Monday, January 28

Living with the news

The unexpected sensation of living in the midst of the world's current affairs has been a reoccurring theme since relocating to London. Last week I was in New York for business. Three separate experiences brought many of the current news stories to life in a personal manner.

The first such moment occurred as my mini-cab swept past Heathrow's perimeter fence enroute to Terminal 4. The final resting place of BA038 was clearly visible. I was astonished to see how close the giant jet was to the roadway. It was immediately clear how narrowly disaster had been adverted only days earlier.

The second moment occurred on Tuesday when Australian actor, Heath Ledger, died at his Manhattan apartment. Text messages began appearing on the cell phones of colleagues as the news broke. Less than a mile from from our office a headline news event was unfolding. It was odd to imagine that I could witness this story for myself with a five-minute cab ride.

The final immersive news event took place on Thursday at Gabriel's restaurant. This venue is located across the road from the Time Warner building, home of CNN. In the midst of lunch I suddenly recognised the diner sitting across from me. It was Anderson Cooper, host of CNN's prime-time evening news magazine. I'd been watching him report on Heath Ledger's death and other prominent events all week. Here he was sitting in front of me.

THE WEATHER
It was freezing in New York. When I flew in on Sunday evening, the temperature was reported to be minus four. It rarely rose above zero for the rest of the week. London by comparison, was simply balmy with temperatures reaching double figures more than once.

Sunday, January 20

Hadrian's Wall


In AD122 Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the province of Britannia, the northern-most edge of his vast and sprawling empire. Following his visit, an order went out to build a defensive wall along the province's northern border. Hadrian was keen to secure his Empire from raids by neighbouring Pictish tribes. Construction of Hadrian's Wall took eight years. Upon completion, a remarkable stone and turf structure stretched more than 117 kilometres, coast to coast.

I’ve always wanted to see Hadrian's Wall for myself. As a child I was fascinated by the concept of building a barrier across an entire nation. On January 2 I finally had my opportunity. While making our way towards Scotland Garry and I spent a night near Hexham, less than five kilometres from Hadrian’s Wall. We naturally made plans for at least one short diversion. Earlier research had also revealed that most of the wall’s best preserved sections were located in the immediate area.


A short drive soon found us passing through rolling countryside where jagged sections of the wall could be seen tracing the skyline of a nearby ridge. We eventually turned off the highway onto a narrow, winding lane. As we crested a low rise we suddenly found ourselves face to face with a broad stone wall snaking boldly across the landscape. The view was breath-taking. A metre-wide wall flowed down a sodden grassy slope, dipped into a small vale before climbing a dramatic, rocky outcrop.

Garry and I parked the car and braved a bitter, howling wind to wander a short length of the wall. At we stood in the damp grass, surveying this bone-chilling and desolate construction, I couldn’t help but marvel at its presence. Here we were, standing at the very edge of the ancient Roman Empire, witnessing the endurance of history itself.

Saturday, January 19

Flight BA038


Today's big news story is the crash-landing of a British Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow airport yesterday. One 150 people narrowly averted tragedy when their aircraft lost all power during final approach to the airport, 180 metres above London. The aircraft glided heavily to the ground, 400 metres short of the runway. It then slid for several hundred metres across sodden grass, minus its undercarriage, before coming to a shuddering halt on the end of the main Southern runway.

In what could only be considered a miracle, the stricken aircraft missed the rooftops of local houses and the airport's perimeter fence by metres. Despite crash-landing there were no fatalities. However, as is often the case, a handful of passengers sustained minor injuries while using the aircraft's emergency evacuation slides. A lucky escape for all involved.

Heathrow's southern runway was closed for several hours, resulting in the cancellation of more than 220 flights. The delays have continued today. As I type this post, I am sitting at Arlanda airport in Stockholm waiting to board a British Airways flight home. The flight is already 1.5 hours late and at least one BA flight from Heathrow to Stockholm has been cancelled. I don't anticipate arriving home until 1.30am.

The last 24 hour's events invariably lend themselves to moments of reflection. I travel so frequently for business that its easy to forget that flying has its risks. Incredibly, there's no been one fatality on a major airline for more than seven years. According to the Guardian, the worst air safety record last year occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It had six fatal crashes.

UPDATE
My flight landed shortly after 12.30am, more than two hours behind schedule. As we came into land we could see the striken aircraft in the distance lit by floodlights, with several large cranes in place. Heathrow itself was still busy, with long queues at the taxi rank and airline counters and luggage from cancelled flights piled in the baggage hall.

Tuesday, January 15

Welcome to London!


I caught the Eurostar to Paris this week from the new St Pancras International station in London. The station was opened on 14 November last year, marking the completion of a new 108 km high-speed rail line from London to the Channel Tunnel. High-speed means exactly that. Passengers can now race through the English countryside at 300km/h. My train from London took an impressive 2 hours, 11 minutes to reach Paris.

St Pancras International is incredible. The original building was opened in 1868. Build by the Midland Railway Company, its design was chosen primarily to outclass all the other stations in London. At the time its 74-metre single span roof was the largest of its type. Today, this broad expanse gives the station a wonderfully airy space - a sensation enhanced by the light, sky blue colour used to paint its restored rafters.


The restored platform is decorated by two iconic fixtures. The first is a grand clock suspended over the platform. Below it sits a 9-metre high, 20-tonne bronze statue of reunited lovers in a warm embrace. Nearby a second smaller statue of John Betejeman can be found gazing up at the roof. This artwork immortalises the man who led a successful campaign in the 1960s to save St Pancras from the wreaker's ball. I'm grateful for his efforts. London now has a wonderful new gateway to Europe - one far more welcoming than cluttered Heathrow.

Tuesday, January 8

A distant memory


We're back after two weeks of vacation in Dubai and Scotland. This evening, with my first day back at work behind me, our recent adventures are fast becoming distant memories. I have only a few days back home before I head off to Paris for two days on business. Over the next few days I will post as many photos and stories as time allows.

Check this post regularly for new links covering our own Arabian tales:

Friday, January 4

Edinburgh Castle


Our northern road trip was dominated by castles. The third and final castle we visited is also Scotland’s second most popular tourist destination. Edinburgh Castle sits on a prominent rock in the heart of the city, rising some 80 metres above the surrounding area. It is unquestionably the most prominent feature in the city centre.

Access to the castle is via a natural rock ramp that rises from the east. Roads that trace the resulting ridge are collectively known as the Royal Mile. I was fascinated to learn that this ramp is a lingering reminder of the last ice age. It was created when slow moving glaciers scoured the summit, depositing the resulting debris on the trailing side. It's hard to fathom such a large land form being overwhelmed by a giant sheet of ice.

Today the Royal Mile is a fascinating street consisting of weathered stone buildings - their grandeur somewhat tarnished by an aging layer of blackened grime and soot. From a distance the towers, spires and gothic roofline give the city a distinct, almost regal, skyline. At night may of the building are carefully illuminated creating a memorable scene.


On Saturday morning we woke to a bright sunny, almost cloudless day. We couldn’t believe our luck. Throughout the entire road trip we’d managed to miss the worst of the poor weather sweeping across the UK’s northern reaches. Two days earlier, while we’d been enjoying sunshine at Loch Ness, Edinburgh had been buried under inches of snow. Now here we were in Edinburgh enjoying sunshine.

We decided to make the most of the weather and tour the castle. As we made our way up the Royal Mile the castle seemed to literally sparkle in the sunlight. It’s a fascinating place. So much about its character invokes childhood impressions of castles and their ilk. The site is filled with winding cobblestone lanes, towering walls and fortified gateways. As we made our way progressively higher on the rock, the views across the city and the nearby Firth of Forth became more and more spectacular.


Inside the castle reside several musuems. During our visit we elected to visit the Royal Palace where The Honours of Scotland, or the Scottish crown jewels, are displayed. These date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and are the second oldest crown jewels in Europe. As we toured the exhibits we learnt much about the Scottish Royal family. Until this moment I'd failed to appreciate that Scotland was once a separate nation with own royal family.


As we left the Crown Room the weather proved just how fickle it is at this time of year. The wonderful sunshine had gone; replaced by freezing, gloomy rain. The poor weather had clearly settled in for the rest of the day. We decided to begin the long journey home. Overnight we'd cancelled a planned stopover in York after the Met Office began forecasting heavy snow along the northeast coast. We thought it best to drive across to Glasgow and head south along the opposite coast.

Our journey home took about eight hours, including plenty of rest stops and a leisurely dinner break. We briefly saw snow flurries in North England but soon ventured into clear weather as London drew closer. Our week up north has been a wonderful diversion - and another fascinating lesson on this nation's rich and varied history.

Thursday, January 3

Snow country


After a day of almost perfect weather on Thursday, we woke to a spectacular winter's scene the following morning. The foothills around our hotel were covered in snow - the first fall of the season. Only the lowest reaches remained untouched, including our location by the shore. Over breakfast Garry and I debated whether to risk driving to Edinburgh or to simply turn south along the coastal road.

The previous night, upon hearing the weather forecast, we'd called Edinbugh to cancel our hotel ooking only to discover that we's still be charged a one-night penalty rate. Now we weren't sure what to do. However, local authorities reassured us that the road across Rannoch Moor, more than 300 metres above sea-level, was open and safe to traverse. We decided to head east for Edinburgh.


The scene that greeted us as we drove inland rapidly unfolded into a stunning, winter wonderland. Within 15 minutes we were winding our way through Glen Coe, passing six inch snow drifts on the side of the road. I asked Garry to stop several times so that we could take photos and marvel at the scene around us. It was clear that plenty of other travellers had the same thought. We passed numerous people making snowmen and even a few hardy souls going for treks across the moors.


Driving through the snow-clad highlands was a wonderful adventure. The drive was tiring but well worth the experience. It was certainly something we'd not planned for, but without a doubt one of the year's most memorable highlights.

Wednesday, January 2

Loch Ness


Mention Scotland and most people think of Loch Ness. Without a doubt its one of the nation's famous natural landmarks. In 1990 I had the joy of driving its entire length on several occasions. It was Autumn and the roadsides were a flood of gold, red and amber trees. Given such a wonderful introduction I'd expected my return visit to be somewhat disappointing. Nothing could have been further from the truth.


The Ballachulish Hotel where we based ourselves was a wonderful old stone building. Its stunning lochside setting guaranteed us breathtaking views each morning of towering hills and coves bathed in gentle dawn light. The hotel also boasted several cosy log fires, creaking hallways and a restaurant serving delicious gastro pub meals. It was also the cheapest accommodation we booked, making very smug at the wonderful bargain we'd secured.

We spent a leisurely day driving north through Fort William, tracing the route of the Caledonian Canal and along the southern reaches of Loch Ness itself. The Caledonian Canal disectes Scotland, running almost 100 kms from east to west. It was built between 1803 and 1822 by Thomas Telford, one of Britain's most famous engineers. His legacy can be found all over Scotland, as he was almost responsible for many of the region's picturesque stone arch bridges.


We stopped for a late lunch in the town of Fort Augustus, where the Caledonian Canal enters a series of formidible locks before passing into Loch Ness. We missed watching a boat pass through the locks, but did arrive in time to see the rotating road bridge open. Over lunch we sampled the local fare, including smoked trout and genuine haggi. Both were surprisingly tasty.


Our next stop was the famous lochside landmark, the ruins of Urquhart Castle. When I'd passed this spot in 1990, the castle had been a desolate decaying site in the middle of boggy sheep paddock. Today, a smart new visitor's centre provides access to the site. A short film inside the centre outlined the castle's history, before a series of curtain part, unveiling a memorably framed view of the castle itself.

I was surprised to learn that it was home to the 'king' of the Highlands many clans. During its time, the location had seen off many invaders and ambitious English kings. The castle was intentionally destroyed by its residents in 1692 to prevent it falling into enemy hands. We spent a delighful couple of hours roaming the site, soaking up the afternoon sunshine and enjoying spectacular loch views. Castles were starting to become a highlight of our Northern tour.


As we later drove back toward Fort William and our hotel, we passed the Commando's Memorial. This is a simple statue sitting on a small bluff that overlooks Ben Nevis and the snow-capped highlands. Ben Nevis is the nation's highest mountain. Modest by global standards, it rises a mere 1,344 metres and can be climbed by an average punter in five or so hours. An annual race up the mountain has the winner reaching the summit in only 1.5 hours. Not much of a mountain if you ask me.

The view from the memorial is magic. We arrived on sunset and watched the dying rays of the sun light up the hills in a magnificant golden glow. It seemed a fitting tribute to a day filled with one memorable moment after another.

King of the castle


Our first day of the New Year is likely to become the year's most memorable. While researching accommodation for our Northern road tour, Garry and I decided to bite the bullet and book a night in a castle. Our internet searches threw up several promising options, until by chance, we came across Langley Castle, a restored medieval castle in the heart of Northumberland. An email soon saw us booked in the castle's feature room.


Reaching the castle was an adventure in itself. As we drove north the weather began to deteroriate. The last 45 minutes of our journey saw us battling heavy rain, localised flooding and winding country lanes. However, the nail-biting ride was worth it. As we drove into the grounds, we were greeted by a magnificant floodlit fortress on a hill. It was a truly magic moment.

At check-in we discovered that we were the only guests that night. We had the entire castle to ourselves! The building was magnificant. Imagine sitting in a grand Drawing Room reached by a wide, creaking wooden staircase. The room itself was furnished with plush period sofas and framed by thick stone walls, a 16-foot high ceiling crossed by mighty oak beam and a large roaring fireplace. It was the perfect place to sit and enjoy a cold beer before dinner.


The castle contains a total of nine well-appointed guest rooms. Our room was located on the same floor as the Drawing Room. This meant it shared the same high ceiling. However, the room itself was huge. It included an enormous window cut into the castles six-foot thick walls, a cosy fireplace and enormous, creaking four-poster bed.

The following morning we were taken on a tour of the castle. Highlights included the Garderobe Tower. This tower once housed toilet cubicles on each of the castle's four levels. Three cubicles were recessed into the tower wall, while chutes at their base guided waste down into a small diverted stream. The arrangement of so many cubicles is unique in Europe suggesting that a sizeable garrison was stationed here.


The roof was our final destination. It was pure magic climbing the castle's battlements and surveying the surrounding countryside. We were like kids, imagining ourselves thrust back in time, watching guard over the district. In one corner of the roof lay a small chapel. It's restoration was completed in 1914 by Josephine Bates. She was the wife of Cadwallader Bates, who'd bought the castle in 1882 with the aim of restoring its former glory.

Blackpool


I've always wanted to see Blackpool. As a child it epitomised everything that represented the quintessential English seaside experience; wooden piers filled with amusement arcades, a classic Victorian tour and hours of sand-filled fun. Reality proved somewhat different. We found ourselves in Blackpool for lunch while en route to Scotland on New Year's Day.


The previous night had been spent in Liverpool where we'd witnessed the antics of locals in an unusually ornate bar. Entrance to the venue had been via a bland door, down some equally bland stairs. However, upon entering the main floor, we encountered a room of carved wall panels, ceiling fixtures and elaborate paintings. The contrast between the street and the room couldn't have been more stark.

Colourful pillars animate Albert Dock

This juxtaposition was a consistent feature of Liverpool. It's streets and buildings were largely dour, almost depressing. The city's defining natural feature, the Mersey river, proved equally grey and drab. However, once inside, many establishments were colourful and inviting. For example, we had dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant in a high-ceiling room filled with dramatic fluted pillars, arches and mirrored walls. It was easy to see way music was often an escape of local in the 60s spawning bands like the Beatles, the Hollies and Gerry & The Pacemakers.


We made our way north on New Year's Day via the local coast road, stopping to enjoy the wonderful sandy expanse of Southport Beach. From our vantage point the beach stretched for hundreds of metres towards the horizon before encountering a single ocean wave. it stretched equally far if we looked either left or right. I can't recall seeing such an enormous expanse of sand. As we stood in awe dog walkers and horse trainers were taking full advantage of its firm, flat surface


Futher on we encountered The Allen Clarke Memorial Windmill just outside Blackpool. Allen Clarke was a local author who's prose captured much of the local character in the early years of the 20th Century. The windmill itself was erected in 1937. This was certainly the oddest memorial we've encountered in the UK. It sits alone on a long, grassy promenade stretching for more than a mile along the coast.

Blackpool itself was a disappointment. The city's colourful Victorian heritage has been progressively overtaken by souless arcades filled with poker machines and toy-filled cabinets accessed by coin-operated grappling arms. The overall impression is rather tacky, tasteless and just a little depressing. I'd expected to find another rendition of Brighton. That is, a slighly worn Victorian facade with hopeful hints of its former glory on display. Sadly, none of this experience seems to have survived in Blackpool. After wandering for an hour we abandoned the drab sights, grabbed a brief lunch and departed for the North.

Safari Schlock


Aside from shopping, Dubai’s most popular tourist activity is its Desert Safaris. These have to be one of the most cliché tourist experiences I’ve ever encountered. Against our better judgment, Garry and I booked a safari on our last day in town. The outing involved being folded into the back parcel space in a four-wheel drive sedan and driven over modest sand dunes in of a convoy of more 30 vehicles, followed by an evening of entertainment that lacked any authentic local character.


The dune-bashing itself was a lot of fun. However, the experience lost some of its appeal as caravan after caravan of alternative tour groups and their respective conveys drove by. At one point I counted more than 5o vehicle dotting the landscape. Rather than being left with an impression of man battling nature, we felt like cogs in a large sterile tourist machine. Sadly, worse was to come.

Our dune-bashing was followed by a visit to a camel farm at dusk. The concept could have been a fascinating diversion. However, it consisted of nothing more than the entire convey stopping on the roadside to observe domesticated camels through the mesh of a perimeter fence. No explanation or commentary was offered regarding the farm, its camels, their habits or the industry we were witnessing. In fact we learnt nothing, and saw nothing more than a passing motorist would.


The final stage of our ‘safari’ saw us taken to a Bedouin tent camp for an evening of entertainment. This proved to be the biggest disappointment of the evening. The camp consisted of sturdy, wooden framed thatched huts arranged in a uniform semi-circle around a central concrete dance floor. Not a tent was to be found. Large arena speakers and floodlights ringed the area, pumping out the Arabian equivalent of musak.


As you'd expect a lone belly-dancer appeared mid-evening to deliver a simple routine. She then invited middle-age male tourists to join her in an inevitably clumsy group jostle. Sadly, nothing could have made the evening feel less authentic than a slightly bored dancer dragging giggling men and their wives around a concrete pad. We were left none the wiser about Bedouin life and customs, let alone the techniques of belly dancing. All in all the experience wasn't worth the money and I wouldn't do it again.