A Salubrious Summer Sojourn – with a Touch of Brexit (2016)

No Waiting, We’re Singaporean

Singapore / Wednesday 6 July 2016

For the first time in a long time, the run-up to this trip was less frenetic than usual. The pre-trip to-do list was made, and checked off, with at least three days to spare. Medicines and groceries were stocked up at home, lists of important numbers printed out, all who needed to know that I was going to be away were informed, and on the work front – emails were cleared, and in my renewed resolution to ‘spread the load’, there were three covering officers instead of the usual (highly stressed) one.

And so, it was off to Changi Airport at 6 in the morning. I called for a cab at 6AM and the (unrequested but very welcome Mercedes cab) was there in one minute, though I was expecting it in “4-6 minutes”. A solicitous driver who checked that I had my passport with me…lest he be asked to turn back for me to retrieve it (I suspect he’d been asked to do this before).

There was a queue at the check-in counter…all of one person…just as I thought “Oh good, no queue”, the First Class check-in counter lady waved me over – so, no waiting, and the closest I’ll get to travelling First Class I guess. First stop after checking in – money changer. With the recent Brexit news, it was next to impossible to get Pounds at the money changers (with far better rates) in town. Fortunately the ones at the airport were still stocked with the (falling) GBP…though the young lady at the counter very apologetically said I “had to wait a while” as her boss had to get the cash from somewhere else. We got to chatting, and when she found out the boys are in university in the UK, she said, “so lucky, wish I went overseas”…then she turned to the (older) lady next to her and asked, “You got send your son overseas to study ah?” and the lady half rolled her eyes and said, “My son no need to study.”…I was trying to figure out why he didn’t need to study, when the young lady said, “Wah, so lucky.” – I guess whichever way one looked at it, that was an appropriate response. And since I so patiently waited for my money (which took about 3 minutes to arrive), I was rewarded with not one, but two, complimentary travel adaptors by the young lady who wished she could’ve studied overseas.

It was an SQ flight, so boarding was (very) early – 45 minutes before flight time – and once again no waiting, all very smooth. On board, I asked the stewardess for a newspaper – she returned with the paper in 20 seconds tops…and said “Thank you for waiting.”!!! What’s with this ‘no waiting’ business – Singapore upping its service??

The flight was good despite a small amount of trepidation, this being my first flight post-surgery. The food and movies provided ample distraction. After a yummy breakfast of dimsum and noodles, I settled in to watch Carol, which was excellent – can’t go wrong with Cate Blanchett; and then binge watched 11.22.63, all 9 episodes of time travel and Stephen King weirdness…but can’t go wrong with a JFK theme. The accompanying lunch of Indian fusion lamb chops and chocolate mousse (which tasted much like my mum’s) enhanced the whole Stephen King experience 🙂

Next stop London.

London Lamb Biryani

Singapore / Wednesday 6 July 2016

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View from the room

It was a short snaking queue through Immigration at Heathrow. The immigration officer was a Mr Singh, much like the one who greeted Inspector Singh at Heathrow in Shamini Flint’s latest book, ‘Inspector Singh Investigates : A Frightfully English Execution’ (appropriate reading material for a UK holiday – that I’d just started on) – young, “turban and facial hair both raven black”. It was an easy walk through, and as I got to the baggage claim belt, I saw my bag sail past. V was waiting, having got in from Brighton half an hour earlier. Lots of hugs later, we Uber-ed it, through London traffic, to our hotel, and our room with a view – of the Thames, Houses of Parliament and the London Eye…can’t get more central than this! Oh, we also had a view of the NHS’ St. Thomas Hospital.

The room had two TVs – very useful for Euro Cup + Wimbledon fans, both in Finals week. We decided to go for dinner before jetlag set in. Indian it was as the boy was craving butter chicken – this suited me fine as I’m always craving lamb biryani. The Thames Indian was found via Google and we were halfway across Westminster Bridge when we realised we should be walking the other way. Stopped for a selfie, watched a wedding shoot on the bridge (Asian bride, of course), and weaved our way through the throngs in the direction of Waterloo Station. Summer exchange students were in town, and I was almost knocked over by a stampede of Italian kids being directed by their very ‘drama’ minder, trying to get them all across the road while the green man flashed.

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#Asian

 

The Thames was a little, nondescript place with nondescript service. The food, however, was delicious – if a little different. The sag paneer was a dry version of palak paneer with non-pureed spinach, and the butter chicken was more creamy than tomato-ey. The lamb biryani was more traditional. But all was super yummy as evidenced by the silence in which we polished it all off…and I wasn’t even that hungry.

All that was left to do on getting back to our room was shower and sleep.

 

 

Art, Nasi Lemak & Some Horses

London / 7 July 2016

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View from breakfast

It was a late start today with a big buffet breakfast in a light and sunny room with ceiling to floor windows and a view of Westminster. For a hotel buffet, the scrambled eggs were great – just how I like them, not too dry. The healthy and yummy muesli with fruits and nuts was completely offset by the equally yummy pork sausages.

We went walkabout post-breakfast, across the Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament (peered through the fence railings – no familiar faces…in fact, no faces at all), through Parliament Square Park with its statues of Churchill (instantly recognisable even from behind), Gandhi, Mandela, etc. We got to Downing Street – now a gated-off road with high black steel gates and armed security. With some craning of the neck one could just about make out number 10 – but there were no famous faces to be seen, all probably in Westminster dealing with Brexit-related decisions.

Next stop – St.James Park and the Horse Guards. The two mounted cavalry looked like very very young boys, all pink-cheeked and pre-pubertal…till V pointed out that they were girls. We walked through the gates and obviously something was going to happen as there was a crowd behind a barrier. We joined the crowd despite not knowing what we were waiting for (we’re Singaporean like that) – at 11AM, a whole lot of horses came down the road behind us. Long story short, it was the Changing of the Queen’s ‘Life Guard’ which happens every day at 11AM. Apparently there’s a 4 o’clock Dismounting Parade too – which started during Queen Victoria’s time when she found the guards drinking and gambling and generally lepak-ing when they should have been guarding. So she issued a royal decree that there has to be a 4PM inspection daily for a hundred years! The hundred years are over but the current Queen has decided that this ‘tradition’ (punishment?) should continue.

Horse guard change over, we wandered towards the Mall, then found ourselves in Trafalgar Square with throngs of summer tourists. Decided to visit the National Gallery – free entry and no bag checks, which was slightly nervous-making. Having read The Goldfinch recently didn’t help either – with its unfortunate beginning involving the Met and a terrorist bombing.

We wandered through the rooms, in search of Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. I’ve always found big art galleries confusing with one room leading to many others, and with me not being able to find what I’m looking for – usually coming across the looked-for painting(s) by chance…a bit like how I feel when I look for restaurants at Dempsey. We did, however, see all that we wanted to see – eventually. Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1640, that I first saw in 1984 with S and her parents (on the day I arrived in London) was still on display. An unfinished painting by Michelangelo was particularly interesting – called The Entombment, there were blank spaces left to be filled in. There are a couple of postulations as to why he didn’t finish this work – one was that the blue lapis lazuli paint he needed was in short supply and he was waiting to get some, and the other was that his dad messaged him (via snail mail) to say that a deliciously large block of marble had arrived and so M abandoned the painting to start on his David.

Van Gogh’s chair and sunflowers were in attendance, but also a painting of two crabs which I hadn’t seen before. Or maybe it was two views of the same crab – one upside down, one right way up. The blurb said that he painted this on his discharge from the hospital in Arles, as ‘practice’ to get back to full time painting.

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National Gallery KPIs met, we decided to go try and get tickets for The Book of Mormon – which V and I were both keen to watch. The Prince of Wales Theatre was a short walk away and we decided to try for tickets directly from the box office.  We were in luck and there were 3 ‘returns’ and we managed to get tix for the matinee on Saturday for almost half the usual price.

As we were right next to Chinatown, and V’s Asian Food Craving had not yet been sated – lunch was at Rasa Sayang – a very authentic Malaysian/Singaporean restaurant.  V had a delish nasi lemak which came with chicken curry as well (might as well satisfy all cravings in one go), and I had a Penang char kueh teow – I virtuously had just half, and ta pow’d the other half for dinner.

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It was a slow walk back to the hotel. The green man at many of the traffic lights had been replaced with interlocking same-gender signs – for London Pride that happened last month – around the same time as the Orlando club shooting.

By the time we got back, Serena had already raced through her semifinals match against a Russian player in 48 minutes – so didn’t catch any of that. Caught the tail end of Venus losing her match, and Murray winning his. V was well in time for the Germany-France soccer match, and we settled in with some room service dinner and the kueh teow. I was asleep before Germany lost the match.

 

 

A Book, A Bridge & Some Yauatcha Yumminess

London / 9 July 2016

A lazy start to the day, with a late breakfast – more yummy scrambled eggs and muesli…then more of the same. Combined with much good conversation, especially hearing about S’s summer school exploits – a very ‘holiday’ sort of a start to the day.

First on the agenda today was our date with The Book of Mormon. Took a slow walk to Soho after breakfast. Wandered past the Houses of Parliament (which was still pretty quiet from the outside), Trafalgar Square and took a short cut via one of the back lanes (which V remembered from the other day) to the Prince of Wales Theatre. We weren’t that hungry – at least I wasn’t – but it was ‘lunchtime’, so…  Managed to get a table at the Comedy Pub just down the road from the theatre and had some ‘British pub food’ tapas-style, washed down with a Bloody Mary.

The Book of Mormon was good irreverent fun; I’m surprised that there weren’t any Mormon protests (given all the religious sensitivities and aggrieved feelings that make themselves known at the slightest provocation these days) – or were there protests when this first came out and I just didn’t hear about it? I was curious – are Mormons as a group not large enough to be ‘heard’? Or are Mormons above it all, and confident enough to not waste their time over South Park types – even if they were saying hasa diga eebowai? I’d like to think it is the latter.  A very non sequitir sidenote: Some of the toothy, wholesome ‘converters’ on stage could have been Osmond descendants. My favourite character though was Mafala Hatimbi, played by the rather dishy Richard Lloyd King.

13.1468090733.cast-of-the-book-between-showsMuch laughing later, we were waiting outside the theatre for an old school friend of mine – whom I’d not seen since we left school – 38 years ago! As we waited, some of the Osmonds from the play hung around too – one was circling around on a scooter (he may have been a tad disappointed that no one stopped him for a selfie or autograph – the circling did get a bit ‘deliberate’), some were sitting on the kerb eating takeout. …these were obviously not (yet) big stage names.

I recognised WY in a flash, despite the 38 intervening years. It was just lovely catching up, strangely no awkwardness at all. The boys seemed to enjoy her company too and were chatting like old friends. We had dinner at a fab place at Soho – the one-Michelin-starred Yauatcha. Simply delicious dim sum – the prawn and beancurd chee cheong fun was silken smooth, the venison puff melt-in-your-mouth yumminess, the jasmine tea smoked ribs disappeared like magic. The desserts too were most unusual – one was a coconut lemon curd combination, another a raspberry delice, and yet another…I can’t remember. They all came with very padan (matching) ice creams as well.

Much good food and good conversation later, we did a wander through Soho, with WY pointing out some of her fave restaurants. We ambled past the theatre where the latest Harry Potter (and the Cursed Child) is on – and sold out till March next year – and said our goodbyes at Covent Garden.

The boys and I strolled back to our hotel from there. Decided on a different route and a different bridge (just for a change – and less crowds, we hoped). Went past the Savoy and a Daawat (wonder if it’s as good as the one at home) and then crossed the Thames on the Waterloo Bridge. It certainly was less crowded. As we stopped to take a windswept / windblown we-fie, a very helpful American (“here on business”) offered to take the photo for us.  Further down the bridge, a young man went on one knee and proposed to his shocked (or maybe surprised – couldn’t really tell) girlfriend. I got a photo of it (she said yes), and I wished I’d offered to send the photo to them – the thought struck me only much later.

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The first day of the holiday with all three of us together – a fun day. Watched a bit of Wimbledon when we got back and was asleep the minute my head touched the pillow.

Cousins & Other Creative Connections

London / 10 July 2016

This morning was a repeat of yesterday’s – except that V was up early and managed a workout before breakfast. Scrambled eggs and muesli standards were maintained despite the large Sunday crowd at breakfast. S liked the black pudding – I gave that a miss. We wondered why Asian cuisine was viewed as ‘exotic’ – Western food has most of the same stuff…the English black pudding / the Cantonese blood tofu or blood pudding; various Western tripe dishes / the Chinese kuay chap; blue cheese / stinky tofu… the list goes on. It was a long, leisurely breakfast with more good conversation about food, Brexit and university life.

On the cards today was an Indian lunch with a cousin (second cousin to be accurate) who had come down from Aberdeen where she worked to meet up with us (how nice is that!). I’d first met L and her daughter S in Dubai some years ago when she was working there. She was great fun – and she drove the same car (same model, exact same colour) that I did…so, what’s not to like! We’d kept in touch on and off since then, aided by a rather active cousins’ WhatsApp group.

There was some run happening around our hotel so no Ubers today. Got the Underground instead to South Kensington. As we got out of the station and were getting our bearings, L appeared – fortunately we recognised each other. The restaurant was a bit of a walk away. Thali had some very great food and Asian food cravings continued to be sated. L’s daughter S who’s studying in England joined us and midway through lunch asked the question that the boys wanted to ask but hadn’t gotten round to – “So how are we related?”. After the explanation (in between mouthfuls of naan and butter chicken) which included a great-grandmother, uncles/aunts, brothers and sisters, S and the boys remained thoroughly confused, and we concluded that L and I are second cousins which made the boys and S third cousins. They still looked bemused – maybe it’s time their generation started a cousins WhatsApp group. And with that it was back to the biryani.

Decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch. It was a gloriously sunny day, with clear blue skies, and many pale partly bare bodies lay on available patches of grass. As with most of the museums, it was free entry to the gallery and this time there was a cursory bag check.

There were some fab Mario Testino portraits of the Royal Family – particularly liked the one of Prince Charles – razor sharp with an air of sadness (“I’m not going to be King, am I?”). Camilla’s portrait, on the other hand, looked remarkably happy. There were paintings that looked like photographs, and photographs that looked like paintings. There were those that were instantly recognisable (like the portrait of J.K. Rowling) and some that needed their labels to be read before I went “Ohhh” (like the bust of Nehru).

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My favourite bit was the South of the River project. The photographer, Simon Terrill, and students from two schools in the area researched nine prominent people who were from ‘South of the River’ – the likes of David Bowie, Adele, Rio Ferdinand and someone called Peter Tatchell who was a LGBT activist and who tried to carry out a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe when he was visiting the UK. The students then depicted these nine people in places and ways they thought most appropriate. For example, Rio Ferdinand was represented by the kids in a ballet school as Ferdinand actually had a scholarship to go to ballet school as a child and trained as a dancer!

The photoshoot involved construction lights, a smoke machine, a large format camera mounted high up on a nearby building, and about 200 students who had to hold their poses in each of their nine areas for the long exposure shots to be taken. Pretty amazing, especially as each of the figures was pin-sharp – how do people even conceive of these ideas? Brilliant!
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Needless to say, we were at the gallery right up till closing time. An afternoon well spent. We said our goodbyes to L and S after that and started on our walk back to our hotel. Stopped at a Coop to get microwaveable stuff for dinner. So much variety – and a whole row of ‘healthier choices’! S was super amused at my checking out each and every box of yumminess. Settled on prawn tikka, rogan josh and a couple of other ‘healthier choices’, and we were on our way. Wandered by Downing Street (all quiet) and as we were waiting at a red light, a London bus drove past – the ad on the side said ‘Bus drivers wanted in Singapore’!! Is Tower Transit going to bring in its own bus driver uncles??

Didn’t realise how tired I was. S, on the other hand, went for another walk after our microwave dinners, and V was at the gym again. I had dinner, a shower, and fell asleep while saying something incoherently to S about gulab jamun.

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep

Blackwood Forest, Micheldever/ 11 July 2016

It was time to check out of the Park Plaza this morning. Another long breakfast, repacking of the bags to smaller bags for the Blackwood Forest stay, a nice chat with the bellboy (a smart young man doing Counter-Terrorism at UCL (!), and who has been doing this bellboy job every summer vacation for the last four years) and then a Uber to P’s. The big bags were left in P’s lovely flat, small ones loaded in her car and we were off to our forest getaway. When P heard that I was going to be in the UK, and that I needed a ‘gentle’ holiday, she suggested a ‘forest holiday’ – something she’s been wanting to do too. We decided on the Blackwood Forest as it wasn’t too ‘rural’ and within driving distance of some interesting little towns/villages.

We stopped briefly at a Fleet to stock up on supplies and had a quick lunch, then it was a direct run to the cabin, through some lovely country roads. Our cabin was beautiful, with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the beech forest. The lodges are arranged so you feel yours is the only lodge there – unless you’re at the front door you can’t see any of the other lodges…though we read there were 60 cabins in all – in a few clusters in the 500 acre forest area. There was a well-equipped kitchen, a deck with barbecue paraphernalia and a hot tub!
13.1468263572.the-yellow-trailIt was a very gentle day today. We went for a walk on the ‘yellow trail’ – followed the yellow markers. We did have an ordnance map but decided that may be a bit too adventurous, and we did want to get back to the lodge for dinner; and there was the small matter of slightly inappropriate shoes. The yellow dirt trail was still lovely – the evening sun dancing on the beech, butterflies, birds, the quiet…and an unexpected pull-up bar in the middle of nowhere.

P and V walked ahead, quite engrossed in their conversation. S hung back and walked with (the rather slow) me – another wide-ranging conversation…about learning, ambitions, America’s trump card, politics, medicine…we chatted till we got to the slushy bits. It had rained earlier in the day and the narrow paths got really slippery at parts – no conversation here, as I clutched S and tried not to land on my behind.
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The always organised P had brought our dinner with us – meatballs, roasted vegetables, and we’d picked up a bottle of red at the shop at the reception. All very yum. It was an early night for everyone – in keeping with our ‘country life’. Tomorrow – Downton Abbey.

Highballing at Highclere

Highclere / 12 July 2016

Woke up to a view of the woods outside the window, and absolute quiet. It was a leisurely breakfast of coffee, toast, smoked salmon and eggs – courtesy V. The plan for today was Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey. We set off in the late morning – it was grey and drizzling, but families were out walking the slushy paths in raincoats and wellies. It was a short half hour drive to Highclere Castle, past Newbury. By the time we got there, the rain had stopped and the grey clouds made for a rather dramatic backdrop to the Downton Abbey castle.

The elderly man at the ticket booth was slightly (just very slightly) grumpy, unlike all the other ‘salespeople’ we’d encountered so far. We later found out that he is the real life butler to the Lord and Lady Carnavon who own Highclere (the Carnavons, the Granthams…same same but different!). In the summer months (and a few other days over Easter), when the castle is open to the public, the Carnavons with their three children live in a cottage, a stone’s throw from the castle – and the butler doubles up as ticket seller at Visitor Reception. In winter, the Carnavons move back to the castle (though I think the cottage might be warmer) and the butler is back to butler-ing.

Highclere has been home to the Carnavons since the 17th century and in a case of life imitating art, Lady Almina who married the 5th Earl in the 19th century was from the other side of the pond – like Cora. Also like Cora, Lady Almina brought with her lots of dosh, and saved the estate which was seeing hard times. In yet another case of life imitating art, Lady Almina turned the castle into a hospital and nursing facility for returning WW1 soldiers.
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The interior of the castle was immediately familiar. We were greeted by a life-sized picture of the Earl of Grantham. This set the tone for the rest of the visit…pretty much everything was linked back to Downton Abbey, with references to various scenes and characters in most of the rooms – the library, home to more than 5,000 books and where many a scene was shot with Lord Grantham mulling over papers at the old Earl of Carnavon’s desk; ‘Sybil’s bedroom’; the oak staircase – which had Mary coming down on her wedding day.

Interspersed with all the Downton stuff were more modern day items – family photos of the Carnavons, photos of the Queen at Highclere (she was a friend of the 7th Earl and visited frequently – had sleepovers too), Dan Brown novels. There were also framed newspaper clippings, yellowed now, of King Edward VIII’s abdication and the start of World War II.

A guide in one of the rooms said that the castle was in a state of disrepair, with mould and rot threatening to completely knock the castle over. Ceilings were collapsing and stone walls crumbling. Being used as the location for Downton Abbey saved the day – as close to 12 million pounds were needed for repairs. I later read that Highclere was used also in the filming of Kabhie Kushi Kabhie Gham and Eyes Wide Shut – though I guess these didn’t mint as much money as Downton did for the Carnavons.

For a change, one did not have to ‘exit through the gift shop’ to get out of the castle – instead we had to walk through the kitchens and past a board with bells that were labelled with room names – so the help could be summoned from anywhere in the house (and they would run up the stairs to the correct room …and say “You called, Sir?”). What fascinating real life stories those corridors must’ve been witness to.

We did stop at the little gift shop though – well I did, with S carrying my shopping basket, while V waited outside. The weather was improving, the drizzle had been blown away and the skies now more blue than grey. Decided to sit out in the grounds for lunch – a rather delicious hot dog and a shared red velvet cupcake with S.

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The Secret Garden

The grounds were huge (the castle sits on about 1,000 acres of land) and really lovely – the grass was the softest I’ve felt anywhere…it was tempting to lie down and have a snooze…but it was still a bit nippy. We strolled through the Secret Garden, a beautifully manicured garden with flowers and plants that were a riot of colour. Through a gate, we were in yet another garden – P commented that this one looked ‘more masculine’ – when we checked our map, we found we were in the Monks’ Garden. There was a gate marked Private nearby – we assumed this was the Carnavons’ cottage.

While the boys and I explored Jackdaw Folly (a temple-like structure, apparently built just to provide a good view of the castle), the ever-organised P was deciding on ‘what next’ as it was still early in the day and bright. We all approved of her choice of our next stop – the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. We got our tickets online before setting off.

It was a short (15 minutes) drive through very charming country roads and picturesque little villages to the distillery at Laverstoke Mill. We were pretty much the only visitors and the chap at reception greeted P by name (!) – definitely not a butler type.

The Mill is about 300 years old and the Bombay Spirits people redeveloped it to become a sustainable distillery about 6 years ago – all very eco-friendly. The mill sits on a conservation site, with the River Test running through it.

It was a fascinating afternoon in a world of botanicals, two green houses (one tropical, one Mediterranean) with the actual plants in bloom, the two pot stills named Thomas and Mary (after Thomas Dakin who invented the still and his granddaughter, Mary, who not only improved on her grandfather’s invention but also climbed up and into the stills, 19th century skirts and all). Our very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide explained how perforated copper baskets with the botanicals (packed by hand into the baskets) are placed in the stills – the exact combination is top secret – but juniper features prominently; the vapour from the alcohol is then allowed to absorb the flavours and oils from the botanicals. The stills run 24 hours a day and each distillation takes about 10 hours.

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Thomas the Still

While Thomas and Mary are working stills, producing 3,000 litres of gin each time, they’re used mainly for the ‘visitor experience’. Another two stills (Henry and Victoria, housed in India House at the Mill) produce 12,000 litres and are the primary producers. The distillery uses a wheat-based alcohol from France – it is 96% alcohol at the start. After the botanical infusion, the 86% proof gin is collected, tested for quality then blended before sending for bottling. After bottling, depending of where the gin will be sold, it’s either slightly over or just below 40% proof.

We could dip our finger into a small glass and have a taste of ‘pure gin’ (no worries of contamination as we all dipped a finger into the same glass). There was a measurement device to weigh the gin before it got blended – this was because the distillery is taxed based on the weight of the gin it produces – so it is weighed before it is blended and water added (which would increase the weight). The Inland Revenue people apparently come regularly to check on the measurements and meters.

There was a room of all the dry botanicals – we were each given a card which categorised and charted each one.  As we sniffed, we indicated on the card, which ones we liked best.  We were told to choose 3 to 5. The last stop was the bar – here we gave our card to the bartender who suggested a cocktail based on which botanicals we liked best. My sniffing choices leaned towards the ‘spicy’ botanicals and I had the Laverstoke which combined gin, martini, elderflower, lime and ginger ale. S had a jammy looking cocktail (which came in a jam jar) called Positive Libations, and V ignored the sniff test and stuck to a G&T…but not just any G&T – when at Laverstoke Mill, it’s The Ultimate Gin & Tonic.

It was another lovely day. Dinner was ordered in from the lodge’s shop and we caught up with all the news from Westminster as Britain was one sleep away from having a new Prime Minister. All those days last week when we walked past Westminster and Downing Street, peering through gates – nothing was happening – and now, while we’re ‘far away’ in a forest, the BBC journos are parked right there, with so much going on.

Cameron Can’t but Theresa May

Alton / 13 July 2016

While lots of politics was happening in London, we in Blackwood had more literary pursuits planned for the day – a visit to Jane Austen’s home in Chawton. Cameron’s humming as he walked back to Number Ten after announcing that Theresa May would take over, was by now making the rounds on the internet, with the ‘doo-doo-doo’ being set to full orchestral pieces, and subject to scrutiny by various experts. On one classical music station, it was named ‘Cameron’s lament’, on another less classical station it was called the Evil Tory Theme. An acapella group sang their version of it, complete with staccato “Right, good”s as punctuation marks. It was hilarious and we couldn’t believe just how much airtime this humming was getting. One just has to love the British press.

It was a lovely sunny day, and another charming drive down very narrow country roads with tall hedges – and thankfully hardly any vehicles coming in the opposite direction. We found Chawton village and Jane Austen’s house, which is now a museum, with no trouble – it all was very clearly signposted.

We had a surprisingly enthralling morning at the house. I say enthralling as I didn’t expect it to be thaaat interesting, but the way the house and its contents were preserved, the handwritten letters, the family stories – it was all absolutely fascinating. We all saw all there was to see and read all there was to read – her early life in Bath among other places, her being home schooled, and the move to Chawton after her father died. The Chawton house was a gift from her brother, Edward, and she spent the last eight years of her life there with her mother, her sister Cassandra and her best friend Martha, who later married one of Jane’s brothers.

She seemed to have a mind of her own too despite living a seemingly sheltered life. There was an exhibit that told of the Prince Regent being an admirer of Ms Austen’s writing. The Prince’s librarian informed her that “if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming, she was quite at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince.” The librarian himself had written a book and a three-page dedication to the Prince. Jane Austen ignored the ‘request’ but her siblings pointed out that “at liberty” = “you must”. And so, she wrote a polite one sentence dedication – which her publisher expanded to one page.

The Prince’s librarian in the meantime had tried to persuade Jane to include him in her forthcoming novel and/or to write a historical romantic novel. With her reply to the librarian, Jane Austen really raised the bar on ‘how to say no, politely’ – her reply – “Iam fully sensible that an (sic) historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem . . . and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I finished the first chapter.”  Brilliant!

Jane Austen didn’t own many pieces of jewellery – only 3 to be exact – and all three were on display. One of them, a turquoise ring had an interesting story to it. While it stayed within the family for years, some years ago it was auctioned. Kelly Clarkson (yes, of American Idol fame – apparently she’s a fan) outbid the museum and got the ring for £152,000. The Jane Austen Society and Brits in general were up in arms. An export bar was put on the ring and enough money raised to ensure the ring stayed in the museum. Kelly Clarkson got her money back and graciously said she was glad more people can enjoy the ring now; and apparently she wears a replica.
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We reluctantly left for lunch but not before a few purchases were made at the gift shop. A beautiful first edition of Emma caught my eye…but I exercised great restraint and took P’s advice to ‘think about it over lunch’. Lunch was across the road at the Greyfriar, a 16th century inn which served pub fare. I had fish and chips (of course) – then went back across the road to get the book.

In the last year of Jane Austen’s short life, she was struck by an illness which till today is the subject of many a treatise. Whether it was a cancer or a pernicious anaemia or Addison’s disease or something else, is still a mystery. Whatever it was, it pushed Jane Austen to leave her lovely village house to go to Winchester to be closer to her doctor. She, with her sister Cassandra, made the journey in a horse cart in pouring rain – it took her close to 8 hours. We took less than half an hour.

Winchester was a surprising find – a gorgeous little town, with the Gothic cathedral as its centrepiece – one of the largest in Europe. It’s claim to fame is that it is the longest cathedral in Europe. We didn’t know this when we decided to follow the Jane Austen trail from Chawton. It was also used in the filming of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. But we were here to visit Jane. She died a few weeks after moving to Winchester. There were four people at her funeral – her sister Cassandra could not attend, as in those days women could not be seen at funerals; I didn’t know this – I thought only Hindus had the ‘no women at funerals’ rule. The inscription on her tomb doesn’t make any mention of her literary achievements but a plaque which said “…known to many for her writings…” was later added.

The cathedral itself, which dates back to 1079,  was quite magnificent – more so from the inside than the outside. Much of the original structure is still intact including a crypt which won’t have been much fun all those hundreds of years ago.

There were several groups of summer exchange students beginning to gather in the cathedral grounds – we decided on something quieter, and found ourselves a great little pub nearby – The Old Vine. Over tea, scones with jam and clotted cream, and some bubbly, we mulled and marvelled about Jane Austen’s life – to all intents and purposes a quiet village life, with her small circle of family and friends – and yet, at such a young age she did what most have not achieved in a lifetime. Home-schooled, she started writing at 15 and by 23 had completed the original versions of Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense & Sensibility – which she polished and completed at that little table by

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The table at which classics were completed

the window in the Chawton house. Her writing was chock-a-block with social commentary and accurate observations of country life in the 19th century. The mind (mine anyway) boggles.

We took a circuitous route back to the car, and a direct route back to the lodge. The evening’s entertainment was catching up with the day’s news – Cameron’s last PM Questions, May’s acceptance, and the speculation of who’ll be who in her Cabinet. I reminded S of his prescient WhatsApp to me just after the Brexit vote (and when BoJo was touted to be the next PM) where he said that Theresa May has the best mind and should be the next PM – spot on!
Another A* day, and a early night for all.

Birthday with the Boys

Blackwood Forest – London / 15 July 2016

I woke up to several birthday messages this morning but the one that made me sit up in bed was one from Singapore, from a friend at work. It said “Atul Gawande coming to S’pore! Would u like me to sign up for you?! 29th August 5-7PM” I couldn’t say yes fast enough. This friend went the extra mile and checked my work calendar – “you have a meeting till 5.30, not sure if you can leave early” “I will leave early!” There were limited seats and I held my breath till she replied (all of 3 minutes after her first message) “Done!” Woohoo – what a great birthday pressie!

The morning was spent having breakfast and packing up to leave for London. We got in ahead of schedule but fortunately the OneFineStay chap was already at our one fine stay at Belsize Lane. It was a beautiful home in the heart of Hamsptead, with the Royal Free Hospital up the road and the Belsize Park tube station a short walk away. The house had some nice touches – like the tv on an artist’s easel, and a lovely skylight in one of the bathrooms which made it all bright and cheerful. The boys went with P to get the rest of the bags from her place which wasn’t far away; we unpacked, had some tea and biscuits (so Enid Blyton!), then went for a walk.

We thought we’d stop for a drink and a snack – and so we did at Chez Bob. We were hungrier that we thought – V had a caesar salad while S and I shared a grilled haloumi and vegetables, and crunchy tiger prawns. Very yummy.

Thought we’d go and see what was happening at 44 Canfield Gardens (where I lived many many…many…years ago). I didn’t think Mr L, our landlord, would still be there – we had gone by on our last trip to London together, about 10 years ago. Then, when I knocked on the door, he’d asked who it was – I gave my name through the door and said I lived upstairs some 40 years ago. To my surprise, he’d recognised my name instantly, throwing open the door and giving me the warmest welcome, to the boys’ bemusement. He was already frail then and living alone. His wife had passed away some years ago. He put me in touch with his daughter, V, whom I’d played with during our time there, all those years ago. V is a teacher with two children, living on the outskirts of London and we had spent a nice day with them. Unfortunately, I’d lost touch with her after that trip. Anyway, here we were again, having walked past the Finchley Road tube station, the Waitrose John Barnes (which used to be the John Barnes at which mum used to do her shopping), and a road which looked like the road where my nursery school used to be. We were in for a big surprise – 44 Canfield Gardens had undergone quite a significant renovation. The small gate was now an electric gate that stretched across the front of what used to be the front garden – the front garden was no longer a garden but instead was parking space for three rather posh cars – 2 Audis and a funky orange electric car. And there was an Aston Martin parked right outside the gate – where our car used to be parked. The facade was the same as before except that the brick walls had been redone.
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It was a slow walk back to our house (well, ours for the weekend). As we got back to wifi zone, I got a WhatsApp message from my sister in Australia, asking if I’d got the pressie.  What pressie?? She had very sweetly sent a birthday package which was supposed to have been delivered this evening. But nope, nothing there, checked outside the gate, on the wall, everywhere – but there was no package or note. Many phone calls later (from sister to delivery people), it was established that they’d come by but we were out so they’d left. Arrangements were made for the parcel to be redelivered the next evening between 5 and 7PM. And in case it still didn’t arrive, I was sent pictures so that, if nothing else, I could see what I should’ve received – a box of yummy chocolates and a bottle of gin. Sigh.

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Our home for the weekend

Tonight was birthday dinner night, arranged by S. We Uber’d it to Il Baretto on Blandford Street, off Baker Street (yes, we saw 221B on the way). It looked quite quiet when we walked in – then we were shown to our table in the basement – which definitely was not quiet. It was packed, and very Italian. We had a nice corner table. The balsamic vinegar that came with the bread and olive oil was a major hit, with V saying that alone could be dinner (as we asked for more bread). It was a house brand balsamic and almost as good as the 30-year old bottle I’d bought in Florence. The food was as delicious – I had the lamb which was, as the maitre’d promised, an excellent choice. With dessert, came a very loud rendition of Happy Birthday, in Italian baritone, courtesy two of the waiters. And with all that drama and embarrassment, I completely forgot to buy a bottle of balsamic before we left.

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We had initially thought we could walk back through Regent Park – a good forty-minute walk according to Google Maps – a much needed walk too, after that super-delicious dinner. But it was late, and it was dark, and probably unwise to walk through the park. So we took the tube back instead – from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage on Finchley Road. As we stopped under a street lamp to check directions, a group of loud boys, some in hoodies and shoving each other, approached – I have to admit, I held my breath as they went past.

V, as usual, led the way back. 10,000 steps a day – no problem at all while on holiday! We watched a bit of TV – S and I attempted to watch Scandal Season 5 but weren’t successful in streaming it, so called it a night.

Lalmaas in London

London / 16 July 2016

The plan today was to meet up with another cousin for lunch. I’d never met K but knew of her via the cousins’ WhatsApp group. The boys and I had a leisurely breakfast before setting off for the Tate Modern, which came highly recommended. Took the Tube, and once again V led the way. Familiar territory for him, as he’d been in the area to photograph stuff for one of his course portfolios – so no Google Maps needed today. It was a brilliantly sunny day with clear blue skies – t-shirt weather.

13.1474147054.babelThe Tate Modern was…interesting. There were some pieces I ‘understood’ – like Babel, which was a tower made up of about 800 radios dating back from the 1920s to present time – from the lovely large ‘radiograms’ at the bottom of the tower to the small-enough-to-fit-in-one’s-hand electronic radios at the top. Each was tuned in to a different station, creating a weird cacophony of voices. As the blurb said, “This vast tower of radios, each tuned to a different channel and adjusted to the minimum volume at which it is audible, relates to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel: a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. Affronted by this structure, God caused the builders to speak in different languages and, ceasing to understand one another, become divided and scattered across the earth. According to myth, this inability to communicate became the cause of all mankind’s conflicts.”

Ok, so that one, I got. The room titled, ‘Painting With White’, I didn’t get. Some had ‘darker’ white lines across a white canvas, one had a little black hole in the centre of a white canvas, while yet another was just white. The boys and I were near hysterics, especially as V peered at the white canvases then declared that if he hung his sunglasses on one of the white canvases, he was sure it’d get quite a following. The other one we didn’t get was the framed Sainsbury grocery bill. V said maybe the point was that with Nectar you would’ve earned 53 points….ooohhh. Only much later when I read up to see what this bill was about (it was at the entrance to the ‘white room’) did I realise that all the items on the bill were white….corn flour, caster sugar, white tea, etc etc etc. OOOHHHHH! AND, a similar ‘white’ bill (from Morrison’s not Sainsbury’s) was once sold for £30,000!!! Such Philistines we are!
Art-ed out for the day, we decided it was time for lunch. K was to meet us at the Tate but the restaurants were packed so we thought we’d try the Union Street Cafe which was in an old industrial building and which we’d seen on our walk from the tube station to the Tate. Managed to get a table at the Cafe – and only then realised that this was actually a rather popular Gordon Ramsay place. Yay!

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Pork belly

We had a superb lunch with yummy cocktails – S’ choice of espresso martini (x2) was the obvious winner. It was lovely meeting K, and putting a face to the name. The restaurant itself was interesting, to say the least, with all the pipes running across the ceiling, the installation of convex mirrors, and the unfinished concrete floor. A lot of atmosphere.

It was just after 4PM when we got back to our house – a whole hour to spare before the delivery people came back with the gin and chocolates. They came at 4.30PM! Lucky we were back early, or it would’ve been a repeat of yesterday. Messaged the sister to say all’s well, the package was delivered, and proceeded to have some of the chocolates with tea. We spent most of the evening doing nothing much – reading, chatting, and V did some laundry. We originally were booked to go for dinner at Ottolenghi, but decided to save that for brunch tomorrow. Instead we wandered down to Hazara, a Michelin Guide-mentioned Indian restaurant, literally a 3-minute walk from the house. This was a real Find – the food was comparable to the yumminess we had in Rajasthan – they even had lalmaas which was almost better than what we had savoured ‘at source’.


It was a very satisfying dinner with much good conversation about all the possibilities the future holds. And as we walked back, two foxes crossed the road in front of us and lingered at our gate before running off towards the heath.

Brunch, Bridges & Barbeque

London / 17 July 2016

S was driving down from Abergavenny to spend the day with us in London. The original plan to meet us at the house didn’t materialise so we took the Tube to Spitalfields and arranged for S to meet us at Ottolenghi for brunch. Once again we had a nice table by the window, looking out into a narrow lane, and at hip, cool and trendy people walking by. We took our time ordering as our ‘party of 4’ was still one short. Eventually, we did have to order – had a shakshuka, a North African dish of eggs, tomatoes, peppers, yoghurt and focaccia. Very yum. #4 in our party of 4 arrived as we were almost done, but fortunately before we were completely done. She had a shakshuka too, then we very indulgently had decadent desserts – very large, chocolate-y desserts.

Drove around a bit after breakfast, then wandered around the St Katharine Dock area, watched the Tower Hotel bridge open and close (in lieu of the actual Tower Bridge), and took some photos but it was sweltering and before long we headed back to the car. Stopped at a supermarket on the way to get a bottle of wine for today’s barbeque dinner at P’s. Then we got back to our house with the help of Google maps, via a couple of wrong turns.

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The Tower Bridge – not

We were all a bit knackered today. Fortunately it was an early barbecue dinner at P’s. We took a slow walk there through a little park by the Heath. It was a lovely evening to sit out in the garden for a barbeque, at least till the sun went down and the jackets came out. P had another guest, C, whom I hadn’t seen since school, many many years ago. P’s son, V, provided us with much entertainment, with all his observations, and especially his description of ‘flowcharts’ for life.

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It was another slow walk back, a shorter route this time through the residential area. V once again, led the way with the help of Google Maps – which accurately pointed us down a very narrow walled alley. I thought it couldn’t be right, but V was confident it was – and it was. As we walked we heard this weird – and quite eerie – howling. It was a bit disconcerting till S declared, “Oh, opera!” – obviously a rather bad rendition.

 

Chatted a bit when we got back, but sleep soon got the better of us, and I think I may have fallen asleep mid-sentence.

Bye Belsize, Hi Brighton

London – Brighton / 18 July 2016

A lazy morning, slept in a bit, had breakfast, packed and checked that all the red stickers were intact. The onefinestay people have a good system of placing red ‘please do not open/touch’ stickers on items/drawers/cupboards that we aren’t supposed to use. S thought she might use something similar for her holiday rental home.

There was a slightly anxious moment (for me) when I almost locked myself in the bathroom – and couldn’t unlock the door. I had visions of having to call a locksmith – or a fireman, which is what happened when I locked myself in the bathroom of another London flat and couldn’t get out…when I was about 5.

Our minicab driver was slightly late and very apologetic. I realised too that I’d missed five messages from him (probably while I was locked in aforementioned bathroom), saying he was running late. It was another super hot day and the first half hour or so was rather uncomfortable while the aircon blew hot air. I dozed and missed passing through Harrow. Over the last few months, especially while on medical leave, I’d started playing Words With Friends. While we were at Blackwood Forest, one of my ‘regular opponents’ struck up a conversation – something she “normally” doesn’t do, she said, but she said she felt “safe” once she checked that I’m “female too”. Anyway, it turns out she runs an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Harrow and we were invited to come by. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do so. Thus the significance of Harrow.

We got into Brighton in good time and found the airbnb place with no problem. It was on a narrow street near the Laines, and the homes had colourfully painted walls and doors. I felt like I was back in Bo-Kaap. Our airbnb host let us in but was busy sorting out some phone issues before he could show us around and rush off for the train station. The place was nice enough (not quite Belsize Lane), smaller than the pictures made out, and some signs of ‘age’…but all in all, comfortable and clean.

It was way past lunchtime and we all were a bit tired after the drive, with V coming down with something. So went round the corner, to Bill’s, which apparently used to be a bus depot. It was a cosy, menu-on-the-walls sort of place. It was cocktails and salad for lunch then a shortish walk to the supermarket for supplies. There was a whole row of ‘healthier choices’ microwaveable meals. I looked at each as discreetly as possible, lest I got laughed at again.

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Brighton is a whole other world – very bohemian, loads of wall art, mostly young people; ‘alternative lifestyles’ and interests appear ‘mainstream’ here…so, that was my first impression of Brighton.

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We didn’t do much else today. We made a salad and had some of the ‘healthier choices’ for dinner, watched our favourite entertainment channel (BBC Parliament), and V went to the gym. Tomorrow we’re off to the Seven Sisters, which, I’ve been informed, gives the white cliffs of Dover a run for its money.

Sunstroke at Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters / 19 July 2016

Another ridiculously hot day. After a late breakfast, we walked past the Laines, to the main street and to Churchill Square, to get the bus to the Seven Sisters County Park. We got on the #12 instead of the #12X and endured a ride that stopped every 100 metres or so (felt like that anyway). The X in 12X stands for Express, which means no stops. Okay, so now we know. I had a good view of the sea for the most part but it was also the hotter side of the bus and I felt thoroughly burnt by the time we got to our stop, more than an hour later.

To our dismay, we read on the information board that it was a 45-minute walk (the quickest route) to get to the cliffs. It was now close to noon and not a cloud was in sight. I stupidly hadn’t used any sunscreen – nor did any of us have a hat. But there we were – with 2 choices – walk for 45 minutes there and another 45 minutes back – or cross the road and wait for the next bus back. We decided to walk. But before that we bought ice-cream and water from a van that had opportunistically set up shop at the carpark at the start of the trail. Have to say it was the best icecream I’d tasted – S had honey ice cream (complete with a little piece of honeycomb) and I had (drumroll)…salted caramel ice cream (surprise surprise). V had…water.

On a cooler day it would have been a very pleasant walk, but today, with my head feeling like an egg could be fried on it…it was ‘interesting’ to say the least. The view was gorgeous though, with small lakes and sheep on the way. We eventually got to the beach (not of the fine white sand variety), and had a view of one of the sisters. We decided not to hike up any of the 7 siblings. There were a couple of Asian tourists on the beach…easy to spot – they carried umbrellas. The water looked very inviting but unfortunately we were a bit overdressed.

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#Asian

On our way back, we met one of V’s friend’s and her family from Canada. They were also here for the graduation. I don’t know how V’s friend looked so cool and unshiny (in a good way!). Her parents had hats and seemed to have a more ‘normal’ reaction to the heat. The walk back felt shorter and a bit easier, thankfully – maybe because we knew exactly how far we needed to go. The little cafe near the bus stop was full so we decided to just get the bus back and have something back in Brighton. Plus V needed to go collect his suit from a friend’s place.

The bus back wasn’t an ‘X’ either, and once again we were sitting on the hotter side for most of the journey. At one stop a whole lot of school kids got on. They were perhaps about 10 or 11, and also all talking about the heat. They were hoping it would be 34C the next day as then, schools would close.

One boy got his iPhone out and began asking, “Siri, what’s the Celsius in…” Soon most of the kids around him were participating, and providing country names – Spain, Canada, France, etc. Then the boy with the iPhone, who seemed well travelled (he was talking about various holidays he’d had with his family), asked “Siri, what’s the Celsius in Singapore?” Siri replied, “Where is Singapore?” (aiyo!). Another girl very helpfully said, “It’s in China or Japan.” Double aiyo! But we were all too hot and tired to correct them.

At one point, we passed a yard with boats and a hovercraft – which was a cause for great excitement for one of the boys. He was practically yelling, “OMIGOD, IT’S A HOVERCRAFT, IT’S A HOVERCRAFT!! IT’S MY MOST FAVOURITE THING!!!” I suspect the heat had got to him too.

Back in Brighton, V went off to collect his suit, while S and I went in search of food. We went to Al Duomo, an Italian place near…(yes, you guessed it) the Dome. We were in dire need of hydration more than food, but had some pasta anyway, before making our way back to the house for a much-needed lie down before dinner.

We had recovered quite completely by the time dinner came around. We were meeting 13.1475511696.might-have-been-interestingV’s friends, A & J, and V and J who were driving in from Gatwick. By dinner time, it had cooled down considerably, and it was a very pleasant walk to Zizzi in the Laines. Walking through the narrow lanes, with little shops selling trinkets and scarves reminiscent of a more hippy age, restaurants with customers spilling onto the cobbled lanes reminded me of Diagon Alley – no Ollivander’s or Leaky Cauldron, but names like Hobgoblin, Ten Green Bottles, and Mysteries (psychic readings) made it equally magical.

13.1475511696.dinner-at-zizziIt was lovely meeting the other two legs of the tripod, and listening to their stories. A too had been to the Seven Sisters and was pretty red. We all hoped that the boys wouldn’t be blistering at tomorrow’s graduation. The food was good, as was the conversation, with much laughter, especially as the boys gave each other ‘graduation tips’ – for example, do not hold out your hand too early when walking towards the Chancellor, do not trip, etc. etc.

As we walked back to the house, and before S and I parted ways with A, J and V (who were going out for a drink), I walked with J, chatting. I told him about one of my doctors whom I had asked if I can travel after the surgery in December. He had said yes (yay!) and asked where I was planning to go. When I said Brighton, he’d said something to the effect of ‘gay capital’. J said when he told his family he was going to university in Brighton, they asked if he was gay  🙂

We switched on the TV when we got back – and it was all over the news – today was the hottest day in Britain at 31C!! And we chose today to go for our walk on the beach!

I left the front light on for V – woke up at 4AM and it was still on!!! I was a bit worried, then (eventually) decided to go upstairs to see if he was back – he was, and fast asleep. I must have been in a dead heat-induced sleep as I didn’t hear him come in (and my room is by the front door). Breathed a sigh of relief and went back to sleep. Big day tomorrow – later today actually.

Good Friends, Graduation  – and Sanjeev Bhaskar

Brighton/ 20 July 2016

Graduation morning – another bright, sunny and hot day. Not quite the day for suits and robes. But before the graduation, we were going to visit V’s university campus at Falmer this morning. V & J picked us up in their rental car after breakfast. On the way, we passed a little park – in the middle there was a ‘bird man’ – an elderly gentleman, bending over to feed the birds, with the birds coming right up to his feet. He was very still and for a moment I thought he may have been a statue. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture as we drove past.

The campus was newish (though the university turned 55 this year), unlike Newcastle, S said. The requisite pointing out of V’s room, library, media building, minimarket, J’s new hostel block, etc. was duly carried out and noted. The architecture was very interesting – V said that if you had a bird’s eye view, the buildings were designed to represent their purpose. For example, the media building was shaped like a camera and the library like an open book. It was amusing that all the other parents we saw were Asian, with their children doing similar show-and-tells. Amusing but perhaps not surprising, as S said the local students’ parents probably visited when the children first started university. While we were at the campus, it started drizzling and got quite cold –  but that soon passed.

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One of V’s Singaporean friends, in true Singaporean fashion, had said we should go early to collect the robes so we can get all the photos in the Brighton Dome gardens done pre-ceremony – to beat the crowd and while everyone still looked fresh. So we did, braving the noon day sun, V looking very dapper in his sharp blue suit. Unlike at NUS where we had to figure out how to put the robes on ourselves, here the graduands just had to stand still and someone put the robes on for them. It must have been sweltering but everyone looked cool – helped no doubt by ice cold beer from the bar.

We met J’s family and his Nan (who’s lovely) whom he’d spoken about last night. A was predictably late but fortunately did not look too red from his outing in the sun the previous day. Many photos were taken, and at one point I got mistaken for an ‘official photographer’ when a group of girls asked if I could take some photos of them. I said sure and thought they’d pass me one of their phones – at which point they realised I wasn’t ‘official’, oops.

We had good seats in the Brighton Dome convention hall. This was where Abba won the Eurovision contest with Waterloo, and which has seen the likes of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, who performed there five times – twice on his Ziggy Stardust tour.

This was a graduation ceremony with a difference – largely due to the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar of The Kumars at No.42 fame. (Sidenote: The previous Chancellor was Richard Attenborough!) His opening address itself had everyone in stitches as he raced through greetings in various languages, “Hello, hi, hej, ni hao, howdy, ciao…” etc. etc. He then laid down the ground rules for the afternoon – he reminded the graduands that they hadn’t graduated yet, and their graduating would depend on how much love they showed him when they went on stage to collect their scrolls. He also said they can do anything they want on stage – within the limits of decency, and to try not to trip, although there were many very distinguished laps to fall into should they trip. He did say ‘no wefies’ with him as that would really hold up the proceedings, and that they could do photos with him after the ceremony. To the parents, he said that all our lives we’ve been encouraging our children, declaring every scribble they brought home as pieces of art, supporting them through school and so on – so today was our turn to thoroughly embarrass them – and to ‘make some noise’. Double confirm that this was going to be a fun afternoon and not a dreary convocation ceremony, as most are.

And so we were off. Every single name (and there were many many non-English ones) was pronounced perfectly – if only the people announcing names at NUS commencement ceremonies took the trouble to make sure they were pronouncing names right. I still remember how my name got mangled, and I’m told I rolled my eyes as I went to get my scroll.

Every single person got a bear hug from the Chancellor! One girl’s mortar board flew off in the process and quick-handed Sanjeev caught it mid-air – to much applause. If a graduand pointed out his or her family, they got a wave from the Chancellor too. When it came to our boy’s turn, I was desperately multitasking – capturing the moment on film (or memory card), capturing it in my mind, making some noise, while all the while bursting with pride.

It was time for the Chancellor’s speech – and what a brilliant speech it was. He spoke about differentiating fact and opinion – “The temperature is 30C – fact. It is a lovely day – opinion. One Direction is the greatest band of all time – opinion. The Beatles are the greatest band of all time – fact. Donald Trump is a……%$&@ (left unsaid)…FACT!”

He spoke about facing adversity – about not defining oneself by a bad day or a bad week or a bad year – and told his story, of how for about three bad years in his late twenties/early thirties he was pretty much bankrupt, till he managed to turn things around. He spoke about not giving up. Earlier on in his life, he’d applied to the University of Sussex to do his undergrad studies – he didn’t get a place, he “wasn’t good enough”. So he waited till the people who said this had retired/died/gone to jail – then he came back as Chancellor 🙂

Post-ceremony, there were more photos and much champagne. Sanjeev Bhaskar was also present for wefies…in the form of a lifesize cutout figure, ha ha. We met A’s lovely parents and his brother. A’s parents were very very hospitable when V visited them, and I was very glad (but not surprised) that they spoke glowingly of V, especially A’s mum. J’s Nan was also very sweet and told me to visit and stay with her the next time I’m in the UK, especially as she’s midway between London and Newcastle. There was another mad rush of photo-taking before the robes had to be returned at 6PM, before goodbyes were said. Kinda sad, as everyone would be going their own way after this – I knew how V must’ve been feeling especially as he spoke of how he, A and J saw each other pretty much every single day in the last 3 years.

There was much lingering outside the Dome, but eventually we all had to leave. We realised we were starving and so, on the way back to the house we stopped at Wagamama for a quite yummy and authentic pad thai. We had a late (small) dinner at V and J’s. I had planned to walk about in Brighton tomorrow with my camera, but J very kindly asked me to join all of them on their day-trip to Dover and Kent, so looks like it’s going to be more white cliffs tomorrow.

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Off to the future

What a milestone day.

To Dover and Back

Dover / 21 July 2016

Much of today we were carbound. As we drove out of Brighton for Dover, we passed the same little park we did yesterday – and Birdman was still there! In a slightly different position today but still surrounded by the birds. I wondered what his story was.

We were in Dover after a couple of hours of GPS-guided driving. Unlike the Seven Sisters, our first view of the white cliffs was from the middle of a traffic jam. It was a short drive out of town and then a short walk to actually get to them. It also wasn’t HOT so it was all good.

We had a little picnic lunch with a view of the cliffs. Many photos later, V & V took the ‘dangerous coastal path’ back to the car while the rest of us took the safer path back. As it turned out, the dangerous coastal path was the much shorter route, and not terribly dangerous apparently.

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More driving after this – for tea at A & R’s at Beckenham in Bromley, which is actually a London borough. It seemed like a nice little town, everything within walking distance from the residential areas. The GPS took us to the wrong house and we eventually got to the correct house much later than expected. There was a fantastic spread waiting for us – tea and scones to start, then a pot roast dinner with a lovely wine – all had out in the garden. But the highlight for me was, for once not the food or the conversation (both of which were great) but the garden. I’m not much of a garden(ing) person but this garden was awesome…for the first time in my life I felt inspired to actually want a garden just like this.

It was not just a beautiful garden, but a functional one too. The strawberries and cherries were gorgeous, and the herb section was incredible – lavender, rosemary, thyme, mint, etc. etc. The smell of the fresh lavender lingered on my fingers for ages. And smelling the rosemary, I could almost taste the lamb 🙂

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The not so secret life of bees

Our hosts also had bees – we got a lesson on keeping bees, and how the taste of the honey varied depending on the plants in bloom and which gardens the bees had visited. I honestly didn’t expect a conversation about bees to be that enthralling but it was – aided no doubt by the enthusiasm (and affection!) with which A & R spoke of their bees.

A whole new experience today. A herb garden…#retirementplans? Or maybe I shouldn’t wait that long…

Loving London

London / 22 July 2016

After our week ‘away’, it’s back to London. It almost feels like going home each time – after our week at Blackwood Forest, then now after our week at Brighton.

The morning was spent packing, and making sure everything was how we left it, dishwasher started, trash taken out, windows shut, etc. Our minicab driver was there at the appointed time, bags loaded and house keys dropped back through the mail box. We had barely reached the corner up the road when our driver (a Russian mafia-looking type) got into a yelling, finger-flipping argument with another driver. He refused to give way (when he should have). It was a bit harrowing, to say the least, especially as people were glaring at us. Eventually he did back up a bit, and the finger-flipping, swearing woman in the other car went past.

13.1469214114.not-seen-this-kindaThat drama done, we sat quietly for the rest of the journey. We drove through Brixton, which looked very rough. Even the McDonald’s had a sign in its window warning of pickpockets. It may have been my imagination but it did seem like more people here walked with their bags and packs held in front of them.

It was a stark transition as we got to central London with its Sloane-y types, the suits and flashy cars. Not hard to imagine why Brexit happened.

We were starving by the time we checked in. Decided that some famous Four Seasons roast duck was in order so we set off for Chinatown. Got a table at one of the two (or three?) Four Seasons there and not surprisingly over-ordered quite spectacularly. Besides the duck, we had a fried rice, a tofu dish, spinach with garlic and dessert which wasn’t necessary. Rolled back to the hotel like three (not so) little pigs and proclaimed that we wouldn’t have dinner today.

After a little snooze-ette back at our lovely room, and watching some Scandal Season 5, S sensibly said he needed to walk. V was off to the gym and I joined S on his walk. Since we’d gone the Soho way for lunch, we walked in the other direction, towards Mayfair. 13.1469214114.london-buzzingWe had no plan, no ‘place to get to’, we just walked, enjoying the whole London buzz. There were ‘car-free Sunday’ banners up – apparently every Sunday in July is car-free Sunday on Regent Street. We should be able to see some of it this Sunday…but will have to figure out how to get a cab to the airport if cars can’t get to the hotel.

We wandered down Regent Street and Savile Row, and chanced upon Sotheby’s at New Bond Street. David Bowie’s private art collection was on show, and it was ‘open to public’ – but unfortunately, we were an hour too late and it was closed. A short walk later we were at Bruton Street which Mr Royal Encyclopaedia informed me was where the Queen was born in 1926. We eventually found the actual place – 17 Bruton Street – and the recently-installed plaque. 17 Bruton Street is now a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant, Hakkasan. There was some recent hoo-hah when Hakkasan had their designated smoking point right under the sign – oh, the outrage that ensued. The smoking point has since been removed 🙂

We meandered past Berkeley Square Gardens, down some streets before finding ourselves back in Piccadilly. We saw a nice little Italian place with an interesting menu – Italian tapas was the description, and we filed the name away mentally, Cicchetti, for future reference. The future came quickly – in 3 hours to be precise. We all were hungry by 10PM, despite the proclamations earlier in the day post-roast duck to skip dinner. Cicchetti was still buzzing at 10.30PM but we managed to get a table and had a most delightful meal – lamb cutlets, burrata, chilli lemon garlic prawns and a few other small plates. Yum!
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I don’t know anywhere else in the world where one can walk out at 10.30PM and get a fab restaurant meal. Loving London 🙂

Royal Day Out

London / 23 July 2016

We woke up hungry (how is this possible??) and had a ridiculously BIG breakfast. It was an ‘order whatever you want from the menu’ type of breakfast (and we double checked to confirm this…only the alcohol wasn’t included). The waitress was slightly amused at the vast amounts some of us were putting away, but assured us she’d do the same. The cafe we sat in had some history to it, having seen the likes of Oscar Wilde, Churchill, D.H.Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, and more recently, Bardot, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, and Princess Di.

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A very small part of breakfast

Post-gorging, it was gym for V and more walking for S and me. Wandered down past the Ritz, where Margaret Thatcher spent the last 3 to 4 months of her life (this bit of trivia courtesy S), past Green Park and the many ‘Houses’ – Spencer House, Lancaster House, Clarence House. Didn’t see any of the occupants though. We did a long circuitous route around St James Palace, home to Princess Anne, and which now rents parts of it out to non-royals. I said to S that I thought Charles had the better deal with his digs at Clarence House.

13.1475599723.suWe had a Royal afternoon planned (Royal special for S’s birthday tomorrow) – with a visit to the Royal Mews and Buckingham Palace. It was an afternoon of horse carriages, some very bling and some just bling. The most bling of all was the Gold State Coach, built in 1762 and used for every single coronation since then. It was huge (weighs 4 tons), had painted panels, gold cherubs on the roof and gold tridents in each corner. Very OTT but hey, that’s why we love British royalty.

The day we visited was the opening of the summer exhibition at the palace state rooms – featuring the Queen’s wardrobe…well, not her entire wardrobe, but what she wore for significant occasions. From her christening, to her wedding and coronation and many occasions in between and after. The dresses looked too small for her (except for the christening one), but each had a picture of them being worn…’proof of wearing’ photos! It was a surprisingly interesting exhibition, which just underscored the Queen’s longevity as we looked at pictures of her with American Presidents and other world leaders through the ages, mostly long gone.

Being at the Palace itself was loads of fun, especially as we recalled my mum’s accounting of her visit to the Palace for a garden party some 50 years ago. We tried to imagine where her car would’ve stopped (with the High Commissioner telling his wife, and my mum to NOT open the door themselves, but to wait for it to be opened. Lol!), the stairs she would’ve gone up and the hall she would’ve walked through before getting to the garden. S remembered further details from conversations with his grandmother and we surmised that “Ammumma would’ve been just about there” in the Garden when the Queen appeared. As an added bonus, the audio guide that each of us had, gave an example of what it is like during State visits – the clip they used was of the President of Singapore’s visit, complete with Majulah Singapura.

We were quite royalled out by now, and ready for dinner. We had a table booked at 45 Jermyn Street and took a slow walk there. It was a very cool art deco sort of place in the Fortnum and Mason building. We had a very delicious, long dinner with much good conversation. On the food front, the highlight was the grilled bone with parmesan and parsley salt – bone marrow! Super yum.

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Grilled bones 🙂

Our last night in London. When I started on this trip I felt like I had a long holiday ahead of me, but almost three weeks later I don’t know where that long holiday went. It’s just sped past…as good times tend to do.

When One is Tired of London, One is Tired of Life

London / 24 July 2016

Day 19 and the last morning of our wonderful time together, and also S’s birthday. We had another good breakfast but not as big as yesterday’s. We had hoped to see the same waitress we had yesterday to say hello (and bye), but she wasn’t around.

We were meeting S and J who were driving up from Wales for lunch. A nasty accident on the motorway resulted in a huge jam and S & J who had left early, ended up having to meet us at the Savoy for lunch, instead of at our hotel. But it was just as well, as we needed to walk, and I needed to get my 10,000 steps before getting on the long flight home.

It was lovely seeing S again – and J whom I’d first met in 1984 – and not met since! We had such a laugh about the stuff we got up to all those years ago…the same-same belt that S’s mum had given S and me for Christmas, the New Year’s party at some double-barrel person’s castle-like home, J saying he’d been ‘set for the year’ since he went to that party with not one, but two, women, J driving us back from that party at four in the morning, then frying us some good English sausages (to prevent hangovers?)…a time when life was a lot simpler, and our sole (official) responsibility was to graduate with good grades…a time I’m vicariously enjoying again through the boys.

All too soon, lunch with the complimentary candle-topped Madeleine, was over and we had to say bye to S and J to walk back to our hotel. The issue of a cab on car-free Sunday was solved when the hotel called me a cab which backed into an alley off the side of the hotel. And so the holiday ended – with V leaving to catch a train back to Brighton, S going to stay with P for a day before returning to Singapore, and me to Heathrow for the flight back. This truly was a special three weeks – with the boys, with old friends, with family. There was a bit of everything – birthdays (two), a graduation, some history, a forest, a seaside town, white cliffs (two), great food, lots of laughs and conversations to remember.

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Car-free Sunday
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First cab ride of the trip

This time, more than any of my previous visits to London, I really felt “I could live here.” …maybe because the boys are here?  As Samuel Johnson said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life: for there is in London, all that life can afford.” Being tired neither of London nor of life, I settled into my seat for the flight home, and started planning my next visit to London.

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