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This post will be about some practical issues that we dealt with during our recent holiday in Dubai.

Timing: First, we went at the right time of year – winter. Summer in the UAE is brutal; temperatures well into the 40°s and high humidity. Even at the end of February we had a couple of days when it reached 30°, although on other days it was lower than that. However at that time of year the humidity is very low, around 40%, and that makes the heat much easier to take. Indeed I remember walking around the Expo in the high temperatures and thoroughly enjoying it. I was once there at the very end of September when the temperature was well into the 30°s and the humidity was high, and just waiting for the hotel shuttle bus outside the airport was a trial. So it’s important to choose the right time of year. In December and early January you can even get some rain….

Getting there: As on all my previous trips, we flew with Emirates from Manchester. Unfortunately this time the outbound flight was delayed by a couple of hours, but that’s unusual – I’ve never experienced that sort of delay with Emirates before, and I’ve now done 18 flights with them. Emirates provide a good full service on their flights, even in Economy – we had two meals on each flight, the first a substantial cooked meal and the second a snack, plus regular drinks service (water/tea/coffee/juices/alcohol), all included in the price. The seats are comfortable and the seat-back entertainment system is excellent. The prices are generally good. Certainly they are the best option for the Middle East and onwards into Asia from UK regional airports, e.g Manchester. I prefer flying on their A380 aircraft, but in Economy there’s no real difference between the A380 and the Boeing 777 (their other aircraft type). Thoroughly recommended.

Money: The local currency is the Dirham, abbreviated either as AED (the formal, ISO abbreviation) or Dhs (used locally on signs, posters, etc). I have a currency card from Caxton. We loaded this with GBP before we left home and then used it while we were in Dubai to withdraw cash from ATMs and also as a debit card in shops. Using this made the money side of things easy. While we were there, the formal exchange rate hovered around £1=4.95 AED, or just under 5 Dhs to the pound.

Communications: I bought a sim for my phone from the local cell-phone service provider, du. This actually lasted for 28 days, but of course I removed the sim when we got back home. I have an iPhone which includes e-sim functionality, and I have my UK service on the e-sim so the physical sim slot is available to be used for sims while on a trip. I bought the sim with 6Gb of data and that cost me 100 AED, or about £20 or just over. So a bit expensive for a week, but worth it, just for Google Maps. Certainly cheaper than the roaming charges would have been on my UK service.

Getting around: we started off using taxis, and these are cheap, certainly cheaper than taxis in Sheffield. That seems to be what most visitors do, and to be fair for a couple or a family, it often makes sense. But I always enjoy using the local public transport, so later in the week we started to use the metro. You have to have a smart card to do this, but they are available from machines at any Metro station. We bought a ‘Silver’ Nol (that’s N-O-L) smart card each, for 25 AED (about £5 or just over), and of that 19 AED is credit. It’s easy to top up the card, again at the Metro stations, and that can be done in multiples of 5 AED (about £1). Fare costs are very cheap – 3 AED for a journey within one zone and 5 AED for a journey across two adjacent zones. (Here’s a link to diagram showing the Zones.) We also found that the Nol card is accepted as a more general payment method – there was a 5 AED charge to go into Zabeel park, and we paid for that with the Nol card.

Using the Metro is easy – except at evening rush hour when it can get very, very crowded – but there are a couple of things to watch out for. First, you have to make sure you’re in the right carriage. There is a 1st class (‘Gold’ class) carriage for which you need a 1st class ticket, of course. There’s also a ‘Women & Children only’ carriage, and you need to be careful with that. It is in fact an offence for a man to enter that carriage, even if he then walks out of it down the train. Fortunately the position of the Gold and Women’s carriages are indicated on the platforms. Then there are the station names. These change from time to time! – because they’re sponsored, and the sponsorship can change. Fortunately each station is also numbered, and the numbers don’t change. The station names, the announcements, the ticket machines, in fact everything on the system, appears in both English and Arabic.

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Thoughts on Dubai

Downtown Dubai skyline from Port Rashid (2019)

I’ve visited Dubai four times. One was on my first visit to SE Asia; then as day visits during the cruise element of my third visit; a third very brief visit to break up the long flight home from Singapore in 2019; and now this one, the longest visit yet, and the first with Val. So I feel that I’m now able to make some comment on Dubai.

It is a very strange place. The first thing to recognise is that more than 80% of the population are expatriates, mainly from the Indian sub-continent. The only actual Emiratis you can be sure of meeting are the staff on the immigration desks at Dubai International airport. The next thing, which is actually pretty obvious when you walk around, is that it is an entirely artificial place – I have photos showing Dubai in the 1950s and it’s a very traditional, low-rise town sandwiched between the Arabian Gulf and the desert; it owed its existence to the creek which functioned as a simple regional port.

Everything changed In the late 50s and 60s. Oil was discovered, first in Abu Dhabi and subsequently (in smaller quantities) in Dubai. The UK announced that it would no longer be able to provide external security and to continuing managing the various emirates’ foreign affairs (which it had been doing since the late 19th century). The UK’s withdrawal from the region ultimately lead to the creation of the UAE (United Arab Emirates) nation in 1971, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the dominant Emirates (out of seven in total). Sheikh Rashid, the ruler of Dubai from the late 1950s to 1990, decided that Dubai should build on its history as a regional trading location and develop business services, and that the oil revenues would be directed towards providing the necessary infrastructure to support that. The key moment came in 1979 when the Dubai World Trade Centre was inaugurated, by Sheikh Rashid and HM The Queen(!). It was located out in the desert some miles from the creek, the traditional centre of Dubai, and many people wondered how successful it would be; today it’s on the edge of the modern Downtown Dubai area, which has been developed further out still. It sent the message “Dubai is open for business” to the world, and the world duly came to Dubai to do business; and all the subsequent development flowed from that.

Media coverage of Dubai always talks about the glitz, the ostentatious wealth and the conspicuous consumption, and that certainly exists. But what I’ve seen from my visits is that the great majority of people there are not wealthy and not conspicuously consuming. They’re actually working very hard – they’re employed as hotel staff, shop assistants, taxi drivers, and so on. Many of them have been in Dubai for some years – we spoke to people in the hotel who had been living in Dubai for two, three and even seven years. What I’ve read suggests that Dubai attracts several different types of people. First, and most numerous, would be people from low-income countries who can earn more in Dubai than they possibly could in their country of birth, and who are probably sending money home. The second group consists of those who are enterprising in a business sense and who see Dubai as a place where they could fulfil those ambitions; Dubai is still very much “open for business”, and the barriers to doing business there are very low. (There may be some cross-over between these two groups: on my third visit I found that the hotel kitchen and waiting staff from the breakfast service were working on their own account to provide a buffet evening meal – the hotel didn’t provide one itself, but had done a deal with the kitchen and restaurant staff from the breakfast service.) And finally there are professional people working at senior levels in various enterprises, e.g. finance managers or pilots, just to mention two possibilities.

I’m not closing my eyes to the issues that can occur in Dubai. It is a Muslim society and that has consequences: the letter of the law regarding same-sex relationships is harsh, for example. I also recognise that there’s not a lot of protection for employees and their conditions of employment. I believe that labour or trade unions are not lawful, and there have been continual stories over the years about dreadful working conditions for construction workers and domestic staff (who are all expatriates, of course). But the Dubai government is making progress in improving the regulation of these industries (and enforcing the regulations!) and I believe that things are improving. And there are further considerations that I think are worth bearing in mind. If we only visited places that had governments and policies that we approved of, we might not do much travelling. I feel it’s better to engage with societies with different policies than boycott them. It’s also worth saying that in some areas, e.g. education and women’s rights, Dubai’s (indeed, the UAE’s) policies are progressive, much more so than in some other Muslim and Arab countries.

It’s a strange, fascinating place. I’ve enjoyed my visits, although I recognise that I am a rich westerner only seeing the place for short periods during the times of year when the climate is bearable (in fact, very pleasant…). I can see myself returning.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt hotel for our holiday. There are lots of hotels in Dubai, and choosing one is a bit of a task. Popular locations are in the Downtown Dubai area along Sheikh Zayed Road; by Dubai Marina; and near the Creek. The Grand Hyatt is close to the Creek (and also therefore close to the airport).

It also stands in its own grounds. There’s a garden with an outdoor pool, and this are unusual; the hotels in Downtown Dubai and by the Marina are generally enclosed within a big tower. They may have a pool, but it will most likely be inside, and they won’t have grounds. I think that that the Grand Hyatt is different because it’s a bit older than most other hotels – it dates from 2003 (and would have been designed before that) whereas the tower hotels, in any location, were built later. At the time of its opening the Grand Hyatt was in fact the largest hotel in Dubai – 682 rooms, a huge lobby with its own rainforest (see pictures below) and a big convention centre. It’s certainly built on a lavish scale.

I have a feeling, however, that the intervening 20 years (almost) have changed its position in the market. I think that when it was opened it was at the top of the market, but not so now. It’s far from being a budget hotel, but it seems that to some extent at least it has dropped into the package market. We saw very few guests who looked as if they were there on business but many leisure-seekers, including significant numbers of families with young children. There’s a cocktail bar, for example, which we patronised but there were never more than half-a-dozen other people in there, despite the hotel’s 682 rooms. (Of course, it’s possible that the bar only got busy after we were tucked up in bed.) Physically the hotel is still exceptional – indeed, the lobby and atrium areas had a feeling of spaciousness that’s very impressive – but I got the feeling that they have changed their operating policies to match their changing market.

We chose this hotel for a number of reasons. First, we wanted somewhere with grounds so that we could walk around outside and still be in the hotel. Secondly, it was close to a public park, the Creek Park, and to a Metro station. And finally we chose it because it was close to the airport. I’ve mentioned before that Dubai is very spread out, and given that we weren’t due to land until after midnight we didn’t want to be faced then with a half-hour taxi ride. Given that we were in fact two hours late landing, that was a good decision – the drive from the airport to the hotel was less than 10 minutes. But the other reasons turned out to be less important. We walked around the grounds just once, to look at them, but apart from that we didn’t use them. We didn’t get to the park because it was on the other side of a very busy road and it was a long detour to a pedestrian crossing. We did find the Metro, however, and used it several times in the second half of the holiday. In contrast to the difficult walking route to the park, we were able to stroll to the Metro station (‘Dubai Healthcare City’) in just under 10 minutes. However, we were almost always alone in doing so. Our experience on the Metro (which works very well, btw) suggested to us that very few tourists use it, it seems to be predominantly for locals. Visitors generally use taxis, it seems, as did we at the beginning of the week. So overall we might have done better to have stayed in one of the tower hotels in the Downtown area – not much further from the airport, close to the centre of things, and even handier for the Metro which runs along that road.

I ought to say that we weren’t disappointed in the hotel, but on reflection we could perhaps have done better. We’ll know for next time. Anyway, here are some images.

On our last full day we went to Dubai Marina. This is a new district about 30 kilometres from our hotel and ‘old Dubai’, and maybe 25 kilometres from Downtown Dubai. It’s a fairly new development – the marina, which must be several kilometres long, was constructed parallel to the coastline, with channels cut through to the sea at each end – it’s set back maybe half a kilometre from the sea. An upmarket mall was built on the landward side, and then the site was thrown open to developers. It’s now a forest of huge towers, both residential and hotel. All along the marina are restaurants, cafes and other eateries – but of course no bars, there’s a prohibition throughout Dubai against places where alcohol is consumed opening directly from the street or public thoroughfare. (Hotel bars, of course, are buried within the hotels and are therefore acceptable.)

There are three ways of getting there. You can go by taxi, but that’s quite expensive, even in one of Dubai’s cheap taxis. Or you can use the metro, but thanks to the distance that takes a long time; or you can travel on the Dubai ferry, from Al Ghubaiba in Dubai Creek all the way into the heart of the marina, and this was what we chose to do.

I had read somewhere that the ferry ride would take ‘an hour or so’, but in the event it was almost two hours. Given that it didn’t leave the Creek until 1pm, it was almost 3 o’clock before we reached the Marina, by which time we were very hungry and we therefore decided that food was the first priority. Readers, I have to tell you that despite the attractions of food from all five continents, on this occasion we decided that we wanted fast food, and a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese hit the spot….

Suitably fed and watered we wandered around for a while. We had hoped to explore the Marina quite thoroughly, including finding our way to something called The Walk, an area between the Marina and the beach that’s apparently packed with restaurants and cafes, but given the time we decided to give it a miss. So we just walked along the Marina for a while before heading for the Metro to get back to the hotel. I knew from previous experience that the Metro Red Line gets incredibly, unbelievably busy by about 5pm, and I wanted to avoid that. I once did a Metro trip from Dubai Mall into central Dubai and I’m sure my feet weren’t touching the ground for most of the journey, nor was a hanging onto a support. Not a fun experience, and not one I wanted to repeat or to have Val experience. Even starting at 4:30 the train was full, standing room only, but two polite gentlemen of Indian appearance very kindly gave these two seniors their seats. Thank you, gentlemen.

We had in fact spent an hour or so in the morning wandering the Shindagha area of Dubai Creek so we’d been away from the hotel since shortly after 10 o’clock, so we didn’t feel that we’d wasted the day. And the Marina is extraordinarily impressive, with endless skyscrapers, on either side, throngs of people, very pleasant temperatures, and that impossibly clear blue sky. A good day, and actually not too strenuous.

 

Visits to Expo2020

The central plaza at Expo2020

So we visited Expo 2020, on a couple of days. After all, this was the principal ostensible reason for going. Just getting away for a week, to somewhere warm, after two years of not being able to do so had nothing to do with it. At all.

The Expo is on a new site about 25 miles or so from our hotel (Dubai really is that spread out). It’s broadly organised in three themes – Sustainability; Mobility; and Opportunity – and each theme has a has large area of the Expo dedicated to it within which is a grand thematic pavilion. Then in each area are the country pavilions, and the exhibition or display in each country pavilion is supposed to reflect, to some degree, the theme of the area it was situated in. There were over 200 country pavilions, ranging from vast (Thailand, for example) to small (Nigeria was just one room on one level). Then there were food outlets, again ranging in size from small carts to full scale restaurants. Some of the latter were associated with a country pavilion – we had a very good lunch in the restaurant attached to the Thai pavilion, for example – but there were a number of non-country specific outlets, e.g. there Costa Coffee outlets all over the site. There were also several parks, and a number of performance stages dotted around.

On our first day there (Saturday) we got there on the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel; this departed at 09:10 and arrived by about 9:45. There was also a later departure, at 11:10, and two return journeys with pickups from Expo at 6:45 and 8:45 in the evening. Our shuttle bus (just 17 seats) was pretty full on the way there, but when we came back at 6:45 there were just four of us on the bus. This suggested that the later bus might have been over-full. Fortunately there were alternatives; the local public transport authority was running free buses from various points in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even points further afield every 30 minutes or so, and once you’ve got by bus to a convenient point in central Dubai then you can always get a taxi or use the metro to get to your hotel. Indeed, this was what we had to do today (Monday): the early bus to the Expo was full and we couldn’t get on it, so we took a taxi to Dubai Mall (25Dhs or a bit more) and then the free bus from there. Easy enough, but it meant we didn’t get there until an hour later than planned. Then we reversed the operation mid-afternoon.

Readers, we did not do well on Saturday. We visited a couple of the thematic pavilions (Sustainability and Opportunity) but keep looking at the country pavilions. In fact, we now think that it was the more thematic elements that were the best thing about the Expo. Some of the country pavilions hewed closer to their theme than others, and these were better – Singapore, situated in the Sustainability area, majored on their ‘city in a garden’ policy, for example. Others seemed to pay little attention to the theme.

Queues (and sunshade umbrellas) outside the Swiss pavilion

We were also taken aback by the fact that there were queues to get into many of the pavilions, and at first this put us off visiting them. For example, there were long queues around both of the entrances to the UAE’s pavilion, the biggest at the Expo, and so we didn’t bother. Later in the day we became more relaxed about this, but in the course of that first day, a fair proportion  of our time was taken up by foraging for food and searching for sanitation….

We decided to return today (Monday) specifically to target three pavilions that we had not visited: the UAE, Mobility, and Thailand. We were immediately disappointed when we discovered that the UAE pavilion was closed for most of the day, But we regrouped and did Thailand (where, as I mentioned above, we had an excellent lunch) and the Mobility pavilion. This was actually the best thing we saw, and we decided to leave after that – finish on a high note.

On purely practical points, we managed to bag ourselves a free multi-day pass courtesy of Emirates Airline who were supplying them to passengers. In theory visitors had to buy tickets, but I get the impression that as the Expo has continued (it’s been open since 1 October 2021 and will finish at the end of March), free tickets have become more common. Additionally, they were checking Covid vaccination status. Well in fact we snuck in on Saturday without that being checked which was as well because we weren’t ready to display our statuses, but by today we’d got that sorted out (downloaded the Covid pass to Apple Wallet) and indeed they were checked.

I’m still trying to summarise my thoughts about the Expo. Parts of it were spectacular (it certainly looked a million dollars), but it was also hot and tiring. And you have to ask about an exposition dedicated in part to Sustainability that’s being staged in a small desert country where everything has to be air-conditioned, and to which many visitors fly. But I have to say that I’m glad we went.

Dubai Mall and Aquarium

On our first morning we went to Dubai Mall. My planning had seen us using the Metro to get around to places like this, but it’s a walk of about a kilometre to the nearest metro station and it was already hot by the time we were ready to go (having breakfasted late), so we did what everyone else does in Dubai – got a taxi.

Dubai Mall is vast – when first opened it was reputedly the largest in the world – and your first struggle is to navigate your way around it. I’d been there on a previous visit so had some knowledge of it, but I quickly got confused. But after wandering aimlessly around for a while we found an ATM and got Dirhams, the local currency, and then found a branch of ‘du’, the local mobile provider, and bought a sim for 100 Dhs (about £20). This will give me some local calls free, some international calls for free (they say – not going to test it), and 6 Gb of data. It’s actually for 28 days of which we will only use 7, but there you go. These days I feel lost whenever I’m in a strange place and don’t have Google Maps available. (Actually, I often am lost whenever etc, etc.)

While we were having lunch we realised that we were right by the entrance to Dubai Aquarium which I had on my list of possible things to do. It has little or nothing to do with Dubai or the wider UAE – it’s An Attraction – but given that we were there we decided to do it. it cost us about £60 each, but we enjoyed the visit. I won’t go into all the details, but we were close-up with a lot of fish. As walk-in aquariums go, this must be one of the best, and we didn’t feel short-changed. We saw a lot of fish; we fed some of them; we did a glass-bottomed boat tour so we could see more fish (or possibly the same fish from a different angle); we saw divers feeding the sharks (yes there were sharks; they’re well-fed as this stops them eating the other fish); we saw penguins (OK, birds rather than fish, but actually quite fish-like in their own way); and we saw the crocodiles being fed (once again, not fish but water-dwelling and seriously impressive so I’ll allow it).

Back at the hotel we went down for a buffet dinner and drinks at about 7 o’clock, and later went for a cocktail. Exhaustion (not the alcohol) finally overcame us at around 10 o’clock and we retired to our room for an early-ish night. Not only did we need this because of our limited sleep the night before but we were planning on being on the hotel’s free shuttle bus to the Expo at 9:10 the following morning, so the alarm was set. So we would have to get up, shower & dress, breakfast, do all the after-breakfast stuff and be in the lobby in about two hours. Who says holidays are for relaxing?

 

Back to Dubai

Evening view from our room

Ever since I’d heard about it, I’d wanted to visit Expo 2020 in Dubai. I wasn’t sure what the Expo would actually be, or be about, but it sounded interesting & fun; and of course it would be in Dubai, which I knew. (Well, I’d been there a few times.) So from late 2018 I started asking Trailfinders if they knew about it, and they said (a bit uncertainly at that time) that they were sure they did, but that they had no details yet. Then of course Covid arrived in early 2020, and international travel stopped; and that was that, I assumed. However, the Dubai government obtained agreement to postpone the event for 12 months, to run from Autumn 2021 to early spring 2022. So here we are, in February/March 2022, attending Expo 2020! – they retained the original name.

I say ‘we’, because one advantage of the enforced delay is that Val is no longer working – she retired in July 2021 – and has therefore been able to come with me without any problems. Cue a search for hotels of a quality to suit…

We booked through Trailfinders in Sheffield, for a seven night stay at the Grand Hyatt, not too far from the airport. I think it dates from the late 90s and must have been planned before then, so just before the explosion in construction. Certainly it stands in its own grounds, including gardens and a pool. In contrast the newer hotels along Sheikh Zayed road are each in their own spectacular tower, but the tower is all there is.

We flew with Emirates from Manchester. It’s about 7 hours or so in the air, which generally means 8 hours or so on the plane. Our flight was scheduled to leave Manchester at 13:10, arriving at Dubai International airport at around midnight local time (about 8pm UK time). In the event it was delayed for a couple of hours – the inbound flight was late arriving, and then because it was snowing(!) at Manchester airport the aircraft needed de-icing, and there’s a lot of A380 to de-ice. So in the event we didn’t land at Dubai until 2am local time.

Entry to Dubai went very quickly and smoothly, as did getting our bags. We had arranged a transfer to the hotel which got us there quickly and very comfortably. Even so it was 3:15am when we checked in and about 4 o’clock before we collapsed into bed. (Fortunately, Emirates’ schedules mean that travellers are arriving into Dubai throughout the night, so the reception desks at the hotels are staffed 24/7 – no night porters here.) We had thought that we would not sleep easily – that sudden switch between busy busy travelling and lying in bed can be disconcerting – but in fact we both slept well, if not perhaps overly long. We woke up at around half-past nine the following morning; fortunately, breakfast is served from 6am to 11am. Having breakfasted we took a taxi to Dubai Mall, to get some currency and a local sim for my phone. Details of this adventure, together with an impromptu visit to the aquarium at Dubai Mall, will be in the next post!

A Visit to Birmingham

Near Brindley Place and the old Gas Street basin

In early December we went to Birmingham for a few nights. In recent years we’ve had a short winter holiday instead of giving each other Christmas presents; this year we mixed that with the opportunity for a family get-together and lunch. We stayed in central Birmingham – that’s an easy place for family members living in the midlands to get to.

We stayed at Hotel Indigo in The Cube, a modern building close to Brindley Place. That in turn is a restored/converted canal area, close to the former Gas Street Basin. This used to be the heart of the Birmingham narrowboat canal ring, about three-quarters of a mile from the city centre (New Street/High Street area). Once it was very industrial, with lots of small-scale factories and warehouses alongside the canal; then as the canals fell out of use it became increasingly derelict; but today it’s an entertainment/restaurant hub. Some of the buildings are converted/restored old buildings, others are new developments. It’s a busy and attractive area.

One afternoon during our stay we went for a walk along the canals. This turned out to take the best part of two hours. We walked through the former Gas Street Basin, continued along the canal through the heart of Brindley Place, and then turned right onto the Birmingham and Faiseley canal, eventually ending up near Digbeth. This canal runs around central Birmingham, first just to the north of the city centre and then to its east. The industrial architecture on view is impressive. Along one stretch the canal drops through a series of locks, some of which are effectively underneath buildings overhead. Some of these look like restored former industrial buildings, while others look as if they are new builds, both commercial and residential. It’s extraordinary to think that the canal, which just 30 or 40 years ago was decried as an eyesore and a waste of space and resource, is now regarded as a desirable thing to have in the basement of your development, or at the least alongside it!

I think that what Birmingham has done with its industrial heritage is interesting and worthwhile. Better to find a use of the old facilities and preserve/maintain them, than destroy them. Well done Birmingham.

A Visit to Northumberland

Looking north from Hadrians Wall into the badlands of Caledonia….

Carrying on with the theme of ‘Holidays from last Year’ (see my previous post for the first of these), here’s a second about a short break we had in Northumberland in the early autumn of 2021.

We’ve never really been to Northumberland. We’ve driven through it, up the A1 on the way to Edinburgh, and we’ve ridden trains up the East Coast Main Line and enjoyed the sights you see on that journey: Durham cathedral (ok, not actually Northumberland but never mind), crossing the Tyne on the way into Newcastle, Holy Island, Berwick-on-Tweed, Torcross  Nuclear Power Station (ok, that one’s definitely not in Northumberland, it’s well into Scotland, but still a remarkable site….). But we’ve never visited Northumberland, and never got away from the main arteries through the region.

In the early autumn of 2021 we had the opportunity to have a couple of nights’ stay at a reasonable price at Slaley Hall, a country house (possibly 19th century) that’s been converted into a hotel and golf course. It’s in the south of Northumberland, quite close to the County Durham border in fact. Its main attraction is the golf course, which looks beautiful from the hotel and is, I gather, rewarding to play. Certainly there were lots of golfers there, both staying at the hotel and visiting for the day. We, on the other hand, were there to enjoy the area and the countryside.

We’d booked a night in a Premier Inn in Country Durham for the night before; this would give us two full days in the area, plus as much of the day of our journey home as we felt like spending. We’d planned three possible destinations, weather permitting. The first would be to explore a National Trust site, Allen Banks. This lies along the River Allen which rises in hills on the Northumberland/Durham border and runs swiftly northwards to the River South Tyne. Not a long river – just 5 miles from where it forms at the confluence of two tributaries – it runs mainly through a steep-sided gorge before emptying into the South Tyne. It’s this gorge that the NT has taken over. In fact much of the gorge is cultivated – it’s a late Victorian garden!

Our second objective was Hadrian’s Wall, and specifically the site of Housesteads fort which lies on the wall. I had in fact visited Housesteads long before, but my memories of it were quite hazy.

Finally, if the weather was good on the day we were due to drive home, I felt that detouring to the coast and visiting Whitley Bay might be enjoyable, and very different from the two previous days. I’m pleased to say that we managed all of these things.

We drove up to the Premier Inn at Bishop Auckland in drenching rain – possibly the least pleasant drive I’ve done for many years. We were just there for a single night, and the hotel and attached restaurant/pub fulfilled its purpose. Then the following morning we headed across country, driving up though Weardale in the direction of Alston. In contrast to the day before this was a lovely drive. The sun was shining, the scenery was lovely, and the roads were deserted – I remember miles of road with no other vehicles in view, either in front or behind. Before we reached Alston we turned off north and went high over the watershed between the Wear and Tyne valleys, and dropped down into Allendale. We stopped at Allendale Town – actually a small village, but very beautiful. In the past, before transport was easy, this would have been a hub of activity. Today it’s quite sleepy and peaceful. We drove  down lower Allendale until we reached the Tyne valley and found our way to the Allen Banks NT site.

This was an impressive spot. We did a circular walk – a couple of miles up one side of the river, walking high up on the bank, then dropping down to the river, crossing it via an old foot bridge and basically walking back on the other side. We had some route-finding problems – our map suggested that on the way back we could get back down to the river edge and cross it via a suspension bridge, but we didn’t find any paths that would lead us to it so we navigated our way out via a different route. We later learned that the map was wrong – the suspension bridge was destroyed in a flood some years ago, and we had missed the warning notices near the car park. All together we were walking for a couple of hours or more; a lovely morning in beautiful and dramatic scenery. That took more or less to check-in time at the hotel, which we eventually found after a traumatic time navigating our way through Hexham.

The hotel itself was fine. Not perhaps as grand as it likes to suggest it is, but we had a good time. We particularly enjoyed the main bar area, which was bright, airy and comfortable.

The following day we went to Housesteads Roman fort, on Hadrian’s Wall. Obviously this is a ruin, but has been tidied up and made intelligible to a non-expert audience. In fact the information boards tell the fort’s history well – established before the Wall, then having its northern side turned into the Wall; abandoned when the frontier was pushed north to the Forth-Clyde gap; reestablished when that in turn was abandoned; and further changes in the late Roman period as the nature of the military units posted there changed. Finally, abandoned altogether (although I wonder how much of the masonry used to build it found its way into other nearby structures over the centuries). It’s an evocative site. From the fort you can walk along, and even (for a short distance) on the remains of the Wall – it stands maybe 5 feet above ground level near Housesteads. We walked along it as far as Milecastle 37, which is the best-preserved mile castle along the wall, and back again.

River South Tyne at Hayden Bridge

On the way back to the hotel we looked for some lunch in the small town of Haydon Bridge. We thought we were going to be unsuccessful until we walked into The General Havelock Inn, which was displaying a ‘Lunches served’ sign The pub itself is small and we weren’t feeling hopeful but we were shown into a restaurant at the back. This was obviously a former stone barn or something similar where we were served a simple ‘pub classic’ meal that was actually the best food we had throughout the holiday. Recommended, if you’re ever in that area.

Finally, on the last morning the sun shone again and we drove to the coast at Whitley Bay. We didn’t stay long – we still had a long drive home – but we had a good walk along the beach. We drove back down past the other seaside townships along the coast, through Cullercoats and Tynemouth  before heading for the Tyne tunnel. And we drove past the Spanish City amusement park – so of course I couldn’t help remembering that Dire Straits song, Tunnel of Love, with the line “From Cullercoats to Whitley Bay, out to Rockaway”. But all of these seaside towns looked attractive in their own way.

We enjoyed this break very much. As I said at the top, we’ve never been to this part of England before, and we liked it enough to seriously think about going back. Maybe further north, so that Alnwick, Holy Island and maybe Berwick would be within easy reach. Hopefully, that will happen this summer.

Along the Thames near Henley

Well, this is the first post here in a very long time. Last year just didn’t feel like the time to be posting about ‘travel’, even though we did a bit of it (but only in the UK). However my New Year’s resolutions include things about being more positive because, like so many others, I found 2021 hard to cope with; a continual see-saw of hopes and disappointments; and that therefore I should recommence writing posts here. So here goes.

Many years ago I happened to take my elder daughter down to Heathrow, and en-route we stopped somewhere along the Thames for lunch. I liked what I saw and determined that one day I’d go back. Years passed but eventually I booked a short break at the Hotel Du Vin in Henley-on-Thames for early summer 2020. Well, that didn’t happen thanks to Covid lockdown, but we rebooked for the equivalent period (end of June) in 2021.

We spent four nights at the Hotel du Vin in Henley. Like many hotels in this chain, it’s in a re-purposed old building, in this case the old Brakspears brewery. In general they do these conversions very well, and we enjoyed the hotel. Good-sized room, comfortable bed, characterful building – what’s not to like. We had three full days in the Thames Valley, plus the journey down.Sadly the weather was not on our side – it was cloudy and overcast for a lot of the stay, and rainy for part of the time.

Waddesden Manor

On the way down we visited Waddesden Manor, a National Trust site. Mainly we visited the gardens; but the house is actually owned by the Rothschild family and not surprisingly the on-site shop specialises in wine from the Rothschild family’s various vineyards. Just up our street, then… We enjoyed the visit and would like to go back.

Then on to Henley which we reached in the late afternoon. We had brief walk around the area by the hotel – it’s close to the river – then had a quick drink in the courtyard and laterhad dinner. Truthfully, this was not very inspiring; burgers and not especially great wine. Still, we were also tired after the drive and the visit to Waddesden Manor.

 

For our first full day we stayed local. We explored the town in the morning, and we found it attractive and busy. The best part of the day, however, was exploring the riverside. We walked upstream for a couple of miles, up past Marsh Lock and across the fields until the Thames Path (which we were on) moved inland, and when it hit suburbia we turned round and walked back. We were impressed by the river-side architecture – oh, to have the money to live like that! – but the most delightful part of the day was the visit to the Museum of Rowing and River Life, beside the river on the edge of Henley. This was interesting and quirky, but the best part was an exhibition based on The Wind in the Willows, which is of course set along the Thames. (Kenneth Grahame, the author, lived for many years at Cookham). That evening we had an excellent meal at The Giggling Squid in Henley.

Our second full day was grey and overcast, with rain later. This turned into a bit of a ‘filler’ day. We went to Ham House in Kingston-on-Thames for the morning, then walked along the river again after lunch until the rain started, and spent the afternoon in the hotel. Dinner that evening was in the hotel, an ‘English Food & Wine’ meal. For example, I had a Battered Salmon main course with a rosé sparkling wine, so basically fish & chips & fizz! Interesting, but not altogether convincing.

The third day was the best. The sun came out, and that helped, of course. We did a long riverside walk – 9 miles, from Marlow back to Henley. We got the local bus into Marlow (which is the first town downstream from Henley), loaded up with refreshments in Marlow, and set off. I had been worried there would no facilities – i.e. refreshments and toilets – en-route, but in fact I needn’t have worried. About two-and-a-bit miles from Marlow we found a little refreshment kiosk near Hurley lock where we had a cup of tea; there were also toilets there. Then after quite a few more miles, and with lunchtime approaching, we found The Flower Pot Hotel, a lovely riverside pub at Aston. We stopped here for lunch and a soft drink – if we’d started on the alcohol I don’t think we’d have been able to tear ourselves away.

During the final stretch of the walk along the river into Henley we observed a lot of boats being placed onto the river. There were a number of eights, plus lots of smaller boats. Then we noticed that all of the oarsmen were in fact oarswomen; and I later learned that this was the first preparation day for the 2021 Henley Women’s Regatta. This was first held in 1988, in response to the absence of women’s events at Henley Royal Regatta. The latter does now include women’s events, but Women’s Henley (as it’s known) has gone from strength to strength.

At the end of the 9-mile walk!

At the end of all that walking we had a glass of wine on the riverside terrace of the Angel Inn, by Henley bridge. Drinking 250ml of Malbec out of a full plastic cup was an odd experience, but enjoyable; especially with the sunshine. Dinner that evening was out of the hotel again – an excellent Italian meal at the Villa Marina. For me this was the best meal of the holiday; my main course was ‘Involutini di Pollo ai Carciofi e Spinaci’ – stuffed chicken breast with marinaded artichoke & spinach, and it was absolutely delicious. We washed it down with an excellent bottle of Pinot Grigio, which was a number of steps better than standard supermarket/pub PG.

 

This was our first holiday for over a year. It’s fair to say that before we went I was nervous about being out, but we avoided the dreaded virus. Overall the holiday was excellent. Not cheap, but worth it. The hotel was good as a hotel – quirky, characterful and comfortable – though perhaps a bit let-down by its restaurant. The first and third full days were very enjoyable, and the two meals away from the hotel were excellent. I preferred the Italian meal on the last night, Val probably preferred the Thai curry a couple of nights earlier, but both were very good.