Sunday, 29 December 2013

Erich and her Spanner in the Works

We'd had this trip planned for a little while, though the finer details have changed quite a bit.  The plan was to tow up to London, stop 2 nights and take in a West End musical.  The club's Crystal Palace site was full so we'd reserved a pitch at Wyatt's Covert just outside Greater London. I'd kept an eye on the CC website every day, and my perseverance paid off when on the 20th a pitch became free at Crystal a Palace for our stay.

In the run up to Xmas the UK took a battering from the storms. I was sat in Miranda at a Half Way lights on Xmas Eve and she was being rocked by the winds. @DerekTheWeather has promised that it will   be like this on Boxing Night and on 27th.  Not exactly ideal towing weather.

Friday 27 December

I wake and peak out of the blinds. It had been a rough night and the street is. Strewn with blue recycling bags.  We get ourselves together and are on the road by 10 am, weaving in and out of the debris as we make our way through the village towards J48.

We accelerate up the slip road and are slammed sideways by a gust as we cross the estuary, and that little episode set the tone for the 200 mile journey.  The elevated section of the M4 through Port Talbot was down to a 30 mph limit as was the Kenfig section, but herself remarked on how well Miranda was coping with the tow in the horrendous driving conditions. I told herself to turn round and take a good look, which she did before asking "Where is the bloody caravan?"

I'd chickened out of the tow on Xmas Eve when I'd checked the forecast and seen that Erich was lurking off the west coast of Spud Chucking Land, and was coming our way. So with a Travelodge booked in the City we pressed on. The Severn crossing was lively and the rain by Bath slowed the traffic to a near standstill. Once we hit the Shires the weather opened up and we were accompanied by bright sunshine for most of the remainder of our journey.

The winds were still gusting strongly though, and we had a few heart in the mouth moments. The best of which was when a Megabus went sideways over 2 lanes just 100 yards in front of us.

As we passed Windsor jets filled the sky and a glance to the right confirmed that she was in residence with the flag being flown at full mast. I'm talking about 'Our Kathy' here mind and not HRH!

I always get a buzz driving into the capital as the M4 winds its way through Greater London, elevated through Chiswick carrying traffic three floors up, and then on to the Hammersmith Flyover and passed B&M Bargains in Knightsbridge (sorry .... Harrods).

This is where our journey through the capital got a bit more interesting.  TomTom decides it can't find any satellites and I'm on my own to find my way to the NCP car park in London's city district.  Our route takes us along side Hyde Park, through the road tunnel to Piccadilly and onto Piccadilly Circus, past Trafalgar Square and The Barbican before the car park looms into view.

Chalkie comes out of his booth and while he's asking us how long we want to park for, his head is in herself's window casing the car for valuables.

He tells us to reverse Miranda into the lift and press the button the the fourth level.  I say "say what?" And he repeats the instructions like as if it's a normal thing to do.  I reverse into the lift, and up we go, grinning at each other like Cheshire cats!

When parked up, everything is cwtched away out of sight before we take the same lift back down and start off on the 1/2 mile walk to the hotel ....... In the wrong direction!  Just 1 1/2 miles later we arrive and check in fast track on the machines in reception before heading to our room which has a view over City Road. Travelodges have come a long way, this one just having had a makeover, and is very comfortable indeed.

No point wasting any time in the room, so after a quick cuppa we're straight out to take in some of the capital.  Travel in London gets expensive for us.  Herself refuses point blank to travel on the underground and I can't work out the bus routes and timetables, so anything further than a walk involves us entrusting our future financial viability in the hands of a London Taxi driver!

A reasonably short, but quite expensive can ride later sees us hopping out somewhere between The Barbican and Covent Garden.  We stroll along taking in the sights, until Covent Garden comes into view, actually we could hear it before we could see it.  We spent some time browsing the market and watching street entertainers before moving on to try and find somewhere to eat.

You'd think that wouldn't be too difficult, wouldn't you?  But herself had been suffering from a stomach bug, and when herself suffers, I suffer!  Time is now getting on and we walked the streets of Covent Garden, on up to Leicester Square, on through China Town, along Shaftsbury Avenue and up into Soho, until Herself eventually found somewhere that was suitable for us to dine.

The place's web site proudly proclaims.......

Bill’s Soho restaurant has become a very popular destination in the heart of this hip area of London. Parquet floors, leather club chairs, chandeliers, vintage mirrors, and plenty of other signature Bill’s features, give it a real sparkle.

In fact, Bills did not disappoint.  The food was lovely, the ambiance was spot on, and the waitresses were very attentive.  Any thought that Herself had of leaving a tip were soon dispensed with as I checked the bill which included a 12.5% service charge!

We settled up and made our way down through Soho back towards Leicester Square.  I try my best to persuade Herself to let us take in one of the neon lit establishments, but she was having none of it.  I cannot think why!

Back in the square we take a seat by the winter fair and spend some time people watching as the thousands pass by on their way to take in a film or a show, go for a meal or find themselves a prostitute!

It's been a lovely evening walking hand in hand with herself through the West end, but we're quite tired now after the journey and the expedition to find a suitable restaurant, so take another expensive cab back to the hotel.  Once in the room we settle down, open a few bottles of wine and relax on the  very comfortable bed.

It strikes us how lucky we've been with our room allocation and don't bother to close one set of the curtains.  From our bed we can look straight onto City Road with all it's hustle and bustle!

Saturday 28 December

We had planned to get up nice and early today, but did not wake until gone 9.30am.  It was 11am before we were out on the street and flagging a cab down for another expensive ride west.  About £16 later we pull up on The Mall just a few hundred yards from The Palace.  Our driver this time hails from Garnant, a shit hole around 10 miles from where we live.  I'd always thought that Amman Valley people were robbing barstewards!

My heart sinks further as we look to The Palace and it's jam packed, we cannot get near it but crowds seem to be congregating around the Victoria Memorial and on either side as the road forks to both Constitution Hill and Birdcage Walk.

We had wanted to see changing of the guard ceremony, but our lie in ensured we did not.  We settled in against the barriers and battled to keep our place.  And some battle that was.  Some bloke had the nerve to ask me if he could come to the front with his child! I allowed his kid to stand in front of me but he was told to sling his hook!

We saw enough as it happened.  The guards and the band marched straight past us on their way to and from The Palace and it was quite special to be that close to it.

We then walked down through St James' park, stopping briefly for a coffee where the wild life was rather brave, one squirrel being confident enough to climb onto out picnic bench and onto Herself's lap looking for goodies.  We strolled through the park down to Horse guards Parade where a lone armed rozzer stood guard over the back of Downing Street.

Through the arches we continued into the throngs of Japanese tourists trying to get a photo taken with the guards and the horses.  I willed one of the guards to take action as an over exuberant tourist disrespectfully pretended to punch the guard in a photo opportunity.  Don't think he'd look quite so brave impaled on the end of a bayonet!

Turning right we made our way past The War Rooms on Whitehall towards the front of Downing Street where the Met's finest has screamed to a halt where a BMW was stranded having broken down - they get a bit twitchy about stationary cars in these parts.

The front of Downing St is guarded a little better than the back, and if I were minded to launch an attack it would be over the wall and through the back door.

We round the corner in the shadows of Big Ben and it's rammed solid outside Westminster Abbey.  Time is now getting on.  we've not eaten yet today and our show tickets are for 3pm.  We flag down a cab for a ride back up to the West End and get dropped off at Leicester Square.  Herself is feeling better today and thankfully does not take long to find somewhere suitable for lunch.

Before too long we are sat at a table in the snug Il Padrino Italian restaurant just off the square.  Trip adviser does not rate this place, but I have to say that both our meals were very tasty, served hot and the table service was very attentive again.  But again a 12.5% service charge was added to the bill so the money left in the dish allowed for no change.

With full bellies we set off up Charring Cross Rd to the Theatre.  With a bit of time to spare before doors opened we had another drink, this time in the Back Stage bar over the road.  Actually when I say in I actually mean outside on the benches.  We were not alone, although we were the only non smokers!  After some time people watching we finished our drinks and headed for the Theatre.

I am a cheapskate so our seats were some way up.  By the time we've climbed the stairs to The Grand Circle I am a gasping and sweating mess in my coat, though not quite as bad as some poor unfortunate who was sat down on the stairs with a lot of worried looking staff running around clutching glasses of water for her!

I nearly need CPR as herself announces she wants glass of wine to take into the auditorium.  Bloody £8.80 they want and I tell herself she'd better make it last.

As I said, I'm a cheapskate, I know this, but if you are selling tickets with a 'slightly restricted view' you need to define the term slightly.  We take our seats and herself scowls as she turns to me and says "Where's the bloody stage?"  I don't say anything, as now would be a bad time to anything at all and pretend to read the programme.

A rough estimate of mine establishes we can see about 60% of the stage front - but how deep is the stage?  Just as the show is about to start the 3 pints I've thrown down my neck in the last hour and a half are having a nasty affect on me and my bladder is screaming.  I climb the steps to the back of the auditorium to use the bogs trying hard not to blast the glaze off the porcelain.  As I came back through the curtain it strikes me how much better the view is from up here on the walk way.  Do I stay here to view and pretend to herself that I've had bad guts?  No, I sheepishly take my seat next to my beloved in our shielded seats, taking dirty looks and digs in the ribs in my stride.

Herself is getting i bit pissed off with the lady next to her (who also does not have a great view - although better than ours) who keeps asking Herself if Robbie Coltrane is starring in the show and keeps complaining that she can't follow it because  of the Oirish accents and is also deeply offended by the swearing.

Things are not going too good!

It's a good job we've both seen the film a few times and were able to follow the plot!  The interval arrives and herself announces she wants another wine. I start to protest but to no avail.  It is pointed out that I can spend the money I saved by purchasing shit tickets for the show. I know she's right and toddle off with my tail between my legs.

Curtains up for part 2.

I've got a bit of a cough at the moment and have consumed a packet of Lockets and a few pints of water to try and keep it at bay.  I restrict the coughing fits to when there are loud musical sections of the show and during the narrative parts I make for the bogs to open the release valve to off loaf some of the previously consumed fluids, pausing to take in some of the show before returning to our seats

The show is very good actually -even with our restricted view- and the finale has the audience on their feet and dancing in the aisles!

Once outside we fought our way through the packed streets and flagged a cab down for another rather expensive ride back to the Hotel where the intention was to relax for a few hours before going back out.
It really was a struggle as we'd both been drinking on and off since 1pm, but if we didn't make a move we would have fallen asleep by 8pm and gone nowhere!

The area we are staying in is in the middle of London's financial district, and outside of Monday to Friday it is really quite quiet.  Most of the bars locally are shut until the NewYear and those that are open are struggling for custom.  Having spent enough these last few days on taxi rides I had no intention of throwing another £35 in their direction so conducted a bit of internet research for somewhere to go within walking distance.

Showered and changed we left the Hotel and turned right up City Road towards Moorgate Tube Station.  We crossed the busy road and herself starts to make remarks about how she's not too impressed with the area we are walking through.  I assumed she was talking about the few shabby looking shops that were open!

After a short walk we find the place I am looking for.  Herself is not quite convinced but I want to give it a go.

We take the stairs down into the below ground Bavarian Beerhouse.  We take our seats after being ordered by the rather hard looking black bouncer to WAIT HERE, and order some beers.  I am asked if I want a stein or a pint.  I scowl at the waiter and he says "A stein it is then!"

It's very noisy.  There's a stag do on the next bench, and while the city slickers are not doing much drinking they are doing a lot of clashing of glasses and shouting.  Lightweights probably only had about 1 1/2 steins each!!!

We order our traditional Bavarian dishes.  Herself has a pork scallop in some sort of mushroom sauce and I go for the spicy sausage medley with mash and sour kraut.  Very nice it was too.  We could so easily have stayed for longer, but with the beers at £10 a throw that was never going to happen because I can pot a few and it wouldn't have stopped at 2 or 3 or 4 steins! The 12.5% service charge ensures that we pay the bill with the exact amount of cash before leaving.

We climb the stairs back to street level and turn right for the 1/2 mile walk back to the hotel.  Herself starts again to tut and moan about the area that we are walking through.  I start to take a bit more notice of my surroundings and notice quite a few young ladies of eastern European origin wearing short skirts and rather a lot of makeup.

We retreat to our room where we have a bottle of wine and some cans of beer chilling nicely between the panes of double glazing.  With London buses passing our window at around every 30 seconds the time flies as I people watch on the street below before we both turn in absolutely knackered just after mid night.

Sunday 29 December

We both wake early this morning and are up, packed, dressed and checked out of the Hotel by 9.30am.  We now know our way round a bit so the walk to the car park was somewhat shorter than when we arrived on Friday.  Chalkie was there waiting for us, all teeth, and took £36 off my card before allowing us to be reunited with Miranda.

Thankfully we step out of the lift to see her still where we parked her with her side not stoved in and all her windows un smashed!

I had planned to take a different route out of London, but any thoughts of driving out past Buckingham palace and up Constitution Hill were swiftly kicked into touch as we emerged from Admiralty Arch to see that The Mall was closed off to traffic from Horseguards Rd on wards.  A swift U turn was required and we then retraced our steps from Friday in reverse to find Piccadilly, Knightbridge and The Great west road towards the promised land!

Traffic was quite heavy for the length of the M4 but we kept moving all the time.  I must say though that Miranda has impressed me this trip.  We've not done a long motorway journey in her solo yet.  All other long journeys have been done with the caravan hitched to the back.  When towing we only get 24 mpg and running around locally struggle to get 27 mpg.

This trip, we travelled to London and back on 3/4 of a tank at a steady 70 mph to 80 mph.  For the trip (440 miles) she has returned a very healthy 36 mpg.  That's not bad going for a beast that weight close on 2 tonne that has a 2.7 litre engine and is in full time 4wd!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Towing in High Winds

With the high winds and heavy rain we are currently experiencing, my arse is twitching a bit about towing to London at the end of the week for a short break between Christmas and the New Year.  I don't know why because I tow with a big heavy 4x4 and the van is fitted with ATC.

Anyway, the pitch is booked at The Caravan Club site in Crystal Palace and we have tickets to see The Commitments at The Palace Theatre on Shaftsbury Ave (Hopefully their ceiling will be fully intact).

This got my memory racing back to the very first time we towed up and into London just after Christmas 2006.  Again we had a pitch booked at Crystal Palace (where else can a family of 4 sleep in London for £20 per night?) and show tickets in my back pocket (We Will Rock You), and again we were promised horrendous storms.

Sat in the house on the evening on December 29th 2005 we watched the weather forecast anxiously.  herself and I had a little look at each other when @DerekTheWeather cheerfully announced what was coming in off the Atlantic towards us (it was due to hit us at around 11pm and stay for 2 days).

It was decision time.  Do we call the whole thing off?  Or do we leave now instead of the morning and try and outrun the storm?

Show tickets were bought and paid for, so we quickly phoned everyone we needed to to let them know what our plans were, hitched up and hit the road in under 20 mins.  @DerekTheWeather was a little out on his time keeping; as we climber the slip road at J48 we were launched sideways as we crossed the Loughor.  Luckily no one else was silly enough to be on the road!

The winds eased a little as the M4 moved inland, but crossing the Seven Bridge was interesting to say the least.  We managed to outrun the storm, and on my chin straps I informed herself that we would pull into Heston services in Greater London to get some kip at around 2am.

The storm caught us up and the van rocked like an orgy was taking place inside for the rest of the night!

As regular readers will know, I am hearing impaired.  Sometimes my lugholes play tricks on me because of the frequencies that I have lost.  I woke to the sound of wind howling outside (we'd not bothered to open up the black out blinds) and informed herself I was going outside to wind up the legs ready for the off.

I put on my coat, zipped it right up, and gingerly went to open the door.  Frightened that the wind may blow it off its hinges (taking my fingernails with it) I opened it carefully inch by inch.  The air outside was still, the sun was shining, but I could still hear the howling wind!

I looked up to see a 747 on its final approach to Heathrow!!!  We'd only parked up for the night under a bloody flight path!!

Towing into Central London is an interesting experience.  You get lots of stares because folks don't see that many caravans on the road, and traffic can be both busy and aggressive.  I always get myself in the right frame of mind, and by the time I get to Earls Court other road users are mounting pavements to get out of my way as I AM COMING THROUGH.

Taxi drivers in London are full of bluff, and when it comes down to it they will always give way (time off the road after a collision is lost money), and I work on the principle that if a bus can go down the road so can I.  I actually get a buzz from it, but herself's fingernails seem to be permanently embedded in the dash as we make out way through Tooting and Clapham towards Crystal Palace.

We like breaks in London over Christmas, it's an excuse to get out and about, and to give the Quality Street a rest.  We repeated it in 2007 (Avenue Q) and again in 2009 (without the van - Travelodge 1 night - Dreamboats and Pettycoats) and again in 2011 (without the van - Travelodge 1 night - Rock of ages).

Herself and I are stopping in 'The Smoke' for two night, and I had considered looking for a budget hotel, but this year the cost is coming out at anywhere from £180 upwards against a pitch cost of £26 per night.  It's a no brainer really.  The extra fuel will be covered by saving £50 on 48hrs parking and the rest will go in beer tokens!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Blowing our loads at Cheshire Oaks

We had promised Nanna Creaky (NCr) that if she could keep herself out of hospital we would take her on a shopping trip for a few days in the run up to Christmas. With her having kept her side of the bargain we were all set to go.

Sunday 1 December

On one of those cold damp December type mornings we were loaded up, up the hill to collect Nanna Coupons (NC), back down the hill to stop off for Grandpa Grumbles (GG) and Nanna Creaky, before setting off on our way to Chester for a few days. There had been some debate before hand about the route, as GG likes to do motorways if he is going anywhere.

The direct route up through mid Wales is 148 miles while the rather round about way of getting there via the motorway network is a full 100 miles longer.  In the end common sense prevailed and we took the shorter, and much more scenic route through the open Welsh Countryside.

We’re just over 1 hour into the journey when NCr rings, claiming her back is in bits and she needs to stop.  We’re only just a third of the way!!!!

We pull into Builth Wells and stop in a pub for some drinks and sandwiches and she seems fine.  I’m convinced she was just bored and wanted a chat (and a coffee).

Caffeine levels topped up we hit the road northwards before we were forced to stop for another coffee some 35 miles from our destination, where the locals are still enjoying their Sunday Lunch.  With the light fading we arrived in Chester but managed to locate our apartment with ease. Chester Apartments

Although at ground floor level it is far from accessible.  Steps up to the front door have risers of at least 300mm which require some getting up. NCr has an arm thrust under each arm pit and is lifted, while NC (who has got very little legs) climbs them in a fashion akin to something like you see a toddler climbing onto a couch.

Inside the sets of fire doors require forearms like Popeye to open and there’s a further set of steps to accommodate a change in level in the open plan living area.

My heart sinks as I take a look at the steps down into the basement area where Herself’s and my bedroom is located.  The flight is only 450mm wide with the handrail protruding 100mm into that.  Going up and down that is going to take some effort.

Settled in we set off for Chester Racecourse which promises a Winter Wonderland complete with food fair to browse.  We roll up and hand over our £2.50 to park (pricey I know) and head off for the illuminated extravaganza.

We got no further than the goons guarding the entrance.  On top of the £2.50 to park they now want a further £5 per person just to go in and walk around.  We refuse as we can see most of the stalls packing up for the night anyway and trudge back to the car.  NC is now seething and I have to physically drag her away from abusing the old git on the gate who took our parking fee earlier.

From there we make tracks to the local Toby Carvery, where we are told it’s ½ hour wait and are given this plastic thing that were are told will vibrate when there is a table free.

We’re in the holding pen as everyone sits gazing at their own plastic things, seemingly checking them every two seconds in case they have turned themselves off. When it’s your turn you are left in no doubt.  The thing shakes like a pneumatic drill and lights up like a Christmas tree!  The family next to us hold theirs high, grinning as those of us less fortunate look on as they skip towards the dining area.

The meal was lovely and service was superb.  I am now a fan of Toby Carvery.

Monday 2 December

We’re all up, breakfasted and out of the door by 10am.  It’s cold and damp, but not raining.

One destination today, and that is the Cheshire Oaks shopping outlet.  It’s massive.  No really, it is massive.  Is you want a brand they have a shop here.  We spend a full day traipsing the shops.  Well they all did.  I don’t do shopping so was limited to standing outside shops waiting for them to emerge, gathering up all the bags (making occasional trips back to the car to unload) and moving onto the next shop to repeat, and repeat and repeat.

We break briefly half way round for an overpriced coffee served by overly attentive staff in the overly ponsy establishment that is Café Rouge.

All shopped out, and at least £1k poorer (between us) we seek sanctuary in the local Hungry Horse (yes things were that bad) for some food and drinks before moving on.

At around 5.30pm we are parking up in Chester city centre to take a look around the Christmas Market that they hold in the Town Hall Square.  We’d seen it last night from the car but it was closed up.  Quite frankly there was more atmosphere last night, as tonight we appear to be the only customers.  It takes us less than ½ hour to walk around, but the bloke who is selling scented oils thinks all his birthdays have come at once.

By 6.30pm everyone is knackered so it’s back to the apartment to settle in for the night.

Tuesday 3 December

We did very well this morning.  We were up, dressed, breakfasted and out of the apartment by 9am.

Back up to Cheshire Oaks we trudged, but NCr had a spring in her step (well, more air in her tyres) as we were heading to the mahoosive M&S superstore there.  The olds were suitably impressed –herself and I less so.

After ensuring they were OK and could get up to little mischief, we left them to it and popped over to Superdry so that herself could blow some serious dosh on Ronnie and Roids.

We collected the olds from M&S and started to make tracks back down south.

After an hour on the road it was time for a break.  The old station at Welshpool has been converted into a retail outlet and as we pull up GG has a go at me because NCr is spending far too much money.  An hour flies by and it’s 1pm (dinner time).  Herself doesn’t fancy the onsite restaurant, though I quite fancy the minted lamb they have on the menu.

Herself also declared that she’d like to get some miles under our belt before stopping for food.  I’m thinking, firstly, it’s dinner time now, and secondly, we’re driving through mid Wales where there are miles and miles of sheep (and eff all else), so the prospects of finding somewhere else –that serves food- on the way are grim.

Never the less we hit the road south.  Grumbling stomachs are now louder than the car stereo and  herself starts to look out for open pubs.  40 bastarding miles we drove, stopping briefly outside many closed pubs and restaurants before we happened across The Drovers Rest in Llanwrtyd Wells.

They had stopped serving lunch by the time we poured through the door at 3.30pm. but their Michelin star rated chef who has an MBE after his name and photos of him in his gear cooking for the queen all over the place was only happy to accommodate us.

Maybe it was our tale of driving all the way from Welshpool trying to find somewhere to eat and sad faces that swung it?  What a welcome, and ham sandwiches and chips have never tasted so good.

Back home by 5.30pm and the gifts are stashed away, herself has the washing on and the dogs are pouting and ignoring us.