My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

London Calling

I have mixed feelings about London. The first time I visited London was as an extended stopover on my way to India. I bought a tourist bus pass and proceeded to hop on and hop off at as many famous sites as I had time for. I visited streets straight off a Monopoly board, saw the skyline that I had seen on so many television programmes, and photographed the buildings and signs that I had seen in a thousand magazines. But I felt lonely and alone in what felt like such a soul-less and impersonal city. It was brash and expensive, and felt polluted. I felt a million miles away from fresh air and openness, and I left a few days later unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss was about.


One of my best friends moved down to London after graduating from university, and the first time I visited her down there, I was pleasantly surprised by how different London felt on that occasion. It could be argued that this time I saw the real London, not the tourist traps, but regardless, I could see why my friend liked being there. My friend was at work when I arrived so I had the whole day to myself, so I made my way to what to this day is still my absolute favourite museum of all time, the Natural History Museum. At the time, the special exhibit on the ground floor was all about dinosaurs, and this mesmerised me, as did pretty much everything in the entire building. I arrived early in the morning, and as it was, I had to rush the last couple of floors in order to get round everything by the time of closure. The last time that had happened to me was in Le Louvre in Paris. My friend at that time lived in Bethnal Green in east London, and this felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. We spent the weekend exploring her local neighbourhood and visiting markets, and I left with a whole new regard for the city.


A year later and I found myself back visiting my friend whilst coming down for a couple of job interviews. My partner at the time thought he would need to move there for work, and I reluctantly agreed to suss out the job market. My friend by this point was living in Hillingdon near Heathrow Airport. Amusingly, she worked at the exact same hospital that I had been taken to after my disastrous flight home from Delhi. Living in west London this time, it was another opportunity to experience a different side of the city, and again I felt so displaced from the heaving city centre that lay a train ride away. Aside from the job interviews, I had arranged to catch up with some of the people that I hiked to Macchu Picchu with earlier that year. We ate out near Covent Garden and went to a few bars which were so packed that we could barely breath let alone move in. After meeting up with my other friends we headed to a comedy night that took place on a boat moored up on the river Thames. It was eye-opening to experience night life in the city centre and the hustle and bustle of so many people as well as the long drawn out mission to get home at the end of the night marred the experience for me. It reminded me slightly of what I had disliked about the place on my very first visit.


In between these trips, and since the last trip, London has meant just one thing to me: an international transit centre that in equal measures opens up the world to me and signifies that home is within reach. Living most of my life in Scotland, I regularly had to take a domestic flight to Heathrow airport to connect to a world of international travel. I have been a repeat visitor to all 5 terminals of that airport, and have whiled away many hours waiting for connecting flights. I love looking out the plane window on the approach to Heathrow, swinging over the city centre to follow the river Thames upstream on final approach. I love spotting the city’s famous structures as we soar overhead, and I know that upon landing, I am either a step closer to an adventure or a step closer to home. After I moved to New Zealand nearly 3 years ago, I made a surprise trip back to Glasgow for Christmas, nearly 1 year after I had left, and reaching London filled me with such excitement for the final leg of my transit round the world. In no other airport have I spent so much of my life as Heathrow, and it has played such an important part of my life. Living as I do at the far side of the world, I cannot get home to Scotland without transiting through, and being both the welcoming arms to my homeland and the foot that kicks me out the open door, London will always be bittersweet to me. I love it and I hate it all at the same time.


In Search of Snow

It’s been a relatively mild winter in New Zealand this year with barely any snow where I live and the local ski-fields have had intermittent falls interspersed with strong winds and unusually warm weather, resulting in a poor ski season. I’m a summer-loving person, but back in my native Scotland, the one thing that made the cold, dark winter days and nights bearable was the promise of snow, and lots of it. I love snow, and in Aberdeen where I used to live, we got plenty of it. It wasn’t unusual to get an autumnal blizzard that would dump the first snow of the season in October, and often into November, but the main snow months were January and February. In one epic year, we had snow every month from October through to May, and then it started again in October. The ski centres still had plenty of snow on the longest day of the year in June, and with the most northern ski-field having daylight till around 11pm, it was an epic day to hit the slopes.

Moving to New Zealand was the right thing for me to do for so many reasons, but boy do I miss snow. I never thought I would, but after three winters here with so little reward for the colder temperatures of the season, I’ve found myself staring jealously at the distant Southern Alps with their white tips and yearning to feel snowflakes fluttering down on me, craving the glorious silence that only a snowfall can bring and dreaming of first footprints on a fresh bed of snow. Clearly my desires were becoming more vocal than I realised, because despite not being a skier, my partner insisted on taking me to the mountains to visit one of our nearest ski-fields.

Not quite an hour and a half from Christchurch is Mt Hutt (2086m/6843ft). The nearest settlement is Methven which has a scattering of cheap digs, bars and ski-hire shops – all you could ever need for the perfect weekend trip. From the base of the mountain, it is a long and winding drive up a gravel road that overlooks the vast flatness of the Canterbury Plains. The tall mountains are a stark contrast to the flat barrenness below and they stand tall against the horizon from some distance away. On that particular day, the snowline was roughly half-way up, although it was patchy and stale. Even at the level of the ski centre, there was plenty of rock face peering through the thicker banks of snow. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot at the top car park and we got out to soak up the view. My partner looked at me as if to say ‘Ta da!‘ and then couldn’t understand my disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, the view was stunning: with patches of sunshine making the snow on the surrounding range glisten, and with the snow-topped range flanking the nearby plains, it was a stunning vista. But the snow was not powdery under foot, it was stale and crusty. There was no fresh flurry of snowflakes falling on my skin, and apart from the buzz of the skiers and snowboarders enveloping me, I wasn’t feeling the vibe that fresh snow brings. It was better than nothing but I struggled to hide my disappointment.


We stayed for a while, and watched the people whizzing down the mountainside, enjoyed some warm drinks in the cafe and then wandered around the car park watching 6 cheeky keas (the world’s only alpine parrot, and one of my most favourite birds in New Zealand) taunt each other and hop from vehicle to vehicle looking for trouble. Like all parrots, keas are highly intelligent and probably the most mischievous of all the parrots that I have seen. They thrive round people, and are notorious in parts of the country for removing the seal round car windows, and bending aerials and puncturing bike tyres. Needless to say I love them. I could have watched them all day, especially the two that were playing (or fighting, or mating, or whatever they were doing) with each other, one lying submissive on its back for the other who mobbed it open-winged, displaying its bright orange under-plummage. A couple of hours after we arrived, we set off back down the mountain and home.


The following weekend, my partner’s friend came to visit from Auckland. He hadn’t skied for some years, and my partner was wanting to get a bit of snowboarding in this winter, so we set off back to Methven only to hit gale force winds, sandstorms, and then torrential rain. The road to the ski-field had been closed for nearly a week due to high winds, and arriving in Methven at lunchtime, there was nothing to do and nowhere to go but to camp out in the pub or our lodge. There were hopes of fresh snow being dumped in the night so we clung to the hope of the road being open in the morning. I had originally planned on taking a skiing lesson whilst the boys hit the slopes but having obtained a horrendous cough, I was slightly spaced out on the prescription-strength cough suppressants and it was easy for me to sleep the afternoon away. I didn’t miss much – the torrential rain continued all through the night.


On the Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that the road to Mt Hutt ski-field was open to 4-wheel drives and 2-wheel drives with chains fitted. We gathered the hired gear and set off in our 4-wheel drive early. It was clear from the start that this would be a totally different experience than the weekend before: it was still overcast and raining in Methven and as we started the long wind up the mountain road, the rain became sleet and then snow. The snow became heavier the higher we climbed, and the visibility grew poorer and poorer. The surrounding mountains that had glistened last week were nowhere to be seen through the clouds, and the snow on the road grew denser as we travelled. Like many mountain roads to ski-fields, there is often a long drop down so they are definitely not the kind of road you want to lose control of your vehicle on. But as our altitude increased, so did the snow on the road, and eventually even our 4-wheel drive decided to lose traction after coming round a bend. The procession of cars grew slower and slower until we rolled into the top car park in by now quite thick snow, and parked up one by one. I got out as quickly as possible to see and smell and feel the snow flakes falling down on us. Shortly after our arrival, they closed the road to all traffic except chained 4-wheel drives, and we faced a possible reality of being stranded up the mountain as conditions worsened. After an hour of waiting for news on the likelihood of us getting back home that day, we could finally go off and enjoy ourselves. The boys bought their passes and headed off and I hung around the base, taking photos of them through the incessant snow fall and just generally breathing in the snowy scene.


There is nothing like the silence of snow. Anybody who has stood outside during a heavy snow fall should know what I mean. Birds are silent, and most other sounds grow distant or still (not to mention the scientific reasons that snow covered ground absorbs sound waves and falling snow causes sound waves to curve upwards towards the sky – but that’s not quite as poetic and romantic, is it?). I love that silence and stood happily enveloped by it, watching nearby kids throwing snowballs whilst I looked for an untouched patch to place those first footprints. A 360 degree wonderland of fresh powder snow and I breathed in memories of Scotland. For those hours that we were up there, I couldn’t have felt happier. My toes and fingers grew uncomfortably cold but I didn’t want to go anywhere. For that brief moment in time, I was home.

Channel Island Hopping

As a keen and regular traveller, I think it can be too easy to focus on the next adventure and forget about some of the ones that have already passed. I admit to spending a large part of my life planning and saving for the next trip, wherever and whenever that may be. Sometimes it can feel like the next adventure is just around the corner, and other times it feels like it’s a lifetime away. I’m currently undergoing one of those prolonged phases where I have to knuckle down and earn some money. My partner finds my grumbles highly amusing: after all I’m doing no more than the average worker in the Western world does but for anyone with itchy feet, staying at home can be frustrating. In the Southern Hemisphere it is currently winter, and the cold and rainy weather makes even weekend adventures a rarity. I long for some snow to break up the tedium, but as yet, none has come.

Looking through old photos one rainy day, I stumbled across a trip that I had almost forgotten that I had done. A whole week away somewhere new relegated to a little-looked-at album on my laptop. It is not that it was a terrible week or a banal week, it’s simply that so much has happened since then that it got pushed to the back of my mind, and looking through those photos reminded me of what an enjoyable week it was.

There was only one city in Scotland from where I could fly there direct so I made the drive down to Edinburgh from Aberdeen to catch the plane down to Jersey in the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands are a quaint and unique group of islands that are nearer the continent than they are to the country who’s crown they sit under. They are self-governing, yet are dependents of the British Crown, and Jersey in particular has a rather French flare to it. Flying over the English Channel, out of nowhere, Jersey appeared, its rugged northern cliffs plunging down to the sea below. There was a spectacular aerial view of the island which measures just over 118 square kilometres, before we descended into the airport near the western end of the island. From there, St Helier (my home for the week) was just a bus ride away.

It was just me and my two legs for the week. With no transport of my own, and a stubborness to avoid public transport, I decided to explore as much as I could on foot. St Helier itself had a sandy beach and just offshore was a small island upon which stood Elizabeth Castle. The harbour was where ferries left for Guernsey and France and the parish centre resembled an English town with the likes of Marks & Spencer and other British high street chains. Despite using the British currency of the Pound, the stores there refused to accept my Scottish bank notes, accepting only those that bore the Bank of England on it. Both Jersey and Guernsey have their own notes also, but like the Scottish counterpart, they are not accepted as legal tender in the United Kingdom.


I was staying in a nice B&B and made the most of the cooked breakfast to fuel me for the day ahead. On the first full day there I headed east, following the coastal road roughly 18km to Mont Orgueil Castle. For the most part the walk involved following the route of the A4, but wherever I could cut down to beaches, I would, and the final approach to the castle itself was along a stretch of beautiful sand. It was far from a sunny day, very overcast with occasional showers, but it was a good walk nonetheless and the castle was interesting to walk around, both inside and out, with fantastic views over the coastline. By the time I was ready to head home again, the clouds had broken and the sun was finally out. After another 18km walk back to St Helier, I limped back to the B&B after grabbing some dinner.


I knew I had as equally a long walk the next day so again made the most of the cooked breakfast for energy. This time I was not so lucky with the weather. Heading west this time, I skirted the long stretch of sandy beach round the bay from St Helier to St Aubin, briefly joining the road across the land for a bit, before descending down into St Brelade’s Bay. I barely got beyond there before the heavens opened and despite it appearing to be a very pretty place to be on a sunny day, there was little to keep me here whilst the rain fell. Winding my way through the streets, I followed the Rue de la Corbiere to the most South-Western tip of the island where a causeway went out to the Corbiere lighthouse, 13km away from my starting point. It had stopped raining by the time I got there although it was still quite overcast, but there were plenty of people about here, and with the tide out, I took the walk out to view the lighthouse up close. Following the coast north I continued on to St Ouens Bay, walking as far as the beach bar & diner before the next lot of rain turned me back. The return walk was in the rain nearly the whole way, and I was a bit miserable by the time I got home. With over 60km hiked in two days, I was definitely covering a good amount of the island.


Thankfully the next day was gloriously sunny, and I’d picked a fantastic day to book the ferry over to Guernsey, nearly 42kms away. It took about an hour to travel from St Helier to St Peter Port on Guernsey, and arriving there filled me with that feeling that I always get when I arrive somewhere new and unexplored: pure and utter excitement. At 78 square kilometres (which includes some smaller, neighbouring islands), Guernsey is much smaller than Jersey, but it was still too big to explore in the time that I had before the return ferry that evening. Leaving St Peter Port behind I headed north up the coast through St Samson and up across the northern coastline, skirting round to the west to reach the beautiful sand of L’Ancresse Bay. It was too nice a day not to just enjoy it, so I lay back on the sand and soaked up some rays for a while before cutting back across the island to St Peter Port where I spent the last of my time before boarding the ferry again to return to Jersey. Guernsey was such a magical place, beautiful and glorious in the sunshine, and with lots more to explore, it firmly earned a place in my unofficial list of places to return to.


It was another early morning rise for another ferry, this time to head south to France. With Jersey being so near the continent, it seemed a shame to not go that bit further, and so I decided to take a day trip to St Malo in Normandy. St Malo was a stunning place to visit, and again, I did my best to see as much as I could whilst I was there. It was another sunny day, and it was lovely and warm.

The ferry docks near the walled city and round a bay from an expansive marina. I wandered round the cobbled streets of the walled city past boutique shops and cafes and restaurants and people everywhere. I headed round the marina in search of somewhere to get a bite to eat. I always dread practicing my foreign language skills, especially after a previous trip to Paris where I was laughed at for my attempt to order. This time proved no better. I stood in line at a baguette stall, and on my turn I misunderstood a question and again got laughed at by the vendor who obviously spoke about me to the elderly gentleman standing behind me. It knocked my confidence again. I always felt that it was better to attempt the local dialect than brazenly speak in English and assume everyone can understand me, but with the French, I’ve found myself the object of their ridicule every time.


Nevertheless, I headed off to explore the surrounds of St Malo. From the marina, I followed the coastline round a headland to the mouth of La Rance where Tour Solidor stood proudly on the shore. Near here was a beach where many topless bathers lay soaking up the sunshine. The waterway was littered with yachts as far up river as I could see, and at the river mouth, it was a broad waterway with the opposite side a good distance away. I walked for a while up river before looping back and cutting through the streets to head back towards the ferry terminal and the nearby walled city. This time, I kept to the outer wall of the city and walked round to the beaches on the coast of the English Channel. With the low tide, a causeway was exposed snaking out across the sand and I wandered out on it before heading back to catch the evening ferry back to Jersey. In the height of the summer, the daylight was still plentiful and it was a beautiful view as the French coastline receded into the distance. Back in Jersey, it was just another night’s sleep and a plane ride away to get home to Scotland.

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