Poole, England (Part One)
After spending five weeks in South East Asia it was time for our next adventure to begin: Europe. This "adventure" started as soon as we departed on our London-bound plane from Bangkok. Smoke. A lot of it, coming out of the ovens. Only slightly alarming. It took a few minutes for it to dissipate, and I thought I was in for a smooth flight from there on in. When the attendants came around with dinner we were quickly advised that one of the options was not available. I wonder why not?? Of course it was the meal that everyone wanted, so a lot of people weren't happy, including me (a seafood main and a chocolate dessert: no thanks). Thankfully we had helped ourselves to plenty of free coconut wafer samples at the airport before leaving.
We didn't have personal TV screens and the movies they were playing on the generic screens were terrible. This, coupled with little sleep from our overnight train trip the night before and almost no sleep on the entire flight meant the flight dragged on for an eternity. It was hard to pass the time when everyone else appeared to have no problems catching some shut-eye and I had to remain frozen and silent like a statue.
London finally came within view, and we were given a 20 minute lap of the city as the plane waited for clearance to land. There was a large grey/green/orange cloud sitting low in the air, which made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie or some strange sort of nightmare. It was surreal but exciting at the same time, knowing that we had finally made it to Europe.
We arrived in London at 7:30 p.m. local time (2:30 a.m. Bangkok time). I don't think I could have been more tired if I tried, and being tired and cranky is not ideal when trying to enter a new country. Airport immigration didn't like me too much because I didn't have a return ticket, and I spent forever trying to convince him (as calmly as I could) that I didn't want to live in his Fort Knox country. I truly thought the officer wasn't going to let me enter. He then spoke to Danny for 10 minutes before he reluctantly agreed to allow me through. I was thankful at this point in time that Danny was British by birth.
We were staying with Danny's cousin Emma and her family, about an hour's tube ride away, in an amazing, four-storey house. We all sat up talking for an hour or so before we at last crawled into bed at 6 a.m. Bangkok time. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. It was the best night's sleep we had experienced in living memory.
That was all we saw of London. The next day we were regretfully up early to catch a two hour train down to Poole, in Dorset, where we were staying with Danny's aunt Toni for the next couple of weeks. The English countryside we passed was so beautiful and stereotypical, straight out of a movie. I don't think I did anything but stare out the window for the entire journey.
Toni lived in a lovely, old house, where I felt I could fully relax for the first time in weeks. She made cream of Stilton soup for lunch, which to my surprise I actually liked (that's right, the blue cheese hater likes blue cheese soup), along with bread, chicken and salad. Home-cooked food! We may postpone our holiday for a while to live in luxury like this.
The afternoon was spent wandering around town, where our first stop after a bank was (at Toni's suggestion) a bar. It was clear to see that Danny's drinking habits were genetic. Everyone we met was so polite and helpful, and it was great being able to go up to anyone and know we spoke the same language. We could also read signs again, which made things a million times easier than in Asia.
Our days in Poole were filled with running in the beautiful, cool weather, eating incredible home-cooked meals, drinking decent wine (which you can buy in supermarkets here, Australia), trying the seriously good sloe gin, buying a whole bottle of the seriously good sloe gin, tasting the local delicacies (I can't get my head around eating cold pies, but the Yorkshire puddings were a winner), fighting jet-lag, visiting every traditional-style pub in town, and receiving a lesson in scones.
Toni served us a traditional Devonshire afternoon tea of scones with jam and clotted cream. I have eaten many, many scones in my lifetime, and I commenced my usual routine of spreading the jam on the scone first. I was quickly scolded for composing my scone incorrectly. The Devonshire method is to first place the cream on the scone, followed by the jam. This seemed highly unusual but I conformed to expectations. I'm not sure that it tasted any different to my standard arrangement of jam then cream, but I am certain it was more difficult to compile.
We soon got down to the serious business: buying a campervan. The plan was to purchase a campervan in England (using relatives' addresses for paperwork), drive over to France and spend the next 11 months seeing as much of mainland Europe as we could fit in. Then it was back to England for Christmas, sell the campervan to make some of our money back, and fly home. We knew there were hundreds of things that could go wrong or change our plans, but as we didn't have much set in stone we could be as flexible as required. Our only concern was that we didn't run out of money. Or lose the van - that wouldn't work out so great either.
So we started researching campervans. At this stage it would have been great having a mechanic or a "car person" as a friend, as we had know idea what we were looking for. Danny wanted a toilet in the van and that was all we had to go on. Ebay seemed the best place to look, which quickly gave us campervan-envy as we could see all the features that came in the vehicles we couldn't afford. We had to remind ourselves that we didn't need a van that slept eight people with a kitchen that a fine-dining chef would be jealous of.
The first campervan we checked out was pretty much everything we wanted and more. The only downside was that it didn't have power steering, and I thought it would to be a slight challenge for me to learn to drive a manual, without power steering, on the other side of the road. We wanted to see a couple more before we made a decision but we had already sort of fallen in love with this first one.
The next couple on our list didn't work out: one was too far away to view and another was sold before we could look at it. So we returned to the first van and we managed to convince the owner to drive it up and down the court he lived on so we could see it running (he couldn't legally take the unregistered vehicle out on the road and he was not prepared to bend that rule for a second). He had a mechanic look at it in the morning and it turned out the van did have power steering, it was just that the belt was loose. We knew we could easily repair it, which gave us another incentive to purchase this van. Everything seemed to work well on the test drive so it was looking like a winner. We made a snap decision and put forward an offer, but the owner was expecting a bit more. So we were left to wait until bidding ended on Ebay to see if we could come in under his "buy it now" price.
We awoke early on the day of the last day of bidding to nervously watch the final countdown for our campervan. We hadn't placed a bid yet as we wanted to wait until the last minute. The price rose slightly while we were watching but nowhere near the asking price. In the last five minutes Danny couldn't bear the tension any more and left the room. Thanks for your help there, Danny. I put in a bid with two minutes to go and in the next minute someone outbid me. I countered with a higher bid in but it wasn't high enough, so I just thought 'stuff it' and clicked on the "buy it now" button. We won! We were so excited to have committed to our very own campervan. Unfortunately the payment would take several days to go through so we had to wait a bit longer before we got our hands on our purchase, but we were definitely in the mood for celebrating.
With nervous energy to burn we decided to go for a run. The whole time we were talking about our van, including what to call it. As the make of the car was Talbot and we were in England, suggestions included Terry Talbot and Albert Talbot. We clearly needed to do some more brainstorming. While we were running we saw a squirrel and a double-decker bus, our first since arriving in England, which to me was just as exciting as purchasing the campervan.
We scoured the secondhand shops in town, looking for any supplies for the van we might benefit from. We picked up a few things but we hit the jackpot with Danny's cousin Miranda, who appeared to have hoarded an entire second home in a storage closet at her house. Our entire kitchen was decked out, plus we had bedding, towels, travel guides, safety equipment for the car, and the best gift of all: a TomTom. It was an old version but having a GPS meant we wouldn't have to agonise over hard-to-read paper maps for every town we visited. We couldn't thank her enough.
Our celebrations that night included Danny making a Thai-style dinner (as we were now experts after our cooking course). We were going to make fried golden bags but the supermarket didn't have spring roll wrappers, so we bought pre-made ones instead (which were probably better than what we could do anyway). Mains was a Danny-style Panang curry, which was amazing - the cooking course obviously paid off. Dessert was also pre-made: citrus tart, followed by a cheese plate. Not very Asian but we were in party mode so we didn't care. Toni bought us a bottle of Prosecco and Miranda came with French red wine, which both went down a treat.
The coast of Bournemouth was beautiful, despite the cold temperatures and windy conditions. The colourful huts along the beach were charming, however they looked out of place on an English shoreline. We walked down to the end of the pier, watching the crazy surfers attempting to surf in the freezing water. The waves were so pitiable that the surfers didn't travel more than a few metres at a time.
Toni took us for a drive through Sandbanks, one of the richest property markets in the world. We were not really sure why. There were some great houses, either overlooking the beach or the bay, but I wouldn't say it was the most attractive place to live.
Tesco Extra: supermarket on steroids. It was like a whole shopping centre in just one shop. Food, clothing, alcohol, appliances - you could buy the entire contents of a house here. I don't know who would want to buy a washing machine with their bananas but I guess some people do.
Toni drove us out to Beaulieu, a quaint town famous for a motor museum (which we did not visit) and free-roaming ponies and donkeys. As it was the middle of winter there weren't many animals around but we did see a few ponies by the side of the road. They appeared happy to wander down the narrow street and block the traffic, and the English drivers of course waited patiently until the ponies had moved on. In general British drivers appeared to be the complete opposite to Australian drivers. Everyone was so relaxed, no one was in a hurry and they went out of their way to let someone cut in front of them. It was a strange sight.
We headed out to a military camp in Portsmouth to see Danny's cousin Giles and his family. They were lovely and offered us a place to stay if we travel through Portsmouth again. Danny was keen to accept this after Giles mentioned all the game meats available. That point didn't win me over. The family seemed to love living in the camp, with a ton of family activities on offer and even their own beach.
Next stop was Corfe castle, but we didn't feel like paying the hefty entrance fee so instead we walked around the perimeter. All we saw were unimpressive ruins on top of a hill. The steep sides of the hill seemed to be popular with sheep with long tails, which looked like no other sheep we had ever seen before. In the town of Corfe Danny found a "real ale" sign outside a pub (not for the first time - it's like he has a sensor for these signs), so of course we entered. I don't understand the attraction of warm beer, however they were pouring cold cider so I was happy.