A quick bath

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It is quite possible to cross borders from the kingdom of Wessex, especially given it’s a redundant concept from the middle ages. Among other borderlands, Wiltshire fringes the county of Somerset and immediately after crossing I feel more Westcountry. The hills seem rollier, the hedgerows higher and more frequent, the sheep brighter white against a more vivid green. It’s not quite right for a scone piled with jam and cream but not far off.

Nestled among these hills is the city of Bath and it is a place – apart from pausing for one minute at Bath Spa Station – that I have never visited before. So, thanks to Dad and Sonia for taking me there to experience its elegance and charm, and thanks to Kevin McCloud for sitting down on the table next to me for coffee, a voice that was instantly recognisable…to me at least! How soothing, and seemingly at place in Bath.

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Bath boasts Roman ablutions, Florentine bridges, Royal Crescents and Jane Austen dress-ups, so what’s not to like? Its compact centre has everything in every high street everywhere in Britain, but with slightly less tat and perhaps one Pound shop and Greggs less than others. Even its Wetherspoons seems tucked away, hiding somewhere among its rabbit warren streets.

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Being in Bath reminded me I haven’t actually had a bath for over a year. In my defence, I only have a shower. So here’s to Bath, the home of baths sponsored by Barry Bath of Bath Bath Fittings Ltd. I’d happily go back, bath, shower, or not.

Great Britain Green Bogey

Sydney, reheated

In what seems a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I had the pleasure of navigating the sprawling Greater Sydney system in the name of work. It was a long old week back in October, clocking up kilometres and road tolls, hanging out in suburban “Supa Centres”, seeking coffee and occasional cake. But stretching out far and wide, there were highlights, almost inevitably positioned next to water.

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mic03Almost inevitably (and positioned next to water), the first stop straight off the M5 was Coogee. A late afternoon to tread in the sand, sup coffee under a shady tree, and amble to Clovelly and back. Once all this arduousness had passed it was practically dinner time and so a fish and chip takeaway consumed in fading light alongside the beach made perfect sense.

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Moving across the city a little, my home for the week was a serviced apartment in Chippendale. Positioned near universities and fringing the south western side of the CBD, it was interesting to discover a little part of Sydney I have rarely frequented. A mixture of terraced, latticework houses on quiet streets and major thoroughfares bedecked with shops and cafes. Major thoroughfares to propel me north, south and west.

A Sunday initially spent working in the commercial blandness of Liverpool and Granville is hardly everyone’s cup of tea. Or indeed coffee, perhaps with two Krispy Kreme donuts from an outlet handily located next to Harvey Norman. More popular on a sunny, warm weekend is the ferry journey to Manly which – thanks to a cancelled appointment – filled the latter part of my day. The bustling ferry foretold a congested shoreline and Corso leading to the main beach. Even the frozen yogurt place had a lengthy queue, but I pluckily persevered.

mic05Moving away from the bronzed bodies beyond Shelly Beach, nature reclaimed the surrounds and people became a rarity. A walk up into North Head rewarded with solace and a refreshing breeze, before leading to a dose of beautiful harbourside discovery. Collins Beach provides the perfect exemplar of the bushland coves littering the shoreline of Sydney’s waters. Gems that make this part of the world exceedingly expensive. But walking here is free.

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Back in Manly, the harbourside shoreline was crammed with mostly beautiful people barbecuing, drinking, playing games and dressed to the nines in order to gain entry into supposedly exclusive bars. Tomorrow was a public holiday, and there was no need for them to stop. I, however, had places to go and random people to see.

Out in the north west of Sydney is The Hills District. Pennant Hills, Seven Hills, Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill, Quakers Hill, Adam Hills. Anyone would think it is hilly. Which it is a little, but not to the extent you’d expect given the generous use of hill nomenclature. Perhaps it’s a result of real estate marketing speak; add “Hills” to any suburb and it instantly becomes more desirable.

mic07Well it worked because plenty of people are being lured to the Hills via the Lane Cove Tunnel and M2 toll motorway. It’s heady mix of shopping malls, slightly more affordable housing, faith-based singing and pockets of bushland reserve offer something for everyone. The bushland is my favourite part – discovered one fresh morning in Cumberland State Forest. A tonic before heading to yet another Shopping Mega Centre for top secret work purposes.

The Hills may well be the new Shire. Probably because the Shire is so damn expensive these days, what with its many waterside inlets and easy-going, beautiful coastline. The undisputed jewel in the Shire, and apparently home to some team that won something in some code of ‘football’ recently, is Cronulla. What a fabulous beach, what an Australian dream, what a great way to start the day before heading off to nearby Caringbah for more shopping experiences.

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mic09Towards the end of my week criss-crossing the city I ended up in the North Shore and Northern Beaches of Sydney. Indeed my schedule fortuitously terminated in Warringah Mall. While Warringah unfortunately conjures up images of Tony Abbott in Speedos, it’s not all bad. A final interview is finished and I can clock off and drive to nearby Curl Curl beach on a Friday afternoon. I can lie on a towel and try to doze, but become restless and go for a stroll up onto a headland. I can feel relief that the intense week is over and I can start to add up my road toll expenses. I can make plans for dinner at one of my favourite places in Bondi. And I can head home tomorrow, replenished by these opportunities to occasionally exist beside the water.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

In Seoul III: The tradition edition

Warning: lots of oriental palace pictures looking almost exactly the same. It’s a similar phenomenon to being new to Europe and snapping away at every single church spire and stained glass window. Or migrating to Australia and taking a picture of a kangaroo every time you see one. Novelty and entrancement that only dwindles very incrementally. (In the case of the kangaroos ten years, and even then, the odd roo shot is not outside the realms of possibility).

Anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Palaces and temples. Seoul has a lot of them and as well as offering an insight into ancient South Korean culture and tradition they are housed within expansive grounds, providing contrast with the built up city environment bordering their perimeter. Enclaves of space and peace and gentle ornamentation, where the modern world disappears and you can find yourself all contemplative and meditative. And / or snap happy.

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Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden

The first thing to note about Changdeokgung is that you can arrive early, buy a ticket for the Secret Garden English tour and realise you have some time to kill, thereby finding a coffee place that proves reassuringly good. With the first sip I could sense I was getting closer to Australia and this plus the caffeine infiltrating my body gave me quite the buzz.

So I was already in a strangely contented state entering Changdeokgung where I didn’t really read that the palace was originally built in 1405 and acted as Seoul’s principle palace from the 1590s to 1896. Instead, I was heading off towards various buildings, all seemingly interlinked with perimeter structures and interwoven courtyards. Apart from some of the enclosed spaces, you were pretty free to roam, enabling that random meandering which proves the best form of discovery.

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The purported highlight of Changdeokgung is the Biwon, or Secret Garden. What forward-thinking pioneering marketing by calling it a secret garden. I mean, how alluring does that sound to the 21st century Anglo traveller looking for some respite from the late summer heat of a busy Asian city? The fact that you could only access it by a tour in which numbers are controlled (admittedly to a not-so-serene one hundred) can only add to that appeal.

Well, the Secret Garden was certainly agreeable, all lily ponds and curvy-roofed wooden structures, circling pathways and blissfully shady trees. I suspect it would be stupendous in the full burst of autumn and without one hundred other sightseers becoming progressively weary and disinterested as they are shepherded from one ornate compound to the next. I think the best way to appreciate the secret garden would be if you were employed as a gardener. What fabulous picnic lunch breaks there would be on the cards, and some supremely pretty sheds for your tools. Plus good coffee down the road once the horde of foreign zombies descend at two hour intervals.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

On the western flank of Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, an area of traditional Korean housing now a little bit touristified. Nestled amongst hilly terrain there remains a sufficient network of maze-like lanes to get completely lost and stumble upon a spot that you had previously walked past. Possibly. The dwellings are single storey and – for the most part – look small, though I suspect some of this is an optical illusion and beyond those walls the interior opens out tardis-like into light and airy rooms and hidden verdant courtyards.

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On the busier strips – one ascending lane in particular seemed to be significantly more popular than the others – locals patrol with signs invoking the masses to “Please talk quietly”. It’s a reminder that this is just a regular neighbourhood with regular Joes trying to get on with their regular lives. I observe no noticeable hush, and can only deduce that the more expensive properties would be away from this major thoroughfare. But the view at the top is why so many tread this way. Looking towards the CBD and North Seoul Tower, it’s the classic juxtaposition of old and new, emblematic of this city as a whole.

Gyeongbokgung

Moving further east from Bukchon, it doesn’t take long before another royal palace comes into view. Gyeongbokgung ticks similar boxes – aesthetically at least – to Changdeokgung so I decide to keep my Wan in my wallet and have a cursory look around outside of the barriers. If anything, the site appears more imposing, with the main entrance gate at the northern end of a long thoroughfare adorned with statues and memorials. There is a greater sense of power and status here, brought to life by the presence of ceremonial guards in traditional costume. Guards which you can find in greater profusion by following the thoroughfare south…

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Deoksugung

The palace at Deoksugung may look similar to the others. I have no idea, because I never really ventured beyond its exterior walls. The main attraction here is a changing of the guard ceremony with more men in colourful costumes and garnished with stick-on facial hair. Sure, it feels like a bit of a show for visitors but – heck – I’m a visitor and expect some easily accessible semblance of traditional Korean culture, right!

I thought I may be late for the ceremony and while there was something stirring by time I arrived, I was pleased to find a space near the front. Only as the show progressed did I understand why I had secured such a premium position. Oh, that’s a big drum in front of me is it? Oh, that hastily shouted Korean was a plea to cover your ears. Oh. Ouch.

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As well as the abundance of stick-on facial hair it was funny to see this taking place in front of a Dunkin Donuts. There were also a couple of pauses in proceedings for people to come up to the guards and pose for selfies. And when it seemed like all was over, there was the sight of the ceremony heading across to City Square but – before doing so – waiting patiently at the traffic lights for the green man. For me, this was the perfect encapsulation of that inescapable (and overused term of) juxtaposition. A country moving rapidly into the 21st century while trying to hang on to its traditions. Here, progress and reverence in at least some kind of harmony.

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asia Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

Nuage magique

In further news not westcountry, here are some more pictures and jumbled words from a recent trip to the Geneva suburbs of France and the French bit of Switzerland. Family connections make such trips possible and while this can raise some minor irritations – think early starts, couch sleeps, tricky post-dinner cheese decisions – there are more positives than negatives. Like family fun at six in the morning, afternoon naps on a comfy couch when all is quiet, and fulfilling post-dinner cheese decisions.

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In addition there is the location, which provides access to two countries and cultures and some very hilly ground. I feel like I have at one explored much and touched only little over multiple visits. New settings emerge like the sun through the lake cloud, while old haunts linger, much like the lake cloud. Thus, in conclusion, the lake cloud is very variable and largely unpredictable in late autumn and sets the tone for the disposition of the day. Linger in cold dreariness or bask in pleasant, warm sunshine. Just be prepared to deal with it one way or another…

1. Disconnect sensory and logic-processing synapses

It looks like a pile of gloom. It sounds like a pile of gloom. It smells like a pile of gloom. It is not necessarily a pile of gloom, though it could be actually. Or maybe not. What is dark and leaden at the start of the 61 bus ride can be clear and airy at the end of it. Now, I know the 61 bus ride feels like an eternity for some, but not so long to make this transition conventional. You think there is no way under the (non-existent) sun that this pile of gloom will shift today, and it does. In the twinkle of a traffic light, your body which was in winter is now firmly in autumn and possibly just absorbing a residual hint of summer.

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Fr03Of course, this is marvellous given such abysmal expectations. You find yourself beside the lake in Geneva all sapphire and topaz crystal. Leaves are ablaze with afternoon sun. A walk up into the old town warms the body further, despite its narrow cobbled streets in the permanent shadow of expensive jewellery shops and even more expensive solicitors. The Saleve – which didn’t exist before – punctures the horizon from the Promenade de la Treille. Children play merrily, students philosophise lazily, lovers embrace amorously. Where is the gloom? None of this makes sense.

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2. Ascension

There is wisdom to be had in the words of Yazz and the Plastic Population. It may take many hairpins and navigation through the inside of a big damp cloud, but go up and you may just end up above the weather.

It was looking doubtful climbing up to a car park in the shadow of Les Voirons, a lumpy ridge rising to highs of 1400 metres. Only in the last few kinks of road did the mistiness glow bright and dissipate. Even then, occasional wisps of cloud hovered over the road surface, as if a smoke machine was spewing out its final puffs from a distant eighties dance-pop-funk performance.

In the clear air, churned up tracks through the forest conveyed a sense of truffle hunting, rabid dogs, and people with shotguns. After piddling about along these tracks for a little while, the only way was to ascend, bay-ay-beee. Up through millions of discarded leaves, into a clearing and views of the sea; a brilliant white sea lapping at the shores of craggy peaks and ice-capped spires. The very top of the Saleve a small desert island floating in this blinding ocean.

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Fr06There was something very satisfying about being above the cloud, in brilliant blue skies, knowing that it was well miserable down there. As if you had stuck two fingers up to the weather and, for once, outsmarted it. Haha, yes weather, you are no match for altitude, mwahahahaaa! All your stupid cloud is doing is reflecting the sun and making me incredibly warm, so that I can cope in a T-shirt. And in making the valleys disappear, you accentuate the purity of the view, the drama and scale of the stunning panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Yeah, screw you, cloud.

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3. Just eat

Sunday lunches are often best when they are lingering affairs, embellished with hearty food and infused with wine. They are the perfect antidote to grey skies and uninspiring temperatures, a strip of crispy crackling in a pile of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps in the case of this particularly Sunday lunch it was the heat from the Raclette-melting contraption (it probably has a local name, like raclettesiennierre-de-montagne-lardonass) that generated just enough upward convection to part the clouds towards the end of the day.

Fr09Cue some reluctant shifting of our own lardonasses for a welcome amble in the nearby Swiss section of countryside. Golden light casts a serene glow on everything and everyone. A crispness in the air is refreshing and helps to dilute the strong odours of cheese. The cloud has gone again, and – in such endless skies reaching to the stars – it is hard to believe that it will so easily return.

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4. Try a different country

Okay, so perhaps Switzerland has all of the sunshine, what with millions of fancy penknives slashing at the cloud and all. So, with a free day out to use up courtesy of my rail pass I was able to penetrate deeper into the country and seek out its sunnier spots.

Fr11First, with cloud embedded deep into the valleys, I had to escape up once more. From the town of Vevey, a gleaming commuter train elegantly curves its way past chalets and chateaus to the suburb of Blonay. Here, a change of train (waiting on the other platform, naturally) shifts into a steeper grade through forest and occasional hamlets to Les Pleiades. Nothing much is at this terminus, apart from open meadows, scientific contraptions, and labourers preparing for the winter. But it is a spot well above the cloud, which sits snugly in its lake-filled indent, a luminescent glacier of cotton wool.

Numerous jet trails pierce the clear blue sky and it is warm again. This is the sunny side of Switzerland, all rolling green meadows and dotted villages. Happy to linger, I gradually stroll down, passing a small fromagerie and a couple of holiday chalets a louer. A barn sits empty, the cows having descended for the winter, the sound of their bells occasionally echoing up the valley. I move down too, only from what seems an alpine summer and back to a winter by the lake.

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My original plan was to hop on a boat cruise from Vevey, a sedate and civilised way to soak up the charm of the Riviera towns and the drama of the rising mountains. While some hazy breaks hinted at a clearing it was still predominantly grey; not quite the scene I had pictured in which I lazed contentedly on a wooden deck, the lowering sun illuminating the surrounding mountains. So instead – with free travel at my fingertips – I jumped on a train for twenty minutes to Aigle.

One of the problems with free travel and chronic indecision is deciding what to do with the free travel that you have decided to buy. At Aigle, two tempting options wait and time, really, for only one. Platform 13 and a train to Les Diablerets, Platform 14 Leysin. Both equipped to move upwards and no doubt deliver another hearty dose of gorgeous Swissness. One leaving in four minutes, the other in six…time barely sufficient for decision-making.

Jumping on the first to depart (Les Diablerets), the carriages immediately turned into a tram and clunked through the streets of the town. I caught a glimpse of the chateau on Aigle’s edge, and promptly jumped off at the first stop. There would be no time to visit that as well as Les Diablerets, so I crossed a road and caught the following train to Leysin.

Fr14With the sun now out in Aigle there was less imperative to climb, but the train relentlessly lumbered upwards. Surprisingly there was deception in that valley sunshine, as it became clear once up high that a layer of haze hovered at around 800 metres. The sunny valley was no longer visible, despite it being sunny when down there. What kind of sorcery was this?

Leysin itself appeared to possess charm and utility, no doubt bustling in winter and thriving in summer. In early November things were a little devoid of life apart from clusters of students, neatly attired, mostly Asian, receiving an expensive Swiss education in a school with a view. A few joined me on the train back down, through that mysterious haze which was only visible from above.

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In time-honoured tradition I hopped off the train a couple of stops early, prior to it reaching Aigle level. I had noticed on the way up the glimmering terraces adorned with rows of vines, golden in the peculiar autumn sunshine. The chateau would be visible below, and there must be a walk down, because a carriage of younger schoolkids disembarked here on the way up.

Fr15I have no idea how all those schoolkids assembled on the platform, such as it was: two square paving slabs dangling over one of the walls cascading down in giant steps towards the valley. What looked like some kind of drainage channel passed steeply under the rail track; the only other person to disembark informing me that this was the road-cum-path. And despite this initial steepness, it was a glorious walk, mostly following the small chemins used to transport grapes and labour. Occasional houses adjoined the route, each proudly displaying the name of the vigneron and date of establishment. One or two tempted with open doorways, while outside a couple of workers toasted a hard day’s winemaking with a crisp glass of white.

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Fr17With the light lowering in the clear (???) sky, there was barely chance to visit Aigle’s picturesque chateau before it would be cast into shadow. While sunset time was a little way off, the narrowing of the valley and the proximity of gargantuan mountaintops meant that it would soon kiss this part of the world goodbye. Darkness would return, and with it, the infamous foggy shroud of dank.

5. Suck it up, cheese boy

There is only so much successful blue sky strategising that one can manage, and fortuitous decision-making will eventually turn sour. While I loved practically everything about an overnight stay up from Vevey in the village of Chexbres – king-sized bed, amazing shower, big screen TV with 832 channels in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Cornish, Swisshornian – the balcony view was not one of them. Beyond vine terraces and tightly packed village roofs floating in the mist a sparkling blue lake had disappeared.

With a midday checkout I dawdled for as long as possible for things to clear but today was not going to happen. On top of the low cloud, some medium level cloud and then some high cloud, with a few spots of rain and little hope of sun. I faced a cloud lasagne with bits of Switzerland oozing through the layers. Suck it up, cheese boy.

Still, the setting – in the heart of the Lavaux wine region – was very pretty, just that more subdued than the previous afternoon in similar terrain around Aigle. Wine has been grown here for donkey’s years, probably with the use of donkeys on the steep-sided terraces, frisked by slavering monks gagging for their next tipple. Today, a few mechanical contraptions – steep narrow-gauge rail tracks like fairground rides, convoluted water sprinklers, grape conveyor belts – have evolved, but much must still be managed and picked by hand.

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A network of chemins provides gentle and mostly traffic-free walking across appellations, between villages, and – occasionally – directly through the rows of vines themselves. It’s such easy and serene walking that you can comfortably end up strolling all the way into Lausanne. I practically did in the hope that the sun would shine as the hour lengthened. And, towards the end, the milkiest hint of sunlight filtered through the cloud levels, briefly giving the impression of a vast lake below, and high mountains beyond.

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A large patch of blue sky greeted me as I arrived back into Geneva’s train station. It seemed – from my limited recent experience – uncharacteristic that Geneva would be clear while further up the lake it remained damp and grey. Little of the day remained to enjoy it, but the light illuminated the final 61 bus ride back to Annemasse. And it provided a salient reminder that there is only so much you can do to predict, manage, and deal with the infamous wintry shroud of Lake Geneva.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture Walking

London dummies

Just in case everything gets all a bit overly rustic and pastorally idyllic, there is always London. London: a city which once was my home and one which I thought I knew well. But its size and scale and – in places – rate of transformation mean that there is always something else waiting to be seen, something else to be done. Particularly when you can relive it all through the eyes of a novice.

lon01Nothing new with the Northern Line, apart from the far more glamorous and airy edifice of Tottenham Court Road station. Nothing new with the rain either, turning the walk around Covent Garden and Soho into an unremitting trudge. Ducking in for cover at Costa Coffee again (sigh) and splashing out on an I Love London umbrella again. Where is that pastoral idyll, again?

But London is not unfamiliar with precipitation and many thousands mill about with their I Love London umbrellas, freaking out at floating yodas, larking about with toys in Hamleys, packing into the galleries and museums and trying to learn something new. Many thousands also learn little in Madame Tussauds, other than how to pose with a plastic reincarnation of Johnny Depp.

lon02Not being naturally inclined to such a place, this was my first time in Madame Tussauds. I guess the dummies were good, I guess they were interesting, I guess I even started to pose with them myself towards the end – particularly when the Star Wars zone appeared just past One Direction and left at the Dagobar System. There was a silly but fun History of London ride and a silly but fun 4D movie. And, in that first day in London, we obviously got to meet the Queen who had obviously come out especially to greet us.

Such wanderings in wax also allowed the rain to finally clear and deliver a bright and breezy couple of hours to end the day in the real world. Cue barges on the Thames, red phone boxes on Embankment, the slow rotation of the Eye, and the bongs of the bell in that most famous of misnamed towers. A walk with squirrels and dogs in St James Park, up The Mall and to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen failed to greet us (still at Madame Tussauds I guess). And then a rush hour crush on the Victoria Line, the truest London experience.

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If only you could apparate between Green Park and West Finchley was not what I was thinking at the time. I was mostly thinking how the hell are we going to get past these people and out of the doors at Euston? Still, apparition was on topic the next day, providing a convenient means to segue between a ride home on the underground and a Harry Potter walking tour. Again, not something I would naturally lean towards, but I have read the books, seen the movies, and now taken a slightly obsessive teenage fan to London.

lon04The walk required memory and imagination, but it did also offer a chance to see some of the sights: buzzing around the bustling lanes of London Bridge and Borough, crossing the Death-eaten Millennium Bridge, getting in the way of wanker bankers in Bank, and running into walls at Kings Cross. All guided, for this most English of creations, by an affable Aussie.

The underground continued to be magically fantastical – that is, not breaking down or being delayed or being on strike – throughout, and delivered us once again to Embankment the next day. Here was a chance to experience another most English creation: a long queue. A staff presence of one for buying tickets on the river ferries – not the most inspired during a sunny day in the school summer holidays. Boris may need to get his privileged upper class whiff-whaff hands on this one to sort it out.

lon06Still, when finally aboard, the ferry to Greenwich was perfectly agreeable, cruising steadily past the many sites lining the wide brown serpentine Thames. And Greenwich was decidedly pleasant, offering expansive views and a palpable sense of Britannia once ruling the waves. The additional wonder of this being a cradle of scientific achievement may have been lost on some (compared with, say, a waxwork of Robert Pattinson), but some of that may lie in my confused amateur teaching, based on half-formed memories of history lessons, QI episodes and Professor Brian Cox saying something on TV in that affable and wistful way of his.

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lon07Confused teachings could have endured around the Tower of London, but even I was over it by then. Something about beheadings, protection of London from plagues of rats, queens eating beefburgers and radioactive ravens. Luckily, nearby Tower Bridge offered an ‘experience’, in which a video projection of cackling cockneys could tell you of the need for another crossing in Landan taaan and sour-faced Victorians go on to outline the ground-breaking design and construction. A more recent addition to the bridge would be the glass bottom walkways, offering a greater thrill for the increasingly daring in the twenty-first century.

For what it’s worth, I would definitely recommend the Tower Bridge experience, particularly as it is much cheaper than most other sights and you get a splendid view thrown in with it. Indeed, the late afternoon in the capital was looking splendid…all blue skies and white fluffs of cloud, glistening buildings, and a marginally less murky river. Friday vibes and mass commuter escapes, for that most English of bank holidays in August.

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lon14Escape was also on the cards the next day, for us, from London, and back to those country idylls and village idiots. Urban density giving way to flashes of affluent countryside and trim Tory towns. A patchwork becoming increasingly rustic finally seeping across into Devon. From Oysters to Roysters in half a day.  London been and gone and now far away.

Great Britain Green Bogey Walking