Monday, June 30, 2014

Good food or the lack there of

Some time ago I wrote a blog about food memories . That blog described how certain foods could transport you back to a time and place and remind you of the great times you had. While we have been in England this time we have been disappointed at the quality and price of restaurant/pub food. I consider myself to be a reasonable home cook and will try many different recipes, so when I do go out for a meal I expect the food to be as good as, better or different to what I can cook at home. Given the high cost of eating out I think we all expect that. So many times I have been disappointed. In England in the past, pub food may not have been exciting but it was reasonably priced and the portions were large so you sort of felt like you got value for money. These days most pub meals are still quite big but they lack flavour and imagination and aren't that cheap (£10-£16 for a main). With so many cooking shows on TV now many of us are "armchair critics". We are more knowledgable about food, quality of produce and techniques required to make a memorable meal. I'm sure if I went to the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's restaurant in Bray, I would be amazed by the techniques, the taste of the food and the overall experience but I would also be very much poorer. You shouldn't have to spend big bucks to get a good meal that is better than what you can cook at home.
We are really looking forward to being in France where you do (or did - hopefully that hasn't changed in the last 12 months) get good food at reasonable prices. Many restaurants serve a plat du jour where you basically eat what was bought fresh at the market that day. There is no or little choice - if you don't like it you choose the next restaurant but you can get a two course meal for between €10 and €12($A14-17).
The other thing that makes a meal expensive is the drinks you have with the meal. I have to admit that I have been pleasantly surprised by the low cost of beer and cider here in the UK, however, wine and spirits are still pricey although not quite as expensive as Australia. This is also where France wins hands down. You can go into a restaurant and have a glass of wine for about €3 - it may be only house wine but I don't think we have had a bad white wine in France on any of our trips.
Roll on France!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Abingdon 24-27th June, 2014

When we arrived in Abingdon we were certainly noticed. On our first pass through town we noticed that there were moorings with a ring but it was right on a bend so our aft would have stuck out into the river. We decided to look at moorings on the other side of the bridge

Picturesque riverside scene with the spire of St Helens Church
Abingdon Bridge built 1416
but there were no rings or bollards and I haven't perfected "the hitting the pole in the ground and tying up" technique yet so Kevin did a u turn in the middle of the river and we went back to try the mooring on the bend. This once again necessitated a u turn. Fortunately just as we arrived a boat load of Aussies were just about to move out so we managed to get their spot. This meant we were far enough off the bend that nothing stuck out into the river. Many free bankside moorings have a time limit of 24 hours after which you are meant to move on or pay a fee. In Abingdon you are allowed to stay for 5 nights free of charge. This encourages boaters to stay longer in town and frequent the many businesses. We decided to stay for 3 nights and, instead of taking the boat to Oxford, catch a bus.
County Hall and Museum
Ruins of the Abbey
Abingdon is an historian's dream. Archaeological digs have found evidence of dwellings in Abingdon dating back to 3900BC. The County hall in the centre of town has a museum which shows the history of Abingdon as well as a small MG car museum (originally built in Abingdon). The Abbey and St Helens church both date back to the 10th Century and the bridge in town was constructed in 1416. Unfortunately the Abbey didn't survive King Henry VIII's reign and during the dissolution of the Catholic Church the abbey was taken down stone by stone and transported to London to augment building works there. All that remains of the abbey are some ruins of out buildings and a memorial garden that contains the outline of the doomed abbey.
East St Helens Road contains some of the most original buildings in the town including the Kings Head and Bell pub.
The Great Hall Christchurch College AKA Hogwarts Dining Hall
Christchurch and College Oxford
Just a short bus ride away is the university town of Oxford. We hopped off the bus at Christchurch college and wandered through the grounds and buildings. For those of you who are Harry Potter fans the Great Hall at Christchurch is the Hogwarts dining room. Wandering around Oxford is incredible. It is hard to believe that there are so many amazing buildings all in the one place. The Bodlean library
Bridge of Sighs
and Radcliffe Camera, the "bridge of Sighs"
Bodlean Library
(not really sure why this is in Oxford), St Mary's church, and a plethora of other colleges all evoke a sense of unimaginable (for Australians)  history and a sense of tradition. There were many students wandering around in uniform so we stopped one and asked him about the tradition. He said that as it was exam time they had to wear these uniforms to enter the exam room. What we didn't realise at the time was that he was on his way to his exam that was about to start in 15 minutes - nothing like adding to his stress!! 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Wallingford - 23 June, 2014

Today was just a short cruise up the Thames. As we arrived in Wallingford there was a very tempting mooring right in the centre of town. By all reports Wallingford was a town that required a visit so we decided that we would stay the night in this historic town. The bridge apparently has stones that date back to the early 1500s. With castle ruins and a pub (the George and Dragon) that reportedly was the hiding place for Dick Turpin it sounded like the perfect place to stay. Agatha Christie lived here and used it as the basis for  her novels and it is the setting of the fictional town of Causton in the TV series Midsomer Murders. There is also a regular producers market here, but unfortunately it is on Saturday - today is Monday. The buildings in town have a very French country medieval feel and apparently underneath the new Waitrose supermarket building lies a medieval cemetery.
Interior of the George and Dragon
Tombs in the All Hallows Cemetery
Another perfect day on the Thames.

Beetle and Wedge - Moulsford 22 June

Internet service has been a bit scratchy so haven't been able to update the blog. So I'll give an overview of the last couple of days.
Eton Rowing Centre
Well, we didn't stay in Windsor because it is pretty popular and it was race week so hopefully we'll be able to book into a marina on the way back. Bray looked good as we passed it and it does have a good supply of upmarket restaurants with Heston Blumenthal's three (the Fat Duck and 2 pubs) and the Roux brothers restaurant, although having 3 Michelin stars may put it out of our price range. Where we did eventually stay, on the side of the river at Boveney, was also peaceful and quiet. It was near the Eton rowing course and not far from the township of Dorney.
Sweetpea growing on the towpath
Towpath wildflower
Each evening after we moor up, and provided the weather is fine, we go for a stroll along the tow path. It is peaceful and relaxing with the river on one side and, in most cases, wildlife and plants on the other. There are many flowers out at the moment and what we consider to be domesticated plants in Australia are clearly wildflowers here.

Mr Whippy Riverside
George and Dragon Pub

Marlow suspension bridge at sunset
After a good nights sleep we decided that Cookham would be our destination for the night but once again we were thwarted. It seems that timing is key in these popular little towns. Arrive too early and last night's moorers haven't left and arrive too late and all the available spots are taken. In this case we were too early so we continued on to the lovely town of Marlow, where we timed our arrival perfectly. By the time 3pm came around all the mooring spots for a boat of our size were full.
The history of Marlow dates back to William the conqueror although most of the buildings in town appear to be 16th and 17 century. The suspension bridge was built in 1832 and is really only designed for one way traffic. After a relaxing stroll through the village we decided to have dinner at Chequers. Another advantage of mooring by the centre of a town is that you may be able to access things that you wouldn't expect. For example Mr Whippy was in the park right next to our boat so we just needed to step off the boat to order our soft serve. We possibly could have even been a little cheeky and asked for delivery service !!
Henley Womens regatta
Henley on Thames was next on our agenda. By now we had started timing our arrival and departure to hopefully set us up with a good mooring right in the town centre. What we hadn't counted on was the fact that this is regatta season and this weekend was the women's rowing regatta in Henley.  There were rowers, boats and people everywhere so we were quite surprised to find a spot on the edge of town near the rowing museum. This is also a lovely town with a really good ambience, lots of quaint little shops and plenty of places to eat and drink. Unfortunately, given the fact that there were lots of people in town for the regatta, mooring near the town wasn't so quiet and at one stage during the night a boat sped past us with such a strong wake that the boat rocked wildly. The guy in the boat next to ours told us that it knocked him out of bed!
Angel Pub Henley
We set off on Saturday with the aim of staying in a marina so that we could refill the water tank and do some washing. Cruising up the Thames there are so many lovely houses and properties that have waterside frontages. They also come with a pretty price tag! The Thames and Kennet marina in Reading is a great marina with first class facilities with many pontoons specifically for narrowboats and Dutch barges. It has it's own "pub" and social club. We only stayed the night but could see that it would be a great place to leave your boat. The only downside is that it is quite a way from public transport so a car would be necessary.
Waterside property
Which brings us to today where we had plans to moor at Goring and catch up with friends. Unfortunately, being a lovely sunny day, a lot of people were out for the day in their pleasure boats and had taken up all the available moorings. We finally asked a lockkeeper at Cleeve for some suggestions and he told us about the Beetle and Wedge hotel at Moulsford where you could moor for free provided you ate there. At that is what we did. We had a great meal and Kevin discovered Tutts Clump Cider

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Runnymede - 17/06/14

After spending three nights at Penton Hook marina fixing and reorganising bits and pieces (mostly trying to get the bow thruster unblocked but Kevin also tried his hand at fishing - no luck I'm afraid) we decided to cruise slowly upriver towards Windsor.
The first lock was just outside the marina and, miracle of miracles, the bow thruster is now working. That makes it a whole lot easier to manoeuvre into locks and onto moorings. Whew!!
As we cruised into Staines we noticed there were free riverside moorings outside the Town Hall so we decided to take the opportunity to berth and do a spot of shopping. It really is a treat to be able to stop in the centre of town, get off the boat and take a leisurely stroll down the High Street.
Before setting out this morning we decided that we wanted to walk from the river to Runnymede and the Magna Carta memorial. When we arrived at a suitable mooring we decided the area looked really good and that we would stay the night. Some moorings are free for 24 hours and this was one of them.
Magna Carta Memorial
Commonwealth Air Memorial
Today was a magical day - not too warm or too cold and with a gentle breeze blowing. Perfect for a stroll up the hill to the Commonwealth Airforce Memorial (to honour them airmen and women who lost their lives in WW11)  and then along to the place where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. The Magna Carta is really a document that marked the foundations of civil liberty and has informed the constitutions of many countries. the memorial at Runnymede was erected by the American Law Association to reflect the value of the charter.
We are now sitting in the wheelhouse, having had a dinner of panko crumbed chicken with a warm Mediterranean salad, watching boats cruise slowly past and a continuos stream of jets flying into Heathrow. Fortunately we can't hear them!!
What a glorious day
Tomorrow the plan is to moor at Windsor for a couple of nights but as Royal Ascot is on there may not be any suitable moorings - certainly the marinas are full. Tune in tomorrow to find out where we end up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Have car will travel

While we have the boat moored on the outskirts of London for maintenance and renovation we have decided to hire a car, join the National Trust and see sites that we wouldn't normally see from either a canal or a river. The National Trust membership entitles you to visit any number of stately homes managed by the National Trust as many times as you like throughout the year. It also enables you to visit the parks attached to the stately homes, outside of normal hours in many cases. Well worth the money when you consider that, as a couple, you can visit 4 homes and you have paid for your membership.

Polesden Lacey
Polesden Lacey Park
This time we have visited a variety of houses each offering something different. There is also the opportunity to go on a guided tour or hire an audio guide for an individualised tour that allows you to learn more about artefacts throughout the house. This is particularly useful if you are on your own, allowing you to wander at will and take your time.
This is a delicious house...' remarked Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on her honeymoon at  Polesden Lacey. This country retreat has glorious views across the rolling Surrey Hills and acres of countryside.  It was home to famous Edwardian hostess Mrs Greville, who entertained royalty and the celebrities of her time.

Osterley Park Gardens
Relaxing in the sun at Osterley
Osterley Park is another house that we visited recently. Osterley was created in the late 18th century by architect and designer Robert Adam for the Child family (of banking and East India Company fame) to entertain and impress their friends and clients. It was a glorious day and so a little sunbathing was required! The beauty of many of these houses is that they frequently have special activities or art displays so that you can visit them several times and have a different experience each time.
Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor
We then went to three houses in the Chiltern Hills in the High Wycombe/Aylesbury area - West Wycombe Park and Village, Hughenden Manor and Waddesdon Manor. Waddeson Manor is probably the most impressive in both the gardens and the art displays in the house.  The house itself isn't that old and was designed by Rothschild's architect after several visits to the Loire valley. There are some aspects of this house that remind me of Chambord and also Chenonceau Chateaux near Amboise in the Loire. There is also a private cellar, stables,  immense parklands and gardens.
The aviary at Waddesdon
Artwork in the Park at Waddesdon
Beautiful walks at Waddesdon

Hughenden Manor
Bunker chart room at Hughendon

At Hughenden we had a small private tour and were told about the secret history of Hughenden during the second World War. Of course the most important person to live here was the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. It is these small guided tours that I find really interesting as they quite often give more detail than you can find on the official guide books.
Rear of West Wycombe
Lake at West Wycombe
West Wycombe Park  is set in 45 acres of landscaped park adjacent to West Wycombe village. The manor has been in the Dashwood family for over 300 years. They still live in the house but during summer open the house to tourists while they live on the upper floors. The house has been featured in a few period films and one of the rooms has been used for Downton Abbey. As you walk through the downstairs entertaining rooms there are family photos so you really feel like you're in someone's home. While other historic homes have been decorated in the period they were built in with many fine antiques, they lack a sense of being lived in. West Wycombe is, therefore, different in that respect.


Day 3 - 14 June, 2014

Well it rained last night so we are glad that we had the opportunity to raise the wheelhouse yesterday. Today we had only planned on travelling a short distance to a powered visitor mooring at Molesey, where we could also do a leisurely visit at Hampton Court. We were desperately low on water so a mooring with facilities was the plan. After going through the lock at Molesey we didn't like the look of the moorings as they were so close to the lock and the free moorings at Hampton Court were full. Besides this it was still raining so we decided to push on and maybe stay at a marina for a few days. Finally got confirmation of availability at Penton Hook Marina, near Chertsey. So we travelled at a fairly steady rate through a total of 4 locks and 14 miles. Not planning on going at that pace on too many days otherwise we'll be in Oxford in a week.
Along the Thames there are many fantastic homes and some quite unusual house boats. The evidence of the floods can still be seen with some debris sitting in yards that probably belong to holiday home owners.

Day 2

After a leisurely start waiting for the tide to turn at Brentford we eagerly went through the second last lock on the Grand Union (thankfully an electric/hydraulic push button one as I don't think I had the strength to wind any more gates) at about lunchtime so that we would be ready to hit the Thames just as the tide was coming in which would hopefully push us along on our way to Teddington Lock. It was such a treat to finally be on the Thames after all the hassle of the Grand Union. Our bow thruster still isn't working but now with bigger locks that are manned, we hope that won't be too much of an issue till we get somewhere to clean it out. With a wide open river we can finally push the revs up on the engine and let the boat get beyond idle. I even had a go at steering but quickly gave the controls back to Kevin as we approached Teddington Lock. I will save that type of manoeuvring to slightly quieter waters.
Once we negotiated our way out of Teddington Lock we decided that we would stay the night on a visitor mooring and have bit of a break and wait for slightly cooler weather before reconstructing the wheelhouse. After about 40 minutes we had it all back in place and Kevin vows that it won't be coming down any time soon. The Capestange bridge on the Canal du Midi will have to wait for at least 12 months I think!!
To celebrate finally leaving the Grand Union Canal and making it onto the non tidal Thames we treated ourselves to a well deserved drink and dinner at a riverside pub and then strolled along the high street in Teddington. To cap off the night we had the treat of an incredible full moon rising over the Thames.
Here's to more relaxed cruising