Tag Archives: Travel

Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Caribbean Islands. Everyone has a favourite. And it follows there are islands they don’t particularly care for. We had a great time on St. Lucia, one of the next 2 islands we visited. Someone I met said they hated the place. Someone else loved Grenada. Not me. Here are my reasons for loving one and not so much the other. A tale of two islands. Grenada first.

Grenada, the Spice Island. Well, it’s supposed to be. But Hurricane Irma of  last September decimated the crop and because the storm hit the United States, everyone forgot about Grenada. Not a good year for the island. And not a great tour of the island for we tourists. Not because of the problems of the poor islanders, but because of our tour guide. The worst in history. My history at least. He was, without doubt, out of his depth and quite useless. I’ll tell you why, shall I?

The day was a very hot and humid one to begin with. This must be understood or nothing I am about to tell you is going to sound as harrowing as the day ended up being. And before I get too Dickensian about it all, let me say I could write a book about our day on Grenada. I still remember in 1983 when America, plus some others, invaded the island to rid it of a perceived communist threat. Anyway, without researching, that’s how I remember it. Weird politics and machete wielding islanders makes you wonder. Still, fascinating all the same.

So, our driver picks us up in the worst minibus of those waiting at the port at St. George’s to take others from our ship hither and yon over the island. We were supposed to be on a 3 hour trip. Turned out we were the last to get back to the ship. First, let me tell you about driving through St. George’s. The streets are narrow and clogged with traffic, both vehicular and human. People stare at us as we go by….slowly by….as if we have no business being there, but please leave us your money. I guess you can’t blame them in one sense. Most of us only barely tolerate tourists in our back yards.

Finally we leave the confines of the city and begin the endless ascent into the very high hills, along winding roads, hairpin bends, houses on stilts and amazing views of the bays below. Our driver hadn’t said a word to us yet, after 30 minutes on the tour. We had to wonder what we were looking at. And the young driver delighted in shifting gears so that the minibus lurched forward with each change of gear. Then we stalled, started up again, stalled again. This happened a few times before we finally came to a halt for good, on a hill between two sharp bends. It was hot, humid and we were nowhere.

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houses in the hills on stilts.

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Going nowhere in the heat.

The driver mumbled something and got off the minibus, looking the thing over as if it might tell him what was wrong. He managed to communicate with one of our passengers that he would call for help and we should stay on the bus. Forget that in this heat. All 18 of us filed off the bus, taking our chances in the hot, humid morning air. The driver protested our leaving….health and safety and all that….but we were having none of it, being stuck in a hot tin can.

Some of us questioned the driver as to the possible reasons for the breakdown. He just shrugged his shoulders and got on his mobile (cell) phone to call for help. The rest of us tried to find shade where we could find it. Fortunately, we had parked right in front of a house with a large veranda that seemed to be empty. The front of the house was on pretty solid ground. The back was on stilts. Most of the passengers sat on the steps of the veranda, battling the ants that kept trying to greet them. Some of us wandered about exploring the area. We became a great source of amusement to all who drove by, especially the locals.

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Keeping cool on the veranda in Grenada.

Good news, the driver announced to a couple of us who stood near him, waiting for information. Help was on its way and would be here in 15 minutes, a replacement vehicle he said. An hour and a half later, a taxi with a couple of tourists inside pulled up behind the bus. A man got out carrying a jerry can full of petrol. We hadn’t broken down after all. The twit had run out of gas. He claims his petrol gauge was broken. He also told one of our fellow travellers that the reason he could not give us any information about what we were looking at was his microphone was broken. Strike 2

The chap who had the jerry can forgot to bring a spout to get the petrol into the bus. He hunted around until he found an empty plastic water bottle and proceeded to ask us if any of us had a knife. Oh yes, of course we do. They issue them to us as we leave the ship to fend off marauding communists. No, we don’t. You’d never get them by the ship’s scanner anyway. Another search for something sharp. He finds a coconut shell, smashes it in two and uses a sharp edge to cut the plastic bottle into a makeshift funnel. Enterprising but an annoying waste of time.

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Pouring the petrol everywhere.

As the petrol spilled over on to the side of the road as much as was poured into the bus, we all began gathering back around our vehicle in anticipation of finally getting on our way. As the gas cap was closed, we noticed movement from our bus. The driver was not back inside and we were all standing outside. The bus was moving backwards on its own and about to ram the taxi behind. We all yelled and our driver was quick enough to get to the brake in time. Just. He said the parking brake failed. Actually, he hadn’t put it on. Strike 3 and we still had the whole day ahead.

So we got on our way, in silence, trying to guess what sites we were viewing as we twisted our way up one hill and down the same, then around a sharp bend and up again and down until we found ourselves in one of those villages that time has forgotten. Locals walked around as if in a trance. We were here in a village with no name….our driver didn’t tell us and when asked mumbled something incoherent….to visit a nutmeg factory. It was an open barn with lizardy things crawling around the floor. The place had not had a makeover since being constructed many years before. Nothing was going on and the guide from the factory was incomprehensible. So, we learned nothing.

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The Nutmeg Factory

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A shop in Nutmeg Town.

I left the group and wandered about looking at cobwebs and sacks of what I presumed contained nutmeg at some stage of  usefulness. Put me off the spice once and for all. Nothing worse than knowing where your food comes from. Everyone was herded through the strangest gift shop before getting back on the bus. A few items on rickety shelves and postcards that had been on display since who knows when, dog-eared and wrinkled. No one was in the mood to purchase anything. The shopkeeper, a sour-faced woman, didn’t seem to care. She sat reading a magazine, never looking up. Island malaise.

And back on the road, this time to a volcanic lake. That was it. A small lake surrounded by trees. Nothing to see here really and, of course, no info coming from our driver, with or without a microphone. We drove up to a place that overlooked the lake….ought to have come here in the first place….where souvenirs were sold and gardens could be viewed. But we were behind schedule and had no time for that. Three old toothless men played island tunes badly on instruments they really had no idea how to play. But you have to make money some way I guess.

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The Volcanic lake

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The Volcanic lake from the tourist spot.

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The Touirist Spot

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What we had no time to explore.

By now the sun was sinking but the driver was determined to get us to every scheduled site. The last stop was at a lovely waterfall with beautiful gardens and the chance to swim in the lagoon beneath. Trouble is, by now it was nearly dark. At first the chap looking after the entrance booth didn’t want to let us in because it was too late. But somehow our driver convinced the him to let us enter. By the time we reached the waterfall, it was dark and the pathway wet and slippery. No time for a swim. A quick photo, with flash, and off we went, back to the bus, slipping and sliding all the way, iPhones lighting the way.

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The Volcanic Waterfall in the dark.

Friday night in St. George’s. Traffic worse than when we left that morning. People everywhere. A ballet of chaos and colour. Our bus edged along. We could see our ship now, but couldn’t get to it. When we arrived at the port….finally…. everything was shut. No one was around to let us onto the quay. We yelled. We banged things and finally a man came and let us through. The ship couldn’t leave without us, but all they knew, once we arrived at the gangway, was that we were missing. No one had told them on board where we were. Lost on Grenada.

We went as a group to the desk on the 5th deck that handled trips and we complained through a group rep. They don’t like complainers, but a mob they cannot ignore. We got a refund for the trip. Don’t misunderstand me, please. The island is lush and verdant, teeming with life and lots of mountainous terrain. Invading it would not be easy. Exploring it is not easy. Never going back is a breeze.

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

I think I’m the only Canadian (I am one when I need to be) of a certain age who up until the end of November hadn’t been to any part of the Caribbean. A pilgrimage had to be made sooner or later I guess. Add to that going on a cruise to visit the islands and you have the recipe for something I never thought would happen to me in my lifetime.

The occasion for this adventure was to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my best friend’s parents. Her sister and brother-in-law came along too. Lots of fun. And other than my best friend, all the rest are seasoned cruisers. They have travelled all the best lines and are able to compare one cruising company to another. One thing’s for sure….they’re all very big ships.

We had booked the trip back in March. Seemed to be ages away at the time, but here I am, back to my own little boat, writing about a trip that has been. 2 weeks of sun, sand,  swelling seas and shopping. I could have added eating and drinking, but they don’t start with an ‘s’. Pity. And it was hot. We left Gatwick airport at 2 degrees celsius and arrived on Barbados at 32 degrees celsius. Hot, hot, hot.

Once the wings of our plane were de-iced, we were on our way. I hardly sleep when flying, so I watched some of the onboard movies. And suddenly, there it was below us….Barbados, a jewel in the ocean. We landed safely. So far, so good. And, it was one of those go-down-the-stairs de-planing. The heat hit me like a punch from Mike Tyson, except that it felt good rather than painful. The only problem was that I was dressed for English winter and not Barbados heat….32C upon landing.

The blast of hot air that hit me as I left the plane convinced me that we were truly here. An expat Canadian doing his pilgrimage to the Caribbean. It begins with queuing  for the mini buses that would take us all to the ship, the Marella Discovery, run by a company we knew as Thomson but has changed to TUI overnight. The road to the ship was full of palm trees, bread fruit trees, flowering bushes and roadside stands selling everything from beads to bananas. Colour everywhere and the occasional lizard scurrying along the roadside.

We made our way through  Bridgetown to the ship, got off the bus at the quay and queued again in a large barn to be registered before going on board. It was a very long queue on a hot day, pulling our carry-on luggage. I had my hoodie and coat draped over my arm by now. And I was sweating like 10 twats (doesn’t mean the same in England as it does in Canada). As we head to the ship, a photographer grabbed us for a portrait of our group. We all looked like we’d sagged under the weight of winter clothing and the heat of the day. Not a pretty sight.

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My Barbados persona.

Fortunately, the ship is air-conditioned. We find our way to the cabins and wait for our main suitcases to be delivered. For the entire 2 weeks, we had Milosh and Ganna looking after the cabins. Ganna didn’t understand a word I said and I had no clue what she was trying to tell me. But every day the cabin was clean and the beds were turned down at night with 2 stale chocolates on each bed. One night the towels formed a heart-shaped swan and another a monkey hanging in front of the cabin’s mirror.

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Towels made into a scary monkey.

It didn’t matter what instructions we gave to Ganna. They were always interpreted in a fashion unrelated to the request. But her beautiful smile spoke a thousand languages, brightening my days at sea. Milosh was another story. He told us he was Serbian and had worked on the ships for 8 years. He laughed at everything I said. I must be really funny or ridiculous. I’ll believe the former. The ship’s staff were generally great people, but it always felt as though we passengers were a necessary inconvenience. Cruisers tend to be very demanding. The crew lives for breaks and shore leave.

The ship is a refurb, an old Royal Caribbean cruise ship bought by Thomson. The cabin furniture is comfortable but a bit tired and worn. The refurb money must have been spent on the restaurants and entertainment areas. The spa area looks good, as does my favourite bar in the Atrium….very impressive.

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The ship’s Atrium decked out for Christmas.

The rest of the ship offered the usual pools, one out on the 9th deck and the other inside a big glass house. It is usually a very humid area. There are the usual shuffleboard and a mini-putt, table tennis, a climbing wall, shops that sell expensive stuff, bars everywhere with a variety of beverages (as many as you like with the all-inclusive package), piano bar, a running track around the top deck and the inevitable smokers corner. Guess where I spent most of my time. Rhymes with star.

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The sea from my cabin.

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The upper deck with ubiquitous sunbeds and outdoor pool below.

My very favourite spot is at the very back of the ship (the stern for all you nautical types), called the Veranda. Very peaceful, no kids allowed and lovely wicker pods with thick cushions to relax me. The only problem is that with 1800 people on board, many of them had the same idea as I did. By the time I get to the Veranda, the pods are full. I scowl at the folk occupying them, willing them to move on. No luck there. I’ll have to remember my one time in a pod. Most relaxing moment of the whole cruise.

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Yours truly in a pod.

Time to move on to the cruise itself and the 10 islands visited. Some fascinating stuff ahead. But in the meantime, have yourselves a merry little Christmas. I leave you with some of the ship’s crew wishing us all just that….

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MERMAID MIMZ

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MERMAID MIMZ

I have always loved being by water. That’s probably why I now, after many years of being a landlubber, live on a narrowboat on the canals of Britain. And I like to go swimming when I can. Not too much chlorine please. I have snorkled off the coast of Cyprus, southern France and Majorca. The fresh water lakes in Ontario, Canada are my favourites. Years ago I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia. I have even gone swimming in the sea in England. Well, not swimming actually. I stood waist deep in the English Channel off the coast on the Isle of Wight. ‘Twas quite cold.

In my 2 years of living on a canal boat, I have never gone swimming in a canal or the marina. Not the kind of water you want to be in….on, yes. In, definitely not. You see, so many things end up in the canal that you’re never sure how toxic the water, if it is actually water, is. Some areas are worse than others. The Welsh claim that their canal, the Llangollen, is pure. You could drink out of it. But then the Welsh claim many things that just ain’t so. Unless you are Welsh, then, naturally, they are so. Still, one day when we cruise the Llangollen, I won’t be either in or drinking the water.

Then there’s always the accursed Weil’s disease, otherwise known as Leptospirosis. That’s the fancy name. Others call it mud or swamp fever. It only kills between 2-3 people a year in Britain. Rodent, cattle or pig urine in slow-moving water is the cause. If the water gets into cuts or scrapes, the lining of the nose or mouth etc., the disease may manifest anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks. The most severe cases cause a shutting down of vital organs in the body. Canals are very susceptible to producing the illness.

That’s why we try our damnedest not to fall into the canals or go for a swim in the marinas. Just not conducive to our health and well-being even if the weather is hot and the water inviting. In 2 years on the boat, I have yet to fall in. My best friend has been spared that privilege too. I nearly went in once, but that was at the end of the jetty…..our old jetty. I was trying to reclaim some solar lights I had wrapped around the wi-fi pole at the end of the jetty (dock). I had borrowed another boater’s workmate bench to reach the top. It collapsed and I was left clinging to the pole in the hope that I would not go into the water. I wrote about this elsewhere. Anyway, my inevitable plunge was delayed and I am still a fall-in virgin.

My neighbour, Mimz, was not so lucky. Not during the same episode as the pole, I hope you comprehend. It was later. The circumstances are just now being revealed and the details are finally known. This was no ordinary dive. This was one for the ages and I missed it. I was too busy trying to get to sleep on a very hot and humid night.

We have had mishaps in the marina before. In fact, at least one person died after falling in, hitting his head and wasn’t discovered until the next day. He was dead. Poor chap. A few other neighbours have also gone into the drink but were rescued. Alcohol is usually involved. But other times it can be a simple case of one step too far or a slip. You have to be aware at all times.

Mimz had knocked back a few at a party over on the dark side of the marina. They were celebrating the wedding of a couple recently married who live in the marina…on a boat. Even my best friend attended. I was in the city that night with a friend, celebrating something else. According to all reports, the proceedings were delightful. My best friend left a little early and went to bed. I came back a little while later from the city. Upon my return, I heard the distinctive voices of Eddie and Mimz at the party, laughing and carrying on.

I fell into my bed as soon as I got into the boat. As I lay there, I heard the sounds of what I thought were Eddie and Mimz coming home from the party. It seemed to take them forever to get into the boat and no one was talking. Not long after, I heard Eddie’s voice and he was being a little loud for the time of night and not long after that, more voices. By this time, my best friend had leapt from her bed and, as she passed me, yelled, “I think someone’s gone in! Get dressed.”

I did and joined the gathering throng outside our boat. There stood Eddie, Nick, Ali, my best friend and a very soggy looking Mimz. Eddie had thought I was still out, so, apparently, he had run down to Nick’s boat to get help. Nick stood there, in his underpants, hands on hips. “Think I’ll get you a cape, Nick,” says I, “You’re a superhero.” Nick and Eddie had dragged poor Mimz from the canal.

Well now….turns out Mimz had returned just before Eddie, tried to get the key to unlock their boat, slipped and went head first into the canal. Fortunately, she’s a good swimmer and doesn’t panic. But, she had imbibed, it was dark and she was under water. She ended up under their boat, found her way out but was trapped in a small space between our jetty and the boat, so she swam back under and went under her other neighbour’s boat, ‘Last Chance’ but found no space to get out there either.

What to do? Well, she came back to her own boat, hung on to the side as best she could and treaded water until Eddie came back. That was only 5 minutes later, but a lifetime in the canal. Eddie couldn’t see Mimz anywhere and called out, “Moo (his name for her), where are you?” She replies, “Down here, in the water.” Eddie looks down, incredulously, and blurts out, “What you doing in there?” “Having a swim,”she says facetiously, “What do you think I’m doing in here? I fell in!” Eddie tries to pull her out, but with soggy clothing on, he can’t do it alone….hence Nick.

By this time, Eddie is more shaken than Mimz (my name for her. Real name, Miriam). We are all contemplating what might have been. Why didn’t you yell HELP!? we all ask. “I did call out Jenny’s name (my best friend),” she offered, “But I kept it down because I didn’t want to disturb anyone at this late hour.” Typical British reserve that. Anyway, Mimz went and had a shower and I made her and Eddie a cup of tea when they got back from the shower block. Super Nick and Ali had returned to their boat by now. We sat under the stars, contemplating the universe and life. We were so very glad our Mimz was still with us.

The next day, Mimz and Eddie were off to a wedding in Dorset. When they got back a couple of days later, Mimz was all aglow. “Look,” she says, “The cuts on my feet have healed.” They had not healed over in a while. We were all stunned. And what was our first thought? Let’s bottle this stuff and become snake oil salesmen. Move over Lourdes.

 

The Pilgrimage: Part 1

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You turn 65. A pilgrimage is required. Forget retirement. These days especially. But a pilgrimage must be undertaken…while there is life in the old carcass.

Some people go to Mecca. The poor ones go to Kairouan in Tunisia. I went there, but not as a pilgrim. Christians and Jews prefer Jerusalem or somewhere in Israel. Many Christians go to Lourdes or Lindisfarne. Other pilgrims go to one or another ashrams in India, or Machu Picchu in Peru. Actually, ashrams can be found anywhere these days….Glastonbury in England or somewhere in Wales for example. Pick your own Mecca and that’s where you’ll go to find meaning, connect the dots, be inspired. Maybe just to be. One person I met says he goes on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas once a year. Another goes golfing at one of the world’s golf meccas. He has 5 under his belt so far.

For me, it was Liverpool….up the canal from where I live. A long way up, but doable. It would take about a month by boat, so my best friend and I boarded one of Richard Branson’s Virgin trains to the Mecca of the north. It isn’t the city of Liverpool so much but the music group that has had such an influence on my life. I was there at the beginning of Beatlemania. I had to go to see the birthplace of the best group of the last century. After all, I had just turned 65.

My best friend arranged the whole thing. She asked what I’d like for this momentous birthday and Liverpool and the Beatles trek was the first thing to mind. I have been a lifelong fan, ever since hearing ‘She Loves You’ on my little salmon and white transistor radio under my pillow in 1964. I was hooked. The first song I learned on the guitar was The Beatles’ ‘The Night Before’. I wrote about this in an earlier Blog about the 5th Beatle, George Martin. I was gutted when the Beatles broke up, but followed their solo careers….except Ringo until recently.

So we arrived in Liverpool at Lime Street station, walked to our hotel and got ready for part one of the pilgrimage, The Cavern Club where the Beatles played nearly 300 gigs. Problem is, the original club was closed in 1973. British Rail thought they needed a ventilation shaft for a new underground (subway) line and tore down that whole side of Mathew Street, burying the club under tons of rubble. It became a car park. And it was never used by British Rail after all that. Attempts were made to recreate the Cavern Club in the area, even across the street, but it just wasn’t the same.

In the 1980’s, following John Lennon’s untimely death in November 1980, people gathered at the old site until it was decided to dig out the rubble and recreate the original club as close as possible. They did just that, even using 15,000 of the old bricks dug from the old club to reconstruct the Cavern Club as it was when the Beatles played there. The main difference is the bar has been relocated and is much larger than the original where the likes of Cilla Black worked. The venue has live music all day from noon to midnight featuring everything from Beatles tribute bands to the latest Indie groups. But it’s still mostly Beatles. It certainly was when we visited. Even across the street from the Cavern Club, beside the Cavern Pub.

We arrived in Liverpool on a Sunday afternoon. The weather was sunny and mild. A short walk later, we arrived at our hotel in the centre of the city. We had no idea just how close we were to the famed club. We had tickets for that night to see a group who played only Beatles music. How appropriate. After wandering down to Albert Dock alongside the Mersey, getting our bearings, we headed to The Cavern Club. I felt like that little boy with his trasistor radio.

The entrance has changed since the days of the Fab4. You wind your way down the stairs and enter the holy of holies. It’s everything you imagined it would be….crowded, very hot and noisy. A warm-up trio called The Shakers played 60’s tunes, some Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, all that. They were Scousers all. Scousers you say? A term given to Liverpudlians, especially those from Merseyside, the docks area. It comes from a Scandinavian and German term (lobscouse….Norwegian) meaning a meat/fish stew eaten by sailors. It was introduced to Liverpool by Swedish and German sailors. The name was shortened and is now more a term referring to the local accent than any food.

Then the featured act came on. By this time, we had miraculously found a seat, in one of the wings off the main aisle leading to the stage and opposite a young Scouse couple. Turns out it was the young lady’s 24th birthday. We introduced ourselves and discovered that the birthday girl’s grandfather was Paul McCartney’s first cousin. She knew very little about the Beatles. Her boyfriend (30) was the real fan. He loved her grandad’s stories about growing up with a legend. The grandad hated Heather, Paul’s third wife. She told him not to smoke in his own house during a visit. He told her, “Fuck off and get out of my house!” in his strongest Scouse. Paul came back. She never did.

The grandad loved Linda. Paul and she used to babysit Paul’s cousin’s daughter (our young lady’s mum) when in Liverpool. Paul sang her ‘Blackbird’ to put her to sleep. Happier days. The stories kept coming about the Beatles visits to her grandad’s place. Apparently, Paul’s cousin wasn’t impressed. He preferred Freddy and the Dreamers and Frankie Vaughan. We were in the middle of another story about one of Paul’s visits when that famous G7sus4 chord began the Faux Beatles’ set. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. I almost cried.

These guys were the real deal. They played the songs straight, dressed in Beatles attire and grew their hair like the early Beatles had it. You understand, of course, that the suits were their manager Brian Epstein’s idea. When the Fab4 played The Cavern Club, they wore leather jackets and bluejeans. They preferred that look but deferred to Epstein’s wishes that the lads appear cleancut and wholesome. But they were fun-loving, quick-witted, cheaky Scousers and that would eventually win the day.

Even the Faux Beatles’ musical instruments were authentic reproductions of the real Beatles’, even the mics, amps and Ludwig drums. Tune after tune poured out. Their rendition of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was spell binding. They asked for requests. I kept yelling ‘She Loves You’, but I was further back and in one of the wings, so my voice was drowned out. The one song I wanted to hear. Not to be. They ended with ‘I Should Have Known Better’. An admirable substitute. I left the Cavern Club a happy pilgrim.

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Griswold Afloat

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It’s no secret. I am a nut for Christmas. My best friend isn’t, but I have a 10 year plan to convert her. And it has been 10 years, so I don’t have long. My Christmas hero is not the baby Jesus or the Christmas angels or a star. And it isn’t even Santy Claus. My Christmas hero is Clark Griswold, another fictional character…. one that I try to emulate at this time of year.

I know there may be one or two of you who don’t know to whom I refer. You’ve never watched National Lampoon’s ‘A Christmas Vacation’. I feel sorry for you. I love Clark’s panache in the Christmas decorating department, especially concerning exterior illumination. Forcing the Power Company of Chicago to go to emergency nuclear power when he turns on the outside lights makes me laugh every time I watch it. And that, of course, is around Christmastime. Never miss it. Even have it on BlueRay.

My years in Canada were the best for Christmas exterior illumination if I’m honest. Most houses there are built for it. And so, over ‘ome, I became the Clark Griswold of my street. My kids gave me that moniker. Young as they were, old dad let them watch this slightly adult film when mum was out. It became the Christmas movie of choice in a youth group I ran in a village in which I was a preacher (my old career). Every year we had a Christmas party and watched old Clark put lights all over the outside of the house. The ‘f’ word is used only once. When we came to it, we all covered our ears and lalalaed until it was said. Since leaving that profession years ago, I have used that word often. Therapeutic.

But, once again, I digress. The next town we lived in had the perfect house for a Griswold special, including two large (but not too large) trees on the front lawn. A porch with an iron railing provided space for pine boughs and lights, while bushes surrounding the porch were bedecked with coloured lights to create that postcard effect. Icicle lights dripped from the eaves and a large, lighted wreath hung over the garage. I could go on, but you get the idea. I Griswolded the place to the max.

Since moving to England, I have curtailed my Griswold activities. It’s still not British to be garrishly Griswoldy at Christmas in most cases. Many homes have no exterior lighting at all. Lots of dark, cold streets. A couple of homes on another street near our house really did Griswold proud, but they were the exception. Like Halloween, decorating outdoors for Christmas has been a slow evolution over here. My first Christmas in London 1o years ago was bleak. News programs mocked what they saw as the American overkill when it came to exterior decorating.

But the more they mocked and showed these Griswold showcases from America, the more young families who no longer had the same anti-American sentiments as their parents had began to follow the American way. More exterior lighting began appearing on homes owned by young families. The shops offered more choices….icicle lights were unknown when I first arrived. Large inflated Santas and Snowmen were popping up all over the place. The whole enterprise has grown steadily over the years I’ve lived here. Now news programs boast of the Griswoldian (my term) homes around the British Isles. Amazing.

Of course my best friend, bless her, was still of the old school and in fact was not a Christmas fan at all when I came over….not a Scrooge mind you, just against the over-commercialisation of the season. For that I can’t blame her. But making the place look festive has been a way of life for me since I was a kid. We never had it in our place much….my folks, being English and all, were old school. You know the stories, they only got an orange at Christmas and so Christmas was understated for ages. Only in later years did my parents put a few lights outside the house. But we’d drive around the neighbourhoods in which we lived and I was smitten. The colours, the Santas, Snowmen and the Nativity scenes made me wish we could be like that.

And so, when I grew up (sort of), my place was going to be festooned with festive fun stuff inside and out. I have even managed to break down my best friend….slightly. Before we left the house for the boat, there were a few more outside lights each year and little trees with lights outside our door. She likes tasteful. I like Griswold Garish. We compromise….until yesterday. But I’ll save that to the end.

The inside of the house we lived in gradually took on the look of a Christmas shop, but the ouside remained less enthralling. Moving to a boat meant we had to scale back on everything. We sold a few things, but, as I say to friends, the big winners from this move were the charity shops. Anyway, we had to give away most of our Christmas decorations, bringing only the absolute best trinkets, including a music box that plays Jingle Bells around a scene where houses are lighted. a horse and sleigh travel down a road and over a bridge with skaters that actually skate on a pond. It’s a big box.

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But I wasn’t satisfied. I was going to decorate the outside as well. I bought a large string of coloured lights and ran them along the top of the boat. Then came the small pine boughs with cones and berries. And while my best friend was away for a couple of days at a work retreat, I snuck over to the Home Depot nearby and bought more lights, putting them up before she got back. Sneaky eh? It has been my modus operandi my entire life. I was the first in the marina to illuminate the exterior. My neighbour was next. The harbour master loves it and wants a competition in the marina for the best decorated boat. Bring it on. Griswold is ready.

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B.O.A.T.

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I haven’t been boating long. Not long enough, at least, to understand all the vagaries that can beset me on the canals of Britain….or in the marina. I have a lot to learn. The old-timers who have been on narrow boats all their lives laugh at us newbies. Their derision of us knows no bounds when they get together. I overheard a conversation between a group of them not long ago. We are referred to as ‘The ones who don’t know what the hell they’re doing’.

Not entirely wrong if the truth be told. I really haven’t the foggiest. I’m learning, but I’ll never catch up to the old-timers. One old timer in our marina is half my age. He buys old hauls and refits them to his specifications. Guts them then rebuilds them. I get him to do some of our work. When the water pump went, he was the one to fix it. While he was here, I mentioned that our cupboards feel damp inside. He said we need air vents. Too bad we have to cut into the oak, but better that than damp clothes.

He said to me that I would need such and such a cutter and some sort of drill and, of course, the vents. I said to him that what he realy meant was he needs those things and, naturally, has them. He looked at me knowingly, not feeling even a tad sympathetic toward my DIY ineptitude. After all, it meant money for him. But I just know that he gets together with his DIY boat buddies and has a right laugh at my expense.

My best friend did the DIY at our old place. She knows I’m all thumbs and have no patience for the nitty grittys of life. I like to pride myself in being the big picture sort of bloke, the bigger the better. But even my best friend leaves boat work to boat experts. Boats are a tricky sort of work space and not for the faint of heart or the tricky of knee. There is only one real problem here.

Things need changing on a boat more often than in other living spaces. They wear out faster for some reason. This boat is only 5 years old and we have had to change the water pump, the shower and the central heating system. I don’t ever remember changing a water pump at any house I’ve lived in. Never gave them a thought. Turn on the taps in the house and, swoosh, water.

It seems that every week since we got the boat, we have had to put money into something or other, either voluntarily (an improvement we want make) or forced (due to breakage or malfunction). In the improvement department, we got a pram cover for the back of the boat. It covers the hatch and the back entrance to give us more room to store things and a sheltered area to take off wet gear before getting down into the boat. It’ll be great for the tough winter predicted for this year.

And all this is why narrow boaters have the very descriptive expression B.O.A.T. which stands for ‘Bring Out Another Thousand’ or ‘Bung On Another Thousand’, depending on the boater you talk to. That is the usual round sum of things when upgrading or repairing things on narrow boats….and any boat for that matter. Though you may have gone from a house to a boat, don’t think for a minute that it’s a cheaper way to live. Not so. A better way to live maybe….but a less expensive way?

If you decide you want to live this life style, you have to do it passionately and with a desire to live mobile on water. If you think engine maintenance, fuel costs, annual mooring fees (if you berth in a marina), general repairs and upkeep, constant cleaning, camp-style toilets and very small spaces, you’ll never make it. Ozymandias knows we’ve had our moments. We live on boats because it is a lifestyle, not a financial consideration….well, maybe a bit, but not totally.

Having said all that, there are plenty of narrow boats on the canals that have seen better days and some you wonder how or why they still float. Some have no engines at all. They are either towed from mooring to mooring or pulled along by roaps from the towpath. When we travelled a section of the Oxford canal with some boat buddies a while back, we ran across a couple pulling their narrow boat from the bank. Problem was, there were so many tall reeds and bullrushes along the shore that their task was extremely difficult. I wonder where they ended up?

I bought an ash can today (£15)….and some gloves that will stop my hands getting burned when I tend the fire in our Bubble (brand name) solid fuel stove (£3.95). It’s on at the moment, keeping me warm. I’ve spent nearly £200, so far, on the fuel for the Bubble. Those expenses are a drop-in-the-bucket compared to all the others. But they add up. We also just bought a new sofa that turns into a bed and are giving away (because we’re generous folk) two chairs we had that cost over £2000 for the pair. They were on the boat when we bought it, so no expense there. I won’t tell you what the sofa cost. B.O.A.T.

Old Jokes, New Tricks

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My kids groan every time I open my mouth. Mostly because I like humour and enjoy being funny, but it rarely works when I try to tell a joke. You see, I suffer from that terrible disease….I can’t remember jokes I’ve heard or read and end up repeating the same old, tired jokes over and over again….especially ones my mum handed down over the years. I have a stock of them. Anyway, I tend to like fresh humour, the kind I find in situations as they happen around me. No punch lines, just funny stories.

Another Blogger recently got in touch telling me he liked a Blog I had written. It reminded him of his time on the towpaths of Britain. I, in turn, read his latest Blog which happened to be about Montreal. It was actually about being connected with each other and was extremely well written. But it took me back to my days….mostly weekends….spent in Montreal when the lady I was seeing at the time (I won’t say how long ago….that’s funny in and of itself) was training to be an Air Canada Flight Attendant.

My first trip to Montreal was in 1955 when the ship I sailed in from England landed there. My next trip was to Expo ’67, Montreal’s contribution to World Fairs. But I digress. Nothing really funny about Montreal, but on one occasion it became the backdrop for one of the funniest stories of my life. There have been many, none funnier than moving from a house to a canal boat just as winter was coming on.

This story, though, begins many years ago when I was going somewhere with someone in a car….can’t remember who or when, doesn’t matter. We were driving by a very large cemetery when the driver asked (I know you all know this one by now), “How many people do you think are dead in there?” Well, it was a long time ago and those of us travelling with the asker were calculating a number to present. We all gave our estimates then he said, “Nope, all of them.” I never forgot that moment. Seminal really.

I have used that joke ever since with more people than I care to add up in my tired, old head and have even caught a few. I caught my kids….once. But every time one or more of them has been in the car with me and some other people, I’d pop the question every time we passed a cemetery. My kids, or kid as it most often was the case, would groan. Most often the passenger knew the punch line….but every so often….

The lady friend I was speaking about earlier had grown tired of me telling the same old jokes when we were out with friends or new people. But the tiredest of them all was my cemetery joke. She even threatened to end it between us if I told it one more time. Didn’t stop me. But I was a little more discreet when she was around.

Well, one Easter weekend when she was away, training in Montreal for her air hostess (not PC I know) job, I brought along her mum and sister from Toronto to visit and see some of the city. When I was a Christian, I tended to be Protestant, but she was Roman Catholic so we went to Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Basilica for Easter mass. Afterwards, we thought we’d have a horse and buggy tour around Mount Royal (after which Montreal is named).

Along the way, we passed Mount Royal Cemetery which is predominantly Protestant, a fact I was only too happy to point out in my Presbyterian arrogance. I thought I’d be clever and ask our French Canadian driver/guide the question after he had pointed out the very large cemetery to us in his broken English. I told the ladies I was with what I was about to do. I was threatened with every sanction imaginable that if I dared ask….well.

So, I didn’t. I just sat back, folding my arms in disgust, defeated, gutted. Here was my chance to spring my greatest joke on an unsuspecting French Canadian. And I was robbed. As I stewed in my own misery, the driver/guide looked back at us and asked, with a smile on his face, “Hey, ‘ow many you tink are dead in dere?” I was too deflated to give the correct answer. ‘Let this play out’, I thought. “I don’t know”, I said, glowering at my female entourage, “How many?” He laughed a loud French Canadian laugh and said, “All of dem.”

I was going to leave my story there. I mean, where else do you go after that? But I thought I’d leave you instead with one of the jokes my mum often repeated. She left us just last April. I think she wouldn’t mind me offering this tidbit. Mum was a great singer and is responsible, I think, for having brought musical joy into many lives over the length of her own.

A man had been seeing two women and knew he had to make up his mind which to marry. One was extremely beautiful but that was her only asset. She had no talent and was not very bright. The other woman was ugly and terribly overweight (not PC I know but this is my mum’s joke), but could sing like a nightingale. He chose the one with the beautiful voice. “After all”, he reasoned, “Outer beauty fades, but talent goes on”. The morning after the wedding, the man woke up beside his bride, took one look at her and said, “For God’s sake….sing!” Thanks for that ma.

Towpath Terrors

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I like a good, brisk walk. Embracing. Invigorating. Especially out in the country. This time of the year, autumn, is the best for walks I find. Where I used to live, going for a walk meant taking urban streets to the park. Love that park and walking in it, but getting there was boring….avoiding doggy doo on the pavements (sidewalks) and crossing streets with cars on the move everywhere. To get to the country, you have to drive or take a train.

That’s why I love living on the boat with the canals right by. Running alongside the canals is a towpath. They are, or were, an integral part of the canal system in Britain. Before engines were used in the narrow boats, Horses towed the boats along the canals from the side, the towpath. For every foot of canal in Britain, there is a towpath alongside. If I am correct, you can walk from London to Scotland along a towpath. A beautiful walk at any point….even through the major towns and cities.

I live on the Grand Union Canal. I could, if I took the notion, walk the length of it from London to Birmingham, 145 miles. I’ve cruised around 70 miles of it. I can tell you it would make a great walk. Just in my short section of the Grand Union, you can sit quietly while King Fishers fish, otters frolic, swans hiss at you, ducks laugh at you, Canada Geese honk at you, Herons look down on you and even mink play along the banks. Under the water, a variety of fish from barbels, bleak and bream to chub, carp, perch, pike and my favourite, the three-spined stickleback can be caught and released.

On my walks, I meet Chris along the way who comes to fish on his days off to get away from a world that increasingly ‘gets on my tits’ as he describes it. We philosophise and try to set the old world to rights. The man is a gem. He loves the towpath because, he says, ‘everyone is friendly and says hello’ or stops to chat. ‘You find all the good people along here’ he says. ‘No terrorists or baddies, just decent human beings.’ DSCN0477

There is only one group that terrorizes the towpaths. They don’t mean to, but they have, many of them, become a menace of late….the cyclists. Many of them go hell-bent-for-leather along the towpaths with little consideration for the walkers. They sneak up on you at a rate of knots and whiz by without a ring of a bell or an ‘Excuse Me’, expecting the walkers to psychically move aside for them. It’s unnerving. Campaigns have begun, posting signs along the way asking cyclists to slow down at least. So far it has elicited little heed.

But I unwittingly got my own back on one cyclist a while ago. I was on my way back from buying groceries and saw a boat ready to go through one of the locks near our place. We are a friendly and helpful bunch, we boaters, so I called to the chap at the helm, who looked to be alone, if he would like any help opening the lock gates. he said he would. I turned off the path toward the lock when, to my surprise, a cyclist travelling at the speed of light had decided to go around me the way I was turning. There had been no warning of his impending arrival.

Accidents have happened on towpaths between walkers and cyclists. Some of them have been quite catastrophic where human contact is concerned. My encounter had all the hallmarks of just such a disaster. But I will give this particular cyclist accolades for steering adeptness. He missed me. Unfortunately, as he turned his wheel to bypass me, he had nowhere to go but into the canal….which he did. For a brief moment I thought he might fly over the watery expanse, much like the kids ferrying ET to safety. Nope. Right in.

I shall not repeat what the chap in question said to me from his vantage point. Somehow, I was to blame for his unwanted baptism. To the rescue came an even more scathing verbiage from the boater I was about to help. He told the cyclist, in no uncertain terms, that he deserved what he got and was lucky not to have hit me. He said he’d be my witness. The cyclist pulled himself out of the water, then his bike, said nothing, left us both with a look that could kill and sloshed off down the towpath, even faster that ever. He obviously learned nothing.

The boater and I laughed until we cried, then philosophised on the need for cyclists to be more courteous, more thoughtful and perhaps to leave the towpath to the walkers as God intended, even though neither of us believe in God. Anyway, the terror continues. Just yesterday another cyclist flew by me without a word of apology. The next topic for me and Chris next time. Even the fish aren’t safe from cyclists.

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Water, Water Everywhere….

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Rough time on the boat over the past weekend. Very high winds and lots of rain. The towpath is awash, a lake even, and things were flying off other boats from the wind kept crashing into my boat. Plastic things thankfully, but noisy when hitting steel. The boat rocked all night long…..from the wind for those who have minds that go elsewhere.

I like water. Even drinking it. Not everyone does. I know a lot of people who fear being near water and especially on it. Aquaphobia is the extreme case, but many people become somewhat apprehensive when on the edge of a river, lake or ocean. Most of us get seasick if we are on the open water for any length of time. I once took the ferry from Algeciras, Spain to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta then on to Morocco. I was fine until just over half way then began feeling  a bit queasy. But I held on until driving off the ferry.

The only time I was very seasick was when I was 5 years old. We left England for Canada on the SS Scythia, its final voyage. That was in 1955. I still remember how rotten I felt. Be that as it may, my love for the water never wavered, even when I nearly drowned in Musselman’s Lake, Ontario when I was 8 years old. I remember being very calm as I floated on my back, watching the reeds and curious fish float by….until my mum ripped me out of the water to save me. That was far more traumatic, though I am very grateful.

Once-upon-a-time (ought to have started the Blog this way), I was a preacher. I ended up giving up God for Lent. My bad some might say. Hasn’t hurt me at all. But while I was still a preacher, a friend of mine signed me up for a session with her psychic/medium. Now, if you know anything about Christians, you know their Bible says they must never go near these devilish people. I was at a point in my life when everything was open to question and up for grabs. The lady psychic knew nothing about me but told me I needed to be near water. Best advice I’ve ever had.

So, here I am, 64 years later, not only near the water but on it. Surrounded by it. And it falls on me too….or at least on the roof of the boat, another calming occasion. But the enemy of any boater is water. It’s fine outside the boat, but when it comes in, water becomes unwanted. Things start to go wrong as the boat ages. Constant diligence is needed. A friend’s boat had a hole caused by rust eating through the pipe that fills his water tank. When he went to fill his tank recently, the water overflowed into his bilge hold and began sinking his boat. We have 150 gallons of water in our tank. That’s a lot of water in the bilge if our tank springs a leak. I check the bilge every day.

You have to make sure every few years that the bottom of your boat has been ‘blacked’ (bitumen or epoxy resin) so the hull won’t rust and create holes. Other people have been in locks and forgotten to open the ground paddles before the gate paddles to let water into the lock and water has poured over their bow and into the boat. That’s a fun clean-up let me tell you. And, no, I haven’t done that yet. The good news is the canals are usually only 3 to 5 feet deep, so there’s no sinking of Titanic proportions. Just messy ones. And water in the engine room is verboten. Have to check it every day. Must keep it dry.

Our water pump broke the other day. No water came in. We have an expert in the marina who took care of things. It just meant we had no water for a few days. Water in the boat is OK as long as it stays in the pipes and comes out of the taps and the shower head and flushes the toilet. The water in the boat that bothers my best friend the most is condensation. She is on a 24 hour vigilant campaign to rid the boat of moisture on the walls and windows. No moss or mould shall grow in this boat while she is on guard. We are covered.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a very long poem a long time ago, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. One of the lines is, ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’ The saying is very true on the canals of Britain. Love being on the cut all you like but, never let any of it in your mouth. I don’t plan on falling in, but if I do, I’ll keep my mouth firmly shut. I doubt I’d see anything if I went under. It certainly would not be a peaceful experience. I’m just happy at this stage of my life to be surrounded by water, everywhere I look.

 

 

 

A Fishy Tale

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I don’t like fish. There….I said it. I would never choose it on a menu. Any kind of fish. Oh, wait. I do like prawn (shrimp) cocktails. And a lady I know makes a fantastic fish pie that I like. I eat salmon and tuna and I’ll take lobster any day. But I hate fish….at least the fishy smell and the fishy taste. I think it goes back to my younger days when my mum gave my brother and I cod liver oil….straight. And if I wanted a day off school, all I had to do was think of haddock and butter and I threw up. Weird kid. Weirder adult. Any fish I do eat has to be smothered in some kind of sauce. But even then, I only eat fish that is mild. Did I mention I love cod and chips? Strange.

So, it may surprise you to hear that I spent 2 hours in Billingsgate Fish Market in London with my good friend Tony one night about a week ago. It was an all-nighter, the first I’d had since university when burning the midnight oil in order to complete assignments. Like many of you, if it weren’t for the last-minute, I’d never get anything done. Tony goes on a salmon run every so often to deliver packaged, Scottish smoked salmon to posh hotels, high-class restaurants, Jewish delis, a football stadium, under The Shard and Billings Gate, much of central London. He invited me along to see the great city at night when the streets are relatively clear and hotel kitchens are available for inspection.

I was not impressed. I won’t mention any names, but think fancy and expensive and you can guess the rest. One in particular was such a disorganised and filthy mess that I vowed never to eat there if I ever stayed. Yeah…right. I looked at what it cost for a room for one night. That ain’t gonna happen. There were a number of night clubs nearby. The queues were ridiculous and the dresses short….very short. Tony and I decided we dare not linger for fear of going blind. The bouncers looked typically bored. It’s another world to me. I remember going to Discos in the early 1970s but they had nothing on these. Anyway, I’m usually in bed before 10pm, so this was like seeing a movie unfold before me.

I helped Tony carry the boxes of salmon to their destination. Some were quite heavy and as we walked down a set of outside steps to the basements where the kitchens are located. I could barely get through some of the narrow passageways to get to doors where we had to buzz for night service. I don’t think we saw an English person working in the bowls of the hotels so late at night. Only a few intrepid souls were encountered. The rest of the night crawlers were either clubbing or trawling the back streets. One hotel had a labyrinth of corridors and staircases leading to the kitchen. Tony said he had to leave a trail of bread crumbs on his first visit to find his way back to the outside world. The good news is that the kitchen in this place was very clean and well organised and it was one of the cheaper hotels….not cheap, but slightly less expensive than the others we visited.

Then came Billingsgate Fish Market, the largest inland fish market in Britain….and Britain has a lot of fish markets. The market has been around since 1327 when it sold all and sundry as well as fish. Then in the 17th century, the market sold fish exclusively and has had various spellings of the present name since that time. From 1876, the market was in a large stone wharf on the Thames. It’s still there today as a hospitality and events venue, crowned  on top at one end with a large iron fish on a weather vane. The move to its present location on the Isle of Dogs near Canary Wharf wasn’t until 1982. It boasts some 140-150 varieties of fish and shellfish from everywhere in the world with around 40 vendors selling to all the major Supermarkets and anyone that sells fish in large amounts. Trading begins at 4am and goes until 8:30 am.

We got there with our load of salmon around 12:30 am. The place was hopping already with vendors setting up their displays for the 4am opening. It was all we could do to stay out of the way. Old trolleys, still in use from eons ago, moved crates of fish….now mostly in polystyrene (styrofoam) boxes containing ice….to the vendors’ stalls. Tony and I walked the aisles looking at all manner of fish….blue ones, orange, multi-coloured, flat, fat, bug-eyed and pin-eyed and sword fish. Eels, clams and oysters, boxes of caviar, lobsters of every size and even a few small sharks rounded off the show…. staring up at us as much as us staring down at them. It was all a bit eerie.

And smelly. The odours in the big vending hall were strong. Very pungent. Good thing they have a cafe on the premises. The menu is large, serving breakfasts of every type given the times the market was open. We had a coffee and a pastry. The walls of the cafe were adorned with photos of vendors and porters (no longer there since 2012) from way back. I know a guy who was a porter here but couldn’t see his photo. All very interesting. sad about the porters though. That was a rather nasty time and a break with a long Billingsgate tradition. For years all you heard was English….a very ripe English at that. Now every tongue is heard and babel ensues.

We left there just before 3am and continued on until the sun came up. Our last call was near Wembley Stadium. Tony dropped me off at my marina around 11:30 in the morning. He still had a few deliveries to make on his way back to his narrow boat at Cropredy. It took me all day to get the fish smell out of my nostrils. But it was a great night. A long night, but never dull when you’re with Tony. Don’t think I’ll be doing that again. That was enough fish for a long time. I’ll never look at a fish in the eyes the same way after that night. Especially the way they look back at me.