Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Serendipitous Fire Engines

We had arranged to meet friends this afternoon at One New Change, the big shopping centre behind St Paul's Cathedral.  But yesterday, when I was browsing the Internet, I came across this article.  I did a bit of further research, and found that there would be vintage fire engines displayed outside St Paul's Cathedral during the afternoon, and then there would be a procession leaving from Dowgate Fire Station in the early evening.  So I promptly contacted my friends and said look what's happening, and, indeed, when we got there, they were busy looking at the fire engines outside St Paul's.
We had a splendid time looking round, and talking to the firefighters, who were dressed in vintage uniforms.  Several other people were also dressed in 1940s fashions - one woman's legs were covered in tattoos, which we didn't think was actually very authentic, but still!  I was reminded that this was how fire engines were, in my youth, when I was a little girl visiting my grandmother in London - they rushed about with bells ringing, and huge wheels on the back for the ladders.
When we had all had enough, we wandered back to One New Change and took the lifts up to the sixth floor, where there is a roof garden and wonderful views over London, especially of St Paul's - the lifts are designed so you see nothing but it as you go up!

Then it was getting dark, so we came away and walked down towards Dowgate Fire Station, stopping for a cup of tea en route.  On our way, all the fire engines drove past us, to much waving, going back to the fire station where they were joined by others - all privately owned and immaculately maintained - until 6:05 pm, at which point an air-raid warning was sounded.  Sadly, this could only be a hand-cranked siren, as they were afraid that people would be scared of the real thing, what with terrorist alerts and so on, but when it finished, the fire-engines all drove off, bells ringing madly, followed - and we thought this a lovely touch - by a modern engine bringing up the rear.

So we came away and took a 133 bus back to Brixton and then a 37 up the road, and I cooked dinner for us all.  It was a lovely afternoon out.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Tea on Bury Hill

We were spending Christmas with my parents, now rather old and immobile (my father's word - he prefers it to "frail"), and, as we wanted to take the motor home out for a run anyway, we invited them to drive somewhere with us where we could have a cup of tea and look at the view.  My father suggested Bury Hill, a local landmark.

So we piled into the van and drove off.  My father sat in the front passenger seat, and my mother and I and the dog sat in the back.  First mistake was not having brought the dog's bed, as the poor dog found lying on the floor struck rather chill on his underneaths, and was reluctant to settle, but eventually he did, mostly on our feet.  The back seats are not exactly comfortable to drive - I expect the window seat is fine, although my mother said she couldn't see out of the front very well - but the side seat is difficult, as there is nowhere to brace yourself, and only the seatbelt keeps you from being flung into the stove when the Swan Whisperer takes a corner too fast!  However, I managed to stay put, and we arrived at Bury Hill only to find that they have moved the car park and you can't really see anything now!  And the Swan Whisperer discovered the hard way that the reversing sensors only actually work when the reverse gear is engaged, not when he is freewheeling - luckily, not much damage!

The Swan Whisperer took the dog for a walk, which took rather longer than he expected, and we had got bored and made the tea by the time he got back!  We had brought hot water in a Thermos, and then boiled it up in the kettle, plus teabags and milk, biscuits (a Christmas present from my middle niece, which are absolutely delicious) and Christmas cake.  So we drank that, and then, at my father's suggestion, took the scenic route home, although it was getting dark by now so we could see very little.  Then we had piled the used crockery into the sink, where it rattled all the way home, and the lid didn't fit securely so it fell off and hit both me and the dog, and spent the rest of the trip squashed on my foot underneath the dog!  Not exactly comfortable.....

But the parents enjoyed themselves, to the point where my mother has asked if "next time" we could take a picnic lunch and make a day of it.  Which we certainly can, only we will put some water in the van so we can use the loo, and also do the washing up! 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip, final day

It was cold this morning, although the rain had stopped!  We were glad for the heating in the van - the bathroom can get too hot if you aren't careful, but that's not bad when you're showering with as little water as possible. 

The Swan Whisperer went for a walk before breakfast, and then we set off.  We had heard that the queues going into France could be horrendous on the major roads, and wondered whether they might not have blocked off some of the more minor crossings, so decided to compromise and take a main-road crossing.  This meant driving through Belgium, and the Satnav took us mostly on country roads, which was lovely - we love French country roads, but don't often go on Belgian ones.  We stopped briefly in Ieper (Ypres) to see if we could see a bakery, but couldn't, so we moved on an d eventually had rather a late lunch in a services on the A25 in France. 

We were not held up at the border - some cars were being pulled over, but we were just waved through.  And, as I said, we stopped at the next services for lunch, and then drove over to Dunkerque where we got lost!  For some reason Google Maps insisted that the Auchan hypermarket was not where it in fact is, and it wasn't until we asked it for their petrol that it found the right place!  The Satnav never knows one supermarket from another, so it wasn't being much help, either.  Anyway, we got there in the end and did our shopping, and then got petrol, but what that Auchan doesn't sell is gas, and we needed to replace our "Cube" of Butagaz.  So we drove down to the one at Calais, which not only does sell it, but we could empty our grey water there, too, which was useful. 

And so to Eurotunnel, straight through, and a two-hour run home.  And now we have emptied it, and it will be taken home and put back into storage until the next time!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip, Day 5

The weather was lovely this morning when we got up, and we went for a walk down to the river, and then back along the main shopping drag, stopping off at the supermarket to buy bread, milk, etc.
There is a car-ferry that crosses the Rhein between Königswinter and Bad Gödesberg, so of course we took that,
and drove through Bonn, which is fairly uninteresting, before heading out on the motorway towards the Ronquières Inclined Plane, where there is a car park giving specific permission for overnight parking (1 night). We thought it was very dull to go the same way as we came, which was out fault for not having planned the route ourselves (not that there really is much choice), so when the Satnav said it could save us 6 minutes we said yes please, but in fact it was only another motorway. We stopped at services at a place called Jülich for lunch, and should maybe have explored there, it looked quite interesting, but we drove on and it was quite a long way to here. And it is raining!  So we are parked up for the night next to the lift, which is quite noisy.
This holiday has been all about transport - the first night we parked up by the Strépy-Thieux lift, then we had two nights next to the barges and passenger ships on the Rhein, last night was all about the trains, and now it is all about the canal lift again.

Monday, 7 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip, Day 4

We really had no plans for today, although the SW had vaguely talked of going to Aachen. But we didn't want any more Christmas Markets, and I said shall we go and look at Bonn. But before we got there, we decided to go to Königswinter, where I spent a few days with my school en route to the Passion Play at Oberammagau 45 years ago. The only thing I really remembered was that there was a little train that ran up the mountain to the Drachenfels, with a stop half-way up where there was a café and a little zoo and I first drank Perrier, and was - surprised - by it.  

Our first try ended up in the neighbouring village of Rhondorf, where we found a path that led up the mountain but no railway and, alas, I do not have my trekking poles with me. 
Google Maps, however, proved rather more capable than the Satnav, and when we got to Königswinter, we followed the signs to the motor home parking and found that we could park there free for up to 48 hours. So we decided to stay.

First port of call was to the Drachenfelsbahn, but, sadly, no trains on December weekdays, so we walked into the town and had lunch in an Italian restaurant, which was about the only thing open on a Monday. Then I suggested the SW might walk up the mountain - I remembered there had been a path beside the railway - so he went off to do that while I did some necessary shopping and then came back to the van which was very warm in the sun, so I opened all the windows to give it a thorough airing and enjoyed the warmth while I read and knitted a bit.

The SW came back saying he had had a fabulous walk over to Rhondorf and back, and now we are drinking tea and relaxing. We may or may not go for another walk later, but I doubt it. 

I also hope we sleep - we didn't realise quite how near the main railway line we are, with freight and passenger trains every few minutes. The Boy would love it. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip, Day 3

Today is St Nicholas' Day, when children in many countries find little presents in their shoes given by the eponymous saint. We, however, are no longer children and our shoes contained nothing more exciting than our feet. 

We had directions to the Park & Ride, and found it at the second try (we went roaring past it the first time and had to turn round). Then we managed to buy an up-to-five-person day ticket with our hoarded coins once we were on the tram, only as nobody asked to see it, not once, I am not sure why we bothered! Still, we try to be honest.

The tram took us swiftly into Cologne, and we got off at the main station and explored the first of the Christmas Markets. I did buy some honey lip-balm, but that was all, although we enjoyed looking at the various stalls.
We then walked down to the Alter Market, where there was another market with since really quite good craft stalls, including a blacksmith. The Swan Whisperer bought me an olive wood risotto spoon as an oddment fur Christmas (at my request), and then we wandered down to the Heumarkt, and the third market. By this time I badly needed to sit down, so we went into a restaurant for lunch, which was a failure as the food - even the salad - was so salty you couldn't taste anything else. The beer was nice, though. The SW said his currywurst was nice, if salty.

After lunch, we looked at the very long and thin temporary ice rink, and the various stalls attached, and then took the tram up to the St Nicholas market at the Rudolfusplatz, where we has gluhwein, which was lovely. And looked at the "Christmas Avenue" across the road, which was dull.
The local public transport authority had been advertising that St Nicholas would be bringing little gifts to children during the afternoon and to look out for him on the trams and buses, and I am delighted to say we saw him as we waited for the tram to take us back to Neumarkt, although I couldn't get a photo. 

Then the market at the Neuplatz, where the SW bought me a skewer of chocolate-covered grapes, which were lovely. But what he wanted was some apfelstrudel, and the only market that sold that was the first one, by the Cathedral, so we went back there and bought him some.  They had some wonderful-looking cheesecake, too, but I was full.

By then we were Christmas Marketed out, and although there were at least two others in the city, we decided to give them a miss, and instead took a tour bus round the city, enjoying the comments of a farming couple from Derbyshire who sat next to us.  When that was over, it was dark and the shops were shutting. I  remember the days when shops in Germany firmly shut at lunchtime on Saturday and did not open again until Monday morning, but those appear to be long past, and everywhere was open and busy today.  We saw an old-fashioned tram several times, which I think was a Christmas Special, probably a charter or something you booked specially.

We caught a tram back to the P&R, and thence back to the camp site, where we are having a quiet evening after a lovely day.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip Day 2

Blissful to wake up in the van this morning and to have a shower in a warm bathroom.  What had been penitential in October was lovely in December!  Actually, it was lovely being able to read in bed last night without having to use a book light. The new lights are much better - I couldn't actually see to read with the old one. 

After breakfast I needed to stretch my legs, so walked up to the visitor centre, now sadly closed until April, across the canal, and down the other side to the bridge and so back to the van.
Lovely. Then fell asleep - Belgium is not the most beautiful of countries, especially on the motorway. We went past Courcelles, and I could only think of Walter Blythe, who was fictionally killed there. And on past  Aachen, where there was a bad hold-up. We thought this was at the border so refused the sat-nav's kind offer to take us a marginally quicker way, but in fact it turned out to be road works - the border between Belgium and Germany is as unremarkable as ever.

We arrived in Rodenkirch easily enough, although too early for Reception, so we had a late lunch and checked in once it had opened. Then, when we had parked up and plugged in the electricity, we set off to see what we could see.

Bus driver singularly unhelpful about buying tickets, but we worked out how in the end, and arrived at the tram station. Disaster! You needed to pay either with coins or with a contactless card, and we didn't have enough of the former, and foreign machines don't read British contactless cards.
So we came away, and decided to do a bit of shopping and to get plenty of change and try again tomorrow. We also walked back to the campsite, to save money - a very pleasant walk but my shoes weren't the best for walking and I was glad to get back to the van and enjoy a glass of wine while cooking supper. We are here for two nights, and as tomorrow is Sunday and the buses, as in the UK, are infrequent then, we will drive to the Park & Ride and get the tram from there. The Christmas Markets are all open on a Sunday; I expect they will be very crowded, but that is all part of the fun. Also, it is St Nicholas Day....

Friday, 4 December 2015

2015 Christmas Trip, Day 1

There is no point in having a motor home if you don't use it. And the Swan Whisperer has changed the batteries, and put LED lights in instead of the old incandescent or fluorescent ones, so we are a lot more comfortable and can have light and heat in the evenings. 

So for what will probably be our last trip of 2015, we have decided to go to the Christmas Markets in Cologne. We couldn't set off last night as I was speaking at an event at the British Library and didn't get home until after 9, so we got up early this morning and crossed at about 10:30 or thereabouts. It said ominously that there were "Perturbations du Service", but if there were, they did not affect us. 
Our first stop was at the Auchan near Dunkerque for food, and then we had lunch before setting off. We told the Satnav to take us to Aachen, reckoning we could change plans en route, and it said there were bad hold-ups crossing the border that way and took us round via Lille, instead, also slow, and queues to come back into France. But they didn't ask to see our passports or anything, just waved us through. 

I then fell asleep, after two bad nights not surprising, and when I woke up, the Swan Whisperer suggested we park up by the Strépy-Thieux canal lift, which we both love, so we did.  And had a cup of tea and knitted and read (I knitted, the Swan Whisperer didn't, I should clarify) until time for supper. So lovely not to have to go to bed and read by torchlight!  And I can charge my phone overnight, too.  The heater is very efficient, it is almost too hot!