Sunday, June 21, 2015

On the road again...

OK it wasn't a big road trip but it certainly felt like quite a bit of driving.  Maybe its England and the size of the roads.  In the US when you drive, it seems there are acres of room to do everything.  In England things seem to be much closer together.  Certainly cars have got bigger over time, this is a global phenomenon not necessarily a UK one but on UK roads, it stands out more.

This time though we figured we needed a big car capable of holding 7 people and their luggage for the to-ing and fro-ing we had planned and from the usual Kayak search, out came Sixt (see link here).

Who, you may ask?  They are a German firm that is expanding globally.  We'd hired a car from them in Miami once -- what, you ask?  Why didn't you use Silvercar?  The best car hire firm bar none.  Well, they hadn't opened up in Miami at that point but they have now, so I will be headed in their direction for any further times.  But Sixt are expanding in the UK whilst Silvercar is not (yet) -- they just opened in Chicago so are getting a little nearer.  And they were fantastic too.  Sixt, I mean.  Very helpful and polite both in and out and the vehicle they rented us was just terrific too.

It was a VW (of course) 9-seater.  And it was great to drive... once you got the hang of its length.  It was knocked about a bit at each front sides and trying to get out of the car park at the airport, nearly took out a couple of posts people put up to stop drivers trying to cut corners!  But I did manage to not add to the scrapes.

So the rental was another great experience.  Now I know of 2 great car hire firms: first Silvercar, second Sixt.  The rest are nowhere by comparison.  Sorry guys!

I already posted about Dover Castle but want to add something about the A2 as it passes through the Blackheath.

I've driven this road dozens of times over the years always going to or from London.  It's not a quick route past here as the traffic build up gets pretty heavy and have never turned either left or right at the lights in the middle of the heath.  I've never had reason to.  On the right is residential, on the left is a long wall (heading towards London this is).  The reason I mention it is that before eating lunch in Greenwich we took a brief detour (courtesy of duelling GPS' gone mad -- at that time we were working off our Garmin and Indy's iPhone using the Google Maps App) that wasn't altogether under control. Looking for the O2 Arena, the machines directed us along ever narrower streets until we came out into the open... and hit the traffic lights in the middle of this heath!  But along the way, we had also passed signs for Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory so thought that we should turn around and take a look.

Docklands in the middle, the City to the left and the Millenium Dome, now O2 Arena to the right.  In the foreground the magnificent maritime museum.  This is where the horse trials were held in the 2012 Olympics!  Who could do this in an hour?  It would take a week at least to simply scratch the surface...

It turned out to be behind this long wall bounding the edge of Blackheath that I'd driven past dozens of times over the years without realizing.

We weren't able to spend too much time as lunch beckoned in an hour or so but it looks a magical place that I want to return to and spend a day in!

If you beat me, do please tell me about it.  I want to stand on the Meridian, one leg either side!!

The 24-hour clock was right!

Changing Times

When I landed at Gatwick last week and collected the hire car to drive to Canterbury where our trip really started, I believed that drunk driving was prevalent but had been stomped on harshly by police worldwide, certainly in England.  It's not a subject at the forefront of my mind but what kicked it all off was seeing the first road sign on the M20 saying "Drug Driving Can Kill".  I chuckled inwardly in a rather superior fashion as I thought it was a spelling mistake and mentioned this to Indy who was with me.

Boy, did I get an education.

I thought that it was the large numbers of trucks with eastern European and beyond number plates on them whose drivers took benzedrine or the equivalent to help them stay awake and able to drive for hours at a stretch.  Not so, for if you google "drug driving", you will find that in Australia it is more prevalent than drunk driving and that earlier in 2015 in the UK new laws had been put in place enabling police to stop cars and not necessarily breathalyse the driver, but do roadside tests for a whole list of banned substances like cocaine and cannabis.

But it was what Indy said that pulled back my ears.

He said that the UK is now the drug capital of Europe so he wasn't surprised at the roadsign then went on to say that here the drugs of choice were less smokable but more chemical than in the US, which is the other way around apparently.  Also many of the chemicals of choice are 'legal highs' which are even more dangerous as they are constructs by ex-students looking to pay off their student loans in a more profitable way than flipping hamburgers as jobs for new graduates are so few and far between.

These legal highs are basically chemicals and compounds that are freely available that with a little chemistry can synthesize other drugs such as ecstasy.  The authorities are banning them as fast as they can but these chemist-entrepreneurs are staying one step ahead by adding a new compound to the mix each time.

Trouble is these new synthetics have side effects that nobody has been able to gauge which is contributing to the higher incidence of mental disorders such as schizophrenia ...

Bloody hell!

So if student loans are waived, will all this stop?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Food, food and more food

When you go to a Chinese banquet there are certain definites:

1) 10 courses -- and not nouvelle cuisine courses either.  These are substantial!

2) Soup at some point, maybe shark fin or bird's nest although these days shark fin is something of an endangered species dish.  Maybe not endangered but the thought of sharks swimming around without a dorsal fin isn't that popular these days.

3) Long life noodles to finish -- a certain kind of veggie noodles that are deep fried and insanely good and which finish off the banquet, just when you most need it!

The event was Viv's mum Anna's 80th birthday party and was held at the China Boulevard restaurant in the newly gentrified Wandsworth, in the midst of new flats by the Thames just next to Wandsworth Bridge and the Ship pub if you want some precise instructions on how to get there. It was really good so going back wouldn't be a hardship!

The guests were from Anna's life and was a nice chance to have Indy, Ali and Anton in the same room at the same time of course along with Viv and I.  Most others were Anna's co-travelers and MJ victims but there were some people from the old Hong Kong days too.  So a nice bunch to catch up with.  Particularly nice was seeing Farida and Pervez after 20 years or so (according to Pervez who droned on and on about this so he's probably right).  Farida was Viv's school friend and had been matron of honour at our wedding and we'd been on holiday with them pre-children too so it was lovely to see them again and reflect how easy it is to lose contact and the time just slips by...

In the days before selfies...

But the food just kept on coming!

The lobster course
And the event just kept on going too for as soon as the food ended, impromptu MJ tables sprung up whilst the rest of us just kept on chatting and partying.  At 9 or 10 pm more food came out for a late night snack before calling it quits.  I annoyingly didn't pick up a copy of the menu but remember a wonderful steamed fish playing quite a part in the late night proceedings.

And to prove we could, on the way back we stopped off at Anna's favourite restaurant in Greenwich for lots and lots of dim sum!

I felt like a roly poly pudding at the end of it all!

Thursday, June 11, 2015


England in June is pretty nice.  Probably the best time of the year weather wise as it is starting to get warm and the people are coming out from under their winter clothing and probably seeing sun for the first time since... well this time last year pretty much.

We were heading to England with the full family for Viv's mum's 80th birthday party at a Chinese restaurant in Wandsworth, a Chinese banquet with 10 courses... a traditional number.  I'd not been to Wandsworth for more than 30 years and to say the least when last I visited, it was a bit of a dump.  These days though with all the gentrification of the City, I was sure I'd be surprised.

But that was a couple of days hence.  In the meantime was some castling!  Dover Castle in fact.

Pharos to the right, Church/Castle to the left

And what a castle it is!  The earliest part is Roman -- a lighthouse (or Pharos) on top of the hill overlooking Dover Harbour.  It must have been in existence even back then as the commentary suggested it was a beacon (along with another on the western approaches) to guide Roman galleys to safe moorings within the harbour.

Next came the Jutes (the Saxons were in a different part of the country, more north and west in Essex, Middlesex and Sussex) who built the first castle around the local church (no really, around as in the church is the inside of the castle) as a defence against the Vikings but obviously the Normans couldn't stand for that and stomped them and built a real castle, rather like they did around the rest of the country.

When you consider strategic location, this really is it with Dover Harbour just under the castle and only 21 miles away from our oldest enemy, France.  It was a clear day so we could see the French coast and imagine why this castle has been the single longest operational castle in Great Britain.  Everything went through Dover and still it looks it still does as the ferries were continuous throughout the day.

It is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year and so up and down the country there are events that attempt to 'put things in perspective' for people today.  Throughout the day inside the main part of the castle were such events for this was the place where all the activity leading up to Magna Carta and beyond took place.  King John was here for ages as he was fighting in France... not against the French it should be added but his various brothers.  He had 3 brothers all of whom didn't get on and all of whom wanted to be King of all the various legacy parts of Henry II's vast possessions.  The upshot of all this fighting of course was that nobody really won (except the French) and back home the Barons got sick of John's activities and themselves rebelled.  Caught betwixt and between (sort of) John had no alternative but to sign the Great Charter.  However he had the last laugh by reneging on it immediately after the invading French left in 1216.

The Keep or specifically King's Hall inside the Keep

But the point of this was that in one of the chambers was an 'actor' portraying King John sitting and talking to a group of tourists like me describing how bad a deal it was for the common people as along with the other 'freedoms' supposedly gained by the 'people', it actually enshrined in law perpetual sefdom for anyone who wasn't a 'free man'.  A free man was someone who owned a certain amount of property... yes you guessed it, the barons!  So whilst it gave them certain 'freedoms' it also took away everyone else's in their entirety.

So much for Magna Carta then!  But as 'King John' said, the document did receive very many revisions in later years thankfully which gives us the common law we enjoy today.

This was cheesy to be sure, but King John was a very good choice as he was both knowledgable and able to debate certain points with any rebellious tourist who wanted to take him on.  And there were enough to keep it interesting for a good long while.  Strange though that the loudest who professed herself to be an unbeliever (in God that is, very trendy these days in England) felt uncomfortable when King John suggested she would be burned as a heretic and that she was lucky to have been born 900 years too late for that to become a reality.

We weren't able to go into the tunnels under the hill where extensive barracks had been dug going back to medieval times and from which in WWII the local Naval commander, Admiral Ramsey, coordinated the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.  It must have been an amazing sight.  All those large and little ships criss crossing the Channel under continuous attack from the German navy and airforce bringing back 338,000 soldiers of the BEF and French armies.

If only Churchill had turned his hand around, how much more appropriate it would be at times like this

It makes you shudder to think what could have happened if the German army had broken through in France.  Life would be very different today.

We wandered around the castle walls, examined the old 11th, 12th and 13th century fortifications (the castle became obsolete with the advent of cannons) and towards the end of the day 2 Spitfies in D-Day markings of black and white stripes flew sedately past I imagine to some flying show of some sort.  Flying low and seemingly quite slowly, it seems odd to think it was my Dad and his 'few' comrades who flew those in the Battle of Britain which stopped the Germans for the first time and encouraged them to go somewhere else.  Yet again, thanks Dad.

Dad and his 'little friend'

What a castle though.  I want to go back.  To think I lived within 10 miles of this place for 5 years and scorned the very idea of going to Dover Castle.  What was I thinking?

And afterwards we checked out the white cliffs.  Whoa!