Rosyth and Edinburgh

We hadn’t done much on Friday or Saturday, apart from packing our cases and getting ready for a trip away. Yes! We are finally able to go away on holiday and, whilst it may not be as exciting as Chile and Easter Island, at least it would be a break and a change of scenery.

But why Edinburgh? I hear you ask. Well, we are due to be flying out to Kraków, Poland tomorrow. Poland!! We are actually going abroad, a rarity indeed in these strange times. Newcastle Airport no longer offers direct flights to Kraków, so Edinburgh was our nearest airport, and as it will be an early start tomorrow morning, we decided to travel up early, make a day of it, and stay overnight at a hotel near the airport. 🙂

After breakfasting and finishing our packing, we loaded up the car with our cases and bags, and loaded our cat, Cedric, into his transporter to be taken to the 5-star cat hotel for him to have his holidays too. He was not a happy pussy as he hates going in the car, and he protested loudly on the 15-minute ride to the cattery. We’d stayed there before, so we knew he would be well-looked-after.

Off we went and headed north at a good rate, driving through the pleasant rugged sunlit countryside of County Durham and Northumberland before we eventually saw the blue and white Saltire and the “Welcome to Scotland” sign. We decided then we would stop at nearby Jedburgh for a comfort break, and we pulled up at a coach stop we knew well. There were no coaches around (presumably most coach trips were stopped due to the dreaded COVID-19) so none of the shops were open; there was only a small branch of Subway open in the petrol station, so we went in and had a coffee each and a cookie, and used the toilets.

We continued on our way, but it took a little longer than usual to get to Edinburgh because part of the A68 was closed due to roadworks, and there was quite a detour in operation. Before going into Edinburgh itself, our plan was to go to Rosyth to see all the Fred Olsen ships, which we know and love, as they have all been laid up there since March due to the pandemic. As we crossed the Firth of Forth on the new bridge, we spotted the familiar red Fred Olsen logo on the white funnels, and we also saw the former Holland America ship Rotterdam which is soon to join the Fred Olsen fleet as the newly-refurbished Borealis.

After we’d crossed the bridge we drove around to park up and try to get a good vantage point from which to view the ships. Unfortunately we couldn’t get very close to them, but I was still able to identify the Boudicca, the Black Watch and the Braemar alongside each other:

Funnels of the Boudicca, Black Watch and Braemar in Rosyth

To the right of these was the Balmoral and the soon-to-be Borealis. While it was nice to see them, it was sad that they were all just moored up there instead of sailing the ocean blue with their complement of happy passengers.

Funnels of the Balmoral and the Rotterdam (soon to be the Borealis)

We stayed awhile looking at the ships and longing to be on them again, then we decided to find a nearby pub and go for a drink and something to eat, as it was now after one o’clock. A quick check on Google Maps told us there was a pub close by called the Cottars, so we made our way to it and went inside. However, it was fully booked for Sunday lunch so we just had a pint in the sunshine outside and enjoyed a bag of crisps between us. 🙂

We then continued on our way into Edinburgh itself, and made our way to the Travel Lodge at Ratho Station, opposite the Airport.

Our room was plain and simple, but clean and comfortable which is all we needed for one night. We dumped our cases then went across to the road to await the city centre bus, details and timings of which had been kindly provided by the lady on the Travel Lodge reception. A bus arrived shortly aferwards and it was about a 20 minute ride into the centre; we got out in the main thoroughfare of Princes Street.

Edinburgh looked quite busy and there was lots of traffic and lots of people; the only clue to a global pandemic was the fact that everyone was wearing masks in the shops. We walked along and window-shopped and people-watched, and after about a mile or so we arrived at The Conan Doyle pub, which we knew from previous visits to Edinburgh, and we recalled that it served good, wholesome Scottish grub, including the compulsory Haggis, Tatties and Neeps. 🙂

Inside, we sanitised our hands and completed the Track & Trace details (part of what is becoming the “new normal”) and were then shown to a pleasant table near the window and handed a couple of disposable menus. I selected the haggis with homemade whisky sauce, while Trevor went for the full Sunday roast, and we each ordered a pint of Tennants beer. 🙂

My meal was hot and delicious; I’ve always enjoyed haggis although some people might balk at its ingredient list. Afterwards we decided to go the whole hog and have a dessert each; we had a scrumptious clotted cream cheesecake to finish. Thus sated, we exited onto the Edinburgh streets once again, as the shops were closing and the crowds were thinning out.

We walked along by the park and came to the Edinburgh Art Gallery and Museum, outside which a lively three-part band of musicians had started playing lively tunes; a guitarist, bagpipe player and enthusiastic drummer. A thinned-out crowd had gathered (social distancing!!) and a smattering of applause sounded as the trio ended one tune and swung into another.

We then decided to get the bus back to the Travel Lodge, as we knew we had an early start in the morning so we just wanted to spend the evening relaxing and watching TV.

After consulting our piece of paper with the bus details, we made our way to a bus-stop that indicated that a number “25” bus would be along soon, as indeed it was. We got on the bus, dropped the exact fare into the box provided for the purpose, and took our seats on the upper deck. It was only when the bus started along an unfamiliar route we realised, despite it being the number “25”, that it was actually from the wrong bus company and not going our way at all! We hurriedly alighted at the next stop, then had about a mile to walk back to Princes Street to await the correct bus. 🙂

Back in the Travel Lodge we made ourselved comfortable with a bottle of cava we’d brought with us; there was no glassware or even plastic tumblers in the room so it was the first time I’d ever enjoyed cava out of a coffee mug. 🙂 Then we sat and watched TV, read a little, and got washed and into our PJs before settling down between the crisp clean sheets at about 10.30pm. Early for us, but we had to leave the hotel at 4.00am tomorrow to go to the airport. It was the first night we had spent outside our home in 2020.

These City Walls

Woke up this morning on a day that wasn’t sure if it was going to be sunny, windy, or raining (or all three). Got showered, dressed, had our breakfasts then put on our trainers and left the house at 9.00am to walk to Durham train station. Today we were going to spend in the beautiful and ancient walled city of York, a place we visit on a regular basis as it is only 50 minutes away on the train. 🙂

It took us about 40 minutes to walk the two miles to the railway station. We haven’t been since before the COVID-19 outbreak and the differences were evident immediately. As soon as we entered the station we were required to put on masks; the WHSmith kiosk and Costa Coffee remained firmly closed, and black-and-yellow striped tape everywhere indicated the one-way route around the station, with markers showing how far apart we had to stand.

Our train arrived on time and we boarded and found some empty seats and settled for the journey. Everyone was wearing masks apart from those who were eating or drinking something; you had to bring your own food and drink onto the train as there was no buffet or trolley service. 😦

Off we went, speeding through the northern English countryside, fields nearly ready for harvest glowing mellowly in the weak September sunshine. Darlington, Northallerton then York, arrival time 10.49am.

When we alighted from the train we were surprised at how busy York train station was, bearing in mind it was a working day. Everyone headed towards the exit and there was not much evidence of social distancing. Once the left the station, we thankfully removed our masks and headed in the direction of the city centre, walking along Station Road flanked by the impressive and imposing City Walls, and crossing the bridge over the River Ouse, where we briefly contemplated going down and taking a walk along the river…. no, that could wait until later.

Instead, we made our way towards the fantastic York Minster. We thought we might go inside, but there was quite a long queue as they are obviously limiting the number of people who can be inside at the same time. Instead, we wandered around and gazed up at the wonderful Gothic architecture, from the towers to the rose window to the main façade. A magnificent building, but maybe not quite as good as Durham Cathedral (but, then again, I am perhaps a little biased). 🙂

York Minster
York Minster, showing Rose Window

A couple of artists had taken up a good vantage point near the Minster; one was completing a water colour whilst the other appeared to be doing a charcoal sketch. It was not too crowded and there seemed to be plenty of space; last time we were here was just before Christmas 2019, when the streets were packed with stalls for the Christmas Market.

York is such a beautiful and striking city, with its old timbered buildings, some dating back to the 14th century. We set off in the direction of the Shambles, probably York’s most famous street. It’s simply wonderful, with old eclectic buildings, some so close together at the top you would have been able to reach out of the leaded windows and shake hands with the person in the window opposite.

Trevor walking along the Shambles

There were sweet shops and shops selling locally-made handicrafts and souvenirs; charming little cafés and tea-rooms all rubbing shoulders with 21st century retailers like mobile phone shops. I saw an old-fashioned sweet shop selling cinder toffee and nougat and couldn’t resist going in to buy some.

Cinder toffee, fudge and peanut brittle in a York sweet shop

After wandering around and looking at some of the market stalls, we came to The Three Cranes, a pub that we always visit when we go to York at Christmas, as they serve a wonderful mulled wine and mince pies! Whilst we couldn’t expect such a thing now, we still fancied a cold pint, so in we went.

Three Cranes pub

We like the Three Cranes because it’s a proper traditional pub with lots of character and atmosphere, unlike those soulless chain establishments. They also play a fantastic selection of 1960s and 70s music in the background. Ususally when we come here it is pretty crowded, but today we had the ‘snug’ area of the pub mostly to ourselves.

We enjoyed out pints then decided to go along to the Postern Gate for our lunch. This is one of the two Wetherspoons pubs in York, right on the banks of the Ouse, near the distinctive Clifford’s Tower perched on its grassy mound.

York Castle, otherwise known as Clifford’s Tower

When we arrived at the Postern Gate it was doing a roaring lunchtime trade. The guy who greeted us asked if we wanted to sit at one of the high tables or a lower one; we opted for the lower but there was only one left, and it was near the door which had to be kept open for a flow of fresh air into the pub. It looked out onto a sort of courtyard and balcony area overlooking the river, but where we were sitting it acted a bit like a wind tunnel, so it was somewhat draughty eating our lunch. At some point we decided it might be warmer in the courtyard, so we moved outside, where we had the benefit of the sunshine. The wind still had a nip to it though.

We ordered a second drink each and sat overlooking the river. It would have been really enjoyable but for that cold breeze, and once we’d finished we decided to move on.

We enjoyed a pleasant stroll walking around the streets and looking at the old buildings. At one point the sun decided to make a reappearance, instantly making a huge difference. Some of the centuries-old buildings looked as if they had been constructed without any spirit levels or plumb lines, such as York Gin in Pavement which looked as if it was sagging in the middle:

Old timbered building in Pavement, York

As the weather now felt pleasantly warm, we decided we’d take that walk by the river, so we went along to the bridge so we could go down the steps to the quayside. On the way we passed one of the strangest street names I’ve ever some across (in England, anyway).

It was very pleasant walking along the riverside, and the pavement cafés were doing a roaring trade, as were the York City Tours boat trips.

River Ouse, York

We spent about half an hour strolling around, then we decided we were ready for another beer (!) and so we started to make our way along to the Punch Bowl, another Wetherspoons pub which is handily situated about five minutes’ walk from the railway station.

Once again, we were lucky to find a seat inside and, apart from the perspex screens that had been erected between the tables, you would hardly have thought we were in the midst of a global pandemic, as the pub was doing a lively trade and, shortly after our arrival, people started to queue outside.

I enjoyed a couple of glasses of rosé prosecco while Trevor stuck to his pints of John Smith’s. We then made our way to the train station, once again donning our masks as we stood on the platform waiting for the Durham train. It arrived on time, and we took our seats feeling pleasantly tired.

50 minutes later, at 7.25pm, the train pulled into Durham station and despite having seen this sight many hundreds of times before, I never tire of the view of the Cathedral from the window of the train:

Durham Cathdral at dusk, from the window of a northbound train

Alighting from the carriage we set off on the two-mile walk home, arriving back just after 8.00pm. It had been an enjoyable day. 🙂

Ramblings of a Different Kind

When is a cruise not a cruise? Answer: when it’s been booked to take place in 2020 and is invariably cancelled due to the dreaded worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Regular readers of this blog will notice that there hasn’t been a single post made since November 2019; the longest time I’ve gone without writing anything since I started this blog nearly 10 years ago. With life and any semblance of normality on hold in 2020, there has simply been nothing to write about. 😦

We had our long-awaited Balmoral cruise, which was due to start on 29th March 2020, cancelled on 13th – only 16 days beforehand, just before Britain went into lockdown and we were only allowed to leave our house for food purchases, hospital appointments or for one hour of exercise a day. Surely our next holiday, a relaxing week river cruising on the upper Danube in June on the Brabant would go ahead? Nope. 😦

We replaced the cancelled March Balmoral cruise with a two-week Caribbean cruise on the Braemar for 10th December. December is ages away – surely this nasty coronavirus will have gone away and life will be back to normal by Christmas? Apparently the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) weren’t taking any chances, and they put a ban on any ocean-going cruises for the foreseeable future, which included December. Another cruise cancelled. 😦

Never mind though, I still had my February 2021 Suez Canal cruise on the Boudicca to look forward to – or did I? This two-week cruise formed one section of the 140-night world cruise which was due to start in November 2020 and was therefore cancelled. 😦

Today, we should have been jetting off to Santiago, Chile, to start a fantastic land-based escorted tour of this fascinating country, including three nights on Easter Island, one of the remotest islands in the world. But when COVID-19 is raging throughout South America and the FCO is advising against travel there, we decided several weeks ago to postpone this trip for a year. So we find ourselves with a fortnight off work, wondering how to fill the time. 🙂

Here in northern Blighty we have just come out of the coldest and wettest August on record, with temperatures barely in the teens and lots of rain largely deterring us from going out and exploring our own green and pleasant land. Not so much Chile as chilly. 🙂 We did have some tentative sunshine on August Bank Holiday, marred only by an arctic breeze necessitating the need for a jacket and – yes – even a woolly hat.

Back to today… we decided we’d join the Crook and Weardale Ramblers, of which we have been a member since 1989, for a five mile walk starting in Witton Park, County Durham. We wouldn’t normally be able to join a Wednesday morning walk because we would have been at work, but today we were off !!! 🙂

Whilst there was still that nip in the air, there was a weak autumnal sunshine as we drove to the starting point of the walk. There, we met up with the other ramblers who were joining us this morning, and off we went. The air was fresh and clean and day seemed ideal for striding out.

Our first brief stop was at the memorial dedicated to the Bradford brothers, who were born in Witton Park. There were four of them and three lost their lives in the Great War, two of them being awarded the Victoria Cross for valour during WW1, the only brothers to have done so.

George and Roland Bradford of Witton Park, County Durham
The Bradford brothers

Continuing on our way, we ambled along until we came out along a grassy track taking us to Paradise, a pleasant nature reserve and walk along the River Wear.

You can go to Paradise and back when you go to Witton Park, County Durham 🙂

It was lovely and relaxing just walking leisurely along in the sunshine, much better than being at work (if not quite as good as going to Chile!). We passed alongside a serene lake and came across a dog walker whose young dog was quite distressed at the loss of his ball! He had dropped the tennis ball in the lake but was too unsure and inexperienced to swim after it, even though the ball was only about a metre or so in front of him. Trevor had a brainwave; he used the nearby life belt, throwing it into the lake and encircling the ball, which we could then pull back into the dog’s reach with the attached rope. One happy dog, one happy owner! 😀

We continued on our way until we came to Escomb Church, which is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon churches in England and one of only three complete Anglo-Saxon churches remaining in England, the others being St Lawrence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon and All Saints’ Church, Brixworth. It was built circa 650AD. The church warden was about, and she kindly opened the church to allow us inside, on the condition that we sanitised our hands before entering and didn’t touch anything; another new ‘normal; in 2020. 🙂

Escomb Church, one of the oldest Saxon churches in England
Inside Escomb Church

It was lovely and peaceful in the church, and we spotted parts of the masonry which had been brought from the nearby Roman fort of Vinovia.

In the graveyard outside we briefly paused to read some of the inscriptions on the stones; one I looked at at random contained the epitaph:

“Here Lieth the Body of Ralph Simpson
who Departed this Life
September the 10th Anno Dom. 1720″

Wow, that’s almost 300 years to the day ago.

Ancient gravestone

All in all, the walk was about four miles, or you could add an extra loop of a mile on to make it five. As it had clouded over and there were a few spots of the inevitable rain, I decided to finish at the four mile point, and wait in the car for the others to complete the last mile, which only took another 20 minutes or so. By the time they arrived back it was just after 1.00pm, nice time for lunch. We’d already spotted the Saxon Inn over the road from the church, so we decided to go back there for a well-earned pint and a spot of lunch.

The Saxon Inn, Escomb

I enjoyed a nice plate of Hunter’s Chicken with salad and chips while Trevor had scampi; we each washed it down with a pint of cold John Smith’s which I enjoyed so much I had another one! 🙂

It was 3.00pm by the time we arrived back home after an enjoyable bit of exercise. By now the wind had got up and the rain had started in earnest, so we’d timed it perfectly.

Not the day we’d planned, but a pleasant one nonetheless. 🙂

The Foibles of Fellow Passengers

Stuff I’ve noticed, not just on Braemar but on other ships as well:

a) People who book on a transatlantic voyage then complain that we are spending too many days at sea.  This trip was advertised as a Caribbean/transatlantic.  Looking at the itinerary we could see that 10 out of the 16 days would be at sea, so why should that come as a surprise to so many people?

b) People who book a cruise way up above the Arctic Circle in winter, then complain because it’s cold and dark.  This was a moan we heard regularly on our cruise up to Trømso and Alta in November 2014.

c) People who book a walking tour, which is advertised as a walking tour, then complain that there is too much walking involved.  One we heard when visiting Hamburg for the Christmas Markets in 2007.

d) People who book the cheapest cabin possible, down on the lowest deck at the very stern, then complain about vibrations/noise from the engine room.  This is one we hear every time, on every ship.

e) People who don’t, or can’t read the notifications/instructions in the events programme that is delivered to our cabin every day.  For example, those who turn up in shorts/t-shirts when the dress code is “Smart Casual”, and those who turn up dressed in smart-casual when the dress code is “Formal”.

f) People who never listen to any instructions issued.  For example, the tour manager will say something like “Can those with tickets ‘A’ and ‘B’ make their way to the gangway please?” and those with tickets ‘C’ and ‘D’ get up as well.  Again, this happens every time, on every ship.

How Cruising has Changed over the Years

Having taken our first cruise almost 24 years ago when there were relatively few good cruise ships about, we have noticed many changes, and not all of them are for the best.

For a start, ships actually used to look like ships.  That is, their outlines were long, sleek and streamlined and (when viewed from the front) they were wider than they were tall (not including the funnel).

When on board, you were met with wooden decking and lots of teak and brass fittings.  An inside cabin was the norm and, if you wanted to upgrade, you could book a stateroom with one or two portholes, affording you the luxury of daylight in your room.  Doorways meant having to lift your feet over the threshold and you often slept in a bunk rather than a bed.

When you awoke in the morning you saw the light streaming in your round, brass-bound window and felt the excitement of being at sea.

Evenings meant putting on your best bib and tucker before enjoying an aperitif and a sumptuous dinner.  This was usually followed by post-prandial liqueurs before finally taking in the evening’s entertainment, whether it be cabaret, singer, musician or comedian or dance troupe.

If you were fortunate, your table-mates in the restaurant became your friends for the duration of the voyage and you spent many a happy hour in their company chatting over drinks, watching the show or forming a quiz team. Other fellow passengers became on nodding terms or greeted you in recognition.

Cruising was always seen as a “luxury” holiday, something that little bit special, something with a bit of glitz and glamour. Sometimes you’d even meet celebrities and feel, even if for a fleeting while, that you were one of them.

Alas, how times have changed.  😦

From the original five best-known cruise lines (Cunard, P & O, Fred Olsen, Holland America and Swan Hellenic) who specialise in ocean voyages and holidays at sea, there are now no less than 37 (so-called) cruise lines, all competing fiercely for our custom.  As a result of this, the cost of a cruise has come right down in recent years, meaning that taking a cruise is now an affordable option for the average salary earner, rather than just being the reserve of the famous or better-off as it used to be.  Which is, on the whole, not a bad thing.

However, there is a trade-off.  Ship builders such as Fincantieri yard in Italy seem to be churning out at least one new ship a year and they all have something in common: they are HUGE.  Ships are getting bigger and bigger until they no longer look like sea-going vessels but more like floating apartment blocks.  Never mind your outside cabins with portholes; everyone wants their own private balcony.  Ships carrying 5,000+ passengers are not unknown these days, then there is the crew on top of that.

Gone is the beautiful carpentry and workmanship, the wooden decks and the brass fittings. In their place is plastic decking (basically floor-covering with lines drawn on to look like planks…ugh!), pre-fabricated cabins with paper-thin walls, wood veneer and perspex and replica art adorning the walls.  Plenty of space is given for shopping arcades, photo gallery, spa and hair salon and ‘specialist’ fee-attracting eateries – basically any way they can get even more money from the passengers.

Oh, but we’re not called “passengers” any more, either.  We’re now known as “guests”, a horrible Americanism that has crept into cruising vocabulary; no doubt as ships try to imitate floating hotels, so their patrons should be referred to as “guests”. As far as I am concerned, I am taking a PASSAGE on a ship, so I will remain a PASSENGER, thank-you-very-much.

Gone too is the peace and quiet you would once enjoy whilst up on deck taking in the fresh sea air.  Instead, it is a daily scramble for the sunbeds and for a place in the jacuzzi, and the smell of the sea is slightly tainted with the smell of the burgers and chips usually on offer around the pool.  Add to that the fact that the entertainment staff are constantly trying to get you to join in with something or are playing LOUD music or the photographers are trying to get you to pose yet again and you may find that a cruising holiday is anything but relaxing.

As for that very pleasant couple you chatted with at lunchtime… chances are you won’t clap eyes on them again for the rest of the cruise as they disappear into the thousands of others on board.

And dressing up in your DJ on formal nights?  Forget it; these days it’s all about “freestyle” cruising: wear what you want, eat where you want, when you want.

So far you may have guessed that I am not a fan of large, modern cruise ships, and you’d be quite right.

Another major disadvantage is that so many of the modern ships are too large to fit into a conventional cruise terminal so they have to dock at container ports instead.  Usually these are miles from any of the local attractions and there is nothing to see but… containers.   Containers and large groups of taxi and shuttle bus drivers, all vying for your custom as they offer to take you on an “island tour” or into the main town.

If you arrive at a port of call where the water is too shallow and the ship has to drop anchor, then another problem arises… getting 3000+ passengers (sorry… guests) ashore in the tender boats.  Then getting them all back on board again.

If you’ve read my account of our Caribbean cruise on the Ventura over New Year, you would glean that, although we enjoyed our holiday, it wasn’t exactly my favourite ship and I’d probably not cruise on it again, not unless the itinerary was exceptional.

I make one exception in my critique of larger vessels, and that is the Queen Mary 2.  That is because she is not a cruise ship, she is an ocean liner and, at 151,000 tons, carries 2,400 passengers, allowing a greater ratio of personal space per person than the 115,000 ton Ventura and her 3,600 passenger capacity. The day all cruise ships carry more than 2,500 passengers is the day I’ll stop cruising and spend my holidays away from the rat race on a desert island instead.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my little old ships like the Marco Polo and the Braemar with their wooden decks and their portholes.  I’ll spend ages in the hair salon having a glamorous up-do and I’ll wear my long dresses and silken wraps.  I’ll sit on the decks enjoying my personal space and listening to the sound of the sea and sipping cocktails. And I’ll have a whale of a time doing cruising the way it was meant to be done.  🙂