Tony & Cynthea explore the 'Old Country' travel blog


Christmas dinner, Hackney

Christmas dinner

Did someone let Cynthea loose with fire?

A black squirrel, unique to the area.

Lots of squirrels near where we styaed in Letchworth

The UK's first ever roundabout, Letchworth

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Thursday 22nd Dec – Happy Birthday Amanda!

We check out around 10.30 and catch a bus to the station. Tony leaves the bags with Cynthea and heads off for food, and finds Primark to get a pair of longjohns (it is getting a tad cool hereabouts).

The train takes about an hour to get to Banbury, and we take a bus back as Denise was not insured to use the car and collect us at the station.

Tony is staying in the rest home’s guest room for the next two nights, and then we head to Letchworth for three nights to stay with Michael’s daughter, Ros and her husband Phil.

Saturday, 24th December

The guest room is needed for others over Christmas, so Tony needs to clean it and change the sheets before leaving (a condition of being able to use the room as no staff are on duty). Cynthea drives us to Ros and Phil’s home in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, just north of London. We take about an hour and a half to get there, arriving around 5pm. Two of Michael’s other children are also staying with Ros and Phil, so we are staying in a flat nearby that Phil uses as an office. Chris is from Leamington Spa about and hour from Brackley, and Cressida is home for a few days before heading off on trip to Borneo, where she will lead an expedition.

Ros tells us that Letchworth Garden City was founded in the early 1900’s and was designed as a garden city, the world’s first.

We have a meal with the family, and then Tony tries to help Cress with her Kindle, as she cannot find files she has loaded on it. It is a bit of a challenge as neither of us know what we are doing, but after a couple of gins we get is sorted. Cynthea has settled Michael for the night and we head off to the flat.

Christmas Day

We are up early and head around to the house, today we will drive to Hackney in north London for Christmas dinner with Michael’s daughter Camilla, and her husband Peter. It is a mild day, so we won’t be getting our white Christmas. Turns out this will be the third warmest Christmas on record, a far cry from the chaos of the previous winter. Cynthea gets Michael ready and Tony helps Ros in the kitchen with cooking. We are the first to leave at midday, loaded with some of the food, and it takes about an hour to get there. There will be a big crowd here today, about 18 of us at dinner – Peter’s parents, Michael’s other son Andrew and his family, and Ros and Phil’s daughter and her partner will also be at dinner.

Cynthea takes Michael upstairs and looks after the parents, while Tony helps Camilla in the kitchen and others are busy with table settings, serving nibbles and keeping the cooks hydrated.

We sit down to eat around 3pm, it is a wonderful meal with all the trimmings. Then we all go upstairs to open presents. We have bought each family a pot of NZ honey, and Cynthea gets a gift set of scrubs and lotions, and we get a box of chocolates and a tea towel with all the different counties and shires on a map of the UK.

It is late when we leave, getting home around 11pm, and by the time Cynthea has settled Michael it is near midnight. It was great to meet all the family, and they made us feel very welcome and part of the family.

Monday 26th December

We are up and about early, leaving for the house around 9am, but we get distracted by the numerous squirrels at the end of the drive. We haven’t seen so many grey squirrels before. They are a bit smaller than the red ones we have seen elsewhere. There are also some black ones, and we are told that they are only found in this area, and are more or less the opposite of an albino.

There is another family meal today with 12 expected, and while Cynthea takes care of Michael, Tony and Ros cook the meal, we sit down to eat around 2pm.

It gets dark around 4.30pm, so we haven’t really had a chance to look around the town in the daylight.

Tuesday 27th

We head back to Brackley after breakfast, we drive to Banbury to drop Chris at the train station so he can get the train to Leamington Spa. We call in at the camera shop to order Tony’s camera, they have dropped the price £20 to £180, probably the cheapest it is likely to be for some time as the model was only released in September, and it is under half the recommended retail price. A quick check of other prices on line find it available for over £400 in other stores!

We are tired by the time we get back to Brackley, and Tony goes up to the guest room to get it ready.

Tony will spend a few days here, helping Cynthea with Michael in return for board in guest room, so the family will not need to get relief carers in over the holidays.

31st December

We have not done a great deal the past few days. Tony has sorted a few photos, but it is a big job.

Late morning we head to Banbury to collect the camera Tony ordered, a Canon Ixus 230. Pays to shop around, Argos have it at the original release price of £400, most are around the £200-£220 range, Jessops have it on special for £180.

Then we head to Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare. Back in NZ Tony went to school in Stratford, Taranaki, living there for several years before moving to the South Island. We he and Cynthea married, Tony’s Aunt Margaret gave them a an oil painting of the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon, so Tony thought it would be great to visit, and try and find the spot where Margaret sat and painted. We find the 800 year old church no problem at all, and go in to have a look around. William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are buried in the church, Shakespeare was baptised here some 450 years ago, and the original baptism font is near his grave.

Cynthea sits in the church with Michael while Tony takes a hike around the riverside to find the spot where Margaret might have sat to paint. We are lucky with the weather, it is overcast but fine and quite warm for this time of year. Next stop is the birthplace of Shakespeare in the town centre, the original family home still stands. Our tickets give us a year pass to visit the exhibition, the home and Anne Hathaway’s cottage, which is a wee way out of town. We have only an hour before they close, so it is a rushed visit, we can come back another day.

It is dark when we leave, and time to eat, so we find a fish and chip shop that has dining, and have a wonderful meal, then head home to Brackley. Cynthea sets the sat nav and we are off on a tiki tour, heaven knows where the damn thing is taking us, but it is not the way we came in. We are not too worried as the road signs show Banbury, so it is in the general direction home! We are taken to Warwick, and that is where things go wrong… One big frustration here is the road signs, or lack of them. Your destination will be clearly signposted and you are happy as Larry, but then you will get to a roundabout and for some mysterious reason the town or the motorway you need is not shown on any exit. Take a guess and get it wrong, and you can travel miles before getting a chance to turn back. We end up in the suburbs of Warwick, and hidden road signs (they can often be found – eventually – hidden in a hedge) mean we tour the streets of this town hopelessly lost. We go in circles before spotting the hidden street sign, and we finally out of the maze and heading home. Once we hit the motorway we have no more problems, and we home around 8pm.

It feels much later, but we manage to see in the New Year, happy 2012! We call Don and Doris to wish them Happy New Year before crawling off to bed.

So as 2011 ends we find it difficult to summarise the year – so many new experiences, so many wonderful new friends.

There are a few things that amuse, intrigue or frustrate us living away from home and familiar things. The most difficult is not being there for people when you just want to give someone a big hug. Living in a different country has its’ challenges too, and we are really grateful for friends here who have helped us smooth the way. Living out of a backpack is not ideal, much as we expected, especially if we are in a budget hostel, but if that saves us a few pounds then it is a means to an end, and isn’t forever.

After all this time we are still amazed by the countryside, the history, the old buildings and the narrow streets that have two way traffic… we often find ourselves saying “wow” and pinching ourselves to see if it real. We do occasionally tire of history, but the feeling doesn’t last for long, even if the history section in our brains has now hit overload.

There are the frustrating things too, we might be in the UK but it is damn difficult to understand some people, and we don’t mean just the Polish and the Pakis! Some accents are really hard to catch on to, like the Liverpool scouser, the Devon farmer, and the natives in Glasgow. You would think in an English speaking country we would cope find with pronouncing names, but no, there are challenges there too. Derby is pronounced “Darby”, and Towcester is “Toaster”, we are talking England here, not Wales, Scotland or Ireland. There are some really strange place names about as well, some of them are a real mouthful!

Shopping is a mixed bag. Electronic transactions are not always available, it is difficult to adjust, going from carrying very little cash because “everyone” has EFTPOS, to having to cart a few Pounds as you never know who has the facilities (many pubs don’t!). It is a damn nuisance, as there are SO MANY coins, eight of them (they still have 5, 2 and 1p). There are funny little rules, back home anyone can give cash back in an EFTPOS transaction, but here only the supermarkets can do so. Speaking of supermarkets, it was a surprise to find all alcohol available in most supermarkets (instead of just beer and wine as back home). Really shouldn't have been that surprised, after all the corner shop on Coronation Street has been selling booze for years! There are rip offs to watch out for, many traders add a fee to EFTPOS transactions, some as little as 50p to the real rip offs wanting 10%, and this applies to both credit and debit cards. The banks can be a nightmare, and electronic transactions can take several days to process.

As far as prices go, well they are also a mixed bag, VAT (tax) is at 20% but it is not on everything. A good friend told us not to keep converting the price back to NZ dollars, or it will send us mad. (Haha – too late Margaret). She was right, but we still cannot help ourselves. Many items you are spending £1 where back home you would spend $1. Clothing and shoes tend to be cheaper, depending on where you shop of course, and there are bargains galore when shopping for mobile phones.

There is a really infuriating set up here with so-called customer service phone lines. Don’t expect the free 0800 number set up NZers are familiar with. No, if there is something you need to speak to a bank, airline or retail outlet about, they charge YOU for the call, and it is a double whammy from a mobile phone. Some outfits even have these numbers to their sales departments and help lines, you are paying them to buy from them, bloody outrageous! We refuse to use them unless there is no choice.

0800 numbers are about, but are few and far between. It is more usual to find you need to call an 0870 / 0844 prefixed number, and there are no landline numbers listed as an equivalent (cheaper) option. Help is at hand, someone else who is as incensed with this nonsense has set up a website (saynoto0870) and you type in the information you have. In most cases they have the landline number to call, a much cheaper rate, and you are not paying them to fix their cock ups.

Food can be expensive, and getting used to new varieties is a fun challenge. The first time through a supermarket here takes forever… New Zealand products are widely available, and we sometimes find it cheaper than the equivalent price back home. The nanny state here has food labelled with both a sell by date, and a use by date, and it is illegal to offer anything for sale once the sell by date has passed. Even long life veges like potatoes have it! We have figured the time of day the local supermarkets start slashing the prices to quit stock, it is our favourite time of day, haha. Tony went shopping for apples, and a bag of five cost £3 ($6!!!), but in the reduced section a 1kg bag of carrots was reduced to 35p, so the apples were put back. Got some funny looks walking down the street munching on carrots though…

We have a huge problem with packaging waste here, especially at supermarkets. A lot of veges and fruit are tray packed and plastic wrapped ready to go. We cringe at the thought of the landfill problem it is causing, most trays are polystyrene, though some chains are now moving to use recycled card trays. There is a huge market in organic foods, and the price difference is not as great as back home.

Takeaway food is also a mixed price bag, fish and chips are can be expensive (even ignoring the exchange rate), also pizzas, Dominos are nowhere near as cheap as back home, starting around the £13 mark for something we would pay £3 for back home ($6). So takeaways are not on the menu very often. Many of the supermarkets do meal deal type offers, a sandwich, snack and drink for £3, not too bad a price.

Transport here gets bagged a lot, and it does have its’ share of problems, but on the whole, when it does work, we find it works brilliantly with quite regular services. Though we do find it hard to understand why a whole London tube line shuts down in heavy rain, especially in this day and age. Prices are expensive, but you can get cheap offers at the last minute or if you book far enough in advance. Some companies are really competitive and offer £1 fares (Edinburgh-Glasgow, and Inverness-Aberdeen), so there are swings and roundabouts there, you just need to figure out how to work the system. But with such a big population the system has a lot to offer.

Petrol is dearer than home, around $2.60 a litre. Roading system is good, but can be very frustrating trying to find the right direction to go. We were heading back to Banbury the other day and the signs leading up to a roundabout were all good, but when we got to the roundabout, Banbury wasn’t mentioned on the exit signs. There were six exits to choose from, and we didn’t have a clue which way to go, so you either go around a couple of times in the hope there are other clues, or take a wild guess and end up miles out of the way if you guess wrong. Much of the time road signs are missing altogether, or very well hidden in a hedge. Many roads have a number, often your directions refer to the number not the name of the road, so sometimes that can lead to a bit of a tiki tour. Even the road kill is different, you are more likely to find foxes, badgers, pheasants and grouse by the side of the road here.

The other frustration is the distances on road signs, you have no doubt heard the term “country mile”, and we figure that is because it is always a damn site longer distance to travel than the signs tell. The distance measured does not take into account hills and dips, so a 20 mile trip is often much longer. And we still haven’t got used to using and thinking miles instead of kilometres. There is a really strange mix of metric and imperial measurements here.

Travel into Europe can be very cheap, budget airlines clamouring for customers keep the prices down, but again you have to watch for the traps. One airline charges you a hefty fee, £35, for printing tickets and boarding passes for you (if you haven’t printed them yourself). That was the same flight that was going to charge £1 to pee on flights. Passengers revolted and threaten to pee at their seats. Ryan Air backed down, but removed one toilet from each plane to put in extra seats. Rip off bastards, we won’t be flying with them any time soon! Luggage on flights is also a minefield to trap the unwary, failing to prepay, or even underestimating what you require is a costly mistake. It is really difficult to decide were to go to next, so much to choose from…

We are slowly getting used to the ways things are done here, the funny looking chunky electrical plugs that all have fuses in them, the sun in the south, the moon and the star constellations upside down, and the water going down the plug hole the wrong way. Time is going so fast, and before we know it, it will be time to leave.

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