Friday, 26 November 2010

Back in Oz

I hope Rosalie is still reading, because I’m back in Sydney. We did the Captain Cook Coffee cruise in brilliant sunshine on Tuesday, which took us from Circular Quay out to the Heads of the Bay, the two headlands a mile apart that mark the entrance to Port Jackson from the Pacific Ocean. Evidently Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, 20 miles south, and then sailed north for home. He looked into what we now know as Sydney Harbour, named the entire area Port Jackson and sailed on.
The harbour is a huge expanse of water, mostly 16 metres deep so the biggest ocean liners can sail right up to either Darling Harbour, beyond the bridge, or if they are too tall to get under the bridge, or too long for the DH quay, then they anchor at Circular Quay, just on the seaward side of the bridge.

Almost all the way around the many inlets and bays, there are houses gazing down into the water, huge mansions, several storeys high, built into the cliff face and always crowded close together. I just couldn’t decide which one I wanted to own, and then remembered some of the lovely houses we saw, set in vast green acres of open space, on the way to Mollymook. Difficult decision!
Before I came to Sydney I found it difficult to understand the layout of the city. Now I’ve been here the equivalent of six or seven weeks over two trips, I’ve got a picture in my head. There may be four million people living here, but they are spread out around the many bays, inlets and coves. Run a piece of string around the coast from one headland to the other and you’d need 362* miles of it. The iconic Harbour Bridge stretches across the narrowest part of the waterway, roughly midway between the Heads and the Parramatta River, which marks the end of Sydney Harbour at the opposite, western end.

The bridge runs north-south across the Harbour and links “Sydney” with North Sydney. They are two very distinct areas. Sydney, on the south side of the Harbour, is the big business centre of Australia, followed by Parramatta, at the extreme western end of the harbour, Melbourne and then North Sydney.
Given that the entire population of Australia is still under twenty-two million, it is easy to understand Sydney’s importance.
*I heard many of these details while on the boat tour – many thanks to the mellow voice of David Jeffreys – and I hope I’ve remembered them clearly. If not, all Australians have my apologies in advance.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Last day in NZ

Sunday saw us riding a Ford Territory (lots of room to spread ourselves out and take our luggage!) from Blenheim to Picton via the scenic route.
The road is tarmac as far as Cloudy Bay, but climb the S bend hill heading north and the road soon changes to gravel and sand with huge drops into the sea on the right hand side. Enough to send vertigo sufferers lurching for the left hand side door handle screaming ‘Let me out!’
Wonderful vistas for the camera-mad among us, and the driver (Mr Black Junior) enjoyed himself so much we had to beg him to slow down.

At Picton we got on board the Tranzcoastal train and set off south for Christchurch. I‘m told you can drive the distance by car in 3 hours, but the train takes five. It hugs the coast most of the way and the black sandy grit we’d found at Cloudy Bay continued all the way south, but the scenery was wonderful, and so very different to what we’d experienced during our morning ride on the roller-coaster north east corner of the island.
We spotted lots of black fur seals lolling about on rocks, and scanned the blue ocean for signs of whales near Kaikoura. Herds of deer, cattle and sheep scattered as the train rolled by, and always the mountains marched along our right hand windows. The trip may have been a short three days, but it was a wonderful introduction to New Zealand. The trip of a lifetime.

We rose at 3am to get to the airport for a flight back to Sydney, and flew over the white, snow-capped mountains before heading out over the Tasman Sea. Once we landed, we used our Express cards to speed through the queues, oh and I forgot to report that we had a calm, cool and peaceful breakfast in the Jet Star lounge in Christchurch. First class is so-o-o much nicer…..

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Cloudy Bay is still the best

First stop on Friday was the eucalyptus-gum grey-green of the Cloudy Bay refinery. A beautiful frost-free patch of land in the Wairau valley of the Marlborough region of South Island, with several huge gum trees offering shade in the sunshine. Though we expected NZ to be colder than Oz, we happily wandered around in tee-shirts all day, and we were the first people through the Cloudy Bay doors.

We wandered in a darkened hall with hundreds of barrels stacked in long rows, and gazed at the pictures, legends and short documentary; glanced through the books on wine-making, bought an apron with the legend Cloudy Bay and admired the building and the grounds and finally got down to the tasting.

We tried five wines.
First a sparkling wine. Pelourus is named, oddly enough, after a dolphin and a dolphin features on their logo stickers. The locals like to drink Pelourus with their Christmas dinner, and I imagine it would go down well on a hot, sunny day but might prove somewhat lightweight on the equivalent day in the cold, icy UK.
Then the benchmark wine we have all come to love, the Sauvignon Blanc. The 2010 vintage is new, should have reached the UK in October, and is so pale as to be almost clear. We were assured that as the wine ages, it will darken in colour. The grapes are harvested in the cool of the night, which sounds romantic but probably isn’t, and the bright, sparkling fruit flavours are locked into the bottle for us to enjoy for the rest of 2010. Even the distinctive line of hills on the label is real. We looked out of the window, and there they are, fading into the distance just as they do on the label.
Next we tried the Te Koko: a complex, deliciously aromatic wine, much softer in flavour than the Sauvignon Blanc, and three years older. I spent a happy hour tasting and at the end my favourite was still the original award winning Sauvignon Blanc.

From Cloudy Bay we drove to Villa Maria, then on to Wither Hills, and finally Montana, where we were told that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has captured 81% of the world market. We had lunch in the Brandcott winery restaurant, and tried to get used to the idea that Montana is re-branding all its wine as Brandcott. Evidently Montana wine has always been sold in the US as Brandcott because of the confusion with Montana state, which does not grow wine. After lunch we drove by a very indirect route which involved heading in totally the opposite direction to the one we wanted and eventually came within sight of Cloudy Bay itself. I have to say it was a disappointment with its black, gritty sand and desolate air. Later the clouds rolled in off the sea, covered the flat valley floor and by the time we’d had dinner that evening, we had a hard time believing we were surrounded by mountains, for they’d all disappeared. No need to wonder why or how Cloudy Bay got its name.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


I’d been warned the landing at Wellington could get very rough, so I waited with my usual sang froid and got so engrossed in a game of Scrabble played on elder son’s ipad that we touched down before I had time to worry. I should say that I abandoned Russel Crowe as Robin Hood in favour of Scrabble, which will no doubt be heresy to some, but I have never seen his charm. Also I lose patience with the cavalier way modern films trifle with British history and legends, but won’t go on a rant here. Suffice it to say that I sincerely hope one day to have a UK company make a film in which Billy the Kid is portrayed as a worker for the World Wildlife Fund – it’ll be about as meaningful asthis latest version of RH.
Breakfast in a local cafĂ© next morning, followed by walk along the harbour and a trek to a shop called Small Acorns. Not my style, but the daughter-in-law dreams of furnishing a new house entirely from its range. To me many of the patterns look distressingly similar to the patterns we had in the 1970s, but to thirty-somethings, it’s all new. Or, as daughter-in-law says, it’s a generation thing. There’s a website.: and a blog at

Finally gave up on walking to the ferry terminal which is no longer comfortingly close to the town centre as the town map states. After a struggle we ran a taxi to earth – why is it they disappear when you really need one but flock around like seagulls when you don’t? Set off for Picton on the south island. The distance between the north and south islands of New Zealand may look about an eighth of an inch on the atlas, but it is three hours on the water. The boat heeled over like a racing yacht in the wind, which made walking to the bar difficult, but once we turned in among the headlands, bays and coves, everything settled on an even keel and we could get the drinks without staggering into stranger’s laps.

The land is reminiscent of the western seaboard of Scotland, except that all the headlands and hillsides are covered in woodland. Rich, lush woodland that looks nothing like ours. Palm trees erupt among the greenery, none of which I can name – except for the eucalyptus, which some people say is also known as the gum tree. Ferns that grow two and three feet in the UK sprout eight and nine feet high in New Zealand.
In picturesque Picton we picked up our hire car and drove down to Blenheim, about half an hour away, and found Rapoura Road and the Marlborough Vintners Hotel. There we settled in our “room” – a lovely modern chalet, with a splendid uninterrupted view of the mountains. Dinner was good, too; in my case, roast blue cod, which turned out to be just as white as cod in the northern hemisphere.

New Zealand

Thursday saw us in Sydney airport First Class lounge as guests of the younger generation of the family, who travel the globe on a fairly regular basis as part of their jobs. I now have an insane longing to travel everywhere First Class, for the lounge is huge, quiet, and a world away from the rowdy, crowded airport realms I’ve been used to. A small piece of card marked Express allows the holder to magically by-pass the monster queues and I didn’t feel in the least guilty in doing so. Staff treat first-class passengers with deference – I’ve never been called ‘Ma’am’ – pronounced correctly to rhyme with ‘ham’ – so often since I left the Singapore Airlines flight at the end of October. Which reminds me that we travelled Heathrow to Singapore on the new A380 double decker (Economy Class, naturally!) the day before one such plane limped back to Singapore with a cracked engine casing. We are due to fly back to Singapore via the same aeroplane, but since they’re all still grounded, we may well be on a 747. A pity, because the new plane is beautifully smooth and quiet.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Cafe Sydney

The seascape is one aspect of Australia, and the nighttime shot is another - and very different.
There nay be other restaurants with splendid views, but Cafe Sydney is up there with the best.
Sitting on the open air deck overlooking Sydney Harbour, the ocean going cruise liners that nudge up against the dock and the numerous ferries that dart across the water as dusk comes down and the lights go on is a magical experience.
Nor can I think of another city that would name its fine restaurant, with what I think of as tongue in cheek flippancy, as Cafe Sydney.
There is another restaurant in Sydney that sits at the top of a tall tower block and revolves very slowly. I imagine that is a wonderful experience too, but I enjoyed cocktails there in daylight, and anyway, it is so high and so far back in the city that the experience would be less intimate, somehow.
Another surprise about Sydney is the number of hills, valleys and ravines that run through the suburbs. The roads are reminiscent of San Francisco as immortalised in the car chase scene in Bullit, and houses here back onto hillsides that would give those suffering from vertigo the creeps. Children cannot ride their bikes home down the hill in some areas because they'd shoot straight over the edge. Driveways slope at forty-five degrees and worse, and in England such a drive would be an impossibility given the winter frost and ice that would make them into ski slopes. So much for me and my impression that Australia was almost tediously flat. Comes of seeing all those nature programmes of intrepid explorers driving along straight roads across red deserts that stretch - flat as a pancake - to the horizon.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Mollymook 2

Trees here bear flowers that remind me of an old-fasioned lavotory brush. They abound in this part of Oz. Always the same basic style and shape, but in many different colours from grey-brown to deepest crimson, often with green parrots squawking among the branches pecking at the seeds. Then, as a total contrast, we see the beautiful violet hues of the Jacarandah tree, so prevalent in all corners of the country, and in Sydney itself. The purple haze of the Jacarandah greets visitors who land on Circular Quay.

But such beauty is not without its drawbacks. A notice on the tennis court at the back of the beautiful apartments where we're staying proclaims that there are black snakes
in the bush which begins but a yard away on the other side of the wire netting. The sun is something to be watched, too. I sat on the balcony for a couple of hours in what I thought was pleasant early morning sunshine, and by lunch time one arm was red with sunburn. Evidently the UV was high that day, even though the skies were intermittantly cloudy.

The names here are reminiscent of home, and slightly disconcerting. Newcastle is 146 kilometres away to the north, Penrith, Grosvenor, Blenheim, Liverpool, Haymarket are scattered around Sydney, but in the suburbs, Aboriginal names prevail. My favourite so far is Wooloomooloo Wharf on Blue Bay. Yes, that's eight letter o's in one name.

The heat is building. The rain clouds have dispersed and we wake to brilliant blue skies. Now, naturally, we cool-blooded English start to complain of the heat around noon. By four o'clock, it is tremendous. We're just never satisfied. Back to Sydney late Sunday, with the promise of good weather to come all week.

Friday, 12 November 2010


We had a side trip from Sydney to Mollymook. It's 200 odd kilometres from Sydney and is very nuch a holiday resort, but small and very pretty.

The apartment had a balcony - everywhere in Australia has balconies or decks, or both, and it overlooked the Southern Ocean. Long stretches of beautiful beach, blue waters and wonderfully warm weather to amble about in. Some of the locals were surfing and some some brave kids played about in the waves near the shore. I stuck my foot in, and was surprised at the temperature of the water. I'm so used to the cold North Sea just about taking my foot off at the ankle that this felt pleasantly warm.

The surprise of Mollymook was Bannister's. A restaurant with rooms and an infinity pool - Rick Stein's latest venture. He opened his restaurant in October 2009 and people arrive from huge distances to sample his sea-food cooking. It is a beautiful spot. We didn't eat in the posh restaurant, but sampled a sea-food pizza in the bar at the side. He certainly picked a beautiful spot on a headland with golden beaches to either side. Go, if you can.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Is the Ibis a bully?

We hear tales of the ibis, an Australian bird who bullies people in parks. In a fight for a sandwich, usually the ibis wins. With a beak like that coming at me, I think I'd be tempted to fling the sandwich and run. But maybe not. Might depend on how hungry I was at the time. Give in to a bird? But then I speak from inexperience....
Had big adventure on the bikes this morning. Cycled over to Berowra Village and loaded up a haversack at Coles supermarket with items we'll need to cook tonight. We got back just in time, a few minutes to noon and the sun really startng to scorch.
Now having a rest before cooking for the family coming h0me from work.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On the train

More adventures in Sydney. We seem to have a weather pattern of mist in the early morning, brilliant sunshine from 10am till about 4.30pm and then the thunder clouds roll in and dump on everyone. We went out for a loaf of bread on Monday and came back drenched. My linen shirt turned transparent, my feet squelched in trainers, wonderful. Yet the silly thing was, we were still warm.
Today we went into Sydney on the train. The journey took an hour and only the last section could be called scenic. Looking down from the train as it went over the famous bridge was wonderful, and I took a couple of pictures. Fear not, they will probably turn up on here once I get them downloaded!

We went into a fantastic bookshop - Kinokuniya in George Street. They say they hold 300,000 books, and a goodly percentage of them are in Chinese text. I assume it is Chinese, though it could be Japanese to my untutored eye. We had coffee there and managed to explain that Sydney coffee is a little strong for us - is it ever - you almost get hairs on your chest as you drink it. So the waitress brought us a little jug of hot water as well as the coffee - perfect.

We took a walk in Myers department store and bought me a blouse I took a fancy to, and I received a belated birthday present - a shoulder bag that will hold my new notebook pc plus the stuff I usually carry in a travel bag - passport, money, etc. My faithful 9x5 travel wallet has been looking careworn for a while now.
A stroll through Hyde Park, on into the Domain, past Parliament House and the grim looking state library of NSW and along Hunter Street to Wynyard for the train home.

Monday, 8 November 2010

New Horizons

I've spent an hour trying to get a picture onto here so that I could say No prizes for guessing where I am now! But, because I am using a tiny pc I've only had for tweve hours, I haven't found the way to upload pics. Typing is hard enough. Mine read rather like the policeman in 'Allo, 'Allo who transposed all his vowels, until I realised I must look at the keyboard and slow down my fingers.
So where am I? If I loaded a picture it would show a massive single-span steel bridge towering over buildings. Yes, I'm in Sydney, on the other side of the world' where the only tree I recognise among the millions around me is a gum tree.
The birds are different, too. The large parrot family screeches and squabbles, kookaburras cackle and there is one plaintive mimic in the trees in the garden who sounds alternatively like a homesick woodpigeon with a sore throat and a mobile phone ringing. I spent a while hunting down what I thought was a hidden/lost phone until an amused husband informed me the bird was in the tree above his head. I'm sure it is that bird that wolf whistles us as we walk down the street.
Sydney seems to be a city of eateries, and caters for every culinary taste. Restaurants employ the very civilized habit of corkage, which means they charge the very reasonable sum of A$2.50 to open the bottle of wine you take into their premises. You but the wine at the Grog shop (or Bottle Shop) and if you are lucky you can buy a clearskin - a wine that is surplus to production and sold stripped of its well known label at a much cheaper price - and very good they are too.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Key of Redesdale

Henry III loved building and complained that the privy chamber of his wardrobe smelt badly, and advised no one to build such a style again. A wardrobe was a small room next to the great chamber, usually with a latrine beyond a kink in the corridor. The wardrobes were used as changing rooms, store rooms for clothes hung on rods like towel rails. Rich silks and furs would be put in great chests and scented with herbs and perfumes. Sometimes a scribe or secretary had to work in a wardrobe.
I think if you click on the pic you'll get a larger view. and be able to read the legend. It is part of the edisplay board at Harbottle Castle.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

D shaped towers

In King John’s reign, castles appeared with larger gatehouses and outer ditches that were deeper and wider. Nearby streams were diverted in order to flood them. The lord’s hall continued to be in the bailey rather than boxed up in a keep, whose importance slowly dwindled. They were built as austere towers, a place of safety in time of need rather than for everyday living; a bolt hole when attacks came. D shaped towers appeared, and were thought to give a better view of enemy activity.

The pic looks east from the motte at Harbottle.

Monday, 1 November 2010


Late in Henry’s reign, shell castles , or shell-keeps, appeared. High walls, sometimes 36 feet high, formed an outer shell on the top of the motte, sometimes in circular shape, sometimes polygonal. They enclosed the area at the top of the motte, but were not roofed.
Sometimes the motte was not stable enough to supposrt the weight of a keep and the walls, and in such a case, the walls were deemed more important than the keep. A flight of steps led up from the inner bailey to the shell-keep. Domestic buildings, roofed and built in the normal way, leant against the shell wall on both left and right, leaving a courtyard or garden in the centre space.

At Harbottle, the gatehouse defended the entrance to the inner bailey and therefore access to the shell keep. Towers strengthened the curtain wall, and the gatehouse was a twin-towered affair with a central passage over the actual gate and living accomodation above.

The lord’s hall was often built in the bailey, allowing for a more spacious building than could be built in the shell keep. A garrison might be housed inside the shell walls. The pic shows what is left of the massive gatehouse that once stood at Harbottle.

Taking a Risk

  Poised on the cliff edge about to take the leap! No thoughts of suicide - oh no! Or perhaps only in terms of covers for my e-books. I am a...