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Greg & Karen's Life Adventure Karen and I, in love, in life ; following our bliss

ENGLAND - Bristol

UNITED KINGDOM | Wednesday, 19 January 2011 | Views [406]

                                                              ENGLAND    Nov 1st Jan 20th


You may recall that we flew into Stansted Airport late on a freezing cold night and were very appreciative of being met by Karen’s brother Ian. Greg, asleep, didn’t see much on the long drive through the English countryside at night on the motorway system but, a welcome fire was waiting at the family home, along with food and a cuppa tea, of course.

Against all odds, we awoke to the sight of snow dusted lightly across the urban landscape, which for this Sydney boy, was an unprecedented delight. Believe it or not, I had never experienced real snow; the kind that flutters down and clings ever-so lightly to everything. We took the Yorkshire Terrier ‘Lolly’ for a long walk through the ‘Western Woods’ and were enchanted to be in this picture postcard.

PORTISHEAD  Karen’s mother, and younger brother Alistair, live on a hill in this small town on the Bristol Channel which separates England from Wales on the west coast. There are two long bridges which link these countries together just north of here, and it was this view which was spread before us as we took the first of many walks down the hill to the town of ‘Possit’. Now, I have watched many a ‘Coro St.’ and English TV shows but nothing had quite prepared me for the sensual overload that was historic, old England. We ambled down narrow roads enclosed by Victorian, cut-stone, 2-storey, semi-detached terrace houses, dripping history and charm from the ornate stonework.  We passed ancient stone cottages and farm buildings and marvelled in the grounds; at St Peter’s Church tower, solid still, with the look of a castle turret; of old stone block and weathered stone carvings; Gothic stained-glass windows with sculptured stone mullions and a bell which tolls the time every quarter hour.  Forgive me if I wax lyrical here. I have worked in stone and constructed several stone buildings in Queensland in a former life, but this was the real thing. These buildings were hundreds of years old; proud, ornately-worked edifices which would still be standing in hundreds of years to come. I was in stone heaven.  As was to become the norm’, around many corners; extraordinary stone buildings appeared, more magnificent than any I’d seen before.

In the front of this Church is planted a tall, extremely old, Celtic Cross, sculpted from one piece of stone and believed to be Pre-Roman; from the time of the Druids. Apparently, it stood as a marker for hundreds of years at one point in the town; unbelievably, to be thrown into a pond for fill and 60 years later, recovered and placed in the Church grounds.

The High Street of Portishead, is a wonderful row of tall, stone buildings, shops, banks and public houses; all different, but similar in style. Each Christmas, a Christmas Light Committee be-decks the streets with coloured lights and a ‘Victorian’ night fair, is an annual celebration, attended by folks from near and far.

CLEVEDON  This is another closeby sea-side town (the Bristol Channel is almost the open sea at this point), complete with pier and Victorian houses lining the slopes of the surrounding hills.  The old part of town is a winding, narrow, cobbled street with gorgeous terraces crowding down on the heavily clothed shoppers below. Somehow, the young girls still manage to look attractive in short skirts, leggings and boots, despite the often zero temperatures.

BATTERY POINT  Over the hill from Portishead is the lake-front, the rocky coast, the swimming baths and 'Battery Point’, where one of the many light houses, warns shipping of the dangerous point in the Channel. The remains of heavy gun emplacements, used to protect this vital sea lane during the war years, are evident still. And as we watched in the waning sunset, two container ships passed within 50 metres of the shore where we stood, as the deepest channel comes very close in to this point.

CLIFTON     One fine day saw us drive to the larger, Clifton area in Bristol, above the Avon River. We approached from the east over the first Suspension bridge in England, designed by the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel; an engineering genius who, among other extraordinary achievements, built the first steam engines and steam ships (Google him). The Avon cuts through a steep, high gorge at this point and this beautiful bridge is slung across the chasm. On the far side is a park, enclosing the stone Observatory, at the top of which was a ‘Camera Obscura’: a fascinating viewing apparatus which turned and magnified the surrounding area, displaying it on a round table in a darkened room - much like a periscope.

Below this tower was a tunnel cut downwards into the rock which eventually led to the ‘Giants Cave’ in the side of the gorge wall. Several hundred years ago, Catholic priests lived here and would climb the almost vertical cliff to hold secret services. I never did find out who cut the tunnel down to the cave, but it would have been quite an enterprise. Down the stone-walled spiral stairs, we stooped until we emerged halfway up the side of the gorge, looking down on the River Avon and the roadway below. It couldn’t have been much fun hiding in this small, austere place – not much of a congregation either, going by the size and the accessibility.

LONDON  Ist visit  We finally arranged an appointment at the Chinese Visa Centre in London, to apply for our Work Visas to allow us to enter China. We caught the bus to Bristol City at 7.00am (very cold) and then on to London by Coach. This was the day before Christmas Eve and it was still snowing outside London but the heat from the city ensured that the streets were clear. We headed for Buckingham Palace on foot; signs pointed the way along historic, well-heard-of streets; everywhere I looked was a visual treat. Strangely, it was not at all crowded until we reached the locked gates to this truly imposing royal `house.’ We joined the photo snapping tourists, targeting anything of interest; including the bronze statues around the courtyard fountain, inscribed  with the words `The Gift of New Zealand’. Just then, behind me, the mounted Royal Horse Guards rode through the square, followed closely by our trusty vid-cam.

St Pauls Cathedral , Big Ben,  Winchester Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Millennium Bridge and the Thames – all of it awesome in the true sense of the word. Who were these guys? The sheer scale and extent of their vision and creations is simply mind-numbing. As a builder, I could appreciate the immense effort and skill involved in raising these iconic, historic monuments. What impressed me most was the superfluous, artistic, sculptural ornamentation of these buildings: stone carvings, windows, towers and figures everywhere. We walked for miles along the Thames towards the Tower Bridge; the weather was cold and clear and the opposite bank slowly lit up with the falling  dusk. Light reflected from the swiftly flowing river; buildings, both old and modern, sprayed light from every window; boats of all descriptions glided by and looming large was the beautifully lit Tower Bridge. HMAS Belfast, an historic Naval Destroyer moored on the opposite bank and lit in coloured patches, added to the charm as we mingled with the throng of people enjoying this incredible spectacle. I think this was our favourite time in London. Just when I thought it couldn’t get better than this, I was astounded by the sight of the much under-named `Tower of London’ – this is not just a tower but the old Royal Palace; a huge complex of brightly-lit, fairy-tale stone castles, ramparts and towers; occupying an entire city block adjacent to the Bridge. We were enthralled by the sheer imposing size, the crenelated walls and the implied historic wonder that is London’s everyday presence. Do they know what they have there as they pass by, eating their fish and chips and cursing the weather? I rather doubt it.  

CHRISTMAS in ENGLAND:  Karen had assured me that it almost never snowed at Christmas in the West-Country and It was not likely that I would get a ‘White Christmas’. Little did she know that England would experience the coldest Winter on record and on the 18th December heavy snow fell all around – large feathery crystals of snow, spiralling down and blanketing every slightly horizontal surface. The effect was mesmerizing; a classic snowscape glittering in the sunshine. Karen and I bundled up and headed out into this wonderland; the scars and litter of man, soothed beneath a snowy, linen hand. The woods were silent, the trees and shrubs shrouded with cotton wool; deer darted among the shrubs and we left deep footprints on the land.

The halls were decked with holly and tinsel, the tables laden with scrumptious food, the glasses charged and presents laid around the Christmas trees. This was a White Christmas of my imagination and I loved it all.

LONDON 2nd visit

Our second trip to London was a repetition of travel; arriving early and successfully retrieving our passports and Visas from the Chinese Visitor Centre. We were excited to have so easily gained our work visas.  Again we had bought all-day metro tickets which allowed us to jump on and off the `Tube’ anywhere in the inner city.

Karen and I were so impressed with the Tower of London on our last visit that we wanted to delve deeper inside. The tube dropped us on the other side of the Tower Bridge and surprisingly, on the other side of the Thames. Brilliant! After we realised where we were, it was necessary to walk over this amazing structure.  It’s actually built of steel with curved girders supporting the opening, mid-section;  the monstrous towers are just clothed with dressed stone. Up close and under it, you’re dwarfed by this huge edifice looming overhead. Continuous traffic flowed across beside us as we moved with the multitudes, catching the angles and the stone balconies with our cameras. Greg stood like a stone in a fast flowing river, with the vid-cam held high above the waves, capturing every nuance of this marvellous scene.

The Palace stood impassive before us as we photographed it anew from the height of the Bridge. We paid the price of admission and entered the main portal; rugged, weathered stone, heavy oak doors and a Beefeater surrounded by tourists. Well we listened to his spiel for a while until he told a story of having been asked by Australian Immigration if, he had ever had a criminal record. He replied that he didn’t think he needed one.

So much to see; it positively reeked of history. The `Traitors Gate’ where the `guilty’ were brought into the palace grounds by boat from the Thames;  behind us, the tower where Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 7 years – I didn’t know that! Above us, the rooms where the king  lived and discussed the state of the realm with his ministers;  this acted out by hired players.

We followed the battlements to each of the Towers where these high-class criminals were imprisoned, marvelling at the exhibits of daily life in the Palace as we went. The whole place is enclosed by 20ft walls, four-foot thick, punctuated regularly by narrow slits that are bevelled wide to the inside: a small opening presented on the outside but a wide angle for the archers to shoot from the inside. Ingenious Watson!

In the centre of this complex is the `White Tower’: a beautiful, turreted, square castle of limestone, some five stories high; built by William the Conqueror in 1076 to defend against retaliation from the Brits (remember the Battle of Hastings 1066 – Norman French conquest of Britain) You get the picture.

In the expansive courtyard, quite near the west side of the White Tower is the remains of a wall;  a corner of very old stone about eight feet high. "So what?" I hear you ask. The whole Palace is built on a Roman Fort and this wall is Roman. About 220 AD – this wall was laid up 1800 years ago and is still standing proud. That touches my very soul people. I wondered, as I stood there, who was the man who mixed the mortar and positioned those stones?  Did he ever imagine that someone from the year 2010 would gaze upon his work and wonder about him.                  

Now, I could tell you about the exhibition of armour and weapons on display in the White Tower, courtesy of the Royal Armoury; the tiny suits made for child kings, the huge 7ft armour, made for a giant of a man; the gilded, ceremonial armour worn by both Kings and Queens; the polished swords and the impossibly heavy jousting lances; the armoured horses and the gifted weapons from world leaders, but I risk boring you with so much wonder. We took many pictures which show it so much better.


Today, amid flurries of snowfall, Karen drove us over the Severn River to Wales, via the 'new' curved suspension bridge. We were headed to Cardiff, the Capital: just for a quick visit. Driving along the motorway in thickening snow was an adventure in itself and we didn’t expect to see much. However the Gods smiled again and by the time we reached the city and parked, it was bright and cold, if not actually sunny. We had passed a great stone wall on the way in and wanted to check it out. First though some good English breakfast; eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and black pudding, laddie! I gave the pudding to Karen – like Croc’ Dundee said “ You can eat it, but it tastes like ……” . Central Cardiff was great though: pedestrian-only squares; food outlets strewn around; live music rising like smoke around a 15th century stone church, set among many like buildings. We loved the ambience and (Greg) will return there again during test-match football season: the best time we were told.

Just one block away is Cardiff Castle (spelt Castell Caerdydd). Now, I asked several people where I might see real castles nearby and no-one mentioned this place. How can they not know about a 20ft stone walled castle the size of four city blocks, in the middle of Cardiff, `for crying out loud’!!! Actually, the walls enclose a huge open area with a classic `Mot and Bailey’ Keep, standing on a raised hill at one end; and 16th century Palace to one side (see photos) The access is through two huge towers at the front gate (The Black Tower which was a prison and guard barracks) Inside, to the right, the earth has been mounded against the wall, running almost entirely around this huge complex. At an earlier time, a stone wall ran from the Black Tower straight to the `Keep’, enabling the troops to retreat to the relative safety of this impregnable fort on the hill. This wall also served to divide the grounds in two: the Lord and his entourage on one side, the troops and the plebs on the other.

Our first stop, once inside the castle grounds, was the tourist centre, where we watched a short video on the history of this amazing place. This strategic town was settled early by the Saxons, but was taken by the Romans around 200 AD. They built a wooden fort surrounded by a huge enclosure of stone walls. When the Romans left England in 600 AD, the fort stood derelict for 7 centuries, before being acquired by the Marquis of Bute (Yes, French- after the Hastings debacle) Now this dude was seriously wealthy, which was handy because the place was a classic, restoration nightmare. He re-built the stone Keep on the rise and dug a moat around it to protect himself from English raiders. He commenced work on the existing ruined church building, with the intention of creating a real castle for his family.

 At the same time, they discovered the remains of the original Roman walls buried under the mounded earth around the site.  The Marquis then embarked on the ambitious, monumental re-construction of the entire Roman wall and the Black Tower, as we see it today. I kid you not, this is a spectacular achievement and the original Roman walls can be seen around the perimeter.

We toured through the extensive Castle complex; lavishly decorated with Gothic style, portrait, stained-glass windows, a baronial banquet hall, themed guest rooms, an incredibly furnished library and a grand entrance hall and octagonal spiral staircase. There was a Clock Tower hung with large statues of the Gods of Astrology and cleverly worked walls which played light inside, to display the month, weeks and days of the year. Another tower was ornately decorated in Moorish style, while much was of Elizabethan influence. This castle was a visual feast and incredibly, is still used today as a convention and event centre; with modern working kitchens and facilities.

To say that we were astounded by this wondrous site would be to understate the obvious. When I first entered the grounds through the forbidding tower gate, there before me on that steep, man-made rise was the simple castle of my childhood imaginings;  snow was drifting down; that vast expanse of grass, barely white; that rugged, jutting, stone monolith rooted there like forever. People, it doesn’t get much better than that.  

There were four generations of Marquis of Bute and it was the 4th Marquis who eventually finished the Roman Walls in 1923. There are two other castles near Cardiff which were both owned by this family - a treat for a future visit to Wales, I’m thinking.


Several days later found us in the ancient port city of Bristol with Karen’s Brother Ian, as guide. Bristol was a Saxon port before being taken by the Normans in 1070. By the 1300s, it was 2nd only to London in wealth and population. It grew fat on trade with the Americas:  cotton, tobacco and slavery and this affluence is reflected in the grandeur and variety of it’s architecture.

We toured through the three old Market buildings, still in use today; the Corn Market where a row of four `nails’ waist high, (cast-iron posts) mark the places where buyers struck deals with the growers. Hence the sayings `hit the nail on the head’ and `right on the nail’.

The Cabot Tower, one of Karen's favourite old haunts, high on Brandon Hill, in the middle of town, lured us to it; and after a steep climb and many photos later, we were standing under a square, 4-storey stone building  with 4 balcony windows and a wonderful parapet platform supported on the diagonal corner buttresses, topped by an octagonal spire. This monument honours the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland (America) in 1497 in the very small `Caravel’ the `Matthew’ ; the replica of which lies moored alongside the restored original of the S.S. Great Britain, England’s first steamship, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (mentioned earlier as the designer of the Clifton Suspension Bridge).

Cabot could not find financial backing for his theory that one could reach the East, by sailing west. He finally came to Bristol and set sail in the tiny `Matthew,’ out into the completely unknown. He discovered the Americas and named it Newfoundland, well before Columbus. He found a deserted, inhospitable land and after 3 days, returned while he still had enough food. It was an incredible voyage but not financially successful. He set out on subsequent, bigger, better equipped venture and was never heard from again.

The Wills Tower (Wills Tobacco) of the Bristol University dominates the skyline in a shameless show of prosperity; and the ruined, bombed-out stone skeleton of the 13th century St Peter’s Church, stands as a stark monument to the bombing of Bristol during the 2nd WW. A quarter of medieval Bristol was destroyed at this time. How many of the grandest buildings in England survived, is truly astonishing.



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