Hawkes Bay NZ Water trail

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mont Saint Michel

It is nearly 40 years ago (gosh where did the time go?) since I was sitting in my 8th grade French class in a hot tropical classroom in Brisbane, Australia, listening to Mrs Jerome try to teach me verb tenses, and all I can do is stare at the photo of an abbey built on a narrow peninsula that gets cut off by the tide twice a day, and it's somewhere in France, and I really want to see it.

Well, I finally made it. It is a magical place to see, like Disneyland, except it is real. Now, it's been a long time since they built a road to connect MSM to the mainland of Normandy, and the place is infested with ice cream parlors and post card racks, and overrun with tourists "checking the site off their must-see" list, but later tonight (it is now 8 pm and broad daylight, I am going to ride back over the 1.8km causeway and watch the sun set and the massive tide race back in. Yes, it is possible to believe some abbot had a vision of the archangel Michael clobbering the devil here. From a long way off it is a hazy specter, sort of like a large battleship floating off the coast. Up close, it's an extraordinary testament to faith. From the causeway you can see the light shining through the glass abbey window. Visiting it may be a bit challenging as it's all my favorite type of road: pavéés, and these ones are worn smooth by thousands of tourist feet. Hauling the bike over this, and not crashing into any tourists is a big challenge.

I rode to MSM this morning, after camping on the Baie du Mont Saint Michel in a little waterfront town of stone houses facing the sea front on in St Benoit des Ondes (St B of the waves). The shoreline ride is wonderful, as you cruise along next to the digues (dikes) and look out to sea and the oyster farms. If you want you can pull over for oyster and mussels snacks from roadside vendors. I chose to pull over in le Vivier-sur-Mer to talk to 3 touring cyclists: Harald from Germany, near Alsace, who is just finishing up a 4 week ride around France and heading back home as it's getting too hot. It was great listening to Harald speak French, as he's German, so he was enunciating the words slowly enough I could actually follow. Of course, I was up to my old tricks of speaking "troglo" French, messing up all the tenses and forgetting basic prepositions. Also met Nelly andDaniel, recent retirees to Normandy, and who are completing a 3 day ride. Later, at lunch at a creperie that was an uphill slog from St Marcan and I was hoping to heck that the restaurant would be open because things seemed dreadfully quiet around here, at 12:45pm and you can't be too fussy about le formule lunch of the day in these tiny places. Still, I met 4 pleasant West Virginians. Later I rode by Nelly and Daniel again, so after more coffee and chatting, we rode through les polders, the reclaimed farmland near MSM which is now full of farms growing corn, carrots, potatoes and garlic: all pre-salted, of course! It was amazing to ride these quiet back roads, and have MSM get closer and closer with each kilometer. Then, at MSM I chatted with Mary and Gavin, from Wales. Everyone so much fun, esp. my new French pals who patiently listened to me mangling their lovely language, and they never grimaced, not even once, trés sympa, as you'd say here, and such a change from the pretension of St Malo. St Malo looks amazing from a distance, as in from the Bus de Mer (water taxi) that Sir Gulliver and I rode over the Rance from Dinard, but it's heavily touristed and has the prices to match. After more than a week riding in central Brittany, where I was basically the only foreigner around, it was strange to be back on the tourist circuit. Still, even in "fake" St Malo I met really fun people, including a foursome of retirees from Hastings "popular with tourists since 1066" and we shared a few laughes in the overprice café where we met. St Malo is a curiosity. Basically a fort with a long history of "corsaires": pirates, and being the birthplace of Jacques Cartier who founded Quebec, so the French Canadian connection is strong, but the town itself is quite new. It was bombed to smitereens by Gen Patton in 1944 to dislodge the Germans, and 80 percent destroyed. It's impossible to believe that 20 percent of anything could have survived that, but the city was rebuilt, and only looks old from a distance. I've been in the real thing, towns like Dinan, for example, that still have their maisons du bois and other buildings from medieval times, so it was a bit odd being in a place that had been rebuilt. Still, I'm now moving into the region of France where I expect to see more monuments and reminders of WW2, after reading plaque after plaque after plaque of names like Gaston and Yves and Pierre in every Breton village I rode through that lost 20, 30, or more, "enfants mort pour la France 1914 à 1918.

Time to say goodbye to Brittany and onto Normandy.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


It's Sunday June 27 and I've bumbled my way across central Brittany. Weather has been very hot , 27 or 28 yesterday, and you get pretty sunburned when you're out on the roads as much as I am. I am lathering on the sunblock, so it becomes a sticky salty mess after a few hours. Yesteray I changed my route and rode to Dinan from Combourg via the canal towpath canal d'Ille-et-Rance. The canal was cut through during the early C19th as Napoleon was fed up with trade blockades by the English. You could actually get through using the canal system from one side of Brittany to the other, if you want. I don't know if you can ride it consistently. The path is a mix of hardpacked sand or pebbles and sealed road of various levels of repair. But you can walk it for sure. It's part of France's network of Voies Vertes. I think I rode a similar path when I was in the Loire, outside Cheverny. Back then, gosh only about 2 weeks' ago, the sand was sodden and pretty tricky to ride, like working through sand, but dried out, it's fine. I went this way because of the shade, and it's a lovely way to travel. You go past various infrequently used locks, all of which have a stone lock house, complete with flowerpots in every window, shutters, lace curtains, resident Grande-mére, you get the idea. It's not d-i-y here, like the Camden Lock in London. If the lock keeper isn't there, you phone ahead and someone will drive out from somewhere, to open the lock gates for you. It's quite a show. Because it was Sat yesterday, the lock keepers were around, so I watched a kayaker make his slow but picturesque way through one lock near Calorguen. The lock keeper filled the lock, then opened the gate at the far end, then once the kayaker went through, she emptied the lock with a gush of water. The gates are wood and have flowers and ferns growing out of them, so I guess they don't get that much use. Quite the change from the Locks I know back home in Seattle. I live up the hill from the Ballard Locks, so I'm used to seeing factory trawlers and seiners heading for Alaska going through those locks. Quite a different experience!

It is cooler today, so I may head towards Cap Fréhel via Lancoet. I haven' seen any foreigners for days, as I don' think many travel the places I go, but as I am now getting close to St Malo, I'm back in the tourism belt. I want to avoid the horrible traffic bottleneck on the dam across the Rance between Dinard and St-Malo, so I will look for a boat to take me, and Sir Gulliver across the bay. I have renamed my bike appropriately, given the number of places I've been through recently that have some chivalry aspect. Yesterday I was able to study the C12th tombs of Jehan de Beaumanoir and various other relatives or knights of the time. It is amazing to be able to place your hands on the stone carvings of knights holding swords and shields, and, in one case, an honorable lady of the time, also dressed in a stylish hip belt, short tunic, and cropped haircut of the time. The carvings are lovely in their simplicity, and having survived maybe, 800 years, it sort of puts things into perspective. I am shaky on the history of this time, and, at 1 euro per 15 mins of time in the Dinan OT (office tourisme) internet spot, I will save my historical re-education for later. But you don't have to know a lot about the history to appreciate the artistry.

Plus, again, it's a great place to ride, despite the fact that Dinan is a HILL town, and they sure love pavés around here. Actually, I have 2 new swearwords now: pavés! and gravillions! I feel my teeth rattling around in my head when I clatter over yet another set of pavés, and I say bad things about the little towns that decide it's "quaint" to add bands of pavés into their central town traffic circles. And getting gravillions stuck in your cleats, after several km of newly oiled road, as I got outside Hédé 2 days' ago, well. I think the last week of June is "let's re-il every small road in every small town" week. Still, today I was greeted by a large peleton of buffed out cyclists as I sat having my café créme in the Bar Tabac across the street from the OT with a chorus of "saluts" plus various grunts, waves, thumbs up, etc. It is so nice to be in a place where being a solo middleaged bike tourist, loaded with matching sets of yellow panniers, and lumbering up another hill is considered totally normal.

Alors, maintenant, il faut que je parte vers la cote!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Velo routes in Fance

Since leaving the Loire I have encountered bike routes, basically bike promenades in nearly every place i visit. It is amazing how popular the vélo is around here. For long distance cycling though I keep off these "toodle along and smell the roses" routes as they aren't direct enough. I stick to the smaller D roads, which are usually but not always marked in white on the Michelin road maps. I am using maps with a 1cm to 1,5km correspondence and it is possible to get around quite safely. Of course it is a pain to have to remove my sunglasses then put on my reading glasses and vice versa, and you still get lost a lot but I am still being treated like a moving vehicle with the same rights on the road as anyone else. Even when someone honks the horn at me it's in the "bonne courage!" mode not the "get the hell outta the way" mode.

I visit the tourist info centers in each town i go to, unless it is lunch noon to 2PM and mostly they are very helpful and go out of their way to be of assistance. I have had many cmpliments about my "excellent command of the language" which just goes to show how few Americans do anything like what I am doing. Bonne route!

Paimpont in the forest of the Broceliande Brittany

After many days riding through one street towns i have found an internet cafe so for 1 euro for every 15 minutes i can do a little post. I rode from Sainte Nazaire around the Golfe du Morbihan, near Vannes. Lovely coastal communities and every day the weather got hotter and the headwinds kicked in. No problem with packing a wet fly with a wet tent on the back of the bike in these parts. This area of Brittany is famous for its seafood: moules frites anyone and its oysters as there are lots of tidal pools. It is the center of the fleur de sel industry and you can buy pink and gray salt by the kilo in the local super U supermarkets if you want.
The breton houses are about the cutest ones you can imagine: whitewash stucco, wooden shutters, lace curtains in the windows, flower boxes full of petunias and geraniums on every ledge. I have ridden through serveral versions of "villes fleuries" where the number of flowers: 1 flower, 2 flower, etc., grades the show.

Brittany is also the location of more menhirs, dolmen, allees couvertes, tumuli and other neolithic stone constructions, tombs or circles or alignements than you can imagine. I spent Sat of the soltice weekend in Carnac, where it gets light at 4am and dark at 10pm. The only thing missing were a few Druids dancing around.

I am now in King Arthur territory. I tried to find the fountain of Barenton today on a little hike out of Trehorenteuc, but i guess i missed it. So no Sir Gawain and the Black Knight for me. But last night I stayed in the Auberge de la Table Rond in a tiny place called Néant-sur-Yvel and that was a treat.

I have plenty of photographs, and not a field of sunflowers in sight. Too early for that, the sunflower fields of France are planted but not yet setting flowers. I have had to content myself with photos of CXIVth chateaux and calvaries (roadside celtic crosses) that are everywhere. Brittany is unbelievably old.

I am making my way to St Malo and should be there in a few days. I am keeping away from the trains there is the first strike of the summer happening tomorrow. Ask a French person their opinion of the SNCF and they say "c'est la France" with a shrug.

I have been keeping detailed notes due to lack of technology readily at hand. Plenty to write about and lots of pix. You'll just have to read my book folks!

Now time to leave this cafe. The coupe du monde foot game is on now and i think it is the USA vs Grande Bretagne! Sans blague! Even France lost a few days ago. Le foot is the only news here folks,

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The best chateaux

I managed to visit Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau, Villandry and Fontevraud l'Abbaye. Also rode by Rigny-Ussè, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chaumont, Montsoreau and Saumur. To me "best" means the ones i can get to. The bike touring is part of the experience as well, so i cannot worry about those i miss. And there is a lot of choice, way too much and all quite lovely in their own way. The village of Candès-St.Martin could easily win "best village in France" award so far and i havent even left the Loire yet. Plenty of hilltowns with narrow streets and horrible cobblestones "pavés" which are just awful to ride over. The bike is holding up and i am doing about 50 km per day which doesnt sound like much, until you try doing it with a full load, while trying to find roadsigns and dealing with the environment. But it is a wonderful way to see stuff and people are happy to stop to talk, Allèz en route and Bonne courage are common greetings even when people are laughing at seeing you.
i hope that Brittany continues to be as welcoming and i hope the rain keeps away. rain + bike + 4 panniers + getting lost + being a novice touring cyclist + pavees = '!:;è&$!!

Still you can park your bike outside any shop here and noone will touch it. Perhaps the fact that i drap my washing on the back panniers to dry while i ride along is part of the fun. Still there is a guy outside the internet place (actually the local print shop) having a cigarette while he checks out my rig). Time to go and make another friend

Loire a velo

I have some time before i get on the train, with the loaded bike, for St Nazaire. Cannot make it to Vannes as there is railwork so i will be riding an additional few kilometers. The Loire area, which is made up of several areas is absolutely gorgeous:fields of wheat sprinkled with cornflowers, lots of red poppies and the riding, even on the larger D roads has been great. neqrly every driver has treated me with respect as a fellow road user. it is amazing. The weather has been crazy hot then rainy then windy but at least no floods up here unlike in the South of Fr. There are chateaux everywhere, at least 50 that you can visit many more privately owned and lots of forests. i have followed parts of the L a V trail which varies from great to terrible and also done a bit of le indres à velo as well, which is much less developed.
no photos for a while. it takes a while to find an internet cafe as they are only in bigger towns, and even there you have to ask 3 people before you find one. This is a tip from Ron and Nikki, 2 other touring cyclists (USA and New Zealand) i met at Villandry. They are riding to Croatia which isnèt as impossible as it sounds. For me, the Loire toute seule is plenty of challenge and now it is time for hillier and windier Brittany. Everyone comments that "vouse etes bien chargee" which means "you are really loaded" likely they are making a double entendre as in "you are female over 50 and you are doing this? yes, you are vraiment loaded"

i have to get to the Saumur station now and deal with two sets of stairs as the platform is ripped up and being jackhammered. Bienvenue à la Loire à velo folks!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I arrived in Tours at 2am this morning. The EBE bus was an experience,especially when they dropped me and 6 other cyclists off basically in the roundaout outside the Premiere Classe hotel, in the middle of the nite,which is a trucker crash place, but it only cost €38 and there was a shower and a clean bed. you get into the hotel after hours by swiping your credit card to obtain the room number and key. I am typing this on a French keyboard in the YHA in Tours, and the keys are in unusual places. Making mistqkes still learning. All the truckstops on the autoroute (routiers) hav free wi fi, but i am not carrying a computer and my UK cell phone isn't set up for internet. Internet cafes may be going the way of the public phone box and other dinosaurs. Rain today so i will start the camping tomorrow. I did navigate to the tourist bureau outside the trqain station doowntown,and i now have the Loire a Velo maps. I massacred my limited French and everyone was very nice in there and spoke English thank goodness as it is way confusing todqy. I also have mybike stored in the YHA closet,and i just joined them €24 and private room, so now it is time to find lunch. I just passed a great looking patisserie up the street so guess where i am headed now i have somewhere to stay.

And, get this, i rode about 5km from the airport this am with all the rush hour traffic, and it is true! French drivers, INCLUDiNG truckers, pull out to pass you and patienty tool along behind you, plus Tours has bike lanes all over. it is looking good despite the lousy weather. Now i just need to get used to reading my odometer in KM.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What it is like to bike ride in London

Photos top: Free Cycle Storage at Liverpool Street Station and a tfl poster for this summer's campaign to make cycling more acceptable
middle and bottom: selling pieces of junk bike in Brick Lane, and very witty activist "don't park, dump your car" signs outside Wieden and Kennedy advertising agency nearby

I'm spending today loading my touring bike as tomorrow at 11:45AM I have to be at Thurrocks Services in East London for the pick up by European Bike Express, EBE. It sounds easy, right, East London, and Epsom is SE of London, and in a normal city without traffic from hell, it would only be about 15-20 miles.

I ain't riding it, folks. Tomorrow I get up early to put Gulliver, my fully loaded bike, onto the South Eastern train from Epsom to Waterloo. I will get to W'loo before 8AM, when non-folding bikes on trains are banned for 3 hours. I will then walk Gullliver out of W'loo, using the handicapped acccessible exit #3, and likely walk it along the Thames Path and over either London or Tower Bridge, heading for the no-barrier entrance to Fenchurch Street Station. A ride up in the elevator [gosh I hope it's working! I checked last week, but they're constantly working on stations and rails around town] to the platform, then the C2C train to Chafford Hundred, a station that isn't an 1840s-era staircase-to-the-high-street special. The no-bikes-in rush-hour doesn't affect outbound trains at 8AM. From there, a few miles alongside the A10 to the pickup point, which looks like [thanks Google maps!] a motorway truck stop. I've been pestering the contact person at EBE for tips because, let's face it, I'm a middle-aged solo female cyclist on her first real bike tour going to a country where my grasp of the language leaves much to be desired.

By 1:45AM on Wed, assuming everything is fine, I should be using my credit card to check into the Premiere Classe hotel at the EBE drop off point in Tours, France. Then it's Loire a velo!

I'm a bike commuter from Seattle, a place with a politically active and quite effective bike lobby. I've had the chance to visit a much bigger and more complex city, and see how things works here. It's fascinating. Some of the things they do, Seattle should do. But London's Cycling Minister Norman Baker might benefit from a little bike holiday to the Pacific Northwest.

In a nutshell, London isn't yet in that happy nirvana of "Share the Road". Instead, it's still a lot of "get out of my way you !&*!%**! hippy/idiot/wanker/moron/prat/git/[fill in a culturally meaningful expletive of your choice here]. I've read too many scary stories in the free copy of the Evening Standard I pick up at Waterloo every evening. There's too many cases of cyclists, often women, being run over by lorries driven by European drivers in London's congestion zone. Now, what the heck are big trucks doing there at that time of day I wonder? Also a case where a cyclist took on a cabbie who ran him off the road to pick up a fare. The cyclist says the cabbie choked him unconscious with the cyclist's own scarf after telling him to, well, you probably guessed what was said. Now the cabbie is suing the cyclist, but I forget on what grounds, dinging the paint work of the cab perhaps? Who knows. Seems like there is a lot a mutual cyclist/driver hatred, and plenty of blame to go around. Motorists speeding and practically running you down on a pedestrian crossing, cyclists scaring the living daylights out of pedestrians when riding on the sidewalk.

What am I learning? Well, although it looks so cute, I would skip the scarf while cycling. I would wear a helmet, even if it flattens my hair and the locals look at you funny. If a double decker bus pulls up on my right I would get the hell off the road and jump up on the kerb. But I wouldn't ride at road speed into a bunch of pedestrians, I would deal with all the stares while I clippity clop in my outfit of parrot-colored clothing and flourescent cleated shoes. And I would walk the bike. Actually, I'd change my pedals and ditch the bike shoes if I lived here, but I certainly wouldn't don the high heels + dress+ cute hat outfit that is so popular. While it makes you look normal, it's dangerous for people here to use their London roads as sartorial venues. London isn't Oxford or Cambridge, or those towns where you can apparently tool around on your "sit up and beg" bicycle, with a cute puppy in the wicker handlebar basket. That puppy would be road kill and a bike is a vehicle. I don't like the playfulness approach. But I realize you have to start somewhere.

When I got here in May, I thought Mayor Boris's Cycle Superhighways were already running, and I thought they'd be segregated bike-only lanes with a barrier between the cars and bikes. Looks like it's more promise that reality, and a lot of take a paintbrush and paint an existing lane green. The start has been delayed to July, and there is both interest and skepticism in the idea. Not only is it Superhighways, it's things like the now branded Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, with expected 400 docking stations and 6000 bikes, at £1 for 30 minutes, also launching in July. Not quite the Paris white bike scheme, but similar. Perhaps I'll try out a white bike when I get to Paris in July.

The "ride it's good for you and good for the planet" approach is active. Looks like there's a bike week later this month, and a new campaign, showing a union jack made out of green things is running in the Tube. And the tfl posters are out there trying to convince meek and nervous cyclists to "Catch up with cycling." Hmm. Nearly every woman, irrespective of age, I've met here basically thinks I'm nuts to plan a solo bike tour that involves camping. Boris, you've a l-o-o-n-g way to go to get some buy in on your admirable scheme. But I hope it happens. There is so much to see in London, and doing it at the speed of the bike is great.

As for me, it's "B" day for me tomorrow. I am finishing up reading French Revolution, by Tim Moore, a ride done along the Tour de France route back in 2000. Let's hope things have only gotten better in the past 10 years. I'm not doing any piece of this year's T de F and I will miss the finale on the Champs d'Elysees by a few days, as I think I am scheduled to leave Orleans the day the tour rolls into Paris.

I think I'll save all those hors categorie climbs for the future.

The blog updates will become less frequent from this point, until I figure out French Internet cafes. And, this is assuming that I'll figure out the ridingand navigating and camping beforehand.

Highgate Hill and West "Old" Cemetery

To finish off my last Sunday in London, I think I hit the jackpot. In 1979-1980, I lived in Muswell Hill, and Highgate was a favorite walk. It was wierd to come back after 30 years away, and see things I recognized, such as the Woodman Pub, near the Tube station and the Highgate School, founded 1565. Strangest of all was what I didn't remember. I definitely have a photo of Karl Marx's tomb from those days, but Marx is buried in the East Cemetery. I signed up for the 4PM tour of the older West cemetery (£7 with a volunteer from Friends of Highgate Cemetery). I just don't remember this place at all. Its history holds a clue. Founded in 1839, it had fallen into total ruin by 1975, when the owners went bankrupt. It must have been still overrun with sycamores and vines, and locked up behind its huge and spooky iron gates at the time I walked past. The charity reopened the cemetery in the early 1980s, and what a place it is. Lots of huge vaults and eerie statues, overrun with ivy and tall grass. It's not being renewed, rather, the charity concentrates on maintaining the cemetery, and provides a guided tour of notable tombs, topped off with a visit to Egyptian Avenue, which you enter via "The Gateway to the City of the Dead". If that's not enough, you can visit the Terrace Catacombs, and peer into the gloom at the leadlined coffins. The Mausoleum of Julius Beer is gloriously ostentatious, and now a listed monument, very different from the story the guide tells of when he first visited the place in the pre-charity days. The glass in the building had been broken, and apparently it stank of guano, because of decades of pigeons roosting, and pooping, inside. Actually all the catacombs had been vandalized in the early 1970s, and the grave smashing and corpse dumping apparently culminated in the sensational case of a member of the British Occult Society being arrested in the cemetery. A stake and a crucifix are involved. Think I'm making this up? Check this. I'm sure the whole case is still hotly contested, but it certainly is a ripping tale.

I find the Victorians' cult of death very curious, and the funerary monuments are among the best I've ever seen. Likely I'm not alone in this. A woman on the tour asked me if I was here "because of the book." Huh? What book? Well, apparently the latest book by the person who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife relates to this cemetery. I think I read elsewhere that Bram Stoker's Dracula is inspired by this place. Not hard to believe at all.

Brick Lane

Sunday's weather is muggy and overcast, and the idea of staying inside any of London's many museums without a/c doesn't appeal. London is known for its Sunday street markets, so, back in the East End in the morning, around the corner from Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane is the mother of all markets: Brick Lane. The street is now all trendy boutiques, and vendors have taken over various surrounding buildings, like old breweries and office buildings, but most of the action is literally, in the street. But there's a lot of interesting looking graffiti, and |I think I recognized a few Banksy's including one that was half papered over. It's fascinating to watch the things being carried out of the market. I saw someone carrying out a 1990s-era computer monitor, someone carrying a potted trumpet flower in full bloom, someone with a bunch of peacock feathers, and two guys drinking the water out of green coconuts, which a guy with a machete had just hacked open a few minutes earlier. There was even a shifty character in handcuffs, being "carried" out by two Bobbies.

The selection of stuff for sale is remarkable: 2nd hand furniture, pointed toe Indian slippers in a rainbow of colors, stylish 1950's men's hats, felted hair ornaments, wrestler masks. Someone was selling beaten up mountain bikes, and bike seats that, quite frankly, I'd have put in the trash by now. There were lots of girls sitting on the sidewalk, selling clothes out of large rolling suitcases. The old East End was represented by a group of elderly Pearly Kings and Queens rattling charity cans at the passing crowd. And the food stalls were great: Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Latin American, West Indian, French, everyone was frying or sizzling something, or piling great stacks of things up in enticing displays.

Today is also the first day for the farmer's market, in, appropriately, Bacon Street. I spent some time at the Brockleby's stand, which advertised itself as "food with provenance." I was first attracted by their "Beaver Pie." No, not actually made of beaver meat, but I had to check. This farm shop from Leicester specializes in an amazing range of traditional British pies, including a wonderful Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. I was tempted to buy one and save for Tuesday's bus ride to France, but it was hot, and I wasn't heading back to Epsom for hours. The farmers were also selling asparagus, strawberries, apples and cider, goat cheeses, game birds, eggs, breads, cakes, gourmet bacon, vegetables of all types

The markets wind down about 2PM. For lunch I had organic pork sausages on an artisan roll, smothered with fried onions for £3.50. The smell was incredible and it tasted great.

After the market, I went to Liverpool Street Tube, and headed north.

Epsom Derby

Saturday is Epsom Derby Day, and this year it's a scorcher. My friend and I walked up to Epsom Downs about 3PM via the secret network of footpaths that weave between the hedgerows of a few stately homes, and past some lovely pubs. On the Downs, it's a madhouse. Very few of the aristocratic and/or rich people in the stands, dressed in their top hats and tails, and summer florals and hats could really maintain the cool and collected look of this elegant couple in pink. The sparrow-like jockeys are very strange to see up close, bow-legged, hook nosed, and hunch-backed, and the race itself was over in a flash. They only run around about 1/2 of the race track, and you can see the pack bobbing along the horizon line. The stands are packed with people balancing champagne flutes as they dine on Coronation Chicken and strawberries. The center of the track is also packed, in this case with a hot and cheerful drunken mob, enjoying fairground rides, bouncing castles and vendor stalls selling grilled sausages and hamburgers. The Queen was there, a tiny lady in a yellow and white coatdress and matching hat, standing in the bow fronted tier of the stand.

A very curious local event.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Kew Gardens

Photos: top The Palm House, Nash Conservatory
middle: The Waterlily House, inside the Temperate House
bottom: spiral staircase in the Temperate House, King William's Temple, in the Mediterranean Garden

Today's it's another scorcher, maybe 27 degrees? Anyway, not a day to spend riding the Tube or inside. As it's Friday, it's a great time to visit some of London's outdoor markets. After a quick look at Petticoat Lane [lots of flimsy clothing, tacky jewellry and cheap luggage] I visited the Spitalfields Market, which I expected to be like Borough Market, in another Victorian market hall. It's certainly in such a hall, circa 1876, but it's been completely cleaned up, and caters to well-heeled "retail therapy" types. Branding itself as "old" Spitalfields is a bit of a stretch. The stalls today were interesting, as on the 1st Friday of the month, they have what they call a "record fayre" where you can buy old lps, 45s and related paraphenalia. It's fun to visit, especially the clothing stalls, but I found it a bit fake, without the honesty of Borough or even Petticoat Lane.

I couldn't face the Tube in the hot weather, so I rode the Overground from Stratford [2 stops from Liverpool Street Station] to Kew Gardens, and the walk of 0.2 miles to the Victoria Gate entrance. Yes, there was a sign giving the distance. Foreign visitor magnet ahead! It costs £13.50 to get in, which is pretty high, but it's a justly famous garden. Despite the heat, I had to go into all the greenhouses. I started with the Temperate House, which contains Australian as well as North American plants. This greenhouse was still being refurbished back in 1981 when I was last here, so it really is quite amazing to see it now. It even has a collection of plants from Lord Howe Island, which is a volcanic speck in the lower Pacific, between New Zealand and Australia. All those explorers were big time plantsmen, and most of their finds ended up here. It's a botanist's dream.

Next a walk inside The Palm House. When I went it, not only could I feel the sweat breaking out, the place seemed familiar: all sorts of jungle sounds, including that of a howler monkey. It didn't strike me as unusual at first. I take an annual trip each Christmas to visit my Mom in Australia, so I seated myself on one of the soggy benches, waiting for the call of a Whip Bird. As it's school break, however, there was a bunch of superheated little kids tearing around inside, going positively nuts. What was up with them? The puzzle was soon solved. Kew is sponsoring a sound artist this summer, and on the hour AM or PM, they are playing recordings of jungle sounds from SE Asia. I suppose if you're not from a hot place where the wildlife is noisy and abundant, it must be very exciting to hear it for the first time. It was the perfect accompaniment to a climb up the wrought iron spiral staircases and a walk in thefrondy treetops.

Final greenhouse, which is just out the back of the Palm House, is the epitome of what a greenhouse should be: the Waterlily House. It was blistering in there, easily over 100 degrees in there, but the tray-sized lily pads are just amazing. After fogging up the camera lenses taking shots inside, I had to exit out to the cooler air. Outside, I walked the lawns past the various temples and follies located here and there, then the knot garden outside Kew Palace, and finally a stop for cold drinks at The Orangery [outside on the patio as, yes, it was pretty hot inside.]

A hot ride back on the District Line Tube. The Overground had conked out, basically, with some signal failure beyond Gospel Oaks, and a stuffy packed train from Victoria filled with uncomfortable banker types in their pinstriped suits. Hot weather stretches the facilities here. Over the public address system, a plummy female voice was rounding out her vowels and advising people that "in hot weather it is advisable to drink a bottle of water." No, I'm not making this up.

Saturday is Derby day at Epsom. When I exited the train, there were crowds of people on the platform. Men in suits and ladies in high heels, floral dresses and hats, hats and more hats. I'd seen a bunch of these when I visited Harrod's last week. Some of these wispy transparent little frou frou's cost over £200, as I'd looked at the price tags.

Cue My Fair Lady, folks.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Taking the waters at Bath

Photos: top row Views inside and outside The Pump Room, the restaurant attached to the Roman Baths, with refurbished C18th interior by Beau Nash. His statue is in the alcove at the end of the room, above the grandfather clock. The marble urn with patinated fish serves up lukewarm spring water. 50p a glass, or free if you've visited the museum.
2nd row: the sacred spring and the main pool of Aquae Sulis built C1st to C5th AD. Museum's dynamic recreation of what the temple pedimentlooked like, showing mix of Celtic and Roman images, and projected coloration
3rd row: the Pulteney Bridge, and taking tea under the watchful gaze of Mr Darcy in the Jane Austen Center's Regency Tea Room
Bottom row: The Circus and Royal Crescent, Palladian style, built by John Wood

It's school break for my friend, so we did an overnight trip to Bath. £44 bought me a discount ticket from Paddington Station to Bath Spa. Pricing for train trips is very dynamic. You can book [or try to anyway] through the National Rail website, but the discounted fare on Great Western Rail I'd selected proved impossible to buy. I ended up working with the window staff at Epsom Station to find a fare cheaper than the £67 we started with. I used my weekly rail pass £53 to cover the Epsom to Waterloo, then tube-to-Paddington part. According to the queue of people at Epsom that day, my experience with the website wasn't unusual. Several people snorted when I mentioned I'd tried and failed to complete the e-commerce transaction. It's fast ride, more than 1 hour, less than 2, whisking you through some very green and pleasant hills. As you approach Bath, the train slows and you get a front row view of curving rows of the C18th honey-colored sandstone buildings. The weather was perfect for the 2 days, so it's quite lovely.

I'd used the Bath Tourism website to book a hotel. We chose the Halcyon, for £99. It's billed as a boutique hotel in an historic building. They were right. It's only been open 3 months, in a C18th sandstone building, with narrow staircases, leading to tiny but totally remodelled rooms furnished with C21st amenities. The stairwell was great. Has a whitewashed clam shell, complete with cherub's head and various plaster fruit and flowers, set into an alcove over the tall many paned windows. And the hotel is located about 5 minutes from Bath Abbey, the Roman Baths, the Pump Room, etc.

On Wed, we bought £6.95 adult tickets to the Jane Austen Center, which is at 40 Gay Street, a few houses down from where Jane actually lived. Her old house is now a dental clinic. We attended a short lecture on th author's residence in Bath and the two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that were set here. Then an interesting video hosted by Amanda Root [who played Anne Elliott in the BBC's terrific version of P], plus displays on the clothing, the local newspaper, letter writing formalities, and other topics that really made these wonderful books come to life. Plus we had tea and scones in the Regency tea room, under the haughty gaze of a painting of Colin Firth as Darcy from P & P.

Next we amused ourselves with a stroll to the Circus and Royal Crescent, a visit to the Fashion Museum, which is part of the Assembly Rooms. If you've seen any of the BBC Jane Austen adaptations, it's all familiar to you.

Thursday we visited the Roman Baths, the Pump Room and Bath Abbey. We'd bought a joint Fashion Museum/Roman Baths ticket for £15, which was well worth it. All amazing in their own way. The Roman Bath was built in the first century AD over a sacred spring, and the archaelogical finds thrown into the baths, of which there are several, include jewellry, combs, hair ornaments, buckles, coins, pottery, metalware and hundreds of curses etched on lead and rolled into tight bundles. The curses are hilarious, nearly all concerning the theft of things such as cloaks or shoes. The angry owners implore the gods to bring retribution on the thieves that is totally disproportionate to the actual crime. As part of the tour, you have use of a free audio guide, and the narrations by Bill Bryson are particularly fun. In the Pump Room I tried a glass of the spa water. It bubbles out of a marble urn surrounded by 4 copper salmon. It's lukewarm and tastes of various chemicals. I'm not sure of the magic or medicinal properties of this water, but I don't seem to look any younger this morning when I checked the mirror.

Back to London on the 6:18pm train, whizzing back through rural southwest England. Outside Swindon, I caught a glimpse of a chalk horse carved into a hillside on I think what's called the Downs.

This was a great trip.