BootsnAll Travel Network

a kiwi family with eight kids and a grandpa
chronicle their pilgrimage from Singapore to London and beyond.....overland all the way

that was in 2008/2009....

then they kept on pilgrim-ing....2012....

then the 1,000km walk-for-water in 2014...

at the edge of the world

in Him we live and move and have our being ~ Acts 17:28

Lock Basics 101

October 11th, 2012

After our near-miss yesterday, I thought it beneficial for all to do a quick dummies guide on how to safely operate a lock! Not that we are experts by any stretch of the imagination.. but we have operated over thirty so far, but all of these have been going upstream which is easier than going down we are told. Of course, the locks are used to join different sections of the canal which are at different water-levels (different heights). Sometimes the difference is only a meter or so, sometimes the water level differs between the two sections by more than two and a half of metres.

The first task when approaching a lock is to look for the white mooring bollards which are always provided near the lock. We typically tie up at these to allow the lock-operators off the boat, and also to allow all the kids to get off the boat (so they are not on board if anything goes wrong!). You also need the boat to wait here until the lock has been emptied and the lock gates opened for you. Going upstream, you bring the bow of the boat into the side first. allow the front rope handler to jump off and get a rope ready to go around a bollard… then slow the boat down and bring the stern in alongside the siding so the rear rope handler can jump off and get a rope around a second bollard – and then tie off both ropes.

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The lock operators walk up to the lock and firstly check there isn’t another boat waiting to use the lock upstream. Given the all clear, you then need to empty the lock. Each lock has two pairs of gates, and the water between the two gates is the lock itself. If the lock is full of water, emptying it simply means opening the paddles on  lower lock gate whilst the top gates are shut. The paddles are small sliding sections of the lock which let water flow through while the lock gates are still shut. The paddles are operated by using a pair of winding arms which are stored on each boat. The paddles are easy to raise, but lowering them on some requires you release a ratchet and manually hold it open whilst slowly winding the paddle down in a controlled fashion. Not easy for little arms to do.

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Once the lock is empty, the paddles can be closed again and the lock gates can be opened by heaving with all your might against the gate arms. The gates are HEAVY, and it takes a good bit of shoving to open them! Once the gates are open, the boat can be carefully manoeuvred into the lock – after the rope handlers have untied both bow and stern ropes and the front rope handler has given the bow a good shove towards the middle of the river (not easy with a boat 70 feet long!).

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You can’t go racing into the lock because you need to carefully stop BEFORE you hit the cill on the upstream pair of lock gates. The cill is the concrete base of the lock gates which is exposed when the lock is empty. In actual fact, the real danger is when coming downstream to avoid having the stern of the boat over the cill when the lock is emptied. If you do this, the rear of the boat catches on the cill and tips the bow of the boat under water. Not recommended!
With a boat our size, we often have to bring the bow of the boat right up to the cill in order to be able to close the lock gates behind it. We have two rope handlers in the boat front and rear who throw ropes up to two more rope catchers on the bank besides the lock. The rope catchers put the rope around a bollard front and rear, then pass the ropes back down to the rope handlers in the boat so they can keep tension on the ropes to secure the boat in the lock. Much easier than it sounds :-).

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With both lock gates shut, and the boat positioned in the lock between them, the trickiest part of the operation commences – flooding the lock. This is done by opening the flood paddles on the upstream lock gates. Some locks have paddles that are below the water line even when the lock is empty so flooding is easy. Many locks have the paddles directly above the cill – which means that the water bounces off the cill when the paddles are opened – threatening to pour into the bow of your boat as we found out yesterday! (and another boat user discovered last week when their boat did sink). The trick is to position your boat as far away from the cill as possible, and open the paddles SLOWLY!

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When the lock is full (which takes three or four minutes or even longer if you are going really slowly!), you can then open the upstream lock gates, cast off the ropes and motor to the bollards on the other side of the lock to pick up all crew. Simple eh? YEAH RIGHT. Not the first few times, although by lock 30 we are getting pretty good, although I wouldn’t like to do this with only a crew of two!

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Tgirl8’s journal entry from today:
In locks you can go very close to the cill. If you go too close to the cill you will have to let the water into the lock very slowly, and if you let the water out too fast you can very easily sink the boat and if the boat does start to sink you need to get on the roof in two minutes. If the boat does not sink you will not need to use these instructions!

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Excitement at the Lock

October 11th, 2012

“Do I get onto the roof? Do I get onto the roof?” Jgirl18 shouted with a tone of panic growing in her voice.
“Jaala, get on the roof NOW,” MamaBear shouted, or perhaps even screamed. Ordinarily screaming does not help in an emergency, but in order to be heard above the roaring torrent of water cascading into the bow section where Jgirl18 was standing the boat the instruction giver resorted to LOUD. Panic SLOWLY, the boat hire trainer had told us. I am not sure how slow we had been 🙂
Jgirl18 has no recollection of asking the questions, but she jumped onto the roof like a scalded cat (giving herself a decent bruise in the process) all the while heroically holding on to the end of the rope that was tethering the bow section, and FadaBear pulled the boat back so that the bow section was no longer under the deluge rushing into the lock. It was all over in less than fifteen seconds, but those seconds had ticked by very slowly, and in the process we gained a first hand lesson in lock safety.

It had all started when we edged our 70 foot boat into what appeared to be a 74 foot lock. There certainly was no room to spare, and to complicate matters further, this lock had flood paddles that were actually in the lock gate themselves. This means that when you open them to flood the lock, the stream of water often bounces off the cill (the flat concrete base at the bottom of the lock gates) and fountains upwards. This lock had been more extreme than the others, and we had even taken pictures of the fountaining streams of water that arced in front of the bow of the boat – safely in front of the boat at first….

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This lock we had changed over responsibilities, so the older boys were on paddle duty and the two girls were on rope duties. This subtle change, combined with the high risk lock flood paddles provided just the variables for near disaster. As the lock fills with water, the boat often surges around the lock unless securely roped off around the bollards along the side of the lock, and the people on rope duty need to continually take up the slack from ropes which is introduced as the boat rises with the water in the lock. This time, the inexperienced ropers didn’t manage to keep the ropes taught, and so the boat started to surge forward. This was not really a problem at first as we only had the paddles open a crack, so water was spraying into the bow but not enough to pose any real threat. One of the boys on the paddles was asked to close the paddle completely so that the water spraying into the bow would stop. However, inexperience meant that the paddle was actually opened wider instead of being closed off. Suddenly, the inconvenient spray turned into a rushing torrent of water that was surging directly into the bow section of the boat, buffeting Jgirl18 and threatening to swamp the boat. We were told you have two minutes until the boat sinks in these circumstances – not a statistic we wanted to test. FadaBear jumped on the end of the middle tether rope and managed to pull the boat back in the lock within a few seconds, and the torrent of water stopped coming into the boat. There were some very nervous and shaken-up pilgrims – poor ERgirl6 was a bit frightened by the whole episode and the emergency-toned shouts that were being made! It all gave us a very good object lesson as to why we get everyone off the boat for lock passing, and why we only have one person giving instructions at locks! Thankfully we didn’t end up in any real danger.. and we will certainly be keeping our wits about us for future locks! Given that we typically pass through ten locks a day this will be most of the time :-).

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all smiles in the end!

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Easier than getting your driving licence !

October 10th, 2012

by Ella-Rose aged 6 (copied directly from her journal in which she had dictated the following)

Being on a canalboat is like being on kayaks because it’s skinny. Canalboats are always skinny so that they can fit in the locks. Locks are hard to open and it’s hard to wind the metal sort of thing. Mummy helped me do that. Then Tessa and I opened the swing bridge all by ourselves. It was hard too, but we pushed with all our might.

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by FadaBear

I am officially the captain of the Bewicks Swan, a 70 foot canal boat. This beauty has a top speed of (I estimate) 8-10 mph, however the speed limit on the section of the Kennet canal is 4 mph (officially). It is powered by a sweet and reliable (so far!) Isuzu marine diesel which throbs away not-so-quietly under your feet as you pilot the behemoth down the canal, shaking the tiller roughly in your hand. We gained control of the vessel after a quick walk through the boat with general operating instructions (how to operate the toilets and not flood the bathroom, how to drain the showers, how to fill the water tanks etc). Then general operation of the controls and motor… then we had an hour’s hands-on training as we motored up the canal with a technician on board, showing us the ins and outs of operating the swing bridges, and opening and closing the locks without sinking the boat! Simple really! I mean, how much damage can one really do with a 70 foot stell vessel LOL!!!! There were a few anxious moments that first hour cruising, but “no worries mate!”.

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The Bewicks Swan is a 12 berther – 4 single bunks fore and aft, and two double beds (or can be configured as two single) mid-ship. It can be configured with two decent sized tables (although we manage to all squeeze around one!) There are two bathrooms, each with toilet, shower and washbasin. Not palatial, but waaaay more room than in a motorhome! It has a decent galley – 4 burner fast hob, gas oven, microwave and full size sink, and more bench space than some apartments I know! There is also a surprising amount of storage under bunks and in several large cupboards and wardrobes. The passageway that winds its way from fore to aft is mostly single-track riding only!… no passing expect at passing bays which are the bathrooms and the central cabin areas. Ella-Rose was right, just like living in a kayak! Still, we are VERY comfortable! Just as well, as this will be our home for the next week, and the weather forecast is typical England… so we might have quite a few hours below decks! Thankfully today was fine, and we have started to perfect (?!) our lock-opening-closing technique – but more of that in a later post! Nine locks in total today, and no mishaps at all!

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better pics to come hopefully!

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romantic dreams

October 8th, 2012

by MamaBear

London to Aldermaston (Borough to Paddington on the tube in rush hour, Paddington to Reading on a train, then we missed the connection to Aldermaston by a few seconds ….we watched the train pull out of the station), Aldermaston to Woolhampton by canalboat

When you travel to England you do not make plans that are weather-dependent. Did you ever hear anyone say you need sun to have a picnic?
Last time we were in these parts we had a wonderful sunny afternoon with family in Alton. When they heard we would be back this way they suggested we get together again; we optimistically suggested a picnic at Aldermaston Wharf before we picked up the canalboat and they graciously agreed to make the trip to meet us. They even ordered the weather.

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It didn’t rain. No, no. no. Not rain. It wasn’t even drizzling according to the cousins. Well, not much anyway. And to be fair, it wasn’t until we had almost finished eating that we needed to pack away the coleslaw to prevent it drowning. Thankfully we were wearing our raincoats – not that it was raining or anything. But it WAS cold! We don’t usually go for picnics in 12 degrees Celsius at home. And certainly not in the drizzle. We ended up sheltering under a tiny verandah…..and it was lovely (make that first syllable rhyme with “put” as in “put the umbrella up”) to catch up with GrandpaBear’s father’s sister’s boys and their wives. But just quietly, between you and us, it was wet. Wet and grey.

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no, this is not lens distortion! This baby is 70 foot long!

”You chose a lovely day for it,” (remember to say lovely the right way!) as a runner along the towpath called out to us soon after we had set off. I guess there’s a reason the shoulder season for boats started this week….but from what we hear, the summer wasn’t all that different!

Don’t make plans that are weather-dependent in England. How bad could a canalboat be in the rain? we had cheerfully wondered from the comfort of our study in front of a computer screen showing a happy couple on a sunny waterway….
We set off in a steady drizzle that slowly soaked us through and froze our extremities (feet, hands and noses). Eagerly anticipating descending the stairs to the warm haven below, the bigger members of the party stood stoically outside ready to man the locks and control the bridges. In the short hop from the wharf there were a lock and tilt bridge to learn the ropes on and then another lock and swing bridge far enough away that the steerage crew had worked out how to stay in the middle of the canal to practise on before mooring for the night.
For me, standing stationary outside in the cold and wet was as miserable as the wet day on the Camino had been for others (I preferred cold-and-moving and did not mind being wet when walking). Only this day was not to end in a warm Pension; the heaters would not work! Thankfully the duvets and blankets made for a snuggly night.

Did I say something about weather-dependent plans? We had booked the canalboat with a view to travelling up the Thames to Oxford. It was a wry smile the guy in the office gave us as he brought up the warnings page on the computer screen…..apart from two short sections, the whole of the Thames route is “red boarded” due to flooding. Red board is a bit like a red light, the only difference being you have to wait 24 hours before proceeding once it has been removed. And 48 hours of no rain would be required to get the flood levels down enough….what’s the weather forecast? Sunny for the whole of England except the southwest. Guess where we are! And we only have a week! So there’s no way we’ll be heading to Oxford, and we can’t go to Windsor Castle either. We’ll head westwards instead and visit Newbury, Hungerford, maybe even Pewsey; places we’d never heard of before today! If we had an extra week we’d even make it to Bath and back…and some big kids who were previously eager to get home were overheard wondering why we couldn’t stay for just another week 😉

Although we are supposedly staring at showers for the next two days, we’re not too despondent; if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about weather forecasting in Britain, it’s that it’s even more unreliable than in New Zealand! We suspect they predict rain every day and then if the sun breaks through everyone thinks it’s a bonus! We’ll see what the morning brings (I can tell you now it will not be sunshine, but the clouds will have lightened and a technician will come out to work his magic and fix the radiators!)

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Hampton Court Palace

October 8th, 2012

This former royal residence is a magnificent display of the extravagance and opulence of the royal court – particularly under King Henry VIII. The young children all eagerly donned Tudor gowns and we firstly wandered through the royal kitchens. This took some time as the kitchens consist of over 50 rooms and three cellars, and were often preparing over 600 meals per day back in the 16th Century, going through 1240 oxen, 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 760 calves, 1870 pigs and 53 wild boar in a single year! That sure is meat-lover’s heaven! The kitchens were matched by an even more impressive banqueting hall which could seat 300 at a time. When you are the guest of the King, the amount of meat you ate was the measure of the kingdom’s might! Today at Hampton Court they had a “live day” in the kitchens and we were able to talk with the staff, who shared numerous interesting insights into the workings of the kitchens, Tudor pie recipes, how to use a quill pen and the importance of the potato in helping industrialise England (one particularly enthusiastic historian clearly got a bit chronologically sidetracked sharing information!)

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Back in the day, the way to impress your guests was of course to build a lavish palace with a large, sprawling entrance courtyard; pair it with an equally large and impressive entry stairwell … and match it by hanging a clock off the palace walls. Not just any clock, but a LARGE clock! Hampton Court Palace has it all. Oh, and throw in a well-manicured sprawling estate, with its own maze, tennis court and lake…

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We certainly have learned a ton of English history in the last week. As GrandpaBear commented today, “I have learned more English history in the last week than in all my years at school.” Visiting the place “where it all happened” is a great way to interact with history. Talking with passionate historians is both educational and inspirational. As is watching costumed roleplays, which have been carefully scripted to inform as well as entertain. Seeing people wearing costumes, which previously had been nothing more than frilly pictures in books, really brings the time alive. However, impressive as Hampton Court was, it just confirmed what a ratbag Henry VIII actually was (as if the tower of Tower of London visit hadn’t done that already :-)).

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One day wasn’t really enough to take it all in, but that sums up our week in London. So much to do, so little time! We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in the capital, but we are really looking forward to a quiet week on the canal boat motoring along the Thames. One day, we may need to come back to London again! 🙂

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One fine day at the museums…

October 7th, 2012

The day started out by emptying about 15 litres of water from the dehumidifier and the two large buckets in our room. Clearly it had rained most of the night, and clearly the leak in the roof was a significant one – thankfully our temporary setup caught all the drips and we actually had a reasonable night’s sleep. By the time we had finished breakfast the day was actually shaping up to be clear and cool. Another simple day today – spend the day between the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum. Simply put, impressive museums with some great interactive displays, although we did think that the life-size T-Rex (which had enormous queues all day!) was a tad over-rated, but still great to see. The Science Museum definitely won out over the Natural History museum (which one of the children remarked was like a dead zoo!). Clearly not too many budding entomologists or ornithologists in the family? Having said that, the highlight of the Natural History Museum was a half hour talk by one of the resident scientists about mosquitoes. I sooo know that sounds terribly boring… but it wasn’t! Trust us :-). If you really want to know what sounds boring, then MamaBear wins the award for spending twenty minutes looking at four socks at the V&A. You will have to ask her in a comment if you want further explanation of how four simple socks could capture one’s attention for that length of time :-). In the end, that is the beauty of extensive museums like these – there is just so much variation that everyone is bound to find something to capture their imagination and interests.

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MamaBear’s rebuttal:
If a talk on mosquitoes was their highlight, does my day sound so bad after all?…..I saw crypts and smocking and ironwork (acres of it Grandpa said) and frescoes and a virginal and alabaster carvings and Constables and the most awesome Raphael cartoons and the ensuing tapestry made from one of them and and and…….

We ended the day by a quick after-dark trip on the metro to Piccadilly Circus to “catch the lights”. Not quite Times Square, but certainly a boisterous and merry crowd were gathering at the Circus!

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Trying to slow down!

October 6th, 2012

There were a few tired legs this morning as a result of a big day walking the streets yesterday, and also standing for three hours at the show. The decision was quickly made over breakfast to take the metro today, and to keep things simple. Our goal: visit Kensington Palace, check out the Science Museum and Natural History Museum – then return to our waterfall hostel via Covent Garden Market. Mission accomplished!

Kensington Palace was well worth the visit – especially interesting for the children as there were a number of interactive stations, and whoever has designed the displays clearly has a wonderful creative and design flair. The rooms are novel, informative and cleverly use common objects of the period to tell the history of the palace and its inhabitants. There was also a new permanent display commemorating the life and reign of Queen Victoria who was born at Kensington Palace, and was also living there when she heard of the death of her uncle King William IV and subsequently became Queen. Kensington Palace was also the place where she met her husband Prince Albert. It was also Queen Victoria who opened Kensington Palace to the general public in 1899.

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Our quick visit to the Science and Natural History museums confirmed that we would definitely return for a thorough exploration on another day. Covent Garden Market was a short tube ride away where we enjoyed soaking up the festive atmosphere and watch (and participate in) the street theatre. Mboy10 even earned himself a large oversized lollipop for his being chosen as an assistant/prop for the Charlie Chaplin act. There was quite a crowd and Mboy10 was involved for over ten minutes and he found it all a bit daunting which is unusual for our family actor-in-training! He did well despite the challenges. There were a number of street acts running – magicians, musicians, jugglers (knife throwers yesterday!) and pantomime… it reminded us of Berlin! One classical music group was so good MamaBear and Jgirl18 had bought their CD the day before. There are also numerous interesting boutique-style shops and food stalls from which we had to sample a few goodies. A good shorter day, and our feet appreciated being able to use the metro all day!

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London’s calling

October 5th, 2012

If there is one event that encapsulates “London”, many would argue that the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace is it. Our children certainly had it on each of their “must see in London” lists, and judging by the number of people congregating outside the palace this morning, plenty of others also had this on their list! Even arriving an hour and a half before the scheduled “change” we had to work hard to secure viewing places that allowed us even a modest view of the palace forecourt. Unfortunately, despite the day being cloudless and blue this also meant most of us being in the shadows of a large pillar, and I have to say that October in London is NOT HOT… in fact, downright COLD in the wind. MamaBear had managed to secure the little girls a fantastic position directly in front of the main gates by talking nicely to a generous American man who let the littlies stand in front of him. The rest of us took a variety of positions around the black wrought iron fencing. So we waited, and waited – and finally ended up in a decent position to see the changing of the guard; while the little girls wanted to return again, the rest of us were actually underwhelmed with the experience (although the brass band was appreciated by some).

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Our position in front of Buckingham Palace might have only been average, but we certainly got it right later that evening when we managed to secure eight “return tickets” to see a show at The Globe Theatre. We were just fortunate that our walking route into town from the hostel took us directly past the Globe, so even though we had previously enquired (twice) about tickets, and had been told everything was completely sold out, and only if some pre-booked tickets were returned would we have a chance at getting in. Thankfully that did happen, so we found ourselves (minus the two little girls and GrandpaBear, who had already walked too far this day) in the absolute best places of the standing stalls for the 7:30pm showing of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew – for only five pounds a ticket! Now I remember studying this book at school and do not have fond memories I must confess – but hear me now… if you are ever in London you HAVE TO get along to the Globe to take in one of the shows. It was quite simply the best theatre production I have ever seen – in fact, that any of us have ever seen (sure, the kids haven’t seen that many – but it was fabulous). Everyone loved it – Lboy12 and Mboy10 even asked if we could come back again tomorrow! It was witty, it was professional, it was interactive (Kgirl13 had her eyes covered by one of the actors at a particularly lewd bit, Mboy10 had his cheek pinched by another and Lboy12 was asked some questions….I tell you, we got good spots!), the atmosphere in the globe was incredible, and it brought Shakespeare alive… so trust me, you MUST get along to a show!

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The view of St Pauls across the Thames at night was also stunning. And our day of adventure was not yet over. During the day, the hostel staff had agreed to move us from our room above the pub, to another large dorm up on the third floor. We were one thankful bunch I can tell you! We almost couldn’t wait to go to bed to NOT hear the sound of pub music thumping away! There always has to be a twist though – correct? Yep. Always. And the twist in this tale was MamaBear waking up at 1am to find our duvets dripping wet. Why? Quite simply, because the roof leaked and there was a steady dripping of water coming down onto our bed! Needless to say, we hurriedly did some re-arranging of bedding, and positioning of rubbish bins to catch the small waterfalls.. then fell back into bed. I am not sure that we were laughing last night, but by the morning we could all see the funny side. However, if you want a strong recommendation of which hostel NOT to stay at in London please read my previous posts :-). Having said all that, the staff were brilliant, embarrassed and apologetic and we now have a big pile of towels to mop up the flow which continues into our room… and I tell you – the constant dripping of ancient water torture beats loud pub music any day of the week! 🙂

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PS Highlight for the kids in the morning would have to be the squirrels in St James’s Park. Even the adults had to agree that they were very cute and amusing as they scrambled amongst the fallen brown leaves, hiding acorns and nibbling nuts taken from our outstretched hands. Having never seen squirrels up-close-n-personal before, we were amazed at the way their tails are bushy yet feathery at the same time, and how they quiver as the breeze blows through them.

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Everything British

October 4th, 2012

Our third day in London and we walked our way through a range of quintessentially English experiences. Our first task after breakfast was to head to the Globe and see if we might be able to secure some last minute seats to a show – no one in the family is particularly a Shakespeare fan, but we did think seeing a live performance at the home of the Bard might tweak some latent passion. Unfortunately, it is the last week of the season and every single show was fully booked – including the standing-room-only stalls :-(.  On the way, we walked past a typically English pub, but we currently have a sensitive spot when it comes to English pubs and late-night music so we just snapped a quick pic and kept on walking. By the way, our hostel pub last night was not exactly “tranquil Tuesday”, but we all managed a reasonable night’s sleep with the aid of ear plugs.

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On the walk across town to the British Museum, we encountered dozens of the unmistakable red telephone boxes and this cluster of five was particularly unusual, yet oh so English! There were also black cabs everywhere!

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The British Museum was our main objective for the day – an impressive-looking building from the outside, but even more impressive from the inside with its light and lofty atrium providing access to its numerous just-as-impressive display halls. We could easily have spent a couple of days here, and while the artefacts we were looking at were clearly not entirely English, the children did particularly enjoy the Roman England gallery, which had a table staffed by a knowledgeable and engaging lady who gave them a range of relics to hold and ask questions about, and helped them understand the significance of the displays and where they fit in historically. After everyone’s interest being piqued from the Egyptian display at the Louvre, finding the Rosetta Stone was particularly relevant and informative….and we even discovered we were not mummy-ed out and spent quite some time gawking awestruck at these ancient men, women, cats, crocodile, baboon, birds and their cases. The African display was also fascinating, notably the brass plaque castings from 16th century Benin, Nigeria – and a range of masks and savage-looking knives that the younger boys were especially impressed by.
The European clock display was very different to anything we have previously seen and captured the interest of even the smallest in the family (although MamaBear did exit this display to the next display hall VERY quickly :-)).

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We pulled ourselves away from the British Museum at 3pm in order to make our way to St Pauls for their Evensong service. We had hoped to be able to look around the cathedral before the service at 5pm, but for some reason the cathedral was closed for sightseeing from 3pm just today! Thankfully we were in time to queue for the service, and in fact we decided sitting through the one hour Evensong service was perhaps the ideal way to experience St Paul’s – from the impressive organ to the clear soprano choir-boys singing to the string orchestra.

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All this did mean we were running later than normal, so dinner was agreed upon as another typically English affair – fish and chips! Fish and chips is one of those meals that has every potential to disappoint, but we are happy to report that the meal was exquisite and we drowned every last chip in gallons of vinegar! A great end to a great day in London.

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Tales of torture, treasure and treason

October 3rd, 2012

Let’s start with torture, and even before we got to the Tower of London! Last night we were collectively beaten up until the not-so-early hours of the morning by the rhythmic beat(ing) that came from the pub music directly under our hostel beds! Most of the adults found sleep hard to come by until some time after 2 am when the pub finally closed its doors. Then we had to contend with the rubbish collection truck at 5am! Yes, saving a few (actually, many!) pounds by booking into the cheapest possible hostel does have its drawbacks – the Dover Castle Hostel’s main issue is the pub located on the ground floor, and British licensing laws appear to allow free flowing spirits until 2am Monday through Sunday! Actually, the pub-goers were not the issue, it was just the music that went on relentlessly into the wee hours that caused loss of sleep. I even had a little grizzle to the management about booking a family into the room above the pub, and requested a change of room – all to no avail. All they could do was help me search fruitlessly online for another hostel with eleven free beds to move to… but it appears we are required to put up with the noise for the week here. The free breakfast and wifi will help!

Treasure comes next, and we were truly awestruck by the Crown Jewels which are securely housed in an impressive-looking secure vault within the Tower of London. The opulence of the jewels is magnificent – crowns, sceptres, swords, goblets, maces, orbs, “punch bowls”….. however, the Royal Sceptre with its 530 carat diamond was so fascinating that it required us to jump back on the travelator that moves you slowly past the display of crowns and sceptres at least half a dozen times so we could take it all in. No pictures were allowed, nor would they do this display any justice – but if you ever get the chance DO check the Royal Jewels out! They SPARKLE.

We had started our visit to the Tower of London by taking a guided tour with one of the yeomen warders – aka a “beef-eater”. Our yeoman had served 23 years in the armed service before becoming a yeoman and was immensely proud of the tradition and heritage he was part of. He was also very witty and humorous and kept us all entertained and informed. The little children particularly enjoyed his style of unfolding the stories of the Tower and some of the history of the English kings and queens. The Tower certainly does have a gruesome and bloody history in parts; perhaps that was part of the fascination for the children!

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We attended several “tours” and authentically-costumed and well-acted dramas, which were all fantastic. ERgirl6 even got to take part in one re-enactment of the escape of the Bishop of Durham from the Tower – stealing a purse of money with another young “thief” from the sleeping guards! Lboy11 was chosen to carry a sack of cabbages and all of us had to march and jeer and chant and get into the spirit of events of 1101 and 1588. We enjoyed the range of displays and informative presentations throughout the day and learnt learnt learnt so much…..stories of how executions occurred, details of how chimneys worked, toileting procedures, architecture info, how the rack and Scavenger’s Daughter worked, head preservation techniques, who lives in the tower today, how thick the walls are and how to become a yeoman…….legend has it that if the resident ravens leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall. Regardless of the accuracy of this superstition, today six ravens are carefully bred and housed at the Tower to squawk at the visitors.

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Another favourite from the day was the Royal Armoury display. Fabulous suits of armour from as early as the 1500s, rows of matchlock and flintlock rifles, canons and archery sets filled room after room. There was also a wide range of informative and interactive displays that interested everyone from the youngest to the oldest – a  memorable day that everyone enjoyed.

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PS On the way to the Tower we zipped past Christopher Wren’s “The Monument”, a fantastic tower commemorating the fire of 1666. Pudding Lane, the site of the first spark from the baker’s shop was another must-see for us, but perhaps predictably, there is nothing more than a plaque on a wall now. Somewhat surreal to be here seeing the history we have read about come alive – that’s a treasure, not one bit torture and not a word of treason either. Now all we need is a good night’s sleep…

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