Berlin 2023 – Day Two – Monocular Berlin

After a quick walk around part of the city on our arrival yesterday today was going to be the day when we explored more. However, we unexpectedly ended up exploring parts of the city where tourists don’t normally find themselves.

Our first port of call was Checkpoint Charlie which turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax being nothing more than a hut in the middle of the road. I am not sure why I expected more than that given that I knew, given its function, that was all it could be. Consequently, we weren’t there long before we move on to the Berlin Wall Monument. This is a preserved section of the wall that you can walk beside along with a history of Berlin on a level below. It must have been unimaginable to wake up in 1961 and find yourself being separated from family and other loved ones who ended up on the other side of the divide.

Before leaving the UK we had booked in to visit the dome that sits atop the Reichstag building. As this is the German Parliament building security was tight with identity checks carried out both when you book your tickets and when you arrived via your passport. I’m normally loathed to carry my passport with me for fear of losing it but today there was no choice.

You are escorted by lift to the top of the building where you pretty much are left to your own devices. The roof is a large rectangular area with towers in each corner. This platform gives you great views over the city but, the real and literal centerpiece is a huge glass dome with a spiral walkway around the side. In the middle was a mirrored structure from floor to ceiling reflecting light into the space in what I can only describe as something looking like the console in Dr. Who’s TARDIS. The top of the dome is open to the elements and the mirrored structure acts as both a vent and a collector for this rain. It was a beautiful place and well worth the visit. Oh, and it was free too!

An Unexpected Turn

When I’d woken this morning I’d found that my right eye was sticky. During the day it was getting progressively worse to the extent that I felt I really needed to get something for it. A pharmacist was what it needed.

Who knew that Berlin could be more strict about Sunday opening than the UK? Nowhere was open where I might reasonably expect to get some eye drops. In the end, we found that there was one pharmacy open at Berlin Hauptbahnhof station and as this was reasonably close to the Reichstag we walked there.

Until this point I’d not really thought too much about it and, of course, I couldn’t really see what the eye was like. Therefore, it was only when the woman behind the counter recoiled when I showed her the problem I realised that it probably needed a bit more than some eyedrops.

Through the internationally recognised language of mime, she indicated that I needed to see a doctor and gave us a bit of paper with the address of the local hospital so off we walked there. Like most hospitals, this was a sprawling place with multiple buildings and so just having its address wasn’t much use. Eventually, we (as I was accompanied by Helen) found A&E.

Being used to long waits in NHS hospital A&E departments I was pleased to see that the waiting room was sparsely populated but what to do next? I found an admissions room and went in. Initially, I was waved away but on explaining I was English he suddenly welcomed me in and chatted away to me (in English) about how he had just started his shift and was logging on. He looked at the eye before finding a nurse to take a look who concluded that I did need to see a doctor but they didn’t have an eye department here and I needed to go to a different hospital in another part of town (this was really helping me complete my I-SPy book of Berlin hospitals). This we could not reach on foot and so we got a taxi over to the second hospital which, as hospitals go, was an attractive place (outside at any rate).

We had been given slightly better instructions this time and quickly found the department we needed Once more by looking lost I was able to find a helpful nurse who pointed me in the right direction which turned out to be someone with whom I could discuss payment. This is when I played my joker.

For as long as I can remember I have carried my European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) card (now called Global Health Insurance Card so as not to upset the leavers despite it being exactly the same) and not used it once. Now it was finally going to prove its worth. The woman took my card and my passport (remember how I said I was only carrying it for the visit to the Reichstag?), I filled out a form and hey presto it was free. If I’d had to have paid and claimed it back on my travel insurance that would have been fine too but this was quick and painless – unlike the eye by now.

I was then triaged by another nurse who checked my vitals, asked a few questions (in English), and then sent me to yet another waiting area. Finally, I was called in to see an eye doctor (whatever they are called) and he asked me more questions before giving me a sight test. I was asked to place a mask over my eyes with the left eye blocked off and the right eye looking out through some tiny holes. I was asked (in English) what I could see on the screen on the other side of the room and I squinted and said “Black dots”. He adjusted the font size and I went “Oh! They’re numbers!”

Anyway, the outcome of all this was that it was conjunctivitis and I was given a prescription and sent off back to the only open pharmacy in Berlin, the same one where the woman had recoiled just a few hours earlier. This time there was a different person behind the counter and he informed me (in English) that they didn’t have what the doctor prescribed but there was another with the same active ingredient that I could use instead which is what I went with.

I feel incredibly lucky that, with one exception, the six people that I met on our tour of Berlin hospitals, all spoke excellent English and were able to make the journey from entry to exit a straightforward one. Also after all these years of carrying the GHIC card and wondering now I know that it really does have value – just remember you’ll need your passport too!

Berlin 2023 – Day One -„Ich bin ein Berliner”

Quite why we decided to come away on the busy first Saturday of the school term I don’t recall now but Heathrow was predictably busy with a long snaking queue to get through to security. However, once at security itself, there were no queues at all which was very odd. I have no idea where all the people went but I thank them for disappearing. We also dodged a couple of other bullets as BA had been canceling some European flights after another IT failure and people were returning to the UK to long queues due to the automated passport dates not working.

Rather strangely there weren’t any people at Berlin airport either meaning that we sailed through passport control and were out quickly after landing. Here, our next challenge began – finding the right train to take us to the centre of Berlin and our hotel.

Before coming out here we had done some research and the one thing that Helen and I were concerned about was how we were going to get from the airport to the hotel. The train was the most cost effective route (€4 per person) but there had been some confusion over the train we needed to get. We found the one we thought it was, the S9, and managed to get tickets and onto this without too much drama. Three stops later everyone was getting off which was odd as this was way too soon in the journey. Initially, we couldn’t work out why until someone kindly explained that we had to change trains – this one seemed to be a sort of shuttle between the airport and this stop. It was then a straight run to Friedrichstraße station. On exiting we were able to see our hotel so it was a short walk there. Our room has lovely views of both the train track and station! You will recall that I am an avid train spotter so this was just perfect!

The Gate and the Garden

Not wanting to miss out on the beautiful weather we dropped the bags and headed straight out to explore making our way to the Brandenburg Gate. It is an iconic view spoilt somewhat but the road on one side and that we had to share with a large number of people. This included a small demonstration about what I couldn’t work out. I have seen this before where people choose to go out and demonstrate in a touristy area and I wonder what the point is. Unless you are protesting about the tourists themselves you’re wasting your time as they’re not your audience.

Just across the aforementioned road is the Tiergarten a huge park (520 acres to be precise) it was very pleasant to walk along its tree lined paths out of the bright sunshine. Given its size we could only mange a tiny fraction of it so I am sure we will return again.

A Meal of Traditional German Fare

Selecting where to eat abroad is always a bit of a challenge as you wrestle with the language and not knowing the quality of places. It is much easier these days in that you can get somewhat of an idea through online reviews but that only takes you so far.

We’d selected Zur Gerichtslaube as it had both good reviews and offered traditional German food – the image below will give you a very good idea of what we had and the menu made much use of the word “hearty”. Had we known what the main course were going to be like we probably wouldn’t have also ordered starters!

A good start to the break. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Actually I do as I am writing this a few days late but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see!

The Band CAMINO vs. Mike + the Mechanics, May 2023

I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast two concerts that I have been to recently – American pop rockers The Band CAMINO and British aging rockers Mike + the Mechanics.

The Band CAMINO, O2 Institute, Birmingham

The Band CAMINO have been around long enough to release an EP and their eponymous debut album but not long enough it seems to fill a whole set. This meant that there were not one but two support acts before they came on.

We skipped the first but were around for the second, Boy Bleach, who were pretty good in a high energy sort of way. They rattled through a half hour set before their time was up. Because of it’s size and layout the Institute didn’t have any way to get the band and their instruments off the side of the stage and so each piece was passed down the front and then out of a side door. This was done by the band – no sign of a roadie here.

Given the age of The Band CAMINO it was unsurprising that the crowd was made up of what I can only assume were University kids – I really brought that average age up! They came on and powered through a set of well know songs and a handful of new ones some of which are even released yet. I always think that this is dangerous thing to do as you lose the engagement due to nobody being able to sing along.

That however, wasn’t my problem – that was that the music was so loud and the acoustics so bad that by about the third song I couldn’t discern anything much. It all sounded like a wall of buzzy sound which was a shame. I have decided to invest in some of these specialist ear plugs to try and help in future.

My son, who I went to the concert with, has this really great TBC sweatshirt and we were both hoping for something similar to be on the merchandise stand. Boy were we disappointed. What there was available was a boring black tee shirt and hat. I suspect that the cost of shipping over the merch was probably a contributing factor.

Mike + the Mechanics, Hexagon, Reading

From the small and sweaty surroundings of the O2 Institute to the all seated Hexagon, Reading for a much more stately affair. It was clear that a lot of money had been spent on the stage set with great lighting as a back drop. The PA was markedly superior too so I was able to her what I was listening too which was a bonus too. I guess when you have made plenty of money from Genesis over the years you can afford to invest in your side project.

The audience was very different too as it was mainly lots of late middle aged people who, if the cheers every time a Genesis song was played meant anything, liked Gensis just a little bit more than Mike + the Mechanics.

Given the large number of hits that the band have they played quite a few songs from the last two albums which yield none to my knowledge. That may well be because the two singers featured on these with Carrack and Young having long gone.

As Rutherford is 72 he clearly felt the need to not be out too late as the band played two 45 minute sets and were done by 10 pm. This worked fine for me too to be honest!

M+TM were very slick and it was enjoyable to sing along to the well known songs but TBC had a raw energy which I enjoyed but I just wish I could have heard them better!

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (pt 2)

Thanks to the law on Gift Aid in the UK, the ticket I purchased for Dad’s birthday last year meant that we could come back multiple times for a year. You can read about the previous visit here including more discussion on the fascinating law (🥱) that allows such largess (TL;DR they are forced to do it). Anyway, we were back again for a second bite of the cherry.

Last time we parked in the Gun Wharf shopping centre but this time I had booked a space via the app JustPark. As well as allowing booking in some municipal car parks it also enables you to book private spaces such as people’s driveways. This allows the space owner to earn some income and people such as myself to get a secure parking space close to a venue. I’ve used it a number of times to get a space close to a concert venue and it has been great. I thoroughly recommend it. Here ends the advertisement for JustPark!

One reason for going back was that there was so much that we didn’t see last time and so I had imagined that we would get more done this time but it didn’t turn out that way as you will see.

Mary Rose

Like our previous visit, we headed straight to the Mary Rose passing HMS Victory which was now completely shrouded as it undergoes conservation work. You may be wondering why when there is so much to see on site we were revisiting the Mary Rose. There are a number of reasons for this: firstly, it is amazing, secondly, it turned out that we had missed a whole complete floor on our last visit and, there was a new exhibit “Dive the Mary Rose 4D“.

The 4D experience (3D glasses and vibrating chairs) was showing the wreck from discovery to raising from a first-person point of view. You were one of the amateur divers going down into the murky waters of the Solent and helping to raise some of the 19,000 artefacts found and then helping to attach the frame onto the boat to allow it to be lifted to the surface. It was well done and a part of the story that I knew least well so good to have that gap in my knowledge covered.

Submarine Museum

On our last visit we had intended to go to the Submarine Museum a short hop over the water, but it had been closed. This time we made sure to go on a day when it was open. The journey from Portsmouth to Gosport is short and one that I knew well having taken the ferry pretty much every day for nine months while I was at University there.

On arriving at the museum we immediately went aboard HMS Alliance, an A-class submarine from the tail end of the second world war. It really did seem like something from a very distant age with all it’s analogue dials, cranks, handles and wheels.

We were taken around (well more along than around) by a very knowledgable guide – knowledgeable because he had served for five months on a sister sub. He said that he did six week tours and if I’m honest I don’t think that I could have managed six hours let along six weeks in those cramped conditions with 60-odd other men.

The guide fed lots of bits of information such as pointing out the scarceness of both things such as fresh food and water which were limited due to storage space. This led to the sailors wearing the same clothes for six straight weeks and not showering – partly because the shower space was full of food and the lack of water.

The worst part for me was when the guide described the escape procedures which meant flooding the end of the sub and then escaping through a hatch, remembering to breath out on the way up otherwise your lungs would explode. Mind you that’s slightly better than the latest subs which have no escape option. Now they are expected to sit tight and wait until rescue comes. If it comes…

Next we visited the Holland 1 – the Royal Navy’s first submarine. The most interesting thing about this was the short video that was shown showing how it had been saved and restored to its former glory.

And that was about all we had time for before the boat trip back to Portsmouth.

What we Missed

There is so much to see and do at the Historic Dockyards that we really have only just scratch the surface. Despite having been down twice now we still haven’t been on HMS Warrior, lots of small boats, harbour tour and several museums. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to come back again on our current ticket but will have to book to come once more to complete the tour.

Reading Walks Festival, 2023

I’ve lived in Reading for over 35 years now and have seen the much maligned town (Her Maj has refused on several occasions to grant it city status) go from strength to strength. This has been helped in part but a much more cohesive offering around the cultural aspects of the town such as the Abbey Quarter.

This year a new initiative was launched called the Reading Walks Festival, five days of walks in and around the town, organised by REDA, Reading’s Economy & Destination Agency.

This sounded very much up our street and so we quickly booked up for a total of six events over three days. Judging by the feedback from people we have spoken to on the walks we have done it was a good job we booked so quickly as they filled up and had waiting lists. I should point out that some of the walks were free and some paid and most were led by volunteers.

Some of these walks had the feel of Heritage Open Days about them which is no bad thing and it will be interesting to see how much of an overlap there might be in future years.

Here are some highlights from the events that we attended.

Day One

Five Ways to Wellbeing – Nature Walk on London Road Campus

Perhaps given that first event was at 10 am on a Wednesday meant that it attracted people of a certain age (i.e. those that had the time on their hands to attend) but I was disappointed to see that I was the only man there. I was told by the organiser that “On paper this was supposed to be a manly walk”. It’s a pity that us men didn’t follow through then and actually turn up.

The walk started at MERL and went through the University of Reading’s London Road campus – somewhere that I hadn’t really explored before.

The wellness part of the walk was based on the NHS 5 Ways of Well-being and included lots of breathing exercises and “grounding” ourselves. At one point we had to find something of interest around us, go to it and then reflect for one minute. So it was that I found myself spending a minute staring at a tennis ball having been intrigued by what it was from a distance!

This walk did produce what was the funniest moment of the day when our guide said: “We won’t stop here. We’ll just have a quick feel”. I’m not sure that’s in the NHS 5 Ways of Well-being but it certainly should be!

The London street campus is much larger than it appears from the road and is full of interesting details that I hadn’t appreciated such as a couple of air raid shelters. It is not clear what the size of these are and whether they can accommodate all students and staff or just the staff.

There is also War Memorial where there is a plaque commemorating the fact that Wilfred Owen studied there in 1912.

Our Green Stories: Reading Museum to Reading Hydro

After lunch we joined our second walk which, had I read the instructions properly, I would have realised was not a straight walk to the Reading Hydro as I thought but also included a longer wildlife stroll too. The issue here was that the wildlife wasn’t really playing ball and therefore wasn’t much to see. The Hydro, however, was a much more interesting proposition.

Reading Hydro was set up seven years ago to harness the power of the River Thames and generate electricity that could be fed back into the grid. As it happened the Lido on the opposite bank was happy to receive the electricity and so a deal was struck to send it there rather than to the grid, more on this later.

Interestingly, the hydro is a community, not-for-profit, project with the initial investors (750 members of the public who raised £1.5M) getting their money back over a 25 year period with interest.

The site chosen is right next to the Reading weir and as nobody owned the land it has no rent – an attractive proposition. There are still costs of course including an extraction licence from Environment Agency even though water goes straight back in to the Thames with no loss.

The hydro has two Archimedes screws which can generate a maximum of 46kw. You would think that it would be easy to keep them turning but they need six cubic meters of water per second to run at full tilt but the Thames there has dropped as low as two cubic meters of water per second and as high as a frightening 300 cubic meters per second. It also needs a 1.5 metre drop in the water height but, of course, the higher the water gets the less the drop becomes.

As previously mentioned the Hydro and the Lido have a deal for the latter to take the electricity generated by the former. Initially this was going to be achieved by running a cable over the weir but that would have incurred costs from the Environment Agency so, instead, they decided to bury a cable directly under the Thames. If I heard this correctly and quite frankly I cannot believe that I did but the cable is laid 13m under the Thames.

To date the Hydro has generated 400 mwh of energy. A great achievement.

Evening Waterhouse Walk in Reading

The last walk of the day was a tour of buildings designed by the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse whose most notable works include the Natural History Museum, Manchester Town Hall and, of course, the bus shelter at Yattendon! In Reading his buildings include the Town Hall, Reading School, the entrance to what is now MERL and the Rising Sun arts centre – the tour took all these sights in.

We met outside the Town Hall which I have always thought was a beautiful building outside but had only occasionally been inside. Tonight’s tour took us into the splendidly restored concert hall followed by what is now called the Waterhouse chamber which was, at one time, the council offices.

Our next stop was Reading School which was for over 700 years in the centre of town before it moved to its present site opening in 1871. In order for this move to take place it required an act of parliament, the Reading School Act 1867 no less, and the sum of over £19,000 (£2M+ in today’s money) to build

I have to say that we have a very personal connection with the school as our younger son went there and we were very moved standing in what they call Big School and the chapel knowing that at one point he too would have been there.

The final stop (for us) was The Museum for English Rural Life (MERL) but given as I wrote about it on my trip around there for Heritage Open Days last year I am not going to repeat it here. Read my review here 👇

And that was the end of an enjoyable first day. Here are a selection of pictures from the day:

Day Two

Shiplake to Reading

Where yesterday’s walks had been themed in one way or another today’s walk was just that – a walk – all 8.5 miles of it. This one was organised by Caroline and Liz from Walk Works who run regular groups walks in the area plus the same for businesses and they guided us along the way.

The starting point was Shiplake station and we had to catch a train from Reading to get there. On the second train it became obvious who else was going to be joining the walk and so we congregated together. It turns out that groups of people causes much curiosity in others and we were asked several times over the walk what we were doing – starting with on the train.

Given the recent rainfall it was very wet and slippery underfoot and in some places it was like walking on ice it was so slippery. However, it was a fairly easy walk as it was all along the tow path back to reading so was flat as a pancake.

There were some interesting things along the way including a railway bridge that was so low that even Helen had to duck down to get underneath it. There was also a stretch where the public footpath went through the back gardens of some very posh looking houses. Given that these were big and expensive houses the gardens were long and you were quite away from the house. Even so a number had seating areas towards the bottom of the garden and it must be odd to be sat out there and have a load of hikers stroll through.

Half way round in Sonning, at about the five mile mark, we stopped for lunch having pre-ordered sandwiches from a cafe there. The roll that I had fantastic but that could simply be because by that point I was ravenous!

The last section we had done before and so wasn’t new and as interesting but is still a pleasant walk. I have to say we were glad to sit down on the bus back home and just as glad that the predicted rain held off (just about).

Here are a selection of pictures from the day including Sonning, Shiplake and the old Dreadnaught pub:

Day Three

Today on this our last day of the Reading Walks Fesitval, Helen and I did separate walks with her doing a walk around Coley while I did the following walk around some of the public art in Reading town centre.

From Bosses to Banksy: an introduction to Public Art in the town centre

What quickly became clear on this walk is how much public art there is that I have walked past so many times without considering at all. It was good, therefore, to be taken round with an expert from the museum who could provide some background and context.

We started outside the Town Hall with the statue of Queen Victoria placed there for her platinum jubilee year. Designed by local sculpturer George Simonds there has always been a local myth that the statue was placed looking away from town towards the station to make a quick getaway as she didn’t like Reading.

Forbury Gardens

Next stop was another Simonds work – the Maiwand Lion in Forbury Gardens. This is a monument to Berkshire regiment’s campaign in the second Anglo-Afghanistan war. Again there is a myth around this statue which says that Simonds committed suicide after realising that the lion’s feet were in the wrong orientation. If this were true he waited a long time to do it – 40 years in fact.

Something that I hadn’t heard before was that it originally sat on a terracotta plinth with the names of the fallen inscribed into it. This would have reflected well with the other buildings in town built from local brick. However, this base had to be replaced in 1910 as the terracotta was in poor state of repair and names could no longer be read.

There are two other works in the Forbury Gardens worthy of mention. The first is a piece in Portland stone by Eric Stanford called Requiem which is a memorial to the Reading men who joined the Spanish civil war. The other is a cross which marks the position of the where the west door of the abbey would have been. What is notable about this is that it is a very long way away from what remains of the abbey today revealing just how large the building was.

We then made a brief stop on Forbury road to look at a very recent piece of work between two modern office buildings there. These granite columns sit as a gateway to the entrance and was a reminder of how funding of public works of art has changed over the years. The Victorian works were funded by public subscription with the more modern pieces being funded by the builders that had erected the adjacent offices. Personally, I have no problem how they get there as long as they do as I feel they add to the surroundings.

Abbey and the Prison

As we moved from the Forbury to the Abbey I was struck but just how well the local council, in conjunction with other organisations, have done in placing signage around the town highlighting places of interest. They should be commended for this as it really does bring the story to life.

The next stop does something similar for the story of Oscar Wilde’s stay in Reading although in his case he was not a willing visitor. Between the wall of the prison and the banks of the River Kennet is the Chesnut Walk (otherwise known as the Oscar Wilde Walk). Calling it the Chesnut Walk is somewhat ironic given that all the trees were recently cut down, although they have been replaced with some spindly looking sapplings.

Added in 2000 was a number of pieces by artist Bruce Williams to create the Oscar Wilde part of the walk including a modern take on Victorian love seats and a set of gates designed to look always open incorporating the following poem written by Paul Muldoon and commission by Reading Borough Council.

As I roved out between a gaol
and a river in spate
in June as like as January
I happened on a gate
which, though it lay wide open,
would make me hesitate.
I was so long a prisoner
that, though I now am free,
the thought that I serve some sentence
is so ingrained in me
that I still wait for a warder
to come and turn the key.

Paul Muldoon, 2000

We were shown an image of what was planned but never implement – a set of mosaics to mimic Victorian carpets laid into the tarmac. It looked amazing but apparently wasn’t done in the end because of the fear that the roots from the trees would probably end up lifting the tiles. A great shame but understandable.

Just around the corner is what must be the very latest addition to public works in Reading – Create Escape by Banksy added March 1st 2020. The fate of the prison is still very much in the hands of the Department of Justice and if there is any justice they will sell it to the Council for public use rather than to developers. Banksy has generously offer money towards its purchase should that come to pass.

The Forbury

The walk back to our starting point took us past four further works starting with an untitled piece by a Danish sculpturer whose name I didn’t catch. When we arrived there were three youths sat on the work, vapping. A group of 20 older people quickly frightened off two of them but one gamely stuck around as he “wanted to know all about the work”!

It is believed that the work was bought rather than commissioned in 2004 when the adjacent building was built. It replaced a robbed figure sculpture by Elizabeth Frink which now sits in a nearby garden. We were told that this piece closely resembles the executioner in a piece at Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum and on checking it really does.

The final two were war memorials but very different. The first, The Berkshire Yeomanry and Trooper Potts Memorial, depicts Potts rescuing his friend by strapping him to his shovel and dragging him out of danger. It is a very striking piece. The second is the war memorial and is very traditional. It is where remembrance takes place in Reading each year. This too has a memorial to Trooper Potts as an engraving in one of the stones around the base.

All in all it was a fascinating trip around just some of the works visible in Reading. There are apparently many more and hopefully some public spirited individual will map them all.

Walked Out

I think that the first Reading Walks Festival can be considered a great success judging by the numbers that were on the walks that we did. There was some grumbling I overheard on the last walk that there were too many events packed into too short a time but I much preferred the short, sharp approach personally. I would imagine that the focus of attention would disapate over a much longer period.

I don’t know whether they will run the event again next year but I really hope that they do.

Didcot Railway Centre, Didcot

It was only a few weeks ago that I was trying to refute that I’m not some closet trainspotter, yet here I am at Didcot Railway Centre looking at steam trains. To be fair, I was there so that my granddaughter could see Paddington (the bear) but that does still seem to leave me on dodgy ground!

It has been a very long time since I’d last been there – probably about 25 years since my children were roughly the same age as my grandchildren are now. I have no recollection of what it was like then (other than cold) and so cannot make a comparison but I suspect it has come on quite a bit in the intervening years.

The first thing to say was that the Paddington draw was a bit of a damp squib. It was a bloke dressed up in a costume and a poorly signed trail where you could collect postcards. That said my eldest grandchild did enjoy having her photo taken with Paddington so that’s the main thing.

Full Steam Ahead

Unlike other heritage railways, Lightwater Valley, for example, Didcot occupies a small triangle of land next to the main railway station and line and has only a very small piece of track for demonstration runs. We did this first much to the bemusement of the three year old who couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting off at the end of the outward leg!

More impressive was the sheer number of engines and carriages that are on the site. They are literally everywhere you look and the main shed must have had nine or ten engines all beautifully restored. Another shed was full of carriages, again in a state that they can only last have been on the day they left the factory. Some of these you could go in, others only peer through the windows.

Elsewhere there was an exhibition on signalling which included a board showing the tracks and points from Bristol which lit up showing the progress of the trains and a small museum for smaller items.

The group of us had an enjoyable time there but, Paddington (the bear) aside, I wasn’t sure what exactly the point of a visit was. I recognise that the importance of securing these marvellous pieces of engineering for future generations but sat there static squeezed together in the shed was hard to see them in all their glory. It perhaps isn’t helped by the restriction on the amount of track that they have there too.

Post Visit Survey

The same evening we had been in Didcot, they sent me a link to a feedback survey they wanted me to complete. This included the following question: “What was the weather like during your visit?” with options of Sunny, Cloudy, and Rainy and you could choose only one. The problem was that this being England we had ALL of those options at some point during the day! It needed a “Yes” option!

Danube 2023 – Day Eight – Budapest

Last day of the holiday and I was glad we weren’t getting the Manchester flight as that would have required a very early start since the coach was leaving the boat at 04:30! As we weren’t due to leave until 14:30 we had the rest of the morning to explore.

We had decided on a route that would take us past several interesting sights. We got a taxi to St Stephen’s Basilica, an impressive building with a nice (car-free) plaza in front of it. Why do countries insist on allowing cars to park under their major tourist sites? I remember being in Brussels and the main square being ruined by cars parked around its perimeter. Fortunately not the case here – just wandering tourists.

Basilica done we walked to Liberty Square where last year we had stumbled upon an interactive fountain. Unfortunately this year it was closed for maintenance so we walked through the park to the parliament – another impressive building. We couldn’t get near it this time as they were building temporary stands around it in preparation for some major event that required even the water features to be boarded over.

Finally, it was a short walk to the Shoes on the Danube Memorial. This has been here since 2005 so I am not sure how we have missed it in the past.

And that’s us done for this trip. We will definitely be back to Budapest soon as we never tire of it.

Danube 2023 – Day Seven – Budapest

The weather certainly has been variable on this trip. We started the week in macs and ended it in tee shirts and shades. It has been beautiful today, hot and sunny, leaving its mark on the top of my head.

As Uber is banned here in Budapest we used local taxis via the Bolt app to get around. This operates in exactly the same way as Uber and is just as convenient so I’m happy to support local drivers. A trip from Liberty Bridge to the bottom of the funicular was a very reasonable £7 for the four of us. The cost of a return trip on the funicular was therefore a bit of a shocker at £40! Still, it’s worth it for the view.

It’s pretty good from the top too. Given that this is the old city of Buda it covers a very large area and includes a number of fine buildings. At the top of the funicular are several buildings that are being rebuilt from scratch based on old plans. I’m sure they’ll look fantastic when they are finished but it does make you question just how much of what else you are seeing is original.

In the afternoon we paid a visit to the covered market – another fine old building with a beautiful tiled roof. Inside over three floors are market stalls selling all manner of items from cured meats, pickles, and vegetables to the same odds and sods that you see in every shop in tourist towns – fridge magnets, “amusing” tee shirts, and the like. Oh, and there was an Aldi in there too!

We finished the day with a walk along the banks of the Danube and under the mighty fine Liberty Bridge back to where our boat is moored. This is next to a building called “The Whale” which is currently undergoing a cleaning of the windows. This being an odd shape it was being done by brave souls in mountaineering gear. I am curious to know if these are specialist window cleaners that can mountain climb or climbers who are earning some extra dosh as window cleaners. I will probably never know

Danube 2023 – Day Five – Bratislava

Almost every aspect of being on the river cruise boat has been wonderful with the exception of the temperature onboard – which has been boiling. The cruise director, in one of her regular talks, explained that the “ship had thought that it was winter” as if it was some sort of sentient being rather than something that the crew have some control over. Maybe that is the case as the temperature has remained a tad on the warm side.

Today we landed in our latest capital city – Bratislava, Slovakia where we came for the first time last year. It is a tiny but attractive place.

One of the regular problems with coming away is that there is always one famous building that you want to see that is covered in scaffolding. Last year it was Michael’s Gate here in Bratislava which was a great shame but I was glad to hear that the pipes came down just last month allowing us to go this time. The gate leads into the old town of Bratislava which is well preserved. The gate itself is attractive and has been nicely restored so was worth a quick visit although you can’t spend long looking at an entrance gate no matter how well preserved it is.

Next up was the obligatory coffee stop. I always struggle abroad as tea is my poison and, well, nobody seems to have cracked a decent English Breakfast tea. However, today there was something on the menu that I could have as an alternative – chocolate with strawberries, banana slices, and a side order of type two diabetes. This was less drink and more dessert but was a good alternative to the other things on offer.

In the afternoon we paid a return visit to the Blue Church (Church of St Elizabeth of Hungary) which is a pretty little distraction in a suburb of the town before returning to the boat.

Danube 2023 – Day Four – Vienna

Having been to Vienna a couple of times before we were able to quickly build an itinerary of places to visit with my parents. To do this we had decided to take the hop-on, hop-off bus – the only problem was that there was some confusion as to where the bus actually went from.

We thought from looking at the map that the stop was close to where the boat was docked but were told that people last week had to go round the other side of the rather beautiful church to get it. The only thing for it was to head out as an advanced party and search the area for the stop. Helen and I did a complete circuit of the church and some of the surrounding streets before coming back frustrated to the boat only to find the stop pretty much opposite it! In our rush to look for it, we had missed it on the way out. Doh! Still, at least we got plenty towards our green ring😂.

The technology on the bus was causing some angst amongst the passengers as they tried to squeeze some commentary out of their crappy headphones.

“Which channel is the English language?”

“Channel two”

“Mine stops at seven”

“Let’s move seats and try there”

Etcetera, etcetera. We, meanwhile, did without the commentary and just looked out of the window.

We had intended to get off at the Opera House and then walk to the parliament building but there was a late change of plan and directed to the cathedral instead before walking back to the parliament. This time last year the building was still under wraps as it was undergoing refurbishment but today the fencing was down and you could see it in all its glory.

On reaching the parliament stop we found a notice saying that it was closed and we should use the next one at the Sigmund Freud Museum some 15 walk minutes away so we caught an Uber. On getting there we couldn’t find the stop and the cafe had no food so we decided to cut our loses and Uber it back to the ship.