Tagged uk

Small mercies

One of the highlights of my four years in the UK will be going to the Fat Duck. It was worth the expense, and the 50-minute train journey from London to Maidenhead and back.

Daniel Yeow provides an illustrated blow-by-blow account of our visit. You will remember that he was the one who documented last year’s gourmet adventure to Gordon Ramsay too.

I will leave it up to Daniel to tell the gastronomic story. All I wanted to say here was that we started at 7pm and rushed to catch the half-past-midnight train. I made it to bed past 2am.

The next day, I did not have my usual packed lunch. No time to make it, you see. So I went to Pret A Manger for a light salad (compensating for the richness of last night).

When I reached the top of the counter queue to pay, the cashier asked in that annoying perky way, ‘How are you doing today?’

‘Fine,’ I said shortly. Normally, I’m friendly but today I was exhausted.

It must have shown in my face. The perky counterhand paused for a heartbeat and said, ‘Would you like a cappuccino? On the house!’

‘On the house? Well… sure!’

He reached behind him to get a hot takeway cup of coffee and handed it to me with my lunch and change.

‘Wow, thanks,’ I said, still surprised. ‘You’ve made my day.’

Joan trying to find Fat Duck on the map

Joan trying to find Fat Duck on the map. It turns out that it was right behind me. Photo by Daniel Yeow (2010).

Heston Blumenthal's mock turtle soup. Head over to Daniel Yeow's website for more photos.

Marazion and the Mount

On the last day of our seaside ‘mini-break’, we visited the town of Marazion for fish and chips.

The beach at Marazion

Marazion has something that I consider rare in the UK: a real sandy beach.

Marazion beach

These kids were riding on a stream that emptied in the ocean. I was bit concerned. There was a distinct smell of sewage about that stream. Either the stream was fed by geologically active groundwaters (doubtful) or it was carrying the outflow of some kind of water treatment plant (more likely).

Body surfing kids at Marazion

There must have once been volcanic activity in the area, though. There was slate and granite everywhere.

Wall at Marazion

Besides fish and chips, the other reason we came to Marazion was to see St Michael’s Mount. The Mount is its own parish with residents. The population peaked at 300 in the 1800s. Its castle is the official residence of Lord St Levan. He doesn’t live there anymore but his nephew supposedly does.

St Michael's Mount

When we arrived at the beach, we saw people being ferried to and from the island on small motorised boats.

St Michael's Mount

Some, though, came in on their own paddle power.

Canoes at Marazion beach

Around half an hour after we arrived, I spotted someone in the water, seemingly wading towards St Michael’s Mount!

Causeway to St Michael's Mount

It turns out that there is a man made causeway to the Mount, which can be crossed at mid to low tide.

Causeway to St Michael's Mount

 
Causeway to St Michael's Mount

Soon there was a highway of foot traffic between Marazion and the Mount.

Causeway to Marazion

From Lizard to Mousehole

Winter is here, my ankles can feel it. To escape, I’ve been going through my photos from a summer weekend near Penzance in Cornwall. Yes, that’s Penzance of Pirates fame.

There were all kinds of fun names associated with our mini-break. We stayed at in a village called Lizard and visited Land’s End.

Our weekend home was Nanceglos House, which is a National Trust cottage. It was the old laundry serving Trengwainton House (home to rich folk).

Cottage implies a small and quaint farm house. Well, Nanceglos House sleeps nine people so I wouldn’t call it small!

Nanceglos House

It had its own well, which I’m guessing was very important for a laundry in the 18th century.

Well at Nanceglos House

This beautiful living room was once the main laundry area. I wonder what it was like? Were there great vats of hot water and clothes? Were the workers constantly enveloped by steam?

Laundry room of Nanceglos House

It was a very tall space with wooden roof beams.

Laundry room at Nanceglos House

I love country kitchens! They make me want to cook (and eat). Damjan made a metre long pizza with onion confit. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

Kitchen at Nanceglos House

Here are photos from the town of Penzance.

This is Jubilee Pool, safely buffered from the ocean.

Swimming pool at Penzance

The eateries reflect the seaside location.

Meadery at Penzance

 
Penzance eatery

We went on to a fishing village Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), hoping for fish and chips. In the end, we saved our weekend fish-and-chip quota for the next day.

Mousehole harbour

 
Mousehole harbour

 
Boats at Mousehole harbour

The Mousehole harbour was clearly an attractive swimming spot for kids. The massive wooden gates at the head of the harbour were almost closed so the water was very calm.

Boy in Mousehole harbour

 
Swimming at Mousehole harbour

These kids were watching the others swimming. If you look carefully, you can see a wire cross on the rocky island to the left. At Christmas time, Cornwall residents and visitors converge on Mousehole to see its Christmas lights. Maybe that cross is part of the annual illuminations.

Looking out from Mousehole harbour

Gantting off to Edinburgh

As you might know, I love Gantt charts. A few months ago, Damjan and I put together a Gantt chart to plan out how I could use my annual leave.

2009 holiday Gantt

My first scheduled vacation was Mauritius. That cost me five days annual leave.

The long Easter weekend meant that spending only one annual leave day allowed me and Damjan to take the train up to Edinburgh for five days.

It was glorious, such a picturesque city! We were especially fortunate in that it didn’t rain on any of those five days. This is highly unusual for Scotland.

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This is Edinburgh Castle. Something funny happened while we were there. I got a text message from my friend, Frances (who is visiting London from San Francisco).

Want to join a few ny [New York] ppl at edinburgh castle tonight?

Confused, I replied:

Hi frances, did you mean the real edinburgh castle? I am here in scotland.’

From Frances:

Oh right, haha! No i meant the one in Camden [London]. Hope you’re having a fun holiday!

Here are some photos from inside Edinburgh Castle.

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I thought it was funny, having a Royal Mail post box inside.

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Here is an uncomfortably angled bench next to the guard house.

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Loud annoying children playing with guns.

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It’s good to see the Castle is up the latest environmentally friendly technologies.

Damjan and I stayed at Budget Backpackers in a private room. You know when you’re growing up when you become less and less able to tolerate hostels. I’ve stayed in hostels all around Tasmania, Germany, the UK, in Lisbon… I’m generally happy in a private room but in dorms, I feel quite anxious about waking people up and being woken up by late night party people and snorers.

Budget Backpackers was clean and friendly, though cramped. We joined one of their free Edinburgh walking tours. Our tour guide as an Aussie from Melbourne (Carlton). In our group, there were another two girls from Melbourne (Glen Iris and Gladstone Park). In the kitchen, we also met an Aussie from Geelong…

On the walking tour, we learned about body snatchers, people who would steal bodies (or murder to get fresh ones!) to sell to the anatomy school for £5.

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It became necessary to protect graves from the robbers. In the first few weeks after a burial, family members would take turns to guard the body. This is the origin of the phrase ‘graveyard shift’!

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The very posh George Heriot’s School, reputedly JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. I thought the school kids could easily whip the tourists into a frenzy by coming out in black gowns, like we wear at Oxford and Cambridge.

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It’s daffodil season!

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We climbed to (the original) Arthur’s Seat. An easy one hour climb gave us a 360 degree view of Edinburgh.

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St Anthony’s Chapel on the way up to Arthur’s Seat. Damjan and I sat down in the sunshine to draw the chapel for about an hour. Drawing is a hobby that we are experimenting in. I tend to draw fatter and more cartoony pictures, compared to Damjan’s more detailed and spindly drawings.

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The Scottish seagulls are HUGE, so big they’re almost majestic. As Damjan said, ‘If they weren’t so common, I’d almost say they were elegant.’

All my photos are at the gallery.

Crackers

Damjan and I spent Easter in Edinburgh. On our last day in Scotland, we had lunch at a Chinese buffet.

‘Hey,’ I nudged Damjan. ‘Look at that man. He’s doing something weird with his prawn crackers.’

Damjan looked over. ‘What?’

‘He’s loading up each cracker with food then eating it! He’s using the cracker like a scoop.’

‘Huh. Weird,’ Damjan agreed.

Ten minutes later, I gestured excitedy again. ‘Hey, that lady on the other table’s doing the prawn cracker thing!’

Then I noticed a man sitting on the table next to us also loading up his prawn cracker.

‘What’s going on? I’ve never seen anything like it before,’ I hissed to Damjan. ‘Is it a British thing? Or a Scottish thing?’

When I got back to work and asked some native Brits at work, they too said that they hadn’t come across this behaviour.

‘It’s got to be Scottish,’ they concluded, disclaiming all responsibility for the quirks of the north.

‘Maybe they’re harking back to Yorkshire pudding, ‘ I suggested.

‘Maybe,’ my friends agreed. ‘Or maybe it’s something to do with Vietnamese lettuce cups.’

If anyone has a better theory, I would gratefully receive it.

Consultation

When we came back from the Christmas holidays, we received an email from management regretfully announcing that they were kicking off a consultation period that would lead to up to 400 people being made redundant around the UK.

In the UK, there is a rather odd law that any time 20-99 people are to be fired, there is a 30 day ‘consultation period’ during which the company must ‘consult’ with employee representatives. When 100 or more people are to be fired, the consultation period is 90 days. Our 90 days ends on March 16. The tension (and black humour) is building up, as people wait for dismissal notices.

Because the consultation period is so long, it is sensible for the company to set an overly high limit to the number of redundancies they will make. They don’t want to start another round of consultation, should they find that they’ve set the limit too low. There is a balancing act between setting the limit high enough to give the company room to move, but not so high that it panics and demoralises everyone.

Many people have remarked to me that the 90 days for consultation is too long to be left hanging. Hearts pound quicker when an email arrives without a subject line. People view suspiciously meetings between upper management people, and upper management and HR. Some people I know had planned to go on holiday in April, May or June but are reluctant to book tickets and accommodation in case they find out on March 16 that they need all their savings to get through unemployment.

Yet, 90 days is better than 8 hours. I took part in our company’s the first sustainable construction materials conference. Invitations for the conference were sent to offices in the UK, mainland Europe, Australia and the US. For two days, specialists in America and the UK were to present to a a worldwide teleconference. However, two days before the conference, all the American presentations were cancelled without explanation. My Outlook invitations suddenly had big red crosses on them.

The conference went on without the Americas and it was there that I heard what had happened. In the US, people showed up to work and found dismissal emails in their inbox. They had to leave the office by the end of the day.

Losing 15% of staff was so devastating and the need to cut costs were such that US management withdrew participation from the conference. I don’t know if the presenters themselves had been axed. In Australia, too, about 10% of staff have been ‘released’.

There are many ways to handle redundancies badly and here is one of them. I will write about some stories that were shared in the aftermath of this news from the US. Some of them were so horrible that they were funny.

I will say that our company is more cuddly than most, being employee owned and sustainability focused. Many people have commented that the way the American redundancies were handled was uncharacteristically cruel.

The golden hours

I really like the light in Cambridge and London, which are the places that I’ve lived in the UK. When the sun is out, we get a soft golden light. It’s the same as the light we get on an early Melbourne morning, only we’re getting at two or three o’clock in the afternoon in London/Cambridge.

The ‘golden hours‘ are when sunlight comes in at low angles. In Melbourne, I could get this kind of light at 7 AM on a spring morning. By 9 AM, though, the Melbourne sun is bright and white, which makes shadows pretty hard. Here, though, the golden hours last much longer.

For a long time, I wondered if I was just imagining it. Maybe I was exaggerating the brightness and directness of Melbourne light in my mind. Maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to the light here.

However, someone has given me a plausible explanation for London/Cambridge’s extended golden hours. I’ve been living at 52 degrees north. Melbourne is 38 degrees south. The difference in distance from the equator could mean that the elevation of the sun (the inclination?) is lower here in London/Cambridge than it is in Melbourne.

Do you think that’s right? Would such a latitude difference be noticeable?

This is Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens. The light was really, really gorgeous at about 4 PM.

Unfortunately, it seems my lens was dirty. I didn’t notice the blemishes in this photo until now. I haven’t cleaned my lens recently so it’s probably still like that.


Here is the famous Canterbury Cathedral, centre of the Anglican world. (Doesn’t it look a lot like the Dom in Cologne? All that Gothic architecture, I guess.)


The cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral, which look a lot like the cloisters I’ve come across in Oxford.


The herbarium of the cathedral.


The ruins of Canterbury Castle, formerly a vital line of defence against the French, then a storage depot for a gas company.


A nice tree in a nice Canterbury garden.

Civilised?

There’s something strange going on in British supermarkets.

In Melbourne grocery stores (and as far as I know, those of the rest of Australia), you reach the checkout, pay for your shopping, then walk to the exit via a kind of corral or corridor.

It’s not that way in the UK. When you check out your items, to get to the exit you often have to walk back through the shop. I’ve gotten lost before, wandering through the aisles in search of the exit.

It would be very easy to pick up something and slip it into your shopping bags on the way out. I’m guessing others have worked this out too; the rate of ‘inventory loss’ must be very high. (This might even explain why shopping is so expensive here — the Brits are paying the consequences of poor retail floor layout.)

Last Friday, I went to Chinatown to replenish my Chinese sauces. Then I went to Tesco for a snack. At the Tesco checkout, the lady scanned my bagel.

‘Do you need to see my other bag?’ I asked helpfully.

‘Sorry?’ she said, confused.

‘Do you need to look in my other shopping bag? In case I stole something?’ I reminded her.

‘No…’ She looked at me curiously. ‘Where are you from? America?’

‘Australia,’ I said.

‘Oh. Yeah… I heard they do that there sometimes. You know, check bags.’

Hmm. Maybe the British are just too polite to steal.

Credit with training wheels

I’ve been trying to get a credit card for a while. I need it to do things like book taxis, buy theatre tickets, train tickets, and plane tickets.

The first time I was rejected, I assumed it was because I was a student with no income.

The second time, I thought it was because I had a basic account with the pitiful Solo debit card. As I’ve mentioned before, banks give this kind of card to people they don’t trust. So as soon as I could, I upgraded to a normal current account.

The third time I was rejected, I was told that it was because I needed to have my current account for at least four months.

The fourth time I was rejected, I discovered that, actually, banks don’t give people credit cards until they’ve lived in the UK for two or three years. Great! Months and months more to wait until I can book taxis, buy theatre, train and plane tickets.

Then my friend Bettina told me about a credit card for people with bad credit histories. In fact, I have a perfect credit history — it’s just not long enough in this country.

I applied for the card last week and it arrived today. Eagerly, I ripped open the envelope, ignored the card and scanned the letter. I have a credit limit of £260 (about AUD530). It’s a whole £10 above the minimum credit limit they offer, how lucky am I!

Well, at least it’s enough for a taxi ride!