Saturday, 21 February 2015

Puppies Galore

Hector has been here three weeks.  After a start where I had moments of thinking "god, can I really cope with this?!" we have settled in beautifully with each other.  We've got a perfect routine of play, sleep, brushing, training and "leave Daddy while he pretends to do serious things on his computer" time.  The real anxiety I was feeling about whether I was doing things right has been replaced by complete joy at having a little collie in the house again and the excitement of going downstairs at 7am, wishing him good morning, and seeing him throw a little puppy joy fit in response.







He's 13 weeks old on Sunday, has had all his jabs, and is turning into the little world adventurer I'd like him to be.  I'm desperately trying to "socialise" him to as many experiences as possible in the 16 week window before his brain shuts off to new things.  I completely misunderstood in the past what that meant: I thought it was just about meeting other dogs.  It isn't: it's about taking him to town on market day, meeting people, hearing loud bangs, watching ducks at the pond, going inside other people's houses, experiencing noisy motorbikes, not being freaked out by my carrying an umbrella etc.  At his age he's open to it all, especially if it's from the safety of Daddy's arms.  From 16 weeks he won't be, and overcoming frightening new things will be so much harder.





His socialisation practice included a 3 hour drive in the car on Sunday, to visit his Granny in Hampshire.  I kept him up and tired him out beforehand, but he was as good as gold.  He was even better on the way home, when I decided going via London would be a cunning plan.  Oscar used to shake and get panic attacks with all the traffic, sirens, horns etc going off, even from safely inside the car.  Hector just took it all in.  Meh, he's going to be a tough little Lassie boy.  We stopped off for a visit with my best friend in Islington, but in total he spent 5 hours in the car that day.  Just like a baby, the motion seemed to send him to sleep and there wasn't even a squeak out of him.


Oscar used to be the supervisory foreman at our farm spa project, watching all the building works going on with interest.  Hector has stepped into his paws and is now carefully checking budgets from the comfort of his basket in my office.  Or something.  It's so amazing to be able to have him with me all day and know there's a big secure garden outside for when he wants playtime.


Hector is a complete bundle of energy and joy and I just can't get over how different his character is to Oscar.  Oscar, the zen, shy, calm, wise old collie who spent hours in his basket meditating... and Hector, the excitable, bouncy, lunatic puppy who will go rushing up to anyone with his tail going ten to the dozen.  Every day he has a play date with Bertie, his border terrorist friend.  At first Hector just fell over and waddled round as Bertie charged by.  Now he's giving Bertie a hard time of it, trying to knock him over, launching his whole body at him, and playing tug of war.  Watch out Berts, your time as Alpha Dog is coming to an end!





He's growing up fast.  Really fast in fact: his weight has gone from 6.8kg to 9.2kg in 17 days.  That means he's piled on 35% of his own body weight in just over 2 weeks.  I'd have to put on 4 stone to achieve the same!  I'm feeding him solely on Lily's Kitchen: superb, holistic, organic dog food with 60% actual meat content: not derivatives, boiled up skin, carcinogenics and all the other crap that isn't fit for human consumption you find in the mainstream stuff.  You can actually see the vegetables and meat in the food and he can't get enough of it.  It isn't cheap (I've worked out he's already costing £1000 a year on food, plus treats) but the results are so clear.  His coat is amazing, he has bright little button eyes, and genuinely doesn't smell.  Farts, smelly coats and all the rest of those delightful doggie odours are often just down to bad diet.



He has a basket of toys, including his favourite, a "road kill fox" which has a flattened middle complete with a set of tyre tracks across it.  Okay we're venturing into slightly dark humour there, but whatevs.  All the toys go back into their box when playtime is over, so he knows how the day divides up and gets into a nice routine. 

And the training is going well!  He just rolled over the first time I put the lead on him.  30 years ago people would have taken the approach that you just try to drag the puppy and force it to walk.  Now the way you go about it is that you pop the lead on and let the puppy wander around in the garden getting used to the fact it won't hurt him.  You pick it up, tell him to come, bribe him with a biskwit, and he learns good things come from this attachment.  Within 2 days he was walking hesitantly, and yesterday, his 3rd day he was prancing along the street with me, ignoring the traffic, off on his first proper little walk.  I also use a soft harness as there's no pulling on their neck, which can cause a panic attack or a tantrum.





NOW the big news.  Meet Florian.  He's 9 weeks old and I'm meeting him on Monday.  He's the long awaited beautiful, chunky, sable and white puppy from Oscar's dad's breeder.  As such, he's a distant relative of Hector and will become his little adopted brother if the two get on, and all goes well.  And of course they are both related to the one and only, late, great Oscar.  How happy he would have been to have seen two collie babies in his cottage, looking after me, and giving me collie snuggles.



Two puppies in one go... am I crazy?  Possibly, but to be honest I can think of nothing more wonderful than a house full of collies.  The two boys will play with each other, exercise each other, destroy everything, and keep each other company.  Hector has settled in so well, and the timing is therefore far better with the 4 week gap between them.  Ive talked through fully with the breeder the challenges of bringing them both up at the same time, and think I'm up for it.  So watch this space.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Car Crash

To Liam T. [Name and Address Redacted]
Sent 1st class today
6 February 2015



Dear Liam

I'm the driver whose car you ploughed into head-on on the A140 on 5 August 2013, 18 months ago yesterday.  I've waited to write to you until the personal injury aspect of the case settled, which it did today when I accepted a formal offer from your insurers.

I'm writing mainly for my own benefit, because there are a number of things I'd like to say before finally closing this chapter and moving on.

I've never been involved in any kind of road collision before, except a bump once to the back of my car years back.  That sunny afternoon I was coming home in my 3 week old car, which I was enormously proud of and which was to all extents still brand new.  You came out of nowhere on the wrong side of the road, on a bend and on a hill, overtaking.  I was doing exactly 30mph.  I had a second to react before the airbag went off in my face.  In that time I slammed my foot on the brake.  My leg was outstretched rigid when you drove into me head-on.  My right hand was tensed up as I gripped the wheel.

A brand new Mercedes is capable of stopping very rapidly from that speed, in the dry, with brand new tyres.  I've been back and paced out the distance from where I think I'd have first seen you, and where the photos show the cars came to a rest on my side of the road.   I'm absolutely sure that I was stationary when you hit me.  The full force of that impact had to go somewhere.  You were probably doing what, 30, 40 mph in a 30mph limit as you overtook?  One witness behind you said she was hanging back because the nature of your driving had scared her and she was worried you were going to hit someone.

The impact went into the front of my car, up my outstretched leg and straight into my spine.  My hand also took some of it and I was lucky it did not break.  Two of the discs in my back ruptured.  You caused £29,500 of damage to my new car.  It is one of the heaviest, safest cars on the road, yet the force was so powerful that the main front chassis member buckled.   The damage was so extensive that the insurers wrote off the car and a £40,000 replacement had to be ordered.  I had waited 3 months for the car; I had to wait another 3 months to factory order another.

The accident hurt, Liam.  I was in A&E until 10pm that night.  I had cuts, a sprained wrist, and I was in shock.  A few days after, my back started really giving me pain.  18 months on I still get terrible lower back pain, tingling in my right foot from nerve damage, and my right knee aches after walking.  I still go to the osteopath regularly and 4 experts I have seen, including a consultant spinal surgeon, don't think it will ever completely heal.  I never had the slightest back problem before this.  Thanks to your driving that afternoon, I will probably have this for life.  I am only 43, so that is quite some time.

It isn't just physical pain either.  I loved driving.  I'm a safe, competent driver, who has driven in 30 countries from the US to Australia.  Now I suffer hesitancy, anxiety and the enjoyment is gone.  That's all as a result of your being in a rush that afternoon.  The nightmares started shortly afterwards too, and the waking up at 4am religiously form an entire year, until I paid for post-traumatic counselling.  Thankfully that's now stopped finally.

I wasn't the only one in my car.  My collie, Oscar, had been with me 10 years that day.  He was my life.  I'd rescued him and he relied on me to look after him and keep him safe.  I couldn't keep him safe from you that afternoon though.  He was behind his dog-guard, but he was still hurled forward with the braking and the impact.  Oscar died on 5 August 2014, 11 years after I got him, and a year to the day that you hit us.  You made the last year of his life excruciatingly painful.  He started limping because of horrific problems with his back after the crash.  In February he suffered a total collapse and I thought I was going to lose him, Liam.  He ended up being on powerful daily painkillers, had to wear 3 braces on his little paws, and had to go to hydrotherapy sessions to get him walking again at all.  When he eventually died it broke my heart, knowing his last year had been so difficult.  That's all because you decided to overtake on a busy road one afternoon.   I hope whatever you were in a hurry to get to was worth it.

Then there's the stress of your refusing to admit liability after the crash you caused.  I lost my no-claims for the year, had to risk running up an enormous hire car bill, chase my useless insurers endlessly, and hear you saying it wasn't your fault because you were suffering "memory loss".  I'll remind you what happened: you were overtaking on a bend and on a hill in a 30mph zone, gambling nothing else was coming northwards.  I was, and you hit me.  You know that.  There was no reasonable explanation for your actions and you could have owned up to them.  It was only finally in December 2014 that your insurers admitted your negligence caused all of this.

Do you remember what you said to me when you got out of your write-off?  I do, as clear as day: "Sorry, mate, no idea why I was on your side".  Then you sat there on your phone making calls for 30 minutes.  I don't call that an apology.  That's why I want you to know what and I and my dog went through.  The look on his face as he couldn't get up and the pain of his last year.  The pain in my back now, that may never go away.

The case is settled.  I believe you cost your insurers around £102,000 in total (2 new cars, my hire car bill, my expenses, my personal injury sum and legal fees).  It was an expensive decision to overtake.  It could have been much pricier - what if I'd been a young mum in an old Vauxhall Nova?  My 1900kg Mercedes probably saved both our lives, absorbing the impact for us both.  You could so easily have killed.  I don't want an apology from you: I want you to reflect on all of this and to learn from it.  I want to know that you realise arriving 15 or 30 minutes late for a meeting is infinitely better than doing what you did.  Risking actual lives.

You were so lucky not to have been banned, as considered by the magistrates.  You were so lucky not to have killed.  Please, Liam, learn.  Slow down.  Don't be a cock.  Think, next time, and every time you drive.

Now let us both draw a line under this and move on.  I need to, and I bet you wish to as well.

Peter E.






Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Hector

On Friday, a six month long search came to an end.  A bundle of fluff, mischief and energy came into my life in the form of a nine week, five day old, blue merle rough collie baby.  Meet Hector!  And no, I didn't get muddled up and accidently brought a snow leopard cub home.  More of that later...

Hector
Even before I lost Oscar, we had been looking for a puppy.  The plan was to give Oscar the opportunity to bring up the pup and instill some of his calm, wise old dog manner, but his sudden death last August sadly put paid to that.  Since then we had a series of raised expectations about potential litters and puppies that all led to nothing, other than frustration and upset.

Tricks of the Trade

Finally at Christmas, Ste and I went to Lincolnshire and saw a litter of nine collie babies, including young Tiganlea Tricks of the Trade, to give him his pedigree name.  Here's the first photo we have of him, aged 4 weeks.  We met him a couple of days after it was taken, and he was still a snuffly, quiet, little thing with his eyes mainly shut:

4 weeks old: Xmas Eve

Well what a difference five weeks makes in the life of a pup.  He's now turned into the most self-confident, mischievous, plucky little toad imaginable.  I think you can see a little of the devil he has in his eyes in the first photo above. I'll introduce you to him, with some videos, after I've spoken a bit about the breed and his wonderfully unusual colouring and fur.

Rough Collies

Rough Collies, or Lassies, are my breed.  I've spent almost half my life with one by my side.   The incredibly intelligent, obedient breed is from the Highlands of Scotland.  They became popular when Queen Victoria took a liking to them.  Christmas trees, curry and collies: you've got to admit Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had taste and enriched all our lives.  Rough collies were originally used to herd cows, whereas their even brighter lowland cousin from the English/Scottish border region, the Border Collie, was mainly used to herd sheep.  Roughs therefore have a completely different instinct and don't tend to round up and run round in circles like Borders do.  They can however gently nip if they get carried away, which is what they would do to a cow's back legs.

Erm... can just see him herding cows in a muddy field. Or not.

Borzoi (the magnificent Russian Wolfhound) was bred in to Rough Collies to give the long distinctive snout and aristocratic bearing.  It is their movie star looks that propelled them to Hollywood from the 1940s on with the series of Lassie films that made them a popular household pet in the 60s and 70s.  Now they're much rarer, as our puppy search showed us, and harder to find.

When we were tracing our family history we came across this extraordinary photo of my great-grandfather, Henry Ede (1860-1940).  He had emigrated from the New Forest in England to Tasmania in Australia, of all places, in 1923.  Here he is sitting on his porch in Dorset County, Tasmania, in the late 1930s.. and look what is by his side.  Rough collies and my family are clearly meant to go together!  The coincidence was all the more remarkable as we got Davy before we discovered this.

Henry Ede and his Rough Collie

Rough Collie Colours

Rough collies come in three 'colours' in Europe, as shown in the following photo (incidentally, god, do those collies need a brushing.  Oscar would *never* have been seen out looking like that!):

Sable/White, Tricolour, Blue Merle (L to R in that order)

The most common type is sable/white.  That's what my childhood dog Davy was.  It's also what Lassie was, and what everyone tends to think of with the breed.   The next, more unusual type, is the tricolour, which has a mainly black coat, with sable/white only on the face, mane and paws.  My beautiful Oscar was a tricolour.

The one and only. Oscar.

Finally, the rarest type is the blue merle.  Technically they are not actually a "colour" as such, but a mutation of the tricolour because they carry the merle gene.  Therefore they have the same white and sable on their faces, manes and paws, but the merle gene makes most of the black on their coat come out as blue/silver grey, with random unaffected mottled black patches or spots.  That's what Hector is and explains why he looks a bit like a snow leopard.

Escapee from Banham Zoo (Snow Leopard Dept)


As I'd had the other two types of collie before, this time I set my heart on a blue.  Every blue merle has a completely unique coat, with varying amounts of black on it, and entirely different patterns.  That's what made finding Hector so hard for us: not only are they incredibly rare, but getting one with facial markings we actually liked was quite a job.  It's not difficult for them to look like they're suffering from the Bubonic Plague, quite frankly!  We didn't want one with enormous patches of black either, as you might as well as well go with a tricolour in that case. 

As for the "blue" element, it's perhaps a bit of a push, but yes - in certain light Hector looks somewhat like Mrs Slocombe on one of her blue rinse days.  I absolutely love the patch of black on his face, his little white socks, and the fact his soft, velvety ears are all spotty.  He is literally the dream blue merle puppy for me.

Hello Molly, how's your pussy?
Pedigree Dogs

People love to knock pedigree breeders.  Like as not this comes from a position of ignorance and bias.  Pedigree breeders are not synonymous with puppy farmers, who keep their poor puppies in cages in horrible conditions and are just interested in the money.  Almost everyone I've come across in the collie world literally has the breed and their dogs as the entire focus of their life.  Yes, you get irresponsible kennels (particularly with more popular breeds), but in a world as small as the rough collie one, reputation and pride seems to be everything to the people involved.  The right breeder will have one or two litters a year, maximum, and the puppies will be born and brought up in their home.

Looks are important and it's a large part of what wins competitions.  However, the dogs also aren't simply bred for looking beautiful: for example after the genetic basis of the collie eye anomaly condition was discovered, the percentage of rough collies in the UK affected has plummeted through careful breeding.  Responsible breeders get their stud dogs hip tested, and the quantity of dogs who go on to suffer the crippling pain and lameness of hip dysplasia has been vastly reduced as a result.  Collies are now in position 162 of 173 breeds with only just over 2.2% of dogs affected.  The Kennel Club actually refuses to register puppies from a mum who has had more than 4 litters during her lifetime, meaning that Kennel Club registered puppies cannot not be by definition from over-bred bitches in puppy farms.  That is a huge safeguard for the health of the mums and the pups.

You hear a lot about "inbred pedigree dogs" yet if you look at Oscar or Hector's pedigrees there is not a single dog name who appears twice, and that's going back six generations.  No quality breeder mates a daughter to its father or grandfather, because a broad genetic background is healthy and it would scream out from the certificate.  Precisely because you will find out their ancestry is the reason this is avoided by anyone who isn't a complete idiot.

Similarly with temperaments, rough collies can be very highly strung and nervous.  When I was asking a collie expert friend who judges the breed at shows about which kennels to look at, she was just as concerned about recommendations based on reputation for producing happy, confident dogs as those who are known for their dogs' looks.  She specifically warned me off one champion breeder because her dogs are known to be jumpy and frightened.  That jumpiness has actually lost her competitions too: a dog that is terrified of everything around it doesn't win.

It's eugenics, pure and simple, but it is producing beautiful, healthy dogs with well-rounded, lovely personalities.  It's certainly a side of the story you just don't hear when you read the various scare stories that the press likes to churn out regularly about dogs whose skulls are too small for their brains, for example, that everyone just takes as gospel.

Hector

Time to talk about Hector.  He was born on 23 November 2014.  He is a cheeky little monkey.  Whereas Oscar (also born on the 23rd, but of September) was some kind of Zen Buddhist monk in a former life, this one has mischief printed all over his cute little face.  He came charging up to me at the breeder on Friday when I collected him, tail a wagging.  Everyone new he meets, he does so with confidence and affection.  Oscar's affection was so hard-earned: he was utterly and splendidly indifferent to almost every person he met: Hector is a total tart by comparison.

Cuddles with Dominic

His first 9 weeks have obviously been happy because he is the pluckiest little boy imaginable.  The only things to have fazed him so far have been my friend Dominic's honking peacock (who can blame the poor collie) and a chair that slid when he launched himself into his basket.  Even that was interesting, because although he jumped, he instantly went back for a sniff and an investigation of where the noise had come from.

You can watch by clicking here (or below on the embedded video) how quickly he settled in.  This was taken one hour after his arrival at my home.  Remember it was the first time away from his siblings, his mum (a blue merle called Taboo) and everything that was familiar to him.  It also followed a two hour drive in the car.  The poor squeaky coke bottle didn't stand a chance with a natural born killer collie baby hunter after it.  He is such a bundle of fun and naughtiness and runs around chasing imaginary monsters, his tail, his squeaky toys or my trouser legs.

video


He chews everything.  It's the way a puppy gets to know their world, and it's fine when it's one of the many toys I've supplied him with.  It's less great when it's my Danish cherry wood table legs, but hey.  I'm working from home all for the next six weeks, so I can watch him and correct him when he mistakes his squeaky chicken for my ficus plant.  That's always a bonus.  I've also ordered rabbit proof cable protectors to keep my lamp cables etc safe from his little needle teeth.  As I type this he's demolishing a dried Icelandic catfish skin: a great healthy treat that he seems to love.

The first few days have been exhausting (he woke me at midnight, 2am, 4am and 6am the first two nights) but we are getting into a routine.  He sleeps in a cage, which is the best way of house training them as they don't want to mess the immediate area they sleep in.  He cried to be let out, which is the correct thing for him to do, but it totally wrecked me and has led to my being run down through lack of sleep, and a stinking cold.  We are now down to just having to let him out at midnight and 5am, and I'm hoping he'll soon be sleeping through the night.  It's fine for him of course, most of the day is spent asleep, mainly in his favourite place wrapped around the warmth of one of my lamps.

LOOK at his little face!

Talking about toilets, I was all stressed after about five "accidents" on my rug on the first day.  I knew you had to watch a puppy closely and pop them outside to get them in the habit of using the garden, but Ste came up with the brilliant suggestion of not just doing that, but giving him the command to go, and then a treat when he came back indoors.  If he slipped up, by contrast, he'd get plonked outside, not told off, but there would be no treat.

And the result: is it actually possible to house train a nine week old puppy in one day?  That's what I seem to have done with this method: he now pottles off to the back door and hasn't had a single accident since the first day.  Amazing, and perhaps a sign of quite how clever he's going to be.  He's even using the very far corner of the garden, of his own accord, in a typically OCD clean collie way.  

video


On the theme of how bright Hector is, he has already learned his name.  That was by day two.  If you don't believe me, watch the video above or click here.  Twice I call his name, and twice he comes.  The maniac racing by is my best friend's border terrier Bertie, who he's allowed to play with because Bertie's all up to date on his jabs.  They are currently having a play date every morning at Yaxley Hall where Bertie lives.  Bertie lost his companion Brunswick in June, and friend Oscar in August, so he's lapping up the puppy company.  In two weeks' time Hector will have had his second set of injections, and will be off venturing further, on all sorts of other walks with me, meeting other doggies.

Nice to have room to stretch your paws on a play date


I've also started teaching Hector the specific commands "come" and "sit" with the aid of treats.  The essential words "biskwits", "Yaxley", "Home" and "dinner" are also being taught.  Cello lessons and beginners' French poetry are pencilled in for March.  We'll leave Chinese until April.

Rollercoaster Ride

It's been a bit of a roller coaster having him, I won't deny it.  It brought back all sorts of emotions at losing Oscar, which were heightened by the lack of sleep.  I like to think of Oscar looking down watching the naughty young pup, shaking his head at how silly he is, but delighted that there is a collie in our home again.

Hector is incidentally actually related to Oscar, which is a wonderful thing.  Oscar's dad was Champion Lynmead Lust in the Dust (aka Yogi).  Hector is also descended from Yogi, in a direct line, on his paternal side.  Hector's dad, Boris, is actually the spitting image of Oscar, and is his great nephew.  I've genuinely never seen a collie anywhere who reminds me as much of Oscar.  I love the family connection and it's one big reason I chose Hector.

Boris: Oscar's great nephew and Hector's father

As wonderful as it is having a new life in the house, it is also incredibly stressful in terms of the responsibility, wanting to be a good dog daddy, and getting everything right.  The first 16 weeks of a dog's life are when its brain increases over 10 times in size.  Everything they experience in this time will set patterns for their entire life, and it is a narrow window which closes at almost exactly 4 months old.  If you're interested in how why that is, read about it here (in particular page 3). 

A big wide world for a tiny puppy to discover

Oscar spent his first 10 months in a kennel and missed out on the most basic things like how to play with toys.  Because of that, I specifically wanted a young puppy this time round, and I want to get it right with Hector: with that responsibility comes a certain amount of feeling really quite daunted.  If he makes mistakes it's because of me: he's come to me a bundle of joy and confidence, and I want to nurture that and produce a dog that is happy for life.

He's also SO little and I'm scared about anything hurting him.   Just look at him in the photo above and also in the car in the picture below.  I could literally fit 12 Hectors in that boot, which Oscar and his friend Brunswick used to fill up on their own.  Big furry lard arses.

Spot the dog

It is however definitely getting easier as we get used to each other, and I'm getting in the swing of having a dog around again.  I'm feeling more relaxed, less like I'm going to do something awfully wrong, and he's starting to come for cuddles of his own accord.  I guess we're starting to fall in love.  It's a bond that will hopefully last all of his life and the next 12-14 years of mine.  He's a lovely, loveable little dumpling and I just want the best for him.

Another arrival?

Now if you've read this all and got a sense of the magic, excitement, but also the apprehension/ sense of responsibility I feel about having Hector, then you may consider me quite mad when I drop in the following.  Oscar was never happier than when he was with his friend Brunswick.  Two dogs play with each other in a way a human never can quite substitute.  They are pack animals, they exercise together, and form doggy-bonds we can't quite understand.  For that reason it's always been my eventual plan to have not one collie, but two.

Enter the possibility of Florian, a sable/white baby who is currently 5 weeks old.  He's from Oscar's dad's kennel, so again a direct relative of Oscar.  The breeder is probably the most love-filled, wonderful source of collies in the country.  I've never come across anyone so utterly devoted to her boys and girls.  It shines through in everything she says.  Her dogs are incredibly sought after and have gone on to be champions across Europe, as well as the fathers of countless healthy collie lines.  They are in high demand as stud dogs because of their success at shows, and the healthy lines are as a result of her decades long responsible attempts to breed out the avoidable genetic problems with rough collies.  She herself breeds very rarely and there are no guarantees yet she will let me have one of the current pups, but Florian just might be coming here to join Hector later this month.

Watch this space :o

Soon to have a little adopted brother?

Right now I'd better get going.  There's a certain fluffy monster on his back at my feet wanting his tummy rubbed.

Love and collie licks, Peter and Hector x



UPDATE - I've been asked to put more photos of him up, so here we go.  All taken today on 5 February.  He's 10.5 weeks old, eating like a horse, growing rapidly, and fortunately now sleeping through the night!  He is going to be just the most stunning looking grown up collie ever.  Well, with the exception of Oscar, obviously :-)











Sunday, 11 January 2015

Harry Potter World

Admission time: I only read the first Harry Potter book and thought the movies dire.  I got up and walked out of the first one I was watching in the Barbican, I found it so boring; slept right through another one (no idea which one) in Lindau; and apparently I watched the very final one in the gorgeous Tuschinsky cinema in Amsterdam, though I can't really remember anything that happened in it.  Boom, fire, wands, wizards, things being blown up, baddies, goodies, owls and stuff.  Mmm, that's about all I can say on the subject.

Petey Potter and the Cheesy Grin of Fire

So having got that out of the way, what on earth was I thinking visiting Harry Potter World this week?  Well the boyfriend wanted to go and as I regularly make him do shit he's not interested in, it seemed fair enough.  Off we trundled.  And honestly?  It was amazing.

Practical Stuff

Let's get some practical info out of the way.  It's located at the Warner Brothers studios in Watford, north of London.  It's superbly well organised and part of that means it's never overcrowded, because you have to book your ticket in advance and they only let a certain number of people in for each tour.  In our case we had to wait a month to get a mid-week ticket in term time January, it's clearly so popular.

Teeby Potter outside, all excited

They've clearly spent a fortune on the place, but that's okay because they also clearly make a small fortune out of it.  Don't even think of going if you're on a tight budget.  Tickets were about £32 each; a veggie burger was £7.95.  Bars of chocolate in the shop were £3.95.  Cheap looking plastic wands were £25.  Two USB sticks and 2 photos of us riding broomsticks (more later) were £50.  Harry Potter sweaters were £79.  If you've got some Harry Potter mad kids, you could easily sink £300+ here in a day.

It might be best to go for an early afternoon visit, after you've eaten elsewhere, and also to feign a medical condition that requires hospitalisation just before the shop, which miraculously gets better after you've rushed your kids through and are safely on the other side.

You will need a full 3 hours for the visit by the way, so plan accordingly.   The staff are some of the nicest, best trained people I've come across in a public interface role.  They were absolutely lovely without exception, from the people keeping the (free) parking brilliantly organised, to the people doing the broomstick demos. 

Last thing: don't think it's all kids here.  I'd say the majority of people were actually 20 or 30 somethings.  I guess they're the age range who really grew up with both the books and the movies.  That's my way of saying, therefore if you're a little more mature, you won't feel a prat.

Pure Magic

Given how little I'm interested in Harry Potter, what amazed me was how interested I was in the actual film making details you learn.  There's a general introduction and couple of films, then you're free to wander through everything else at your own pace, which was appreciated.  And you do literally get to walk through several of the actual sets (the Hogwarts dining room is of course the most spectacular).


Inside the Hogwarts Dining Hall

What really struck me above anything else, was getting to appreciate the massive amount of creative work that goes into designing these things.  The sets are pure works of fantasy: taken from the descriptions of the book they've been transformed into "real life" using fibre glass and wood.  Everything is bespoke, everything is a product of a team's artistic creation.

As you visit the sets you also see some of the tricks of the movie trade, like "false perspective" that allows two people to sit in the front of a pub at a regular sized table, but the set behind them is far smaller and tapers off into the distance.  When filmed, it looks huge.

Some street set thing. Dunno what it's called.

There are sections on the various special effects, the creatures and their animation, the costumes, make up, props, the graphic design, and scaled models of various elements.  You realise that a small army of people is involved and literally millions go into these things (the total cost for all 8 films actually came to $1.155 billion.  However they took a total of $7.723 billion at the box office - meaning it wasn't a bad investment by any means).

If the above sounds in any way dry - it isn't.  It's magical (see what I did there!?), fascinating, beautifully presented and I was just captivated by it all.  I guess it doesn't matter what the movie is: if you don't have knowledge of how one is created, any one would do.  The thing with Harry Potter is the sets, costumes etc are all so incredibly beautiful, and the production budgets were so huge, it makes an excellent example to see.

Enormous Scale Model of Hogwarts. I think.

Butterbeer

There's a café mid way through the tour, which is a fine idea and ideal opportunity to drop some more dosh of course.  It's one of two places in the world where they serve Butterbeer: Universal Studios in Orlando and here.   Apparently it's something that comes up in the Harry Potter movies, but if you were listening earlier, you'll remember I was either asleep or absent or in a trance so wouldn't remember.

Even Ste almost vommed

Looking on the net, it's basically sweetened condensed milk, whipped butter, ice-cream soda, and a butter scotch topping.  It's simply the most delicious thing you've ever tasted - for the first 5 seconds.  You then want to projectile vomit everywhere. 

Oh and it's £2.95 for a tiny little cup (still enough to make you sick though!), unless you want a souvenir tankard, in which case you have to hand over your mother, your house, and your first born child.  Rather cutely on the recycling bins in the café they put "Butterbeer" on the signs under "Liquids".  Nice touch.

Yup, ours went straight in here

Broom Flying

Everyone gets a chance to fly on a broom.   This is fabulous [-ly embarrassing].  Essentially the entire queue is standing there with nothing to do except watch you and your performance on a screen.  The queues aren't painfully long (remember, timed entries only, not overcrowded etc) but still, there are probably 50 people at a time watching you.

Ste and I of course both decided to go full out with as many little facial expressions and gestures as possible, to make it even more embarrassing still.  You are filmed with a plain green background, but get to see where you are flying on a screen.  A dude tells you things like "wave to your friend" or "shake your fist" and you over-act accordingly.

Here are our efforts - it's a scandal, frankly, that we weren't selected for a major role in the actual movies, all things considered.  If the embedded movies below don't work, click here for Ste; and here for Peter, which will take you to Youtube.

video


video


It was FUN - and of course there were no prices displayed anywhere for if you wanted to order a CD or USB stick with your performance on it.  £50 for our two, plus two printed pictures.  *Cough, splutter, collapse etc...* but of course we had to have them.  They may be the best thing you have ever seen in fact.  Come on, admit it.

Recommendation

So here's my recommendation.  Go.  It's that simple.  It's one of the best days out I've ever experienced and I've done a lot of days out in my time!  I absolutely loved it, and so, clearly do the reviewers on TripAdvisor.  As at the time of writing 11,514 of 13,910 people ranked it excellent (five owl eyes) which is a staggering achievement.  Yours truly is one of them.  Many of the reviews are absolutely gushing and quite rightly so. 

Amazing. I even managed to photo No 3, not No 4, Privet Drive.

Just imagine if I actually liked Harry Potter how even more positive this piece would be!  If you're a fan, just do it.  And make sure you post your broomstick video for us all to laugh at, of course :-)

















Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy Silvester

It's 31 December, a day called Silvester in Germany.  Apparently this is something to do with some dead bloke in a dress who lived in Rome, but I prefer the alternative explanation that it's named after a kick-ass cat who tried to do us all a service by dishing up that annoying little Tweety Bird thing for supper.

Happy Silvester!

Anyway,  I'm in Manchester with Ste for New Year, have eaten enough food the past couple of weeks to last me somewhere into April, have no intention of moving more than 1.5 metres in any direction today, and so thought I'd do a quick round up of events since my Iceland trip at the beginning of November.

Life Without Twitter

This is a bit of an odd thing to say, but I'm actually really enjoying life without Twitter.  I found it a bit hard at first, it having become so much part of my routine.  It was always the first thing I'd look at in the morning, and I hadn't realised quite how much time I was devoting to responding to mentions and trying (and generally failing) to come up with interesting or amusing things to photograph or tweet.  Not being on it left a bit of a void initially, but now I find it really quite liberating to wake up to a phone with no notifications showing.  It's quieter, calmer and I'm enjoying it.

Pre-Christmas

Last year Ste was in China, so I decided not to bother with Christmas.  No tree, no presents, no stuffing myself, no mindless commercialisation.  I just wanted a year off from it all.  Ahhhh that was nice, and just as I hoped, that break meant I was genuinely in the mood for it this year.  Ste came to Suffolk in mid December and I'd gone the whole hog, getting the cottage ready.



Advent is always the nicest time I think: the lead up to Christmas when I like lots of candles in the house, it smells of tree, and its all very gemütlich.  I bought new decorations, ordered an advent ring from Germany, had a wreath on the front door, put lights in the window, and we did loads of baking and snuggly pre-Christmas things.

Advent rings remind me of Weihnachten from my Kindheit

Pride of place on the tree incidentally went to my ace ceramic collie decoration sent all the way from Kansas by Lisa (CrazyMom from Twitter) - thank you so much, I *love* it! If you look closely you'' see he's holding a string of Christmas baubles in his snout.  N'aww.


Germany Trip

The weekend before Christmas we drove off to Germany to visit my family.  It was Ste's first time meeting them and they all made him so amazingly welcome.  He was all nervous about not speaking German, but it's amazing how easy it is to simultaneously translate blocks of conversation.  We're well used to it, as my Dad's competence in the language stretched pretty much only to ordering beer.  I'll admit that's not a bad basic skill to have, all things considered though.

My great aunt, Tante Frieda, is 93 next year and is the only one of the relatives left who remembers anything of West Prussia, where the family is originally from.  She is in amazing shape, walks bolt upright, loves working in the garden, can still speak fluent Polish, and looks completely after herself.  She only gave up cycling when she was 86.  On 19 January 2015 it's the 70th anniversary of the day the family had to leave their farm and all their possessions behind and had to flee for their lives on a horse and cart, as the Red Army swept across Central Europe.  The story of her sister, my grandmother, is here, if you haven't read it before. 

Tante Frieda's 90th back in 2012


It meant so much to me that Ste has got to meet her - though truthfully if anyone in the family is going to reach 100 it will be her.  She even baked especially for Ste's arrival, which was just gorgeous.

As well as meeting the family, we visited the Christmas Market in Münster and our friend, the lovely @Amwii (Anne Marie) from Holland drove over for the night and we got suitably trashed on a mixture of schnapps, wine and beer.  Ste somehow managed to have a quite long conversation with the chef of the Chinese restaurant we ate in, which is impressive given he was speaking Mandarin and the other guy was speaking Cantonese.  It's amazing what five glasses of Schnapps can do really.

圣诞快乐!好朋友,好吃的东西,好酒!
We had baked a collection of cinnamon and shortbread cookies for Amwii and brought them with us.  Our pride and joy was this Lederhosen wearing teddy, created especially for her.  She asked if he was wearing nappies and is therefore now officially dead to us.

A Lederhosen Bear. OBVIOUSLY.

Brick Farm

From Germany we came back to Suffolk for a Christmas party at Yaxley Hall for the 45 people we've been employing at our farm over the past year.  Things are moving on apace and they'd been working flat out to meet a deadline on 22 December for our last valuation before we begin sales from Easter onwards.  We're on time, on budget and on plan with our Grand Design to create our beautiful 43 bedroom luxury, organic, countryside, holiday spa retreat.  Take that, Kevin McCloud. 


Brick Farm

Our holding website has been updated with some images and text giving an outline of what we're doing if you're interested: www.brickfarm.co.uk.  The solid oak framed Great Barn, which will house a double-height clubroom, spa wing with gym, sauna, hammam, dip pool, and a further wing with private cinema, private dining, billiard room, bar and kitchen, is now all watertight and ready for its interior fit-out.  2015 is going to be a big year for the farm and it's a great position for us to be kicking off from.

One of our barns inside. View from the bedroom.

Christmas 2014

Christmas was spent with Ste's family in Liverpool.  Momma Ste is an absolute star and produced the most delicious food throughout, including a special veggie roast for me on the 25th.  Given she has four foster children, as well as Ste and his brother to take care of, this was seriously no mean feat.  We played loads of board games, drank too much, ate too much, and it was all just wonderful.  Thank you so much all of the McCormick family for my first Christmas with you.  It was a delight.

Hmm. The raised wine glass is a bit of a theme.

Puppy Search

2014 was of course a sad year for me in terms of losing my beloved Oscar.  We have been looking pretty much non-stop since August for a new baby collie, but there are so few around it's been quite a task.  A couple of days ago we drove down to Lincolnshire and met this beauty.  He's distantly related to Oscar, both of the dad and mum's side, and his dad in fact looks the spitting image of Oscar. 

5 Week Old Fluff Ball
He's a blue merle rough collie, which is what we were looking for, and has absolutely beautiful markings.  Essentially think of a silver blue/grey version of Oscar, and that's him.  All of the dogs at the breeder were extremely friendly and happy, which obviously bodes well for his temperament.  Only his mum, Boo, was a bit grumpy, but given she had 9 puppies and is working overtime to be protective of them, I think that's fair enough.

Will he be ours...?
Before we get too attached to him though, the dad's owner has first option on either him or his sister and we don't know which one he's going for yet.  If he goes for the sister, this boy is ours at the end of January.  He will be called Hector. 

If he falls through, we may have the option of a puppy from Oscar's dad's breeder at the end of February.  We don't know the colours yet, but a Blue from there will also be called Hector; a Tricolour (like Oscar) will be called Leopold, and a Sable/white will be Florian.  As you can see we've gone for real working class hero names.  Kinda.  Either way, it looks as though our search is finally closing in.  Watch this space for updates...

New Year 2015

Despite enjoying my life being quieter without Twitter, I do miss contact with many of you.  I hope you have a fantastic time this evening, whatever you are up to, and wish you all the very best for 2015.  I'm looking forward hugely to the coming year, and hope it brings you everything you hope for. 

With love

Peter






Saturday, 29 November 2014

Iceland

I've promised to keep some personal updates coming and it seems a nice idea to turn this blog into a kind of journal/ photo album to remind me of things in the future.  So here's a nice reminder of our Iceland trip a couple of weeks ago and some thoughts/ reflections on the place.

Iceland Trip 3/11/14 - 5/11/14


Flying Birthday Visit

I'd been to Iceland for 4 days once before, in July 2001.  I wasn't sure whether going in late autumn would be such a cunning idea, given the length of the days and what I assumed would be really bad weather.  Mind you, it had rained pretty much the whole time in July and hit a maximum of 13C AND it was Ste's birthday on 4 November and you can't really change when that falls.  He might be a queen, he's not the Queen, so doesn't get two birthdays.  So, off we went just for 2 nights, just literally to go somewhere cool (perhaps in both senses) to celebrate his 22nd.

I wanted everything to be really special, so we had valet parking (oooh get us) and then continued proceedings with free food and drink in the Manchester airport business lounge.  It was Ste's first visit to one, and one he made the most of.  I think he managed to pack away four bacon rolls, which is probably a good proportion of some poor pig's entire leg.  We flew Icelandair, which was really calm, classy and lovely.  I was surprised it was only a 2.5 hour flight, given we started a bit further north than London to start with.

Free food \o/ Free Food \o/

We arrived about 3pm to the most utterly brilliant blue skies and sunshine imaginable.  Iceland's landscape is like no other.  There are volcanoes, lava fields, the dramatic coast line, and miles and miles of unspoilt nothing.  It was spectacular to see it all so clearly.

I'd looked into packages with the various excursions I wanted to do included, but decided a hire car and doing it ourselves would be much more flexible, and more pleasant than hanging around for transfer buses etc.  So we picked up our little VW Polo and our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is between Keflavik airport and the capital Reykjavik, just under an hour away.  The first thing I checked was for the snowflake symbol on the tyres: yup, it has snow tyres and they were going to come in handy quite unexpectedly the following day.

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a dream location.  It's a large man-made pool with water from the neighbouring geothermal plant, and it's surrounded by blackened lava fields.  The water comes out of the ground at absurdly high temperatures and pressures, but by the time it reaches the pool it's "only" around 39C.  That is the most delightful temperature on a day where it's 2C, as it was for us.   There's a typically beautiful Nordic glass, wood and steel complex where you get changed, can shower and eat... and then step straight into the milky blue water of the lagoon.  You can see the sun going down behind Ste and the steam coming off the water.  Heaven.

Blue Lagoon Posterboy!


People advised me on Twitter that the "in water massage" couldn't be missed, so I thought what the heck, it's his birthday and we've come all this way.  So I booked us each one, not knowing what to expect.  It's pretty much what it says on the label: you lie on a table in the water for the first part, then they transfer you to a float while they massage your head, shoulders and face.  You're wrapped in a warm towel the whole time, and when you're on your back it feels like you're in amniotic fluid.  You finish up in some kind of trance: it's an amazing, amazing experience.

Ste back in the womb

The water at the lagoon is very rich in silica and other minerals: apparently it's extremely good for people with various skin conditions.  You can scoop it up off the bottom of the pool, or there are barrels of it where you can paste it all over your face.  We of course couldn't resist the opportunity of this and had to do a double-selfie.  Look at the colour of the sky behind us: during the 3 hours we spent there it went from brilliant sunshine, through sunset into the most perfect clear night with stars visible with zero light pollution.  The Lagoon stays open until 8pm off-season and up to 11pm in the summer.

SMILE: It's Halloween!
Reykjavik

By the time we headed on to the hotel to check in the temperature was down to about -2C.   The roads are smooth, straight and easy to drive on and we checked in about 8.30pm.  We stayed at the Hilton Nordica, which I can't praise more highly.  Hiltons can be a bit [a lot] characterless and bland, but this one had some real Nordic design flair about it, including the stunning 11 storey central spiral staircase.  They upgraded us to a gorgeous junior suite too, which is always guaranteed to get me to write a nice review on Tripadvisor. Yes, I am that cheap/easy. 

Not often you feel the need to photo a hotel staircase

An added bonus for us of the Hilton for me was the unexpected surprise of finding that Reykjavik's best vegetarian restaurant is literally a minute away, across the road.  It's called Glo and serves huge, healthy, organic, delicious veggie meals in a really stylish environment.  I hate veggie restaurants that look like grotty student dives where a free helping of food poisoning comes with every meal, so this was bliss.

Even better there was a gaggle of chatty lesbians having supper, which added to the atmosphere.  Iceland is famously LGBT friendly (they had the first out lesbian PM, social democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir back in 2009) and it's worth just noting that we didn't have a moment's awkwardness checking into the hotel or at any other time in the visit.  In fact, the only time we've had any awkwardness anywhere about being a same sex couple was in a supposed trendy urban hotel in Shoreditch (the Hoxton: yeah you deserve to be named and shamed, fuck you) and in a tea rooms in North Wales where presumably if my partner had been a sheep all would have been fine.

We pottled down to the centre of Reykjavik after supper for a walk round.  Almost 2/3 of the country's 325,000 inhabitants live in and around the capital, but it feels like a small, cosy, typically Nordic town.  The houses are brightly painted, often with metal or wooden sides, it's prosperous, tidy and safe.  90% of all buildings in Iceland are heated by free, endlessly renewable geothermal power, so the air is clean.  Although the country took a real battering during the 2008 economic crisis, GDP per capita is still $50,000 and unemployment is under 4.5%.

Hallgrímskirkja. Try saying that when you're drunk.

My favourite building here is the parliament building: the AlþingiIt's the world's oldest parliament, dating back to 930, but the building it's located in looks like a British provincial town hall.  It's so wonderfully understated.  I started boring Ste about the linguistic meaning ("All" means everything, or great in old Germanic, and a "thing" is a meeting) but the sub-zero temperatures were making his eyes glaze over.  I think it was the temperature, anyway.  The Hallgrímskirkja Church towers over the capital from every angle and is a futuristic 1930s art-deco design.  It's looks all very Gotham City.  Apart from that, Reykjavik is charming enough, but to be frank it's not a reason for visiting the country.

BIRTHDAY BOY

I woke Ste up at 6.30am, which is always guaranteed to go down well.  You can see how full of beans and the joys of life he is in the photo below.  The point of the card is that it contained his surprise: "This card entitles the lucky birthday boy to a 1.5 hour Husky Ride Experience with Dog Sledding Iceland.  Begins at 10.00am on 4 November 2014. Bring gloves, a coat and a camera!"  The cuddly husky that accompanied the card is the one I photographed for the front a few weeks before and ordered from Moonpig.  We later christened him "Grauman" after the cutest, naughtiest, husky in the pack that pulled our sleigh.  He had to wear a cone when he wasn't out working, to stop him from licking his balls, which is always endearing.

It's awake! Birthday Boy :-)

The husky ride was 1.5 hours drive from the hotel, in the south of Iceland.  It was still pitch black until well past 9am, which is interesting.  One of the main arguments against Britain going onto double-summer time (i.e. being in the same time zone as almost all the rest of the EU) is that the Scots don't want it to be dark in the morning in the winter.  Iceland is far further north than Scotland, and by rights should be an hour behind us because of their geographic position.  Instead they've chosen to be in the same time zone as Britain, so that it stays lighter later in the evening.  The flipside of that is it's dark in the mornings, and they're apparently happy with this.  Today, for example, sunrise was at 10.40am in Reykjavik and sunset was at 3.52pm.  If I had the choice I'd do just the same.  Sunrise in London today would be at 8.42am and sunset at 4.56pm, if we did the same thing Iceland does.

Husky Ride

So after a nice long hotel breakfast we drove off, in the dark, and arrived at the isolated farm where the huskies spend their time when they're not up on a glacier for the summer season, or on lower snow covered land in the winter.  This meant it was a ride on a sleigh with wheels, over dry land.  It was pretty much the same experience (particularly the "cold factor" given the 1C temperature and rain) and we had 8 dogs pulling us.  Working in those temperatures for them is apparently the equivalent of us running a half marathon in the tropics: they can't be pushed too hard as it really is warm for them.

Husky Ride!

They're technically Greenlandic Dogs, rather than Siberian Huskies.  Each can pull up to 200kg on their own, so they made light weight of us, even despite breakfast and Ste's bacon rolls the day before.  We were seated and the lovely musher stood behind us and talked to us throughout about the dogs.  Here's a short video of the part of the proceedings!  At the end we got to meet all the dogs in person, including one who had been the star of David Guetta/ Sia's mesmerising She Wolf video, filmed in Iceland. Apparently she's all full of herself now she's a movie star.  Below is real life Grauman back in his run.  Bless him: he was SO happy pulling the sleigh, and so miserable when he had his cone put back on his head.

Poor Licky Balls :(
Doing dog-related is bound to make Ste incredibly happy, and I think he thought the day's treats were over after we'd given the huskies cuddles.  Instead I told him to get in the car as we had more places to visit.

Geysir

We left the south coast behind as the rain really set in late morning.  It was around 1.5 hours to our next stop, which was north and a lot higher geographically.  I hadn't really thought that it would snow, but all of a sudden the rain changed to sleet, then a few kilometres on to thick white snowflakes.  The roads are untreated, and this would cause utter chaos back home.

Winter Wonderland

Everyone is driving on winter tyres though (including us, remember?!) and I was amazed at how the little Volkswagen handled with them.  Going up hills or around roundabouts, all through fresh snow, proved to be no issue whatsoever. The scenery became beyond beautiful, especially with the snow.  It was even better than I'd remembered it from my trip before in 2001.

We stopped for lunch at Geysir, which gives its name to all geysers in English - it was the first hot water spring of this type known to Europeans.  I was really impressed there was no entry charge to pay: you just park and wander up freely.  It's actually a collection of springs and sulphorous pools bubbling out of the ground, with Strokkur doing all the money-shot work, as Geysir himself has temporarily stopped blowing water.  Apparently he will start up again after the next earthquake in the area. 
I

In the meantime Ste decided to play with his little geezer in the car park, which I thought made quite a charming pic.  The geysir "blows" about every 5-8 minutes and there's always a massive "ooooh" from the assembled crowd, followed by a "did you get it?".  The snowy sky doesn't do the scene justice: if you are here on a sunny day the photographs are absolutely stunning.  That said, do click here on this link to me videoing the whole thing with Ste's obligatory "did you get it?" at the end.

That guy is smoking!
Gullfoss Waterfall

From Geysir it's only around half an hour to Gullfoss, the next surprise on the trip: Iceland's Golden Waterfall.  It's the largest in Europe and apparently more impressive than Niagra.  It's a three-staged staircase that ends up in a 100 foot drop and was magnificent in summer.  In winter we just stood entranced for ages (well, between selfies anyway).  I feel this is worthy of several photos for the album, so here we go:

The main "Staircase". Look at the cold in my eyes!


To get an idea of scale, those are two people on the right

Double Selfie. No he isn't far taller than me. He's on a rock.

Our trusty little Volkswagen Polo hire car.

Afternoon Tea

It was now late afternoon, so we drove back through the Þingvellir National Park the 2.5 hours or so to Reykjavik for Ste's last birthday treat.  The whole way beautiful view after beautiful view greeted us.  It stopped snowing, the sun came out and then dusk arrived.  We got back, had a hot shower, and then it was time for Icelandic Afternoon Tea at the Hilton.

We do love a good afternoon tea!

I obviously had the veggie version, but we're not convinced that Ste didn't have both reindeer and puffin for his.  I particularly love the way Ste is mainly vegetarian when I'm not around, and then sensitively eats anything that breathes when I'm present. And SORRY KIDS, if Father Christmas doesn't make it this year with all your presents you'll know why.  Ste ate Rudolph.

Bye bye Rudolph, Donner and Blitzen

With that it was time to snuggle up in the world's most comfortable hotel bed, watching TV, and getting an early night for our 8am flight back to Manchester the following day.  Ste gave me the most incredibly perfect birthday in Beijing in April, so I did my best to return the favour.

Iceland, EEA and Schengen

After we returned the car and checked in at the airport, I mused how irritating it was that we had to go to a separate section of the airport reserved for US and UK flights.  Yes, Iceland is in Schengen and has signed up to the EU free movement of people as part of its membership of the EEA.  Anyone from within the EU can live and work here and claim its no doubt extremely generous social benefits if people were driven to do such things (they aren't). 

I thought about all those things you hear about Britain being a special case (We're an island! Our space is limited and our resources would be put under unbearable strain! They would all come pouring over to take advantage of our benefits!) would seem to apply far more so to a socially minded country like Iceland with just 325,000 inhabitants. Yet you can take a flight from Warsaw or Budapest to Reykjavik with no passport check and there's no equivalent of entering Fortress Britain.  In fact Iceland relies hugely on immigration to get the skills it requires and has no issue about the passportless European free travel zone that Schengen represents.

2014: A Year for Travel

This year was a phenomenal one for me with foreign travel.  I keep a little record of where I've been to each year and a grand total (currently 65 countries visited ever).  A "good year" averages about 14 countries a year for me.  Three times I've been to 17 countries in a single year.  2014 was a new record: from China to New Zealand to Iceland to Australia to all round Europe, I visited 22 countries this year.

World Domination Plans continue..  65 countries and counting!

It was the year in which I visited the land of the red earth, and the land of ice.  And on that note I'll leave these two beautiful images of similarly sized massive lumps of rock that sum up my 2014 travels for me.  The first photo was at Ayer's Rock (Uluru) in Australia in February.  It was 40C.  The second was at the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland in November.  It was -2C.  What a contrast.  The world holds so many treasures: here's to much more exploration in the coming years!

Fire

Ice