Sunday, January 31

London Zoo

Today dawned bright and clear, but bitterly cold. Overnight the temperature had fallen to -2°C. However, even at late as 9am, despite blue sky and sunshine, it was still -1°C. A layer of thick white semi-hoer frost covered everything in sight. In fact, we briefly thought it had snowed overnight. We later discovered our car covered in spectacular ice crystals. Fortunately the new windscreen was unharmed.

On a spur of the moment we ventured out and went to London Zoo. It’s only a ten-minute walk from our house, on the edge of The Regent's Park. However, despite its proximity, we’ve never visited. The Zoo claims to be the world’s oldest scientific zoo as it was originally established for scientific study in 1828. It didn’t open to the public until 1847. It also houses the world’s first public reptile house (1849), first public Aquarium (1853) and first insect house (1881).

More than 750 species are on display, spread across 36-acres. We thought we’d see the inhabitants out and about given the unusually sunny weather. However, most were huddled under heating lamps or sheltering indoors as the external temperature never rose above 3 °C. The Great White Pelican gained our immediate sympathy as they shivered in the feeble sunshine, while the penguins didn’t seem the least bit bothered.

Today’s highlights included the Galapagos tortoises. Dirk, the oldest of three tortoises on display, turns 70 this year. These lumbering giants looked very content exploring their cosy new enclosure. The otters and meerkats were also active, as were the ring-tailed coati. We both loved the Llamas who anxiously searched for their keeper bringing a late-afternoon snack. However, by 4pm, were both shivering and decided it was time to head for the warmth of home.

Saturday, January 30

Living the high life

No doubt you've noticed recent blog posts have been punctuated by periods of inactivity. A combination of a heavy workload and a routine home life are conspiring to keep me offline. I'm either too weary to craft something inspiring, or life has been so predictable that chronicling it could send you to sleep in seconds. However, there have been a few moment worth compiling in a brief potpourri post.

Olympic Countdown
A couple of weeks ago my company hosted an event at the Paramount Club in central London. This is truly a stunning venue that opened in late 2008. It's a private members club located on Level 31 of Centrepoint, a controversial high-rise building in Soho. Centrepoint was built in 1966 and rises to a height of 117 metres, or 32 floors. It was one of the city's first skyscrapers and very nearly became its last. At the time it violated every conceivable height restriction imposed by the City of London, creating massive public outcry. As a result, no other buildings of similar height were ever built in the area and so it offers unrivalled views across London in every direction.

Everyone at the event commented on the view and spent the evening identifying popular London locations in the dark; the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Wembley Stadium, Buckingham Palace and so on. However, it was the Olympic Countdown clock wrapped around the top of BT Tower that caught my eye. It was unveiled on October 31 last year to mark 1000 days until the opening ceremony of the 2010 Summer Olympic Games.

Within a few years this view will be surpassed by that from the rapidly rising Shard of Glass, a new skyscraper being built over London Bridge station. When completed in 2012 The Shard will rise 310 metres above the Thames and briefly hold the tile of Europe's tallest building. It's a stunning trianglar design created by world-renown architect, Renzo Piano. He's the genius behind Paris' famous Pompidou centre and Aurora Place in Sydney. The Shard will have 72 floors, including a public observation deck at the top of the building's stunning glass apex. I've read that the concrete core currently under construction rises an incredible three metres every day.

Garry remains employed
Garry's contract has been renewed until June. We'll both be gainfully employed until Summer. I'm currently holding down two jobs at the moment; my regular day job as well as interim manager of UK business. We're actively searching for a suitable replacement so I'm hopeful life will return to normal fairly soon. One job is quite enough.

Wining and dining
We've both been out wining and dining in recent weeks. My CEO was in town last week, which offered the perfect opportunity to enjoy a few of my favourite London venues; Roka and Balans. Garry and I have also caught up with friends for lunch and drinks, again enjoying a few of our favourite restaurants; Boheme Kitchen and Balans (again!). We even tried our local Indian restaurant for the first time in four years. It's been fun going into the city as our frequent travel last year often kept us away from Central London.

Country Living
Finally, a group of us have combined resources and booked an Elizabethan Manor House near Bath for a long weekend in February. We'll be celebrating a friend's 40th birthday in style, relaxing on deep leather sofas in front of roaring log fire. Garry did some phenomenal research, tracking down this stone home built in 1604, then negotiating a deal far below the website sticker price. We've already spotted a suit of armour in website images!

And finally, our neighbourhood fox is in good health. We've seen him several times in recent days enjoying the warmer weather (that means, temperatures above zero). I still marvel at the fact we have such an animal in our yard.

Tuesday, January 26

It's almost time for kissing babies

This billboard appeared outside our office this month. It’s one of almost a thousand posted across the country at an estimated cost of £400,000. Each shows David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, looking rather presidential and ever so slightly air-brushed. If opinion polls are to be believed, he’ll soon be Britain’s next Prime Minister. The nation’s general election campaign is clearly underway, well before a polling date is announced.

The British Parliament sits for a maximum of five years, after which it is dissolved and a general election is held. Much like Australia and New Zealand, the prime minister has the power to choose the election’s date. Once he (or she) calls on the Queen to dissolve parliament an election must be held 17 working days later. This year a general election must be held no later than June 3, 2010, seeking voter endorsement for 646 MPs.

We’re set for an interesting time in politics. The Conservative Party has been in opposition for 13 years. It lost power in 1997 after being soundly trounced by Labour’s largest ever parliamentary majority. How times have changed. Most polls currently show the Conservatives rating ten to 16 percentage points ahead of Labour. Worse still, the Labour Party is still saddled by enormous debts it clocked up during the last election.

At last count, Labour owed at least £11.5 million. As a result, this year’s campaign budget has been capped at £8 million. Contrast this with the Conservative Party, with debts of almost £5 million. It expects to raise a staggering £25 million for the next campaign, effectively outspending Labour three to one. Both parties spent similar amounts during the last election. By law, the main parties cannot spend more than £18 million on the campaign. However, individual candidates can spend up to £40,000 each this year, thus swelling the overall spend.

As the current billboard bitz suggests, the nation’s burgeoning public debt will be a key election issue. The Government has attempted to kick-start the economy by boosting spending. Funding this stimulus has resulted in it borrowing money a rate of more than £50 million per day. This strategy will be under intense scrutiny by the opposition. It claims that savage cuts in public sector funding must start sooner rather than later to bring national debt back under control.

No doubt, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is praying for good news tomorrow when the Office for National Statistics releases its economic data on 2009’s last three months. Commentators expect the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to show growth for the first time in 18 months, thereby officially ending the recession. Labour will be praying hard for plenty more good news in the months ahead.

UPDATE - January 26
We're officially out of recession. The UK economy grew a meager 0.1% in the final quarter of 2009. One tenth of one percent doesn't sound like much of a recovery! This result means that the 12-month economic decline in 2009 hit a record-breaking 4.8%. It's been a tough year.

Sunday, January 17

More than just a statistic

Despite enduring the worst recession in 60 years, crime is on the decline in Britain. Last year crime recorded by nation's police fell 5%, to a total of 4.7 million incidents. Violence against the person fell 6%, violence with injury was down 7% and robbery fell 5%; despite London’s most expensive jewellery heist taking place last August. Small rises were reported in domestic burglary (up 1%) and drug offences (up 6%).

Last year's jewellery robbery was a particularly brazen crime. On August 6 at 4.40pm in the afternoon, two men walked into a New Bond Street jeweler, produced handguns and selected 43 items worth £40 million, before making their escape in a sequence of carefully coordinated getaway cars. Only one other robbery has ever resulted in a larger haul, making it the UK’s second largest in history. Even the Great Train Robbery only ever netted £2.6 million, although this was the nation’s largest robbery at the time.

Video footage taken at the time shows the two men briefly taking a woman hostage and firing at least two warning shots into the air. The men also made no attempt to conceal their faces from CCTV cameras in the building or on the street which made the crime seem rather foolhardy. However, police later discovered that the men has used a professional make-up artist to alter their appearance using wigs, makeup and latex prosthetics. The artist, who’d spent four hours preparing their disguise, had been told his work was part of a music video. The robbery wasn’t a success, as within weeks three men were charged for the crime and put on trial. By October a total of ten accomplices had been arrested and charged.

Last year, August 6 was also note-worthy for another headline grabbing event in British criminal history. Ronald Biggs, the infamous Great Train Robbery criminal, was released on compassionate grounds on this date; one day before his 80th birthday. At the time he was considered gravely ill and unlikely to live more than a few months. However, as the New Year begins, he remains very much alive. Biggs became internationally renowned after his escape from prison in 1965. He fled to Brazil, via Australia, and lived in relative comfort for more than 35 years. In 2001, he voluntarily gave himself up to British authorities and was returned to prison to serve the remaining 28 years of his sentence.

On a personal level, crime has been very much front and centre for our respective families this month. My brother’s Auckland home was broken into while he and his family were on Summer vacation. Even more unnerving was the experience of Garry’s mother. She found herself caught up in an armed robbery at a Sydney Pharmacy. She was in the store when a man wielding a machete entered and demanded money. The staff complied and the man fled, later stealing another couple’s car by threatening them with the same weapon. A truly terrifying experience for all involved.

Saturday, January 16

The Big Thaw

Life is returning to normal as the nation enjoys a brief respite from four weeks of abnormally cold temperatures. We're now in the midst of a comparative heatwave. Tomorrow's high is forecast to hit 7°C, at least ten degrees warmer than the coldest day we've endured this month. The warmer weather is well timed as we've had several very heavy rain showers this morning with more on their way. Last week this would have all been snow. However, winter isn't over yet. The Met Office warns that harsh winters in the past were often punctuated by brief mild spells, before the intense cold set in again. This reflects the pattern we've seen over the four years we've been in London.

Late January or early February is the most common period for snow. We saw falls on January 24 in 2007 and February 1-2 in 2009. 2008 was the only winter we didn't see snow in London (but a trip to Scotland over the New Year certainly sated our snow fixation). This winter couldn't be more different. The Times reports that it's snowed somewhere in Britain every day since December 17. At Swiss Cottage we've had four separate snow days, starting from the week before Christmas.

Locally, the last of the snow has melted, leaving just a few scattered icy piles in the shadows. Yesterday we also got our poor car's ice-fractured windscreen replaced and organised its annual service and roadworthy fitness test (known as an MOT). I was surprised to learn that we've clocked up less than 1,500 miles (2,400kms) over the last 12 months. This mileage includes a road trip last Spring to Cornwall, where we drove as far as Lands End. This distance alone is a 640 mile round trip (more than 1000 kms), excluding all of the numerous side trips we made along the way. I'm sure our car feels rather neglected.

Thursday, January 14

Here we go again!

We woke this morning to 3cms of fresh snow blanketing the neighbourhood. I must admit that the scene was a complete surprise. As we were headng to bed last night the Met Office wasn't forecasting anything substantial. However, about 4am it issued a snow alert for London as the weather's footprint began shifting. Snow then fell as we walked to work and continued through most of the morning.

You can see some of our regular commuting route in the images above, including the view from our front door. While the outdoor scene is magical, I must admit it's not inspiring me as it once did. I've clearly seen enough winter snow this season to last me a life time. In fact, only yesterday did the last of the black ice from last week's fall finally disappear. We've never had such persistent ground cover during the four years we've been in London.

Once again, huge part of the UK ground to a halt as the snow came down. Airports closed, tube lines stopped runnng and hundreds of schools closed their doors. It's all becoming a rather depressingly familiar story. As the bitter winter conditions continue, local councils and the nation's highway agency resorted to rationing salt supplies this week. The nation's dwindling salt supplies has been the lead news story for days as authorities struggle to keep road open and pavements ice-free.

However, the news isn't all bad. Our water supply has finally been restored. Some water began flowing began yesterday and by this evening was back to normal. It's been four days since we last had normal flow. Will this winter ever end?

Monday, January 11

Another winter casualty

Last week it was car windscreen that fell victim to our harsh winter; yesterday it was the turn of our water pipes. Incredibly, the pipes have frozen. We lost all water in the house mid-morning, including hot water (as the cylinder wouldn't refill after my morning shower). Poor Garry went without a shower. The Met Office was forecasting sub-zero temperatures for another four days so our chances of flowing water were slim. We immediately filled buckets with what water we could drain from the rooftop balancing tank.

However, the Met Office's predictions proved worse than reality and forecast snow failed to materialise. Instead, temperatures rose above zero overnight, unblocking pipes downstairs and filling our hot water cylinder once again. The thaw continues through the day, melting snow and ice across the neighbourhood. Treacherous ice is finally disappearing from pavements and stairways, while the roads return to their regular bitumen black colour.

However, not every pipe is back in operation. This evening we still have no cold water flowing in the upstairs bathroom or into the washing machine. With a little luck, we'll have water tomorrow as the mild thaw is predicted to continue. The Met Office says we'll have a high of 1°C tomorrow, rising to 4°C by Wednesday.

Sunday, January 10

The first casualty of winter

Experts recommend a scraper over any other method of ice removal. Every year insurance companies receive dozens of claims for windscreens cracked by people pouring warm water over the glass. Determined not to join their ranks, we bought an ice scraper for the car four years ago. However, we've never had cause to use it until now.

Today we carefully scraped a week of accumulated ice and snow off our Saab, only to find that the bitterly cold weather had already claimed a casualty. Ice appears to have found its way into a old scratch or stone chip, shattering the glass. The windscreen is now blighted by an ugly spiral crack. It's completely ruined and needs replacing. I've never seen anything like it.

Our misfortune isn't as dramatic as that of one car owner. A national insurer reports that a Harrier jet was blamed for one recent windscreen claim. The motorist in question claimed his windscreen melted when the aircraft crash landed nearby and burst into flames. I'll take an ice crack over a plane crash any day.

Friday, January 8

The Big Freeze

Nasa's Terra satellite took this image of the UK earlier today.

Britain continues to shiver under the coldest winter in three decades. Parts of Scotland will endure an overnight low of -18°C, while we'll enjoy a relatively balmy -4°C in London. We've had the central heating burning all day as we strive to keep the cold at bay. No doubt we're contributing to the nation's record gas use. Earlier today the National Grid issued its second gas alert in three days as demand was forecast to set a new daily record of 454m cubic metres. The current record of 449m cubic metres was set on 7 January 2003.

This morning we gingerly shuffled to work after waking to an inch of ice covering local roads and pavements. Yesterday's melting snow had frozen solid overnight, while two inches of snow cover lay undisturbed in every yard. You can see the view of our backyard above. The snow is still there this evening with more light falls forecast later tonight. Incredibly Garry and I spotted the neighbourhood fox sitting in the middle of our snow-bound yard this evening. He seemed oblivious to his surrounding and clearly had no issue planting his furry butt in its icy midst.

A snow-bound colleague at work sent the scene above from her garden. You can see the 15cms of ground cover now lying across the Western fringes of London and the Home Counties. The mercury's not the only thing plunging to new lows. Last night the UK Pound hit a 25-year low against the Australian dollar. Tonight one pound is worth A$1.71.

UPDATE: January 8
The National Grid confirmed that gas consumption hit a record 454 million cubic metres between 6am yesterday and 6am this morning.

Thursday, January 7

Not so bad; yet

A few pictures from today's snowfall. It's proved to be not as dramatic in London as last night's forecast predicted. We woke to less than 3cms of snow on the ground at Swiss Cottage. More snow fell later in the day and so we returned home to another 3cms on the ground. You see the impact on our poor car below. It's certainly not as deep as the snow we had last February, but is definitely colder. Temperatures are forecast to rise no higher than 0°C for the next five days and we're being told to prepare for an entire weekend of fresh snow. The lowest temperature recorded so far during the current freeze is -18C; near Aberdeen in Scotland last week. The lowest ever in the UK is -27C.

Elsewhere in Britain snow has been falling continually with some locations reporting up to 48cms of cover now on the ground. As expected it's caused all manner of traffic chaos including a morning rush hour queue in Northumberland that stretched 50-miles. Yes, you read that correctly - 50-miles - or 80kms for metric readers. I've also read that no fewer than 10,000 schools closed this week, or delayed the return of pupils from their Christmas break.

Wednesday, January 6

Frozen to the spot

It’s turning into a bitterly cold winter across much of the UK. For three straight days Garry and I have woken to heavy frosts and icy pavements, making the daily commute to work mind numbingly cold and ever so slightly hazardous. According to the Met Office we're enduring the nation’s longest cold snap for almost three decades. Britain was last this cold, for this long, in 1981. Sadly, the current spate of frigid temperatures is forecast to continue for least another two weeks.

Since Sunday I’ve been wrapped myself in sweaters and a duvet every evening in almost futile attempt to counter the penetrating cold. Our efforts to raise the ambient indoor temperature have become increasingly dramatic. We've started running the central heating all night rather than running it on a timer. We even left it on all day while at work. This seems to have finally a made a difference as the duvet been case aside for the first time tonight.

It seems thousands of households are pursuing a similar strategy nationwide. Yesterday authorities urged electricity suppliers to switch temporarily from gas to other fuels such as coal as heating demands skyrocketed. The measure, known as a gas balancing alert, has only been used once before, in March 2006. More alerts are likely to follow as local temperatures are forecast to fall to -2 °C tonight , dropping to -4 °C tomorrow night.

Furthermore, the Met Office has issued a severe weather warning for London as foul weather sweeping across Scotland and Northern England makes it way South. Up to 40cms of snow is forecast to fall in neighbouring counties overnight, at least 10cms along the Brighton coast and here at Swiss Cottage, we’ve been told to expect no less than 5cms, with a chance of up 10cms accumulating over 24 hours. You can see the initial falls starting to accumulate at11pm in the photo above. With all this snow on the way, as happened last February, we’re being warned to expect serious transport chaos with train delays and cancellations.

The chaos has already disrupted life up North. Hundreds of schools shut today, flights were cancelled at Manchester and other airports and scores of accidents reported on icy roads. As of 6pm this evening more than 15cms of snow had fallen in Manchester and parts of Wales. On lighter note, filming at the Manchester studios of Coronation Street, a popular TV soap opera, was suspended after cast and crew were kept away by the snow.

The Times reports that Britain’s cold snap is part of a global phenomenon sweeping the North Hemisphere. Record low temperatures were reported in six European countries last month, record snowfalls have been reports in North America and China is reporting the heaviest falls for at least half century. Scientists are telling us these extreme weather fluctuations are just another example of global warming’s growing impact. Look for cute snowman photos tomorrow!

Monday, January 4

A new decade dawns

Garry and I arrived back in London today. Our Summer vacation is clearly over. The short-sleeve 27°C temperature and endless blue skies of South Africa have been replaced by crisp 2°C highs and a frost that settled at four this afternoon. I’ve spent much of the day shivering despite throwing on layers and turning up the central heating in every room.

Our final three days in Africa have passed in a whirlwind of tourist highlights. Alongside more traditional sights we’ve also seen another three refurbished football stadiums ready to receive the FIFA World Cup in June. On Thursday we spent a leisurely day driving the final leg of the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth. We took the scenic route from Prettenberg Bay, turning off the main highway onto R102. This is the original coastal road engineered to overcome two deep ravines that once forced north-bound travelers to detour a hundred kilometers inland.

The old road winds down through the scenic Grootrivier Pass to a secluded white-sand beach called Nature’s Valley, before winding back up to the coastal plateau. The views were among the most stunning we saw on the entire Garden Route. We were lucky to see them. The road was only reopened a few months ago after sections were washed away by heavy winter storms and flooding in 2007. A second section, the Bloukrans River Pass, is still closed.

Our next stop was St Francis Cape. It boasts a pristine white Light House, now a National Monument, at Seal Point. Built in 1878, the lighthouse stands watch over the third most southern point on the African continent. It’s a desolate spot where pounding waves relentlessly pound both sides of the cape’s extreme rocky point.

New Years Eve was spent in Port Elizabeth. We based ourselves at an immaculately appointed private guest house, Manor 38, a block from the sandy shores of the Indian Ocean. If you’re ever in Port Elizabeth this is the place to stay! The room was huge, out host was attentive and the pool was perpetually inviting. We initially joined the crowd gathered for a free evening concert at nearby Hobie Beach. By 9.30pm we decided couldn’t really be bothered loitering until midnight and ventured home to watch in the new year on television.

New Years Day saw us fly to Johannesburg where we met up for dinner and drinks with Marcus, a colleague from work, and his equally delightful fiancĂ©, Kate. We first stopped for cocktails at the exclusive WestCliff Hotel’s Polo Bar. It’s located high on the hills of Johannesburg, overlooking some of the city’s leafiest suburbs. Dinner was at Moyo, an African themed restaurant in Melrose Arch. We met up with Marcus and Kate again the following morning for a “local’s” tour of Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria.

We began our final day in South Africa with a drive through downtown Jozzie before stopping at Constitution Hill. Here we toured the city’s old Fort, once a prison for opponents of Apartheid, and the new Constitutional Court. Nothing symbolizes the incredible transformation of South Africa more than these two venues, crowded together on a low-lying hill overlooking Johannesburg. The Court now upholds one of the world’s most inclusive and progressive constitutions, hearing its cases in a building built with bricks salvaged from demolished sections of the old prison.

We then visited the new Apartheid museum. Opened in 2001, the museum documents the historical roots of South Africa’s many oppressed ethnic groups, along with the rise and fall of the nation’s formerly racist regime. Visitors are initially greeted seven stark pillars, each labeled with the fundamental values enshrined in the nation’s new constitution; democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

However, for me, the most poignant exhibit was the large yellow and blue police armoured vehicle parked in the middle of the building. The Casspir is monstrous machine. Its sheer size and construction simply shouts brute force and aggression. It made me vividly recall news footage from the Apartheid era as these vehicle attempted to quell endless and often violent black African resistance. Nothing symbolized the cruelty of Apartheid more than this machine.

We then made our way to Pretoria, stopping briefly at Soccer City, the recently refurbished stadium that will host the FIFA’s World Cup final in July this year. The stadium’s exterior design resembles a calabash, an African cooking pot. It’s clad in a dazzling mosaic of fire and earthen colours with a ring of lights circling the bottom of the structure, simulating fire underneath a pot. The stadium’s architecture stands in stark contrast to that of the Voortrekker Monument, a monolith structure overlooking Pretoria.

This monument is a national icon for Afrikaans South Africans, memorializing the plight of the Boers who fled British rule of the coastal cape province between 1835 and 1854. Its construction began in 1937 and was finally inaugurated on 16 December 1949. The ceremony was officiated by the then-prime minister Daniel Malan, whose National Party had been elected the previous year promoting a new national policy called Apartheid.

In the years since the monument has come to symbolize the story of another oppressed group of people. For more than two hundred years the Boers constantly felt their very survival under threat; both from the English-speaking population and the native African tribes. Against this oppressive backdrop, the Afrikaans were ultimately driven create their own equally oppressive form of government.

Today a black man is President of South Africa, elected by universal franchise. Jacob Zuma governs a nation of 60 million people, preparing to host one of the globe’s largest sporting events, for a game once the preserve of blacks. Nothing symbolizes the nation’s transformation since its first truly democratic election in 1994. It seemed fitting to finish our last hours in South Africa at the foot of the Union Building, the office of the President, watching dusk settle silently over the distant Voortrekker Monument. What a perfect way to begin a new decade. Viva 2010.

Click here for more on our South African vacation.