Monday, 25 November 2013

Bristol from Easton in Gordano

Easton in Gordano? It’s a village on the south bank of the river Avon near Bristol and is the home of our friends Iain and Bev and, this last weekend, the location of our latest get-together with our group of 10 to about 18 friends (depending on who can make it) intent on having a good time, lubricated with a certain quantity of alcohol.

Friday night at Iain and Bev's. On the left is Helen and, clockwise, Sue, Iain, Jackie, Phil, Bev, Manu and Ian
Driven down by Ian and Helen, after he’d finished work as Chief Engineer in a well-known international chocolate factory in Birmingham, we avoided most of the Friday afternoon traffic on the usually very busy M5, to be welcomed with large gin and tonics and nibbles by Iain and Bev (even though Bev isn’t all that well at the moment) in their really nice house. Manu was already there (Crystal couldn’t make it) and Phil and Sue (Dr. Phil, ex rocket scientist and nuclear engineer to be precise!) turned up about 8:30pm just as dinner was served. 

How is it that these evenings can go on so long? 02:30am was about the time we went to bed after one and a half bottles of gin, a number of bottles of wine and then a couple of bottles of port to swill down the many varieties of cheese and biscuits. Several cups of tea and water at 02:00am was my salvation to avoid a hangover as I felt myself spiraling rapidly towards oblivion!



John (with his pint of Guinness) and Fiona on Saturday
Manu, in usual Manu style had disappeared home by the following morning, leaving a little note for us, as he had some property business to attend to, but our numbers swelled again as we were joined by Iain’s sister Fiona and John for breakfast in the local pub. Guinness for breakfast! Well, he is Irish!

Phil by the Avon
Our nine, less Bev who stayed at home, walked the seven miles into Bristol along the south bank of the Avon, in beautiful clear blue but cold skies, past the Avon Gorge with its 300 ft (100m) high wall of rock and the regular venue for climbing for Brian and Phil and later Brian and Jackie on Tuesday evenings (evening climbing after work all day and driving nearly 2 hours down from Birmingham and then back again later, were we mad or just keen?) We had a good reminisce, pointing out the various climbs, many of them three star classic routes, right along the gorge, as far as the buttress under the Clifton Suspension Bridge: Great Central Route, the photogenic Giants Cave Buttress (always drew crowds of onlookers on the suspension bridge) and Suspension Bridge Arete to name but a few.

The Gang! Jackie, Ian, Helen, Iain, Fiona, Sue, John & Phil
There's people climbing on that rock, but you probably can't see them

This is 'Main Wall' at Avon. We've done many climbs on there
Clifton Suspension Bridge. the buttress to the left is Giants Cave Butress
Bristol, with its long maritime history is a great place to visit. Its history goes back to Anglo-Saxon times when a small settlement, known as Brigstowe (a place of settlement by the bridge) grew. The Norman’s built a castle here after their conquest in 1066 and in 1497 John Cabot set sail, in his ship the Matthew, hoping to find a passage to the Eastern Indonesia, but instead making landfall in North America, most likely Newfoundland.

Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Avon at low tide
Clifton to the left, Bristol and the start of the docks to the right
Some of the dock area
The floating 'Bristol Beer Factory'
The Avon river runs into the huge Severn Estuary, which captures the incoming tide from the Atlantic and funnels it in to give the Avon the second highest tidal range in the world (the highest is the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia – I always like to know these things!), rising as much as 14m twice a day. The six miles between Bristol docks and Avonmouth, its entrance to the Severn Estuary, has many twisting turns, but it became a big port due to the ability to sail in on the fast flowing incoming tide and back out again on the receding tide. This had positive and negative points, the negative being the stranding of ships at low tide on the mud banks, leading to the design of a flatter bottomed, stronger hulled ship that gave rise to the phrase ‘Ship shape and Bristol fashion’. 
First beer at 3:30pm!
It led eventually to the damming of the river and the creation of Bristol’s ‘Floating Harbour’, allowing ships to remain floating at low tide. In the mid 18th century it was a hugely important city, being a main port for imports of sugar cane, tobacco, rum and cocoa, but these were the products of slave labour, revealing Bristol’s darker side in it’s active involvement.

In the late 18th century the arrival of the chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel further shaped the city with the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge (1352 ft long, 702 ft between piers, it was completed in 1864, five years after his death. Did you know, the bridge is three feet lower on one side to counteract an optical illusion?). He also built the SS Great Britain, the first iron steamship, built in Bristol in 1843, abandoned and beached at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands in 1937 after more than a million sea miles, but in 1970 was re-floated and bought back to Bristol where it is being restored.

John and Fiona in matching clothes!
Nice sunset photos from our floating bar

We arrived in the rejuvenated dock area, which is now a restored and modernised area of fine old buildings converted to chic harbour-side apartments, restaurants and bars and a thriving, busy area. We got as far as the ‘Bristol Beer Factory’, which is a floating bar, at 3:30pm, what a time to start drinking! But it did give splendid views of the river, the harbour, the SS Great Britain in its dry dock and, later on, a great sunset. 

A not very good photo of the SS Great Britain, floodlit at night
Night on the town. Yes, it was cold!!
Bev joined us here after catching the bus down and the evening continued in another bar, a superb Indian restaurant and, after a very silly and crowded bus ride back at 11:00pm (how old are we? – but I don’t think we offended anyone and hopefully caused a few laughs) we ended up back at Iain and Bev’s local for another couple of beers and finally back to theirs, after saying goodbye to Fiona and John.

Jackies teddy is crowded in by pirate bear and Chinese 'wealth' cats (given a much naughtier name by Ian!)
A homely picture at Iain and Bevs
A lazy Sunday in front of a roaring log fire lounging about eating breakfast, reading the Sunday papers and then a pleasant walk through a local wood, followed by a late lunch, we were home about 6:00pm, very happy but tired people.

Lazy Sunday!
Sunday afternoon walk through the woods
Thank you Iain and Bev for your hospitality, Ian and Helen for taking us and everyone else for your great company – we have missed these weekends while we’ve been travelling!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Calming down and decorating

My turn, and fortunately not too much to say, though we’ve still not been ‘at home’.

Had a lovely evening with Alex and Rob on Saturday, they’ve finally bought a house, so if they get a wriggle on, we can even help them move! This was our 4th different bed in 4 days, we weren’t that bad even when travelling! Arrived to scones, what a welcome, chat and glass of wine before a lovely tagine followed by crumble and Brians ‘proper’ custard.

Helen, Ian, Rudi and Jackie on our canal walk
Got home (after scones for breakfast, for me anyway) just in time for a slice of cheese on toast before the arrival of Helen, Ian and Rudi boy their very nervous rescue dog. Ian had planned a route between us and them linking all the available green bits. Who knew Birmingham had so many hidden undeveloped bits? Got back to theirs, just before the rain, for afternoon tea: scones, jam and clotted cream! Isn’t it lovely how well all our friends know us? Left Helen with the bluest of the fossicked sapphires as her 'something blue' before being delivered home with an armful of books, feeling we had made positive progress with Rudi, so happy all round.

Outside Highbury Hall, Ian and Helen's July wedding venue

Ian's home baked scones with jam and clotted cream
My butternut squash soup
Up bright and early on Monday to start decorating round at Mums, redo the gloss and scuffs of the stairs and landing and re-paint the bathroom. We feel very satisfied with our three days work, must just pop round tomorrow and replace the furniture in the relevant places! Feeling we were on a roll we stopped off at Sarah and John's as decorating of the bedrooms had been mentioned (well they've only been there 20 years) sadly decorating is about step number seven so we have to wait for steps one to six, so perhaps after skiing.... Have had a lovely day today, chilling and cooking, butternut squash soup for lunch and lamb and bean stew for dinner while B has cooked his third cake – I don’t bake, so if we want cake when we get in from skiing it’s down to him! Even managed a free trip to the gym, so feeling virtuous too.

And his iced chocolate cake

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Catching up in Birmingham, Kenilworth, Cheltenham

Nearly three weeks back in the UK but it feels a lot longer and there’s not been a dull moment, certainly not much time to relax. This will probably read like a diary of events, but I’ll try and make it a bit more interesting…

Sheeps Heads in Birmingham Indoor Market
Got our road bikes back and rode mine the 6 miles home from Alvechurch, but haven’t been out on it since, despite planning a 15+mile country lane route I’d like to do. Same applies to the planned Park Run, which is a 5km timed run round local parks on a Saturday morning, other things got in the way. Had better success with the gym though and we used our 7 day pass to all facilities well, at one point, after Dennis’ Saturday morning circuit training class, feeling decidedly over-exercised, but that’s expired now so we can only use certain facilities at certain times now for free (swimming every morning 8am to 9am – probably not! The gym every day 2:30 to 3:30pm – will try to, and other odd classes at odd times, including Zumba one day – maybe!).

Jenny, Fiona, Becky and Abbie
Met up with my daughter Fiona and my three grandchildren Abbie, Becky and Jenny who have all grown in a year, Abbie at 15 looking decidedly like a young woman now and, as usual, things run at top speed in Fiona’s house! Went to their school to pick Abbie and Becky up, dashed back to get to Jenny’s school in time to see this weeks new dance routine learnt in the previous hour (her and about 30 others are taught every Friday after school and parents turn up after the class to see the final performance, she was brilliant!). Finally met James, her man, who seems a decent sort, so we’re hoping that all works well and then got lessons on how to use ipads that they all had, the kids playing some game with each other, all linked by the wifi in the house and all with high volume voices. 
Fiona with her man, James
Fiona is a live-in manager at a residential home, responsible for looking after a dozen or so elderly people and she is absolutely suited to the job, handling them all really well and, with the kids around, keeping them all younger and active. She got them all onto a carnival float last July and had them dancing on it along with the kids, winning the best float award and getting a picture of Jenny on the front page of the local paper, so they are all now well known! However, due to local authority cut backs there is talk that live in managers may be cut as part of cost saving measures, so she’s a little bit worried about that, but won’t know until next March. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.

Jackie cooked a Sunday roast at her mums, we went to the Old Moseley Arms followed by a curry at Diwans with Bill, Mark and Tim on Monday night, Tim making a special visit down from Derby to see us (he’s Financial Director at a multi-million pound company now and doesn’t like his picture to appear on the internet, so I’m not allowed to print his surname. Anyway, he’s still just our mate Tim, he just drives fancy cars now!).

And mustn't forget their cat Oscar
Jackie, Tim, Mark and Bill in Diwan's
Tuesday I went out for the day, leaving Jackie at home. I went to see my old work colleague Terry Spencer, who I started in business with in 1989 and continued until he retired in 2007. We’ve still got a property company between us with a house and a couple of apartments and we need to discuss the not particularly good situation with all of that. Terry’s now nearly 70 and got a DVT earlier in the year so is on drugs and can only walk at the moment with pain, so his golf now is via one of those little golf buggies. Hope he gets better from that soon. After that I went to see an old customer of mine, Iain Exeter who owns Wickman Bennet, a Machine Tool company, now very small indeed, but once a huge multi-million pound company that started its downfall during Margaret Thatchers government when the ‘arms to Iraq’ scandal came to light in 1990. The company was involved in selling Machine Tools to Iraq and the embargo sent the company down from which it has never really recovered. His millions have all but gone, but his energy and enthusiasm hasn’t even though he’s now 70.

Paul, Denise and Jackie in Tardebigge
Wednesday… have to tell you about our visit to Wednesday afternoons Tea Dance at the Methodist Church! It was as we expected, about 20 people there, of which only 2 were men, all probably in their 70’s. Nice wooden floor, chairs round the outside, lady playing some dance music on a cd player and people shuffling round the floor. Although it said Ballroom Dancing it was just sequence dancing, which are all the standard Ballroom and Latin American dances, but arranged in specific steps so everyone does the same. Different routines are named and there are thousands of them, with new ones being invented all the time, so you have to know, or be able to follow someone. That’s not easy when they are just shuffling and doing an approximation of the dance! However, she played a few I knew and managed to drag from the depths of my memory and a few others that we followed, Jackie superbly following my lead! Talked to most of them and they were all very friendly, but they were a bit old and slow for us so not sure we’ll go again. Had tea and biscuits at half time, wheeled in on a tea trolley, followed by a raffle where we won a packet of biscuits (but it seemed almost everyone won something!) and all for £1.20 each! It was very harmless, friendly and quite a laugh, but will think twice before going again!

The tunnel at Tardebigge
Denise and Jackie on a lunch stop
Thursday we caught up with my sister Denise and husband of 30 odd years, Paul (both recently retired) and went for a fairly wet walk along the canal at Tardebigge Locks (part of the Worcester and Birmingham canal, comprising 30 narrow locks on a 2 ¼ mile stretch, to raise the canal 220 feet, with a 580 foot long tunnel at the end We started and finished at a pub, so the chocolate rum at the end kept us going, despite the rain showers on the way out. The circular walk took us back through fairly muddy fields, but in clearing skies we had great views, particularly at St. Bartholomew’s church   
St. Batholomew's Church
Called in there to escape the rain, but inside we met the church warden (or whoever he was), a jolly fellow who talked and talked about the church and its history. 
Apparently its origins are from over a thousand year ago, a church standing there at the time of the Norman conquest of 1066, but the original church was destroyed in 1775 when the tower collapsed, the current building dates from 1777. According to our man, the original building was right on the Worcestershire/Warwickshire border, half in each county and during the times of the gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, some of the conspirators hid in the half of the church in Warwickshire, where the Sheriff of Worcestershire couldn’t touch them. Interesting stuff, but chocolate rum was calling so off we went! Great roast chicken dinner at Denise’s, a bed for the night and full English breakfast the next day was brilliant and very luxurious in their superb house set in rural and affluent Solihull (pronounced ‘Sewlihull’ to only those people born and bred in the town and ‘Sol-i-hull’ by everyone else. It’s like a little code that allows us natives to know who’s original and who’s ‘imported’!).

Jackie and Denise deep in conversation
Andy, John, Trish, Danielle and Jackie
Today is Saturday and yesterday we had an unplanned visit to Cheltenham. My good friend and Best Man at our wedding, John Fullerton rang to invite us down to stay in a hotel he’d booked in Cheltenham to visit Cheltenham Races and the ‘Paddy Power Gold Cup Day’. Sadly we couldn’t stay for the races as we’re out to dinner tonight in Birmingham, but we went down last night to have a wild night out in Cheltenham with him, Danielle his wife and his sister Trish and her husband Andy, all larger than life characters and great fun. We got invited as the third original couple had to drop out so the hotel room was paid for and going spare (at over £100 per night that’s not funny!). 
Jackie and John
The girls out on the town
What a great place Cheltenham is, it’s a Spa town since its mineral springs were discovered there in the eighteenth century during the reign of George III and has many imposing Georgian buildings and, with the major national racecourse it is a huge tourist attraction. We were a bit apprehensive at first as John is of Irish descent, so can consume alcohol in large quantities and is incredibly generous, persuasive and gregarious, any night becomes a major drinking event. 

While the lads try to find out where we are!
This morning, dressed up and ready for the races
Last night was no exception and with the town buzzing with all the racegoers intent on having a good time, it was a lively and very funny evening, finishing off with a really good curry in a local restaurant whose name or exact location I have no idea of after a night of drinking! This morning the head was  a bit fuzzy but we met up for breakfast in a pub, tea and coffee for us, but beer for all of them (at 10:00 ‘o’ clock in the morning!) and then we parted as they went off to the races and we went for a walk round the town before heading back.

Dinner tonight with Rob and Alex, walk and afternoon tea tomorrow with Helen and Ian our busy social life continues!

Dr. Edward Wilsons statue. He was one of Captain Scotts colleagues who perished in Antarctica with Scott. He was a local Cheltenham lad

The non-working Neptune Fountain