And so, the Odyssey starts…
Tuesday 30th August 2005
Flight with JAL via Narita (Tokyo) was every bit as good I had been led to believe it would be. While the plane to Narita was one of their “older” ones, the seat was very comfortable and service, meals – and the accompanying wine – really very good. Overnight at Narita was in what I assume was a JAL-owned hotel – and although spotlessly clean – decidedly “well-used”. Having said that, the included dinner (own choice of a quite comprehensive Western menu) and buffet “full” breakfast were more than adequate.
Wednesday 31st August 2005
Flight from Narita to Heathrow was on one of JAL’s newer planes with the so-called “shell” flat-bed seat. Although it did not recline to be parallel with the floor – so to speak – being at a slight angle, it was truly flat, and I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on a flight to the UK. Another plus was that after the service of the first meal – which could only be described, by airline standards, as delicious – subsequent meals/snacks or whatever, were on demand as and when you wanted them. Very civilised!
Transfer at Heathrow from JAL flight to BMI flight to Manchester went without a hitch – though it did require a considerable walk – which did me no harm at all after the twelve-hour “hop” from Narita. My big (and I mean “big”) suitcase had been booked through to Manchester and, to my surprise, was waiting for me on my arrival there. Roger and Denise Mottram – friends to both Pat and me for “yonks” (an expression – even if not known to you – will probably compute) were there to meet me and give me the sort of welcome that is the preserve of long-standing and dear friends. Although I doubt they’d admit to it, I understand that they had bought a new bed and newly carpeted my “base camp” room for my stay. What more need I say?
Denise had prepared a full-scale dinner – with the amount of meat (roast glazed ham, in this case) for which I’m reputed to be partial – with, as Carolyn will be pleased to learn, the requisite accompaniment of vegetables, like leeks, carrots in white sauce and baby peas. I faded somewhat after dinner and, if not accompanied to my bed, certainly collapsed into it.
Perhaps it was the dreaded “jet-lag”, but I have to admit that the next couple of days were something of a blur. I know we went into Manchester proper, where I was able to unlock my Australian mobile phone SIM card, acquire a UK one (which meant that I could keep the mobile I knew and was comfortable with) and get “communicable-with” – if there’s such a word/phrase!
Monday 5th September 2005
On the following Monday, I flew to Paris and, after a misread or misinterpreted sign which would have had me trying to catch a plane to Cyprus or some such, caught the TGV to Tours to join the “Loire Valley” tour.
As a result of a late cancellation because of family illness, the tour group comprised four only – two sisters from California, a Canadian author and me – the solitary male. The accommodation was in a most attractive small chateau hotel, “Chateau des Tertres” in the village of Onzain – about 50km NW of Tours.
The visits by minibus to châteaux in the region – usually two each day – was supplemented/complemented by some more overtly mouth-watering delights as a couple of wine tastings (one with a range of goat cheeses, the other with a degustation menu), a cooking class and three gourmet meals at local restaurants. Lest any of you become too hopeful, the cooking class was more in the nature of a demonstration and, although I have the necessary recipes, I’m less sure I’ll be able to reproduce the roast salmon dish let alone the apple tart – for which the instructing chef has won national awards.
The choice of the chateaux visited was excellent in as much as it showed their architectural development over time and the varying purposes for which they were built. My favourites were Amboise, Chenonceau, Chambord and Villandry.
Our guide, Kristy – an American married to a French competitive yachtsman – was excellent too, being knowledgeable, enthusiastic about what she was doing and, not least, sensitive to the needs of the group. A wonderful experience all round and every bit as good as I’d hoped.
Monday 11th September 2005
Back to Manchester on Sunday last – again by TGV and Air France – to get ready for the start of the 3 or 4 weeks “roots exploration” stint at the National Archives at Kew. Not that it will all be “work”, as I plan to do the occasional side trip – one of which, if I can get a booking, will be to a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15th October. Greenwich and Hampton Court are two other places yet to be visited and I understand are relatively easily accessible from Kew.
Thursday 15th September 2005
Transfer to Kew by plane and tube went without a hitch – though I must admit to being grateful that the heavy rain that had been falling all day cleared for the ten-minute “suitcase-dragging” trudge to my B&B. Not that I didn’t need the exercise after the fleshpots of both France and Manchester, but it would have been worse without those little wheels! The walk now takes something less than five minutes – and that’s not just because I’m unencumbered, so to speak.
The B&B could best be described as “basic”. The bedroom and its “en suite” are in the loft and, gasp, up two flights of narrow stairs. Oh, that big suitcase!! The bedroom is large and does have, as promised, a bed, chest of drawers, desk and low-boy type hanging space. The fact that none of them matches probably qualifies the collection as “shabby chic” – a style reinforced by the aubergine (once) carpet and the dusky rose-red bathroom fittings. However, with quite large windows overlooking the back gardens, it’s all bright and airy, and the bed is very comfortable. And the hosts are welcoming, helpful and friendly.
So, the Kew Hilton it’s not, but will do very well as a place to rest my weary head – and, of course, the attached torso.
I spent the first couple of days just orienting myself at the National Archives – finding out how it works, and where and how to find what I’m looking for. It’s a very big place (boasting some 167 kilometres of shelving) but is very-well equipped with lots of desk space, workstations, microfiche readers, copiers, printers and the like, as well as a quite large internet café (free) and a bright and spacious restaurant/coffee shop.
There aren’t any cooking facilities in the “loft”, so rather than impose on the host family’s privacy, I have my main meal at midday at the National Archives and just have a salad or sandwich snack in the evening with the obligatory glass or two of wine – to help the digestion, you know!
Much as I had expected, the difficulty at the Archives is not so much identifying precisely what information you want as to how to get at it. After two or three days there, I can only agree with the comment of one of the archivists that “a library is arranged for the convenience of its users, an archive isn’t!” Having said that, the Archives staff are not only willing to help – and there is no shortage of LOLs and LOM (not me, of course) who need it – but in, what seems to me, a genuinely friendly way.
Sunday 18th September 2005
The Archives are closed on Sundays, so I took the opportunity on the first Sunday to “tube it” into Kensington (where one of Trailfinders offices is located) to book my flights to Boston for my Christmas visit to – or as I understand is the vernacular there, visit with – Michael and Cynthia. Then to Kensington Gardens, where I sat for nearly an hour watching radio-controlled model yacht racing – a pastime that the contestants obviously take very seriously.
Then on to the famous – if only for the controversy it has generated – Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain. I’m not sure what all the fuss was about but, as a result, it’s now fenced-in – with about the same off-putting effect as fencing in Stonehenge. It’s pleasant enough, but to suggest that the two “streams” reflect the two sides to Diana was a little beyond my reach! I did, however, find it interesting that most of the people who were circumnavigating (?) – and photographing – it were non-English speaking.
Off then to Tate Britain at Millbank – a walk past Harrods (and, no, I didn’t go in to check on either the range or the housekeeping). Oh, what a feast for the eyes – the Gallery collection, that is, not Harrods. I really must go back there before I leave London and am not as wearied by my miscalculatedly long walk there. And there’s Tate Modern and the Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery and the British Museum, for starters, still to go. As I then had to walk back to Victoria Station for my return trip to Kew, guess who slept well that night.
Family research, mainly to do with my grandfather at this stage, is proceeding unhurriedly but quite well. I have been able to track down a Death notice and an Obituary (all 3½ lines of it) in “The Times” archives, which gave me the start or, more accurately, the end I needed to construct a quite reasonable record of his service with the Admiralty. After his early career as an Engineer in the Royal Navy, he transferred to the Controller’s Department of the Admiralty as a civil servant (a Draughtsman 3rd Class, no less). There has to be a story there somewhere.
In any event, at the end of his 35 years, he held the appointment of Assistant Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy, and a C.B. (Companion of the Order of the Bath, to the uninitiated) for his trouble.
Now to what I suspect will be the harder part – to track down the descendants of some my father’s siblings.
Wednesday 21st September 2005
As part of my quite frequent R&R breaks, I “tubed it” to Richmond – all of 3 minutes from Kew Gardens Station less than 5 minutes up the road – to suss out where I have to go to catch the boat up – or is it down – the river Thames to Hampton Court. Having done that, the attraction of climbing Richmond Hill proved irresistible –silly me! Having reached the top – only breathless in one lung – I would have taken a photograph of the view over the Thames as far as Windsor had I remembered to bring the camera. I’ve subsequently rationalised that early sign of Alzheimer’s away by convincing myself that, as a result of the overcast day and smog, they wouldn’t have been the sort of photographs I would want to take anyway!
Friday 23rd September 2005
With a favourable weather forecast for today (sunny breaks and 22°) and rain forecast for the weekend, I opted for a day-trip to Hampton Court. So, a tube ride to Richmond, then a “faux” Paddle Steamer to Kingston and another to Hampton Court.
And, you’ve guessed it – by the time I had bought a ticket for the Palace and the gardens, the skies just opened up!! Being ill-equipped for this, I had little option but to buy an over-priced rain-jacket to get me from the gate to the palace itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, the high cost is probably explained by the fact that it is appropriately, but almost discreetly, monogrammed “Hampton Court Palace”!
I am going to have to go back there – probably when a rainy day is forecast – to view the gardens which, from the rain-spattered windows, looked expansive and magnificent. Be that as it may, the interiors alone were worth the price of the admission and the various guided tours led by period-costumed “historians” (for which read actors) just enhanced the experience. Particular favourites were the “Great Hall”, the “Great Watching Chamber” and the “Chapel Royal” in Henry VIII’s State apartments, but if the truth be known I enjoyed it all – with the possible exception of the Tudor Kitchens.
Needless to say, by the time I had to leave some four hours later to catch the launch back to Richmond, the sun had come out again, and the trip home – one of two passengers to Kingston, and on my own to Richmond – was just delightful.
Guess I better get back into research mode tomorrow – and then, of course, the sun will really shine. But who knows?