Category Archives: Travel abroad

So this is Christmas and what have you done

Another year over and a new one just begun*

As 2016 ends I’ve been looking back on what I’ve done since returning to the UK in December 2014, after 15 years living overseas, in New Zealand, Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and New York City (December 2010-14). Settling back in the UK has been difficult.

2015 was particularly stressful because I spent a tiring and, at times, demoralising 12 months applying for jobs (a process I’d already spent 6-months on back in the US). It wasn’t until November 2015 that I got a Living Wage job in a sector (social care) I would never have considered until it became obvious I would not get a job specific to my qualifications, skills, and experience as a science adviser and researcher.

During this time my New Zealand wife went through a costly, drawn out and stressful process, including a return to Auckland, to obtain the right to live in the UK.

The major plus was that I’d bought a flat in London in the 1990s when if you were on a reasonable wage you’d be offered a mortgage that allowed you to buy a decent property in a reasonable part of London. I bought a basic 2-bedroom flat with French windows opening onto the Lea Navigation Canal below Tottenham Lock. Now mortgage-free, we can sit and watch canal life as people go boating, cycling, dog walking, fishing, running, sculling, walking by. If we’re feeling more energetic there’s 28-miles of towpath to explore between the tidal river Thames at Limehouse Basin to the northern terminus at Hertford.

Looking upstream to Tottenham Lock from our lounge

A major reason for moving back to London was to be near family and friends, but working shift work and weekends in low paid work supporting people with learning disabilities left little energy, time or money to socialise.

However, 2016 ended on a high when in mid-December I started working at a local college where I am supporting young people with autism. I am no longer working shift or weekend work, and am working in an environment which promises to be more personally rewarding.

There have also been more travel and leisure experiences during the past year. In July we stayed in an old country villa in Corsica with friends from New Zealand. This lazy 5-day trip was a much-needed break from my job. In contrast, my previous trip to Corsica with my brother in 1988, focused on walking the Grande Randonnée (GR) 20, a rugged 180km (112.5 mile) trail considered one of Europe’s most beautiful mountain trails.

corte-corsica
One of the spectacular views around the Corsican town of Corte

In September we took a six-day road trip with my wife’s mum and sister who visited from New Zealand. We took in Canterbury and Dover Castle in Kent; Eastbourne, the Brighton Pavilion and Chichester Cathedral in Sussex; Stonehenge, Avebury and Castle Combe in Wiltshire; Dorchester, Cerne Abbas, Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis in Dorset; Exeter, Castle Drogo, and Dartmoor, including the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound and the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Devon; and Wells in Somerset, with its fantastic cathedral.

Looking toward tors on Dartmoor from the graveyard of the Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon

When I left New York City I vowed to keep up with my birdwatching in the UK after all the pleasure I had from being involved in it in the US. Getting out on birdwatching trips with a local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) branch and the local Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group has become a mainstay of my social life.

When I want a walk or to go birdwatching alone I’m only a few minutes’ walk from the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which will feature in future posts). They’ve become a regular bolt-hole for me over the past year. They were particularly atmospheric and eerily quiet in the foggy weather of a few days ago.

waltham-forest-reservoir
Reservoir No. 5 Walthamstow Reservoirs, in the fog (30 December 2016)

With weekends and summer evenings now free, I’ll be spending more time birdwatching and getting involved in local conservation efforts. I’ll also be visiting different parts of the UK (both old favourites and new destinations) and will have an eye open for flight/accommodation bargains that make overseas travel possible.

However, my main New Year’s resolution is to spend more time on independent and art house cinema, an interest developed during my years in 1990s London. I had good options to pursue this during my years living in Wellington, NZ, and in Astoria in NYC, . where the excellent Museum of the Moving Image was only a 15-minute walk from home.

We have joined the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, where my wife and I recently enjoyed the 1939 Howard Hawks comedy His Girl Friday. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, it is one of the fastest-talking films ever: the dialogue has been estimated at 250 words per minute against an industry average of 100-150 words. It was the first movie we had seen in a year. It’s time to put that right!

*Click for full lyrics of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas”

New York – London via wintry Reykjavik

In December 2014 after four years in New York my wife and I were returning to my  native London. Taking an Icelandair flight with a generous luggage allowance let us shift enough possessions to get us through an English winter, and stop over in Reykjavik with a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Technically we saw them but……

Extreme weather had delayed our flight for several hours and all aurora viewing cruises were cancelled.  As an alternative we took a coach trip, which took us beyond the outskirts of Reykjavik to a small church. The next couple of hours saw us hanging around, alternatively sitting on the coach to stave off hypothermia and venturing outside peering at the sky for the aurora. During that time the best light show was provided by the crosses in the churchyard!As the coach started heading homewards  some wispy cloud appeared in the sky.  There were no visible colours but we piled off the coach for a closer look as our guide snapped it with a fancy camera. Et voilà, her image showed the wisp glowing green. So we had seen the aurora but the overall memory was of a cold and underwhelming experience. That’s the luck of the draw when trying to experience natural phenomena.

Despite the disappointing light show our stay in Reykjavik worked out really well.  Our hotel choice, the Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina, was excellent. It’s a renovated landmark building  with well-designed rooms, bright common areas bedecked with colorful wallpaper, antiques and fanciful odds and ends, including some very quirky sculptures. It was several steps up from the accommodation (a bivvy bag, village halls, and university halls of residence) I used backpacking in Iceland in 1990, when I mostly subsisted on hotdogs and hot chocolate!

One of the interesting characters you’ll find hanging around the hotel

The hotel’s location by a slipway in the old downtown harbour district  offers  great views across the bay and is an easy walk away from the capital’s attractions. There’s a number of restaurants and market in the area and a short walk takes you to Old Harbour Village where you can book Whalewatching Tours and visit Cinema No. 2. (www.thecinema.is)

The  self-styled Cinema of Fire, Ice and  Northern Lights, is housed in a loft that used to be a work and dwelling place for fishermen. It’s a cozy space with assorted furniture, a relaxed informal atmosphere, a rock collection and books to browse.

We visited it to prepare for our aurora watching. The films included one on watching and photographing the aurora – much, much more spectacular than our  live display – and a film on the then-active Bárdarbunga-Holuhraun eruption. We also grabbed some  refreshments and chatted with the friendly staff.

Walking around the city was interesting.  We visited Tjörnin (The Pond), a small lake in the centre of the city where we saw a young Whooper Swan essentially run right across the Pond’s surface to get to some bread thrown by a family from the shore; bird feeding on its shore is so popular that  the Pond is referred to as ‘the biggest bread soup in the world’.  For any birders out there I also saw  Black Guillemots and Eider Duck close-up in the harbour near the hotel.

Whooper Swans on the Pond
A big Top going up on the shore of the Pond

Another highlight was the amazing reflections of the city and the surrounding landscape in the glass façades of the Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

The Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

We also visited Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík’s main landmark. Its prominent tower can be seen from most parts of the city.  The church’s facade mirrors the shapes formed as lava cools into basalt rock, which can be found around the country. The image below is adapted from the www.icelandunlimited.is website. Check it out.

 In 1990 I had visited the top of the 73 metre ­high tower for great views over Reykjavik. This time round the lifts (elevators) to the top had closed for the day; probably a blessing since the wind was so strong we could hardly get the heavy front door open to exit.
 

 

The most notable feature of the church’s interior is a large pipe organ standing 15m and weighing 25 tons. We were lucky enough to get to listen to the organist rehearsing and experience the organ’s power and range of tones.

Interior of Hallgrímskirkja church showing the Pipe Organ.

The main memory I took from the trip was how friendly the locals were. I had the same experience when backpacking, when I took advantage of kind offers of lifts. Of course for those, like myself, with limited foreign language skills things are made easier because many Icelanders speak fantastic English. I’ll be looking out for cheap London-Reykjavik travel deals so that I can have another go at tracking down those elusive aurora.