Taking it easy. Taking vows and taking to the Road…..

Let’s start where I might end – who knows?

saltireThis is the Saltire – a diagonal cross or (more specifically) St Andrew’s Cross. Since the saint himself was supposedly crucified in this fashion, rather than in the “usual” crucifxion way! At Patras in modern-day Greece, since you ask.

Anyhoo – THIS Saltire marks the crossing from England into Scotland – on the A1 (M) road. Just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Where my sister Jean and I crossed into our ancestral homeland a few days ago. Marking something around the mid-way point of my current trip to Europe.

But first, before Scotland was in the picture at all, we had a wedding to get through! Relevant here because it was the marriage of sister’s (see above) son,  Christopher.
To the lovely Steph (Stephanie to you) in Lewes registry office followed by a super village hall “do”. I can’t call it a reception because it was so much more : a party, a celebration, a get-together with closest friends and family. We enjoyed an al-fresco barbecue with great meats and much appreciated vegetarian options and an old-fashioned ice cream bicycle (like you Never see at the seaside anymore) with six varieties and as much as you wanted.  Entertainment by the groom and his group/band followed by the essential disco for the old uncles, aunts and everyone.  A delightful and exhausting time was had by all.

 

Here is the happy couple – at the signing of the register and later in what I am calling “the Magritte Cake moment”. or wedding cake with clouds……

and while we are at the wedding, I’ll add a picture of the Groom with all his cousins (my eight nephews and nieces) and to finish the family theme, myself and my five siblings – parents of all those cousins!

cousins

the siblings

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Strolling through Lewes, east Sussex just before the wedding events above, I couldn’t resist a quick local historical site carrying my name :

England (Britain) is littered with ancient sites – especially religious ones (priories, churches, abbeys etc) most of which were dissolved (and plundered) by Henry VIII and his successors and St James Hospital was no different in losing its wealth and lands. But it continued (and continues) its role providing what we call sheltered accommodation for the old and needy. In modern, less interesting buildings, though, hence no pics : the sketch of the Hospital above shows it fairly ruinous in 1793 when Australia was but 5 years old!! More old ruins to follow……..

So – wedding behind us – my sister and I embark on a fairly intensive circular (well, oval) tour of England and Scotland. Up the east coast, across, then down the west, over about 2 weeks: currently we are about halfway through that.

First stop, Chatsworth House in the lovely Derbyshire Dales,  aka the Peak District. I wanted to visit Chatsworth House, though great stately homes are not really my thing, but a costume and clothing exhibition covering the centuries caught my eye, as the house might catch your’s.  My camera and skills could never do it justice, so a stock photo will better show its vast size and magnificence.

Chatsworth

You can read all about it elsewhere (Google? Wikipedia?). Suffice to say it is the family seat (home) of the Dukes of Devonshire. Family name Cavendish and the land has been their’s since 1549 or so. The family fortunes grew – and how! – with time and the property you see above is the re-build from round about the end of the 17th century. Improvements continued through the years: but there was a lot to work on.  Here’s an extract of the astonishing fortunes of the 6th Duke:

The 6th Duke (known as ‘the Bachelor Duke’) was a passionate traveller, builder, gardener and collector who transformed Chatsworth. In 1811 he inherited the title and eight major estates; Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Devonshire House, Burlington House and Chiswick House in London, Bolton Abbey and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire, and Lismore Castle in Ireland. These estates covered 200,000 acres (810 km2) of land in England and Ireland.
(Any one of these would suffice, but six!  Enough to be getting on with, I’d say!).

Latterly, the last Duchess but one, was Deborah – one of the Mitford sisters.  Debbo for short, she started the most recent reinventions of Chatsworth to bring it up to date. The Mitfords – and their various marriages and alliances – are subject to many books if that interests you. Another family member who has donated many modern designer dresses to the above-mentioned exhibition is the society model Stella Tennant. Fascinating and bewildering wealth and influence over the years. Would you believe me if I told you that almost every banana in the world these days is a “Cavendish” and owes it’s beginnings to the same 6th Duke above, who imported, cultivated and developed them in greenhouses at Chatsworth!

In fact, the Costume exhibition was not the treat I had hoped. There’s a limit to the number of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood frocks even I want to see. Or the state robes, that sundry Dukes, Duchesses and Earls have worn to coronations! Though lavishly and tastefully done, with artful lighting, perspex boxes and life-like models, I found I would rather have just seen the rooms without the intrusive exhibitions!  The decoration, the gilding, the fabulously furnished rooms were almost invisible behind the “show” – and the crocodiles of visitors. Us included!
Windows slightly raised – to allow light in ? Or allow us to peek down the garden?
chat3

chat4

Here I am trying to capture the ceiling in this double-height hall – full of costumes below – coronation robes and statues. I’m not doing it justice, of course!

I couldn’t leave Chatsworth behind without two pieces of art : this astounding Vestal Virgin (how can marble be carved like this ?):

veil

I promise you, you stand there holding your breath because it seems she might breathe herself at any moment!

And a serendipitous moment for me, in an Ante Library filled with hundreds of ancient, leather-bound volumes, my eye fell on this one, completely at random:

ozbook

John Hunter sailed with the First Fleet to Australia in 1788 as Captain on the HMS Sirius. He was also understudy (so to speak) to the first Governor, Arthur Philip and would take over if he (Philip) should be die en route! Which he did not.  But Hunter was to return as Governor anyway in 1795. This book are his impressions and findings at Port Jackson (Sydney) in those first days.

I SO wanted to take this book down and read it but of course could not. I looked for a copy on eBay later: there was an original for sale (several were published in London in 1793),  at a cost of 8000 pounds!  Can you imagine what the whole Library might be worth if this one (minor) book runs to 8000?

Can you imagine my surprise too, to find I could order a facsimile (printed to order) via an Indian company for just under 20 pounds!! It won’t come with a fancy leather cover but the text and pictures & maps will be the same and will be with me in a couple of weeks.
Unless, of course, I’ve been completely scammed – which is also possible. But if not, what joy it will be to read this stuff : you can be sure more blogging will follow once I return down-under to “Port Jackson”.

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Being the economic folk we are, my sister and I are staying at hostels, courtesy of the YHA – which some may not know, but these days, caters to the opposite of “youth” and even offers rooms with en suites etc.  Gone are the days of dorms (single sex), cold water and rigid (and rigorous) rules and regulations! Well, mostly………. though the places themselves do vary.

We spent our first night high in the Peak district, at Hathersage YHA.  Based around a nice old stone mansion,  though we found ourselves in a modern annexe out back. The twin with en suite turned out to be the disability access suite also. So no steps to worry about, VERY large doors and a loo that doubled as a wet room. Oh, and cold room too!  But the sheets, pillows and duvets were fresh and new, emblazoned with YHA logos on very nice green background .  In any case,  we were only there for the night and down the road we found the only pub still open served wonderful comfort food, The best steak and ale pudding eaten for years!
I did take a picture but it seems to have gone astray; console yourself with a facsimile of the toilet notice in the YHA – their’s was wittier than this but it will have to do:

toilet

Well, it amused me anyway. Even if diapers isn’t very YHA!

Our final day took us north, and westerly, for a final stop before we cross the border into Scotland. This night – anticipating our forthcoming visit to the Holy Island (Lindisfarne) we climbed and climbed and climbed through Northumbria to a little town called Wooler, in the Cheviot Hills.  Surprisingly well-equipped, with a sizeable Co-op, several other shops for provisions, hair-dressing, pharmaceutical needs, arty stuff and at least 2 fish & chippies.  The Black Bull, our inn of choice,  turned out to be welcoming and efficiently run by a team of cheery middle-aged ladies who also cooked and waited. Very popular, busy and to our surprise and pleasure a little group of locals in the adjacent bar entertained the clientele with guitar playing, folk songs and harmonies throughout the evening.

The Hostel itself rather old fashioned – much as I remembered hostels from my youth : barrack-like dining room, spartan bedrooms and all quiet by 11pm.
But they offered (and we rejected) a full English breakfast next morning before 8am and after toast, cereal and pretty good coffee we raced off to our destination of the day!

We raced because Lindisfarne (the Holy Isle) is accessed only by causeway across from the mainland and this is subject to very variable tides. On this day, the Causeway would be driveable until 9.15 am after which access would be impossible till lunchtime.  It is probably as well that I tend to over-manage travel and insisted we leave by 8.20 for a 30 minute drive, as I also managed to mis-read the map and sent us the wrong way up the A1(M) road for several miles. When there was no sign showing Holy Island after 30 minutes, it prompted me to reverse direction and, by hurtling back south down the A1(M), by 7 minutes after 9 we were crossing the Causeway.

Nothing was open till 10am so I wandered as we waited.
To be honest the Holy Isle was a little under-whelming. Not helped by the fact that the Castle, owned by the National Trust (which looks very imposing in pictures), is actually closed till 2018. It is also swathed in scaffolding and protective plastic and impossible to love or appreciate. The Priory – I said there would be more ruins – is long, long abandoned and now in the hands of English Heritage. Too manicured and uninteresting to be frank. Two rather bored ticket attendants stood and chatted in a booth.
Otherwise, several dozen people live on the island and make their living from tourism – and a bit of farming it seemed. Every shop or cafe had a selection of tourist stuff but nowhere was there any feeling of history, what it must have been like to live here hundreds of years back. Of invading, murderous Viking raids, of wild weather and cloistered communities. I was reduced to a passable coffee and feeding the friendly local birds!

Sparrows and starlings waiting patiently in line for the next crumbs; some even cheeky enough to hop up for a bite!  Lindisfarne, thou disappointer! It could have been like this :

or even better, like this !  Ruuuuunnnnn!!!

causeway

Next stop Scotland : I’ll take the High Road…….

Love & Light.

JC

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Sharp as a Rapier; on my visit to Napier……

Not sure how sharp, to be honest. My trip starts with a very boring flight (cheap air ticket as usual) to Auckland. At least  I am on the North Island of NZ this visit. Last time (some of you may recall) I planned a visit for architectural delights, but mis-remembering the info in my brain, took myself via Christchurch to Dunedin (on the South Island). Dunedin, to be sure, is quaint enough, with lots of decent Edwardian/Victorian architecture that would not disgrace Edinburgh or the city of London, but I wanted art-deco. And was therefore disappointed.

More certain geographically this time, I headed into Auckland City which, to my surprise, reminded me quite a lot of San Francisco!  Similarly hilly terrain (very); lots of nice villagey neighbourhoods. Alas, no cable cars but a very efficient system of inner-city-circle buses in various colours.

Digressing – what’s new? – I recall that I forgot to visit the steepest street in the World whilst I WAS in Dunedin! Most people think Filbert or Lombard Streets in San Francisco; the latter because it has eight hairpin bends in a very short space! But no, Baldwin Street in Dunedin lays claim to be being steeper than both – and it is – though Canton Street (Pittsburgh PA) may be steeper. If you can be bothered Google or YouTube any of the above and see what you think. 35% incline or steeper is the mark

Anyway – whilst I was speaking with my sister Jean about this trip, she remembered to ask if I have seen Baldwin Street whilst I was in Dunedin and I had to confess that it had completely slipped my mind. Ah, such is age…….shall I go back to check it out?  Probably not – life is too short for two visits to Dundedin.

By chance and – I suspect – because of its silly name, I booked into a B&B in a suburb of Auckland : Ponsonby . Turned out to be the little Chelsea area, with boutiques, designer shops and cafes etc. I lucked out (as my San Franciscan friend Miss Purple, would say).

Which really means, incidentally, “lucked in”, as it is a good thing, not a bad. Coincidence One.

Though the B&B was not good, but that’s another story.

Here is the city at night, from Ponsonby hill-top:

Image

Auckland has a city population of around 450,000 – the metro area in total is in the region of 1,300,000 and indeed, 30% of the population of NZ lives around here. So no surprise to find it is a bustling and lively city. Reminiscent too, if you haven’t been to San Fran, perhaps of Seattle. Young and studenty.

I am NZ  (as much as for any other reason) to renew my Australian Visa. My initial year Jan 2010 to Jan 2011 will run out on Jan 28th so I am making this trip in order to claim one final 6 month entry before that day, which will allow me to stay till July. As this little trip unfolded, I became convinced that my guiding star was setting the scenario with great flair.

Coincidence Two: I need to get an early (7am) bus for Napier – seven hours away. A bus runs from the end of my B&B street to connect with that service.

I had planned none of these connections before travelling. There was more to come.

Since I was leaving early, I left my major sightseeing in Auckland till my return a few days later, but in terms of this post I will add them here.  A few shots from the sky tower you see in the picture above and random images from Auckland.

Image

Apart from being hillier, this map shows a striking resemblance to the layout of the city of Sydney! All roads lead down to the harbour – facing north; large par/gardens to the right side, freeways to the left….

Image

This is One Building: the brick front is simple a facade attached to glass and the glass tower continues the building upward.

The Sky Tower from below:

I am saying nothing – it’s all in the mind!!

You can ascend to various observation decks and cafes – you can even (not that I was game enough) attach yourself with a rope and clip and walk around ‘outside’ at the top! Heavens above – and what a drop below!!

So that’s Auckland from the air…….

And so – to Napier. Another of my bus specials; it actually took from 7am to 3pm with a lunch stop and several other stops and plenty of Lord of the Rings landscapes, which I won’t bore you with.

NAPIER: lies on the south east coast of the North Island and with its sister city, Hasting is sometimes jointly known as the Bay Cities.  Captain Cook charted the site in the 1760s but it wasn’t till 1850 or so that European settlers obtained the land from the local Maori tribe and started building.  At that time it was little more than a swampy bay inlet with land on both sides and a lake behind.

Nature giveth and she taketh away!! In 1931 a severe earthquake more or less demolished the entire town centre (swampy foundations couldn’t take it, though more damage was done b y the fires that also broke out from fractured gas mains etc).  Though 250+ people died, the city gained an extra 4000 hectares of land that, until the earthquake had been undersea!

But – with a speed and commitment you cannot help but admire, the bulk of the town was rebuilt in two years. Given the time – and the architectural influences (coming via Australia from America) of Frank Lloyd Wright and others, it isn’t so surprising that most of the rebuild is in Art Deco style.  There were a couple of very far-sighted local men too, who interpreted the styles in overseeing much of the rebuilding. What is remarkable today is how much of it still survives.

Most of the buildings are simply two stories high and have every type of Deco embellishment imaginable, from Egyptian to Ocean Liner, from Greek motifs to Maori and to wander around the half dozen streets that make up the city centre, is a real treat. It is more fun in daytime that at night for – whilst there is less traffic and noise in the evening, many of the buildings have internal details which you cannot get at after the businesses close for the day.

WARNING: This is the point where you close down if you can’t be enthused by a row of art deco!

Having said that : this building is anything BUT Art Deco! The only town centre survivor of the earthquake/fire, the Public records office has a grandeur that belies the fact it is actually quite small. (compare the cars parked alongside to see that it is quite tiny). But perfect as a Greek temple on the Acropolis (almost!). It is now empty downstairs and has a gym upstairs.

Only 3 of these street markers survive; built into the pavements at a corner. There were at the time no lamp-posts or other street furniture from which to hang a sign and anyway, it’s easier to look down!! Though you miss a lot if you do: my travel tip is always to look up (above the shopfronts) : that’s where architecture often surprises.

Government Offices.



Some lovely lion head details and lettering. Almost all buildings had the same sort of overhang – to protect pedestrians from rain and/or sun – but ALL also had to have the securing rods above to for extra safety against earthquake vibration!

Probably the swankiest building – HQ of the Daily Telegraph newspaper.


Munster is a province of Ireland.  Check out the little shamrock motif.

Some lovely black and white detailing here….

This was my favourite : neglected and lost in a corner away from the Centre. One-time Servicemens’ Club, then back-packer hostel. Now empty and dusty – but for my money, echoes the landmark buildings of people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier in a gentle and imaginative way.  Still remarkably intact – I hope someone gets it and looks after it. Maybe we should all have a whip-round and I will reopen it as a chic boutique hotel….. Napier could use one.

Talking of hotels – this is where I stayed:

Coincidence Three: without my asking, they had allocated me a room right on the Terrace, overlooking the street : the best view and, as it turned out, the last room available there. Thanks Guardian Angel!

Rebuilt after the earthquake – the Masonic is now in its 3rd incarnation – today complete with roof level terraces overlooking the beach and promenade. Once a year they host the focal point of a city-wide Art Deco week where you can’t move for Gatsby lookalikes, their molls and the motors!!

I think even an art-deco fan like me might find that all a bit too much like a trip to Vegas or maybe Brigadoon! And – to be honest, the rooms were nothing special. I know the (newish) owners are working their way through upgrading but there’s a fair way to go. However, not many hotels can supply such a stylish local mineral water as this:

I am re-using the bottle since I brought it back with me. As you might imagine, it raises a few eyebrows down the Gym!! I jest……

And so – after a few days wandering and wondering, I returned to Auckland and thence to the airport.

Somewhat trepidatious, I was expecting a grilling at immigration. Guardian Angel had other plans. Coincidence Four.

I was flying with  LAN Chile – no I had never heard of them either!  But, as it turns out, they are the national airline of said country and as it also happens, they had a promotional deal which meant that for the same price as a real budget airline, I got a proper economy ticket to and from Auckland. LAN Chile flies Santiago de Chile to Auckland to Sydney and back again. Who knows why?

Trying to check in online didn’t work  (it couldn’t find my booking!) but I managed OK at the airport and then waited; it was a 6am flight. I arrived far too early  and  was dozing by the Gate when they called me by name over the tannoy to come to the desk where the attendant asked for my Boarding Card and promptly tore it up!

I thought to myself:  this is either very bad news, or very good news and it became the latter when she handed me a new Boarding Card saying with a smile, “we’ve upgraded you, Mr C – have a nice day”.

Feigning nonchalance, I pocketed the Card till I got around the corner and took a look at it. Seat 2A. Thank you LAN Chile! You can’t get any nearer the front.  Premium Business Class came with all the extras you would expect; my only regret was that I was taking only a 3 hour flight to Sydney – I would have liked to try the full flat bed on a longer journey (say to Santiago) but I gave it a trial run anyway. My fellow Premium Class passengers probably wondered what was wrong with me as I went horizontal and back several times.

Coincidence 5 now  under way, upon disembarking at Sydney, a very nice Qantas ground handler gave me an Express Ticket for both Immigration and Customs/Quarantine. Suffice to say that, whereas the majority of passengers were forming orderly queues for entry to Australia, your’s truly whooshed through an empty express lane  and arrived at the Immigration Desk.

Him: “Good afternoon, Sir” (Me: Afternoon)

“Travelling alone Sir?” (Yes)

“Have a good day Sir (stamp stamp – that’s him not me!!)

and I am  through and in the Arrivals Hall. Total time from landing 30 minutes – including picking up my case. from the carousel.

As I said, my guardian angel / call it guiding star was on my side that trip.

Oh, there was the one other (little) adventure I almost forgot to add.  What does New Zealand say to you?

Rugby, Maori warriors (Haka), Cricket, Arms covered in tattoos, Lord of the Rings, local culture and icons, Cheese, Lamb????

Anyway – more than anything I always remember those almost Celtic tattoos everyone seems to have – well everyone under 30 anyway. So who says an over 60 can’t?

So my New Zealand souvenir of choice – a very little Libran astrological sign, which now sits – resplendent in bright blue (outlined in black) on my left inner wrist!  Like this:

This is not to be confused, as one or two “wits” have suggested, with this logo:

Which is, as can be clearly seen, one of the local transport providers!!

There is (I know) no fool like an old fool and I stand here before you, thus self-proclaimed.

Did it hurt? Yes, a bit. Like that bit when the dentist first puts the numbing needle in –  only this took a while longer than a micro-second.

I didn’t know what to expect either; bit like a visit to a new dentist in that respect also! I just hoped it wouldn’t hurt so much that I would sob or groan, since the Tattoo place operatives were all very macho. As it happened, I gritted my teeth and thought of England – or something. I was more concerned about keeping my arm flat and straight (!) so the hand-drawn image wouldn’t be crooked. Which it is a little, anyway, but that doesn’t matter a jot.

After it was done, it was wrapped in cling film for the day and though I kept close watch on it, nothing happened : it got a little crusty a week later and after 10 days or so, is all quite ordinary.

So my first (and last!) tattoo or self-organised mutilation! I started this post with a pun about Rapiers in Napier and , as it turned out, finished there with an even sharper tattooist’s needle!

Whatever next…………………… pray for me!

JC x

“The Boat that I row………..”

Greetings!  Christmas Greetings if you wish (if you follow such things). It is past midnight here in suburban Sydney – so it is December 25th, 2011 for me – even if for YOU  there may be several hours before we are on the same day. And even though this Blog says posted 24th – that’s because my computer clock is still on UK time!  So, Patience, mes amis!

All around me (especially at AA meetings) I hear the common cry : ‘it’s just another day’ and that’s fine with me. But it does have special meaning to many people and I respect that too. Each to their own. Although, I read in the local paper today an address from the Bishop of Sydney : I had to keep putting it down in disbelief.

Being (once) a proper Catholic boy I have quite a good handle, as they say, on the story of Christmas (according to that church, anyway). I was surprised with the Bishop’s “Christmas : the True Story”.  Apparently “Mary was a peasant girl coming, like Joseph, from a very devout family……..” Hmm. How does he know that?

And how about “Jesus was born between the years 4BC and 7BC”. Doesn’t BC mean “before Christ” and isn’t that the date that BC/AD changes?   This is apparently “some time before the Christian era” which it would be wouldn’t it, since it’s named after Christ! All very confusing, so we shall leave him to it. Maybe they’ve discovered stuff I didn’t know as a boy?

Anyway, I was going to go to Midnight Mass and the preceding Carols (as I do back home) and there is a convenient Catholic Church 5 minutes walk away in Gladesville (where I stay). In the event, I didn’t as I ended up at an earlier service in the City. I co-opted a few pals and went to Sydney Town Hall for a free Christmas Eve concert which included a performance by the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir.  Since I plan to have a sing with them in the New Year I thought I would have another look at them. To my surprise the ‘concert” was a Carol Service organised by the Metropolitan Community Church and featuring loads of carols, a few solos, speeches and even a communion at the end.  As it happened I would have missed my ferry if I had stayed for communion, but hadn’t planned to stay to the end anyway. Though the whole thing was so inter-denominational that I am tempted to go along one Sunday and see what they get up too. It was far more than gay supportive, to say the least and the size and variety of the crowd was inspiring indeed. I seem to recall there is a similar Metropolitan Church in central London (Bloomsbury?). I would urge anyone who has issues (as I do) with organised religions to maybe check them out.

ANYWAY….. I wish you all, my dears, the happiest of Christmas Days and hope you get all you wish for. Though you should be careful of what you wish for  – oh, but that’s for another time! :))

Most of you will know I am not much of a water baby!  As in, I am a pretty useless swimmer – though I sink very elegantly.  I have never quite mastered that bit about breathing while you splash along though many wonderful people have tried to teach me. Even Steven, my old and trusted Australian artist friend, failed – and that was in a private pool with just we two.  So, in the water – no. By or on the water? Now that’s a different story. When I left London some years ago, I went first to Margate (don’t ask – aka – benefits central!) which was a mistake – but the view from my little eyrie down and across the Harbour was magic. Less fun were the nine flights of stairs.

Thence rapidly to Seaford and – for a while – my lovely little house with garden running down to the beach and the constant awareness of the sea from sitting room and bedroom windows. Sound & movement. When I had to move just around the corner to save money, I never settled and was heart-sore for my lost sea-view, more so than I would have expected.

So here I am by another sea – the Pacific, or Port Jackson (Sydney Cove) and the Parramatta River. I spend a lot of time taking the Ferry up and down from my lodgings to the centre of Sydney. I often take my bike on the Ferry and then take my life in my hands on the Sydney roads!  But I begin to wonder now if I am for ever to be on or around the water.

Last week – quite unexpectedly – and old friend from England (who has a business here) invited me to join him on their Office Party (with a Christmas theme.  I went as Manger – obvious, but also a play on the French for “to eat”. It’s a long story).

Here’s the little boat we sashayed around the Harbour on….

To give an idea of scale, it is only 110 feet long. The Helicopter, alas, was not aboard that day! We were using that area for dining, as you do.  If you can bear it, here’s a link with some fuller information on this floating gin-palace!

http://purecruises.com.au/2011/02/07/mv-flying-fish/

Tomorrow (that is – Boxing Day) sees the start of the famous (and famously dangerous) Sydney to Hobart(Tasmania)  Yacht race. I shall be on another (smaller) boat in the Harbour, following the  boats as they start out from the Heads (where Sydney Harbour meets the open sea). Courtesy of an AA pal and as a thank you for helping to make 100 desserts for a Christmas reunion last week.

Meantime, my friend Brenda (with whom I am staying),  has been a volunteer for the Cruising Yacht Club (organisers of the Race) for some years and will be flying off to Hobart on the 27th to prepare for the flotilla to arrive in Hobart.

And to finish the year off, New Year’s Eve will see me once again on the Harbour – moored as serenely as possible for viewing of the best NYE Fireworks in the World!  Courtesy of Lisa (old friend of my brother Sean)  & her partner David. I think I recall putting this shot of their boat on an earlier blog.

And should we tire of Bridges, Fireworks and food, we can cruise around the corner to Glebe Island where Jamiroquai, The Pet Shop Boys and Boy George/Culture Club will be giving a concert! What a life.

Apropos of nothing, I used to hate New Year’s Eve – it seemed that I sat somewhere each 31st December wondering where the year had gone, why I was another year older, why I had achieved nothing and why it was so unfair! Recent years have taught me differently; now I see a new year coming as part of the challenge, the adventure. Who knows what will happen – or even if one will see the year out (not being negative, things happen!).  But in line with my philosophy of trying to live each day as it comes ( to the fullest), how can I not be happy, grateful and inspired by the lucky circumstances that see me here in lovely Oz?

Even if Sydney is experiencing the coldest / wettest December in 50 years. These things are all relative : 26/28 degrees even if wet and muggy is not so bad.

To return to my watery subject, the oddest thing is that I feel quite unconcerned to be up and down, round and about the River, ocean etc. yet with no desire to swim in it. My recent visit to Magnetic Island (see Blog) saw me unusually venturing above the waist into the water – and that only because I was skinny dipping –  so sort of had to!!   I do wish I as comfortable with it – but  there is something about the power and strength of mother nature in the raw that is too much for me, and yet draws me.

I am also a little obsessed with the wonderful poet T S Eliot and, in particular, his masterpiece “The Wasteland” which not only includes a reference to Margate, it even has a section called Death by Water.  I suppose one can read too much into things?

So to Christmas and lunch.  We shall have smoked salmon (not Oysters as planned : the guests not like them!) and Brenda will crank up the Barbie for steaks (of course) and salad and veggies. I have made the dessert – a classic traditional Plum Pudding. Made really just with various fruits (raisins, currants, sultanas, flour, eggs, breadcrumbs and rum (call that rum “flavour”). It takes only a short time to prepare (mixing it is a bit of a bitch!) but then six hours in a bowl, on a saucer, in a big pan – constantly topped up so it doesn’t boil dry. For “traditional” read “for the days when servants had hours of time to kill”.  I was up till 01.30 on the simmering process, then waited another hour for it to be cool enough to refrigerate. We shall know in about  15 hours whether that was worth it – or if I shall be faced with a few wry faces, trying to say how “lovely” it is!!

So I shall get myself off to bed now – in the knowledge that some of you will possibly read this before I awake again – though I’d leave it till Boxing Day if I were you!  My love and best wishes to you all – sorry that I am not having Christmas lunch with family and friends in the UK but also – selfish as ever – happy to be avoiding the winter.  We may speak over the next day or three but meantime I hope the Christmas you get is the Christmas you want.  Old (and un-reconstructed) hippy that I am, I offer these few lines from that lovely old song by Greg Lake (who he – Ed?)

I wish you a hopeful Christmas,
I wish you a brave New Year,
All anguish, pain and sadness,
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

They said there’d be snow at Christmas,
They said there’d be peace on earth,
Hallelujah! Noel!, be it Heaven or Hell,
The Christmas we get, we deserve.

JC x

Magnetic Island – no hardship to get stuck there.

Welcome to Maggie – 5 miles off Townsville in Northern Queensland. Though Captain Cook in 1770 called it “Magnetical” Island – he thought something there was having an effect on his compasses. Later research has been unable to trace anything, hence it has become more simply Magnetic!

(Puts me in mind of the Harbour at Sydney Cove – where all the ferries come in and out – it was first called Semi-Circular Quay. Why? Because of the shape of the bay naturally.  But in true Aussie style, that’s a bit of a mouthful, so Circular Quay it is now called. I await further shortening: one day it will be Serky!)

But (again) I digress. Magnetic is a good name – the island drew me back (with a friend) 26 years after my last visit.  Sadly, I couldn’t remember a bit of it! Not entirely my fault; they have moved the Ferry from the mainland to another port and built a new terminal along the coast. Which simply wasn’t there in 1985.  It has to be said that much of the island looks as if it hasn’t changed a lot since then, though again I can recall only a rather backpacker-ish guesthouse with very lush gardens and whilst we saw one or two of them (and a fair few backpackers) nothing rang any bells.

But what we (my friend Robin – out from London) and I were seeking was sunshine, peace and tranquility – and we got that in heaps.


This is Jeffery Bay – 2 mins across the sand from our little un’s front door. Taken somewhat late, so here’s a daytime view on same beach:

 

Hmmm. I tried – without success – to turn this picture up the other way; I had intended to make a flippant quip about the distortion of the waistline being caused (perhaps) by gravity in far north Queensland. Unless you turn the page upside down you won’t see the joke. So I should reverse the joke to say that I was too heavy to be returned up the right way. Sadly it was too hot for much exercise – that’s my story anyway.

Another more reasonable shot on the beach!

The point behind me was famous for its rock wallabies – tiny, kangaroo-like marsupials which gather at dusk – so gullible tourists can feed them! They even sell little bags of “feed”in the local store much like we used to do for the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Is that cute or not? And here is Robin being creative with a perching marsupial, silhouetted against the sky!

 

There’s little that creativity can do to help here :

As you can see, it is something of a small and very rocky island – covered, indeed, with these large, probably volcanic, boulders.

It is also quite a famous jumping off spot for the Great Barrier Reef and for deep sea fishing trips. I am sorry to say that we didn’t any nearer to the Reef than you see me now.  Our trip, basically, was R&R not adventure travel – as least that what it ended up as.

There are wonderful fish to be fished, if that’s your thing:

Blue and Black Marlin, Sailfish, Mackerel, Wahoo, Giant Trevally, Dogtooth Tuna, Coral Trout, Mahi Mahi, Tuna, Red Emperor and Sea Perch. But, you know, I caught a Wahoo once – in the India Ocean off Mombasa during my acting days in Kenya. And that’s another story.

So meantime, we walked a lot around the island – it is not large and half a day would see you from one end to another. We were, unbeknownst to we pommie travellers, at the end of the season.  From November onwards, it gets wetter, businesses close, tourists disappear and in their place,  the seas start to fill with stingers of various kinds, up to (and including) the infamous Box Jellyfish. Though the Box can be as large as a metre or more, the tiny (finger-nail size) Irukandji is as deadly if not more so. The remedy for being touched by either? Liberal doses of vinegar and call 999 or equivalent. Don’t worry,  they will send a helicopter to get you : there isn’t a hospital on the Island!

 

Far cuter, far less dangerous. In fact, unconcerned and oblivious to passing tourists and clicking cameras:

I was completely convinced it was a plant, until we saw another (and with a baby!). Aaahhh!!!

I wish I could offer you a picture of the Dugong that swam within a metre of me as I paddled in one deserted bay, those that know me know that I don’t really “do”swimming. No photo because :

I was skinny dipping and didn’t have a camera with me

Even if I had a camera, I was too shocked initially as I thought it was a shark and then it was gone

There were a couple of “naturists” haunting the rocks a little up the beach and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself

Which leaves me with only one wildlife picture to show: our (almost) nightly dinner guest:

And strangely enough – is it something to do with eating lots? I can’t make this bird picture turn the correct way round either!!

It’s a bush curlew or plover and teams of them raid any outdoor eaters across the island. Chivvy one away, and three return so you learn to ignore them pretty quickly. Though they settle down very late at night and like to sing for hours before they do. A haunting, cur-lewing sound which can severely jar the nerves if you’re not in the mood! Sadly you’re not allowed to eat them, strangle them or (indeed) kill them off in any other way!

Despite them, we managed a few days of complete rest: lots of bush walks and (for me) a pretty severe case of sunburnt shoulders.Which, being  so surprised and embarrassed by, I shall discuss no further. Except to say that it was not for lack of sun-screen, just a failure to remember how hot it was (even with sea breezes) and how often you should replace your sun screen. At least once more often than I did, I now realise.

 

To conclude : I think my memories of Magnetic were coloured by the years that have passed; by the amount I was drinking in those days (maybe I was on an altogether different island?) and by the fact that it is probably a destination for ‘the youth’.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that except that I wanted more than just bars and surf hire or jetski shops and was disappointed. My attempt to bike hire was thwarted by indifference and end-of-season slow down. So probably won’t be going back again in another 25 years.