no swimmers trying to brave the waters - just a few paddlers. We are disappointed that the surf club is not open for meals as it is well and truly lunch time now - in fact it is after 1:30 pm.

There is a small hamburger shop open in the park just back from the beach and once we have placed orders for 'burgers with the works' for us all we head back out into the sun. Netta lies soaking it up while the rest of us head for the shade of one of the covered picnic tables. Now, those burgers were fantastic - mince patties, bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, pineapple, beetroot, cheese and onion barely held within a straining bun. We had bought a serve of hot chips to share, but really the burgers are enough. This is fast food at its very best - hot and fresh and bursting with goodness. Followed by coffees all round we felt like kings.

Onward and upwards to Taree where Mum had lived for many years, where she met and married Dad and where I was born. This city sits on the banks of the Manning River and is a lush green city. As we cross the bridge into the city we can clearly see the one remaining riverside black of undeveloped land that Mum's aunt owns. That has got to worth a bit these days with everyone wanting waterfront property. Over the bridge I call on Mum's memory to take us up to the family home on the corner of Smith Street.

You know with the memory of a child, I remember this house to be a huge sandstone construction. We spent many happy times here visiting with Nanny and Pa and the first time I came back passed here (when we were moving our family to Bundaberg in Queensland), I was disappointed as it was much smaller than my memory remembered and of brick construction. Today, it is beautifully kept and is indeed a large home for its day with a multiple of bedrooms and the most enormous sleepout (a closed in verandah area lined with beds along the outer long wall) that catered for the large Stevens family of 8 children and the many visitors or workers who also regularly stayed. Taree has adopted the Flame Tree as their city emblem and today the main street of Victoria Street is lined with superb examples in full bloom - a truly beautiful native tree.

Ellenborough Falls
Comboyne to Landsdowne - a real trip down memory lane for both Mum and me!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Have wheels will travel !

Ahhh - the joy of being mobile again! I love having a car and really feel only half complete without one! This morning Netta had an appointment with her eye specialist in Fairfield and so I take her over while Michael trims the bushes around the house.

All goes well and like eveyone, the specialist is amazed at how well and active and 'young' Netta is for an 87 year old person. Once home, we finish loading the car and we all head out of Sydney and north towards Newcastle and my mum's place.

Mum lives in a suburb of Newcastle just 2 hours north of Sydney. Some of you might remember that this was where Australia had it's first earthquake with fatalities - gee 10+ years ago now. Years ago there was a very large industrial base here with a steelworks and the associated type of companies that goes along with the like, but today that industry has gone along with most heavy industry of it's ilk to the cheaper offshore economies. Newcastle for some time became an economically depressed city with very high unemployment, but today has turned itself around and now has a very successful university and a vibrant tourism industry.

Mum and Dad bought their very first house in Newcastle the year before we left Sydney to move to Queensland (that was in 1990) and she still lives in it, as large as it is. Comes in handy when we all want to visit, although we keep telling here that the days of all the family being there at the same time are going to be very few and far between these days - what with us all thrown to the four corners these days. We arrive late in the afternoon and are met with tears and hugs and then the best that mum does - food food and more food! The night is spent reminiscing, catching up with the latest family news and telling tales of our trip - although we don't get those tens of thousands of photos out yet. It was enough just getting out the little keepsakes that we had bought home for her.

Wednesday dawns bright and warm. We are struggling (OK you had better make that more of me) with the adjustments we need to make due to the change in the climate we are now experiencing. We have gone from cool late autumn to the hot and humid heaviness that Australia feels in the lead up to Christmas as summer begins to take a full hold. Mum keeps the house shut up and when it really gets unbearable, puts on the airconditioner. She however NEVER feels the cold, so has no need of it for herself. Not sure whether she is lucky or not - she would have died in the European cold!!!

Mum has a sister (Catherine) and brother-in-law (Don) that had lived in another Newcastle suburb for many years and when they retired they built a beautiful new duplex with another of their sisters Rita (whose daughter Anna was recently such a godsend in England) overlooking the beach at Caves Beach. So today we are having lunch with Don and Catherine and Rita at the Caves Beach Hotel that has had a major makeover - it has gone from the (friendly) ugly duckling to a very sophisticated and lovely swan.

Rita had visited Anna and Garry and the boys during the year while we were on the continent and it is lovely to catch up and exchange stories. Don and Catherine spent part of the year travelling to the Queensland coast and had a very relaxing time. This is one of the trips they ususually do each year and when we are home, they will often call in, so it is lovely to see them all. The food was fabulous and we nearly all selected from the extensive seafood menu and we are taken back to our time on the Atlantic coasts of Europe. The seafood here is quite different from that we had earlier in the year, but nevertheless very fresh and wonderfully good.

After lunch we had back to Caves Beach for coffee at Catherine and Don's place before we head home to mums. Of course, we detour via the supermarket and it is as busy as it can be, now that we are so close to Christmas.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Its a family affair

Michael has a large extended family and when we left Sydney to live in Queensland all those years ago (just short of 20 years ago), we tried to make sure that we kept in regular contact. As the kids all started school I took a part time job so that I could be there for them most of the time and as it was with the Department of Education I was able to arrange my hours so that I was able to have time off in almost all the school holidays. And in those holidays we would drive back to Sydney to catch up with the family. I remember great times when we (all the various families) would get together for a big Greek style picnic at Neilsen Park in Vaucluse. And so, now that we have arrived back on the mother soil, everyone is coming over and we are catching up all over again. LOVE IT.

Today our nephew Micah and his lovely wife Amanda came up from the Southern Highlands south of Sydney. Yes, there are a whole heap of Amandas in the family at the moment! Micah is the eldest child of Michael's brother Peter and he and his brothers and sister are all pretty close to our kids. I guess all those trips back to Sydney paid off! Antony and his Amanda called in and spent time with them when they were on holidays recently and will do so again en-route to Antony's new posting in Wagga in January.

Micah has just completed studying an Advanced Diploma in Mechanics at TAFE and has been enrolled in an Engineering Degree at Wollongong University to start next March. We are all so proud of him!

A little later Michael's cousin Phil and his wife Mandy called in. Philip is a Captain with Qantas and we had eagerly scanned the crew faces before we left Singapore wondering whether we might have been lucky enough to have him flying us, but no it wasn't to be. Together with Mandy, they have established East Ridge Olive Grove west of Sydney at Lue near Mudgee. This year was a bumper year with great tasting oil by all accounts, and Mandy has bought me a bottle today - can't wait to get home and try it. Mandy and I used to catch up every year and it was great to see them today! There was lots of story sharing as Phil and Mandy were in the UK for a wedding while we were on the continent. And there was even more reminiscing about times gone in the family.

Morning tea became lunch and salad ingredients and cold cuts on the table were soon stuffing breadrolls. Too hot for tea and coffee so we had made a large bowl filled with punch (peppermint tea, mint, apricot nectar, pineapple juice and ginger ale - very refreshing) and managed to down the lot - all 7 litres of it!

Great day!! Tomorrow after we take mum to her eye specialist we are off up to Newcastle 2 hours to the north to visit my mum - and Netta is coming with us - yahoo!

And as the night is winding towards a close, brother Peter comes in! Yep. Great all round!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cars and jobs and cleaning house

The weather is as oppressive as we have been dreading. Today it reached an uncomfortable 39°C which is a hell of a shock to my body that up until a few days ago was enjoying the late autumn temperatures in Europe. The water situation here is critical. There are major bushfires burning across much of New South Wales and South Australia and some just north of home in Queensland.

Heat wave conditions saw high temperatures in much of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia with the maximum today in a number of towns of 45°C (that is 113°C !). Give me back autumn! Here in western Sydney it got to 42! Late in the afternoon there was an impressive electrical storm with more than 800 lightening strikes recorded in Sydney alone. Two houses hit by lightening were burned down - one of the hazards of living in Australia.

Well after a few days of searching Michael finally found us a car today. He had trawled the Auto Alley area of Parramatta / Granville yesterday after we found nothing in the newspapers, but with no success. So this morning Mum phoned her neighbours who know a local dealer and Jim very kindly offered to take Michael down to see the cars in their yard.

Still no luck and then Jim got very kind. He offered to take Michael out to Minchinbury (about half an hour from here) to where there is a conglomerate of dealers. And finally, he found this Subaru Impreza - you know the kind that was in the Fast and Furious movies!! Nah, not really, a hatchback! Older than what we really wanted and more expensive, but the best of what was on offer.

A summer cold is the worst to try and get rid of and I am feeling more and more congested each day. Still, I am on drugs and syrups so hopefully I can knock it before too long. There were a couple of highlights between the sneezes today. Peter ten, Michael's school boy friend called in and we shared a lot of laughs while waiting for Michael to get back, and then Lesley, whose gorgeous mum passed away recently, visited and we spent a couple of hours reminiscing with her. All sitting in the relative comfort of the air conditioned family room.

And then - we managed to get tickets to Mamma Mia the musical, playing at the Lyric Theatre at Star City! AND THEY ARE IN THE SECOND ROW FROM THE STAGE!!! So Lesley, the two mums and I are in for a real treat on Tuesday 1 December. Watch out world - might have to stop talking for a few days so that my voice recovers enough for a great singalong!

The other thing I have been up to is re-packing all our 'stuff' so that like things are all together. We have not bought a great deal of souvenirs, or at least I did not think we had, but all together, they fill to bursting the on-board suitcase that we bought. And once I had taken the grog we bought during the last couple of months out of one of the suitcases then I could get all our winter clothing in to one suitcase! So we are now sorted - winter in one, summer (as much as we have) in another for us to use now, souvenirs in one bag and bits and bobs in about another 4! Easier to find things thankfully. And Gen has told us that the three parcels we posted home from Europe in the last couple of weeks have all arrived safe and sound. God bless the postal workers!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The eagle has landed

And so have we.

After a lo-o-o-ng flight, we finally touched down in Sydney at 9:58 pm on Monday 16 November and we were met by Donna - "Long time no see", was my weary comment. "Yeah, all of about 2 and a half weeks", she laughed.

We eventaully left Heathrow 2.5 hours after our scheduled departure time. All passengers were on board and the doors shut, then we sat at the gate past the departure time. After a short while, the captain came on the air and explained that there was some delay in finalising the loading of the cargo and that "we should be taxiing in about 10 minutes" which then became another 10 minutes and then another. He was pretty good about keeping us informed and explained that in an aircraft of this size, it was critical that the cargo was balanced correctly for maximum fuel efficiencies. He then proceeded to tell us a little about the plane we were travelling in.

It was the latest of the Qantas Airbus A380-800 planes with a capacity of 450 passengers (and today there was not a single seat vacant). Even in Economy, there is plenty of leg room and seat space - yes, I have lost some weight, but believe me, not that much! There is a really comprehensive entertainment system and the staff were very friendly. Anway, the delays continued and continued. One and a half hours after we were due to depart we finally pulled away from the gate. Honestly, I felt like cheering. We are taxiing towards the runway when we stop, presumably to wait our turn to turn onto the main runway. But no, again the Captain comes over the loudspeaker, "Sorry everyone, it appears that there is still a problem with the cargo loading and someone in dispatch is not happy. We have been told we have to return to the gate." There was a collective groan before the Captain continued "Don't worry guys, I am going to find the person responsible and march him up and down the aisles so you can all have a piece of him!" LOVE the Aussie humour!!

Well, we eventually took off TWO and a half hours after our scheduled departure time! Michael's mum said it made the news and my mum heard that it was late on the radio - guess there were a lot of people who were wanting to make sure we got home safe! LOL, actually makes a lot of sense when there are the family and friends of 450 people to try to let know! The staff were very apologetic and extra friendly. Tomazs from Poland was one of the staff assigned to our area and was really interested in where we had been in Poland and what we thought of his country. We were seated in Rows 61D and 61E and Marilyn and Alan from Norfolk in England were sitting next to us in 61F and 61G.

These new Airbus planes have a Skycam mounted high on the tail, enabling you to see everything that the pilot sees. It was fascinating and I could have watched it for the whole journey, except for the fact that it really wasn't too long and we were flying in to darkness and couldn't see a damn thing. But before darkness fell fully, we were flying over the big mountains of eastern central Europe and their cloud nursery was actively pumping out new clouds. This is one sight that we are going to miss. While there are clouds generated at lower levels in Australia, there is nothing so mystical as watching little wisps of nothingness billow and morph into white solid looking clouds. Then darkness is complete as we fly into the Asian continent. We fly over the Himalayan ranges but can't see a thing (other that the strobe lit that blinks monotonously atop the front cabin of the plane).

There are a whole range of movies showing as well as TV shows, documentaries and even audio books, as well as the obligatory games console, so there is no need to be bored. I watch The Taking of Pelham 123 (latest vesion, but could have also watched the original), The Proposal and A Bunch of Amateurs - nothing heavy and some REALITY TV shows - yeah, get over it - I love them! Michael is watching some ghouly horror thing that I can't stand - thankfully with our own earphones we can watch whatever our personal preferences like without impinging on any one else!

When we landed in Singapore we were able to get a close up look at the nose of the plane and we learned that this plane, the newest in the Qantas Airbus Fleet was named for Sir Fergus McMaster.
Coming in to land in Singapore there were literally hundreds of ships in the harbour and the surrounding bays - so many more than we used to see off Newcastle when we thought that 40 ships was a lot! On and off we passed through rain clouds and I am amazed at how quickly the lens of the Skycam dries off.

At Singapore we all had to leave the plane, taking all our onboard luggage - goodness knows why, we were returning to the same seats on the same plane! So we all filed off, went down one corridor, through a set of doors into the terminal lounge and then turned left, passed through security and all sat in seats just outside the doors to the gangway straight back on to the plane! A distance of maybe 150 metres! We left Singapore at 11:45 am (4:45 am London time the next day my body is loudly telling me)

Captain Mike O'Neill again apologises for all the delays as we get underway again. The aircrew are now Australian and it is great to be under their control - Ryan (cheeky and young) and Maschiko are looking after us.

Finally arrived in Sydney at 9:58 pm +1 ( or 11:07 am London time). We are the only plane unloading at the moment and everything goes very smoothly (for once!) - I had been dreading finding out that our luggage had been off-loaded in London, not to be re-loaded. Anyway, heavy luggage collected and two trolleys filled with the two suitcases and all our carry on luggage and coats etc., we proceed through Immigration "HOW long were you away? Wow, what a fantastic trip it must have been!" and on to Customs.

We had goods to declare, but the process for moving through Customs is a little different to my last trip in 2006. There are a number of staff that you pass through that direct you down various lanes. They start to send me down one line and Michael down another, but our luggage is all intertwined so we just go down the one path together. Eventually we get to the final inspection point without ever needing to break stride.

The young lass questioned what we had in the drugs, timber (Babuschka dolls) foodstuffs (Belgian chocolate and nougat, and Italian Balsamic) and in-a-national-park (Plitvice NP in Croatia a few short weeks ago) categories that we had ticked the boxes for. We replied and then she just said "OK thanks, you're OK - just go through that door". Wow, that was easy! Next thing we know we are in the arms of Donna!

It takes a while to exchange our currency and then we walk over to where the ute is passed and load it - heavily! Chatting non-stop we drive out to Michael's mums at Greystanes where she is waiting up for us. Harvey Wallbangers are the go for a welcome home drink and some nibblies. Thank goodness she gave away the idea of having a fully cooked meal for us - at this hour we could not have eaten it for quids.

So we chatted for some and then Donna left for home. Netta, Michael and I sat up past 3 am just talking about all that has happened in the past year. Finally we crash. Michael has trouble sleeping, but ha ha, not me!!! And still the next day I had another nap while Michael and his Mum go in to Merrylands to do some shopping. We all sleep well on Tuesday night and by 9 pm Wednesday night, Michael is falling asleep on the phone talking to his brother. Think we have all caught up now.

So at the moment we are enjoying spending some time with Netta, arguing with internet providers who insist that we have to buy an unwanted and unnecessary USB modem to access wifi services (eastern Europe was easier) and looking for cars and me a job. Anyone got any leads? Please let me know!

We are catching up with a heap of Sydney based friends this week and then off to my mums in Newcastle on Sunday or Monday for a week before returning to Sydney for a few more days before we head north for home. So not long now guys - should be there around the 8th or 9th December. Don't know how much time I am going to have to blog, so see you when I do either here or in person!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Heading for home ........

OK Australia - Get ready! HERE we come!
Our flight was booked with British Airways, but we are actually on a Qantas flight. That is quite prophetic don't you think! We depart Heathrow Airport near London at 11:05 am on Sunday 15 November and arrive in Sydney at 8:20 pm Monday 16 November (
local times) with a refuelling stop in Singapore. And we are travelling on one of the new(ish) A380-800 Airbus planes.

Michael and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who have made this trip so memorable for us. Whether you are employed by one of the accommodation houses we used, a staff member in a restaurant or just a local who spoke with us, you have all had a huge impact on us. It is definitely the people who have made this holiday such a wonderfully enriching life experience.

Of course there are plenty of amazing things we have seen and done that are memorable too - and you know what is exciting? We have had the telly on over the last few days and there are so many places we can say we have been to that we are seeing across a whole range of programs. Cool huh!

See you next in Sydney!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Does 60 into 4 go?

Well, 60 is certainly divisible by 4, but I am wondering this morning when we get up, whether we can get our total luggage allowance of 60 kgs into 4 bags - 2 large suitcases, one on-board size suitcase and one packpack. We seem to have accumulated far more 'stuff' than we left with!

We have gathered a bit of other currency too and I will need to put this somewhere safe to exchange when we get back to Sydney. Better be careful though, last time I put something somewhere safe, I lost my little purse that I bought last time we were in Switzerland in 2006! Found it this morning! No point in exchanging the money here though as you lose on the double exchange between currencies (initially to pounds and then to Aussie $). In hand we have:
- 196 Chinese Yuan Renminbi
150 Czech Republic Koruny
- 120 Polish Zlotych
- 300 Croatian Kuna
- 650 British Pounds
Plus god knows how much more in loose change - that little bag is surely heavy! We will change the notes and the coinage can go to the airline's UNICEF collection bag when we complete our flights. Trouble is, that all the currency that we are changing does not really amount to a great deal!

We are packing one suitcase with the mid-season and winter clothes we have been wearing and also putting other things we won't need immediately in this one. The other ones will have the 'summer' clothes that we will need when we land in Sydney. And then is our bright little small carry on size suitcase that I bought to take to Paris when I met Helen, we will put a change of clothes (hmm memories of being in Atlanta, USA with none of our baggage and no 'smalls') and precious elements such as the cameras and my jewellery. We also have the laptop (my precious!) and a backpack with books etc. Gosh!

And I have just uploaded the last of the photos on to the external hard drive and on to DVDs - so I know exactly how many photos we took! In fact, there are a whole heap of statistics that are interesting:
- 21 countries (Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, United States, Spain, Portugal, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Vatican City, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, The Netherlands)
- 54,917.25 kilometres driven (doesn't include the side trip to the USA)
- 79,050 photos taken!
- countless new friends

Now, hows THAT for some numbers!

There was one last dinner to be had at the Premier Inn. And while the menu was the same there were still choices that we could try for the first time. This time it was
Drunken duck Pate - smooth pate enriched with sweet wine, truffles and Bramley apple jelly served with toasted rustic ciabatta and spiced onion marmalade (Michael)
Crispy seeded chicken strips served with Mandarin chili sauce (Maria)
Smothered chicken - grilled chicken breast topped with crisp bacon, Cheddar and mozarella cheeses served with chips and seasonal vegetables and hickory sauce (Michael)
Rump Steak served with chips, garden peas, sauteed mushrooms and grilled fresh tomato(Maria)

We had goodbye calls to Steph and Felix and to Anna today which was lovely and we have phoned the mums to confirm our departure tomorrow. We are not phoning every Tom, Dick and Harry. Its time to go quietly!
So everything is finally in the bags - but we still have to get them on the scales and on to the plane though! We suspect we are somewhat over the weight allowance!!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Saying goodbye to the Vectra

Over the past 12 months some of our most valuable aids have gained identities and personalities of their own. The Vauxhall Vectra that we bought last December when we first arrived in London however, is not one of them. Not sure why.

However, without it, this would have been a very very different
trip. When we bought the car we could have had bought something a little cheaper, but this car really appealed. It had very low mileage for a car that was 6 years old at 53,185 miles. It was smart enough not to attract the attention of police as a dud, but was not so new looking that it would attract car thiefs. It was sound and had a full service record and some remaining road tax and registration, AND most importantly, it was available straight away.

And at
£1,700 it was far far cheaper that renting a car for a year or even with the cost of fuel factored in, probably cheaper still for the two of us on public transport. And the biggest advantage - it gave us our freedom to go where we wanted, when we wanted and via the route we wanted. None of this being tied to scheduled routes or timetables. So we were able to wander the countrysides on the back roads, the mountain roads, the forest roads and the hugging the coast roads. What a trip!!

Today was a very special day back in Germany too. Felix was doing his thesis dissertation presentation to his University professors and anyone else that wanted to attend. We phoned him last night to wish him luck - hope Steph wasn't put out that we didn't talk to her! We are sure that he did well, you don't get that far into a Doctorate and then bum out!

(Michael here) So, today is the day to reconnoitre in search of a buyer for our car - in particular, a dealer. We would have prefered a private buyer, however, none were not forthcoming and time is at a premium. Maria searches the net for local dealerships around the Twickenham and Hayes areas. With this information, MOT and Road Tax documentation I set forth upon the quest for a buyer.

Times must be grim for the motor industry here in England, as the first two dealers weren't interested or not buying at present - "Business is fairly slow." At least the first dealer I approached had provided me with a possible lead located at Hounslow. My second target advised me that their 'valuer' would not be available until 2pm. I then ventured onto my third prospect, with a view to returning to my second prospect should this next visit prove fruitless.

In retrospect, we have been told on a couple of occasions the make of our particular vehicle are well sought after? Times must indeed be tough.... However, undaunted, I proceeded onto Hounslow (it wasn't quite 2pm at that time) towards the next prospect. I arrived, introduced myself and spruiked the vehicle's assets and then waited...waited...waited...until the assessor viewed our car. With a smile on my face, as the assessor delivered his negative response, I exited the building. I must add here, unless you've had the pleasure of negotiating British streets - it's understandable that a route of 20kms should be such a protracted exercise - particularly in the rain.

Retracing my earlier route I returned to the second prospect just after 2pm. Our vehicle was quietly assessed by the valuer: engine bay; boot; interior; exterior; tyres (including spare). He made an offer which was substantially below our purchase price; however, time is at a premium, Sunday we fly out for Oz and the car HAS to be disposed of. The dealership was going to run checks on the vehicles ensuring it is bonafide, and I was requested to phone the following morning at 10am.

Returned to the hotel, and Maria advises me that the dealer phoned and will purchase the Vectra and for me to return tomorrow at 11am!

(Me again) And so I have started to try to consolidate half a hotel room into the two suitcases and our hand luggage. Wasn't too long before it rolled around to dinner time, so back downstairs we venture. Same menu as last night, but different choices -
Garlic flatbread with cheese (Michael)
Baked potato skins with
bacon, spring onion, melted Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, served with sour cream and chive dip (Maria)
Chicken Makhani curry - Chicken breast marinated with yoghurt and spices in tomato and cream curry sauce served with basmati rice and naan bread (Michael)

Smothered chicken - Grilled chicken breast topped with crispy bacon, Cheddar and mozzarella cheeses served with your choice of potato, fresh seasonal vegetables and Hickory sauce (Maria)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Penultimum - almost there

Gosh. Everything is galloping along now. Its time to leave Wingham and head for the City. While we enjoy the buzz of being in large cities, it is the smaller towns that we prefer. This actually stands us in good stead for our return to our home in Maryborough. For those who are not local to us, we live in a regional city on the sourthern central coast of Queensland with a population of around 28,000 people.

It is a vibrant City that I am getting more and more excited about returning to and seeing through different eyes. For the visitor, there is so
much to see, and for the resident, there is so much to get involved with - it is one of the most connected and caring places I have known. And it is just such a nice place with a balance of great history and modern conveniences!

Anyway, we are not there yet, but getting closer! Our room at The Dog Inn has been amazing. But if we thought ours was good, the four poster room next door that we see as we are about to leave is even grander (but it only has a bath, no shower, so no good for me ). Built in the 13th century this building has been adapted to encompass all the modern conveniences so that the rooms are all comfortable to be in whether they are one of the eight rooms or the public areas. We finally leave Wingham after saying farewell to Austin and Tim (it's Dan's day off - bugger).

Passing through rural southern England we pass one of the warning beacons that were established throughout much of England as a warning mechanism at the time of the Spanish Armada threat in the 16th century. We have set Kate to the 'avoid motorways' options so that we can spend our last little bit travelling through the countryside. We pass through the Herne area and see a second windmill for the day, but this one is close enough for us to pause for a few moments and have a look - only from the outside though as it is only open to the public for a couple of hours on Sundays in the summer! Ah well, an outside look will just have to do.

Little do we know that indeed from here all roads lead to London and that as we go en-route to Heathrow where we are staying for the last three days, we pass one street away from where we started this epic journey in December last year in Earls Court!

The travelling is very slow as we crawl through the outer inner suburbs of London as we head for the M4 and another section of the great ring road that takes traffic around the outskirts of this great city.

We have yet to finalise the packing and when we empty the car for the last time on our arrival at the Premier Inn Heathrow, I look at all our 'stuff' (and that does not inclide the 40 kgs we posted home from Germany last week) I wonder how in the hell are we going to fit it all in!

The Premier Inn is one of the Accor chain of hotels and is one of the closest to Heathrow. Sitting just on the other side of the M4 motorway, there is a connecting shuttle service to Terminal 3 where we will leave from on Sunday morning. They also offer a combinaton package for accommodation and meals and we have booked 3 nights. The last thing that we need to do now is sell the car . . . (after giving it a very good clean first!)

Dinner is from a restricted menu that is still extensive enough to offer choice. And as the restaraunt is run by Indians I reckon the curry just might be a good choice! From the menu we choose:
Soup of the day (White onion and Blue Cheese) s
erved with warm rustic ciabatta bread (Michael)
Crispy seeded chicken strips s
erved with Mandarin chilli sauce (Maria)
Sausage and mash -
Premium pork sausages and mashed potato served with garden peas and caramelised onion gravy (Michael)
Chicken Makhani curry -
Chicken breast marinated with yoghurt and spices in tomato and cream curry sauce served with basmati rice and naan bread (Maria)
Michael opted for Profiteroles filled with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate flavour fudge sauce for dessert while I had a second glass of Pinto Grigio! Cheers

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Canterbury Tales and family connected

The morning sunshine heralds a beautiful day ahead - well, at least for the next two hours. We amble downstairs for breakfast where we are greeted by Tim...ah, he is the relief Chef. Austin has today off and after the incredible dinners he has prepared for us, we forgive his absence. However, Tim prepares our hot breakfasts, presenting me with two gloriously poached eggs and Michael a hearty 'full English'!

With breakfast out of the way, we make our way onto the main street to watch the scheduled Rememberence Day March prior to the service. And I stress here the march and service were scheduled. It's 10:35 so I make my way to the church, while Michael heads down to the High Street in readiness for the march. I wait and wait at the church, 10:40 has passed when the march was to commence - but, there are no sounds of a band or presence of the local Constabulary. Anyhow, Michael returns just as perplexed stating that "there's nobody around for the parade?". It is somewhat of a mystery as Michael had asked at the post office earlier about details of the parade, and was told the ceremony was to commence at 10:40.... Anyhow, we entered the church and paid our respects to the fallen in our own quiet way.

We admire the church's architecture and fixtures. It is indeed a wonder at the history of many of Englands' houses of worship, and here at St Mary the Virgin is no exception. There is a list of all the Vicars, Rectors and Provosts who have ministered at this church from 1228 to the present. Within the churchs' eastern transept is a monument commemorating a family of note - the Oxinden's - the monument was erected in 1682! And in the true spirit of christianity, the Anglican Parish shares its church with the local Catholics who celebrate Mass here each Sunday.

Time is marching on so we return to the Dog Inn to get the car and head for Canterbury. Now, the Dog Inn is one of two once identical buildings that stand side by side on the road from Wingham to Canterbury - and they date back to 1286! By this time the clear skies become shrouded by clouds, and no sooner are we on our way it is evident that rain is imminent. Canterbury is only seven miles (11 kms) from Wingham and we travel along the narrow roads which ribbon through the countryside.

Arriving at Canterbury our first stop is at the ruins of Canterbury Castle, and although the rain has begun to drizzle, this does not stop us from exploring this celebrated monument. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror marched hastily through Kent to Canterbury. In October 1066, Canterbury was the first town to submit without resistence. To consolidate his power, William ordered the construction of royal castles at Dover, Canterbury and Rochester. These castles were initially built from timber upon the 'motte-and-bailey' configuration and only much later the castles were rebuilt in stone.

All that remains of the castle today is a section of the perimeter wall and the keep. However, in the 'minds-eye', one can visualise the enormity of the structure. Eventually rebuilt with three storeys and enclosed within a bastion wall, the importance of the castle diminished by becoming overshadowed by Henry II's larger fortification at Dover. Regrettably, Canterbury Castle was relegated as the a prison for the County of Kent administered by the Sheriff and in the most recent times lost a lot of its mystique when it was used as a coal store and gas works.

The rain has begun to fall in earnest, I return to the car and leave Michael to continue drooling for a while longer. Want to kow more? Click here.

When Michael finally returns, we leave the castle to find a carpark closer to the Canterbury Cathedral. After wanting me to drive through restricted areas, and us having to continually turn back, Kate and Frances eventually guide us to an available parking bay at the city walls, which is not far from the Cathedral. Feeding the ticket dispenser gives us a maximum stay of three hours and so we set off to see what we can see. Walking through the streets of Canterbury is like entering a time portal, with buildings dating from the 13th century occupied by artists, artisans and bakers displaying their wares in shop windows. Michael is enjoying the ambience as he is swept along by the imagery of his beloved Canterbury Tales.

Finally we arrive at the Cathedral precinct, and enter the precint's main portal at a cost of $13AUD each. However, the entry fee is worth every cent as the Cathedral is indeed a magnificent structure. I'll let Michael take over from here, so he can enlighten you...or put you to sleep?

I am just passionate over medieval architecture, in particular places of worship - moreso if the style is Gothic, Perpendicular Gothic or Gothic/Renaissance. At the danger of me rambling, may I recommend this link for the Canterbury Cathedral.

As with most of these monuments built before the Reformation, one has to remember that the pioneering architects/engineers designed the buildings on parchment and only aided by quadrants, line-of-sight and plum bobs! The work of the masons, sculptors, scriveners and carpenters who contributed to the Cathedrals' construction is truly mind-blowing.

The Cathedral was filled by visitors and a small company of proud volunteer guides who were most eager to answer, with enthusiasm, any question pertinent to their Cathedral. I soon discovered the knowledge which these guides possess, when I made enquiry as to one of the stained glass windows. Only several of these windows are original from the 12th century, which somehow were spared from the destructive force of the Reformation!

Fortunately, photography was permitted ( except when visiting the crypt) so the camera worked overtime snapping images of the exterior and interior. The Cathedral also boasts its own 'Compass Rose' installed into the floor of the central nave in 1988. As with most Cathedrals, at intervals throughout the day a benediction is given by a member of the clergy. Today was no exception, as a Friar (with the aid of a PA system) requested everyone to stop and listen to the benediction - a time for reflection whatever ones persuasion...yes, even for us non-believers.

We could have spent further hours here - it is such a fascinating place. It was here that Thomas Beckett was murdered, and that the first French Hugenot service was held here hundreds of years ago and continues to this day! There are amazing stained glass windows, a beautiful cloister and chapter house, a peaceful crypt where you can see the remaining pillars and wall of the Norman church that once stood on this site and dates back to 579 AD. There are tanglible links with Australia too in the form of stitched kneelers int he front row and a memorial to Lt. Col Sir George Gipps, Governor in Chief of New South Wales. And today, on Rememberence Day when we were reading in The Times this morning about the release of the records of the British Flying Aces including Major Edward Mannock VC, here we are standing in front of his memorial! Its a small, small world.

Gosh, and there was so much more - you had better check the link before I too carried away! From here you exit through the souvenir shop where we stop to buy a few small reminders - we have to be careful because we are getting very very close to our weight limits for the air trip home!

Michael wants a quick look at the City Walls so I return to the car while he makes a dash for the stairs. The walls are surprisingly intact, and yet are now a part of the modern city. Traffic enters through a number of the original gates, the Dane John gardens dating back to the 12th century and has existed in their present form since 1790 and have recently been updated to include a thematic chidren's maze. A monument now stands atop a Roman burial ground that existed before the construction of the city walls in the 3rd century and now serves as a vantage point for views across the city.

I pack away the souvenirs we bought and get some little treasures out for Anna and Gary then get in the car and programme Kate. And that is when I see a traffic warden making his way towards our car, checking wether parking tickets have expired - and in response Michael is running full pelt from the other direction. Michael manages to get here first. Just! Mind you, we still had 1 minute left on our ticket!

Its 4 pm and fast heading for dark when we leave Canterbury for Bracknell to have one last visit with Anna and Garry, Curtis and Nathan. Its a two hour drive on the M26 - one of the major ring roads around London. Traffic is heavy as we are just coming in to rush hour, but for the most part we are able to do a respectable 70 miles per hour. I have reset Kate to measure in miles - can't be bothered with all the constant calculations from km to miles and back again. Feels odd though and my perception of distance is not so good - luckily for me, 100 yards is close enough to 100 metres and I can judge that pretty well!

We arrive at their house in Binfield just after 6:15. There is great excitement all round - Anna has kept her job (when all 6000 were given notices re planned redundencies for 1500 and no assurances), they have sold their house to a cash buyer and their offer on the house of their dreams just up the road has been accepted - all in the space of about 3 days! We took the champers!! Gary has picked up McDonalds for the boys and once they are settled upstairs, we order Chinese and spend a couple of hours sharing it and the stories of our respective highs since we last saw them in June. It has been lovely sharing a bit of time with them this year. Its heading for 10 pm when we finally say our goodbyes for the year and head off.

Our trip back to Wingham is much quieter than the trip over. We are able to travel at a constant speed and make the trip in about an hour and a half - even if it is in and out of light rain!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ickham not Wickham!

all the leaves are brown
nd the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
on an autumn day
Yes, California dreaming is playing on the local radio station - very fittingly! There is nothing so miserable as when it is 4:30 pm in the afternoon and totally dark with all the street lights on.

After a lazy morning we set out from
Wingham for a bit of a drive around the area. And it really is no coincidence that we are staying here - there is a Wingham in the Taree area on the central north coast of New South Wales - so we came to see if there was any resemblence. And you know, there is - lots of cattle and rolling hills! And they are of a like size.

First stop is the small village of Ickham that is a mere 2.5 kms away by road, but a million miles away in terms of how different it is. Wingham is located right on the very busy Canterbury Road, while Ickham is caught in some time warp on a small back road. Just outside town we pass fields that are being beseiged by geese - lots of geese, hundreds of geese - and as Michael gets out to take photos, their brief reprieve on the ground from the journey south for the winter is interrupted as the take flight again.

From here we turn towards the north coast of this part of the UK towards Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey. As we travel along we see signs to the Spitfire Museum at Manston and would you believe Michael's luck - our route takes us right past it. Go past? Never! So off he goes and I pick up my book.

"Fighter trail etched white on blue,
Bomber Captain, Seaplane Crew.
Like gods, these men, though wrought as we,
Are brushed with immortality.
Their youth not lost to as years go by,
But grandly, in a moment souring high,
Through conquered sky."
- Harold Balfour

With it's memorial garden overlooking the Manston aerodome and the singular bronze statue of an RAF pilot, the museum is more of a memorial to Airforce personnel of all nationalities. However, on entering the building you get the distinct impression it's dedicated to the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane and the respective crews.

The museum is quite small but full of memorabilia, including a restored Spitfire XVI and a Hurricane II and displays of ordinance carried by both aircraft. There is an impressive array of uniforms belonging to aircrew and which have been donated to the museum. A selection of aviation art is also displayed which mainly concentrate on the Battle of Britain. Whether a visitor has any interest in aviation is immaterial, this is a memorial and museum which has been tastefully designed.

So from Manston we follow the coast around to Herne Bay. This historic town is on the southern estuary of the Thames River as it empties in to the North Sea. Known for its old pier and it's impressive clock tower there is also a solitary statue of a Coast Guard statue patiently and vigilantly out to sea - making sure that all are safe, and ready to jump into action if anything goes awry out to sea.

We are still not at Sheerness despite it only being 60 kilometres from Herne Bay. You see we are averaging about 30 kph! Where there are not small towns end to end, there is farming land - marshy land that now supports sheep grazing. And there is only one narrow road that goes right through this area. And time after time we find ourselves in a bottleneck of traffic as we come up to temporary traffic lights around roadworks. It is well dark now, and not quite 4:30 in the afternoon! There is no point going any further so we make the decision to turn back for Wingham. All in all, the last couple of hours has been frustrating to say the least. And as if to add insult to injury, we hear regular traffic updates on the local radio that seems to put us in the very middle of the jams! Wait? Is that them in the car behind us??? Could be as we pass just in front of the landmarks they name time and again!!

We eventually get back to the Dog Inn and a well awaited Cider. Austin our chef has promised us Steak and Ale Pies for dinner even though they are not on his menu for the night. That menu has surprised us a little. While it is always great to find great food in the most unexpected of places, we really did not expect to find a chef of his calibre in a small town miles from where the major restaurants lie. He explains that not only is he the chef for the restaurant here, he is also head chef for the group of hotels owned by the owners. And although we are really looking forward to our pies, when the waitress gives us the menus to choose entrees, we groan at the other choices we might have had. (Pardon the shadows on the menus please)

Still, we had asked for the pies and we are looking forward to them. For our entrees tonight we decide on:
Pan fried tiger prawns, chorizo and plum tomato (Michael)
Homemade lemon and coriander fishcakes, garlic tartar (Maria)
Our mains were those amazing pies - heavy with succulent chunks of tender beef in a deliciously rich ale based gravy and topped with the cleanest, crispest shortcrust pastry - mmmm
"Dessert menu?" she asked. "Oh yes please" was Michael's reply (even though we probably didn't need it!)
Plum Clafoutis with raspberry coulis and the ripest red strawberries (Michael)
Warm apple, sultana and calvados pancake with creme anglais (Maria)

Ah the day has been redeemed! Onya Austin!!!