Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Europeans...

Although the UK likes to pretend that Europe is a place far, far away, it is still - geographically speaking - European. Thus, here are some European public-transport seat covers.

Regional train between Erkelenz and Aachen. First class.

Those NZ public-transport seat covers in full

Well, maybe not in full, but I have some new pictures with which to wow you all. Remember, this from the town that gave us the beautiful green fern cover that I posted before.

Number 1:

The Final Chapter - return to Germany Friday, 15th October 2010

All good things come to an end. Apparently.

We went through the usual morning routine - packed the last few things in our bags and checked out of the Youth Hostel.

Our payment still hadn't been confirmed by the head office, but luckily the chappie on the desk was a good guy and said it was no problem as they had all our details and had seen the transfer confirmation. Padhraig. Or something he is called - good guy anyway.

Having seen the Tube at rush hour, and having two big bags, we decided to bite the bullet and get a cab. Expensive but stress free for us - not so the cab driver who was roundly abused going around a bus by a black cab driver. Par for the course for him, I reckon.

We quickly dumped our bags at the extortionately priced left luggage and went in search of breakfast. After a fruitless search outside the station we found one of the coffee bars and had coffee and sandwiches.

Our original plan had been to go out for a troll around the area and one last look at London but in the end the shops there were enough. Chocolate had to be bought to take back, and #2 wanted to get some lovely earmuffs in Monsoon. After that we looked around at the huge variety of sandwiches on offer so that we could take something to eat on the train - the Gruesomes weren't keen on Eurostar food and it would be 9pm before we got home, too late to eat.

I also had time for a quick trip to the St Pancras branch of Foyles. Just for a look around. And of course that meant I left with 3 books (Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown - for Chef - and Springtime for Germany - or how I learned to love lederhosen - by Ben Donald)

The check-in process at St Pancras is much more efficient than at Brussels-Midi and we were soon in the "departure" lounge waiting for our train to be ready. Soon enough we were sitting in our lovely, comfy seats, reading our books or listening to music, and a rainy Kent countryside was rolling by. Again we entered the blackness of the tunnel without any fanfare and before we knew it Brussels-Midi station was upon us.

This time we had to run the length of the station to use the smelly facilities again, but at least it meant that there was hardly any waiting time before we could get on the ICE to Aachen. The train was packed and there was a lot of "I think you'll find this is my seat" going on - I'm always glad when I have a reservation under those circumstances.

Aachen station was cold and rainy so we waited in the entrance hall instead of up on the draughty platform. This train was nearly empty so we spread ourselves around the tiny first-class compartment and before we knew it we were at Erkelenz station and getting into a taxi.

There was a momentary stab of panic when we thought we didn't have any Euros, but luckily I'd stashed enough for the cab fare in my purse.

And that was that. We were home at last after our London adventure. And, as is usual: it was as though we'd never been away.

Last day of the London Jollies - Thursday, 14th October 2010

Shower still cold upstairs, so give it up for the hot downstairs showers. Yaayyy.

We decided to do a McBreakfast today, but on the way we found that the Courtfield pub offered Ye Olde Fulle Englishe Breykfast (Stop that, Ed.) for a fiver. So we thought we'd give it a go. It was great, except that the coffee wasn't up to much. Chef had the full English with black pudding, #1 had a BLT with egg, #2 had the vegetarian full English (and pronounced the sausages to be the Very Best Vegetarian Sausages ever). I had been tempted by Eggs Florentine yesterday, but get a bit iffy with poached eggs done the "proper" way. But again I was tempted, and this time I gave in. And they were so yummy - the hollandaise sauce was either a very very good bought one, or they had made it themselves. Highly recommended.

Today's programme was to have been Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery followed by a zip over to Selfridges to see Michael McIntyre sign his book, then something else. As it happened, by the time we had waddled our way over to Trafalgar Square, and stopped to buy chocolate, it was really too late to do the National Gallery. I think the Gruesomes were probably relieved at that.

We took a few photos, had a look in a few touristy shops and then headed over to the Eye again (they had some t-shirts that I liked - I was after a black or grey one with a sparkly Union Jack...) It wasn't to be. So we took the tube to Oxford Circus and marvelled at the sheer number of shops and shoppers on Oxford street. We got to Selfridges at around 12:30, picked up a copy of the Michael McIntyre book, got a wristband (so we could have the book signed) and joined the queue. However, they were enforcing a strictly one book/one person policy so #1 had the wristband (just by chance) and I stayed with her while she waited. It took ages but eventually we got to the front of the queue, got our signature and had a bit of a banter with the man. He seems like a very jolly chap.

Then we caught up with Chef and #2 and wandered up Oxford street some more but it was getting cold and late and we wanted to give the 2nd hand book store by the Gloucester Road - I had my eye on one of the Penguin mugs featuring classic books.

But before that we made a quick detour to The Tower of London. Quote of the day:

Gruesome #1: That's a tower? That's not a tower!

There was also a quick stroll over the Tower Bridge and the plan had been to go along the river, over the Millenium bridge, a very quick look at (the outside of) St Pauls, then back on the tube. As it was we took a wrong turn and were half way to Wapping before we realised. So the footbridge and the cathedral were out - which didn't upset anyone as we definitely ad sore feet by then.

The bookshop beckoned and we made it there by about 6:30 - the tubes were all incredibly full and it was difficult to get on. The shop was great and we picked up a few good ones (Ian Rankin, JRR Tolkien and a mug featuring Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh). After that it was time for some food and we thought we'd try the pub again from this morning as their evening menu looked interesting. Our feet were sore and we were tired and in posession of a travelcard each so we took the tube. But wow, were they full now! We actually let one or two go before we got on one as they looked fuller than anything I had even seen in Seoul at rush hour.

Finally we got to Earls Court but the pub doesn't serve children after 7pm so we decided to go to McDonalds. The place - as was much of London for most of the week - was packed with Germans, so we frightened a few by speaking to them in their own language. I hope they have now gone back home and told everyone that the myth of the monoglot Brits isn't true!

When we got back we packed our bags ready to leave in the morning and went to sleep for the last time in our bunk-beds.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Middle Day in London - Wednesday, 13th October 2010

Since we decided to go to London I've been looking forward to this day. It's the Big One for me. The Science Museum.

But first there was the Cold Shower Question to be answered. Chef was first up and braved the shower on our floor - but it was cold. He went to the ones downstairs and, wonder of wonders, they were working, unoccupied and hot. After he'd used the shower, the Gruesomes braved them followed by yours truly.

This time we had decided to try for a full English. Chef had asked the Hostel staff and we'd been given directions. We duly arrived at the place, which was a posh-looking restaurant/café advertising the Full english for NINE POUNDS! Still, we thought, we're on our jollies. In we went, and ordered. Full English for him. Full English for Gruesome #1, Scrambled eggs on toast for #2 and Porridge for me (it was sunny but chilly).

Chef was a little depressed due to England having drawn nil-nil with Montenegro the evening before, so we weren't talking much about sport. Luckily the TV in the bar was tuned to BBC news which had wall-to-wall coverage of the rescue of the Chilean miners. Yaayyy.

The breakfast was very good, if a tad on the expensive side once coffee and juice had been factored in - but at least we probably wouldn't need lunch...

And off we trotted to the Science Museum. This time we walked down Earls Court Road, then along Cromwell road until we reached the museum. Unlike the previous day, the crowd was relatively small - but ten minutes after opening time we were all still there, shuffling our feet and tapping our watches. Finally a museum employee came up behind us and said that we'd have to go in through the out door - causing Chef much hilarity and the Gruesomes much eye rolling "do you know as song about everything?")

Our tactic was to go to the top - well, the third floor, and work our way down. The Launchpad is a hands on introduction to science - physics mostly, and was a huge hit but not only with the GGruesomes. The staff are great and we stayed there for well over an hour. Highlight for the Gruesomes appeared to be when we were all in front of the thermal imaging camera and my nose was noticeably freezing cold. Next to that part, though, was a collection of scientific instruments made for and owned by George III. Of particular interest to me were some pieces of Herschel's telescope (eyepieces) as I've just read a really good book about the Age of Wonder and the beginnings of the Royal Society.

Before we left that floor we allowed ourselves to be mugged... sorry, stopped for a coffee and millionaire's shortbread...

It really is my favourite museum in the whole world, hands down better than anything else (although Magna in Rotherham and Techniquest in Cardiff both come quite close for being very interesting and making Science Interesting to Chidlren)

After that we headed over to the London Eye - we had bought (slightly) cheaper tickets from the Hostel and so I waved the three of them off and headed along the river to the 2nd hand bookstall. I also wanted to check out the menu at Wagamama in the hope of finding something we would all like. A vain hope as it turned out. I was more successful with books, though, and picked up a Terry Pratchett, Jamaica Inn and Whisky Galore.

After the Eye we had to have a look at the Houses of Parliament and then Westminster Abbey. That is mostly due to the Gruesomes' obsession with Friends and the fact that they simply had to say "hands down the best Abbey I've ever seen". Whatever.

Then it was time to make #2's day - a trip to Hamleys. I thought they would be a bit big for that shop, but the three of us had a great time looking at everything while Chef sat in the café and read his book. We tried fantastic pens, nail varnish kits, sticker sets and lots of other things. But the highlights were the guys selling the remote controlled helicopters and the chap - who we watched twice - demonstrating the magic kits. Luckily sanity prevailed and we didn't actually part with any readies.

Since we were in the area we had a quick zot down to Picadilly Circus and then back underground and back to Earls Court where we went to the Blackbird pub for dinner largely on account of their claim to make the best pies in Earls Court. Chef pronounced his pie very tasty, my veggie bangers and mash were ok, #1 munched her way through a huge pile of nachos with guacamole and #2 prounounced herself with baked camembert with cranberry sauce and a side order of chips. We also tried a pint of London Pride (adults only) which went down very well.

Once again, even though it was fairly early, we went back to the hostel and had an early night.

First full day in London - Tuesday, 12th October 2010

So here it comes in excruciating detail.

You have been warned.

After a terrible night (me - the others all slept like logs) because it was too hot, too loud and it was a strange bed, it was time to hit the streets runnning. The shower was cold which certainly woke us up, but we soon warmed up with the YHA continental breakfast (juice, yoghurt, pain au chocolat, piece of fruit and coffee or tea for two of your English quids and 95 of those pesky pence).

I'd been texting with my friend L during the morning and as she was going to bring along her five-year-old D, we decided to meet at the Natural History Museum, which is within walking distance of our hostel. The streets between Earls Court and Kensington are quiet and leafy the houses beautiful. At that time of day the "ooh"-ing and "aahhh"-ing from the Gruesomes was at maximum due to all the children on their way to school. We passed an interesting looking bookshop (new and second hand) and as we were early sat for a while at a Paul pattisserie for coffee (ouch! It was too soon after breakfast for a pastry, thank goodness, or we'd have blown our food budget for the week!)

We arrived at the museum just before opening time and joined the queue. L and D would be there about 10:30 so we decided to meet up inside. The queue moves slowly because everyone has to have their bag checked due to the heightened terror alert. #2 was getting a bit worried as sharp objects are banned and I always have a (very tiny) Swiss Army knife on me. However that isn't usually an issue and before long we'd met up with our friend and were heading off to look at dinosaurs.

Quote of the day.

Chef: So, D, how come you know so much about dinosaurs?
D: I'm five.


After that we looked at the Blue Whale which really is impressive in itself, let alone for demonstrating just how big those beasts are. Then we had a quick sandwich in the overpriced café (sitting near Chi Chi the panda who I remember seeing when she lived at Regent's Park Zoo) and went over the road to the Victoria & Albert museum to look at the small clothing exhibit. One thing stood out: a pearl encrusted outfit which was made for Diana, Princess of Wales. She was really very very slim, something I really hadn't appreciated from the photos I've seen of her.

Looking at clothes isn't really very exciting for a 5 year old of either gender, so we left the museum and walked to Kensington Gardens and had a nice long play in the Diana Memorial Playground. Actually, the grown-ups just yakked their heads off while the Gruesomes entertained D all afternoon. It started to get cold - I haven't mentioned that on Monday and Tuesday the weather was cold but sunny with beautiful blue skies.

It was time to forage for food which isn't as easy as it sounds. Poor D had a sore leg and was tired, and limping, so we went to the nearest tube station and searched around in the location of the London Eye for something to eat. It had to suit a five-year-old, a 12-year-old vegetarian and a small budget. No chance by the eye, so we went over the river again and found an Italian restaurant that looked a lot better than it was.

After that it was time to leave. D fell asleep on the table and it was difficult to wake him so Chef carried him until it was time for L to take him home at Victoria. We toodled on back to Earls Court in the hope of a better night's sleep (for me) and hot water in the shower (all of us).

The London Trip - first afternoon/evening (Monday, 11th October 2010)

So, we dumped our bags, and having consulted a guide to London* kindly lent to me by a workmate, we hotfooted it to the Earl's Court Tube station where our first surprise met us.

I'd seen photos but totally forgotten - there is a Tardis outside the tube station. It brought us all up in our tracks (for some reason I thought it was in Leicester Square). The weird thing (to us) was that people just walk past it as though it's not there. We, however, turned into total fangurls and squeed and squawked at it.

The kindly gent at the ticket booth informed us that a travelcard was our best bet, as we could just hop on and off tubes for the rest of the day to our hearts' content. But we wanted to walk. And so we looked at the tube map, looked at the book, calculated and jumped on a Picadilly line tube to Green Park.

Where I promptly upset the teenaged daughters by taking my first picture of a tube-seat-covering**. Oh the shame!

From Green Park we followed the instructions in the book and walked to Berkley Square passing Devonshire house and Clive of India's house. The nightingales weren't singing and so we moved on rather swiftly in the direction of Mayfair. Now I'm not overly familiar with London despite one of my parents actually being a Londoner, but even I know that Mayfair means money. We wandered, open mouthed around places like Charles Street and wondered what all the armed police were doing outside one rather imposing building, but toodled along without really stopping to admire the buildings because we really wanted to get to Hyde Park to enjoy the last of the sunshine.

After passing the Red Lion Yard - fairly disappointing since only the facade of he pub remains - we did, in fact, stop for a while in the Mount Street Gardens to sit on a bench and watch the schoolchildren having a good run around. The Gruesomes exclaimed "ahh, how cute" just about every time we saw a schoolchild in uniform - especially the little boys in their shorts, blazers and school caps. But they still don't want to have to wear one. Shame. The gardens have lots of garden benches, with plaques to the memory people who have enjoyed their peace over the years. Very Notting Hill (the film) and we sat on one dedicated to a Philidelphia lady who had come over and fallen in love with the place.

But soon it was time to move on and we passed several very expensive designer boutiques - which Gruesome #2 especially loved as she wants to be a designer. We stared for a while at the Laboutin shoes and wondered if it really is humanly possible to do anything but stagger around on those monster heels.

Finally we got to Park Lane - cue several hilarious jokes about not standing still because we couldn't afford Park Lane with a hotel on it. There is a memorial to animals who have died in war over the years which is rather touching - something I'd not seen before, so we took a fair few photos of that. Then it was on to Marble Arch where wonder of wonders we managed to get photos without anyone standing or walking in front of it! There is also a new (to me) sculpture of a horse's head (Horse Drinking) which was a rather marvellous piece.

From there we walked through Hyde Park, down to the boathouse at the Serpentine, then abandoned the Dorling Kindersley walk through Belgravia in favour of going accross to the Albert Hall and Albert Memoria. Blimey - that is one Bling Bling monument - I really didn't remember it being that golden! There were a lot of coaches outsiide the Albert Hall disgorging countless numbers of Women of a Certain Age (older than me). It turned out that Cliff Richard was appearing there all week as part of his 70th birthday celebration. #2 asked a tout how much tickets were, and it seemed they were going for their face value of 70 of your English quids.

By then we were getting tired and hungry and looking for a tube station. But luck would have it, before we found it (Kensington High Street) we stumbled on one of the Giraffe chain of restaurants, slogan: Love, Eat, Live. It's sometimes difficult to find something we all like, and #2 is vegetarian, but in England it seems a lot easier.

Anyway, I had a spiced vegetable risotto (yum), Chef had baramundi with some kind of tomato salsa (yum), #1 had an oriental noodle salad (yum) and #2 had a vegetable burrito (yum - she ate it all, and it was massive). Coffee afterwards for me and they had ice-cream or cake. After that it was a short walk to the tube at Kensington High Street and back to the Youth Hostel for a good nights sleep before our first full day in London.

*London - Dorling Kindersley Vis-à-Vis series (in German... we saw several other people clutching this book on our travels, in various different languages.)

**I've decided to make one monster blog-post later with all the seat covers... just to build up the suspense you understand!

Monday, 11th October - the trip to London. Part the first.

We didn't have a summer holiday, as such, this year due to lack of funds. However an unexpected windfall arrived in time for us to book a short stay in London during the first week of the Gruesomes' Autumn holidays.

We elected to go by Eurostar, partly becuase I love trains but also because from where we live to any airport, and then from any destination airport into London and all the waiting around involved with air travel it's just as quick to go on the hot and sexy eurostar.

Our original plan was to go for three nights (our budget) and stay at the Premier Inn, but some friends suggested we try the Youth Hostel Association which meant that our budget could stretch to four nights. There were no vacancies at the Kings Cross one, but Earls Court Youth Hostel had a family room which we promptly booked. Unfortunately there were no 2nd class tickets available for the Eurostar and for about 2 minutes it looked as though the trip might be off. But then... Chef and I both said "stuff it, let's go in styleeee" and we booked first class.

Horribly expensive but lovely.

We also took the precaution of booking seats for the parts of the journey not on the Eurostar which paid off on the way home on Friday (15th October)

So, 11th October dawned bright, cold and sunny. At 07:30 our taxi arrived and ten minutes later, horribly early for the 8:02 train, we arrived at the station. Chef and Gruesome #2 were promptly despatched for coffee while #1 and I piled our bags artfully and started to take photos.

The first train took us to Aachen where we had a cold 40 minute wait for the ICE to Brussels. The coffee and the cold had worked on us, so the 3 girls in our party set off to look for the loo. Unfortunately we found it - bleuch, but needs must. The time passed quickly but we had time to check the timetable for the Thalys to Paris while we waited - that will be our next Capital City Destination.

The ICE is a beautiful train, I've always loved them. The shape is just fantastic, and in the first class the seats are wide and comfortable. We had a set of fourr seats with a table, which was lovely, and there is a waiter service to bring coffee and snacks. We stuck to coffee.

Unfortunately I didn't manage to take a photo of Liège station when we stopped there, but it's totally beautiful. Very modern and clean looking - a real change from my local station and the horrrible thing they have at Aachen.

We rolled into Brussels perfectly on time and decided to use the Brussels-Midi station facilities before finding the Eurostar check in. These were slightly better than those on offer at Aachen but it did provoke me to wonder why when you have paid a fortune for tickets (first or any other class) you still have to put up with horribly stinky, cramped and sometimes downright disgusting toilets?

What struck me during the journey to and from London is that stations can be incredibly efficient, sometimes beautiful places. But the toilets are all disgusting. Why, for example, do they persist in the horrible stainless steel fittings and grey non-slip floors. This combo just always always looks disgusting and dirty no matter how recently it's been cleaned. Even in St Pancras which is my new very favourite station and v v fabby and marvy has the most horrible facilities. Added to which, if you're travelling alone with anything other than a small rucksack or bag, there is nowhere to put them while you pee. An oversight which I'd like to see addressed.

Anyway. Where was I?

We checked in for the Eurostar. To get to the UK from mainland Europe you have to show your passport. There were several school parties, and it seemd that each one had one member who had either forgotten their passport, didn't have one, or just couldn't find it. Total nightmare for the teachers I'd imagine.

The train itself is beautiful. Sleek and smooth, like the ICE with lovely comfortable seats. Again we had a 4 group with a table and settled down with our various books, mp3 players and what-have-you.

Soon after we started an airline-stylee meal was served which consisted of prawns in some kind of dressing, sheep's cheese with some kind of dressing and something else with a bit of fig. There was a small bottle of water for each person, and we could have wine or a soft drink too. After that there was coffee or tea. Not too bad and, a with flying, soon after the dishes were cleared away we arrived in London.

One thing: we whizzed into the tunnel without any announcement which I thought was a bit odd. One minute we were zooming through the countryside, the next there was total blackness outside which seemed to last for ages but was about 20 minutes in reality.

St Pancras, a place I'd last seen during my time travelling between Bristol and Germany as a schoolgirl, has changed beyond all recognition. For starters it's St Pancras International. But it has been modernised, the trains are all upstairs, and there are wonderfully shiny new restaurants, cafés and shops in the main concourse. The nice thing is that they have preserved the basic structure of the station, which is a beautiful Victorian edifice, within the small glass-fronted shops. More about St Pancras later though.

For now we decided that rather than annoy the lunchtime tube travellers we'd take a cab to the Youth Hostel at Earl's court. We passed through Hyde Park on the way, and it was such a beautiful, sunny, autumn day we decided that we'd check in, dump our bags and go for a walk.

The taxi driver didn't know the Youth Hostel in Earl'sC ourt but thanks to the fact that I'd noted down their directions from their website, we found 38 Bolton Gardens with no problems. As we don't use a credit card, we'd booked and paid for the room in advance - making the bank transfer at the end of September. But it still hadn't been registered by the YHA - apparently they receive payments at the head office and they inform the place you've booked when the payment is received. They had received my email with the payment details though so there wasn't much to worry about.

Having checked in, paid the non-YHA members fee, we went up to our room. It was at the back of the hostel and was the very basic room I was expecting with two bunk-beds and 4 lockers for our things. There was a loo and a shower close by which was good.

We dumped our bags, re-arranged our rucksacks and consulted a London Guidebook for a walk. Originally we'd planned a route through Notting Hill, but having seen how gorgeous Hyde Park was looking we changed our plans and jumped on the tube.

Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there?

Due to having a shiny new car to match my shiny new bike, this blog has been largely silent.

But I've just returned from a trip to London where Public Transport featured very heavily on the agenda.

And so the next few posts will be a bit of a trip diary. And there will be photos of seat coverings!