Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas on the River

For the first time for many years, we had found ourselves with no plans for Christmas.  I am sure my sister would have invited us, but we didn't want her to feel she had to, so we were pro-active and booked a lunch-time cruise on the Thames, leaving from Westminster Pier. 

On Christmas Day, of course, there is no public transport in London, but one can park, so we drove up to Westminster and found a parking-space behind Westminster Central Hall, about ten minutes' walk from the pier.  Boarding was supposed to start at 11:30, but when we arrived, about ten minutes earlier, they had already begun - and we were glad we had not been much later, since the queue behind us swelled to alarming proportions!  In fact, there were three boats making the cruise.

We had booked a window table, and, once our ticket had been checked, were escorted to it with a glass of sparkling wine.
  As soon as we sat down, our first course - a salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon and served with salad - was brought to us, but the boat did not leave its moorings until the scheduled time of noon.
The boat headed down river, under the bridges, past all the sights.  There was a singer-cum-commentator who did a fantastic job telling us where we were.  Many of the other people on the boat were tourists, from the United States and elsewhere.  We were able to spend time up on the deck, but it was too cold and dank to linger for long.  The next course was soup:
and once we had got past Tower Bridge
the main course of roast pork and all the trimmings (there was a vegetarian option, but we hadn't ordered it) was served, and then the pudding, which was some kind of straciatella cheesecake with a very nice fruit compote on the top. 

By this time, we were at Greenwich.  The boat paused at one of their piers, presumably to take on fuel, and went down the river nearly as far as the Thames Barrier.  Then it turned round and came back past the O2
 the Cutty Sark,
 the Shard
 Shakespeare's Globe,
 the Millennium Bridge
 Tate Britain,
 the Oxo Tower
 and, finally, the Houses of Parliament. 
Then the boat docked back at Westminster to end a most enjoyable cruise.  And then, because we could, we drove around part of Central London where one normally can't because of the Congestion Charge, and  saw the lights in Regent Street (we thought they were wasps at first, but it turned out to be angels!) and the big department stores.  And so home, and a much-needed nap!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

France, 20 December

I dashed into the Carrefour this morning to get a baguette for lunch and some yoghurts for supper, and thought, suddenly, while I was in there that all was not quite well inside.  Sadly, I was in for a tummy-upset, and by the time we got home (which we did, very quickly and easily), all I wanted was the loo and my bed, in that order!  So no Christmas concert for me, and probably no Christmas meal with the Daughter, either.  Ah well.  At the time of writing (21 December, evening) it is passing, but not the end to the holiday one would have hoped for!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

France (was Belgium), 19 December

So the big question was, what to do today?  We decided to pay a return visit to Cambrai, a town we had liked very much on a visit some years ago.
The Satnav took us straight there, although it was horribly foggy most of the way, and we were able to park just outside the Hotel de Ville, in a square where there was a Christmas market. This, however, was not open, but we saw from posters around the town that it would open at noon.  So we went for a walk, and found the Cathedral and the Porte de Paris, the big fortified gate that is all that remains of the city walls.
Then we walked back, stopping at a bakery to get bread and patisseries for lunch, and I bought some of the eponymous "bétises" (humbugs) for The Boy, who has just discovered Astérix and they are mentioned in Astérix and the Banquet.  I was robbed, actually, as they were half the price in Carrefour, but never mind that now!
Although it was well past noon, the Christmas market showed no signs of opening, so we went on.  We had hoped to park up by a canal to eat lunch, but when we got there, it was Authorised Vehicles Only, but we found an empty car park not far away.
Then it was quite a long drive back to Cité Europe, and after a cup of tea we did a huge shop, mostly Christmas shopping, and by the time that was put away, it was time to go and eat at the local Buffalo Grill. After which we drove round to see the Christmas lights in Calais, which are lovely - leave Oxford Street standing, never mind the ghastly eyeballs they have in Brixton. We got a bit lost on the way back, but the Satnav got us back ok!  And, such is the way of things, it is at least 10° milder now that the heating is working!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Belgium (now France), 18 December

What a difference a day makes!  This time yesterday, we were shivering in bed, clad in our warmest pyjamas, bedsocks, jerseys or bed-jackets and hot-water bottles, and taking what felt like forever to warm up (although once we had, we were very warm and snug!). Now we are sitting round the table in our day clothes, vaguely thinking of heading off to bed.  Yes, the heating has been fixed. It was, as we suspected, the thermostat, and the man showed us how to do a temporary fix should it happen again!

However, the place (recommended to us by the farmer's wife where we had spent the night) didn't open until 2, so we went into Sedan and did a bit of shopping and had lunch, and the SW went to have a quick look at the castle there - I found just walking round the supermarket reminded me too vividly of yesterday's fall - and we then had to think what to do next.

We could have resumed our itinerary and gone to Mons, as planned, but it would have been dark by the time we got there, so no point, really. So we came to the aire in Landrecies, where we have stayed before (the place where the fishermen talked all night, and where we stopped for lunch and found we'd forgotten the picnic table), and parked up for the night. Tomorrow we will revisit Cambrai before heading to Calais and a massive Christmas shop!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Belgium, 17 December

Not a good day!  We realised last night that the heating is kaput, and it is very, very cold here!  The hot water, thankfully, is still working - had it not been, we would have had to go to a hotel - but we were also low on water and seem to have spent much of the day searching for some.  Including one campsite which may or may not have been open, but it was the lunch hour so reception would have been been closed anyway.  I walked down a slope to see if I could see them, slipped on my way back up, and fell heavily. No real damage but it hurt and I was very shaken.  Grazed left palm and bruised right knee.
We have ended up back in France wrapped in rugs and hot-water bottles, at a France Passion place which was able to give us water, and now that we have eaten, we'll be getting into bed very soon. The trouble is, I want to knit, but my hands get just too cold!  I hope tomorrow we can find a service place and then can enjoy the last 48 hours of this holiday - I'd really rather be in a hotel right now. 

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Belgium (and Luxembourg), 16 December

We were very late indeed this morning, not helped by the Swan Whisperer's going for a run, so it was not far off lunch time by the time we set off. First stop was a small supermarket for the day's groceries, and then the SW wanted to visit a lake formed by a dammed river at Esch sur Sûre, so we went there first, and then came back to Martelange through a beautifully snowy landscape.
We got diesel at the Aral station at the Luxembourg price of €1.04 a litre. In fact, the whole of the Luxembourg side of the road was lined with petrol stations - at least 10 - all the same price, and many of them with off-licences attached (I assume booze is cheaper there, too).
We then decided to visit the abbey at Orval, which was lovely - you could only visit the ruined abbey, not the modern one, of course, but it was still well worth visiting.  There was a film about the life of the monks, but sadly I fell asleep and missed most of it!  Then we were getting cold - and, to be honest, one muddy green space surrounded by stone walls looks very much like another, even if one was meant to be the refectory and the next the chapter house.
One could buy both beer and cheese, but not taste them first, and from the video we saw of it being made, it looked a little "hoppy" for our taste, so we didn't.
Then a drive cross-country in the dusk to our parking place for tonight, where again there are two other motor homes. I thought there were services, but only a loo emptying place, no water or waste water. We have plenty for tomorrow, though.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Belgium, 15 December

The Swan Whisperer's 67th birthday. We had a very leisurely breakfast, and didn't set off until about 11:00.  We told the Satnav not to use motorways, a decision I, at any rate, soon regretted as it took us up over the hills on very twisty roads and a few hairpin bends. We changed our minds, and told it to take us on the most economical route, which does tend to avoid motorways.
The Swan Whisperer said he didn't think Belgian villages were as nice as French ones, but I thought we went through some very nice ones. We stopped in Aywailles to shop (me), including a couple of delicious mini buches de Noël to serve as birthday cake,
and have coffee (him), and then drive on over the hills to a little town called La Roche-en-Ardennes which the SW wanted to see. En route, we noticed the snow line was about 450 metres, but the weather was quite nice - until, that is, we parked up in La Roche-en-Ardennes for lunch, at which point it started to rain!
The SW, undaunted, went out for a walk while I had a nap, and then we drive on to Bastogne, at which point it started to snow. The last 20k were a bit of a nightmare, as the snow was settling fast and it was getting dark. We didn't quite dare to park up where we first thought, as it was down quite a steep slope, and how would we get up if it froze overnight?  But there was another one nearer the town which has no prohibitive notices, and does have a Christmas crib, so we have parked up there.
This meant we could walk into the town to eat, in a rather expensive restaurant on the Luxembourg side of the road, but very good. We had fizzy wine to start with, then he had salmon followed by chocolate mousse and I had petit salé aux lentilles followed by a sort of ice-cream sundae, with walnuts!  Very good.  And so, as Pepys would say, to bed, as it is far too cold to sit up although it has stopped snowing and I don't think it's freezing just now.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Belgium, 14 December

I did set the alarm for 7:30 am, but by the time we sat down to breakfast it was after 09:00. This was partly because we thought the visitor centre didn't open until 10:30, but in fact it opened at 09:30. Not that it mattered.  We were able to get reduced tickets as we are over 60, which was useful.
Definitely worth a visit!  It is quite difficult not to know at least a little about the Battle of Waterloo, but the museum explained it all with a variety of different displays, including one of the various soldiers in uniform, which I am sorry to say made me want to sing my grandmother's regrettable lyrics to "The British Grenadiers":
"There was a jolly Scotsman
At the Battle of Waterloo;
The wind blew up his trousers
And froze his doodle-doo!"
(I do hope I shall have taught my grandsons things like that and be remembered by them for it when they are in their 60s!). Be that as it may, we thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and the Panorama, although the lifts were out of action - I took the stairs slowly, and my lungs coped very well. Sadly, we missed out way to the to of the Lion Monument,
but it was so wet and cold that I'm not that sorry!
Our next port of call was the nearest supermarket for bread for lunch, and then we set off towards Liège, which we drove through but didn't stop in (we did see the Christmas market, though, and so to this little town called Blegny, where I gathered there was an aire in the car park of the mining museum. Which, indeed, there is - with services that work, and electricity!  And two other motor homes, so we are not the only people mad enough to tour in December!
We did have the heating on a bit this evening, as it really is cold. It is difficult to get it just right, between too hot and not warm enough!  Turned it off when I began cooking supper, though, and the van has stayed warm, and now I am snuggled down in bed with a hot water bottle and bedsocks, and if the last two nights are anything to go by, I shall sleep very warm and snug.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Belgium, 13 December

The Eurotunnel website had been saying, ominously, that there was a 6-hour delay for high vehicles. We decided to go, anyway - after all, it didn't actually matter which side of the Channel we slept on, and we could always sleep in the car park until it was time for our crossing. However, the delay was down to 2 hours when we left London, and when we checked in at Folkestone our crossing said "Please Proceed".  So we were pleased to proceed, and got through security quickly, and boarding started only a few minutes later. But then they did that thing of holding us at the top of the ramp for ages, getting colder and colder, and when we were allowed on, or was a long time before we set off. By the time we were parked in Cité Europe, with the gas on and the shutters closed, it was nearly 4:00 am, French time! 
So we didn't exactly wake up early, and by the time we had showered and dressed, and the Swan Whisperer had got a baguette, we decided it was lunch time!  Even if we did eat scrambled eggs and bread and jam.  I then went for a walk round Carrefour, making notes of what to buy people for Christmas, and buying one or two things for us, including ready meals so I don't have to cook.
It was about 2:30 when we headed off for our first stop on the tour, Waterloo.  It was not a pleasant journey, Belgian motorways are always busy and it was as wet as wet can be!  Snowy, in some places.  And then when we got here, we couldn't find the car park, not helped by it's being pitch dark!  Turns out the Satnav had sent us the wrong side, but a bit of work with Park4Night and Google navigation got us there at last. It is a horrible night!  I shall go to bed early and hope this blows past before tomorrow!

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Heading off to Belgium

We are on our way to Belgium for a few days, as we haven't been away in the motor home for over two months!  It feels like a very long time.  The Swan Whisperer had a meeting tonight, so we are booked on the 01:23 crossing; however, the status is warning us that there is a 3 hour delay.  We have decided it doesn't actually matter on which side of the channel we sleep - as long as we know when we are due to cross, and can set an alarm to wake ourselves up 40 minutes earlier....  I'm going to go and get into pyjamas and cross in comfort, wrapped in rugs and soft slippers! 

Monday, 4 December 2017

A Railtour to Durham

So we decided we would do the Northern Belle Christmas special trip, as his Christmas present to me.  Mine to him will be reviewed after Christmas!  Anyway, this trip was to Durham and back, with brunch on the way there and a massive dinner on the way back.  While in Durham, we had the opportunity to visit the various Christmas and everyday markets, and to attend a carol service a the Cathedral.

The train left at 08:18 from King's Cross, which meant that for the second time this week we had to get up at sparrowfart (the first time was to blag a free breakfast from Pret à Manger, to celebrate the opening of its Brixton branch) to get there in time.  In fact, we had time to grab a coffee from the local Prets, before boarding the train.  We hadn't booked a private table, but when we sat down, the Swan Whisperer said to the woman opposite, "I know you, don't I?" and she turned out to be an old friend from Ice Dance Club, who hasn't actually been to our club since the old rink closed, and has since had two hip replacements, so she isn't quite sure when or whether she will skate again.  It was lovely to see her, and to meet her son, who had treated her to the trip.

The brunch, I have to say, was slightly spoilt by the fact that the scrambled egg with smoked salmon was rather cold - it was very nice, but would have been nicer had it been hotter!  The coffee, too, was not nearly as nice as Prets, although later when I had another cup it had got nicer (since I no longer had the taste of Pret coffee in my mouth!).  But that was the only disappointment.  There was fresh fruit salad to start with, and various pastries to finish.

We arrived in Durham on time, and there were coaches arranged to drop us nearer the cathedral.  We hadn't been to Durham before, and found it quite a long pull up the hill to get there, but once we were there, it was lovely.  There was a craft market in a marquee, and the entry fee was covered by our train fares, so we went in, and, incidentally, found the perfect Christmas present for my father!  That was the only thing we bought, though.  Then it was time to go into the Cathedral for the "Carols for All" service, which was excellent, although some people complained about the quality of the community choirs who were singing.  Nothing wrong with them, only a little uncertain, not helped by the organist having failed to read his service sheet....  An excellent talk by one of the Canons, and an offer of a free copy of St Luke's Gospel (I declined, on the grounds that after 25 years as a preacher, I really thought I might just be familiar with it!).  We then had a look round the Cathedral (I'm sorry I didn't take photographs, but my phone's battery only just held out as it was, and I knew it wouldn't if I tried), and then it was time to queue for the farmers' Christmas market in the Cloisters, which was lovely.  We didn't buy anything, although I'd have liked some of the cheese, as going home in a hot train.... not a plan!  I also tasted - was it there, or in the craft market? - some non-alcoholic ginger wine, which would have been lovely but was far, far too sweet for my taste!

Anyway, after a long look round, we found some loos, and then wandered back through the Cathedral and out into the main drag, deciding to go the other side past the marquee, which was a mistake as it meant we missed the mulled wine stall!  The main market didn't seem very Christmassy, and I'm not sure whether or not it was meant to be a Christmas market.  There were some Christmas-market type stalls, but not all.  And the indoor market is obviously there all year round.  There was a super wool shop, and I was really rather tempted....  but resisted!

We then decided to wander back towards where the buses would pick us up, as it was getting dark and we were tired, but it was awkward as we knew that if we went into a café we would want something to eat, but we didn't want to eat as we knew we were getting a huge dinner.  Ended up in a pub - a bit early to drink, but half a pint of what proved to be a simply delicious lager for me, and of cider for the Swan Whisperer, and we were able to sit out, although the SW felt a bit cold.  I was toasty warm - had been rather too hot all day!

So then we got back on to the coach and had to wait awhile at the station for our train.  The waiting area was all very well, but the automatic doors didn't shut properly, and opened every time a car moved they would open, so the poor Swan Whisperer got very cold indeed, and even I was glad to move and get on the train.

Going home, I got to sit by the window - big deal, as there was nothing to see by then - and we were heading forwards, which I do marginally prefer.  The meal was lovely - first there was a glass of champagne and nibbles, and then the starter, which was a trio of fish.  I chose not to have that, as really it didn't sound very nice, so I got offered, and accepted, ham hock terrine, which was lovely.  Then there was celeriac soup, but I declined that, too, and, having tasted the Swan Whisperer's, was rather glad I had as it didn't taste of anything much at all except a vague hint of cooked celery.  The main course was a 3-bird roast with a bit of partridge on the top (I wouldn't have known that was what it was, to be honest!), brussels sprout purée, red cabbage, roast parsnip and fondant potato.  It was very good, but I was so sleepy by then (I had fallen asleep between courses) that I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have done had I been wide awake.  Then there was a cheeseboard, and then pudding - an individual Christmas pudding with brandy custard, which was OK, but not the nicest (I gave half of mine to the SW), but also a bit of chocolate mousse cake, which was lush, and a scoop of cherry sorbet, ditto!  Then tea or coffee, if you wanted it, which I didn't, and a mince pie (I gave mine to the SW).  Our fare apparently included £24 worth of drinks, so we each ordered a glass of wine - red for him, rosé for me - some fizzy water and a fruit drink for him.  This was possibly a mistake, as we then didn't have a bill at the end, and those who did were taking the opportunity to tip the stewards quite heavily. 

By the time all this had happened, we were nearly at King's Cross, and after a lovely day, I was very tired indeed!  We were home just before 10:45 pm, after a lovely and memorable day!