Arrival at Heathrow, passing through customs and retrieving our luggage all went smoothly, unlike my first visit to London in 1998, but that’s another story. The Heathrow Travel Inn was very new, comfortable and spacious. The next morning we left the warmth of the hotel for a walk around the block. The cold hit my face like a sledgehammer. I had sudden misgivings. Could I survive in this climate? How long until Spring?
A taxi took us to the house my daughter was sharing with six others. They called themselves Seven Little Australians and seemed oblivious of the freezing temperatures. John had lived in London for three years in the “Swinging ‘60s” so was keen to revisit old haunts. First on the list was “The Dove” so we bought a daily transport ticket and took two tubes to Hammersmith. The walk alongside the Thames was interesting as it was low tide and canal boats sat on the dry. We warmed ourselves by the roaring coal fire in the The Dove and ate potatoes topped with beans and cheese, tuna and onions. We noticed one of the flatmates seemed particularly interested in our daughter.
We bought cards for our mobile phones, found a place to sleep in Carina’s house in Shepherd’s Bush, and prepared to go out for dinner. Carina had booked a table at the Blue Elephant which was an upmarket Thai restaurant. We had to catch three trains to get to Fulham. The Blue Elephant lived up to its reputation. We were greeted by smiling waitresses and met with a blast of hot, humid air which felt as if it was blowing off the Andaman Sea. All I can say is the restaurant was completely over the top with wooden bridges crossing running streams filled with fish and floating baskets of flowers. John had been looking a bit peaky but this was the last straw. After we ordered a simple soup for him, he decided to go for a walk outside in the cold and possibly go home. Carina ordered us two dishes with steamed rice, accompanied by jasmine tea. The waitress suggested we choose something less spicy to go with the order or maybe we would like less chilli in our dishes but I confidently replied they would be fine. I found out the meaning of the elephants beside each dish on the menu. Two elephants meant very, very hot. We were unable to finish the meal. Instead we had fruit and icecream to put out the fire and asked for containers to take away what we could not eat. The bill arrived for £58 which put me into a state of shock.
I don’t want to labour the point but we were visiting Britain at a time when the Australian dollar equalled 42p or as low as 38p after actually changing money. That meant that every British pound equalled more than AUD $2.60. Our dinner at the Blue Elephant cost us over AUD $150 . I was still receiving my salary from the NSW Education Department so we had decided to be very careful when eating out so we could save money for travelling. Day 1 we had blown the budget and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster. John was still wandering the local streets so we found him and headed back to Shepherd’s Bush on the tube, carrying our containers of fiery curry.
Carina left early next morning for Edinburgh and Hogmanay with two flatmates, including the interested one. Although we promised to wait for the plumber to fix the hot water in the downstair’s bathroom, he didn’t arrive by 10.00 am so we had to shut the front door and take a taxi to the car hire place at Park Royal. The taxi driver was from Trinidad and John found out his life history as we drove through London. He had nine children, all living in Trinidad. He was going back for a holiday for the first time in 22 years.
John was pleased with the car as we were upgraded to a Mazda 6. It had digital controls for climate air, radio etc. How good was the feeling as we left London, travelling along the M1 to the Midlands. We stopped at an old pub for lunch but in England things are not always what they seem. It was owned by a food chain called Harvester, and lacked the character I was anticipating in an old English pub..
We pulled up outside our home for the next twelve months. Carol was there to welcome us and introduced us to M, another teacher at the school, who offered to drive me there for the first few days. (As it turned out she drove me all year). Friends of ours had arranged for beer and wine to be in the fridge and Carol had also left food. We drank the wine and ate the rest of the curry with copious quantities of rice. After working out how to operate the TV we both fell asleep in front of it. Somehow we climbed the stairs to the bedroom and had no trouble falling asleep a second time.
There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a shower when the water runs cold. Especially in the middle of winter. It wasn’t until later I discovered I had to pull a cord hanging from the ceiling to activate the heat.
My diary reflects my difficulties.
John is sleeping and I am having a very frustrating time because I can’t get anything to work. First of all, the Central Heating won’t come on. I tried reprogramming it to new times and now the downstair’s heaters won’t even warm up. It’s not cold in the house as we have the gas fire but it is annoying that I have done something to mess up the system. I then tried to connect to the internet but I can’t find a plug in the wall like at home. The phone cable just disappears through a hole in the floor. I decided to watch TV as I was not getting anywhere but I can’t even turn that on. There are two remotes and neither will work. John had it on earlier so why won’t it work!!!
On New Year’s Eve Carol arrived to take me for a school visit to Castle Bridge*. It was unlike its grand name and consisted of a long, flat roofed building with wings at either end built in the unexciting architectural style of the middle 20th Century. I met the school principal who took me on a tour of the school, ending up in my new classroom where Carol explained her program. It was a lot to take in and I was glad to get home and have some lunch.
I had success with the washing machine and although the weather was not suitable for outdoor drying I was pleased to see Carol had a Hill’s Hoist in her back garden. In this wet, chilly weather I used a clothes horse in the study. The view from upstairs was across a decidedly bleak graveyard but at least the neighbours would be quiet.
Although we may have opted for New Year at home we were invited to a party. It was at the home of Carol’s parents. At 7.45pm Carol came by and drove us to her parent’s house which is near the school. I despaired of ever finding my way there as a new tollway had split the area in two and made what was a simple journey into a complicated one. We were welcomed by Carol’s parents and were to find them supportive and friendly for the year of our stay. They were full of advice on where to go and what to do. Alan loaned me a book on walking around Staffordshire but I looked out the conservatory window and decided to wait until the weather improved. The food was excellent. John and I concentrated on the large Atlantic salmon and salads as we had been deprived of greens the last few days.
There were a number of other guests, including family and friends. After the meal we played a traditional English game called bar skittles made by Jaques of London.
Carol had ordered a taxi to take us back to Chasetown. It would normally have been ten pounds but the driver informed us New Year’s Eve was double price. Maybe, I decided, we should stop worrying about money and just chill.
*not the school’s real name