Back in November, I walked out of my job. The plan was to take some time off over Christmas and then focus on New Year, new me. It turns out that the job market isn’t what I though it was, or maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was, and so here were are ticking towards March and still no job on the horizon.
I have spent my time talking to pretty much every recruitment agency in town and talking to anyone and everyone in my network to try and get my name and availability out on the street, but all to no avail.
It hurts. Feeling as if no-one wants you and that you are not adding value when all you want to do is your job that you happen to think you are pretty good at, but you have to keep your chin up and keep searching and believing that something is out there.
I have been trying to do all of the things that I dreamed of while sitting at my desk in employment but couldn’t due to lack of time. I have been running, looking after myself a little better and, now that it is a little warmer, I have been out again with my camera.
I am hoping that the rebirth of spring is a good metaphor for me, that the shoots of new life are starting to burst through and flower and that a job is just around the corner. I thought that 2019 would be my year, there is time yet!
This was our last full day in Vegas and we had decided to hire a car and head on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. We had gone all in on the American experience and booked a bright red convertible Mustang. We spent an age waiting for the paperwork to be sorted in the office before walking up to the garage to pick up our car. It was parked next to a classic mustang and looked amazing. J started off the drive and, as we had been told that mobile signal was a bit patchy out in the wild, we hired a sat nav to make sure we got there ok.
Before we got out of the car park we decided that we would have the top down but flashing lights on the dashboard meant that we couldn’t get things moving. I hopped out and had a look and there was a plastic coke bottle trapped in the mechanism. Once this was out of the way, the roof collapsed, the dashboard lights went off and we were ready to go. I went to the ‘recent places’ on the sat nav menu and picked ‘Grand Canyon’ and off we went. Just the open road and a four hour trip ahead of us. As we drove out of Vegas on the slip road circling up to the freeway above, I looked down and saw dozens of people living in the water pipes in the middle of the roundabout. Another example of the absolute misery living inside the magic of Vegas but swept away out of view. It was all a bit sad.
I nodded off after about an hour and woke up about an hour later as our car pulled up at the side of the road. We had stopped to put the roof up as it was freezing cold and noisy. Why are convertibles even a thing? It is always exactly the same; great for half an hour then the reality of cold, noisy trips with flies in your hair hits home. As I woke up, another reality hit me. The sat nav was suggesting that we drive another mile down the road, do a U-turn and then head back exactly where we had just come from.
No matter how many times I reset the sat nav, it always suggested that we needed to turn around. I felt sick. I offered to drive the next stage and drove like an idiot back to Vegas, right through Vegas and out the other side for another 2 hours in that direction. Before we got too far, we stopped for petrol and half a ton of chocolate and confectionary. I went to fill up the car and a guy at the next pump shouted over, ‘Hey, the green pump is the diesel over here’. No kidding, I was about thirty centimetres away from filling a hired American sports car with the wrong fuel in the middle of a desert. I loved that guy and when I went inside to pay for the fuel and take a comfort break, I told him so just as he was in mid comfort break which just seemed to terrify him a little bit.
We drove over the Hoover Dam but didn’t get to see it. The 400 car traffic jam on the road that we should have taken suggested we had dodged a bullet there. We crossed over into Arizona and changed time zones which just further added to the confusion in my mind about the day. That wrong-way Tom Tom made me feel like even satellites were out to get me. We drove through miles of dusty nothing broken up by the odd rickety farm or motor home surrounded by scrap and broken walls or toys. We eventually turned off the motorway and drove another 40 minutes to the Grand Canyon National Park Centre. There were all sorts of options for helicopter or plane tours but that all seemed a bit too much and far too exciting.
We paid our money over and were directed to a bus that would take us around the park. The first stop was Hualapai Ranch, a Wild West themed cafe and horse stop where you could do a horse trip into the canyon. My allergy to horses was so bad/silly that we skipped that stop altogether and made for the second stop which was the glass walkway at Eagle Point. After a brief walk through the visitor centre which outlined the struggles that the First Nations had faced being kicked off their land and then oppressed for generations, you had to hand over pretty much everything that you owned into a locker. Phones, coins, anything electrical….it was easier to just put everything in there to not get shouted at by the menacing security team.
Once all of your possessions are handed over, you get to step out onto the glass horseshoe floating above the canyon. This is your first real view of the Canyon and it is only when you get out onto the walkway that you get a feel for the scale. A helicopter flying through the canyon looks like a dot and allows you to work out the enormity of what are you looking at. As you get onto the walkway, without your camera, you see that the Native Americans are getting their own back after their years of oppression. They have been handed cameras and no training and then take 10-15 pictures of couples in various positions, arms out like an eagle, pretending to push your friend off the side, funny falls pictures, you get the idea, and then you get back inside and they charge you $100 to get them printed. The price in no way reflects the quality of the photography as they were so over exposed you couldn’t make out THE most amazing view I had ever seen and it looked like the couples were standing in front of a white screen.
There was a t-shirt in the shop that showed the scale of the canyon; it was three times the height of the Eiffel Tower. It was simply stunning and I couldn’t take it all in reasonably. It was too beautiful, too much to take in. It was called Eagle Point as the rocks in the middle of the canyon looked like an eagle flying down. I can only imagine how amazing this must have been to the First Nations looking at this for the first time; how inspiring it must have been, and I could understand the inspiration for their legends in such a magical place. Can you imagine being the first pioneer on the back of a horse exploring the area, coming across this view and telling everyone else to turn back as there was nothing here to see. Give me a few years and I will have a visitor centre knocked up and will be charging $75 to get in there….Ker-ching!
We hopped onto the bus for the short ride to the third and final spot called Guano Point. I was stunned to hear that someone had had a similar idea to me about money making in this amazing place, just a bit more dangerous and stupid. Upon seeing THE most stunning vista on the planet they decided to climb down it and take a look at the cave and found it was filled to the brim with thousands of years worth of bat shit, Guano. Ignoring the opportunity of the visitor centre and photo opportunities, this guy nailed it. Let’s mine out all of that bat shit and sell it as fertiliser. This wasn’t in the time of cowboys and the Wild West, this was 1957. At today’s prices, they invested $31m in mining this, literally, 100,000 tons of shit that was calculated to be in the cave. It turned out that there was only 1,000 and so at $900 per ton they lost a huge amount of money.
What a testament to human stupidity that someone could lose money in this most amazing part of the world. We were there at about 5pm and every time you turned your head to look at the view the light had changed as the sun dropped and no matter how many times you looked at each place, it became more beautiful. Words cannot begin to do justice to how glorious this place is. You have to see this place at some point in your life, it really is that good. There were a lot of people there that seemed so inspired by the magic of the place they decided to see if they could fly. That was the only reason I can think of that people were standing so close to the edge of the hundreds of metres deep crater on the Earth. Tools.
It was getting dark and very, very cold and so we made our way back to the car to head home. It was by now properly dark and we got a hell of a shock when we opened the car door to find that the wing mirrors cast a horse shaped light on the floor, a very cool feature! It must have been a 250 mile trip but it was maybe 175 miles as the crow flies from Vegas to the park. It seemed impossible to believe as there was nothing else it could be, but you could see the glow of Vegas pretty much from the car park onwards. We watched the glow on the horizon all the way home and we were right, that was all it could have been. It summed up Vegas, a colossal waste of resource in a huge party of vanity and self-obsessed hedonism.
We dropped off the car and walked back to the hotel for a quick shower and dress for dinner. We had a buffet at the Stratosphere and it was like the third circle of hell. The food was OK but it was just too much. You could have all four corners of the culinary planet on your plate at the same time and no one could judge you. Again, Vegas in a meal, excessive, classless, do it because you can, not because its right. I felt sick but only after my fifth plate and two bowls of ice cream. I needed to pack but could no longer walk without feeling sick, so I retired and lay like the fat pig I was. There could be no bigger contrast to the magical day that I had had than the state of me right now!
After a week off work entertaining my friend from the South, I can now sit back, relax and reflect on how it went. I don’t means in terms of my hospitality or ability to entertain for three nights of course, I mean in terms of how I think the North faired on its judgement from the man in the South.
Day one and I met him at the train station and we got the Metro to ‘The Coast’ as it is named on the Nexus maps (Nexus being the operator of the Metro system). This caused a little bit of humour on the visitor’s behalf, the idea that there is only one coast that earned the definitive article title.
We dumped the bags and walked the dog through a local park and along the sea front. The weather wasn’t the best, but it was shorts and hoodie weather for me. The Southern guest was cold and complained that it was colder that it was on Christmas Day in the South. Bless him. His complaints were, I think, offset a little by the warmth of the fellow dog walkers that we chatted to and exchanged pleasantries with that warmed his heart a little, if not his hands. He was certainly warmed by his first ever sighting of a previously unknown dog breed to him, the Bedlington terrier.
The dog walked, we set off with my kids for dinner or ‘tea’ as we call it! We headed to Turknaz for a kebab. Before all of the Northerners panic and think I’m mad and the Southerners tut and think I’m scummy, this wasn’t a 2am-post-ten-pints kebab, this was a posh kebab. So posh in fact that they won the best regional kebab award 2018.
We had a lovely meal and he got to know my kids who he was meeting for the first time. We left full of kebab, hummus and falafel as well as the sickly sweet Baklava and ice cream.
Day two and we headed to the Northumberland coast. We followed the coastal route from Blyth up to Bamburgh which, ordinarily, would give us amazing views. However, on this day, the one where I wanted to show off my patch more than any other day, my luck ran out. There was a fret that sat on the sea all day and capped visibility to no more than 500 metres. However, it turns out that fret is a Northern term that meant nothing to him so let me translate, it is a sea mist that is very localised to about 1 km inland at most. We stopped at Amble for a break and wandered around the little gift shops that line the walk down to the harbour.
There is the usual tat, cheese, sweets and inspirational messages written on driftwood, but the main take away from the man from the South was the fact that so many people were wearing shorts and/or T-shirts. I tried to explain that it wasn’t that cold and that people in the North tend to dress for the season, not for the weather it actually is. He wasn’t having it so, walking past the pensioners enjoying their coffee outside, we went for a coffee indoors.
We dropped into Spurreli’s Boutique Ice Cream shop and it was rather lovely. It was confirmed that the prices were more on the Southern end of the scale than North but, as I found out since, it was voted one of the best ice cream parlours in the country so I guess that explains it. We jumped back in the car and headed back North up the coast. The mist was so intense that we really didn’t see too much but the castles that suddenly jumped out of the mist were, as always very impressive. We ploughed on all the way up to Bamburgh then headed inland to Alnwick to see if we could avoid the sea mist. We had fish and chips that were lovely in the town centre and, once again, had terrific chats with the staff. What the North East let me down with in terms of weather, the people were certainly making up for it.
As full as a gun we headed to Barter Books www.barterbooks.co.uk. It is a second hand book shop in the old train station and is a Mecca for book readers that swarm from miles around. Personally I find it expensive and over fussy, but the people who love it absolutely love it as the bun fight in the car park seemed to back up. With the sun peeping through the clouds, it looked as if the fog might be lifting slightly and so we confidently set off again to the coast. As we headed back down south on the A1068 Coastal Route the sun was shining on the delightful coloured houses at Alnmouth.
We turned and headed for the sun and had a quick wander along the beach amongst the dunes and golden sands where the sun made a brief but most welcome appearance. Feeling the cold again, we had to have an emergency warming coffee for the Southerner and were made to feel most welcome at The Village tearooms.
It was getting later in the day and we were worn out but it was a lovely village that I had never really explored before, I have marked this down as one to head back to at some point soon, as there seemed to be some lovely independent shops and full of foodie heaven shops. As we headed back home, I though it might be nice to show off a part of the North East that I love, North Shields fish quay. We parked up in the harbour car park and took in the sights of the highlights and low lights, walked through the old walls and then watched a fishing boat dock in the fish quay as the huge car transporter, filled with Nissans, passed us on the way out to sea. The fishermen on the boat, there were two of them, unloaded their catch without once touching the cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Their constant endeavour looked like back breaking work, add to that the dangers that these guys faced at sea and it really did look like a hard way to make a living. We talked to some people that worked for a charity that rescued seagulls and took them into their care. They were there to collect the scraps of fish from the fisherman to use as food. They told us that the mist we had suffered from all day was in fact a Haar. This is a very localised term, used on the east coast of Britain, to describe a mist that forms between April and September when warm moist air moves over the North Sea and condenses as it cools and is blown back inland.
The weird thing was that, after we wandered through the fish quay, we bumped into a lady who asked us questions about fishing boats as if we had a single idea what any of the kit or hardware was. We exchanged stories and the little information that we did know and probably chatted for about 15 minutes. She told us all about how the mist was called a Haar. Having never heard the phrase in my life, I heard it from two different and unconnected people in the space of 20 minutes.
We decided to have a quick drink down on the quayside, an area that I had never been to for drinks, only fish and chip takeaways. We stopped at the Salty Sea Dog pub, it was very trendy and hipster. The focus was on gins (isn’t it everywhere right now?) and real ales and had a Shoreditch hipster feel. I half expected a penny farthing parking bay outside to be honest. They did tapas snacks such as Chorizo and scotch eggs and the clientele was mainly smart young females. It was the last thing I was expecting for the building opposite the fish landing site. I was very pleasantly surprised. It had been a long day, full of travel and fresh air and I slept like a log. On the Thursday, myself and my visitor both had other appointments and so we went our own ways and didn’t catch up until the afternoon. We took a trip along the coast and enjoyed a coffee in Cullercoats at Beaches and Cream.
I have always had nothing but good service and food there and so when I looked to get the above link I was surprised to see more than a handful of quite negative reviews. We were served happily and, yet again, ended up having long conversations with two members of staff and the couple at the table next to us. It would have been perfect, sitting outside watching the traffic and people pass by, if only there had been blue skies and the sea view. The Haar, which was still persisting into day three, spoiled the sea view. I explained that there was a cafe called ‘The View‘ overlooking King Edwards bay that would have been lovely any other day. The fact that there would be no view and that the service and food don’t have the best reputation meant we stuck with Beaches and Cream.
My man from the south was very impressed at the aspirational name of The View as we hadn’t seen more than 200 meters out to sea all week! In fact, he was asking in the local shops if we could get postcards of local landmarks that were a bit more honest and showed the Haar and mist rather than the clear blue skies. Unperturbed, we walked along to the headland between Tynemouth and Cullercoats and, low and behold, the sun burnt through for a half hour and we could just about make out The Grand Hotel and The Priory at Tynemouth and enough sea to appreciate its power and rolling splendour. It is such a shame that the weather gods didn’t smile on us, but we got a feel for what we could have won at least. We watched a young man of around 25 years of age leave his partner and baby and decide to walk on the perilously narrow ledge onto the craggy rocks out at sea. We were both blown away by his stupidity, he was half a slip away from being a dead man at the foot of the rocks some 30 feet below him with waves crashing over his body. As he made it back, we felt a little cheated and disappointed that we had not seen natural selection in process so we headed home for showers and a change of clothes.
As a thank you for being his tour guide and driver for the last few days, my friend wanted to take me to 21 for dinner.
This was way smarter than my usual restaurant and I had never been but I was well aware of its reputation of its head chef, the Michelin starred Terry Laybourne. We were warmly welcomed for drinks at the bar and we were so well looked after, it was like walking into the restaurant on the TV show First Dates. We were shown to our table and were very politely and professionally served Crab Lasagne with Chive Butter Sauce and for meGran Reserva Iberico Ham and Toasted Tomato Bread for starters. Mine was exactly what it said on the tin, two slices of toasted bread topped with tomatoes and a plate of ham. I am not totally sure that it came out of a tin, but it was fantastically tasty. For mains, I had Braised Shoulder of Beef with Two Celeries and my guest had Roasted Northumbrian Venison, Salt Baked Beetroot and Fresh Asparagus – Goats Cheese Croquettes. It was every bit as pretentious and delicious as it sounds. The beef fell apart and the gravy/jus was simply perfect. The service was second to none, the staff were on hand but never interfering or in the way. Perfectly mannered and perfectly drilled on how to look after the customers. It had cleared into a warm and pleasant evening and so we walked along the Newcastle quayside and over the Millennium bridge. It was such a pleasant evening and it was so nice to see so many people walking along the quay. I heard all sorts of languages and saw all ages, sizes and shapes enjoying the warm, calm evening surrounded by the contrasting but beautiful buildings. Newcastle really is a nice city to call home.
My guest was on the train back to the deep South on the Friday morning and so we just had time for a coffee with mid morning cakes! We headed into Whitley Bay to try Kith and Kin.
I had been a few times before for breakfast and lunches and it really is quite lovely and quite London. You know the sort, they sell things that contain halloumi, Chia, Avocado and almond milk and don’t think it’s funny.
Yet again, we were welcomed in with happy faces and warm welcomes. I asked for a hot chocolate and was asked if I wanted dark, milk or white. They used real chocolate to make the stuff, not powder, and the idea of a white chocolate drink seemed too good to miss. I wish I had missed it. It was like drinking liquid milky bar, but more sickly, and by the time I got to the bottom of the cup it was just hot milk. Not the cafe’s fault, mine for a bad choice of overly sickly drink!
My companion was dropped off at the metro, heading into town to get the train, and I think he was impressed. I’m not sure what he was expecting, nor was I really. It did make me realise how nice my patch of the country is. There were so many places that I could have taken him to that we didn’t have time for. There is no shortage of quality in terms of attractions, cafes, restaurants and views. For every bit that the weather let me down, the famous northern hospitality certainly didn’t let me down….well, I hope it didn’t anyway!
I can believe that it was way back in January since I last posted. It feels like so much has happened in the blink of an eye. Let me bring you up to date!
You may remember that I had a bot of a health scare back in January. Shortly after that, I had the return of the foot pain that I had suffered from in November last year, all be it a few toes further along. I decided to skip the GP and go and see a podiatrist and he referred me to get X-rays at the local hospital.
It turns out that the injury last year was a stress fracture as, apparently, is obvious by the below picture! Apparently it has healed perfectly, despite the fact I was told it was ‘probably a strained ligament or something’ but they had no idea what was wrong with my new injury and suggested limping or not whinging.
I had set myself a target of running 350km in 2018 and not being able to run for the best part of two months has been a real pain. I am happy to say that I am back on the road (literally) in that respect and managed to tick of a slow and painful 10k last night. Progress!
I regularly walk past my camera as I walk out of the house and think “I should really take more pictures” and I feel really guilty that I never do despite loving it so much. So, I dragged Titchy and the kids to Bolam Lake and took a few shots. I never claimed to be any good, I am just in awe of how the camera does so much work on my behalf!
What else has been keeping me busy? Well, we got ourselves a pair of cats last year, Dusty and Smudge. I seem to spend most of my life being distracted by their lovely little snuffly great faces. Just look at them!
Oh, and in other news, we have booked our summer holiday. We are heading to Sermoneta, which is a little village between Rome and Naples. Pretty excited to be getting the family away and enjoying some Italian living for a week and the trip to Pompeii will be a highlight I’m sure.
First of all, many thanks to those people who have been kind enough to get in touch and thank me for posting on this blog, it really has been quite an eye-opener that anyone is actually reading this, never mind thinking that it is any good!
I started writing this blog mainly for myself, so that I could look back in years to come and remember how I felt at the time about the trips that I take. I just wish that I had started it years ago as I have only very distant memories of a lot of my holidays and feel like I missed huge opportunities to capture my time in Shanghai, Sydney and New York, as well as countless other less exotic trips.
I was asked by one person what camera I used to take the pictures on the blog. The honest answer is that I can’t always remember! I use both an SLR camera and an iPhone 6 and the mobile phone camera is so good it is often very hard to recall which I captured a particular image on.
I think that the speed at which you can whip out your phone and get a picture makes it so much more convenient and the new features such as slow motion, time lapse and Pano mean that a lot of the features that used to be SLR unique are now tucked in your pocket.
Having said that, if you have the time to set up the SLR on a tripod and spend some time getting the settings right and taking time to frame a show, then the results can be stunning. Let me be clear here, results that others get can be stunning, my pictures very rarely get anywhere close to being stunning and I am happy with amateur or average!
I have added two pictures, one from each source, and wonder if you can tell the difference?
The camera that I use is a Canon EOS 500D which is the entry level camera or at least it was when I bought it probably ten years ago or more and, I am pretty sure, it cost me around £500. I have quickly checked the interweb and it looks as if the prices have dropped a fair bit. You can pick up the newer, fancier and more compact version for only £299 now.
When you compare that to about a grand for the new iPhone handset, then it doesn’t feel quite to expensive to buy an SLR.
One of the other questions that I was asked about the European road trip that I recently completed was “What would you do differently?” If you recall, one of the main reasons that I went on the trip was to drive over mountain passes and take in the stunning views while zigzagging up a mountain road.
I just wish that I had some decent footage of that as recording it on my phone while it was clipped to a phone holder on the windscreen gave some pretty poor pictures! I hadn’t realised how cheap it was to get your hands on these fancy dash cams. For £35.99 I would have snapped your hand off for this before I left!
On June 6th 2017 I woke up, on the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, about 100 meters away from the sea at Lion Sur Mer. I would quite like that to be on my gravestone if possible, that’s how excited I was about this coming day ahead. I had slept with my window open so that I could see the grey English Channel as soon as I woke up and try to image what it would have felt like, as a French Citizen living in that time, to see the huge armada closing down to provide deliverance.
Showered and ready for the big day ahead, in the most overly complex and useless shower I had ever seen, I packed up and checked out of my room. I was just about to set off when the hotel owner, who must have anticipated how useless I was, had been into my room to make sure I had left nothing behind, bellowed at me out of the window and threw my blue tooth speaker down to me below. Suitably embarrassed, I headed for Arromanches as the hotel receptionist had told me that was the centre for events that day.
As I made my way along the coastline, my excitement really built up. Pretty much every village had a green that had been turned into a makeshift campsite that was filled with period military vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, each one surrounded by enthusiasts dressed up in military regalia. There were English, French, Germans and Americans and there were soldiers, paratroopers and nurses. It all felt like I was in the middle of the preparation for D-Day on the other side of the water.
I followed the sea road west until the road turned sharply to the left and there was a car park on the bend full of trip buses and hundreds of cars. I didn’t stop but slowed enough to see what all the fuss was about. Opening out below was the town of Arromanches and there, quite clearly visible still in a broken semi-circle out to sea, were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.
This was a giant floating harbour that was built in the United Kingdom and dragged over to France just after the D-Day landings. Without a port or a harbour being liberated, there had to be somewhere to land supplies to keep the advance powered. It would take a long time to liberate these strongholds and so we decided to bring our own with us in the meantime. Here, 70 odd years later, I would say that 15% of it still stands. Yet again, I felt like I was slap bang in the middle of history.
I followed the road down into the town and quickly found a overfull car park full of motorhomes and men with interesting beards and even more interesting sock and sandal combinations. I got lucky and managed to pull straight into a space as someone was leaving, I didn’t see one other person in the next 20 minutes get parked in there.
I was as close to the centre of town as I could have been as the centre had been cordoned off to make it a pedestrianised zone. There were security guards rummaging through bags, no doubt with the recent attacks in London and Paris still in people’s minds. The centre was alive with people and I stopped and got a croissant and a coffee and spent 20 minutes people watching.
The high street was full of two things, cafes or gift shops; the only thing breaking them up were the two museums. In terms of people, there appeared to be five groups:
‘Allied’ tourists, like me, there to pay their respects and feel part of history.
‘Axis’ tourists that, in my mind at least, seemed to be tip toing around and not being too German in case it upset anyone.
Veterans that were being dropped off on coaches and delivered by London black cabs. They wore blazers, caps and their medals with huge pride and, the majority of them at least, seemed to wear dubious stains on their trousers.
The military fancy dress enthusiast. I would class these as military re-enactment types that take things seriously making sure that look as authentic as possible. Not to be confused with;
Fancy dress types that buy a camouflage jacket from a gift shops and walk around as if they are in the army for a day.
It was group 5 that annoyed me the most. If I had been one of the veterans, there to remember my lost comrades and show my respects, I am not sure I would have been too happy to see people trying to get in on the act by wearing a polyester cap and desert fatigues. Anyway, who was I to judge?
My coffee finished, I watched the Dutch military marching band come down the main street and form up in the town square. Shortly afterwards about 20 jeeps turned up with reenactors waving at the crowds. There was then a short ceremony and speeches in the town square and a moment’s silence and reflection.
I wandered around the shops and picked up a few gifts and, no, I didn’t wear anything remotely military all day. Outside of the museum there seemed to be a crowd gathering and so I wandered over to see what was going on. There was a veteran sitting on a bench with his hands over the head of his walking stick looking like a sorcerer staring into his crystal ball. He was just telling his D-Day story and had a crowd of maybe 50 people around him in raptures. I say ‘just’ but it was totally remarkable hearing a first-hand account of the day.
He was laughing and joking and making it sound like a lads’ day out by saying things like ‘We got a hell of shock when the bastards started to fire back at us, we didn’t think that was fair’. But you could see an underlying pain in his eyes that were, I’m sure, slightly filling up. God only knows what sort of horrors he saw and how many friends he lost on that day and the months that followed. I felt uneasy, like I was intruding on his grief, and so walked down to the sea front and walked on the sands for a while and just took in the emotion of the day.
I didn’t want to be stuck for accommodation again that night and there was a break in the proceedings so I walked back to the car and headed back along the coast to the east. I had passed a campsite on the way into town and thought it looked ok so there, on the main road at Asnelles, I headed into Camping Quintefeuille.
The guy behind the counter did not speak a word of English and so I tried my very best to speak to him in French. It didn’t make the transaction any quicker, but it was a good test and I seemed to make myself understood.
I got my tent put up and headed back down into Arromanches. My prime parking space gone, I parked on a farmer’s field just outside of town and wandered back down into town. I took the longer route to walk along the sea front and watched the dozens of jeeps and various other vehicles form up on the beach for a parade. Pretty much the second the last vehicle formed up, it began to lash down from the heavens to such a degree that you could see rivers of rainwater forming on the sand.
I stood huddled into the sea wall until the downpour passed and then made my way for another coffee in town. Heading back to the town square, I passed another crowd which had formed around a veteran. I missed his story, he was just finishing when I arrived, but realised that he had a Geordie accent. I waited until the crowd had gone and introduced myself as a fellow Geordie and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. It turned out that he worked in the civil service and had taken a few trips to a stately home very close to my house and, although he didn’t live in the North East any more, seemed touched that I had taken the time to chat. Maybe it’s true what they say, a true hero has no idea that they are a hero.
Making my way around the sea front, there was a guy dressed in full on English country gent fancy dress: yellow pants, tweed jacket, checked shirt that only farmers wear and yellow brogues. My first thought was ‘bloody hell, a French Nigel Farage’. It wasn’t until the news crew following him came around the corner that I realised that it was him!
I followed him back down onto the beach as there was clearly something going to happen. I got chatting to a veteran as we walked across the sand to the piece of the Mulberry Harbour that had been detached and washed up on the beach. Right next to this, around nine or ten veterans had gathered with a lady dressed in black. It turned out that her father had been coming to these celebrations for years but this was the first one that he had missed as he had passed away. Words were spoken by his daughter, salutes were made by the veterans and a minute’s silence was held as his ashes were spread on the golden sand. With white topped waves crashing in the background and the wind whipping up the beach, one chap just said, ‘Lie in peace, back with your mates’.
It was one of the most emotional things I had ever witnessed.
As I walked back up the beach I chatted to one of the veterans and said that I thought there would be more things happening in and around the town, that it was supposed to be the centre for activities but there was very little organised. He explained that the organisers didn’t have enough money for anything else as they were saving up for the 75th Anniversary in 2019. As each passing year goes by, the numbers of veterans that are alive and fit enough to make the trip dwindles. It was a privilege to be there and see them.
He also told me that the vast majority of the veterans in town that day were ferried there by London taxi drivers as part of an annual charity event. They drive in convey from the UK and are looked after by the drivers.
With no further activities organised for the day, I made my way back up the hill to my car and headed back to the campsite. There was to be a firework display at midnight and it should have been visible from the sea front just down from my campsite.
Heading back east along towards the campsite, I spotted an older guy hitchhiking and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t stop. He jumped in and I drove him along to his hotel as he had been separated from his sons. It turns out that he was a taxi driver living in Portsmouth but was born and raised in Sunderland, it really is a small world.
Back in my tent, I relaxed with my book and a brew and sampled some fine dining (bread, butter and a tin of beans) and relaxed until it was time for the fireworks. I walked down to the sea front and was surprised to find myself alone down there and, in typical French fashion, to see all the houses down there in pitch darkness and looking as if they had just evacuated in anticipation of a super storm hitting the beaches that night.
I walked about a mile up the beach, it must have been 12.15 by the time I gave up and got back to my tent. Just as I was undressed and tucked into my sleeping bag, the fireworks started. I leapt into my walking boots and pulled my shorts on and ran down to the sea front just to catch the last few whizzes and bangs. Shivering and with tears in my eyes, caused by sand being whipped up from the beach rather than emotion, I walked up to the tent and had the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.
I woke up all confused in a bed, my head a little foggy after my handful of beers. The sound of heavy rain hitting the bonnet of my car made me smile as I was in a motel and not a tent. I had forgotten to eat last night, the thought of trying to order food and getting it 7 hours later made me sad. So much for eating an authentic Italian meal made by a Grandma!
Breakfast was included in the stay and so I filled up on pastries and coffee. The two young girls looking after the breakfast room hurried around picking up and cleaning and smiling. They were dripping in fashion labels from head to toe and looked every bit the classy and stylish Italian stereotype.
As full as a gun, I packed up and set off heading for better Alps! I was heading for the Aosta Valley and into Switzerland and wanted to see Mont Blanc. As the hotel was right on the motorway, I was straight off on the road and ready to rock. The Italian motorway system had other ideas. I spent an hour driving back and forth along toll roads trying to get the right exit to head into the mountains. I was feeling glum.
Eventually, after many swear words and many burnt Euros, I was on the way. Again, I was on the flat, but this time south of the Alps, and could see the mountains starting to form up on the horizon. I was starting to get excited again. Maybe this was the day that my ‘proper’ mountain drive would happen.
As I made my way towards Aosta we were following the River Po up the valley. It looked cold and grey but in full flow. It looked like it was an artery coming out of the alps and was bleeding heavily; just waiting for winter to turn up to help scab it over and stop the flow with its ice.
On my left-hand side, was a small mountain and from about half way until about 90% of the way up it was covered in cloud. It looked like the mountain was trying to hide in the clouds but failing. Like a giraffe hiding behind a tree with its big daft head sticking out.
It looked as if someone was standing on the top of the mountain throwing enormous handkerchiefs down and watching them float to the bottom of the valley but it wasn’t, it was paragliders. Maybe about half a dozen of them floating down. The views they had must have been stunning.
I was getting close to Aosta where I would be forced to make another route call. North into Switzerland or north west into France? I realised I had still not eaten a meal in Italy, other than a hotel breakfast. I decided that I would take a rest in Aosta and work out the next steps.
I pulled up outside of Restaurant Caesar; a busy looking pizzeria with tables outside looking out onto the wide and clean street. All the tables were busy with families enjoying their Sunday launch and that’s always a great sign. I picked my pizza. It was like a quattro stagioni but it was salami, red cabbage and fresh basil and it was bloody lovely. It was so nice and the service so good that I followed up with a load of ice cream. I was as happy as could be. I finally had my authentic Italian pizza, it was a lovely day, and I was about to attack the Alps.
It was at that table that I decided I would head into France instead of Switzerland. Switzerland would be expensive and the roads expensive and it’s so……well….neutral. I may not like France too much, but at least they try things rather than spend their entire existence sitting getting splinters in their backsides.
With fresh excitement, purpose and desire (and a few extra dough-based pounds hanging about my midriff) I hopped back in the car and headed for the mountains along the E25. A few miles from the border, I stopped for a diesel top up and pottered around the gift shop inside the petrol station. It was mainly filled with Ferrari and Italian football memorabilia but there, right in the middle of the Juve scarfs and F1 key rings, was a thing of absolute beauty. Titchy feet loves Limoncello, I had already seen a bottle in the Duty Free on the ferry over and was planning a bottle for the way home as her gift, but she would be blown away by the splendour of this. 1
The fact that is was filled with glorious golden yellow liquid maybe made it stand out like a golden nugget in a wall of shit but, there it was, a bottle of limoncello in the shape of Italy. Priceless. I felt like Indiana Jones and was worried that as soon as I picked this glorious gift up, it would set off booby traps the would force me to prove myself worthy of such a classy gift.
I took a turn off at Chenoz and zig zagged over the mountain passes and worked my way up to the peaks. Words don’t even begin to do justice to the views and the scale of beauty that I witnessed. Eight hairpin bends later, I ended up following the traffic into a car park rather than up the road. I didn’t want to admit my mistake and turn around, so I was pleased when I realised that I had accidentally arrived at a Passerella Panoramica, (panoramic footpath according to my Google translator), so I grabbed my camera and set off walking.
On the forest walk to the gantry, you could hear a rumble and roar that grew louder with every step. Eventually the path opened and you could see a drop of maybe 100 meters to a narrow V-shaped valley that was alive with white rapids. The summer melt was clearly in effect and the noise was amazing. I was as happy as Larry that the view was free to get down to and wasn’t too busy at all. Happy with my lot, I continued along the path and as I turned a corner I stopped in my tracks with my mouth wide open.
The view point wasn’t for the rushing water in the valley below, that was just a warm up act. The main event was a suspended walkway that curved away and out from the hill side in an arc of maybe 200 meters. Looking down, there was nothing but air between the see-through walkway and the ground 160 metres below, but you didn’t look down, you looked out at the most beautiful view of Mont Blanc.
I honestly think that I spent about an hour just taking it all in. Splitting my time between taking photos and trying to burn the sights into my mind in case my camera got stolen before I got home. I just hope that the attached pictures do it some justice.
Walking back towards the car park I got chatting, in terrible French, to an old lady that must have been in her late seventies. She had been left to sit on a seat with her small dog while her daughter walked down to the gantry I had just left behind. She was adorable. I told her (the best that I could) that she should walk down as the view was stunning. She told me(again I think she did anyway!) that she had lived in the town below all of her life and that she was too old to walk any further. Bless her. It was hard to work out if she was happy that I had taken the time to chat with her or if she was laughing at my terrible French.
Back at the car, I continued my way along the SS26 towards the Little St Bernard Pass. The next stop was La Thuile. I stopped to take pictures in the lovely little alpine village. I had just missed the Bataille des Chèvres (goat fight) but the town was all dressed up in its finest still and looked lovely. Back in the car, continuing up towards the peak, there were hairpin bends and just the most perfect views and the cleanest, crisp fresh air. I stopped every so often to walk up hills and take more pictures and, again, I just hope that they do the place justice as it was stunning.
I crossed the border into France with smatterings of snow all around me, then started my slow and winding drop into the valley that opened up below me. Bourg Saint Maurice looked like a miniature town way down below, it just didn’t look real, but with each hairpin bend, it got more and more real until the Alps were just a beautiful view in my rear-view mirror.
I had been listening to a podcast on the way over the mountains and it came to me that the anniversary of D-Day was only two days away. I checked the maps and realised that I could make it there if I didn’t muck about on my way through France.
I decided that I would get on and drive as much as I could. It would be around 600 miles from the Italian border to Normandy and so the more I drove in my great mood, the easier it would be tomorrow. I ploughed on and I was sent on a massive detour as the Tunnel Du Chat was closed. The views of the Lac Du Bourget would have been an acceptable compromise for the extra miles and time taken on any other day, but I had been spoilt by the earlier miles over the Alps.
I was frustrated and tired by now and started looking for a campsite around 7pm. I had another 30-minute detour looking for a signposted campsite that, when I arrived, was shut for the night. It was getting dark and I was getting tired and so I pressed on further, happy to pay for a hotel and take the extra time driving and getting well rested in a room rather than on a damp floor in my tent.
Eventually, after a fair bit of swearing and grunting at the lack of hotels or bed and breakfasts that had been plentiful all of my day until I wanted one, I ended up in a hotel in Bourg-en-Bresse.
It was too late for food and so I had a beer and bag of nuts as I caught up on the news. I sat and watched the updates coming in from London of the terrorist attacks and found it all very upsetting. I had experienced such a beautiful day with amazing sights and met some lovely people, yet lived in a world where hatred and anger like that could live side by side. I went to bad happy and tired but disappointed at some of my fellow humans.