Saturday, January 31

Snow report


You'd think that with four UK winters under my belt I'd know better. No sooner do I announce the return of normal weather and the Met Office promptly forecasts more bitter cold accompanied by several days of snow. We're being told this evening that snow will begin falling on Sunday, with heavier falls on Monday and Tuesday. Worse still, the afternoon temperature on Monday will peak at a frigid 1°C, rising to 2°C the following day.

Met Office says this new cold spell could last a month or more. Apparently, the 'warm' Atlantic airstream we've been experiencing for the last two weeks is being pushed aside by a stable high pressure mass centred over the snow-bound Nordics. We're being promised a ferociously bitter windchill factor. With this winter now the coldest in 13 years, the media is promoting the specter of harsh winters from 1947 and 1963.

Thursday, January 29

Back to normal


I've been blogging all winter about the miserable weather. However, there is good news to report. The endless bitter cold has disappeared, and normal weather has taken its place. We're now into a third week of regular dull grey skies and seasonal dampness. It seems to have drizzled on and off for almost two weeks now. However, when the sun returns it brings some wonderful rainbows like the one above. I took this photo last week from my office window.

Given our dismal Summer last year, and the long winter that followed, its little surprise to learn that UK television viewing is at record levels. In 2008, the nation's viewers watched 26 hours and 18 minutes of television. This matched record levels from 2003, and was 48 minutes higher than last year's average.

I can't help but wonder if shorter commutes have boosted viewing hours. Last October, the number of London commuters travelling an hour or more to and from work declined by 100,000 people. Despite the fall, at least 20% of workers still spend more than an hour a day commuting. My door-to-door commute is about 45 minutes each way, so I'm clearly part of the club.

However, my commute pales in comparison to some colleagues. At least two people in my office travel more than 90 minutes, twice a day. Research shows that at least 3% of the workforce spend three hours a day communting. Not surprisingly, UK workers are said to have the second longest daily commute in Europe.

The Daily Mail published a story yesterday about a woman who commutes from the Canary Islands every week. I've also seen stories about daily commuting from France thanks to the Eurostar's high-speed service. I guess I have it easy.

Wednesday, January 28

More air miles


My travel diary is filling fast. In the months ahead I have at least four flights scheduled, including a quick two-week business trip around the world. First up is a week for business in New York in late-February. I then fly back to London, change my clothes and head off to Beijing, Sydney and San Francisco. That puts pay to the first couple of weeks in March.

I'm currently scheduled to arrive back in London the day before Garry and I head to Pisa for the weekend. This brief dash to Italy is a special 4oth birthday gift for Garry. Three weeks later and it's time for an extended Easter break exploring Southern Spain. We have Granada and Rhonda in our sights, using Malaga as a base.

Finally, in mid-May I'm scheduled to be back in New York for another week of business. Phew! Yet more air miles are on their way. I'm hoping to burn some of them with a couple of upgrades I've requested while circling the globe next month. I'm praying business is quiet enough for Qantas to welcome my interest in the pointy end of its aircraft.

Thursday, January 22

The audacity of hope


It’s been an odd week for news. While UK generates more bleak headlines, the USA has been generating a wave of uplifting stories. It’s almost as if the USA has finally burned itself out with recession doom and gloom.

The good news started last Thursday with the miracle of Flight 1549. The story of a US Airways Airbus A320 ditching in New York’s Hudson river filled the airwaves for days. The twin-engine plane lost all power during take-off when it flew into a flock of geese. Quick action by the pilot saw 155 people survived a textbook emergency landing. It was hard not to draw parallels with BA 038, another successful crash landing at Heathrow last year. As a regular traveller it's comforting to know such events are truly survivable.


Good news continued this week with yesterday historic inauguration of America’s first black president. At last I was in a time zone that made it possible to watch an inauguration without rising in the dead of night. It was quite a spectacle. More than one million people had gathered in the National Mall in Washington DC. You could almost feel the palpable mood of hope that swept down the mall as Barack Obama took the presidential oath. I was almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the events I was witnessing.

As the inauguration unfolded I was reminded of my University days, almost 21 years ago. In 1988 I wrote a top-scoring term paper on Martin Luther King, Jr. I spent months studying the events that transformed him from an unknown local pastor into the nation’s most famous Civil Rights leader.

My term paper concluded with the moment King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.  This event was witnessed by more than 250,000 civil rights supporters crowding the length of the memorial's reflecting pool. I concluded that this was the moment that ultimately immortalized King for the ages. Yesterday, as Obama stood at the opposite end of the Mall, with the Lincoln Memorial shining in the distance, King's dream was made real. It's life-changing stuff.


Meanwhile, news in London has grown darker by the day. Pick a statistic. They’re all bad. On Monday the Royal Bank of Scotland warned that it would report the largest corporate loss in the nation’s history; a staggering £28billion. The Government increased its ownership of the bank to 70%, leaving the markets convinced that it would be nationalized within weeks. Its shares plunged 68%, dragging down other bank shares in the process.

Yesterday’s news was dominated by a record fall in the value of the pound. It hit a 23-year low against the US dollar. Earlier today the pound briefly dropped to $1.3622. Last summer we were getting more than two dollars for every pound. The Australian dollar saw a similar jump against the pound. Tonight it’s trading at $2.06, down from $2.22 last Thursday.

Today’s headlines were dominated by news that the ranks of the unemployed rose to 1.92 million in the UK between September and November. Not surprisingly, the papers reported that mortgage lending fell 30% in 2008 and inflation fell by a quarter in the final month of the year. Later this week we'll be officially in recession after the quaterly GDP results are published. There doesn’t seem much to celebrate. Britain desperately needs its own dose of hope.

Monday, January 19

Ghost of Christmas past


Tonight I packed up the Christmas tree and house decorations for another year. The living room is back to its regular layout once again. Oman already feels like a dream. Were we really lounging in the sun by a crystal clear swimming pool only three weeks ago? (If you scroll down to the original blog posting you'll see that I've added an image of us enjoying the surf on Christmas Day).

I really miss warm weather. This has definitely been the coldest winter since our arrival in London. November was the coldest November in a decade, while December the coldest in the UK since 1996. The provisional mean value for December was a bitter 3.1 °C, which is 0.7 °C below the 1961-1990 average. The cold winter has made me terribly homesick for Australia.

Sunday, January 18

A taste of Australia


We've endured almost a week of classic winter weather; fog, wind and rain. As you'd expect, we've been retreating indoors. Yesterday as bright morning sun and blue sky vanished behind a dull grey afternoon sky, Garry and I decided to explore the new Westfield mall at Shepards Bush. Garry insisted that we wait until the pre-Christmas and winter sales stampede before we ventured out for a small taste of home.

We miss the Westfield malls that dominate retailing in Australia. They make shopping a seamless, comfortable experience, unlike the cluttered old stores that line Oxford Street in London. We timed our trip to perfection. The last of the post-Christmas sales were winding down and the crowds were pleasant rather than oppressive.


The new complex is huge and the variety of stores, impressive. It holds 265 shops over two enromous floors offering everything from De Beers diamonds to authentic Australian Ugg Boots. While the temperature hovered around 6°C outside, inside we wandered in shirtless sleeve comfort.

It took us more than five hours to traverse both floors of the complex, stopping briefly for an early dinner at Yo! Sushi. Garry loaded up on jeans and work shoes, while I tried desperately to find a new black, winter jacket. Sadly, none in my size were to be found. I came home with nothing more than a new backpack that'll carry my lunch to work every day.

Wednesday, January 14

Zurich


We're back from a long weekend in Zurich. Our friend Brian, was joined by six others, to ensure he celebrated his 4oth birthday in style. He'd been keen on going somewhere cold, preferably with snow on the ground. Deciding where to go last July, during the height of Summer, meant we had to take a punt on a city likely to meet his expectations. Zurich narrowly beat the Nordic capital cities in our final vote.


Fortunately Zurich passed its winter test with flying colours. The temperature hovered near zero on Friday and stayed low throughout the weekend. Fresh snowfall earlier in the week had also left a hearty white layer on roofs and the ground, while fountains around the city touted plenty of ice build-up.


We spent most of time wandering the city's streets, its narrow, old town lanes and along the picturesque Limmat riverfront. The photo that leads this post was taken in the old city. It shows the clock face of St Peterskirche, the city's oldest church. It was built in the 8th century but was much altered in the 13th century and again in 1705.

At 9m in diameter they say St Peterskirche's has the largest clock face in Europe. The minute hand alone is almost 4m long. Personally, I have to take this record-breaking claim with a grain of salt having seen the Uhrturm (clock tower) in Graz, Austria.


Saturday night saw us celebrate Brian's birthday at a popular new restaurant, Terrasse, located just upstream from Zurich Lake. The venue is set in a semi-circular building boasting soaring ceilings and stunning chandeliers. Afterwards, Garry and I took a leisurely night stroll along the river back to our hotel. As you can see from the photos below, many of the city's sights were floodlit. The twin towers of Grossm√ľnster, Zurich's iconic landmark church, were particularly spectacular.


Our weekend away almost came unstuck on Thursday evening as we prepared to depart. Five of us were scheduled to fly out of London City Airport. However, heavy fog descended on the area forcing the cancellation of all flights. The scene at the airport was chaos. Everyone trooped back to our house for the night while we worked to get on the earliest morning flight out of Heathrow.

Garry and I had originally booked our tickets using vouchers issued by Qantas. This irregular form of payment generated an absolute nightmare. Qantas was fine with a flight change but for some unknown reason British Airways wouldn't reissue tickets until our taxi was literally pulling up outside Heathrow Terminal 5 at 6am the following morning. All I can say is Qantas call centre staff did a sterling job throughout the night hassling BA until it finally came to the party. That's 12 hours of stress I could have easily done without!

Wednesday, January 7

We're not in Sydney anymore…


I’m continually reminded by daily events that we’re not in Sydney anymore. Perhaps the most telling example is the weather. The entire UK is currently gripped by an Arctic cold snap. I read today that temperatures in London in week are forecast to be 10°C below average. Today’s high was 3°C, with an overnight low of -1°C forecast (it’s already reached this temperature outside). For the rest of the week, at least until Sunday, the daily high isn’t expected to rise above 2°C, with lows of -3°C.

It’s been so cold that Garry and I turned up the temperature of our central heating boiler this week in attempt to keep the house warm. I’ve even pulled out one of our portable heaters from Australia this evening to top up the living room’s temperature. Of course, all of this is even harder to bare knowing that temperatures in Sydney’s Western Suburbs have hit 40°C for the third straight day.

We’re off to Zurich for a three-day weekend on Thursday to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. Brian was keen on going somewhere cold and snowy. It looks like he'll get his wish without leaving home. Yesterday morning we woke to the sight of snow on the ground. I later walked to the local tube station with snow flurries flying around me. Fortunately Zurich had some snow today and promises a high of 0°C on Friday.

While everyone is enjoying the Swiss snow I think I’ll hit the shops in search of a sales bargain. The zipper on my winter jacket broke this morning so a replacement is urgently needed. Garry bought me this jacket on our second day in London. I can’t believe we’ve been here long enough for it to wear out.

One other thing reminds me I’m not in Sydney anymore; the daily obituaries published by the Times newspaper. The paper is renown for its detailed obituaries of historical figures who’ve died recently. It devotes at least three or four pages to this practice every day, which makes for some fascinating reading.

Many are stories of gallant heroes from the Second World War, something we’d rarely see in Australia. Yesterday’s paper memorialized a woman who managed the minutes and files from secret cabinet war meetings, while today’s edition recalls the exploits of a fighter pilot who shot down 16 enemy aircraft.

Monday, January 5

The White Cliffs of Dover


With the cold weather continuing, Garry and I decided to abandon plans for a New Year road tour of Cornwall. Instead we set out for two days in Kent; spending the first day in Canterbury and the second driving along the coast from Margate to Dover. We couldn't have picked a better day for our drive to Dover. While the weather was still bitterly cold, the day dawned crystal clear, ensuring that every scenic stop we made was framed by vivid blue sky.


I've wanted to visit Margate ever since it was mentioned in a popular novel. I can say that its far more inspiring in fiction than in real life. We saw nothing more than a typical Victorian beach resort town offering an rather dull view of the North Sea. Furthermore, we arrived at low tide which meant the seafront was nothing more than enormous stretch of muddy, rippled sand. In the background stranded boats lay prone against a tired concrete seawall. It wasn't an inspiring coastal vista by any stretch of the imagination. We stopped for a brief stroll on the sand but were soon on our way towards Dover.

We past Kent International Airport at one point and were surprised to see an aging 747-100 jumbo jet parked by its perimeter. Again, I'd first heard about this airstrip in a popular novel and had naturally assumed it was a small, sleepy location. As a result, a large jet was the last thing I expected to see. However, its runway is long enough to support older 747 aircraft and as such receives regular charter and cargo flights.


We reached Dover shortly before lunch, stopping briefly to wander along the cliff tops of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. I've only seen the cliffs up close once before, at dusk as my hovercraft from Calais pulled into Dover harbour. Today, they simply dazzled in the sunlight. It was a magic moment.


Below us we could see the busy ferry port loading and unloading boats at a furious pace. In the distance we could see the outline of the French coast 22 miles away. We were later reminded of how close France was when we attempted to tune the car radio. Station after station was French.

The White Cliffs of Dover were formed 80 to 65 million years ago at the bottom of what was then a tropical ocean. The chalk is simply the remains of shells from millions of tiny sea creatures. Scientists estimate that 15 milimetres of chalk took at least 10,000 years to create, or one million years to create 15 metres. Today, the chalk is a staggering 250 metres deep in places.


Our next stop was Dover Castle. This imposing medieval landmark dominates the white clifftop for miles around. Here we spent several hours wandering the castle grounds and touring the Secret World War II tunnels buried underneath. These tunnels remained closely guarded and on the secret list until 1984. While most of them were built during the 1940s, several sections date back more than two hundred years to the Napoleonic Wars. Once again we were reminded of how close France was as our tunnel tour guide spoke of constant German artillery bombardment Dover endured during the War.


Perhaps the most fascinating building in the castle complex is an old Saxon church, St Mary de Castro. The building is more than one thousand years old, while it crumbling grey stone bell-tower is actually part of a first century AD Roman lighthouse. The original Roman outline is still very distinctive for much of its 24 metre height.


Unfortunately, the castle's keep, or central building wasn't open to the public. Garry was most annoyed. The keep was built during the reign of Henry II and stands an impressive 50 metres high, maintaining silent vigil over Dover township and the harbour. While we couldn't go inside, the view from the outer walls, across the English Channel, were magnificant. This seemed a fitting end to our holiday travels. Its now back to work tomorrow.

Sunday, January 4

Canterbury


Without a doubt Henry VIII is one of history’s more colourful characters. He’s best known for his seven wives, the first of whom was Catherine of Aragon. It was her inability to produce a male heir that caused Henry switch the focus of his affections to Anne Boleyn. However, as good Christian woman, Anne would have nothing to do with him out of wedlock. As a result, Henry VIII partitioned the pope in 1527, seeking an annulment of his first marriage.

Pope Clement VII refused his request. In response, the king embarked on a slow, but steady, process of severing the pope’s authority over the church in England. In 1533 the pope excommunicated Henry VIII for his actions. By 1536 Henry had broken with Rome, seized the church's assets in England and declared the Church of England, or Anglican Church, as the nation’s established church. The new church then established the English monarch formally as its head in 1534 via the Act of Supremacy. Its most senior bishop was recognised as the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Today the Archbishop of Canterbury is considered the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (the global network of churches founded by the Church of England). The second most senior bishop is the Archbishop of York. The bishops of London, Durham and Winchester are ranked in the next three positions (third, fourth and fifth). Rowan Williams is the current Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the 104th in a line that goes back more than 1400 years to St Augustine of Canterbury.


Augustine founded a church in Canterbury under the orders of the pope in 597. Ruins of an abbey he built can still be seen in Canterbury today (as shown the photo above). The Archbishop of Canterbury's official residence in London is Lambeth Palace, while the cathedral for his diocese sits in the city of Canterbury. Today, the cathedral is considered the symbolic home of the Church of England, drawing more than a million visitors annually.

However, Canterbury obtained world fame several hundred years prior to the creation of the Church of England. In 1170, Thomas Becket, the (Catholic) Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, was murdered in an eastern cloister of Canterbury Cathedral. He died at the hands of four knights who wrongly believed they were carrying out a royal command issued by Henry II. For many years the King had been in conflict with the archbishop over the church’s authority.


Following Thomas Becket’s death the faithful throughout Europe began venerating him as a martyr, and in 1173 (only three years after his death) he was canonised by Pope Alexander III. The cathedral then became a popular place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide. At it height, it was considered Europe’s third most popular pilgrimage site. Thomas Becket's tomb lay in the centre of the cathedral until 1538 when its destruction was ordered by Henry VIII. Today a simple candle marks the spot where his tomb once lay.


On Friday, Garry and I loaded up the car and drove to Canterbury to finally see this city and its famous cathedral for ourselves. It took just over two hours to reach our hotel, situated just outside the city’s restored roman walls. A brisk ten minute walk soon had us wandering the cobblestone streets of Canterbury. We were surprised to discover how much of the city’s historical character had been preserved.


Naturally, our first stop for the day was Canterbury Cathedral. A church has stood on this site for almost 1500 years, being completely rebuilt at least three times. The foundations of Augustine's original building still lie beneath the floor of the nave. This first building was replaced by a Saxon building in the 8th Century. This in turn was rebuilt by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire lit by Danish raiders. Today, the oldest parts of the present building date from the 12th Century. We spent more almost two hours wandering through the cathedral and around its grounds.


While it lacks the majesty of Westminster Abbey, or the grandeur of Salibury Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral has some wonderful quirks. Progressive additions have given the building a rather disjointed, almost disorderly, feel. This ramshackle arrangement creates in a far greater sense of history than many other cathedrals we’ve visited. I was also captivated by the modern cross of daggers that mark the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered.


Our final hours in town were spent wandering the city’s pedestrianised streets, shopping at the annual Christmas sales. We found a stunning, 100-piece, Royal Doulton stainless steel cutlery set marked down by 60%. I bought it as a Christmas gift for Garry. No doubt a dinner party will be organized soon for its inaugural use. After a delicious Chinese dinner in town we bought tickets to see Baz Luhrman’s movie epic, Australia. It’s a joy to watch but the plot struggles to emulate the same enduring silver screen moments of classics like Gone with the Wind.

Thursday, January 1

Happy New Year


As we watched the mercury plunge to zero yesterday afternoon a collective decision was made to celebrate New Year's Eve indoors. Garry and I had friends around for a late-evening roast dinner and champagne. As midnight approached we gathered at our bedroom window to watch the distant London Eye come alive with New Year fireworks.

You can see the view in the photo above. We were close enough to see most of the action without having to brave freezing weather in one of the designated riverside viewing zones. We heard today that most viewing areas were full by 6pm with more than 400,000 people. Happy New Year from a bitterly cold London!