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Having delayed a trip South to visit friends and rellies for a few days due to having succumbed to the dreaded lurg, we finally made the trip only partially cured and both with a cough which was hard to shake.
We travelled first to the Harpers where Sal was also suffering but the three of us managed a trip up to London leaving Les to fester in Worthing.
Arriving at London Bridge Station you can not fail to admire the new Shard Skyscraper soaring over 300 metres into a thankfully blue sky. It is, at present, the highest building in the EU and you can travel to the viewing platform at the top if you are stupid enough to part with £25 for the privilege!
The Shangri-La Hotel occupies the 34th to 52nd floors where you can rent a superior room with an unsurpassed view of London for £375 a night which to my mind is a much better deal provided you or your wife does not suffer from vertigo looking out of the floor to ceiling picture windows from your double bed!
After a gourmet coffee from one of the many Borough Market stalls we wandered around this foodie paradise and found Bath Cheese where we bought some Barf Blue which was this years world champion and a new hard cheese for us called Wyfe of Barf, well named as I recall in the Canterbury Tales that the Wyfe of Barf did appreciate a hard one!
Then it was round the corner to Neals Yard Dairy Shop where we stocked up on Colston Bassett Stilton and Montgomery Cheddar. We had a comparison tasting test of the unpasturised Stitchelson against Colston Bassett. Stitchelson is made with organic unpasteurised milk and they can not call it Stilton because of that but it should have had a fuller flavour because of that basic ingredient. To my taste the Colston Bassett won hands down which either means this former cheese judge has lost his touch or that the best Stilton in the world is still king! James Montgomery is certainly still making the best Cheddar.
After wandering around Southwark Cathedral, Sally took us along the Borough High Street to show us the last coaching inn of the many that used to frequent this place, The George. This area was largely owned by the Bishop of Winchester who in the 19th century licensed prostitutes to ply their trade in the vicinity of his Southwark Palace, remnants of which still remain. The ladies were called "Winchester's Geese" and he was never sued for living off immoral earnings!
We also decided to frequent it and I had a pint of IPA while the girls had mulled wine which set me back £14!! The mulled wine was so sour that we had to send it back but they did replace it with something a little more palatable!
We walked all along the South Bank to Westminster before catching the tube to Victoria and the train back to Worthing. The skyline from the south bank of the Thames stretches from the classical dome of St. Pauls cathedral to the modern skyscrapers of this decade to which Londoners have of course given names but the Gherkin is hidden in this shot.
A long overdue visit to daughter and family completed our journey South to drop off the Christmas presents but what with Christmas Disco's for Matilda and Cubs for Henry we saw little of the grandchildren before scooting back to Bridgnorth with a stop at Stourbridge for a Christmas food shop. We went up to the Medical Centre to get our flu jabs and they also gave us a pneumonia vaccination as a special Christmas treat!
We both continued to suffer from the lurg over the Christmas and New Year period. Sue cooked a big duck for our Christmas dinner which provided several meals and we were honoured by a visit from the lovely Anna and Tim Barnsley. Tim was a native of Stourbridge so knows the area quite well but had forgotten what a nice place Bridgnorth was so we did the rounds and sampled the delights of the local hostelries!
After kicking out our guests we spent the usual quiet English New Year in the company of Jools Holland and a bottle of shampoo. This year we enjoyed some really good acts and much more of his rythm and blues band.
One of our Christmas presents to ourselves were a couple of tickets to a concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Of course this included a pre-concert meal, this time the ubiquitous Strada pizza half price offer. Does anyone ever eat pizza these days without downloading a half price voucher? The meal still cost over £50 which, considering the content we could have eaten far better in one of the many Indian eateries round about for the same price or cheaper.
We were surprised that Symphony Hall was only about two thirds full for this concert and suspect that those responsible for selling tickets are not doing their job properly. It would surely be better to reduce the ticket prices by running promotions so that you filled the hall.
The concert began with Rachmaninovís vocalise played by the orchestra. I once played this on the piano in the South Petherton Methodist Church with Roz Broad, our local diva, singing it which was how Rachmaninov intended it to be performed. I believe the packed church gave us a standing ovation but I do suffer from a poor memory!!
The vocalise was followed by Rachmaninovís 3rd piano concerto with Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov in an effortless performance for such a difficult piece.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovskyís delightful Third Suite. Vedernikov used to be the Bolshoi music director so was well suited to conduct this ballet like piece.
The links above are not by the artists who entertained us. The vocalise is sung by the late Italian/American opera singer Anna Moffo while the concerto is by the easy on the eye Russian, Olga Kern (she is "luscious in that luscious Russian way!"). Finally the link to the Tchaikovsky is by the Korean KBS orchestra.
If you are wondering what I am talking about with regard to Olga Kern, I was reminded of a song we used to sing in my caving days on Mendip and, as I had nothing better to do, I decided to transpose it to this page so here is a bit more Russian culture. The words and music are from memory and may not be correct but I doubt this song was ever published. It should be sung with a Russian accent!:
I used to pull the wings off little flies,
Until I met my dear beloved Olga,
And saw the masochism in her eyes.
The samovars are boiling on the Gorski,
The Borscht no longer bubbles brave and free,
The Smersh has bowed it's little head in sorrow,
For love has gone from Olga and from me.
How tenderly she whispered "Sergei hit me",
And in her eyes there shone a Russian glow,
How tenderly she whispered "Sergei whip me",
But I her love could only answer no.
It was torture being cruel to little Olga,
It wasn't very nice I must confess,
Until one day she whispered "Sergei drown me"
I smiled a Russian smile and I said "yes"!
Now Olga was a true Siberian lover,
She was luscious in that luscious Russian way,
We used to go out boating on the Volga,
Now Olga's in the Volga AND TO STAY!
(Those last three words are shouted!)
After writing the score for the above tune I make a midi file so you can listen to the tune. I put computer code on the web page which embeds a player on that page and in the past that has been the Apple Quicktime player, however, I discovered that the latest Apple Quicktime player does not support midi files.
This is typical of software development which has no fixed standard. It has been the same since the internet was first developed and you also have to test new code in different browsers to make sure it works.
The solution in this case was either to convert all the midi files on this web site to a different file format or change all the code on the different web pages to embed another media player. I decided on the latter and chose Microsoft Media Player which continues to support midi files. The only drawback is that you will need to install the Microsoft plug-in if you are using the Firefox browser but it should work without problems if you are using Internet Explorer. Full details on how to do this are on the Firefox support pages. While I am in the process of changing over the code, some pages will work and some won't but this one does.
Interestingly, Google has warned that you should print out copies of photographs you wish to preserve as software in future will not be able to read and interpret certain types of files as technology progresses. Scientist have also said that the history of generations which has been digitised may be lost in the future so that in addition to data, hardware and software that can read them should be preserved for future generations! Floppy disk reader anyone?
We travelled over to Belgium early in January, this time by Eurotunnel as it was blowing a hooley in the channel so we didn't risk the ferries. If you book their five day saver fare it is not much more expensive than the ferries and when they are not busy they will put you on an earlier train when you arrive early at no extra charge so we caught one an hour earlier than the one we had booked.
The main purpose of this trip was to renew the service batteries on Harmonie. The old ones had been in service for four years and some of them were not holding their charge. This meant that the battery charger was continually trying to keep them charged and so was consuming shore power at a prodigous rate. Fortunately we had our friend Tony on Anja berthed in Eeklo who was keeping an eye on Harmonie for us during the winter months to help change the four batteries weighing a total of 246kg. Almost impossible to lift out for an old man of 74 like me but just possible if hard for two old men!
Desmond Diahatsu struggled a bit with that weight in the back as well but we made it to Battery Supplies in Deerlijk which is just North of Kortrijk. This was where I purchased the old ones from and once again they were the best price I could find. 700 Euros for four 230ah semi traction batteries is hard to beat.
On the way back to the UK we arrived at the tunnel to find lines of trucks completely blocking access so we diverted off the motorway and headed South, rejoining the motorway and approaching the tunnel from the opposite direction where there was just enough room to squeeze past the trucks and get to the terminal. The previous day all the ferries were cancelled due to the rough seas which probably caused the backlog.
Due to the recent horrific Islamic terrorist killings in Paris, security had been stepped up and every car was subject to a search with the result that we missed the train on which we were booked. The next day a truck caught fire in the tunnel and it was closed so we thought ourselves lucky to have made it back before that happened.
Winter arrived towards the end of January so we stayed in the warm for the most part. We booked a holiday in Greece as it is years since we were last there and they need the money, especially after the way they have been treated by the EU. I know that past Greek governments have been corrupt and ineffectual but so have the EU political elite who conspired with the Greeks to falsify the accounts which allowed them to join the Eurozone in the first place. Now they have 25% unemployment and 50% of their young people unable to find a job while the EU turns a blind eye. Scandalous!
We have booked an apartment overlooking the Aegean Sea in Santorini for a week in May, then we travel by fast boat to the island of Los where we stay in a lovely boutique Hotel but as Los does not have an airport and boats are infrequent we have to travel back to Santorini for another night before flying home.
Sue won a monthly competition from Gemini Woman, a fashion retailer, based in Stratford-on-Avon. The prize was a £250 voucher to spend on clothes in their Stratford shop, a haircut at Matthew Curtis, a make-up by Jill Yardley, a photo shoot and a champagne afternoon tea at Bensons Restaurant for both of us to finish the day.
I was left to my own devices and as there was a programme on the TV that night about Mary Arden, who was Bill Shakespeare's Mum, I decided to have a walk around Stratford. It was not our first visit to the town and years ago we came by narrow boat but I had never really explored it properly.
I walked downstream into the RSC gardens and on to the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare is buried and over the footbridge across the river to the rec but no rugby posts on this one.
Of course there are lots of Shakespearian half timbered houses in Stratford but I was particularly attracted by this row of Almshouses. The bard was born and lived just a few steps away from these houses where his father, John, was an alderman of the town and was even at one time the mayor. John eventually became involved in some dodgy dealings in the wool trade and almost went broke but Bill went off to London and became rich and famous, saving his family from bankruptcy.
I still had a few hours to kill so decided to visit Charlecote Park, a National Trust property a few miles upstream beside the river. Unfortunately the house itself was closed on the day of my visit so I had to be content with the outbuildings and walking round the estate on a cold and grey day.
The present house was built by Sir Thomas Lucy in 1551 but the estate had been in the family since the 13th century. Sir Thomas was a local magistrate and an MP who supported Queen Elizabeth 1st and protestant reform. In these capacities he was involved in the arrest of Edward Arden (for conspiracy to assassinate the queen) to whom Shakespeare was related through his mother so there was no love lost between the two. Shakespeare, who was brought up a Catholic, was thought to have included certain characters in his plays that ridiculed Lucy. He was also rumoured to have poached Sir Thomas's rabbits and deer!
Back In Stratford I was met by this very happy and attractive lady who turned out to be my wife Sue transformed by her makeover and we both enjoyed afternoon cream tea with smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches prefaced by a refreshing glass of champagne. Thank you Gemini Woman for a nice day out.
In case you have not noticed, Harmonie is under offer subject to a hull survey which will take place sometime in early April. The new owners will be John, like me an ex marine engineer and his wife Maureen who live down in Warwickshire and we met up for lunch in a pub about half way to sign the deposit contract which has now been paid. We all agreed to use a firm called Transpact to hold the deposit in escrow and would recommend them for any other buyers who might be concerned at safeguarding their deposit money when buying a barge, whether through a broker or privately. The costs are minimal and you get interest on your deposit.
As the deposit for Harmonie has now been made all that remains before the sale completion is the hull survey and a shipyard is booked for this between late in March and early April. We therefore decided to make a quick trip over to clear the barge of most of our personal possessions.
On a sunny early spring day we drove over to the Ironbridge Gorge and parked beside the Bedlam Blast Furnaces. These furnaces were built in 1757 by the Madeley Wood Furnace Company and taken over by Ironmaster William Reynolds in 1794. They were built to a design by Abraham Derby who discovered how to smelt iron using coal instead of charcoal which heralded the birth of the industrial revolution. Once lit the furnaces had to operate 24 hours a day with men working 12 hour shifts to prevent the linings cracking. It was thirsty work hence the large number of pubs in the Ironbridge Gorge!
We climbed up the stairs on the left of the furnaces which zig zagged up a steep landscaped hill through a series of arbours and emerged at the Golden Ball Inn which was closed! We continued up through the woods to the top of the escarpment then followed a level path to Blists Hill where we dropped down to the Blists Hill Museum.
Continuing downstream we found the Brewery Inn open. Unfortunately their local ale was cloudy so I changed it for another but we both tucked in to a plate of two eggs and a mountain of chips with a salad for a mere three quid! Gourmet food at a budget price! Suitably refreshed we crossed the Coalport bridge built in 1818 which was of similar design to the first cast iron one at Ironbridge built in 1781 but this one still takes vehicles.
Heading back upstream we arrived at Jackfield where there has been major subsidence of the river banks for many years. The banks falling into the river and narrowing the stream have caused significant flooding upstream so there is a huge ongoing £17.6 million project to try and stabilise the ground and prevent future landslides. Some of the old properties in the area may also be in danger of ending up in the river!
Harmonie was recently sold and on the next page we describe the final process.
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