Arriving at street level I was overwhelmed by a tsunami of people rushing towards me. ‘Whose idea was it to meet at rush hour?’. Ah that would be Mark, the only one with a job out of the three of us. I was catching up with Terry and Mark, colleagues from my time at Apple UK. Leaving the venue and time to Mark was always dangerous. Despite the manic start the evening flowed on beer and embellished stories from days gone by.
Julie and I were staying just south of London, looking after three Jack Russells. The first of two house sits just 10 miles apart. The location allowed us to explore the rich history of this part of the UK and get a dose of big city life.
The dogs, Marley, Tilly and Raffie were little bundles of mischievousness, well certainly Tilly and Raffie were. After just 5 minutes alone Julie discovered her iPhone headphones were chewed into a million pieces. In the time it took to brush our teeth an expensive pair of binoculars bit the dust. In the nick of time Julie did save a handbag from certain destruction. The pups also loved rolling in fox poo when out walking which meant a soak in the sink for them once home. But all was forgiven at the end of the day as they would squabble over who got to snuggle next to you whilst we watched TV.
During a day trip to Hastings, the dogs went crazy with Marley barking at every wave crashing on the beach. Hasting has the feel of an old school English seaside town, not spoilt by modern development and rows of beachfront apartments. There are small huts selling fish as fresh as you can get and penny arcades, which with inflation should be renamed 50p arcades. Narrow streets lined with bric-a-brac shops and miles of promenade to mooch along. Fishing boats soaking up the late evening sun on the shingle beach. We finished our day at the seaside sharing that fine English cuisine, Fish and Chips or Fush ’n' Chups for the Kiwi’s.
We enjoyed our day trip so much that we headed back to Hastings for a couple of nights in between house sits. We had dinner at the wonderful Mamma Putt’s, a family run Caribbean restaurant. Plates of yummy food flowed and we left with bellies at bursting point.
This part of England is rich with history. The Battle of Hastings site (1066 the last time England was invaded) was unfortunately closed until Easter. We did manage to wander round Bodiam Castle. Built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge, this semi ruin complete with moat is a classic example of why an Englishman’s home is his castle. The castle appeared in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Our second house sit was for a seven month old Black Labrador puppy called Scally, who was cuter than a cute thing. We have both had black labs in the past and it was blast to spend time with this bundle of energy. At first she was a little apprehensive, but with a handful of treats we soon became best friends. We also had two guinea pigs to take care of.
The start of April saw Julie launch into her 44 Random Acts of Kindness to celebrate her birthday. The first was playing the part of a Womble (go google it) as we wandered the Woldingham Countryside Walk. A great trail taking in the Surrey Downs and only occasionally spoilt with the traffic hum from the M25.
Easter weekend we descend on Sandown Park, normally a racecourse but now a mecca for V-Dub fans. Rows and rows of stunning looking Kombis, Beetles and the odd custom job. Not quite the laid back affair of Kiwi get-togethers but there was plenty on display for the avid fan.
We were pleasantly surprised by The Sculpture Park just outside Fareham, Surrey. Over 600 sculptures of every shape and sized scattered around 10 acres of weaving paths and gardens. And as luck would have it there was a pub opposite to rest our weary feet and discuss our favourite pieces.
As well as friends from Apple we managed to catch up with heaps of other friends too, including Paul who was my boss in New Zealand, Ross, Julie’s friend from Vodafone NZ who like us has the travel bug big time. Nick who I played American Football with many years ago. Over a curry we convinced ourselves we could still play even at this ripe old age. Yeah right. Gretchen and Jim who kindly put us up for a couple of nights. Our stay included a mini pub crawl taking in three of their favourite local haunts.
We took a wander to nearby Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place for the likes of Malcolm Maclaren, Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx. Unlike overseas cemeteries of the famous, for example Eva Peron in Buenos Aires, Highgate wanted to charge an entrance fee and take you on a guided tour. Instead we continued walking and found ourselves on Hampstead Heath with miles of free footpaths offering great views of London.
We also squeezed ourselves onto the tube and headed to the Natural History Museum. Whilst many of the exhibits are starting to look a little tired, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition was breathtaking as usual. Across the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum the pace was a little slower and there was none of the crowds we had just experienced.
Our live music fix came courtesy of The Stranglers, just me and friends Stuart and Helen. Great evening with classic punk rock. Lots of pot bellied middle aged geezers trying to pogo. Julie and I also caught The Last Shadow Puppets in Brighton; Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner’s sideline project. The performance was slick and the venue intimate, perfect for this show.
Finally before we left the South East we arranged for Julie’s niece and nephew to come up to London for a couple of days. Bethany and Ashley caught the train from Exeter to Waterloo. Whilst we waited for the train, we wandered around Waterloo trying to give away snack bars and doggy treats to any of the thousands of homeless people that call the streets of London home. Easier said than done, not a single homeless person in sight, even in the dark archways under the station. This Random Acts of Kindness thing was taking some effort.
After collecting Bethany & Ashley we whisked them to the Warner Brothers Studios just north of London. This was our second visit in just over a year but a first for the kids. If you haven’t been then it’s a ‘must’ for all Harry Potter fans young and old. This is not a theme park as such but some of the actual film sets as well as thousands of the props used. The great hall is THE great hall complete with flagstone flooring. Three hours flew by. Since our last visit they have added the original Howarts Express and platform 9 3/4 complete with baggage trollies embedded in the walls. The food and drinks are a little pricey with 4 butter beer ice creams setting us back £21 (NZ$42) ouch.
The following day we were up bright and early, heading for the Tower of London. We timed it so we caught one of the free Yeoman tours. Our smartly dressed Yeoman was a blast, very witty, charming and of course knowledgeable. All the Yeomen are former long service armed services folk who have to have an impeccable record. Ours was a former Royal Marine, oh well, you can’t have everything.
We managed to tick off all the highlights, Bloody Tower, White Tower with it’s impressive armoury and of course the Crown Jewels. Some of our party were a little disappointed with the bling on show. Not sure why when you have one of the world’s largest diamonds on display.
We then hit the City of London streets for a murder mystery treasure hunt. Purchased from Treasure Trails, this activity gets you looking for clues as to who was murdered and with what weapon. We didn’t start out in teams but let’s just say Bethany and I are ace detectives. On more than one occasion we had a little chuckle as Julie and Ashley searched high and low for clues that were right in front of their noses. For just £6 (NZ$12) this self-guided activity is great value, fun and perfect for exploring new areas.
After a really long day on our feet we settled on dinner in China Town. The Golden Dragon ended up being a “we are not moving another inch” choice and it turned out to be pretty good. Tonight’s dinner was much more enjoyable for the kids than the previous night’s Lebanese choice. A step too far on the ‘adventurous scale’.
The South East of England is awash with a rich history. Our two house sits not only provided us a great doggy fix but they were well located to explore the region. We wandered around ruined castles, through leafy country lanes and of course frequented several out of the way pubs. We really enjoyed catching up with old friends amongst the hustle and bustle of one the world’s largest capital cities. Having Bethany and Ashley join us for a couple of days was a great chance to share with them some of what London has to offer.
Next Stop, the biggest cuddle monsters.