The Thomases’ Grand Antipodean Adventure (1)

The first of many!

At the end of 2012, Mrs T and I set-off for a big trip – three and a half weeks visiting Australia and New Zealand. Our “excuse” for making the trip was that we wished to see two friends of ours in Melbourne who had got married during 2012, and whose wedding we had been unable to attend. An extension of the trip to NZ seemed like a sensible option, since we were going so far, and had always wanted to visit. A trip such as that has many highlights, and therefore I plan to blog about a segment of the trip, or an individual day, every so often for the forseeable future. My aim is to write about a new day or segment each week, but since this is the first post for 11 months, I suspect that that won’t quite happen. I’ll try to include some links to places we went or things we did, and also talk a bit about highlights of each location. I also hope to put a few of the more interesting photos up on Paul’s Photos.

The Trip

The map above shows the scope of the trip. We flew out to Sydney with a 24 hour stop-over in Singapore, followed by a couple of nights in Sydney, then onwards to Christchurch, NZ. We spent nearly two weeks driving around the South Island, before returning to Australia to spend Christmas in Melbourne. Return to the UK included a 24 hour stopover in Hong Kong.

Day One – Departure

All our flights were in economy class with Qantas, the National airline of Australia, originally named as the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service. Our outbound flights to Sydney were on the Airbus A380, and we were very impressed with the level of service provided – the meals were excellent with a good choice of wine with them. Seats were comfortable and there was enough space (I’m fairly tall). The seats recline quite a long way, which does mean that once the person in front of you has commenced relaxation, you pretty much need to put your seat back straight away to avoid having them lying on your chest! Having been anxious about such long flights, we found that overall the experience was not too bad at all.

Departure was from London Heathrow, and Mrs T’s father had kindly volunteered to drop us off. The journey to the airport was uneventful, except for the final roundabout off the M4 (onto the infamous Heathrow spur). The traffic light phasing on the roundabout had led to the whole roundabout being full of vehicles, so it took nearly 40 minutes for the traffic to rotate the 270 degrees around the roundabout we needed to go! All the exits were clear, but the roundabout itself was completely blocked. All it would have taken was one policeman to stop people trying to enter the roundabout for one turn of the lights, and it would have sorted itself out. Heathrow Terminal Three wasn’t as awful as it could have been, and we enjoyed a surprisingly excellent meal at ‘British Restaurant and Bar “Rhubarb“‘ once through security. Decent food, not cripplingly expensive, and very good natured (Polish) waiting staff. An enjoyable experience to send us off.

Once on the flight, we discovered the ‘plane was quite empty, and after takeoff we moved to a block of three unoccupied seats so we could spread out somewhat. After another late dinner (take-off time was 2130), it was time to try to get some sleep, before arrival in Singapore, c. 13 hours (but nearer a full day in solar time) later. More about Singapore in the next instalment, but here is a “taster”.

Dinner in Singapore

Dinner in Singapore

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A tour of some country houses

Last month, my belovèd and I tool a gentle tour of some of England, and called in at some lovely houses along the way. First was a trip to my homeland of Yorkshire to visit my parents, and to take in some of the National Trust’s best properties in the lovely March.

Beningbrough Hall

Beningbrough Hall

First on the list was Beningbrough Hall, just north of York. This house was built in the early 18th Century, and contains some excellent examples of local woodcarving, a skill for which York was justly famous in that period.

Beningbrough Daffodils

Beningbrough Daffodils

Photography is not permitted within the house unfortunately.

Additionally to the house, there is a lovely spring garden, which at this time of year is full of various breeds of daffodils, and is a real haven of peace and tranquility. The house itself looks over wide open grounds, and takes advantage of the flatness of the surrounding area to create grand vistas over the fields.

Day two of the trip consisted of an excursion to Whitby (where sadly the Abbey was not open), and a walk up to the delightful, if somewhat unusual church on the cliff top. This church has grown over the years in a rather random fashion, and contains some very unusual box pews (in which half the seats face away from the front) and quite a few areas where there is no possibility of seeing the altar.

Triple-deck pulpit

Triple-deck pulpit

It has two particular aspects which stood out to me – 1) the triple-deck pulpit, which still has attached ear-trumpets for the wife of a past vicar; and 2) the wonderful coal-burning stove which is still the only mechanism of heating the nave of the church.

On the return to York from Whitby, we passed through Nunnington Hall, a much smaller house than Beningbrough, but which was also particularly interesting – over time, the main axis of the house had changed by 90 degrees as extensions were built and rooms were reassigned. Some of the panelling and artefacts date back to the 16th century, although much of the house is in the condition that it was during ownership by the Fife family in the first half of the twentieth century.

Nunnington Hall Dining Room

Nunnington Hall Dining Room

Day three and our trip further North (Cumbria) commenced. Having stopped at the llama Karma café (see also my Scottish trip blogpost), for a quick bacon sandwich and cup of tea, it was to our next National Trust property, Acorn Bank mill and gardens. This house is not yet open for viewing, although the intention is to open it up soon, but there are lovely gardens, and a very interesting partially restored watermill. The gardens are particularly known for their collection of several hundred edible and medicinal herbs.

Aira Force

Aira Force

Next up on our journey was an old child-hood destination of Aira Force (National Trust car-park here!), and the classic short circular walk up the side of the falls, around to the next village, and back down the other side. We were blessed by a magical improvement in the weather in the Ullswater environs, and some excellent views down over that lake. A drive over an increasing misty Kirkstone Pass took us down the “Struggle” to Ambleside, and an excellent pub lunch, then over the hills towards Thirlmere and our Inn.

The King’s Head coaching inn (www.lakedistrictinns.co.uk), was our choice of location. Reasonable rates (c. £60 per room per night for B&B in winter), quirky rooms (ours had a four poster and Victoria bath), odd artefacts (the odd miniature suit of armour sort of thing), and a lovely location between the slopes of Helvellyn and the waters of Thirlmere made for a lovely two night stay. Only drawback is the noise from the road (single glazing), but that wasn’t too much of a problem in March (traffic pretty much stops after about 8pm!). There’s also a decent bar and excellent resident’s restaurant, with good quality food such as pheasant and other local produce. All very excellent.

Surprise view

Surprise view

Day Four and it was “walk day”, obviously facilitated by parking in another National Trust car park, Our route took us from the banks of Derwent water, up past the famous Ashness Bridge (postcard territory), beyond “surprise view” (pictured), and up to Watendlath, a very remote hamlet and tarn, which is allegedly Prince Charles’ favourite spot. A gentle walk over the watershed and down into Borrowdale took us to the half-way point of our expedition. The descent took us past the Bowder stone (a large rock deposited on what looks like a precarious knife-edge) by the action of glaciers in the last ice-age. No time to linger though, onwards toward Grange and the foot of Derwentwater, and finally back to the car. 8.5miles, 4hours, and generally a lovely day. The day still had enough time for us to venture to Castlerigg stone circle, but the combination of a bitter wind and our tiredness reduced that visit to long enough to take one photograph, before we went to find a nice dinner. For this we went to the location of my first legal drink, and provider of excellent, succulent sizzling steaks, the White Lion Inn, Patterdale. And then for an early night!

Hardknott Roman Fort

Hardknott Roman Fort

Day Five did not dawn as appealingly as the previous days, but nevermind! We set off in the car to another National Trust site – Hardknott Roman Fort. This is over the somewhat ridiculous Hardknott pass road, which is not in the best of condition, and is insanely steep – the road surface is buckled at the bottom of each of the steep sections, owing to years of abuse with the force of vehicles trying to get up, which has a rather negative effect on grip on these key sections of the road. The fort itself, known as Mediobogdum, is in a very remote, hilly location, which I’m sure has a great aspect on a sunny day, but on this most normal of Cumbrian days, in the gale and the drizzle, seemed like a very depressing place to have been posted, especially since most of those posted here allegedly came from the Dalmatian Coast of what is now Croatia. An afternoon snack at Coniston, and it was then time to head to our next beautiful country house destination.

Johnby Hall

Johnby Hall

Johnby Hall is not a National Trust property, but is the delightful home (and now B&B) of two of our friends and their family. With unique accommodation, and breakfast served in the Great Hall, it makes an excellent place for a stopover. Our room was in the “modern” 17th century wing of the house!

Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall

Our return home, via an excellent performance of Brahms’ Requiem in York Minster, given by York Music Society, was rounded off by an excellent tour of Hardwick Hall (you guessed it – National Trust), just off the M1 in Derbyshire. It is particularly noteworthy for the enormous collection of tapestries, which literally carpet the walls. It is also incredibly grand (as befits a home owned and used by the Countess of Shrewsbury). Well worth a visit and a tour, but the carpark was a total quagmire (despite the dry spell in March!).

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Alsace Dessert Wine

Jos Straub Fis VT Gewurztraminer

Jos Straub Fis VT Gewurztraminer

Another day, another blog about wine. The picture shows the empty bottle from a recent evening’s wine-drinking with my fiancée. This time, we’d shared a small (50cl) bottle of one of Alsace’s more unusual wines, a gewurtztraminer vendanges tardives. This is a dessert-style wine, rather sweeter than a standard gewurtztraminer.

Vendanges tardives (late harvest) wines are a relatively (in the grand scheme of things) recent introduction to the Alsace, with the first wine with this description being bottled in 1976 after that long hot summer. The increased sugar levels which are part of the requirement for these wines give them their more syrupy character. Traditionally in the Alsace they would be drunk alongside foie gras or a tarte tatin.

The vintage in question is a 2005, which was one of the best Alsace vintages in recent years, with low yields, but sound grapes with ripe acidities.

This bottle was picked up during a trip to the Alsace in June/July 2010. This grower, Jos Straub et fils, is one of my personal favourites. He is tucked away in Blienschwiller on the Alsace wine-route, and doesn’t have anything in the way of a website. I’ve been visiting him every couple of years since about 2002. His small-scale business and the fact he doesn’t have an enormous sales operation mean that you get very personal service (a working knowledge of French/German really helps), and decent wines and very reasonable prices.

Gewurtztraminer wines are a particular speciality in Alsace, although they are also available in many other countries, particularly Germany. In German speaking countries, there is an umlaut on the “u”, although this is dropped on French bottles. The name means “spiced” traminer, and these wines are highly aromatic. Interestingly, the grape has a pink skin, but is a white-wine grape. The aromatic flavour of regular Gewurztraminer (as opposed to Vendanges tardives) means that they are one of the very few white wines suitable to accompany eastern cuisines.

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Wine and Cheese

Wine and Cheese

Wine and Cheese

Time to actually blog again, and hopefully in a more interesting way! The other day I, my fiancée, and four very good friends decided to have a wine and cheese evening. It had been brewing for some time, as we had somewhat evolved into a dining (and singing) club over the previous few months. For a bit of variety we decided to replace dinner with canapés, and focus more on the wines.

I therefore, armed with a reasonable budget, went to the excellent and highly recommended Oxford Wine Company. We had decided to use this opportunity to learn a bit more about French red wine, and to also see if we could actually tell the difference between reasonably cheap wine (£20 per bottle), and more expensive wine (£45 per bottle). In the end, we purchase 3.5 bottles of wine, as follows:

1. Saint-Aubin 1er Cru ‘Le Charmois’, Château de Chassagne Montrachet (2006)

This wine is a Burgundy (a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region), and was the lightest in colour and depth of the three red wines purchased. We all agreed that this wine was an excellent way to start the evening.

2. Château Jean Voisin, St. Émilion Grand Cru (2002)

This wine was a real treat. The tannins were first very noticeable, but after about 20 minutes of sitting in the glass and warming slightly, they dropped off revealing an exquisitely smooth wine, which went excellently with our varieties of cheese (see picture) and the end of the canapés. The primary grape here is merlot, with some cabernet sauvignon in the blend, typical of “Right Bank” Bordeaux appellations.

3. Château Dufort Vivens, 2ème Grand Cru Classé, Margaux

This wine was the most expensive of the three, and the oldest, being a 1995 vintage. This is a left-bank wine being a mixture of the same two grape varieties as the St émilion above, but this time with a higher proportion of cabernet sauvignon. This wine was really very very good, with a huge complexity of flavours throughout. The problem we found was that this actually made it harder to drink than the less complex St émilion. This is a wine I’d definitely want to try again, but this time with some tasting guidance and the ability to take some tasting notes. Wines of this style typically age very well (some only reach their best after several decades) and this was evident here.

4. 37.5cl Château Coutet, 1er Cru Classé, Barsac (1998)

A dessert wine to finish with, and only a mouthful each. This was a typical dessert wine with a thick syrupy colour and taste, but surprisingly refreshing. For a dessert wine, this is actually quite an early drinker (only 13 years old) and proved this by being very drinkable on the day!

The Cheeses

Just for the record, the cheeses consumed were a mature cheddar, some gruyère, manchego and some particularly excellent stilton.

I’d drink all the wines again, but the one I’ve bought another bottle of so far was wine no. 2, which will be excellent on its own, or with some Easter lamb!

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Student Funding – the injustice of the new plan

It’s been some time since I last posted, and even longer since I felt the need to vent my spleen, but this week’s revelations of the new student funding plans have provoked me!

Leaving aside the pre-election promises about not raising tuition fees (I can see the need for changes with the country’s finances in their current state), there are several issues at stake here.

The first is the ruling out of a graduate tax by members of both parties in the Coalition. Yet, when one run’s the figures of this new idea, one can see that in essence, for all but the richest or most highly paid graduates, that is what this proposal amounts to.

Even using the £6,000 value, and adding on £4,000 to cover living costs (a reasonably conservative estimate), the average graduate on a four year course (of which there are many), will have accrued £40,000 in debts.

At a “market interest rate” limited to RPI (notice that even though RPI has been replaced by CPI for most measures, it has been retained here since it is generally higher) + 3%, (say 5% once bank rates return to a more reasonable amount), then this amounts to £2,000 of interest in the first year. The government says it is being more generous by only taking payments once earnings reach over £21k, but this means that even someone earning £41,000 (the upper limit for the interest rate cap), will only be paying back £1,800. This will not even cover the interest, let alone repay the capital, and what graduate earns more than this in their first few years in work? Those earning a more average £25,000 will not even be making a small dent in their loan balance.

Once earning over £41k, the interest rate sets to the RPI + 3% measure, whatever the base-rate, ie about 6-8% based on recent trends. So even on a salary of £60,000 (an annual repayment of £3,510), will only just be paying back more than the interest. Repaying the capital within the 30 year cut-off period will thus be impossible for just about any students.

In fact, using a 6% interest rate, then for each of the thirty years, the graduate would need to earn over £53,000 in order to just repay the capital after the thirty years. Including wage inflation (eg at 2.5%), then a starting salary of £40,500 would be sufficient.

So, therefore, the likelihood is that virtually all graduates will end up paying this 9% of their earnings over £21,000 for the full maximum 30 year period. Which, to me, sounds more like a graduate tax than a repayment of a loan. This is made even more clear, by the implication that there will be sizeable penlties for those who wish to pay off the loans early, which also seems very unfair.

There is another reason why actually a real graduate tax is preferable to this system, especially since this system is a graduate tax in all but name; Being saddled with £40-50k of debt will make it all but impossible for any graduates to ever get a mortgage on a house. Having to pay more tax, however, would not cause this problem.

Finally, the apparent motive for this is to reduce government spending, but this method will not mean that the government actually saves any money – after all, they will still have to pay the money upfront to fund the courses. This scheme only saves the government more money in the long run. Not in the here and now when it is actually needed.

So, students are again bearing the brunt of the excesses of the previous generation, and will do so for a full thirty years in the form of increased effective tax rates, and inability to get a mortgage, while the government doesn’t actually save any upfront spending. Perhaps it’s time that students and parents wrote to their MPs, to Ministers and to the media to express their disatisfaction.

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Computer scam warning

It has come to my attention recently (and through some internet research) that there is currently a scam going on where someone will call your landline and inform you that your computer has been infected with a virus, and that you need to follow some steps in order to resolve this problem. This is a scam, and could lead to the caller being able to access your data, install programs, and read your confidential information. The scam can also involve the handing over of bank details, since they like to charge for “cleaning up” your machine.

If you receive one of these calls do not in any circumstances follow their instructions. Check that your antivirus is up to date (try AVG free from http://www.download.com for an excellent personal free antivirus suite).

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BP and Obama

I can bear it no longer – finally I have to vent my spleen about BP and B.O.

Yes, this is a terrible environmental disaster, and will have awful repercussions for those living all around the Gulf Coast, and on the wildlife, and on the families of those killed. I think we are all agreed there.

Yes, BP have to take on the responsibility for these events as the controlling party in the drilling operation, but let us not forget that the rig itself was owned by Transocean (a US company), and that the part that failed was the direct responsibility of Halliburton (a company with close links to Dick Cheney), and these companies are rarely mentioned.

Yes, it is right to compensate those who have been affected by the spill, but the US administration blaming BP for the results of decisions that the adminstration has made since the spill is unfair, and I doubt that it is legally justifiable.

Since BP must bear the responsibility, it is right that their shareholders take their stake of the pain, and they (and I’m one of them) have done so in that the market value of the company has dropped by about 45%. I think, though, that it is time to face some of the facts:

  1. BP made profits of USD8bn in the first quarter of this year.
  2. Oil prices have remained above $70 per barrel all year (except for momentary fleeting glimpses of the upper 60s), and therefore BP can continue to expect to be profit generating.
  3. Even if the clean-up effort (<2bn so far) goes on all year, BP have the cash reserves and income to pay for this, including compensation payments to all interested parties.
  4. The dividend amounts to approx $1.5bn per quarter, and if BP has the cash to pay it, then no government should be able to prevent it – shareholders have taken a huge amount of pain, why punish them needlessly to make a point?

I think, though, that my main issue with the Obama administration is that they don’t really seem to be doing anything to try to prevent the flow of oil (and of course they can’t). All they want to do is to punish BP, and make BP throw money at the US administration (to pay for their unemployment etc), rather than concentrating on using their expertise to stop the flow of oil and to ensure that as little damage as possible is done. BP’s punishment will be that they lose a year’s worth of funding for capital investments and growth (in terms of the cash not being available for investment), and the huge loss of reputation world-wide. Obama can’t use BP’s issues to either distract from or pay for the USA’s other problems.

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England in Bangladesh – Positives and Negatives

Only a very brief cricket mention today – some positives and negatives from the recent Bangladesh tour:

Positives

  • Return to form with the bat of Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell – although they will need to do so against sterner opposition to really prove themselves. Pietersen at 3 and Bell at 5/6 (depending on how many bowlers) is an exciting prospect.
  • Graeme Swann – 100 test wickets beckon already in such a short career; hopefully a test century will come soon too.

Negatives

  • England gave away at least one day in each test match, meaning they were pushed harder than many thought possible – for a long time now, the English cricket team has had trouble knocking over the tail of the opposition, perhaps they just relax too much, or try too hard to get the last batsmen out?
  • Cook’s captaincy, whilst effecting results, was hardly inspirational, but we did at least win.

Another positive is the commitment and skill exhibited by this maturing Bangladesh side; hopefully they will be able to compete on the tougher wickets here in England this summer – I look forward to being entertained at Lords in May.

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Money, money, money

Another year, another budget, although I seem to have missed all the news that was in this one. “Hold-on”, you say, “was there any?”. Possibly not really. Most things are frozen, personal allowances, inheritance tax thresholds, even fuel duty is lightly chilled, and will only be added in installments. Better than we could have expected then? Well, actually not. Now that inflation is back in positive territory, all the freezes in allowances work out as small tax cuts. And if you happen to live in the West country, then you’re being hit very hard – cider has been singled out for a large (10%) and immediate tax rise.

The fuel tax delay is welcome, although fuel prices are now back to the level they were at nearly two years ago when oil was $147 per barrel, compared with around $80 new. Even factoring in the steep depreciation of sterling, this equates to £75 then, versus approximately £55 now, so we’re still being hit hard. And it’s not just the private motorist, all goods and food need delivering somewhere, and all prices will begin to rise because of this tax.

The only good news (if it can be called that) was the drop in the deficit from that forecast, but it is still staggering, and a more concrete plan for its reduction is needed very soon. Hopefully the General election will not result in a hung parliament, and the new (probably) Conservative government can get a plan into action to restore faith in the markets and in sterling (preferably in time for my holiday!).

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2nd Test, day one

As I hoped from my previous post, Bangladesh opted to bat first and put some runs on the board in order to attempt to give their team of spinners something to bowl at. They are now well past 300, and the pitch is showing signs of turn and bounce, albeit of the slow variety.

Graeme Swann, following his meteoric rise to No. 2 in the ICC rankings (perhaps a bit premature, but he has had a huge impact in Test cricket over the last 15 months), was England’s main wicket taker, and he has an outside chance at his third consecutive five wicket haul.

Bangladesh showed promising signs of increased confidence and consistency with a number of batsmen making starts, and some grittiness shown in the lower order. England will have to bat very well to build a sizeable lead on this pitch, and hopefully an interesting contest will ensue.

In a related note, my tickets to the return fixture at Lords in May arrived today, so now all I need to do is work out what wine to bring, and pray for decent weather!

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