Back: refreshed, excited and in Newcastle!

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Hello loyal readers! Ah, it is good to be back: refreshed, excited, and in Newcastle! The land of the Geordie! Newcastle, the great city packed with imposing streets of Georgian stone architecture. And if that’s not impressive, the nightlife certainly is, complete with the babe parade in short, short mini-skirts or hot-pants, stilettos, and big blonde hair. And that’s only the men! Kidding.

But I’ve skipped the promised report on the two-week holiday. Wow. I don’t know where to begin. Oh yes, I do. I took a few days off. I went to my family in Essex and chilled. The weather was crap, so it was a perfect time to just visit and talk with some amazing people that I only see every five years or so. I did go to London for two days to have lunch with some old school mates, and to meet up with Corrine. But I don’t want to bore you with the endless details of an action packed two weeks. So I will tell you two short stories.

Rickshaw Anyone?
Corrine and I met at Waterloo Station to catch the noon train to Newcastle on the Sunday after we finished the show in Stratford. This is how the day began: we figured (crazy canucks) that since we had booked 1st class tickets as a treat, we would go to the 1st Class Lounge to use the WC. The woman at the desk laughed at us: our 1st class tickets were not 1st class enough to use the 1st class lounge.

Okay. I thought I’d use the facilities on the train, so we boarded a bit early… into the first class cabin. But when we looked a little closer at the itinerary, it showed that we would only be on this train for 18 minutes, to Hatfield, at which time we would be transferred to a bus (you read correctly… the old rail replacement bus, the part they don’t tell you about when you book for travel on a Sunday) that would take us to Peterborough. That’s what happened. But no time to use the loo! So as per itinerary we ended up in Peterborough just after 2pm… holding it. Finally a chance to use the highly disgusting, and ever so smelly railway platform toilet. Eeeyew. So much for 1st Class.

Okay. So. We’re supposed to be catching the train to Edinburgh at 2:20. Then comes the announcement that the train has been delayed. And they don’t know how long the delay will be. After 15 minutes the announcement is made: please schlep your heavy suitcases up over the bridge and down the other side to another platform and join all the other suckers already waiting for the train to Aberdeen. Oh. And no more seat assignments are valid, so those 1st class bookings you made? Well, see if you can beat the rugby team to whatever seats are left. Good luck. Oh no. I forgot. They never actually said good luck.

But on my team was the great bulldog Corrine Koslo! (The crowd goes wild.) Never underestimate the determination of this pint-sized woman on a mission. When the train arrived, she put her head down and zoomed past the rugby team, getting us seats in the first class car! Yippee. We were the lucky ones. There were a number of people that were left without any seats at all, left to sit on the floor in between carriages with the smell of the toilets and no air conditioning.

Through it all our comrades in the coach maintained a jocund sense of humour, and we all had quite a good time. But that was the end of any 1st class privileges. We got water. By the time they got the tea and coffee to us they were out of cups. And food? Forget it. Oh well. We were thankful to be on our way. For a few minutes.

We stopped suddenly and sat on the tracks going nowhere. Now what. A few different explanations came over the speaker system with dutiful apologies. Nothing that gave us any indication of when our journey might resume again. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. A cup of tea would be brilliant right about now. The seven people in our section decided we could share from the one cup that had been left on our table by a previous passenger.

Then another dreaded announcement. The train could not carry on through to Aberdeen because of electrical issues, so we would be changing to a diesel train at York. Not a terribly happy group at that point. Have you ever noticed that suitcases somehow increase in weight in relation to the number of times you have to hoist them from the overhead bins. But the bulldog was ready. (The crowd goes wild again!) She dashed across the platform, suitcase bounding, securing us seats on the new diesel train. But this time we saw some of the real consequences of the railway foul-up.

An elderly woman was struggling. A group of young girls had come to her rescue and were carrying her case, but she looked frightened, and certainly not well. Corrine helped her settle herself in a seat in our foursome, and after a time she relaxed and felt better and started offering around items from her packed lunch. All the other members of our little enclave from the previous train had found seats. We finally got our tea. Amazing how a cup of tea can hit the spot. So all was well.

We braced ourselves for what might happen next. Rickshaw anyone? But the old diesel train got us safely into Newcastle station two hours later than our scheduled arrival. Safe and sound. And with a bit of a tale to tell, which is never a bad thing.

A View of Bjornefjord
We then spent two days travelling around Northumbria, first to the west and an amazing day walking Hadrian’s Wall. The history in this part of the world is awe inspiring, as is the scenery. Then a day trip to the south, to Durham, which is a charming, hilly town with narrow cobbled streets reminiscent of an Italian village, with a fantastic castle and cathedral at the top of a cliff looking over the river. Gorgeous.

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Hadrian’s Wall

And then we boarded our “big boat” to Norway. The weather, I must say, had been great for us. Not hot, and not completely sunny, but not raining. Magical skies that would hide and then reveal the sun in counterpoint. We sailed out of Newcastle on a smooth sea to watch the sun set over the piers full of cormorants and the ruins of the castle at North Shields.

The journey to Norway was smooth, though it is rather distressing to wake in the middle of the night and think about the fact that you’re stuck on a boat in the middle of the very black, very cold North Sea and have neglected to check thoroughly the emergency procedures. I had dreams about getting Corrine up to the seventh floor and the life-boats. Or was it the life-jackets that were on seven, and the boats on eight? Now I know why you pay extra for a cabin on the sixth floor. Oh dear.

We saw the shores of Norway at about 1pm the following day. Magical. Like travelling past hours and hours of Peggy’s Cove. And sometimes like the Sunshine Coast, Corrine said. It was brisk on deck, so we bundled and faced the wind. Two hardy Canadians standing on the top deck of the ship, completely alone, singing Northwest Passage at the tops of our lungs, warming ourselves on the cooking-vents from the kitchens two floors below. It was smelly, but it was the only thing that kept us up there. And the skies! Oh, the skies. Sun sparkling intermittently on the barren landscapes dotted with sea-houses.  And our “big boat” inching its way between rocks on this side, and islands on that. We made port at Stavanger, then Haugesund, and finally at Bergen. (There is a hilarious tale to tell about our night on the ship in Bergen, but in the interests of time for both you and I, that will have to wait until the published version of this blog!) The following morning at 6:30am we were in a taxi on our way to Solstrand. We had no idea what to expect, really. We’d seen a few pictures on the web. It looked grand. But doesn’t every advertising photo on the web look grand? And then you arrive to the mildew, and the tiny rooms of the average European hotel.

But Solstrand is a hotel that cannot be captured in photographs. OH MY! I don’t even know how to describe it to you. As you come over the hill from Osoyro you are greeted with the extraordinary beauty of Bjornefjord, with four tree covered islands in the foreground, and misty mountains rising in the distance. Nestled along the coast is a yellow gingerbread hotel that has been run by the Schau-Larsen family for four generations. Borrea Schau-Larsen was our hostess. She is hands on in this going concern. There are almost 300 rooms in this hotel. When we arrived there was a think-tank for the Maritime industries going on which Solstrand has played host to since the family has been running the hotel. So they all know each other, and it was almost like a family reunion. There was a banquet scheduled, which meant we had a private dining room for our lunch, and shared one of the small dining rooms with other guests for dinner.

More tomorrow.

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Solstrand Hotel

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