Amsterdam

Wednesday 21 September 2022 – Amsterdam, Holland.

Amsterdam. The final city in our three city whistle-stop holiday, which sadly was all over far too quickly; both the holiday and our stay in this wonderful city of canals and cobbled streets.

I deliberately chose to go to Amsterdam on a Monday rather than over a weekend, I’m not a party person and the thought of a city full of stag-dos and hen parties was horrifying. I want some semblance of peace and quiet while I holiday and don’t want to be lumped in with the louder drunken English tourist.

All our inter-city travel has been via train, it’s long been my favourite form of travel. Headphones on and gazing out the window as we move through the world is one of the true joys of travelling. I like to take photos through the window as we go, mostly unsuccessfully; a lot of attempts went into a virtual bin to get a couple that I liked. The countryside is mostly flat and rural, I was looking for olde worlde windmills but didn’t see anything other than large modern wind turbines; though there is a beauty in those as well; I’m glad I don’t live near them though.

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We loved Amsterdam, as in Brussels and Gent we stayed outside the centre but within easy walking distance; though we really didn’t do much in the centre, a quick walk through and that was it. We missed all of the central city attractions, mostly deliberately. I’m not that sort of tourist.

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We walked past Rembrandt’s house, I knocked, though he wasn’t in.

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The view from our hotel room in the Jordaan.

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We spent most of our time walking around the canals that fringe the centre of town. Canal side walking was such a joy, just like Gent the inner suburbs were dominated by cyclists and pedestrians. There were cars, but few and they all seemed to give way to those not in tin boxes, it was quite civilised. I don’t recall the constant blaring of horns at any minor inconvenience caused by someone cycling slowly up a cobbled single lane road. The Heineken sign is above the door of my favourite bar of the whole trip.

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One of things that I found very amusing was the number of (often white) vans parked on bridges, I have so many photos with unexpected and unwanted vans in them.

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I took a lot of photos of canals and bridges. Did you expect anything else?

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There were some great houses here, though not all of them were straight. I like the variety of residential architecture in the different European towns and cities I’ve visited over the years; different weather and environmental conditions has led to a different style of building. This makes urban walking so much more interesting.

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I loved these tiny cars, there were a lot of them about, some powered by cranky old petrol engines that sound like they’re held together with gaffer tape and ancient congealed grease and street dust, the newer ones are electric and silent; neither seem to move very fast. I’ve not seen these anywhere else.

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As in Gent and Brussels we found a number of quite chilled cafes and bars (not the ‘special’ kind’) to hang out in, mostly out of the main tourist areas. There was a bar round the corner from the hotel that I spent a couple of hours in over a couple of small beers while I read my book and listened to the dub reggae they were playing. It was the local bar I dream of having where I live but have never found. I guess everything looks better through the rose-tinted glasses of a holiday. On our last night we found a whisky bar that had a nice range of whisky based cocktails, we stayed for a couple; the music was good and they place felt nice; admittedly there weren’t many other customers. Like the gin bar in Gent on our first night this place also had ladderlike stairs going to the toilet, not a place for cocktail wobbly legs.

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When we planned the trip we intended to visit the world renown Rijksmuseum art gallery, but wow, it’s expensive!

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We decided we would visit the MOCO Modern Art museum instead, it was a bit cheaper and was focused on street and pop art rather than the classics. Amongst the Banksy and Warhols they were exhibiting a couple of Stik paintings, the kind of thing you normally see painted on city walls.

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MOCO was in the same precinct as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, another nice part of Amsterdam about 30 minutes from where we were staying.  There were quite a few people here, probably the largest volume of other tourists we’ve seen. A lot of accents and languages being spoken around the coffee and waffle cart tables.  It was nice and I miss that sort of thing quite a lot; I find a joy in being amongst strangers, who have all come to somewhere else to gather a drink coffee. Of course I don’t talk to them, that would be madness.

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All too soon it was time to head back home; a week away was enough to refresh, and enough for a taste of the low countries, but I left wanting more; which is a good thing. Like most other places I’ve visited, I would willingly come back.

The train back to London was really busy and I really should have checked out seats before we left, our view was, um, limited. At least we were near the bar.

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Gent, Belgium.

Friday 16 September 2022 – Gent, Belgium.

There won’t be a lot of text in this, nor the following couple of posts, though there are quite a few photos in all three. Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam are photogenic in their different ways.

We loved Gent, I think we possibly could have done with one more day, though we saw most of the things we planned on seeing. The main thing we missed was the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral. Something for next time; I like to think we will go back one day, it is a place to return to.

Gent is a medieval town surrounded by canals, very similar to the more classically beautiful Bruges. Gent had the edge for me as it has a student population and is a little more ‘grunge’ than Bruges; there is street art and some graffiti and student type bars with decent music. It’s not just a tourist town, though tourism must be one of its primary income sources, it’s a lived in and loved place. For an ancient town it is young and it felt right.

Some highlights.
Gin.

Le Alchemist. We popped in because it was raining and stayed for two very nice, and expensive, glasses of gin and tonic each. They had a nice range of different gins and tonics, the music was great and we were the only customers for a while; it was mid-afternoon. The steps to the bathroom were not for the faint hearted; nor the drunk.

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t’Druepelkott. A number of people advised us to visit this tiny canal side bar in the tourist area, and all those people were right. What a place! The (I assume) cigar smoking owner only serves hots of flavoured gin, poured into a large or small shot with a shaky hand. The glass is filled to brim and you have to sip from top before lifting it from the bar to take back to your seat. 70s and 80s funk sound tracked our couple of drinks and it is up there with the top moments of the trip.

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The food was great as well, vegan food is common, we found a couple of places that were 100% vegan; it’s not overly cheap, but it was very nice and we ate well.

Walking.

Gent is an easy town to walk and cycle, there were definitely fewer cars than most other places. The narrow and cobbled streets twist and turn and cross the canals that edge the town. We walked a lot, an awful lot. It’s the only way to see and feel this place.

I took a lot of photos. Castles, cathedrals, wonky ancient houses and street art from throughout the ages, who could ask for more?

Street art. 

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Castles and cathedrals.

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Streets and canals.

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S.M.A.K. The museum of contemporary art is lovely gallery with a great exhibition featuring some small works by Derek Jarman part made from items found around his Dungeness Beach home. As a recent Jarman convert these were the first pieces of his I had seen up close.

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Walthamstow Forest

Saturday 20 August 2022 – Walthamstow.

The thrum hum of cars moving along the A406 was broken by a solitary helicopter passing overhead. I’d taken my headphones off as I entered the forest at Beacontree Ave, planning to use the underpass to get to the other side of the motorway. I expected to hear some birdsong, but other than an occasional and seemingly half-hearted tweet the birds were quiet; either that or they were non-existent. I was on my way to the supermarket; the long way.

I haven’t walked here for over a year, in fact I haven’t been near this distant corner of Epping Forest since we returned to London, and Walthamstow Forest is only a 15 minute walk from home. The cloudy light filtered through the yellowing leaves was excellent and it felt like a good day to be wandering aimlessly (in the general direction of South Woodford Waitrose) and taking photos.

I was a little surprised at how many leaves had yellowed and were falling from their tree, it seems too early in the year, it could be the fault of the drought we are experiencing, or the early start to summer, the trees may well be thirsty and are not being satisfied. It’s far too early to be autumnal and temperature wise it is still in the high-mid 20s.

I walked here once during lockdown to take photos of a couple of pieces by street artist, Phlegm, and they have taken a bit of a battering from the weather.

Once in Walthamstow Forest proper I put the headphones back on again as the traffic noise was so constant and so irritating and with so little forest sound I may as well listen to music. I’ve a very good playlist for this kind of day. I don’t usually listen to music in the forest, perhaps some primeval defence mechanism requires me to be listening out for danger, though the only probable danger in London’s edgeland is accidently coming across some low-level drug deal.

I bumbled around in circles in this small section of wood, I wasn’t in any great rush and the forest has changed shaped inside its borders so for a while I had no idea of what direction was what. A reasonable summary of my life at the moment; bumbling, aimless, directionless and a bit, but not badly, lost.

Other than the traffic the forest was very quiet, I barely saw another person until I starting trying to find the path that would take me towards the tunnels under Waterworks Roundabout, which will get me back on the streets and on to the supermarket.

The shedding and browning trees, grasses and ferns made the forest a lot more interesting than the summer normally is; summer is my least favourite time in the forest, it is just too green. I like the variety of colour and textures that autumn and winter brings.

I found a neat little grove of silver birches, one of my favourite trees for photography, especially in a dense green forest. I took a slow walk round and though the trees; though the forest floor was densely overgrown with brambles, making walking in shorts a very irritating, if not painful process. Worth it though as the last of these three is my favourite image of the day.

I came across about twenty of these small, brightly coloured plastic balls near the silver birch. They were scattered over a small area, and I had no idea of why they were there.

This part of the forest was subjected to a lot of mis-aimed or dumped German bombs and V1 and V2 rockets during the Second World War, leaving a number of bomb craters here and there. It is good that these reminders of man’s recklessness and greed are there for all to see, perhaps a lesson is to be learned.

I had used a tunnel crossing below the A406 to enter the forest and it felt almost symbolic to use a tunnel to cross back into the real world of houses, people and cars. Reality in other words, this moment of idyll was over.

Scorched Royal Parks

Sunday 7 August 2022 – London.

‘Imagine your favourite city as a wasteland’ opens the final chapter; ‘Coda’ of ‘Shadowlands’, Matthew Green’s excellent book about disappeared UK villages and towns. I finished the book this afternoon (Friday 12 August) accompanied by a glass of red wine after a busy week of work, a decent way to unwind.

Looking back at the photos I took on Sunday, it is quite easy to imagine London as a wasteland. The green spaces are bone dry and there have been a number of grass and scrub fires around the fringes of the city already. It’s been over a month since there was any substantial rain and we are a small number of days away from a drought being declared in large parts of England and a hosepipe ban in London. The use of hoses is already prohibited in St Leonards, where we are now which is a shame as the car is in desperate need of a wash.

After a sustained period of no rain a few days ago and a drought now predicted to last at least until the end of October, the UK recorded the highest day time temperature; in excess of 40 degrees. It’s hard to believe that some among us deny there is any sort of climate emergency.

After Eleanor and I walked through Kensington Gardens a few weeks back we arranged with some friends to come back for a picnic lunch and take an afternoon stroll through the park. At the time we were not expect this ongoing heat-wave, nor expecting to see the parks looking so dry.

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We found some shade from one of the many wonderful of trees in Kensington Gardens and unloaded the bubbles and food we had carried with us from home. It was a very enjoyable lunch.

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The walk was not as long as we would have liked, it was too hot to be out for long. We stuck to the shady paths were we could, but that was not always possible.

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I had brought the camera along, though I wasn’t really feeling it that much, which has been reflected further as I write this very short post. I’m going through a very demotivated period at the moment, possibly due to my pending 60th. 

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There were the occasional, heavily watered oasies,

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and some of those bloody parakeets.

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We walked through Hyde Park, then onto Green Park to get the tube home. Hyde Park was almost desert like in places. 

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I’ve not seen the parks as dry as they are now, and with no end in sight, I hope they get a chance to recover. Much as I hate the royal family the royal parks are a wonderful part of London.

Docklands

Sunday 24 July 2022 – London.

Empty boulevards, blown desert dry by a Saharan-like wind, sand dusted cars and relentless heat from a clear blue sky. A young woman walking in the opposite direction scurries past on the far side of the weed-edged footpath. She’s wearing a mask and black sun glasses under her hijab and though I can’t see her eyes I can tell she looked at me like I was mad. “Mad dogs and Englishmen”, as the old saying goes. I suspect few people walk these streets at any time, let alone on a windy day under a strong mid-day sun. This is not really a walking place at the best of times.

I pass through a wind-tunnel created by poorly thought through blocks of flats, my hat is blown off twice in a hundred yards. Emerging onto one of the older streets, I catch, then pass a young couple taking photos of each other on a shared mobile phone; they laugh. I guess they are visitors too, the area seems devoid of residents. I see windows wide open, washing drying on balconies and bikes changed to fences, so there must be people here, somewhere. It feels lifeless, soulless and other words ending in ‘ess, it’s not the place for me.

Surprisingly I’m in Docklands, east London, not the back streets of Dubai, or some other desert state where the non-billionaire classes are moved out to the fringes. I’m walking from Canning Town Station to Trinity Buoy Wharf and man has it changed since I was last here.

There was an article in the Guardian by Ollie Wainwright (my new favourite feature writer) a few weeks ago exposing a (so far) failed Chinese funded office development in Docklands and it sounded just like the sort of thing I should see for myself. This is a bit of London I’ve visited on occasion, but never properly explored, so the article was a good prompt to get out for a photo walk. Sadly these days, I need reminders to get out and do the things I enjoy.

I’m going to say I was a bit shocked, maybe even a little upset by what I discovered while I was out as it’s all a bit of an urban planning disaster. I guess the area was never going to be beautiful, not without major surgery. Carved up by the River Lea, empty docks, crossed with A roads and with City Airport in the middle of it, this was designed to be a commercial and industrial zone; which it was until time ran out for the docks that supported London for decades. Now it is a bit of a wasteland, and with an urgent, if not desperate need for more housing in London then logic says build houses; which is what is happening, just not very well.

This was highlighted as I crossed the pedestrian bridge from Canning Town tube station on to the small isthmus formed by a tight loop in the River Lea/Bow Creek just before it flows into the Thames. I walked straight into a new housing estate that seems to be called City Island (City Isthmus doesn’t have the same ring to it). In some ways it is an island I guess, river on three of the four sides and a flyover crossing the fourth which makes it feel disconnected from the its neighbours.

It wasn’t an unpleasant looking area, The National Ballet is homed here and the apartments are not unattractive; but it was so empty of life and the buildings had created an artificial canyon which the wind howled through, I had to put my hat in my bag as there was no point in attempting to wear it on my head.

Once through the estate and under the Lea Crossing Flyover there were some familiar old Docklands buildings, though I’m not sure how long they will last as more flats are, or were being built.

I walked around Trinity Buoy Wharf, it was good knowing that this tiny bit of land was largely untouched, and the café is still open. There was a large group of artists sketching and drawing in notebooks, this place still attracts the art community at least. I wonder what they think of the changes?

To get to the rest of Docklands I had to leave this small area and use the Lea Crossing bridge, it was pretty unpleasant. It feels like these new micro-communities are being dropped into little bits of old London, then deliberately kept disconnected from neighbouring communities by the major roads that proliferate away form the centre. These roads are unpleasant to walk alongside and in some cases difficult to cross. You almost have to have a car to get any enjoyment from living in some of the places, and that joy is to be found in getting out. Though to be fair the Docklands Light Rail (DLR) system runs through here and it is a great piece of public transport investment.

I walked past the Excel Centre, I should have stopped for coffee and some lunch, but thought I would find something further along my walk. Though there was nothing on in the conference centre the place was fairly busy, the buzziest place I passed as I walked.

I crossed the Royal Victoria Dock using the quite fabulous footbridge (I regret not taking a photo), though the steps didn’t do my knee any favours. I took some photos from the top, the view is pretty immense from up here.

I’ve always wanted to visit the Millennium Mills building, but was never able to get tickets to the rare tours to the site, sadly those days are past and this huge, ugly/beautiful building will be converted into expensive flats to go along side all the other flats that no-one who lives now here can actually afford. I sense another residential desert coming. The building is magnificent, especially now as it slowly decays.

My next stop was Thames Barrier Park, for it’s view of the barrier built to save parts of London when the floods come. Like Millennium Mills I’ve long wanted to come here, but haven’t managed to in the past. Getting there was the tricky part, there was another road to cross and a long line of barrier fencing preventing crossing.

I made it over eventually, passing under the DLR and yet another place I should have stopped for coffee at but didn’t. I never did get that coffee.

Thames Barrier Park is really nice, a lovely green and shaded oasis in the sea of apartments, it was quiet and cooler than the heat attracting/reflecting streets. There were quite a few people here enjoying the peace, you can see that the council look after the park well. Other than Trinity Buoy wharf it was the only place I visited today that seemed to be loved by the community that lived nearby.

After almost ten years of construction the Thames Barrier was completed in 1982, it’s a retractable barrier designed to close, blocking the river to protect the centre of London from flooding due to tidal surges on the river. I am assuming the water that doesn’t go up river is then forced into the streets of working class outer London, but at least the banks in the city centre will be safe. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering and looks amazing. I will try and come back one day when it is closed as I’ve no idea what it would look like then.

Athena by Nasser Azam is on a roundabout at the entrance to City Airport, at 12 metres it is the tallest bronze sculpture in the UK, I’m ambivalent about it, but it is huge!

After saying farewell to Athena I approached Connaught Bridge and was horrified to see there was no footpath on the side of the road. I quickly discovered, to my relief, that I could walk underneath, but this was not immediately obvious as a newly visiting pedestrian, for a brief moment I saw myself backtracking all the way back to the Excel centre to get to the other side of the dock.

Given my antipathy to cars and roads I actually quite like being underneath these vast concrete constructions. There is something simple and practical and almost beautiful in the design and build of a flyover; clean lines, gentle curves and huge amounts of pale and austere concrete. From beneath they are cathedral-like, some have tables and chairs, almost like an altar, created by the homeless, street drinkers, graffiti artists and other street dwellers who congregate in these drone filled shelters.

Arriving in Royal Albert Dock I was surprised at how big it was, the runway of City Airport runs down one side with a long concreted promenade down the other. Like Royal Victoria Dock, there are small scale leisure activities on or in the water at one end. I’m not convinced that an airport runway provides the cleanest air for boating activities, but a least there are some activities for the young from the surrounding suburbs.

This area, between the railway and the dock was I guess an empty, fenced off wasteland for a number of years. Under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty there was a drive to open up a new commercial zone in Docklands and there was some logic to this, the airport is here, the huge Excel Convention centre next door, there are hotels and bars and restaurants nearby. The supporting infrastructure was largely in place and business would generate loads of new jobs, though possibly not for those pesky working class folk who lived in the 50s and 60s housing estates that surround the area and whose work ended when the docks were closed.

Sensing opportunity Newham Council joined the bandwagon and they now part occupy the first building I come to in this new utopian, ‘third business centre’ of London. It’s pretty bleak, what grass has been left in the sea of concrete is a sun scorched yellow brown, weeds grow through the pavers and for some reason this section of walkway is taped off. There is no-one around so I cross the tape and walk along the side of the building, looking in the windows as I go, some of the offices look occupied, most appear to be fitted out with workstations that no human has yet worked at.

Finally I arrive at Advanced Business Parks’ (ABP) failed venture to build something of lasting value, and the reason I left home this morning with my camera in my bag. Touted in 2013 as a new start for this bit of Docklands, the massive investment (tax break?) by ABP was to lead the way for Chinese and pan-Asian business investment in London, a new 24 hour business precinct giving opportunities to overseas companies to use the best British workers to service their needs in local time.

200 yards multiplied by two of empty low rise office space. The boulevard of dreams, not turned into the boulevard of reality when it all came crashing down; starting in 2018 and ending when Covid struck in 2020. At least the road leading to the locked road gates sees some use.

The site is open to pedestrians so there was no fence hopping to get in. I saw a couple of people walking along the side of the dock, but there was no one walking between the buildings other than my refection in the clean office windows. The site is obviously being secured and looked after, there were no smashed windows, no graffiti and no sign of anyone squatting.

The only life being a few forlorn trees; though most of the trees were dead.

Mandarin Street is the single main thoroughfare between the four buildings; in two rows of two blocks. One of the buildings seems to house a small local gallery; though it was closed when I was there. Most were just empty. It was weird walking around where there was even less signs of life than in City Island.

I wonder what will happen to this place and it’s big wide promenade, looking over an empty expanse of dock to an airport. Plenty of real-estate companies though.

Hungry, hot and a bit dehydrated I caught the DLR and then the Overground ending the afternoon in a bar in Shoreditch drinking a couple of beers and eating a burger with Aiden. Three hours of walking in the sun pretty much did for me so a seat, some food, cold beer and relaxing chat with my son was a pleasing way to end an interesting and not entirely uplifting day. it was nice to see there is still some street art to be found in Shoreditch.

I read the other day that London is a city containing a million smaller cities. Today I visited more than one of those smaller cities and next time I’m here they will be changed, or gone completely.

Sir John Soane’s House

Saturday 2 July 2022 – London.

As I have alluded to on a couple of occasions recently, life has been very busy. Work has been hectic for most of the past month as a work-mate was on leave; I’m not sure how he coped when I had seven months off. Alongside this I’ve been trying to get the possessions we sent back from New Zealand (things we sent to NZ in the first place) from the shipping company without paying hundreds of pounds in unnecessary tax due to being poorly advised. Thankfully, I managed to achieve an acceptable tax result and expect to see the stuff that was pick up in January delivered shortly, six months after it was collected from us in Auckland.

Last week I finally had confirmation that scaffold will be going up on the rear wall of the block my flat is in so a significant amount of maintenance can be done. As a member of the residents association for the block I started work on this project two years ago and it has been a constant thorn in my side, creating a large amount of unnecessary stress. Hopefully the four months of actual work will pass smoothly and the scaffold will be down on time, and my view to the sea will no longer be compromised by bits of steel pole. I haven’t been at the flat enough this summer.

Running alongside this Eleanor has sold her house. She has accepted an offer on her house at least, fingers crossed all goes according to plan. It was a great reward for the amount of cleaning, tidying and decluttering we have done in the past month. The housing market is hot in London and she was very happy with what the purchaser offered, and it sold immediately. Phew,  now the constant tidying can stop and I can hang my towel on the banister again.

I probably should have mentioned in a prior post; but my youngest son, Aiden, has come to the UK from New Zealand for a few months. Though since he’s been here he’s barely stayed with us; there are festivals to attend and friends to see, and to be fair, if it was me, I would  be doing the same. His timing wasn’t great with the house sale going on, though he stayed for a couple of days soon after arriving and repaired and painted a couple of walls in the conservatory which was much appreciated. Then he buggered off to do fun things and I’ve barely seen him since; till yesterday.

Eleanor is at the flat for the weekend, we spent a couple of days there together this week and I came back to London last night. I met Aiden at Eleanor’s when I got home and we went to the Bell,  the pub at the end of the road for a burger and a beer for dinner.

Today Aiden wanted to do the tourist thing and visit the Tower of London, something I was very up for as it is a favourite tourist attraction of mine, so we left home mid-morning with that intent. We took the tube to The Barbican so I could share with him the last remains of the Roman wall that surrounded the city and was built about 1800 years ago. I’m still amazed that things this old still exist; we live in such a throw-away society; built-in obsolescence is the norm now. Use it and bin it. One of the things I appreciate the most about living away from New Zealand is the sheer volume of fabulous history that you can see and touch and it is seemingly everywhere.

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I took Aiden past St Pauls Cathedral. He was amazed at the size and detail of the building, we all are, and there’s nothing like this in downtown Auckland.

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I’ve never seen this worn and damaged statue, it’s a little disturbing; like his face is melting under the pollution and vile fug atmosphere of the UK in 2022. I digress…

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We crossed the Thames on the bendy bridge and walked along the Southbank, past the new old Shakespeare’s Globe, the new old The Golden Hinde, (the ship Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world) and the new newer Borough Market. I should have seen the warning signs as we walked the Southbank, particularly when we got to Borough Market, but I was too busy telling Aiden about London and talking about the things we walked past; there are a LOT of tourists about. There are few things in life I enjoy more than walking the streets of the centre of London with someone unfamiliar with the city and showing the bits I love; and there are a lot of bits I love.

I took Aiden past the even newer Shard, waved in the general direction of where I lived not far from the Shard for most of 2013 and half of 2014, now mostly obscured by other buildings. Then back to the side of the Thames at City Hall, the ultra modern precinct next to Tower Bridge and over the river from the Tower of London. Our destination for the morning.

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Walking the cobbled way between the outer wall of the Tower and the river we (I) realised that visiting the Tower on a warm and sunny July weekend and the first summer since the pandemic ‘ended’ was a stupid idea. There were a lot of people about and when we discovered it was going to cost £32.90 each to visit we agreed a mid-week in autumn would be a better time.

I was tempted to get tickets to the Superbloom event in the dried up moat outside the walls of the tower, but that was too busy. I took a couple of photos instead. Maybe this is something Eleanor and I can do together? it looks quite spectacular.

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Aiden and I agreed that the next best thing to going to the Tower was to go and have a beer. Though it was a bit of a walk away, and on the other side of St Pauls Cathedral, almost where we had come from, I chose Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese for a drink.

We took a slightly meandering walk to the pub. I tend to avoid the busier streets, not so much because they are busy with people and cars, which they are, but because the back streets are far more interesting, especially those streets in the older parts of the City of London. There are numerous narrow roads and lanes and not quite hidden alley-ways linking even quieter lanes all over, and very few are travelled much outside of working hours. There are plenty of Wren designed churches as well. I must do a Wren photo walk one day.

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One of London’s older pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was first opened in 1538, then completely rebuilt in 1667 after the great fire that devastated London in 1666. It is a very old pub and a great spot to take a visitor, especially from New Zealand where an old building is anything over 100 years old. we sat in one of the cellar bars and got listen to a very loud American telling his friend about all the drugs you can buy in California. We only stayed for one.

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While we were having our pint Aiden got a message from some friends about a gathering in Lincoln Inn Fields, which is a five minute walk from the Cheese. Rather than take the main roads we took the alley in which the pub entrance sits and walked past the statue of Hodge the Cat. Hodge was owned (are cats ever owned?) by Dr Samuel Johnson, whose house is nearby. It’s the small things in London that are the best.

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Aiden’s friends had yet to arrive when we got to Lincoln Inn Fields so we took the opportunity to visit the free Sir John Soane’s Museum. A place I’ve thought about visiting for ages but never have, and I’m definitely going back again. Born in 1753 Sir John Soane was one of England’s premier regency architects and a wealthy man. Between 1782 and 1823 Soane bought three houses on Lincoln Inn Fields, demolishing and then rebuilding all three, he lived in one and used the other two to house his ever growing and extraordinary collections. In 1833, four years before his death, he had a private act passed in parliament turning his houses and collections over to the people of Britain, to be kept as they were at the time of his death.

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The collections are completely bonkers, vast and varied and very interesting; the highlight for me being the sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti who lived between 1303 and 1200 BC. It was incredible to see something like this, in what was once a private collection. We were free to take photos, though no flash was allowed, so a few long exposures were taken, meaning a lot of images were consigned to the bin.

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Most of the rooms are filled to the ceiling with interesting things to look at, in places the space between exhibits is quite narrow, care needs to be taken as you walk around and limited numbers are allowed in the building at any one time to minimise risk. It’s (supposedly) exactly as it was when Sir John passed away in 1837. Our bags were put into clear plastic bags that we had to carry in front us as we perused the collection; I was grateful for this as I’m a little clumsy, and I could imagine me toppling some valuable art work.

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The collection contains a number of original pieces Soane’s discovered on his travels, there is a Greek urn from around 4bc (I recall); hopefully acquired legally and morally! There are also a number of plaster casts made from original Greek and Roman sculpture. I learned that casts was a huge thing in the early to mid 1800s when we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum last week.

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I really enjoyed the museum and will hopefully be heading back there with Eleanor sometime in the not too distant future.

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Aiden and I walked back to Kings Cross Station. We stopped for a beer on the way, or intended to but the prices were mad so we left before buying anything and had a can when we got home.

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The River Lea

Sometime around late May 2022 – River Lea, London.

I actually can’t remember the date I did this walk. I know I could walk upstairs and find the hard drive with the images on it and they would tell me to the second when they were taken, but that seems like a lot of effort right now. I’m tired. It has been a madly busy almost two months since I last wrote anything and my head has not allowed me any space to put fingers to keyboard and come up with anything vaguely intelligible. More on those last couple of months in the next couple of posts, it’s all pretty good stuff.

I got a really bad head cold a couple of weeks after the Gnod gig and then Eleanor got Covid; along with her son and his partner who were still living with us at the time, though they have moved out since. I tested myself five times during that period and was negative every time, I’m not certain I believe the tests.

Eleanor was working, and I had a day off, so, as I’m enjoying taking photos again and keen to keep that roll going for as long as possible, I decided to walk the River Lea towpath to Stratford. I needed to pick up a couple of things from Marks and Spencer’s and a two hour walk sometimes beats taking the bus. I need the exercise too.

After saying that, I cheated and got the bus to Walthamstow Wetlands, a wildlife reserve that is next to where I was joining the Lea towpath. The walk along Forest Rd from home to Blackhorse Rd just depresses me, so many cars and so much pollution; best to get to the good bits feeling more upbeat than I would’ve been if I had walked.

My walk was off to a good start, I saw a (grey?) heron between the Wetlands and the towpath.

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Though the next scene wasn’t as good.

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The first kilometre or so of path, from Tottenham Hale to Walthamstow Marshes runs alongside residential streets and housing estates, with a view over the river to the raised banks of the Wetlands reservoirs.

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This section of the Lea has always been busy with houseboats but with austerity on the increase and the cost of living going up seemingly daily there are more boats than ever. Some of these riverboats have had a lot of money spent on them, others less so.

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And others; even less.

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Once past the housing estates and parks of Tottenham and Stamford Hill the walk gets a little more interesting; a little darker as the overgrowing foliage narrows the path and pushes walkers closer to the boats. The grass is longer here, uncontrolled, the weeds more feral and the brambles and thistles are close to head high.

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There are few places to stray off the path. Though there are fewer people walking here to stray, the boats seem deserted and derelict, it felt like London was turning into some post-apocalyptic dead-zone as I walked. Maybe I slipped through a portal into a quieter, darker universe. The Lea can do that to you; this is an old waterway and there have long been stories and rumours of mysterious and unusual goings-on; have you heard about the headless corpse of a bear found floating…

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Anyway, on the other side of that thin line of trees are sports fields and houses, and on weekends loads of people. Reverie over, normality returns. The cycle path has been resurfaced since I last rode along here.

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I stopped for a much needed coffee at the far edge of the old Olympic Village before heading in, going to M and S and jumping on a bus back home. It was a nice walk.

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Wanstead Park

Thursday 03 March 2022 – Wanstead Park, London.

27 April 2022 Update. This post has seen a huge surge of views in the past few days, presumably from lovely folk like yourselves looking for photos or info on Chalet Woods and the bluebells. This post was written well before bluebell season, but you can click here for bluebells.

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

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It’s been a long while since a muddy walk has featured in my life and after today’s stroll I’ve vowed to never leave it so long again. A similar vow was also made today about walking in Epping Forest, a place I frequented on an almost weekly basis a few years ago, yet had barely been to since I bought the flat in St Leonards in 2019. This became especially true when we relocated there during the lockdowns as working from home was not just the norm, but was actively encouraged. I intended to walk in Epping Forest in the month we were back in Walthamstow before we left for New Zealand, but like so many other things, I didn’t get around to it. My heart just wasn’t in it. I wonder (if I’m honest with myself, I know) that if I went to the forest, or even just for a decent walk, more regularly I would be in a much better place, and my heart would be in it (whatever ‘it’ is) again. A virtuous circle, unlike the vicious cycle I have been in.

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Wanstead Park is the most southern outcrop of Epping Forest. Looking on a map it doesn’t appear to be connected to the forest itself, though I’m fairly certain I could find a way between the two where I wouldn’t be fully exposed to the sky. A linked muddy trail under tree canopy looping between scrub and ferns and bracken and holly, and the only roads are roads that were crossed, not followed. It would be a grubby edgeland, empty cans and bottles, used tissues scattered everywhere, well used and abused by the human inhabitants that surround or pass through it. Not necessarily a path to take at night.

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A friend of mine who is now retired (I feel I’m turning into an old man as friends start to retire; however my mortgage lender tells me I’m years off joining them) has been walking some mutual friends dogs once or twice a week in Wanstead Park and earlier this week he invited me along on one of his walks, an offer I gratefully accepted. We caught the bus from Walthamstow to Wanstead, I was tempted to walk but in the end I was glad I didn’t as we walked far enough with the dogs and I’d have been even more knackered if I had taken those extra thousands of steps.

I’m not sure what breeds the dogs are or how old, they are small and whitish, extremely well behaved, and frankly, just lovely little dogs. One male and female, the female was the most adventurous. We collected the dogs and were in the forest almost immediately after leaving their home. The dogs were off the leash for the entire walk with the exception of the four road crossings; two there and two back, they knew the walk better than us. The first section of parkland we walked though was possibly Bushwood, though I’m not 100% certain of that. We walked past the rather impressive looking Belgravia Heights, which appeared suddenly when we momentarily popped out from under the trees. It would look great in the fog.

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Wanstead Park was opened to the public in 1882, two years after being acquired by the City of London Corporation, who also manage the wider Epping Forest. The land was enclosed during the reign of Henry VIII, about five hundred years ago, and was the manor ground of Wanstead House, originally a royal hunting lodge. After serious financial mismanagement the house was demolished in 1824 and parts of the grounds were sold off over the following few years. The park has a number of small man-made lakes with islands in the middle and paths round the outside. It’s a great place to walk and I’ve been here a number of times before, usually in late spring for bluebell season. I’ve never done the walk we did today, and I was surprised to find the park was much bigger than I’d previously thought.

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The Temple was originally built in the late 18 century, though numerous additions were made in subsequent years, it is believed the colonnaded middle was the original construction, and it is certainly the nicest part. The building has been fenced off ever since I’ve been visiting and I wonder if there is anything inside. The avenue created by the chestnut trees was only planted in the 1990s; it’s a lovely addition and really does draw your eyes towards the building when you enter the park from the west, as we did.

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Our walk took us along the paths that run alongside the ponds on the southern and eastern boundary of the park, we met quite a few other dog walkers on the way. This is a popular place and the dogs appreciated the opportunity to run unfettered and make a few friends on the way. After a few days of rain it was pretty wet everywhere and the River Roding that flows on the far side of the trees in the below photo was very full and very muddy. There was a lot of mud in the paths under the trees.

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Half way along the ponds we spotted The Grotto, which came as a complete surprise to me as I haven’t heard of it before. It’s original construction was completed in 1764 and it was built as a rich man’s pond side folly. Over the years that building has served a number of purposes though was destroyed in a fire in 1884 when it was being used as a boat house. The ruins have only been exposed in the last ten years, but are sadly all fenced off. They were a nice surprise.

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We stopped for a coffee at the popular tea hut in the park before walking back to where we started, eventually returning a couple of very muddy dogs to their owners. The dogs seemed to have as good a time as we humans did, at least I hope so. I suspect they slept well.

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It was a longer walk than I expected, though very enjoyable. It was so nice being out under the trees, walking in some mud and chatting with a good friend. I need to do more of this.

Challenge House

Anyone reading my blog over the past few weeks will have noted I have some antipathy to Auckland’s Central Business District, particularly the rampant, seemingly unregulated, and frankly, hideous construction that blights the city centre, and has done for years. It seemingly never ends; and I’m not talking about the work being done to build the new underground light rail system, which is something the city desperately needs. What the city doesn’t need right now is more commercial and residential blocks.

I absolutely agree with and understand that a city centre needs to move as its demographic changes. The city centre; particularly Queen St, is no longer the primary retail centre of Auckland it was in the 1960s and 70s, and it hasn’t been since suburban shopping malls arrived in New Zealand. As retail moved out to the ‘burbs during the finance boom in the 1980s the centre became further aligned with  business and new office blocks and shiny towers to mammon went up almost as fast as the older buildings came down. Buildings by the corporate raider Ron Brierley (jailed for possessing child pornography) and investment bankers such as Fay (accused of tax avoidance and insider trading) and Richwhite (only accused of tax avoidance) were erected to show how important and flush they were with other people’s money.

Admittedly the Fay Richwhite Building completed in 1992 and now known as 151 Queen St or the SAP building is one of the better constructions. I worked in a slightly less lovely office block next door in the 90s and was slightly jealous of its shininess; until someone jumped off the roof in the midst of the financial crash that followed the boom, when other people wanted their money back.

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There has long been a move to include more residential living in and around the centre, though the explosion of cheap and poorly built blocks of tiny flats for overseas students wasn’t what most people had in mind. This appears to have changed for the better with more attractive and thoughtfully designed (read more expensive) blocks, such as the one we live in, now being built. However, there appears to be a lot of inner city flats for sale (there are 1198 Auckland City apartments on realestate.co.nz today) and walking around the city I see a lot of apartments that appear to be vacant. Like cities and towns all over the world, absentee and second home owners buy property they rarely use, pushing up prices for everyone else and leaving city centres void of much needed life.

As I wander around the construction site that used to be Auckland’s heart I wonder if the work going on to build new towers for offices and flats is a final attempt by the monied class to remove the last remnants of a working class presence in the city. There seems to be a desire to finish the job started in the boom of new wealth in the 1980s to demolish the last of the small workshops, the warehouses and factories where the less privileged slaved for poor wages before schlepping back home to the suburbs. Each decade sees more of the old working city disappear and I find this monumentally sad. Blandness will eventually reign supreme.

I worked for a Brierley owned subsidiary when I arrived back in New Zealand in 1988 after a couple of years in London. Brierley bought the business, asset stripped it; flogging the good bits to another one of his companies, then making the warehouse and retail staff redundant. The building I worked in just up from the city centre, on Hobson St was demolished in 1991 and is still a small shabby car park to this day.

I walk along Wolfe Street on about 25% of my walks through and around the city because I love this derelict and half demolished building. It used to be Challenge House and was sold in the early noughties to be demolished for some new thing. However, there were issues with the consent to demolish so nothing happened and the first three floors were eventually turned into a very rough car park. The demo of the car park first finally started sometime in 2018 but stopped soon after. This is what it looked like in October of last year. It was graffitied and messy, with dangling plastic secure fencing on some levels, but no razor wire and no scaffold and no work being done.

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Almost the entire block is now being demolished to make way for a ’multi-level commercial project planned to maximise gross floor area ratios’ (whatever that means in normal people speak). Naturally the developers are backed by overseas finance  with a company registered in that bastion of financial openness, the British Virgin Islands; not that I’m suggesting they are carrying on with the property development and financial standards set by their predecessors (accusations of tax avoidance etc). A couple of the old buildings in the block will have their frontages preserved in a new found rush for facadism in Auckland, though that is as it says,  just a façade. Nothing much is preserved and even that small amount is not by choice.

The block includes the building that housed Food Alley a very popular hawker style food centre which I used to enjoy eating at when I was working in the city. it was a good place to meet friends, buy a beer and food from the multitude of, primarily Asian, food stalls. It was the closest Auckland got to Singapore style eating and that has been taken away. Maybe it was too radical for the good burghers of Auckland city.

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Weirdly, when I looked the address up on Google Maps, the shadow from one of the older towers casts a darkness over the building site; as if Google or the Gods don’t want to acknowledge the development is happening; or maybe its just the CIA have hidden something.

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When I was walking past last week I was shocked to find that the demolishers have come back, razor wire is all around the site and scaffold is now up and work has commenced on pulling this old, and frankly ugly, mess down. I took a few photos over the fence to remember the place as it will be gone when I’m back in New Zealand; possibly, I thought that last time I was here too.

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Though I’ve just called it an ugly mess, I am a little saddened by this, this graffiti covered relic of a bygone era was unloved by many but it was symbolic of the rush to knock down the old and rebuild with the new, even if the new had never been planned, financed or even agreed. ‘Pull it down’ they say, ‘once it’s gone it’s too late to protest and they will accept our cunning plan for a replacement. Bastards.

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The building on the other side of Wolfe St, number 6, was for sale in 2018, I’m not sure if anyone bought it. Built in 1912 it has been vacant for 23 years, and it still is. I wonder who owned it and whether it had been land banked until the money was right, though why it couldn’t have been repurposed for something and saved I don’t know, surely there would have been some value in restoring a heritage building? Perhaps I’m just a fantasist who longs for days past?

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Challenge House was nothing special; so much so I couldn’t find a photo on the internet of when it was built or being used as it was intended. So, given its current state it has to go.

Few of the other remaining early twentieth century buildings left in town are ‘special’ either, but that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of them. There is an excess of commercial and residential property in the city, and now its largely unaffordable, few see the city as a retail destination either. We just don’t need any more large buildings; investment should be made in preserving and re-purposing the last remnants of Auckland heritage, while there is one.

Challenge House is dead. Long live Challenge House.

10 days left

Monday 14 February 2022 – Auckland city.

Though I (we) don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, it was worth noting February 14 in 2022 for two reasons. Firstly, six months ago, on 14 August we finished our time in managed isolation and were free to roam new Zealand (for three days before the Auckland lockdown ruined any plans we had), and secondly, we were going to fly to Christchurch for a week long holiday that afternoon, but…

I cancelled that trip last week due to the rise in cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Though the daily infection rate is still very low (981 today) compared to the UK (35,000) it’s on the rise and the risk of getting ‘pinged’ and told to isolate for 10 days is rising with it. We can neither afford to have to isolate in hotel somewhere in the south island, nor do we want to miss our flight back to the UK on the 24 Feb, in 10 days. Perish the thought we actually got sick with Covid.

The primary reason for the trip south was to attend my nephew’s wedding in Dunedin where he is a student. It would have been the first time I’d have seen him, his brother and parents (his mother is my sister,) for a few years and we were really looking forward to having all the New Zealand based family together for the first time in ages. Due to Covid related risks none of the Aucklanders (mum, sister, son and other nephew and niece) are heading down to the wedding, which is a real shame. Eleanor and I were also looking forward to seeing some parts of New Zealand we haven’t seen before, Lake Tekapo for me, and hanging out with friends in Christchurch, a city I haven’t really visited since that terrible earthquake in 2011.

The days and weeks since we came back from Waiheke have been a real drag; with returning to the UK on the horizon, Eleanor working until last Thursday and the threat of Omicron growing exponentially I have really struggled with motivation and have done very little other than lie about reading a bunch of books; hoping somewhat for enough inspiration to get me out the door. It has been quite hot and extremely humid over the past week and having air-conditioning didn’t help me out of the flat’s front door.

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I’ve been missing a destination, after roaming the city off and on for weeks I’ve not only run out of steam I’ve also run of interest. It isn’t the nicest centre to walk in at the best of times (and with all the construction at the moment it isn’t the best of times). I need somewhere other than the library to visit, a café or bar for instance. The kind of bar I could find in London, or any British or European city doesn’t seem to exit in Auckland. I want a bar or café with a sofa, or a comfy corner chair to relax into; and these just didn’t seem to exist. It’s all backless bar stools at high tables, benches or criminally uncomfortable wooden or plastic chairs. These things are fine when hanging out with a group of mates (except for those bloody bar stools), however they’re hopeless to lounge in with a good book for a slow hour over coffee or a glass of pinot and I like a lounge, and I want to lounge in comfort.

Recently my friend Martha introduced me to the atrium of the De Brett Hotel House Bar and subsequently we’ve been occasionally meeting there for a mid-morning coffee. The coffee is good too. Eleanor and I went there for a glass of wine one evening after work last week and it’s exactly the sort of place I dreamt about. Quiet, decent wine and comfy chairs, it looks fab and the music isn’t as awful as pretty much everywhere else in Auckland; i.e. not 70s/80s and 90s ‘hits’. It also had the feel of a place where I could sit with a book and headphones over a drink and I wouldn’t feel like other punters were staring at me like I am some sort of bookish loaner freak.

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One of the books I read was ‘Flâneuse’ by Lauren Elkin. Eleanor was loaned a copy by a London friend before we left but didn’t get a chance to read it so got a copy out of Auckland Library, of which we are now both members. I enjoyed it more than Eleanor did, I think. 

One of the things the author mentions was the pleasure found in getting ‘lost’ wandering a city, something I still like to, and can do in London. I enjoyed the aimless, almost lost wandering in some of the places I have visited on my travels; places like Singapore, Hanoi, Paris, Barcelona and Valencia and I need to do more of this. It’s something that is seemingly impossible to do in, or near, Auckland’s city centre. Of course part of the reason for this is I’m pretty familiar with the city as I’ve lived here most of my life. Though having said that. I still like to place the blame for this squarely on the domination of the skyline by the sky tower. One of the benefits of walking under low cloud and in light rain is the absence of the sky tower.

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I know I could  get out of the centre and catch a bus out to Howick in the east or Beachaven in the north (I know the west pretty well) where I could lose myself fairly quickly, but who wants to walk in Howick or Beachaven? Not me. There is probably nothing wrong with those places, but I don’t want to walk suburban streets I want to walk in an urban centre, where there is some life and activity, some culture and some grit, and life goes on 24/7…

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I finished reading ‘Flâneuse’ as a period of bad weather arrived, the wind, rain and cloud bizarrely inspiring me to get out to try and take some photos. I managed a couple of short walks, but missed the worst of the weather, which was a shame as the rainy city was what I wanted to photograph as I’m a bit sick of the constant nice weather. Weather forecasting in New Zealand is an even more inexact science that it is in the UK.

As I was wandering around I decided to buy myself a new Canon 50mm lens, the ‘nifty fifty’, it is very cheap and probably my favourite lens. The one I bought second hand in the UK before we left isn’t as sharp as it should be and I broke the one before that. I ordered one online last week and will collect it later today. I will do some comparison shots between the two, hopefully it will prove the lens I have is too soft; it’s either that or I cannot hold a camera steady anymore which would suck massively. I will sell one when I get back to the UK, they seem to hold value there better than here. I guess having some ‘spare’ money is the only benefit of not travelling to the south island, though I still need to be careful with the cash. My sabbatical ends soon and I start work again on 7 March, (in three short weeks, where did that time go!)  but I won’t get paid until the end of the month.

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I walked around the High St area, which is pretty much my favourite small bit of Auckland.

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Then up to, along and around the back of K’ RD (Karangahape), avoiding the record shops on the way.

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As always once I am out, I enjoyed taking photos again and wish I could do more. However, I’m still suffering from a mental block, a lack of desire to do anything more than lie about reading. I found writing this post chore enough and it’s taken four days to get it to print. I had to make myself do something as I want to write and photograph more but just can’t. I’m hoping a return to the UK will boot me out of this ongoing and frankly rather tedious lethargy.

Anyway, I will close by saying it’s not all doom and gloom in my head and there is plenty I’m excited about and looking forward to.

Happy Valentine’s Day lovely xx

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