With a couple of weeks left of our summer holidays we planned to see some of Britain while the sun shone warmly. We decided to head north to Scotland, but not as far as Aberdeen, where my ancestors had lived, as we visited there in 1998.
Our first stop was Durham, England, where we climbed the tower of the cathedral, giving us an excellent view of the countryside and the ancient town. Every cathedral we visited John thought was better than the last, but my favourite was Wells. That night we stayed in an old stone farmhouse, complete with sheep dogs and black-faced sheep.
Now in the days of smart phones and constant internet connection it is hard to imagine us arriving in Edinburgh not knowing that the Comedy Festival, the Fringe Festival and the Military Tattoo were all taking place. We even found a room for two nights at a B&B close to the centre of town.
The atmosphere in Edinburgh was great but I wish I had bought tickets to some of the events. We had ruled out the Military Tattoo as it was raining and umbrellas were not allowed because they blocked the view.
We caught a bus out to Leith, where the Britannia is berthed and went on a tour of inspection. Five decks of the ship are open to the public, including the Queen’s bedroom (only a single bed!), state dining and drawing rooms with the walls and shelves covered with gifts from kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers throughout the world. An on-board garage held a Rolls-Royce Phantom V state car. As the space was slightly too small the bumpers had to be removed and reattached every time it was used.
Four royal couples celebrated their honeymoon on HMY Britannia. Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones in 1960 sailed the Caribbean, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, also visited the Caribbean but were met with storms and 20 foot waves, Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981 in the Mediterranean and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986 travelling around the Azores.
In 1997 the ship was decommissioned as repair bills were becoming extremely controversial. It must have been a sad day for the Queen as it would have provided a respite from her public life. The clocks on board are stopped at 3:01, the time the Queen last disembarked.
Consulting my book of Bed and Breakfasts I directed John to a remote Scottish farmhouse, once a hunting lodge, high on a hill overlooking valleys, streams, sheep and cattle. We drove and drove up and down hills and through wild valleys, with not a house in sight. John was despairing of us ever finding a bed for the night and I must admit I was pretty tense. Just as well for those long twilights in summer! After arrival and settling in we were directed two miles down the road to the tiny whitewashed village of Barr and a charming pub, where we had superb food washed down by a delicious Chilean white wine.
We scuttled home when we realised how much we were spending – over £100 a day, and that was just food and accommodation. It was a different experience to Europe and very pleasant to be travelling around the British countryside without freezing to death.
Yes, I know it’s a fancy word for teaching and school but T and S are taken. I’m sure you would like to know a bit more about school in the UK and how I was coping with the system.
I noted in one of my emails home:
School has been a bit depressing as one of the staff was just given redundancy owing to falling numbers. The teacher was told early Thursday morning and has been off school (presumably on stress leave) ever since. The staff are angry, especially as it was a good and competent teacher who was given the flick. The formula used to get rid of her did not take into account teaching ability.
At least my job was safe. I was not going to be transported to Australia, at least until the end of the year. In Australia, if the numbers fall in a school the forced transfer is guaranteed a position in another school. I was horrified to see that this particular teacher had to apply for jobs in other schools. To my great relief she was able to secure a position.
School was really lots of fun. My favourite subject was history as we were studying the Romans. I found that I had mispronounced Boudica all my life as Boadicea. “Boudy” became our best friend as J, S and I planned our lessons together. She was the Queen of the British Celtic Icene tribe who led an uprising against the conquering forces of the Roman Empire around AD 60 and is now a British Folk hero. I drew parallels to Australian Aboriginal warriors who rose up against the British settlers and like Boudica, they were overcome.
I had been on some interesting school excursions in Australia but nothing like our visit to Wroxeter Roman Ruins. Situated at the end of the Roman road that ran across England from Dover it was on the Severn River and established about AD 55. At its peak it housed 15,000 people and was known as Viroconium, and had many public buildings, thermae and a colonnaded forum. We stepped around the ancient remains, dressed up in Roman costumes. The Romans withdrew in about AD 410 and it gradually fell into ruin as parts of it were removed for other construction. In 1859 it was rediscovered. Six years after our visit a replica Roman Villa was constructed on the site as part of a TV series.
I loved the lesson where each child was given a replica artifact from a Roman Dig and asked to speculate on what it was used for. There were so many aids for teaching this topic as it was repeated every year.
PE in its various forms was a contrast to its counterpart in NSW as the weather made it far more difficult to get outdoors. Gymnastics, which I mentioned earlier, consisted of using large apparatus, producing sequences of rolls, balances, moving in different ways etc.
For one term we attended swimming. It took up a fair amount of time as we had to travel by bus to a heated indoor pool, get changed at each end and also have the lesson. I was put in charge of an advanced group of swimmers doing their Life Saving Award so was able to instruct from the edge. The third strand was dance which was in the term after I left and before I arrived. That may have been a good thing for my students.
In Australia we have the Annual Athletics Carnival which can be quite competitive. Those with the best times move on the Zone Carnival and eventually to State level.
At my school in England the Sports Day was a thoroughly non-competitive and enjoyable day. There were sack races, egg and spoon races, skipping races, beanbag races, flat races of 50 metres and dressing up races. Children competed in these events and were given stickers as they crossed the finish line for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places.
My memories of Athletics Carnivals in NSW were of long jump, shot putt, high jump, discus and lots of running races of various lengths, all carefully measured and timed. Sometimes tunnel ball and captain ball was squeezed into a jam packed day.
Of course the older children may have had different activities but I was teaching Year 3 and couldn’t help but compare the different attitudes to physical and intellectual development in both countries. I’m not saying one is better than the other. Taking the best from both systems would be the ideal.
I enjoyed teaching Science as every topic was well equipped. However, when we were studying sound I asked the children to bring in used and washed cans so we could make string telephones. One child brought a can with sharp edges made by a particular type of can opener. I covered the edges carefully with masking tape but word got around to the parents and I was asked to delete that particular experiment from my lesson plan. I learnt to stick with the program and not deviate.
The school year ended before the long summer holidays so I taught one class for two terms and then began with a new class in the autumn. Unlike my part of Australia where the hot weather continues well into Term 1, I noticed the chill of autumn on the first day back at school. Grey skies and increasingly cold weather were to be the norm until our departure just before Christmas.
The same two teachers continued with me onto the new Year 3. The classes were split into groups for Literacy and Numeracy with constant pressure to move children up or down a group depending on their performance. In the first two terms I had the middle groups but for the new autumn term I had the top literacy group and the lowest numeracy group. I really enjoyed teaching writing skills and some wonderful work was being produced. I would have enjoyed numeracy too, except for the constant pressure to teach to the test and produce an ever upward improvement in results.
Every Monday afternoon there was an assembly of years 3 to 6 for the last half hour. All but one of the teachers vanished to make use of the rare free time in school hours. The one remaining teacher would host a well-planned assembly which ran like clockwork under the capable hands of senior students. They were most concerned when I wanted to change the music to “Advance Australia Fair”. The chosen topic was “St David’s Day” but I announced we were not going to talk about Saint David of Wales but rather about Governor Arthur Phillip of New South Wales. As the teachers arrived back at the end of the assembly some admitted to me they had never heard of Arthur Phillip. I suppose there is no reason why they should. Australia was only one of many parts of the Empire and I certainly don’t know the name of the first governor of the other British colonies.
Religious education was very difference to Australia for historical reasons. Whereas representative of various faiths come in for half an hour a week to teach members of their own flock at home, here in England we had two lessons a week taken by the class teacher, as well as the “religious” assembly. Although the curriculum had a Christian bias it covered all the major religions of the world and the various days of celebration.
Some things were jarringly absent. There was no librarian or large and inviting library. A teacher was given the job of managing the books and must have found it a huge task on top of being a classroom teacher. The computers were also the added responsibility of a classroom teacher and had a habit of being uncooperative, as computers often were in 2004. I was biased, of course, having only used Macintosh computers at home and I found the different operating system difficult to get used to and limited for classroom use. I used my own video camera and laptop computer to film and make videos of excursions, sporting events and classroom plays which I edited, burned onto DVD’s and showed to the children. The school reports, however, had to be written on a school laptop which I was allowed to borrow and take home.
It is frustrating that I have lost track of so many of my videos and photos. I suppose I am lucky that I still have so many as they have been transferred four times to successive computers and were all originally taken on film cameras.
Since High School I have been a fan of the moody, soul searching novels of David Herbert Lawrence. I so much wanted to visit the town where he grew up with the grime of the coal mine alongside the splendour of the countryside. I now hand over to my husband who wrote this piece because he too must have felt affected by our visit.
Eastwood, England, unlike Eastwood, Sydney, is little more than an arrow’s flight from Sherwood Forest, on the outskirts of Nottingham, UK. But its most famous ex resident, apart from the mythological Robin Hood and the poet Lord Byron, is the author, poet and artist DH Lawrence, world renowned for his books which included Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, many of which have been made into memorable movies.
In his 45 years of life, Bert Lawrence wrote poetry, novels, short stories, plays and essays. Many of his early works were based on his life growing up in Eastwood as the son of a coal miner father and a schoolteacher mother.
When Lawrence was born in 1885, life in the coalfields of England was every bit as harsh as life in the coal mines of Australia and it is not surprising that when Lawrence left England in 1919 with his German born wife Frieda Weekley (formerly Richthofen and a cousin of the Red Baron) his world travels brought him to the Australian coalfields. It was at Thirroul, in the Illawarra, that Bert and Frieda settled for ten months while he wrote Kangaroo, set in this coal mining village. As many Illawarra residents know, their house “Wywurk” still stands beautifully located on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Many times I have ridden my bicycle past his house on the way from Wollongong to Thirroul, only to stop a little further on for a cappuccino at the beach front café. I wondered what Lawrence thought of his life in the sun, compared to that of his early years in the dreary, cold climate of Eastwood where the acrid smell and smoke of coal fires once filled the air all year round.
Lawrence’s income from writing and his wife’s limited resources enabled them to continue travelling and although his mother, father and brother Ernest are buried in the Eastwood cemetery, Lawrence’s poor health, which had plagued him since birth, led to his death in Italy and the burial of his remains in New Mexico where he had lived with Frieda for a number of years.
Do you detect a distinct sense of homesickness in John’s writing? Reading this I can see he is ready to go home and exchange riding his bike along the Staffordshire towpaths for the coastal bike tracks of Wollongong.
Back to Eastwood. We began by visiting a museum set up in Lawrence’s honour but have since read it has moved to the house in which he was born. He lived in quite a few houses in the town, each one part of a blue line walking trail, some used in as private residences and some open for visitors. In the museum we learnt about the similarities between the book Sons and Lovers and his real life. The Miriam in his book was a real person who never spoke to him again after reading her portrayal in his novel.
The first house we visited contained a guide who was clearly an enthusiast telling us many stories about the young Lawrence. In fact he was so talkative we thought we would never progress along the blue line, but meeting the locals is what counts and I’m sure he was pleased to see us as we didn’t see another visitor all day.
I remember standing on a slight rise looking towards the distant trees of remnants of Sherwood Forest and recalling Lawrence’s love of nature. My English teacher told us by reading the great novels of Lawrence, Hardy and others we would learn about the complexity of human relationships. Their books are still relevant today because basically people don’t change even if their environment does.
Apparently Lady Chatterley’s Lover is based loosely on Lawrence’s relationship with the wife of his university lecturer. When Frieda left her husband she also lost access to her three children.
As for Women in Love it is the novel that follows on from The Rainbow and depicts characters thought to be based partly on Frieda and Lawrence, author Katherine Mansfield and her husband. It depicts relationships between women and men and also between men. Who can forget that scene in the movie where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle nude in front of a roaring log fire?
Back to John, who has written about our experiences from his point of view in an email to friends in Australia.
We’re having fun exploring England, especially with trips last weekend to Shugborough Hall (National Trust), where the Queen’s cousin lives (the Earl of Lichfield – photographer). One of his ancestors was Admiral Anson, second Englishman to sail around the world after Sir Francis Drake (around 1740, 30 years before James Cook). The maritime tour continues with a trip to Bristol to board Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain built around 1846, the first steel and propeller driven ship. Although she had engines she had six masts and sailed to Australia 42 times carrying some of our ancestors. Our boating trips have consisted of cruises on the Rhine, the Seine, the Amsterdam canals, Bristol, a launch to the island of St Michael’s Mount near Penzance and of course the ferry crossing of the English Channel. Apart from that we have done two short canal trips so far in England as they are such an amazing part of European history – the aqueducts, the tunnels and the locks. The extent of them criss-crossing the country, still being maintained and restored is fascinating.
We’re enjoying the occasional historic pub although they are closing at the rate of 15 per week across the UK. Having said that there are 6 pubs in a radius of 200 metres from where we live. The only problem is the smoking in pubs and in restaurants. It’s appalling and only a struggling movement for change. At least Ireland has banned smoking in pubs – brilliant move and the Americans love it. We enjoyed Belfast, except for the smoke but the Civic Reception at the Town Hall and various events at the Queen’s University were all part of an incredible welcome for the exchange teachers (and spouses!) I enjoyed exploring the Titanic connection including a visit to the Harland and Wolfe yard where she was constructed. Northern Ireland has improved out of sight since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 so there is some hope for the world.
I have just been given a mountain bike by one of Linda’s staff so I’ve been busy riding and exploring the local waterways, canals, Roman ruins, Bronze age forts, transport museums, steam trains, bridges etc. Had a morning tea the other day in a Lichfield Tea Shop built in 1510 near the square where they burned three martyrs at the stake in 1555. They were the wrong religion and refused to be flexible. Dr Samuel Johnson (when you’re tired of London you’re tired of life) was born in the house overlooking the market square where markets have been held every week since King Stephen granted them the rights in 1152. Oh I love the history!!!
Our first tour ended in Munich so we found the railway station and bought second class tickets to Venice. I was dreading the seven hour trip in the heat but it was a magnificent train journey. The compartment was air conditioned, the scenery of soaring, snowy mountains was spectacular and most of the time we had six seats to ourselves. As the train pulled into Venice we were surrounded by water. Off the train and onto a ferry we saw the city bathed in the golden light of sunset. When I was a small child I would look at a picture of Venice every night before bed and say to myself, “one day I will go there.” Now I was living the moment I had dreamed about all those years ago.
After 17 stops we arrived at the jetty of The Lido and found that our hotel, the Giardinetto, was conveniently opposite. The room was as small as a room can be, not much bigger than the king size bed but it was air conditioned and had an ensuite so we were happy.
We had some very pleasant meals in the Lido, near our hotel. It may be different now but in 2004 the beach side of The Lido was fenced off for paying guests and it looked rather run down. After a hot and exhausting day in Venice with our three-day ferry passes we were able to nip back to the Lido when we felt like it or visit Murano to look at the glass. I loved Venice despite the masses of tourists. We would spend the day walking or sitting in Piazza San Marco watching the people interact with the pigeons and listen to the seven piece orchestra playing for the overcharged coffee drinkers. Only once did we have dinner there and all I can say is we did not choose well.
We joined up with the second tour group at a lovely hotel in the middle of nowhere on the far outskirts of mainland Venice. It had a pool, a rare commodity on our tours.
As a group we returned to Venice by ferry, this time visiting San Marco’s Basilica with a guide. Although decorated with glass mosaic and gold it couldn’t quite match Melk for sheer ornateness and was very dark inside. A fellow member of the group had the same name as my husband but was considerably older. He collapsed in the Piazza San Marco in the intense heat so John and I gently lowered him down and a doctor in our group checked his pulse. I went off to the glass blowing demonstration leaving the men with their patient. The other John Curry recovered and was able to continue the tour.
I was impressed with the highways we travelled along that afternoon. They were built high above the ground, parallel with the Adriatic. Orchards began to appear and we stopped for an afternoon coffee and apple slice before arriving at our hotel in Perugia. The Ilgo Hotel was a pleasant surprise, up on a mountain top. Our window looked out over a steep hill of apple trees and cypress. As we returned from our excellent dinner we could hear a band playing at the front of the hotel but nothing stopped me from sleeping like a log.
Then we were in Assissi where St Francis’s bones are kept. It was a hilltop village which was inundated with tourists but was still picturesque and charming. We returned to Perugia, starting our exploration at the bottom of the hill and ascending a number of escalators until we reached the town at the top. Around the city was a wall which we admired as we ate our lunch. Back on the bus we travelled to Lake Trasimeno, the fourth largest lake in Italy. It was suffering from an excess of overflow and was on the nose.
Leaving Umbria we passed into Tuscany and stopped for the night in Sienna. Our room on the third floor was hot with no fan but its redeeming feature was the large French doors opening onto a balcony furnished with a table and five chairs. So of course we invited some other members of the group for drinks on our balcony.
The next day was to be quite different as we were going to the Isle of Elba. I still recall my father quoting, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”, a palindrome describing Napoleon’s feelings when banished to the Island. Driving to Piombina, we boarded the Moby Love along with our bus. On Elba we picked up a guide called Carla who travelled with us to Napoleon’s residence on the top of a hill. Here he had a good view of ships arriving and departing so chose to have the farmhouse rebuilt to suit his purpose. Napoleon’s period of exile on the island lasted only 9 months, but during his stay the Emperor worked to make many improvements on the island, including to the internal road network. Cut off from the allowance guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Fontainebleau and aware of rumors that he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815 and made his way to France.
The water was very clean and clear although the beaches were pebbles. We couldn’t find anywhere to get changed so I contemplated swimming fully clothed. Common sense prevailed and I had to content myself with wading up to my knees.
On our return to the mainland excitement grew in the bus as we glimpsed the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We had to wait until the next day to see the icon up close.
Although the plan was to see the Leaning Tower, we visited Lucca first. I climbed up a tower with trees growing out the top while John stayed below and organised iced coffees.
Then we were in Pisa, taking the usual ridiculous photos with the tower balanced on one hand. We both decided not to climb the tower but found a good lunch spot where we could sit and watch other people clambering up. According to one who did it she found it quite terrifying as she walked out onto the wildly sloping ledge at the top of the spiral staircase.
We spent three nights in Montecatini which is a spa town visited by mainly older Italians who stayed in the many guesthouses and spent each evening sitting on the footpaths watching the entertainment of fashion parades and bands. It was a case of musical rooms for us at the Minerva Palace. The first smelt of smoke, the second was small and dark with no air conditioning and the third faced the street, had air conditioning and was quite satisfactory.
The Town of Fine Towers, or San Gimignano, was our destination on the following day. About fourteen towers survive in the hilltop town, circled by high stone walls.
Not to be outdone by my efforts John climbed a tower this time while I listened to a harpist singing and playing near the old town well.
Many a bottle of Chianti had been shared in our youth, with a candle later stuck in the round bottle enclosed in a straw basket. I discovered this bottle style was called a fiasco and enjoyed its contents with some bread and meat as we stood outside a castle in the Chianti Vineyards.
Florence was hot and wall to wall people but we visited the Uffizi Gallery and saw works by Botticelli, Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I was especially impressed with “Birth of Venus”. Crossing the Ponti Vecchio we walked alongside the Anno River. It looked rather polluted but people were sunbaking on a large rock in the middle in the blazing heat. Our visit to Florence was all too short as we were whisked back to the Minerva Palace for a farewell meal.
Unlike most of the others in our group who flew straight home from Marco Polo Airport we were staying another day on the outskirts of Venice in a very boring suburb called Quarto D’Attiro. It was a Sunday but luck was on our side when we found a great little trattoria. The spaghetti with prawns and artichokes was so good we went back there for dinner. Tomorrow we would be back home in Chasetown to find out if summer really exists in Britain.
There were exactly five more school days until the summer holidays. I was staying until 6.00pm at school each night doing paperwork to get it all done.
Every test result achieved by the children had to be passed on in triplicate, except for their books which went in the big bin after parents came to examine them on Monday, two nights before school finished! Before binning we had to choose the best page in each book to save for posterity and put it in a profile book. That night I was completing future projections in maths, reading and writing. While all this paperwork kept teachers on their toes and the children’s progress was strictly monitored, teacher burnout and low morale was a consequence of such time consuming attention to detail.
We had already met our new classes for the next school year and taught them for one day. I was extremely impressed with the organisation. The numeracy and literacy groups were already worked out, so from day one next term it would be smooth sailing. That’s a bit different to my experience in NSW. However I always felt as if I never had time to catch my breath as it was go, go, go all the time.
Suddenly it was all over and we were off to Munich, flying from Stansted with EasyJet and arriving at 3.45 pm. The train connection was smooth and the hotel was a short walk from the station. Fifteen minutes after arrival we met Barbara, our tour guide, who welcomed us and told us to be up at 6.00 am.
We made the obligatory visit to the Hoffbrau House where John recalled the heady days of the 1960s and we ate a selection of sausages, sauerkraut, mashed potato, apple strudel and drank a very large beer (I don’t like beer).
Cosmos Tours were not renowned for their high end hotels so I found myself the next night in the historic city of Prague eager to escape the smoke scented room with burn marks on the carpet and an ash tray on the bench. When I enquired at the desk the young woman assured me the room had been non-smoking “since the reconstruction”.
We had stopped in Nuremburg which was badly damaged during WW2 and rebuilt in original style with Marshall Plan money. The large town square was once the Jewish Quarter but the houses were demolished and the Jews driven out before the war.
After coffee and cakes in a bakery we were back on the bus and crossing the Czech border. The border town was full of small casinos and bordellos, most in a dilapidated state. Our next stop at Pilsen was notable for a wedding we saw taking place outside the Town Hall and the glass of Pilsener John and I shared, along with a Bratwurst on bread.
We were impressed with our short visit to Prague. On the first day we were given a brief tour but had most of the two whole days to explore on our own.
I was unsure whether I would enjoy the dinner cruise on the Berounka River but it was a highlight of the trip. There were only 15 on the boat, the buffet dinner was excellent and the piano accordion music very moving. In the darkness the illuminated buildings, especially the castle on the hill, took attention away from the ugly building sites and graffiti visible in the day.
When the musician began playing The Moldau by Smetana, I was transported back to my Teachers College days when we studied this piece in detail. Smetana wrote music that included folk songs and legends associated with his homeland when Bohemia (now Czech Republic) was under the repressive control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Hitler and the Nazis invaded what was then Czechoslovakia in 1939, Czech symphonies played The Moldau as a protest against the German invasion until the Nazis banned all performances. It seems that Moldau and Vitava are the German and Czech names for the one river and the Berounka is the tributary that joins the Vitava at Prague.
Our perfect evening was spoilt when one of the women in our group had the contents of her backpack stolen as she stood on the jetty. Two young women pushed her from the front while another grabbed at her bag. After that I put two locks on my backpack and talked John into writing down all the numbers of our traveller’s cheques.
The next day we were free to do our own thing which involved a lot of walking but in the evening we were driven to a Folkloric evening which was so bad it was funny. During the day we climbed up the hill to the castle and then came down another way through orchards where we ate cherry plums and apricots off the trees. At the bottom we discovered a little café with a walled garden where we had crepes and salad. We saw so many historic churches and buildings we were overwhelmed but mainly observed them from the outside.
On the move again and Bratislava (Slovakia), a medieval city of large squares, cobbled streets and outdoor restaurants, surrounded by an ugly fortress of 50s communist tower blocks, was our next stop. It was trying to attract tourists but mainly operated as a lunch stop between Prague and Budapest for bus tours in 2004. I was delighted with the sculptures poking out of holes in the street and John enjoyed his plate of escargot.
Budapest was beautiful but again ugliness reared its head. Graffiti covered most walls at ground level. I thought this might be a post-communist phenomena. What impressed me was the enthusiasm with which Hungarians faced the future. Now they were in the EU and able to leave behind a tragic past. It was only the older generation who were suffering as their pensions were practically non-existent. Our guide was Hungarian and aged about 30 so she had experienced the changes over the past 15 years personally. We visited the House of Terror which was the place where people were tortured, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. John loved to take me to these places I think because it was such a relief to get out of them.
We took off on bikes around Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. It was good to get away from the city even though we were slap bang in the middle.
Leaving Budapest we passed through the Vienna Woods and stopped at Mayerling, a hunting lodge where Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Mary Frelin von Vetsera were found dead in what appeared to be a murder-suicide pact, back in 1889. Rudolph was 30 and married while Frelin was only 17. Rudolph was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his death triggered a series of events which resulted in the First World War. Such a sad event with such calamitous after effects!
I blame the beer I had in Baden with a sausage and mustard roll as the headache which appeared that afternoon nearly stopped me going to the concert at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The evening promised Strauss, Mozart and extracts from opera so I was determined not to miss it.
Every time the soprano hit a high note I thought I would pass out. John said the concert was very enjoyable. The best part about the evening was going to bed.
Leaving Vienna we drove a short distance to Krems where we boarded a boat for a cruise along the Danube to Melk.
Here we toured a Benedictine Abbey which was now a school, admiring what I considered to be the most gilded church I had ever seen. Stucco marble frescos ascended to the heavens and so much gold! Completely over the top but great to look at just the same.
Austria was the lucky country because it wasn’t controlled by the Communists and is the most beautiful, pristine, chocolate box beautiful country I have ever seen (apart from Switzerland). What I didn’t know is that they were under joint American, British, French and Communist control for a while after the war and when they (the Communists) moved out, Austria had to agree to remain neutral. As a result they would not let the US fly over their airspace in the Gulf Wars. When I saw some graffiti in Vienna it was a shock. It is certainly rare. There is no rubbish, the lakes are pristine and every house and garden is immaculate.
Of course, we had to do the “Sound of Music Tour” in Salzburg. I found that different houses were used for the front and back scenes of the Von Trapp mansion. The “back” is on the lakeside and in 2004 belonged to a university and was used for post graduate courses. The summerhouse of “I am 16 going on 17” fame was in a public garden.
The church where they were married was some kilometres out of town. At times it was confusing reconciling the movie with the real life facts of the von Trapp family. Everyone was blown away by the town and shared excited stories of their discoveries as we left. I haven’t even mentioned Mozart!
Unlike our previous tour, this time the hat was passed around and there were no complaints from guide or driver. Some people were very generous and even we put in more than we meant to. We enjoyed the company of the other members of our group but were looking forward to a few days on our own before the next organised tour.
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.
Although we lived two hours from London we only visited a few times. After our seven day tour of Europe at Easter we stayed at our daughter’s house in Shepherd’s Bush for one night before checking into the Regent Palace Hotel in Piccadilly (built 1915). We had an enormous room with single beds at opposite ends so John and I had to shout to communicate. The shower rose was missing but a handyman fixed the problem when requested.
We had been told the best place to get tickets for shows was the Half Price Ticket Booth so we turned up at 9.45 am to find a long queue already established. After half an hour we had our tickets for Jailhouse Rock at £22.50 each. Although well back they were good seats.
Our fellow exchange teachers had been giving us advice after their stay in London. They too were watching their budget. The Tescos near our hotel supplied sandwiches and fruit salad for lunch.
We already knew a little about Samuel Johnson as his house was in Lichfield. We found a 1997 bronze statue of his cat, Hodge, outside Samuel Johnson’s London House. Hodge is sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells (his main food) on top of a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary and the inscription, ” a very fine cat indeed.”
With a free day ahead of us we strolled along Piccadilly, Regent Street and Carnaby Street. The last of these was a disappointment as it seemed to be an ordinary street with a few clothes shops and a pub called The Shakespeare at the end. John said it had changed since the 1960s when it was THE place to shop for fashionable clothes.
Speaking of clothes, John had to pose with the most elegant dandy of them all, Beau Brummell, the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England. I wonder what he would have thought of John’s gear?
We wandered around Fortnum and Masons looking at food until we became hungry and went back to the hotel for our lunch.
A little rest and we were off again, this time in the other direction towards Trafalgar Square and St Martin in the Fields, past St Marys and then to St Clements where we could see the shell marks from the bombing in WW2. St Pauls Cathedral was undergoing restoration and one side was completely covered in scaffolding. A picture of the cathedral was drawn on part of the scaffolding to show what it was like underneath.
I always thought St Pauls was the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake but found another little church called St Brides, also designed by Christopher Wren, which claims to be the one. It certainly looks the part. From St Pauls we walked down to the Thames where a new bridge has been built over to the Tate Modern, apparently one of the biggest tourist attractions in London, along with the London Eye. The riverside walk was interesting, with the tide coming in strongly, bringing with it a salty smell and lots of rubbish. We examined Cleopatra’s Needle, given to England in 1819 by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan at that time, bombed almost 100 years later in 1918. Big pieces are gouged out of the base of the column and one of the sphinxes.
Nearly back to our hotel we bought sushi, wine and prawn salad and took it back to our room. Dressed up for the theatre we walked for two minutes and were there. I found this written about the show from thisistheatre.com.
Previewed 26 March 2004, opened 19 April 2004, closed 23 April 2005 at the Piccadilly Theatre in London
The major new stage musical Jailhouse Rock in London featuring Mario Kombou as Elvis Presley.
Featuring a rich catalogue of 1950’s rock’n’roll classics, Jailhouse Rock The Musical tells the story of Vince Everett, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who discovers his own unique musical talent whilst doing time in jail and emerges to become the world’s greatest rock’n’roll star, only to discover that he isn’t ready for the pressures that money and fame can bring. Jailhouse Rock The Musical is a new stage musical version of the classic 1957 Elvis film Jailhouse Rock. The show also charts the development of rock’n’roll from its roots in blues and country music and will feature a mix of musical styles alongside a host of popular rock’n’roll hits which will appeal to all theatregoers, with plenty of classic hits to satisfy Elvis fans!
Whilst we enjoyed the evening we were a little disappointed to find the song “Jailhouse Rock” was not included!
We had previously spent a week in London (in 1998), but I had never been in the Tower of London so the next day was ready to explore.
The Tower is famous for its display of Crown Jewels, its ravens and its Beefeaters. Looking back over time my most vivid memory is the execution site of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. We were told that the exact spot is halfway between the entrance to the Crown Jewels and White Tower. We also visited Sir Walter Raleigh’s room where he lived in relative comfort, growing exotic plants and writing his book “The History of the World”. Both Elizabeth 1 and her successor James 1, imprisoned him a total of three times for displeasing, reckless behaviour. His luck finally ran out and James 1 had him executed outside the Palace of Westminster in 1618.
Carina was keen for us to go to the “Classical Spectacular” at the Royal Albert so we booked into a moderately priced hotel in Hampstead for a weekend in November with the intention of seeing the show on Sunday night.
That left Saturday to do some exploring. John enjoyed visiting the haunts of his youth and watching a Rugby game where he once used to play as a young man. Not far from the hotel we saw a small theatre advertising a play called “Love Me Tonight” so we booked for that night and obtained seats two rows from the front.
The play was memorable, not because of the brilliant acting, but for the incredible rudeness of the girls in front of us. Every time a certain male actor spoke they did their best to distract him. John and I were astonished, especially as the actor did his best to ignore them and ploughed valiantly on. At intermission I overheard them laughing in the ladies’ toilets. Apparently they knew him and for some reason were punishing him by sabotaging the play. Fortunately they left for the second half and the play proceeded uneventfully to the final curtain.
The next day we met up with our daughter and explored the Victoria and Albert Museum. That evening after we took our seats at the Royal Albert, Carina and her flatmates arriving in the nick of time.
The evening was hugely entertaining and splendidly “over the top”. Popular classical music was accompanied by multi-coloured laser displays, other special effects plus singing and dancing. Traditional English songs such as “Land of Hope and Glory” were played alongside the old favourites, “Pomp and Circumstance” by Elgar and “British Sea Songs”. The climax was the 1812 Overture with thundering cannons and indoor fireworks.
The worst part of the weekend was getting up at 5.00 am on Monday morning and driving straight to school. It took two hours and fortunately for me I was able to sleep all the way. John was driving in case you were wondering.
Our third visit coincided with preparations for a terrorist bomb attack. Although it did not happen until 2005 there were plenty of signs that the authorities were expecting it.
We caught the bus from Lichfield to London and checked into our hotel. Assuming we could leave our luggage, we were surprised on Sunday morning when we were told, because of the terrorist precautions, that we would have to take our luggage to the nearest railway station. There we found long queues of people doing the same thing. Although we were queried about the batteries in our bags we finally got them safely stowed for the day.
On the Saturday night we saw the musical production The Rat Pack – Live From Las Vegas at the Strand Theatre. The show featured actors playing the parts of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin. With a 15 piece orchestra they sang songs such as Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Night And Day, Strangers in the Night and That’s Amore.
We enjoyed it very much. So did Carina, her childhood friend Elizabeth, and Ben, formerly known as “the interested one”, who can now be identified.
This might be the end of our time in London but we have 14 more letters to go so don’t worry, we have a lot more of England and Europe to see yet. Also we must not forget to talk about the reason I was in England in the first place, to teach children!
Breakfast next morning was a fresh baguette from St Pardeaux, a beautiful little town beside the dam wall of a huge lake. John had read about the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and was keen to see it for himself so we parked outside the museum and read explanations in French, English and German. We saw old super 8 footage of people in the town picnicking, swimming and walking hand-in-hand before the day that changed their lives forever.
A tunnel led under the road to the preserved town where time stood still on June 10th, 1944.
It would take a book to write about what we saw there, so we bought one, describing the town before the Nazis arrived, how the men, women and children were separated, how the men were shot and burned in a barn, how the women and children were herded into the church which was set on fire and destroyed. The town has been left as a memorial and a new town built beside it. The roofless buildings bear signs to show that here was the butcher, the doctor, the baker, the tobacconist, the school… over 600 people lost their lives that day.
The stories of those few who escaped are incredible. Only one woman escaped alive from the church. Madame Rouffanche ran to the end of the locked building where she placed the stepladder used to light the candles, behind the alter, climbed up and threw herself out the window. Despite being shot five times she was able to reach a garden of peas where she buried herself in the soft earth until late the next day. The woman and baby who tried to follow her didn’t make it.
Robert Hebras, 19 years old at the time, was at the back of the barn with the men when the machine guns opened fire. He lay under the bodies of others, hoping to avoid detection. When the barn was set on fire he and four others escaped through a door to the next building. As the fire followed them and Nazis appeared with guns they cut through the walls with their knives to the next barn and the next. The fire followed them and two more men lost their lives. Then there were three. One was so badly wounded he could not continue. Guards patrolled all the doors leading to the outside world. The two waited and finally escaped to freedom, seeking refuge in another village.
In a reflective mood we sat in the sun outside a hotel in the new town of Olonzac. As we ate our lunch we rejoiced in the fact that we were alive and the dark days of war were over for this part of the world.
I was keen to visit St Leonard de Noblat, 22 kilometres the other side of Limoges and was confident I could navigate around the city. However we ended up in the middle of town caught up in a huge traffic jam. John didn’t appreciate that it was an excellent opportunity to see the sights. We finally arrived at St Julien, driving down to the river to check out the camping area. To our great disappointment it was closed. Even though we could have camped by the river we were getting low on water and needed to charge the video camera. Back we went the short distance to St Leonard de Noblet which has a medieval village at its centre, took some photos, bought some cerises (cherries) and set about finding a camping spot for the night.
Missing the turn to a caravan park we continued to travel north, ending up on the A20. It was then we saw a camping sign so pulled into a chateau with great relief. It was a pleasant, grassy spot with deer, very tall pine trees and of course the incredible chateau.
Continuing further north the next day we chose an alternative route and arrived in a little town called Loches. As we arrived by lunchtime it gave us time to explore the town. We were pleasantly surprised as the caravan park was walking distance to the castle, chateau and church and had shady, grassy pitches and a stream running through it.
We couldn’t wait to walk up the steep road to the castle towering over the town. Built in the 11th century, it consists of towers, dungeons, underground tunnels and beautiful terraces. We took a tour which was in French so unfortunately I was unable to understand any of it. However I did find out that after the liberation of Orléans, Joan of Arc met Charles VII at the royal residence in Loches on 22nd May 1429 and convinced him to be crowned and become the legitimate king of France. Obviously things went downhill for her after that.
All too soon we were heading back to Paris to drop off our Camping Car, spend a night at a hotel and then fly back to Luton.
We had a wonderful night in Paris at the end, staying in an old hotel which had wooden beams in the ceiling and a stone lined breakfast room two levels below the ground where the wine and food used to be stored. It was near Place de La Republique in the Bastille area and opposite a good restaurant where we had dinner.
Reality confronted me the next day as I had to start the reports which all the other teachers had been working on for the last week. C’est la vie.
School continued at a frantic pace but six weeks after Easter it was Half Term again. As the other teachers bunkered down for a week of catching up with paperwork we were up at the extraordinary time of 12.45am and driving to Luton Airport.
John had booked a motorhome for a week, or as the French call it, Le Camping Car.
From CDG we were delivered by taxi to Car-a-Way where we were introduced to our Camping Car and shown a video in French on how to operate the various parts. John was able to understand with his high school French and the knowledge gained from owning a caravan. When I admitted “Je ne parle pas le francais” I was advised to learn what I could in that one week and when I came back they would check up on me.
Leaving Paris was easier than we had hoped. The Seine was blue, the weather was sunny and we were on the A10 to Orleans. I had already chosen a caravan park for €10 at La Chapelle-St-Mesmin on the banks of the Loire just south of Orleans.
Realising we needed some food we diverged from the autoroute into a little town called Toury. We couldn’t find any food but watched a wedding near a beautiful old church, the bride running across the road from the courthouse to the church followed by happy guests. The stone houses of the village hid behind shuttered windows, brilliant red roses adorning their walls and gardens. As we drove on through Anteray, Chevilly and Cercottes we despaired finding anything resembling a supermarket or even a corner store. Finally in Saran, just north of Orleans we found a huge supermarket and stocked up on essentials.
John was looking forward to the end of the day’s driving as I directed him to the spot where the van park should have been but alas, it was closed. Three other motorhomes were parked nearby, and next to them a small group of people waved maps and looked lost. They were Italian, German and Dutch but somehow I worked out when I spoke to them that they planned to try for another camping area about 20 kilometres away. We worked out they were heading north so we decided instead to follow the Loire to the east and try our luck. First we had to negotiate one way streets and trams in Orleans but eventually discovered a D road to Jargeau where there was a camping area on the river.
At 5.30 pm John opened a celebratory beer. We broke the bread, drank the wine and ate our smoked salmon, salad and tomatoes. We fell into bed leaving the dishes for the next day with the excuse that a) we had no matches for the gas stove b) we didn’t know how to turn the water heater on.
The next morning John went exploring to find matches and I stayed behind to clean up. A Belgium couple in the next camper loaned me a lighter so I could boil some water on the stove. The washing up completed I started cooking eggs and mushrooms. John arrived soaking wet but carrying gifts – matches, a baguette and croissants.
We finally worked out how to turn on the hot water and were able to have showers – surprisingly good for a motorhome.
Fed and washed we were keen to explore the local village. The rain had stopped and it was pleasantly mild. Among the interesting little shops was a patisserie with the most exquisite little cakes so we bought two for later. Across the bridge was the town of St Denis de-L’Hotel where we were told there would be fireworks that night.
An intriguing sight was a group of young men pushing a wheelbarrow full of drinks. They appeared to have been imbibing all night and were in a very happy mood. They would stop every now and again to perform strange actions such as walking on top of a painted, bandaged man in their group or beginning a game of football or volleyball. We decided it must be a buck’s party or else some strange ritual.
We decided to stay another night so walked again to the village for dinner. The brasserie was cosy, the starter of terrine and salad was delicious but the main course was another story. I enjoyed my simple tomato and cheese on toast with a fresh salad but changed my mind about trying some of John’s Andoulette de Jargeau – a sausage which looked good but tasted and smelt like old boots. It was a specialty of the town but undeniably an acquired taste. We weren’t brave enough to complain.
At 11.00 o’clock we crossed the bridge to St Denis L’Hotel where we watched the fireworks reflecting on the river.
With the weather still a little cool although it was early June, we worked out how to operate the heater in the van and wore tracksuits to bed.
The next day we reluctantly left Jargeau and drove on to the outskirts of Chateau Neuf sur Loire where we bought more food, wine and water at a supermarket.
Viewing ancient and impressive churches, fairytale chateaus with turrets and moats we walked across the Pont Canal which crosses the Loire on an acqueduct designed in Gustaf Eiffel’s workshop.
It was time to find a home for the night so when we saw the Camping sign at Chatillion-sur-Loire we drove in thankfully over a narrow bridge crossing a defunct canal. No-one answered the bell at the old house so we found ourselves a pleasant spot with a view of the river, opened the champagne and settled down for the night. We eventually found the caretakers and paid our €10.80.
For June the weather was abominable and the next day it rained all day. Before we left I decided to check out the amenities. I couldn’t work out the difference between the Men’s and the Women’s toilets so waited until a French woman walked in and I followed her. I found out later we had both gone to the Men’s.
We travelled across Central France with St Pardoux camping area near Limoge as our intended destination. Just north of Limoge we saw a camping sign at Lac Signet and decided to stop when we had the chance. There was no one in the Accueil (welcome, information) so we camped for free on a freshly mown lakeside area with one other van for company. We were pretty content as we ate our home cooked meal of Grenada (fish), sauteed potatoes, eggplant, mushrooms and green salad washed down with a Bordeaux Blanc Sec. We enjoyed the late sunset with our view of a splendid pink flowering bush, a strip of beach, a rippling lake and a deep green forest. The only people we saw were joggers and dog walkers.
Our peaceful patch of countryside was such a contrast to the following day, which would take us back in time to the horrors of World War 2, and the saddest place I have ever been.
What can you see in Europe in seven days? Quite a lot as I am about to show you.
It was the Easter break and John had booked us a Trafalgar Tour of Europe. As I had only been to Italy and the UK I was excited to see that I would be travelling through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All in seven days.
Our first night was in London at the Hilton, Olympia. The room was dated and slightly grubby but a bottle of birthday champagne and dinner at Brick Lane with my daughter and my husband cheered me up considerably.
At 4.45am our wakeup called arrived. Breakfast was in a plastic bag on the door handle and consisted of an apple, an orange, two soggy pastries, a cake and a yoghurt. Our bus was full when we were picked up but we found seats and began the drive to Dover, through Greenwich and Kent. Dover was white cliffs of course but also garages and petrol tanks and fuel depots and very big ferries. I felt quite emotional as the ferry pulled out and the White Cliffs slid by.
We actually drove through France and Belgium without setting foot in either. Bruges was bypassed and I vowed to get there one day. The first stop was a roadside restaurant just over the border into Holland. I was busily videoing all the wonderful food displays when an employee came across to tell me filming was not allowed. I didn’t mind as I had finished by then anyway. Our arrival in Amsterdam was met with ooohs and aaahs at the sight of this beautiful city. Much to everyone’s disgust we were immediately ushered into a diamond cutting factory. When we tried to escape we found the door was barred. It was with great relief we were allowed out on the streets. Carefully avoiding bicycles we boarded a boat which took us up and down many canals and into the harbour. We spied Anne Frank’s house but there was no time to linger.
We could eat at the hotel some distance from the city or stay in town and be picked up later. We chose the latter and enjoyed an Indonesian meal. The hotel was fairly new but John made a fuss as soon as he smelt stale cigarette smoke and we were moved to a non-smoking room which incidentally had a lovely view of some canals.
By morning tea time the next day we were on the German border. I discovered that toilets in Europe cost 30 to 50 cents except in Switzerland where we had to use francs. Just before lunch we reached Cologne and wandered through Cologne Cathedral, one of the few buildings to escape bombing in the Second World War. The weather was cold so the offerings from the Bratwurst stand were welcome.
We were back on the bus, travelling along autobahns until we reached the town of Boppard where we boarded a ship for a Rhine River cruise. A little bottle of Rhine Reisling went down very well as we passed picture postcard pretty villages, most with a castle on the hilltop behind. There is still a lot of water traffic, with boats carrying all sorts of cargo and mostly travelling against the current. We disembarked at Sankt Goar with a very fleeting glimpse of the Lorelei Rock on the opposite side of the Rhine as the bus sped by.
It was dark when we arrived at the Mercure in Heidelburg and had our first meal together as a group. It consisted of mince and vegetables and was rather ordinary. The next morning it was raining as we walked around the town, trying to visualise it full of students a la “The Student Prince”.
We were all drawn to the Heidelburg Bridge Monkey which dates back to the 15th century. In its former incarnation it was a stone statue sitting in the tower of the old bridge, opposite Heidleburg’s Old Town. Tower and monkey were destroyed in the Nine Year’s War (1688-1697).
At the request of the Heidelburg Association, Gernot Rump designed a bronze statue of the monkey with a hollow head in 1977. It was then installed at the Old Bridge next to the tower in 1979.
Today, the statue is a popular tourist attraction. It is said that if a visitor touches the sign of horns, they will return to Heidelberg. If a visitor touches the mirror, they will become wealthy, and if they touch the mice next to the monkey, they will have many children.
We were told the Black Forest was affected by the Chernobyl fallout and two hurricanes so it is not what it was. Still I was impressed, especially when I saw snow on the side of the road. Lunch was in a chalet in the Black Forest, complete with one of those clocks with dancing couples on the top performing every hour. Of course we had Black Forest Cake after our tasty lentil soup. At Schaffhausen we stopped to view the Rhine Falls which impressively cascades over three large rocks. You can take a boat out to one of the rocks and climb a staircase to the top but we didn’t do that because it was raining and there wasn’t enough time.
As we entered Switzerland it was brilliantly green and the tops of the mountains were covered in snow. Genuine Swiss Chalets were dotted all over the countryside and I pinched myself again to think I was in the home of Heidi, one of my favourite book characters as a child.
Before checking in to our hotel in Lucerne we stopped at the Lion Monument which commemorates the death of the Swiss Guards who tried to prevent the capture of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. The king and queen did escape, only to be recaptured and guillotined sometime later.
We were so looking forward to our trip on the rack railway from Vitznau to Rigi-Kulm and worried when we heard rumours that it would be cancelled. Cloud covered the city of Lucerne the next morning and we heard there was snow, and lots of it, on the mountain.
Our extremely knowledgable tour guide, Elspeth, gave us the good news as we boarded the bus. It was operating after all. The journey up the mountain was breathtaking as we rose above the snowline and white flakes fell all around us. It became thicker and thicker and only the fact there was a snow plough on the front of the train enabled us to move forward and up. At the top was a souvenir shop (the hotel was closed) where we shared hot chocolate and apple strudel. As I was taking a photo of John the snow plough blew snow all over us so that we were buried in it.
As we descended in a large gondolier the clouds parted and the entire city and lake appeared below us with snow-capped mountains all around.
We were a bit sceptical about the Swiss Folklore show but it was really a lot of fun. There was cheese fondue, fresh lake fish and Swiss sausage accompanied by Swiss wine and beer. The entertainment consisted of saw playing, a broom dance, flugelhorns and bell playing by people drawn from the audience. I was glad it wasn’t me up there but they took the teasing in good part.
Lucerne was such a pretty city in such a beautiful setting. Dinner was on the rooftop of our hotel (The Astoria) with views over much of the city and the well lit towers of the city wall.
Amazing to think the next day we would be in Paris. As we travelled Elspeth filled our ears and minds with history and stories in her cultured English voice.
A brief stop in Beaune for lunch and then we were in the capital of France. As we prepared to say goodbye to our fellow travellers, half of whom were Australian, one generous fellow suggested we pass the hat around for Elspeth. When she heard what we were doing she reminded us in an icy voice that Trafalgar Tour documents had clearly shown expected gratuities for both guide and driver and proceeded to hand out small white envelopes reminiscent of church offerings. When we checked the amount we were horrified. It was quite a considerable sum per day in English pounds. I feel the Australians, ourselves included, may have put less in the envelopes than expected.
Of course it was raining when we arrived but we walked from our hotel to the Arc de Triomphe, watched the incredible traffic jam for fifteen minutes and then walked back. Our room was on the tenth floor and had a great view of the city and the traffic below. The Sacré-Cœur was just visible from one corner of the window.
It was John’s turn to have a birthday and what better place than Paris! Eleven years later he came back to the City of Light (or is it Love?) for his 70th birthday.
But in 2004 he was content to stand in line at the base of the Eiffel Tower after a city tour by bus. It was freezing cold and the horizon was hazy although directly above us the sky was blue. The view from the second level was quite spectacular but it was the construction of the tower itself, the machinery and the lifts, that I found most interesting. A River Seine cruise, a visit to the Musée d’Orsay (lots of great Impressionists but so sad I missed the Louvre) and listening to the choir from outside the Sacré-Cœur as people lined up to take communion were some of the fleeting images which only confirmed my resolve to return and experience more of this magical city.
Many people scoff at these whirlwind tours but for someone who had seen very little of Europe it was so exciting to actually be standing in the places I had read so much about. Next day we were back in London with some more thrills to experience but I will leave that for another post.
I was told one of the perks of being an exchange teacher is that sometimes events would occur in term time allowing me to be released from the schol. Unfortunately, this only happened once. On the 27th March we left Chasetown at 5.00am in our Ford Focus looking for the prebooked carpark near Birmingham Airport. After a short bus ride we were on the plane at 8.00 am and landing in Belfast at 9.00 am. I entered the Malone Lodge Hotel to meet the others while John continued to the Travelodge with our bags.
The morning consisted of presentations including: “The Northern Ireland Education System” and a panel discussion on educational issues. John appeared as we left on foot for Queen’s University. Lunch was supplied at the Great Hall, followed by a political overview presented by Fionnuala O’Connor, an economist correspondent for Northern Ireland who is also a Catholic married to a Protestant, giving her a broad view of the situation.
Dan McCall, a school inspector, gave a slide presentation on “Divided Loyalties, Differing Perspectives on Northern Ireland’s History and Culture, Murals, Flags and Banners”. I was hoping to see some of the murals in the ensuing days.
Our hotel was only twenty minutes walk from the Belfast City Hall where we had drinks, a buffet, a speech from the Sheriff and a welcome from the Deputy Lord Mayor (the Lord Mayor was busy). The building is “an ornate quadrilateral of Portland stone”, built to the same plans as the Cape Town City Hall. The interior inspired the domes and staircases of The Titanic.
That is where John was off to the next day, to find where the Titanic was built. Of course that was before the large museum was constructed in its honour but he found enough to keep himself amused at the shipyards.
Meanwhile I was off to Omagh. At 7.30 I arrived at the Malone Lodge Hotel and seeing a mini bus already there I asked the driver, “Is this the bus for Omagh?”
When he said, “No, it’s the bus for Omagh,” I realised we had a language problem.
Omagh of course is known for the car bombing in 1998 carried out by a group called the Real IRA, an IRA splinter group who opposed the IRA’s ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement. The bomb killed 29 people and injured 220 others. The victims included both Protestants and Catholics, six teenagers, six children, a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists and others on a day trip from the Republic of Ireland. As a result of the bombing new anti-terrorism laws were swiftly brought into being in both the United Kingdom and Ireland.
With all of this in mind six years after the event we arrived at the Omagh Library where our guide Lynda was not waiting for us as expected. Several people went off for a walk so that when she arrived they were missing. Then a photographer turned up but one teacher had already been taken off to her school for the day. After two professional photos were taken people starting lining up for a quick snap on their own cameras. By the time all that happened and we were back in the mini bus a considerable amount of time had passed. Before I arrived at my school we dropped people off at Greencastle, Laughmacrory and Carrickmore so that it was 10.45 when I finally arrived at St Columbkille’s Primary School. All I had eaten that day was an apple given to me by a kind soul on the bus so I was delighted with my cup of tea and scone. However I had to swallow it fast because Finola informed me I would be visiting her Year 3/4 immediately. After that I went to Anne’s Year 4 and Emmett’s 5/6. The children were well behaved and asked interesting questions like:
“Have you swum with Nemo?”
“Do people pray at Ayer’s Rock?”
‘Is winter cold in Australia?”
as well as the usual questions about snakes, spiders and crocodiles.
I showed them my toy stuffed platypus and talked about its amazing reproductive cycle.
They proudly showed me their paintings of sheep with little black legs.
An elderly priest was introduced to me by the principal as I was escorted along the corridor. Apparently he had worked in Sydney, Australia in the 1970s.
“Aaah! The terrible thing about Australia is all the orphans that were made by that Prime Minister of yours.”
I must have looked mystified because he continued.
“That Gough Whitlam! He introduced divorce without cause and that resulted in thousands of orphan children losing their fathers.”
The principal, looked embarrassed and muttered an apology as we moved on. He asked if I wanted a school lunch or to eat out. I didn’t have to think long about that and soon we were in a cosy pub facing plates of fish and chips with mashed and baked potatoes for good measure. When I failed to eat all my potato Peter sternly warned me that the Irish were very attached to their pratas and did I know there were ninety words in the Irish language to describe potatoes?
We also discussed the pros and cons of integrated schools, grammar schools etc and also the Irish language class at the school which I was very much looking forward to visiting after lunch.
The parents of the children support the learning of their traditional language to the extent that in this one class in the school all lessons are conducted in Irish Gaelic and no English is spoken. It was a positive way to prevent the loss of language after centuries of attempts to eliminate it. I was reminded of a similar situation with loss of Aboriginal languages in Australia.
On our way back to Belfast we passed Maze Prison where we were told 13 men had died in a hunger strike in 1981.
When I checked up on it later I found that ten had died but many others had lifelong physical effects from their enforced starvation. I had to find out what it was all about and discovered it started in 1976 when the British parliament changed the paramilitary prisoners’ status from Prisoner of War to Criminal.
The second hunger strike was a showdown between the prisoners and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected as a member of parliament during the strike which was only called off after ten men including Sands, had starved themselves to death. The strike radicalised Irish nationalist politics and enabled Sinn Fein to become a mainstream political party.
Much less stressful was our trip to the Giant’s Causeway the following day. As our bus rolled on the sky brightened and the sun came out spasmodically. We drove along a scenic coastline with cliffs rising up from the roadside reminding me of Lawrence Hargrave Drive north of Wollongong, now so far away.
Our first stop was Camlough or maybe Cushendall. Anyway it had a little boat harbour and a good view of sand and pebble beaches along the coast. We stopped to view the Carrik-a-Rede rope bridge but didn’t have time to cross it.
Soup and sandwiches filled our empty stomachs at the Causeway Hotel, after which we walked to a lookout and then up some steep steps to the top (about two miles). The scenery was spectacular, the weather was fine and it was almost warm. What more could you ask for?