London: walking through memories

My Devon aunt and uncle – who are extremely well-travelled – went to London to Kensington Palace, and reported on Facebook about seeing Princess Diana’s dresses.  I realised that despite living in London when I was younger for about 14 years, I’d never been to Kensington Palace (or even Kensington Palace Gardens). I hadn’t even realised it was open to the public. 

A few days later Virgin trains sent me an offer of 40% off train fares.  On an impulse, I checked out how much it was going to cost to get down to London and back in a day (I’d been down to London and back in a day for work, so I knew it that a day trip from one end of the country to the other was actually OK by train – it’s really quick to get from Carlisle to London as the trains don’t stop much so you can do the trip in about 3 hours 15).  It was such a bargain I booked the tickets then and there, plus a ticket to Kensington Palace – which not only had an exhibition of Diana’s dresses but also of costumes from The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne which I was interested in seeing.  I also arranged to meet another aunt, who lives in London and who I have seen very few times since moving to Cumbria (and having three children, despite having been close to her when I was younger – she was always quite a role model for me, along with another aunt who lived in Edinburgh. They both demonstrated that you could be single and have an interesting life: that women are definitely not dependant on some man or other for their happiness… an old-fashioned view I know but my parents demonstrated that being a couple was what made life worth living…).

So at about 6.30 on a cold winter Saturday morning I was standing at Carlisle station waiting for the London train.  The train goes through all sorts of places with which I have connections: Warrington, where NWDA’s head office was; past stretches of the Grand Union canal which I dealt with when I was at British Waterways; Watford which was my home for 6 or 7 years; Wembley where I worked for Brent Council.  As we travelled further south the sky grew lighter and the snow lying on the ground heavier; it always feels as if there’s something wrong when it’s snowier and colder in the south than in the northern border counties (what I like to think of as the ‘real’ north – Manchester is two hours south of me and yet to a southern – which I was until I was 40-something – Manchester and the industrial areas around there was the north. How wrong I was!).

From Euston I decided to walk to Kensington Palace.  It was a trip through the past, without being in any sort of chronological order.  I crossed the road opposite 355 Euston Road, where Railtrack Property once had its offices; I remembered looking out of the window and seeing the demolition ball swinging and the walls coming down of a building on the northern side of the road. There’s now a swanky new office development there, with cafes and restaurants around a central square.

At Portland Street station there was still a minimarket.  I sometimes used to walk along there to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Oasis for lunch.  We’d also often have pool cars and be heading out this way by car on site visits; the office had a garage underneath which was where I parked my bike when I cycled to work, from Beckenham up through Crystal Palace, round Elephant & Castle roundabout, round Trafalgar Square, and up Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road, racing cyclists who jumped the red lights while I virtuously stopped.

I crossed Portland Place – memories of going to see friends who worked at Broadcasting House and sometimes seeing famous faces in the canteen – and headed past various mews.  One of them had once had a building which Westminster City Council owned, which I let to Crisis at Christmas.  It’s been redeveloped now – I wasn’t even sure which mews it had been in.  At Marylebone Road I had a vague recollection of being somewhere for a London Junior Branch meeting of the RICS; I admired the shops and thought how I’d all too rarely visited this street, which was somewhere I visited I think on my very first visit to London. At the age of 6 my mother had taken me to London and we’d met a friend of hers and had lunch at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. 

As I moved further west I was reminded how cosmopolitan London is, which was one of the things I’ve always loved about it.  The Turkish restaurants changed to Lebanese and Middle Eastern on Edgware Road, the air smelling sweetly of something which I suspect may not have been totally legal, men of a middle eastern demeanour sitting outside drinking coffee, discussing matters and sometimes smoking. I was pleased to see that Seymour Leisure Centre, which I’d dealt with when I was at Westminster City Council, has had its 30 metre swimming pool restored: one of the tasks I had had was commissioning valuation work to see if part of the site could be redeveloped for residential units in order to fund the necessary repairs needed to the pool hall.  I was tempted to walk in and ask to have a look round but didn’t.  After all, it was 25 years ago or more.

I dropped down Edgware Road past shops and restaurants with signs in Arabic, to cross over into Hyde Park at Marble Arch.  Where the cinema and hotel used to be is being redeveloped, but on the whole the streetscape of this part of London had changed remarkably little since I had last walked, cycled or driven around here. 

Hyde Park was where I ran my first ever 10 km race – in just under 50 minutes, much to my surprise at the time – and plenty of runners were out today enjoying the winter sun.  A father ran past pushing a running buggy, asking his child in French if he/she were ready to go home; groups of French tourists of various ages milled around; a lady walked past in the opposite direction speaking German into her phone.  Later on as I travelled back on the tube a group of Italians was talking near me: I love the multi-culturalism of London, where everybody rubs shoulders whether they live in the capital or are visitors.

At Kensington Palace it was interesting to see where initially William & Mary (‘the Orange’ – 1066 and all that) and later George II and Queen Caroline had entertained their court, or had some private time, and to see the costumes from The Favourite.  But Diana’s dresses were, to be honest, just a bunch of evening dresses with queues of people staring at them; and the ‘Victoria revealed’ exhibition which I’d thought would be interesting wasn’t open.  The shop had some rather expensive and quite nice things to buy and the café was full.  I bought some chocolate for my kids, a book for my Mum and a couple of small gifts for my London-Aunt and then headed away, grabbing a sandwich from a nice Italian snack bar in the gardens en route, fending off the starlings who were begging for crumbs.

Funny how when I go on the tube I resort to being the person I always used to be on the tube – impatient to pass people, walking or running up escalators – and that I still mostly remember which tube lines to take where and which stations to change at.  It took me remarkably little time to get to my aunt’s in Hampstead and I spent a lovely afternoon having a long chatty catch-up with her and eating cake. In fact really that was the best part of the day and the best reason for going to London.

I was back at Euston in plenty of time for the train.  Whilst in the morning I’d been smiling to myself as I walked across London in the sunshine, now I smiled to myself as I got on my train.  I love rail travel: the mainline trains always feel quite luxurious as you speed from the bottom of the country to the top; and I’ll be home before the evening is even that old.  Coniston tomorrow.

NB. Footnote: Coniston (running round it) didn’t happen as it was -5 overnight and my car handbrake wouldn’t release. Probably just as well as Penny and I ran just over 10 miles around Ridge Woods, up the Dandy and through Gelt Woods instead and from beautifully snowing it turned to rain and ice – and conditions in the Lakes are possibly worse than up here.

They call this work?…

You know when you really want to work for a particular organisation… and then you get a job with them… and sometimes it can turn out to be rubbish (and all your gut feelings in the interview process will have been saying ‘no, don’t do it!’).  On the other hand it can work – as British Waterways did for me.

I love history, so working for English Heritage was on my list of desirable employers.  Furthermore, although the job was in Newcastle – about 45 miles or a 1 hr 15 min train journey away – it was part-time and from the job description looked perfect.

It is – or has been so far, and I’ve been there nearly 3 months – indeed a fantastic job.  I love the contrast of travelling from rural Brampton into bustling Newcastle – a city which is not too big nor too small, and where I work in a wonky old building with stories to tell, down near the Quayside.  I walked along the river at lunchtime today in the sun, the wind blowing my hair in my face and creating froth on the river, everything glistening in the unexpected warmth.

It’s the sort of job where you do extra bits, on your non-working days, just because you can and you want to.  So on Monday when some colleagues asked me to check some of our ‘free sites’ (ones you don’t have to pay to enter) – they tempted me by suggesting I could do them as a run – I didn’t need any persuading (and fortunately the sun was out and it was a lovely warm day as well).

After my weekly yoga class – held in the northern Pennines with a fantastic view over towards the Lake District fells – I drove to Birdoswald Roman Fort.  As I felt I had plenty of time and hadn’t had any breakfast, I headed into the (new) cafe, with its huge window providing a lovely view over the valley, and had a capuccino and a cherry scone.  Then it was time to start running.

I love the river crossing near ‘Birdos’.  Having gone east to Harrow’s Scar and the mile castle there, you drop down a very steep track towards Willowford Bridge.  Yew trees and Rowans lined the path, their bright red berries enticing.  When you get over the river – by an attractive modern bridge which curves upwards, higher on the western bank than on the east – you see the footings for the Roman Willowford bridge, including an interesting interpretation panel which shows how and why we now think there may have been, over the centuries, three different bridges there.  Today in Newcastle near the Swing Bridge was an interpretation panel linking the two – the Romans may have had a stone bridge across the Tyne of a similar design to that at Willowford.

I ran on to Poltross Burn, crossing the railway (that always feels a bit daring and dangerous, even though you’re allowed to!) en route.  As I stood at Poltross Burn milecastle, trying to imagine the Roman soldiers sleeping in barracks with slopey floors and also trying to imagine how squashed it must have been, a train went past.  What would the Romans have looked out on?  Certainly not on trains – I wonder what they would make of them.  The railway viaduct soars across the burn and it made me wonder how Hadrian’s Wall had crossed the burn – presumably if it had been culverted there would still be signs of that (there are none as far as I’m aware).

As I was far too early to meet my colleagues and had only covered a very short distance, I decided to turn round and run back to the car.

At Willowford the sheep looked at me askance.  My initial thought was ‘nobody told them not to walk on the wall’; my second was how some of them were acting like a group of Roman sentries, challenging me about who I was and what I was doing there.  I even started writing a poem in my head…

Believe it or not, although I enjoyed running along the wall I did actually do some work as well – there are photos of less interesting things like bits of fence that need repairing, which have been sent over to the relevant people.  But this is my job – dealing with and wandering around historic sites and buildings.  Just how lucky am I to be using my surveying* skills and experience in such amazing surroudings.

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*Footnote

There are several different types of surveyor.  When I started surveying, I trained as what was then called a General Practice Surveyor.  Basically we’re the type who know a little bit about building construction, but mostly know how to value buildings and what the laws are in relation to them, including laws about selling them, granting leases and getting more rent out of tenants and so forth.  We tend also to know a bit about planning and building use and therefore about development.  Anything we don’t know about in detail, we’ll know who to ask.  In some countries we’d be called Commercial Real Estate professionals.

The ones who know all about buildings are building surveyors.  They sort of overlap building/structural engineers and architects, and some of them are very good at managing projects – they can talk to builders in their own language.  Others become expert at things related to building construction like damp, or foundations, or rights of light.  If you want someone to tell you whether or not your house is going to fall down, you need a building surveyor.  For a while I wanted to be a building surveyor as I enjoyed getting out on site in hard hat and wellies and clambering up ladders.  I still love seeing a building being dismantled and coming back together again, and trying to work out what was built when and why… 

 

 

 

 

Italy

Why is it that the British love Italy, especially Tuscany, so much?  Is it that the Italians appear, on the surface at least, so different to us – so much more openly emotional and less straight-laced?  Whatever the reason, for centuries now the British have been flocking to and falling in love with Italy, and I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I am one of them.

I’d been to Italy once before – to Chiavari, on the Ligurian coast, for a triathlon training week.  We had cycled up into the hills, cycled to Portofino and, most notably, arisen early every morning to go swimming (there was at least one day when I didn’t).  I had always wanted to go back again and I also have a long-held ambition of learning Italian (on my bucket list is the desire to do another degree, French and Italian joint honours).  This ambition started at University when I had done Italian at evening classes for a bit and been offered a month’s funded placement in Perugia to learn Italian, that for one reason and another never transpired.  Having been intermittently learning Italian by CD in the car, now seemed the time to do something about it instead of just dreaming about it.  So I went along to Cafe Lingo at Tullie House and was recommended a particular Italian teacher   Patrizia Guasti, a.k.a. Italy Uncovered.

As luck would have it, when I emailed her to ask which classes she taught and what level I might be, she suggested I go to Italy for a week to have lessons out there with her.  Perfect – and the itinerary of trips she proposed looked great too.

So September 12th saw me at Leeds-Bradford airport waiting for a flight to Pisa and feeling a bit nervous.  Part of me wondered what on earth I was doing – leaving the kids for a week; flying off on my own to meet complete strangers; spending money I didn’t really have.  The other part of me was excited.

Arriving in Italy

I was seated next to a Doctor on the aeroplane, who was flying out with his wife to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and her 50th birthday.  We got chatting, discussing the world which was lying below us like a map, and where hardly a cloud obscured the view of the English Channel, Lake Geneva, the Alps… On landing my excitement rose.  There was that Mediterranean feel around us, which I haven’t experienced for several years, but which I love: the heat, the sun, the cicadas, the smell, the colours.

I was staying at Isola, which is on the plain between Pisa and Florence, not far off the ‘Fi-Pi-Li’ auroroute.  One of the first things we did was visit the supermarket at Empoli, a modern and typically bland structure, but somehow Mediterranean supermarkets always manage to be better than those at home.  Do the French and Italians really have better food or do we just think they do?  It certainly always seems to taste better, but then wine often tastes better in its country of origin than at home – how many times have you bought a bottle you liked abroad, only to be really disappointed in it at home?

Lessons began the following morning and the pattern for most of the week was set with a 3-3.5 hour lesson each morning followed by a trip out somewhere for the afternoon and evening.  Having originally thought that I was being a bit extravagant splashing out on this holiday, I rapidly realised that I had got a real bargain.  How many holidays offer you accommodation, 1:1 or 1:2 language lessons, trips out and about and a knowledgeable local ‘tour guide’?  I felt like a privileged guest rather than a holiday maker.

13th-sept-san-miniato-1The nearest medieval town was San Miniato, so that was where we headed on the Tuesday afternoon.  There’s a lift from the car park up to the Old Town, and we then climbed up the steps of a tower to look at the view.  This is where the Slow Food Movement started but also I loved the sculptured head with the coin for transporting you across the Styx in the afterlife, and the plaque mounted on the tower which states that the children believed that the only hope for life was in love (la sola speranza della vita resta l’amore).

Paragliding and Lucca

Wednesday was my birthday and after the morning’s lesson we headed off, with my teacher’s 80-year-old father, to go paragliding in the hills just outside Lucca.  I hadn’t paraglided since I was in New Zealand in 1994 but I remembered loving it, so I hoped I would this time too.  As we climbed higher and higher into the hills I wondered whether this was something I really wanted to do: it looked like a long way down.  As I held on to the parachute prior to take off the wind grabbed it and nearly lifted me, which made me realise how strong it was.  As soon as we took off I loved the whole sensation; when the instructor did some acrobatic spins I felt the g-force but had a broad grin on my face.  It was expensive, but definitely something I want to do more of!

Lucca had a festival on which meant a lot of market stalls selling rubbish (and some selling decent stuff), but we found our way through the crowds to arrive in the main square of the old town.  It was gorgeous.  The old walls still exist, with a wide walkway on top which was being used in the evening sunlight for walking, running or just sauntering, and the main square isn’t actually a square but an oval shape.  It was built on the old Roman amphitheatre and so is, not surprisingly, called La Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.  As it was still warm and sunny we sat in a cafe and watched the world going by.

Village, town, city

If I had thought Lucca was lovely, I was about to have my mind blown away.  The following day, Thursday, there was no lesson but instead we set out in the morning to travel to Certaldo.  We walked towards the Palazzo Pretorio and as we got nearer could hear singing.  It was only recorded, but added atmosphere to an already atmospheric building, with its contrasting accommodation of a women’s prison with no light, court rooms and then rooms for the wealthy, and then modern artworks alongside all the history.  Boccaccio died in this village, where you can visit his house; pilgrims walking from Canterbury to Rome still pass through.

15th-sept-2-montereggioni-2From Certaldo we progressed to Monteriggioni, stopping outside the town to get a photo of its perfect ancient walls and then having lunch and admiring more views once we were inside.  It’s one of the locations for a video game, Assassin’s Creed, and whilst I couldn’t find anything for Alex in the shop, I bought a green wood bow and arrow set for Edward.  It really was how you might imagine, or draw, a medieval town.

The next stop was in Siena.  We parked in the more modern part of the city and walked through the city walls into the old centre.  Here cars seemed to be limited as cyclists and pedestrians meandered up the middle of the streets, moving to one side when a motor vehicle could be heard.  The streets were old and narrow, the buildings seeming high because of the limited width.  Colourful flags hung from some; and round every corner, as with so much, it seems, of Italy, something beautiful would be seen.

We rounded a corner and there, suddenly, was the gorgeous Duomo, its facade like a wedding cake and its black and white marble stunning in the sun.  To the rear, at the top of the steps which drop down to the Piazza del Campo, a violinist was playing.  I did the tour of the roof space, gaining a bird’s eye view of the highly decorated floor of the Duomo, and we then went up the tower which forms part of the originally proposed extension to the Duomo, which was never completed.  Wandering around Siena was fantastic, with a ‘wow’ factor at every corner.  Small wonder that I took loads of photos, and that we all voted to go back there again for dinner a couple of days later.

Florence in the rain

The following day the two of us who were students were sent off by train from Empoli to Florence, to fend for ourselves and with a list of items we had to find, ideally by asking directions in Italian.  We were so proud of ourselves when we got it right and Italians spoke back to us in Italian!  In one shop I managed to explain what I needed in terms of a t-shirt for my son; we found the lucky pig; and we sheltered from the suddenly torrential rain in a ridiculously expensive cafe.

The day after we headed in a southerly direction again, this time visiting San Gimignano en route to Siena.  More towers to climb, more fantastic views to admire, more ice cream to eat: my appetite has been whetted to learn far more about the history of this area as well as about the regional foods.

Wine tasting

On the final day the lesson started later than normal and we then went out into the hills of chianti country for a wine-tasting.  This wasn’t like wine tastings I have been to at home, where you get a small taster glass of lots of wines; here it was a generous measure of the vineyard’s rose, red and superior red wine and then the vin santo, all accompanied by local food.  The proprietess explained the entire wine-making process to us in detail in Italian, which was great: I didn’t understand it all by any means but understood enough to appreciate how much I had learnt in a week.  And a couple of glasses of wine gave me the confidence to speak more Italian as well!

We then returned to have dinner at the restaurant we had gone to on my first day, before packing for return flights the following morning.  I hadn’t seen the leaning tower of Pisa, been in the Uffizi, or visited the thermal baths to the south of Siena… but I had seen so much and could have spent many more hours sitting sipping espressos and wine in Piazzas and watching the world going by.

It’s a stunning country with beauty around every corner, a musical language and delicious food and drink, as well as a warmer climate than the UK.  Small wonder so many of us fall in love with it and contemplate living there.  I hope one day – before too long – I’ll return.