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|Peter and Pauline Curtis's 1999 Christmas Newsletter|
We, once again, escaped from the English Winter and spent the first three months of the year in New Zealand where we had an excellent time. The whole time was spent in North Island and the saga was Emailed periodically to friends as a series of "Letters from the Antipodes". We tried to keep them lighthearted but to also address the question of what was special about New Zealand as we have been often asked to provide itineries for visitors. This made us think seriously about what aspects of New Zealand make us come back year after year and has ultimately led to use them as the basis of a major new section of our site namely a Guide to New Zealand which is titled "Uniquely New Zealand"
Uniquely New Zealand is a Touring and Camping Guide enabling one to get to the places in New Zealand that "Packages" can thankfully still not reach. It concentrates on the things that make New Zealand special and what has shaped the country, its people and their leisure activities. We are convinced that the simpler the lifestyle one is prepared to adopt the closer you will get to the real New Zealand and the better you will experience it's scenery, wildlife and sports.
So what has brought us year after year: First of course is Climate and Scenery - mountains, lakes, forests and a spectacular coastline with deserted beaches, maritime parks and islands. New Zealand has them all and most of it is protected in National Parks and Reserves. New Zealand is also an area which is very active geologically and has a number of Active Thermal Areas predominantly North Island. Another interest to us are The Wines; the climate is ideal and there are many excellent wines areas in both North and South Island which we have visited. Goldmining was important the turn of the century and there are many goldfields with structures still standing some of which have been restored. Kauri, both logging and the gathering and use of it's gum forms another unique part of New Zealand history worthy of investigation. Finally one can not fully understand and appreciate New Zealand without gaining some understanding of the Maori Culture and Heritage .
This year, as you might guess from above, we spent even more time camping. We again had a simple and very economic camper van from Rental Car Village which we used as a giant suitcase and used our tent most of the time - it has much better insect protection! The "Thrifty" campervans are mostly Nissan C20 vans converted to have a bed, cupboard/table and cooker bolted in. Although they were far from new they proved very reliable and were actually cheaper than a mainstream hire car. They are also, unlike most hire cars, insured for the New Zealand gravel roads which is essential to reach most of the good scenery and camp sites.
The highlight of the holiday, for Peter anyway, was the period sailing. This time we had a 15 days in the Hauraki Gulf on a Raven 31 "Largesse" once more from Charterlink who we had used for the previous two years. We sailed in a much wider range of conditions than previously and got out as far as Great Barrier Island as well as up to Kawau and across to the Coromandel. The sailing is covered in detail in part three of the 1999 New Zealand saga Sailing in the Hauraki Gulf
Almost as soon as we were back from New Zealand it was time for the Easter get together with the "College Group". This time it was in top far left of Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula, close to Abersock, where the group had three interconnecting holiday homes rented for the week - a far cry from the early days in youth hostels or even wet cold cottages one of which even lacked running water when we got there.
We were just outside the Snowdonia National park boundary and ,if the weather had been kinder, there would have been some excellent walking in easy reach. A party did make it up Snowdon but it was more achievement than enjoyment one felt with much of the walk in cloud and rain
We found it an interesting contrast to New Zealand - the Snowdonia area and areas in New Zealand are surprisingly similar yet different. Snowdonia has magnificently stark scenery especially when shrouded in cloud and mist. The main difference is in the people - even at Easter Wales was heaving whilst in New Zealand we hardly knew other people were there and many areas were completely deserted. You would always stop and talk. The human influence was however always intrusive in Wales and it was never quiet. In New Zealand much of our time was in areas where there was never even an overflight by an aircraft whilst in Wales you rarely got clear of traffic and never clear of aircraft noise - I suppose most people get so conditioned they never know what they miss.
The industrial archaeology was however very interesting and we visited the Copper mines and two very different slate mines. The mine tour at the Llechwedd Slate mines (near Blaenau Ffestinog) takes one underground on an electric train, as used for extracting the slate. The tour gave a very good feeling for what used to be done and how things have changed - it is still an active mine. It was fascinating at the end of the underground tour to watch the slate being split and to read of the competitions and exhibitions when slates 12' by 1' a fraction of an inch thick would be displayed and demonstrations would be given of splitting an inch thick piece the size of a standard tile into 32 layers. We saw the mines in the correct weather with the cloud hanging down over the hills accentuating the bleak slate covered landscape.
We went back home for a few weeks to mow and weed and set up Pauline's OU teaching and then it was time to commission Corinna for the season with a short trip up to Lechlade and back. Then after a couple of weeks we were off to the Basingstoke canal.
This was the first time we have taken Corinna to the Basingstoke Canal which is surprising as we live fairly close and have been past the end on the River Wey several times. It is a lovely canal but, like many, chronically short of water - it is not unusual for it to be closed to visitors from mid May to November. Shortage of water is not a new - in its hey day the canal only had an average of 4 movements a day and was not a great commercial success. You have to obtain a license and book your passage onto the canal in advance as a ranger accompanies each group of boats up and down the flights onto the canal. There are 28 locks total on entry and it is normal to spend two days going up following an over night on the river Wey - it is not possible to enter the Wey and get to the Basingstoke before the first flight at Woodham closes. On the way back it is possible to get back to the Thames on the second day.
There were plans and some funding in place for back pumping but the canal has a major problem with SSSIs and the boat movements on the summit have now been so restricted to protect a rare weed that the funding bodies are alleged to be pulling out from funding the back pumping. 600 volunteers and 20 years of effort is apparently a small price to allow a water-weed to flourish until the canal once more degenerates due to lack of use!
Our trip on Corinna took a fortnight including the time down and up the Thames - next time we will add a week license on the Wey rather than just having a transit license. The 8 days on the Basingstoke was about right and allowed us to spend a leisurely 4 days on the 20 mile summit (actually there is one lock) and meet up with friends in the area - if time is short three days would be sufficient. The trip is fully written up as "Corinna goes to Basingstoke" for the David Piper Owner's Club so we will not say more here.
After a brief interlude at home the urge to roam came on again so it seemed time for a trip down the Kennet and Avon to Bristol. Watch this space as Pauline has decided there is a need for a pictorial guide to canalside pubs and has been busy taking pictures in the rain. As I write this latest update we have just reached Bradford-on-Avon after a pleasant day down the 29 locks at Caen Hill and on through 3 more to The Barge at Seend, which had an impressive selection of real beers to help us recover. We stayed put as the heavens opened and had a huge Spare Ribs with an everlasting salad bar for supper. It was easy to forget it had taken 5 hours to travel under 4 miles and to remember the 32 wide locks we had descended in the day - only another 18 to Bath. We stayed at Bradford on Avon and ate in the Bunch of Grapes and drank our first Smiles of the holiday, lovely brews from a small brewery in Bristol which is well worth going out of ones way to find.
Bath - Moored at top of Widcombe locks for shopping before down onto the Avon which was supposed to be in flood - we walked down the flight but it was not as bad as we had been told so we carried on. We decided to play safe and moored on floating pontoons at a boatyard at Newbridge whilst we visited friends and stayed overnight. Some stream on the way to Bristol and we found the entry lock to tidal stretch at Hanham is now unmanned so we got no advice - there was not even a tide table on display. The tidal stretch is not usually a problem and one usually goes straight into the entry canal to the floating harbour through a lock with gates open at both ends. We had some problems as the gates were closed and locked because of high water and there are no moorings - I managed to scramble off and eventually the lock keeper returned and opened up and sold us a week licence.
There was plenty of room in the basin and stayed for nearly a week whilst we gave friends at Rowan a "trip round the bay". Pauline had to go back for an extended weekend for teaching. Peter spent time in the local museums in the dock area and the main central museum which also had a Slave Trade exhibit. Tried out the tender with a new set of lightweight batteries and went all round the floating harbour and down to exit locks to the Avon. Also went round the Great Britain which is steadily being restored but recently had major setbacks because the new decking had all rotted - we have contributed a plank so we get all their newsletters. They have problems with the hull continuing to lose material and latest plans are to enclose much of the ship in a hermetically sealed low humidity environment and to use various polymer replacement techniques for the wooden parts. It is considered expensive to get a licence for the basin but there is a lot to see and do and everything is free, even pumpouts although one has to use a hand pump - the bridge-keeper keeps the keys and came to help me moor and set it all up and ended up doing much of the pumping - I eventually persuaded him to accept a bottle of wine after we had sat chatting for a hour or so.
The trip back was uneventful for the most part until we got to just above Woolhampton where we had arranged to meet up with friends and entertain them on the boat. it also turned out that other friends from Heyford were on a boat moored close by. The evening went well but in the night we got the feeling that the boat was tilted and I eventually got up and loosed the ropes and pushed off a lot more - by 0400 it was getting difficult to move round and we gave up and eventually managed to get Corinna afloat - we could not get back to the bank to moor anywhere so we eventually worked our way through Woolhampton Lock for a very early start. We heard eventually from others that they were stranded until the waterways people came out the next day so we were glad we moved quickly.
We usually try to stay at home during the summer holidays in July and August when everywhere seems so much busier but the David Pipers Owners Club (DPOC) organised a barbeque at the yard at Red Bull basin (Kidsgrove) which seemed a good excuse for another trip. We organised it so that we had Corinna hauled out for us to do a bottom blacking whilst we were there and we also got the inspection for a Safety Certificate - the four yearly equivalent of an MOT - carried out. She passed first time without even the usual need for fire-extinguishers to be changed
The highlight of the trip up North was a stop with John and Babs at Hoo Mill. John now has a Pitts Special, a tiny classic aerobatic biplane, which Pete got the chance to fly. Quite an experience, lovely crisp handling in the air but very different to the long winged sailplanes he was used to - it takes just over two seconds for the horizon to appear again if you put the stick hard over. If you also put on a bit of rudder and pull back a bit like one is used to in a glider you end up doing a sort of barrel roll ending up pointing vertically down! It was one of the only aircraft Peter has flown which he was not sure he would be able to land it intact in an emergency. The Pitts is a tail wheel biplane and the main wheels are right forwards, almost under the prop, so it has no stability on the ground - add to that a huge engine so there is no view forwards especially as the nose comes up on approach, no flaps so you have to sideslip and a touch down at close to 90 mph. As the tail goes down after landing you lose all rudder control and have to steer on the wheel brakes! Even experienced pilots have no idea which direction a Pitts will break on landing. It a real honour and experience to have the chance to fly it. Pauline missed it all as she had been off home teaching for a couple of days and it would probably have been difficult to convince her that aerobatics were really fun. She preferred the excellent meal we had with John and Babs at the Old Beams on the way up.
Pauline has been teaching three OU courses this year, one Mathematics, one Technology and one Business school which has taken a bit of juggling, although the Libretto and Mobile means we are in touch with students more than most tutors - we pickup email and messages at least daily and turnaround time is usually under 24 hours. It has its compensations as she also covers Guernsey and Jersey and we added a holiday to one of her Guernsey trips staying with Pat and John (Pete's sister and husband) for a week over Pauline's birthday. This was as relaxing as ever and although the weather was not good we did have one nice day hike along the cliff paths as well as a few nice shorter walks and time spent picking blackberries and sloes for winemaking. We have made quite a lot of wine this year as we have picked a lot of fruit on the canal banks as well as having a fruit crisis in the garden. We now have a page on our Home Winemaking as so many people have asked us for information.
The event of the year for us was, of course, our Silver Wedding Anniversary. It hardly seems possible that it is 25 years from that day in Oxford. We went back on the day itself and walked round the Blenheim Palace grounds in the morning and then had lunch at the Elizabeth in Oxford where we could look out over where our wedding pictures were taken. We had the party at home the previous weekend and it was great to catch up with so many of our friends - our only regret is that we did not have time to talk for long enough with everybody at the time.
We then had a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to celebrate - a complete contrast to the basic camping earlier in the year. We had decided that a Silver Anniversary needs a very special commemoration and there are few greater indulgences than a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2. We were fortunate that there was one scheduled for the Panama Canal, which we both wanted to see, and the Caribbean, which we have always enjoyed, at exactly the right time. The cruise left Southampton the weekend following for the Atlantic Crossing to New York and Miami before the Panama and Caribbean sector returning to Miami. Our original plan was to then fly back, however some changes in schedule resulted in Cunard offering to add on a return sector to Southampton via the Canaries and Madeira as well as some compensation - an offer which we could not refuse! Again Peter wrote it up as we traveled and The Queen Elizabeth 2 Anniversary Cruise is now available on our Web Site.
Over the last few weeks Peter has been doing some consultancy for local firms setting up web sites and networks - not enough yet to claim his first retirement has ended but enough to keep the brain alive and continue his habit of turning hobbies into business. He has also ben doing some work with Pauline for the Open University producing guidance for Tutors doing electronic marking.