Wednesday, August 31, 2011

River Cher’s Greatest Hits

Approaching along the tow-path

With the last leg of our journey back to the Gers ahead of us, our Europe Summer 2011 getaway draws to a close. Since it’ll be a few months at least before we’re drawn away from the farm again and because Gustav hasn’t seen much of France outside the Gers apart from the highway from Dunkirk, I’m taking us on a small diversion to see one of the more interesting châteaux: Chenonceau.

I toured the grounds and interior of this château with Bondi some years ago, but really the main drawcard is the building exterior straddling the River Cher. And by following that river westwards from Ken & Walt’s place for about half an hour we can get onto a towpath that’ll give us a full free view. I think this is actually a better way to approach the château, seeing it break the view down the Cher like some combination of bridge and windowed dam wall.

ChenonceauThere were a few people out along the river this morning: walkers, joggers and quite extraordinarily, a woman cycling with some miniature dachshunds racing behind her.

Chenonceau with munson on tow-pathMunson @ Chenonceau

Munson seeking swim in the Cher
Munson came quite close to taking a swim in the Cher this morning, and I would have loved to have seen him swim through one of the arches … but maybe another day. I really didn’t want a wet dog in the car for the remainder of  our long drive.

Finally back on track we headed south, departing from the A20 highway before Limoges to follow the more picturesque N21 through the Dordogne region to Agen and home.

Decamping to the continent

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve driven down to Dover for an early morning ferry. Once aboard, I’m always torn between trying to caffeinate and getting an  hour or so of napping time. Neither seem to work very well.

The road-journey is very dull until we get into the orbit of Paris and are bumped from road to road, over ramps, through tunnels and around and about like a helpless marble in a pinball machine. The GPS can’t keep up with the lane-changes after tunnels and we miss a few exits, but at least that gives Gustav the minor thrill of distant views of the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur.

Five weeks ago when we set out from the farm and stayed with Ken & Walt before turning towards Sweden, we were invited to stay on the return journey. Because this journey coincided with them having other guests I booked a B&B nearby so we could at least drop in for an aperitif. Only hours from our destination, I got a message from the B&B saying they’d overbooked and didn’t have a room for us, so I messaged Walt for ideas. While I tried to find alternate places on my phone browser during roadside stops, Walt offered the use of a tent in their yard… and why not?


We rolled into Saint-Aignan a little before 6pm, and had a delightful evening with Walt, Ken and their American guests Evelyn and Lewis. The tent was set up in the back yard, and Munson had the privilege of guarding us through the night.
St Aignan camping
We slept very well through the night, rather enjoying the minor adventure. It was a little cool but we had plenty of blankets and sleeping bags. I think Munson relished sleeping on grass all night, and then being able to go inside and will Lewis to give him some breakfast crumbs.

Gustav's morning calisthenics Walt, Ken, Munson & Lewis

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


A fox on all your houses - Bankside bank holiday funToday’s outing was a simple but maybe too ambitious circuit through central London. We had a longish overland rail trip into London Bridge while Munson curled up at the feet of a group of girls who texted photos of him for all their friends to see. Bankside was crammed with seasonal silliness: a small sandy beach, croquet players and deck-chairs; a series of painted beach huts had me back on Calshot beach again.

1993~ Poppy (Jeff Koons), Circular Quay, SydneyThe Southbank Centre has some sort of Indian food festival around it, garnished with a giant fox sculpture which I first thought was a poo sculpture, but the Urban Fox is made from straw. It’s not quite as pretty as Jeff Koons Poppy which I saw outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1993.

By the time we reached the Royal Festival Hall we were ready for lunch and potentially had a long wait outside Wagamama for a table. A spot of rain made everyone ahead of us choose to wait for  indoor seating, so the door staff – having cleverly spotted Munson - whisked us from the queue to a covered outdoor table and we had our orders placed before most other people had even been seated.

London walking route

Across the river on a path snaking past Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and Piccadilly Circus took us up to Carnaby Street, where we met up with Elin a friend of Gustav from Sweden. From there we crossed through Soho and the Seven Dials area on a route to Covent Garden. My aim was to get us back to London Bridge station to complete the circuit but we were getting pretty tired, so tubed back instead.
Fashion Victims - Much Who - Shrek lollies - Priscilla
Gustav & Elin buy lollies - fashion victim of tomorrow - Munson on train

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Viking invasion of Brighton

Gustav & Munson @ Farm Kitchen
Picking up the thread of an earlier story … Gustav arrived from Sweden on the first morning flight from Copenhagen to Gatwick. It’s his first pillaging expedition visit to the UK and because he’ll be here less than 48 hours before we head off to France, I thought it would be nice for him to see somewhere other than London.

Brighton bikes & Moomin Pappa

Since we were to be staying with Jonnie again in the south of London, Gatwick was handily halfway between there and Brighton. We had gorgeous weather through the morning as we wandered around the bohemian shopping district of North Laine.

North Laine street art

The relaxed neighbourhood, vibrant street art, and the endlessly smiling malamute made it a very festive atmosphere to welcome a new visitor. Brighton’s looking even better than it did on my last trip some years ago, and the Royal Pavilion has shed some of the makeover scaffolding that I dimly recall from that time. It’s a bank holiday weekend, signalling the end of the summer break for many people, but a jolly day out for everyone nonetheless.

Munson @ Royal Pavilion, Brighton

A cold squall brought in some pelting rain as we headed toward the beach, but we toughed it out, scorning the threat of manflu. One of the shoreside attractions was a pool full of large transparent spheres where people paid five pounds to get in them and basically try to do anything without immediately falling over. Munson was entranced by this but felt compelled to attempt some rescues, nearly dragging me into the water behind him.

Brighton beach and pier

On our way back into London we stopped off at a big Tesco supermarket to do last-minute grocery shopping for all the non-French exotica we might need for the next few months. The back of the car is heaving with food that’s impossible to find or extraordinarily expensive, especially anything with seeds or nuts. Jonnie and Grant have whipped up a super dinner to welcome Gustav and get my Offa’s Dyke debriefing. Munson still has Grant singled out as the person to chase for food treats.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

NEW FOREST: National Motor Museum

Chitty Chitty Bang BangOne of the first big screen movies I remember watching as a child was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I don’t recall where I saw it, but I was staying with my grandparents in Double Bay (Sydney) at the time, and when I got back to their place after the film, there was a die-cast metal replica of the flying car waiting for me.

My mother was pretty ruthless at getting rid of my childhood books and toys as I got older, even ones that I had a particular attachment to such as this small model with its side-wings that opened at the touch of a lever. So like my small custom-box of Matchbox cars, Chitty quietly disappeared one day. I did retain a fondness for the movie – vivid memories of the hair cutting machine, dogs chasing after toot sweets from the factory of Truly Scrumptious’ father, and Robert Helpmann’s performance as the strange child-catcher. Iced with the Sherman Brothers’ songs it was a strange confection of fantasy, humour and horror that makes up so many childhood dreams. A confection originally from the pen of Ian Fleming, and with a screenplay by Roald Dahl, it was James Bond and the Chocolate Factory.

Until today I had never seen another of these now highly collectible model Chittys  but I saw quite a bit more Chittyana (or is it Bangbangana?) than a born-again five-year-old could hope for. I’m at the National Motor Museum, one of several attractions found within the Beaulieu estate. One of my hosts Brian has dropped us off here for the day while everyone goes boating. The large grounds which encompass not only the Motor Museum, but Beaulieu Abbey and many open-air attractions are open to dogs, and there’s more than enough to keep a person or family with diverse tastes engaged for many hours.

Beaulieu estate National Motoring Museum - Dog Waiting Area

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - full-size replica

NMM display

The displays in the motor museum are amazingly diverse and interesting, even for someone without a particular (adult) interest in cars: vintage models, novelty vehicles from James Bond, Harry Potter and other films, beautiful hood ornaments, socio-historical exhibits on in-car mapping and road usage, plus individual vehicles that have set endurance and speed records. I suggested to one of the staff that they grab the old Bondi-mobile sitting under cover in Sydney given its fairly unique function as a dog transporter through dozens of countries ranging from the bottom of Tasmania to the Arctic Circle.

NMM displays

Munson - stately houndDuring WW2, Beaulieu was the ‘Finishing School’ for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), training over 3000 agents including Australia’s Nancy Wake ‘the White Mouse’, at one time the Gestapo’s most wanted person, and the most decorated female of the war. 

As shown by some of the panels from a special exhibition, SOE was jokingly taken to mean Stately ‘Omes of England because so many country houses of this type were requisitioned.

Stately Omes of England - Nancy Wake
As Munson and I were some of the first guests into the estate today, we managed to progress a little further into the grounds than many who were caught up in the NMM or the special exhibits for TopGear and James Bond vehicles. So we found the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey mostly unattended except for a septet of raptors perched on the lawn. When I spied them through an archway I left Munson tied up out of sight so I could visit them without having them alarmed by his presence. When I spoke to the falconer he said that the only time he’d seen a bird go for a dog during a display was with a large lupine-looking dog like Munson.

Beaulieu Abbey

Bealieu bus and gift shop

I hoped to find one of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang die-cast replicas in the gift-store but alas the staff told me that it’s probably the most requested item and they’re not available.
[October 5: By a strange coincidence as I come to write this post, I learn that Frank Cottrell Boyce has written a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sequel, released today.

I also learnt that Nancy Wake passed away a few weeks before our visit to Beaulieu, just short of her 99th birthday.]

NEW FOREST: Beaulieu dawn

Beaulieu River 6.57am

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

by Robert Frost

Beaulieu River 7am

Beaulieu   beauchien

NEW FOREST: Calshot & Lymington

Calshot beachThis morning’s walk was along Calshot beach. Munson and Merlin swam in the Solent while we strolled up and down past the colourful beach huts. The Solent is a very popular water for canoeing, dinghy sailing and windsurfing. There weren’t many boaters out today, which is a shame as I’m sure Munson would have swum out to them. When Bondi saw canoeists on waterways in Seattle I would cry out “Get the stick” and watch them paddle away furiously with Bondi in pursuit.

Calshot beach - Michael in Cymru rugby top

Munson drying out post-swimLymington

After lunch and yet another walk through some of the woodlands around us in the New Forest, we drove to Lymington for fish and chips. The harbour, painted Georgian houses and cobbled streets make the town a bit of a tourist magnet: it was so packed with visitors today, we had a challenge to find somewhere to sit near the quay.

Lymington Quay - Truly Scrumptious - Munson meets a husky
I was wearing a red Cymru rugby shirt that I’d picked up in Llanfairpwll on Wednesday. As we threaded through the crowds around the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-evoking cake shop Truly Scrumptious, a man looked me in the eye and recited Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, smiled supercalifragilisticexpialidociously at my lack of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia and strode off.

It’s a month today since we set out from the Farm.

Friday, August 26, 2011

NEW FOREST: Buckler’s Hard

New ForestAnother motorway morning – four and half hours southwards past Birmingham and Oxford to a village in the New Forest. This large enclosed area of forest and heathland is no more new now (900 years) than Paris’ Pont Neuf  is neuf (400 years). We drove through here last year after another Welsh expedition, certainly not anticipating a return to this area so quickly.

We’re hear to see my old friends Manny and Dan who I see infrequently in time and widely separated in space: Fiji and Atlanta Georgia being the previous locations. They’re visiting friends down here and because alternate accommodation in the area has dried up over the summer holiday period, I’m gratefully accepting their offer of a mattress behind the sofa to park my sleeping bag.

Munson dips in the Beaulieu River

DANGER Soft Mud No EntryWe found everyone enjoying sun and lunch, and Munson was introduced to Merlin the resident canine – so named for his blue merle coat. When it had cooled down late afternoon, most of us set off for a long walk along the estuary of the Beaulieu River leading down to the Solent – that’s the body of water on the sheltered side of the Isle of Wight. Two points of interest are

1. that the river is entirely privately owned by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu; and

2. Beaulieu does not have the expected French pronunciation Beau+lieu (beautiful place) but simply Bewley. Nearby Beaulieu Abbey was originally a monastery called Bellus Locus Regis (beautiful place of the King). It was a particularly powerful institution whose abbot reported directly to the Pope.

Riverside Walk to Beaulieu

We spent some time in the ship-building hamlet of Buckler’s Hard. Around these Georgian cottages many fine vessels were built that saw action at Trafalgar and it served as a base for craft taking part in the Normandy Invasion.

Dan, Manny, Merlin & Munson @ Buckler's Hard

Mike & Munson at Buckler's Hard

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Offa’s Dyke 13: Day trip to Mold, Bangor and Anglesey

This is our last day in Wales, the expedition trimmed by a day for us to visit my American friends staying in the New Forest near Southampton. I’ve decided to go for broke and hit a few places in an area of the UK that I’ve neglected for too long … but first to Mold.

Mold marketThe name Mold is easier on my tongue than the Welsh Yr Wyddgrug although it has less than tasty connotations in English. It comes by way of old French mont-hault (= high hill) in Norman times as Mohald.  700 years of lazy tongues will do that to a name.

I can’t say it’s a lovely looking town but we did have an enjoyable hour or so at the street market. I wish I’d picked up some of the potted eucalypts I saw, especially with them being pre-populated by koalas.

From Mold we made a big leap across north Wales to Bangor. It’s not a particularly big town at 13000 people but if you add another 10000 university students I figured there was a good chance I’d find drinkable coffee somewhere. ( You can tell I’m setting myself up for disappointment. ) Bangor is a chartered city, which means it’s been officially designated as a city despite being rather lacking in the population department. St David’s in southwest Wales is the smallest of these bustling British micropolises.

Mold - Bangor - Llanfairpwll - Holyhead
This wouldn’t have been a feasible day trip in slow-moving Wales if it weren’t for the A55 North Wales Expressway  which runs from Chester right across the north of the country past the seaside resort towns spread around Llandudno. I sampled those towns from the car a year ago after the last trip to Dolgellau and Betws-y-Coed. I was also inspired by the song Day Trip to Bangor which is part of the small but possibly unique genre of songs that  deals with day trips in Wales. It also includes Marty Wilde’s (Taking a Trip up to) Abergavenny. Not only does Wikipedia not have a section on Welsh picnic songs, but the article on Bangor doesn’t even acknowledge this song!  Bangor Wales shouldn’t be confused with Bangor, Northern Ireland a town near Belfast where I spent a couple of days bed-ridden with food poisoning. Despite their proximity the names have completely different derivations. Further away but more familiar to Americans is Bangor Maine, supposedly named after a hymn tune but whether it’s Irish, Welsh or English in words or music is a matter of some confusion.

About forty-some minutes from Mold we were descending into Bangor, with some nice views over the Menai Strait to the island of Anglesey. That’s pretty much where the scenery ended. Bangor was a great disappointment with a high street that seemed to hold a little under 101% chain stores. We walked all the way along it and much further down to the rather scrappy looking waterfront where we sheltered as best we could from some cold rain that had blown in. The one place that seemed like it might have coffee and outdoor shelter had a sluggish line of fifteen or so people growing old in it. I visited a second hand music/video store where the young cashier studiously replied to all my English in Welsh. However I did recognise an “ohmygod!” interpolated in her speech when she saw Munson.

That I managed one photograph in Mold, and none in Bangor speaks for itself.

Llanfairpwll and Bangor

A Welsh location that definitely doesn’t have a picnic song named after it is Llanfairpwll aka Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, Llanfair PG or to give it its complete but ostentatiously fabricated name:

Mike and Munson at LlanfairpwyllBy the time you’d finished a chorus of that song, the picnic would well be over and you’d be home snoring it off while the ants cleaned up the scraps. There is a song designed to help you learn the “word that all men fear and dread”: The Learn Llanfair PG Song. I think one can have an unhealthy amount of fun getting Google Translate’s voice engine to render it in different languages or listening to Peter Sellers say it to Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong.

The name was cobbled together as a publicity stunt in the 19th century and it works like a charm to get you into the nondescript village for photos at the railway station, and perhaps to buy a scarf, dental floss or tape worm embossed with the name.


It was only 2pm and we’d conquered Mold and Bangor and had a gas at the LPG visitor centre, so it’s onward to Holyhead which takes us beyond Anglesey to the Holy Island, an island off an island like Iona off Mull. Most people zoom along the A55 to here to use its ferry port for journeys to Ireland. It’s actually the one big ferry port that I haven’t used to get to Ireland,  journeying there from Swansea and returning via Liverpool.

The Road to Holyhead
There’s not much to see driving across Anglesey and frankly not much caught my eye once I got here. Away from the ferry terminal, which are rarely scintillating locations, my options seemed to be to catch a screening of Planet of the Apes/play bingo at the Emp re, have a fish pedicure at Silky Soles or spend thirty seconds on a tour of Pinewood Studios. I can’t believe they managed to shoot all those James Bond and Harry Potter films there as it seemed to be about the size of one of Shirley Bassey’s lungs.
Snowdonia seen from Angelsey
The return journey was a bit more interesting as you could see the mountains of Snowdonia on the mainland, a very different terrain to Anglesey.

Our final Welsh accommodation is Glan Clwyd Isa B&B not that far from where we’d set off this morning. It’s a small farm with in-house B&B plus cottages located in beautiful grounds that belie that narrow little road that it sits on. If I weren’t heading south tomorrow I would have been quite happy to stay there all day for some quiet appreciation of the ponds and encircling hills. Munson also had a fan there in the form of a young terrier (Penny?) who played with him for some time.

Munson and friendMunson at Glan Clwyd Isa
The folks at the B&B have many people through finishing off the Offa’s Dyke trail and are very used to the unseeing-stare or the blood-blistered feet of those who have persevered. I’d rather return another day to complete the upper half of the trail on foot*. Other guests included archaeologists working on Denbigh Castle, and they were able to give me some more background on the site and other features of the area.

With the exception of the one place at the start of the trail, I’ve been really pleased with the accommodation along the way, notably including the hosts and food. The options of eating out at night with Munson were disappointing in a couple of places but we didn’t exactly starve. It might have been easier at those places (around Pandy and Kington) if we had a car to drive somewhere else, but on foot it’s a different matter. I’m also not going to abandon my walking companion in an unfamiliar place while I go off by myself. I don’t know many humans with the opportunity or stamina to do these long hikes, and I’m bloody lucky to have had Bondi and Munson step by step, over stile and down ditch through over 500km we’ve covered on four such walks to date.

* when signs and stiles have been upgraded!