Sunday, 11 July 2010

Doings in London

Our last week began in London and like our previous visits in 2006 and 2002, the weather was hot and sticky. Most uncomfortable for sightseeing, and the small friendly hotel we stayed in near Kings Cross did not have airconditioning. (They kindly upgraded the basic fan to a super-charged model though!)

The main reason for a return visit to London was to try and track down some of Peter’s Beckett ancestors who for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to be found earlier than 1871. A morning spent in the LMA (London Metropolitan Archives) only provided details of the death of a Beckett baby, and the possible place of burial for the family (Islington Cemetery, East Finchley). Of course I insisted on travelling there to inspect the registers ourselves rather than paying $90 for a postal request. By the time we paid for Zone 3 return tube tickets, a taxi fare from station to cemetery and return, Peter was muttering that the $90 fee sounded quite reasonable to him. However we duly arrived and were allowed to inspect the registers and what did we discover? Samuel Beckett was there but his wife who died 4 years earlier wasn’t. (What DID they do with her?). Apart from the grave location, no other details were discovered. No other family were there apart from Peter’s paternal grandparents (hidden in a wilderness area). Ah well, the Beckett family enigma continues.

Our second day was devoted to the British Museum, as Peter wanted to see the British-Romano collection, and I was interested in the British Bronze-age, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, etc. etc. artifacts. Both these sections had been closed for renovations during our last visit in 2006. We were not disappointed this time and spent several hours happily browsing the exhibits. Lunch was in the café within the Great Dome, then the trek back to the tube and a late afternoon siesta at the hotel. Decided on an evening meal at the local ‘family’ friendly Irish pub only to discover it packed with people watching the Germany/Spanish FIFA cup match, 99% of whom loudly supported Spain. Who were we seated with? A lone family of Germans!

Our final day was rather busy with visits to several museums. First was the Natural History Museum primarily to see the fossils found by Mary Anning at Lyme, Dorset. (I had recently read Tracy Chevalier’s fascinating “Remarkable Creatures” which tells of the marine reptile fossils found at Lyme, and just had to see for myself these huge skeletons).

Next across the road was the famous Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) with exhibits of art and design. The textile collection was just wonderful – tapestries, lace, woven fabric, carpets, etc., some of which were many hundreds of years old.

Later as Peter finally achieved his wish to travel on the London Eye, I walked around the block and spent several hours visiting the absolutely stunning Westminster Abbey. In the evening, we travelled via tube to the Covent Garden area to the Fortune Theatre to see “The Woman in Black”. Only two actors, but they were able to instil a scary sense of horror in the ghost story. Very well done.

Today, before travelling to Kent for a weekend with our relative, Brenda, we nipped over the road from our hotel to the wonderful British Library. They have a most amazing exhibition of original manuscripts. Some of the items there include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D’arthur (King Arthur) Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's writing desk and handwritten notes, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Captain Scott’s diary (of Antarctic fame) and even the original handwritten lyrics to the Beatles “Yesterday” to name just a few, also some absolutely gorgeously illustrated religious texts, ancient hand-drawn maps and a room devoted solely to Magna Carta. This is a stunning collection and incredibly not too many tourists seem to know about it.

Now we’re at the end of our trip and enjoying a couple of relaxing days before flying home on Monday. So, dear friends who have followed our travel adventures, I am signing off until our next trip. Best wishes to all!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


After hot sunny days on the canal, our arrival in Guernsey was a complete contrast – rain, a cool wind and darkness (early evening). Our hire car this time was a Ford Focus and although we had directions to our St Peter Port hotel from the hire car people at the airport, the combination of darkness, wet unfamiliar roads and strange car made for an ‘interesting’ (read ‘fraught’) beginning to our Channel Island visit. To make matters worse, the roads have French names which change at different sections, and while searching for one street invariably find we’re at the next section. Trying to read maps in the dark by the light of a confused Sat Nav just doesn’t work! (Sat Nav eventually found it wasn’t still in the Hertford area and re-adjusted its thinking).

Anyhow we did arrived at the Pandora Hotel – practically next door to the house once owned by the exiled Victor Hugo (more of that later), and it is very comfortable. I would say it would have been built early last century and it is two buildings made into one hotel. We are in a quite large room on the ground floor however to get to our room from ground floor reception this is the route: Turn left, go down 1 step, walk 10 steps, turn left, down 4 steps, turn right, 2 steps, turn left, down 3 steps, turn right, down 4 steps, turn left, down 7 steps - and finally turn left and we are at our room (still on the ground floor!). The hotel is built on a steep hill and so the adjoining building’s ground floor is much lower than the reception area.

Next morning the weather had cleared and we set out to drive around this exceptionally interesting island. Evidence of the WW2 German occupation was everywhere with concrete installations for gun placements, etc. The massively built underground German hospital was amazing. It was built over 3 years by POW (slave) labour and used also as an ammunition store as well as a hospital. In winter it was dry, but the condensation in summer made the complex so damp, I wonder that the wounded didn’t die of pneumonia. In fact I think it was really only used as a hospital for a matter of months.

Summer in the Channel Islands is delightful though – and the islands are very popular with holiday-makers. St Peter Port (the capital of Guernsey) is very pretty – narrow winding streets of shops clinging to the side of a hill sloping down to a harbour sheltering hundreds of pleasure craft. From the higher lookouts the views are stupendous – ancient buildings with stunning gardens and hundreds of hanging flower baskets of riotous colour with the gorgeous azure sea dotted with islands (Herm and Sark quite close by). Outside St Peter Port, country villages have ancient stone cottages or white painted homes and are ablaze with summer flowers and always close by is the sea.

On Sunday we caught a ferry to Sark and after about an hour came to this very interesting little island only about 3 miles around. There are no cars on the island, but tractors pull ‘carriage’ loads of boat passengers up the very steep road to the village. There are a row of small shops – souvenir, craft, bike hire, cafes, etc. Also waiting are horse-drawn carriages which we were happy to board for a leisurely 2 hour clip-clop around the island. We stopped occasionally for short walks to scenic spots including the connecting ‘bridge’ to Little Sark – originally bombed by the Germans, but re-built after the war by German prisoners. About 600 people live on Sark with farming, fishing and tourism the only livelihoods. The scenery surrounding the island is quite spectacular and the lush green of the gardens and small fields very pretty. It really is no wonder it is a popular place to visit.

On Monday we visited the St Peter Port house of Victor Hugo who had been exiled from France to the Channel Islands with his wife and two of his adult children (his mistress lived just down the road!). From the outside it looks like any other large Guernsey home. In the inside it is another story altogether. When he wasn’t writing, he was designing and supervising the décor of the house. No expense was spared (his books sold well), but he also scoured the local secondhand dealers and ancient carved chests, tables, etc., were bought, dismantled and incorporated into the built-in furniture. Paintings, Gobelin tapestries on the walls AND ceilings and priceless Dutch wall tiles were used. Some rooms were very dark with black wood panelling and decoration, and then the next room would be light and airy although still most unusually decorated. The contrasts were most evident unlike the hidden doors and passageways connecting and hiding fixtures and other small rooms (one for developing photographs). We have never seen anything quite like it and we’re sure we’ll never see another like it again. Just astonishing.

There were two other ‘must-see’ places to visit – the first to the German Occupation Museum which told the story of events during WW2 when Germany invaded the only part of the British Isles they could. It was interesting to read articles and view the items collected from that dark period of wartime. I found it fascinating to see how the Island people coped and the hardships they endured when food was in extremely short supply.

The next place to visit was the Guernsey Tapestry – beautiful embroidered panels about 1.5 metres by 1 metre with each panel covering a century and stitched by members of each area of the Island. It was instigated as a Millennium project and all 10 panels took two years to complete. It is a simply stunning work of art.

We loved Guernsey and were sad to leave just as we were getting to know our way around. Would very much like to return one day and perhaps go to Jersey as well.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

To Hertford via Narrowboat

I must tell you about almost losing our passports. When staying in Paisley, we made sure our passports were safely held in the Hotel’s safe. They were still safely there after we checked out and had travelled many hours down to England. However there is nothing that induces instant insomnia so much as to be awakened by husband at 4 am swearing: “Oh S***! I forgot to pick up the passports before we left!”. Problem was solved next morning by phoning the hotel and asking them to send them by registered post to our next port of call – the Broxbourne based Lea Valley Boat Hire company. Bless them, they posted them off that day, then phoned us to say they were in the hands of the Royal Mail and would be delivered in good time for us to collect them. Disaster averted.Whew.

We then had three visits to different relatives in two days which was a nice experience. All were Peter’s relatives – the first were some Becketts living in Norfolk who kindly loaned us an album of old family photos, and some other Leylands who also lived nearby. All very friendly folk pleased to meet for the first time some of the family from the other side of the world. The last visit was to Bert & Win (cousins of Peter’s father) whom we have known and visited for quite a number of years. Bert has a wicked sense of humour and it is always fun to spend some time and share a meal with him and Win.

Family visits over, we fronted up on Monday morning at the Lee Valley Boat Hire company in Broxbourne to begin our 5 day narrowboat experience (and to pick up our passports!).We had lived in Hertford for several years in the early 1970s, and decided this would be a great way to travel back to our old home. Leaving Broxbourne after some instruction, we slowly motored the Amelia along the Lee Navigational Canal. Broxbourne is only about 4 miles from Hertford, but there are 7 locks to negotiate and all take considerable time and muscle power. The top speed of the boat is only 4 miles/hour, so it is an extremely leisurely and relaxing way to travel through some very pretty countryside. We managed 4 locks on the first day and then tied up along the bank by some trees for the night. Next morning we felt more confident at the opening and operating of the various locks and so eventually sailed into a very nice mooring right in the middle of Hertford. The town’s layout is still the same as ever but many of the businesses we knew had gone whilst some were still operating in the same shops as they did in the 1970s. We are moored right beside the Old Barge Pub on Folly Island, and so walked precisely 10 steps to the pub for our evening meal. Afterwards when we strolled around the small island, the town’s church bell-ringers practiced their chimes. Such a lovely summer evening and a perfect way to end our first day’s return to lovely Hertford.

Next morning we walked about 20 minutes across Hartham Common and up a small hill to Bengeo where the lovely, ancient St Leonard’s church has been a place of worship for over 1,000 years. It has the oldest hung door (Saxon) in the country. We knew it well from the early 1970s, so it was on our ‘must visit’ list this trip to see how it was faring. We had made prior contact with one of the ‘Friends of St.Leonards’ and met her there for an inside viewing. We’re pleased to say that the little church is now very well maintained (and loved) with weekly Sunday services throughout summer and they hold concerts and weekend events to raise money to keep it in wonderful order.

Leaving Hertford and travelling back along the canal, we passed many other narrowboats – some moored and others that were travelling the canals and so well maintained they were the homes of some people. One couple cruised the canals of England during the summer months from May to September, then left their narrowboat for winter and went to India for a few months. They had been living this way for 7 years!

Tomorrow we’re off to Guernsey!