Saudi Arabia – The Trip to England

Today’s story is a bit long, so make yourself a cup of tea and sit down for a 15 minute read as the family and I jet off from Riyadh to London.

It was Friday morning and the packing was complete. All that was left now was to actually leave. Because of the b/s that we had been through building up to the holiday, it was impossible for us to actually believe that we were going. We left for the airport at 12 o’clock, in a bit of a daze because less than 3 days before we weren’t even sure if we were going.

We got to Bahrain at about 5 o’clock, with the prospect of  8 hours of painful wait for the connecting flight. The first thing we did was go to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. We were actually on our way to England and we needed to calm ourselves down a little. After an hour or so we decided we may as well do the transfer thing while we wandered around the duty free. While we were standing there, there was lots of banging and stamping and tapping on the computer. We wondered what was going on until the fellow handed the paperwork back and instructed us to go over to that desk over there (pointing) and the other fellow would tell us how to find the bus to the hotel. This was news to us, but we had just been given a room at the Bahrain Hilton for the remainder of our time before the next flight left.

We got to London at 7 o’clock on the Saturday morning. During the flight the air hostesses, who had been worded up by the kids, brought me a small bottle of champagne to celebrate my 40th birthday, which came about while we were somewhere over the Mediterranean, heading for Turkey.

The fellow and his cab were at the airport to meet us as planned. The trip to Steve’s place was uneventful. It still hadn’t really struck us that we were in London. Sure it was green and there were daffodils and other flowers and blossom everywhere and all the traffic and old buildings etc, but we had been on the move now for about 22 hours and we were feeling a little strung out. The cab driver told us that England had been going through a long period of drought and everything was as dry as a dead dingo’s ……. well, everything was pretty dry. After Saudi, I’m afraid we couldn’t see it, but that’s what he said.

Steve is a fellow at work in Riyadh who was generous enough to give us free run of his flat in London while we were there. This was a kind and helpful thing to do and we were most appreciative of the gesture. Not only did he give us his flat, but he provided us with gobs of information about the area that he lives in, London in general, how to hire the mini-cabs, catch the trains etc. We hope to be able to return the favour one day if and when Steve needs accommodation in Oz.

Richard, our friend from Riyadh, was at Steve’s place when we got there. He made us a cup of tea and settled us in. He even handed us a pile of notes that he had made about where to go, what to do, how to do it etc. This was the first of many people helping us while in England. We were most appreciative of his help. Richard left shortly after. That afternoon we walked around the area that Steve’s flat is in, finding things like supermarkets (Sainsbury’s), fish and chip shops etc. We were fascinated by all of the buildings everywhere. It is very different to what we are used to in Oz. The roads are narrow, the houses are small and usually together, the gardens are beautiful. There are little cafe’s everywhere and lots and lots of other pommy things, as you can probably guess. We were to eventually get used to all of this, but we were enjoying the experience immensely at this point. Isn’t it funny how even tuning in to a local FM radio station and listening to the banter has a special feeling when you are in a new place.

The next day, Sunday, we began the exercise of learning how to catch a train into the city, or anywhere else for that matter. We had been given lots of instructions by both Steve and Richard, but so far it was just theory to us. We rugged ourselves up expecting the worst and off we set. With much cross checking of maps and instructions, we managed to quite easily find our way to Oxford Circus tube station. This was where we had organized to meet Nick at 10 o’clock, outside the Palladium theatre. We were to quickly come to the realization that, so long as you put a little thought and planning into it, the London train system is wonderful, an opinion which comes as a surprise to most Londoners.

We were early and so was Nick. From there we set off, with Nick as the guide, to find the open top buses that take rubber neck tourists ( like us ) around London. We found them at Victoria station and bought tickets. It is a wonderful way to see London. We sat up top, which was a bit chilly, but the sun was shining brightly and we were having a great time. We saw all of the famous sights around London. I strongly recommend that if anyone is coming to London for the first time, they take one of these bus trips. We saw the things you would expect like Trafalgar Square and the statue of someone-or-other and 10 Downing St. and the houses of parliament and on and on and on. There is just so much to see in London. We took the kids to the largest toy shop in the world and they had a great time. We had a wonderful day, in which we managed to learn quite a lot about the train system, something that was going to prove very handy over the days we were in London.

The next day, Monday, had been set aside for Donna and Nick to go shopping at all of the famous places while I escaped and took the kids elsewhere. They managed to go to Mark’s and Spencer’s, Selfridges, Harrods and others, while the kids and I made our way to the Science Museum. Donna and Nick had a good time and so did we. I was starting to notice that there were a lot of French speaking people around. For all the time we were in London I noticed a lot of French people. Not an important fact, but I was very aware of all the things that were different. We don’t get to meet many French speaking people in Oz.

So far for each of the evenings, we had been having things like bacon, ham steaks, fish and chips for tea; all the things that you either can’t get in Saudi or are just not the same quality. With the kids it was difficult to organize to go out of an evening. Besides, after our daytime activities of wandering the highways and byways and parks and gardens of London, we were too tired to really bother about much night time social activity.

During this period, Nick had found out that a friend of his was ill and he (Nick) wouldn’t be able to come with us on our driving trip as planned. This was a shame. However he still came with us when we went to pick up the campervan. He was sad to be missing out on the couple of days of the trip that he had planned to be with us and still wanted to be involved enough to help us with getting the van. As it turns out, it was a blessing that he was there. The place where the campervan place was ended up being right over on the other side of the city. We met Nick at the tube station and called the company, who then came and picked us up. The company is run by an Australian fellow who sounds like he has been in England too long because he sounds distinctly British. We signed all the papers and got all of the paraphernalia from the company and finally managed to set off back to Steve’s apartment by around 11 o’clock. A funny thing happened while we were signing papers. One of the questions was ‘Do you suffer from Epilepsy (blah blah blah) or diabetes? Of course I answered yes. As we were about to drive out, the fellow came out of his office and said that he had just noticed that I had answered yes to that question. I thought ‘Here we go again.’ He asked whether I was insulin controlled or by tablet. I told him that I was using insulin. He then said that there may be a problem because the insurance company would not insure someone who was using insulin. I said that I was only the backup driver and Donna would be the main driver. He then said that, so long as I didn’t say anything, we would forget that he had even asked me the question. Naturally I agreed. When is the legal and financial world going to catch up to the medical world?

We had been told to fill up the car with petrol at the first garage which was just around the corner. We were in the driveway of the garage when the van died. We all thought ‘Good start’. It had been almost bone dry of petrol. Nick, Donna and the kids pushed the van to the pump and I filled it up. Fortunately it started immediately. Now came the reason why we were lucky that Nick was with us for this part of the excitement. If he hadn’t have been, it would have taken us hours and hours to find our way back to Steve’s apartment. As it was, we didn’t get back there until midday. It may look straight forward on the maps, but when you add all of the double decker buses, buildings, narrow streets, incredible amount of traffic, suddenly it looks considerably different. Anyway, we got back to Steve’s and started loading the van. An hour later we had loaded the van, said a sad good-bye to Nick, who we planned on seeing a week and a half later at his mother’s place, had lunch and were ready to go.

Fortunately Steve lives reasonably close to one of the main northern exits from London which we found with only one wrong turn. I think I was starting (as the backup driver of course) to get a feel for the van and for the driving conditions. We continued on our merry way for a number of hours, driving through rolling green hills, finally arriving at York.

The first priority was to find a camping ground. This ended up being quite easy except it was full. However, they directed us to another one outside of town which was quite easy to find and was a nice spot. This was the first of many, many camping grounds we were to experience, and the beginning of the development of our routine for arriving in a new town. The first thing was to find in the books that we ended up collecting, a camping ground that had a few stars and (most importantly) a playground for the kids. Once this was done, we had to find a shop where we could top up on the essentials, like food. Once that was completed, we could then make our way to the camping ground, book in, park the van and setup for the night. It got so we could almost do it our sleep.

The van was tremendous. I cannot recommend this highly enough as a desirable option for seeing Great Britain. The price was very reasonable considering it was our (independent) transport and accommodation. The van provided enough sleeping space for both of us and the three kids. In another year it would only provide enough room for 2 of the kids but at this age they were OK. It had heaps of cupboard space, a stove, a gas and electric refrigerator, an AM/FM cassette deck, plenty of lights, all the cutlery and crockery and pots and pans, pillows etc etc etc. Plus we were given all sorts of helpful books and paraphernalia to help us plan our journey. It was excellent.

The next day (Wednesday), we left York. We drove slowly through the town as we left and marvelled at the beauty of the place. It is so old and so well maintained. There are still Roman aqueducts there. Not too far out of York there was an old, old church that we stopped to look at. Above the entry door was the date 1176 (or some such). We were impressed into silence as we quietly inspected the inside. This was not the last time that we would be awed into silence. We were to see many things and places that are hundreds and hundreds of years older than Captain Cook.

We had chosen to stay off the main motorways wherever possible. We headed north on the A68, which took us through some stunningly beautiful country. One of the nicest places was where we stopped for lunch, a village called Corbridge. We bought fish and chips here (which were not very nice) and were enthralled by the old stone buildings. I was also surprised by the sign on the wall of the shop, which said that, due to a rash of forgeries, they would not accept any Scottish 20 pound notes. This was news to us. We didn’t even know that Scotland had its own currency, but we do now.

An hour up the road we crossed the theoretical border from England to Scotland. We just had to stop and commemorate the occasion by buying a cup of tea from the roadside van there for that purpose. It was getting colder every time we got out of the car. I was glad we had taken jumpers and coats, hats and scarves with us because we needed them. Not far from that place was a lovely village with a babbling brook (you can’t call them ‘creeks’ in that setting. They have to be ‘babbling brooks’.) running through it. There was an ancient stone abbey ruin that we stopped to look at. I think by this stage we were approaching the saturation point for beautiful, historic, English, Scottish things. Donna and I were about to burst. It was all just too much. I kept looking around for the TV crew who were setting us up and making a documentary called ‘The Silly Rubber Necks Who Fell For Our Practical Joke.’ But I couldn’t see them.

We continued on down the road, almost in Edinburgh by now. As we got to the very far outskirts of the city, there was a small village. We drove through the village, following the signs closely, and found ourselves heading back the way we had come. This was a surprise. We turned around and tried again. This time we found ourselves heading away from Edinburgh, but in a different direction. We stopped, turned around and tried again. This time we deliberately ignored the signs at what seemed to be the vital spot and we managed to magic ourselves through. We were now in Edinburgh.

We had arranged to meet up with some people whom we had met in Riyadh and who lived on the other side of Edinburgh, so we drove along the main route through the city and out the other side. We finally came to a village like I have never seen the likes of before. It was a seaside village, on the shore of whatever harbour Edinburgh is on, and all of the buildings were made out of a very dark, almost black, rock. We eventually met up with our friends and they took us to their house for a cup of tea and a chat, an exercise that had suddenly become very interesting now that we were in Scotland. You can literally cut the accent with a knife. Our friend’s house was stunning. They are in the process of doing it up, and have been for 18 years. It is 3 story and has a lovely building outside, which has been a garage cum conservatorium in the past. They have completed some of the rooms and the final effect is beautiful.

We stayed that night in the local camping ground and the next day we headed back into Edinburgh to do a bit of rubber necking. Of course, we headed straight to Edinburgh Castle, which is actually impossible to do. All of the roads are tiny little windy roads that weave in and out all over the place. Fortunately, the sign posting is good so, as long as you are careful in following the signs, you should get to where you are headed. We found ourselves at the bottom of the hill that the castle is built on, so we parked the car and walked up. We were a little disappointed to find that Edinburgh Castle is a tourist Mecca. There were people and buses everywhere. Still, we paid our money and went on in. It was wonderful. Each person received a nifty device to hang around their neck which had earphones that provided a point-by-point description of what you were looking at. I suppose it was a little bit gimmicky, but if you ignored that, the information that was provided about the castle and the history of the city and Scotland was fascinating. The views of the city from up there are marvellous.

After the castle, it was time to leave Edinburgh and head north. We had decided to try to get to Inverness that day. It was a long drive, but we were driving through different country now. There were mountains close by that had snow on the tops, so it was becoming even more interesting.

We got to Inverness in the afternoon and immediately went to the supermarket. We were surrounded by strong Scottish accents and people talking to each other saying ‘Aye’. We stocked up and then looked in the books for a camping ground. The most apparent one we could find was about 8 km out of town, so we headed off there. It turned out to be the most basic camping ground we were to have. It was just a vacant paddock surrounded by trees with a toilet block and, as it so happened, was probably no more than 3 km from Loch Ness. We were the only people there and were greeted by the manager who was an elderly Scottish gentleman. He was very interesting to talk to. He was 74 years old and had worked most of his life with British Telecom in the Edinburgh area and had retired to Inverness about 10 years ago. He had never married but did not regret that because he had his dog to keep him company. His dog was 84 years old in dog years. He charged us 6 pound for the night, but brought us gifts of shortbread, biros with the camping ground logo on them, ‘sweeties’ for the girls and a couple of small bibles. He was a lay preacher. His gifts far outweighed the cost of the camping. That night was very cold. The wind in the trees made a very peaceful noise.

The next day we drove into Inverness. We walked around the centre of town and up the river, which had marvellous displays of daffodils. The central area of Inverness has a mall which has many ‘Scottish’ shops. There are many shops which have kilts and thick woollen jumpers. Some of these shops were obviously aimed at the tourist, but many others were obviously there for the serious farmer or highland gentleman or lady. There is a castle in the heart of the town and we chose to visit it. This was a most enjoyable time. The people in the castle provided a sort of play to describe aspects of the castles history. That doesn’t describe it very well, but is the best I can do. From that we learned a lot about the history of troubles between England and Scotland over the last 700 years. We also learned a lot about the Scottish people. We are now much clearer on why the Scots do not appreciate being referred to as English.

We bought some food and sat down in the main pedestrian mall for lunch. The weather was very cold. While we were eating lunch with shops nearby selling kilts and thick, ‘made in Scotland’ jumpers, a fellow started playing the bagpipes. The setting was magic and Donna and I were spell bound. I shall never forget the feeling we had and am feeling a bit choked up even remembering it.

It was at about this time that we reviewed the trip so far and wondered whether we were doing too much time in the car. We looked at the maps and the rough itinerary that we had and realized that the next part of the planned journey would add 650 miles and obviously a considerable amount of time in the car. This was the leg up to John O’Groats, the most northern village in Scotland. We talked about it and decided to cut this section out. It wasn’t until a few days later, after it was too late to go back, that I realized that some of the information that we had with us was in kilometres and some in miles. It wasn’t 650 miles for that section; it was 650 kilometres. We could have done that section as it turns out. Oh well. Next time.

From Inverness, we drove along Loch Ness, which cuts across Scotland from east to west. As always, the sun was shining brightly. Forget the rubbish about the Loch Ness monster because that just cheapens the beauty of the area. It is a very beautiful place indeed, with many small villages dotted around the shore. There are castles and forts and rolling green countryside. Loch Ness extends from Inverness about 2/3 the way across Scotland. As soon as it finishes, another Loch begins, which then goes from there to the west coast. We finished at what became our favourite spot in all of Scotland, a place called Fort William. This is not the most picturesque place, although it is very pretty, and it is not the most historic, although everywhere in Scotland is riddled with history. It is a combination of things which makes it our favourite place.

Fort William is close to the highest mountain in Great Britain, which is called Ben Nevis and which had snow when we were there. A fellow at a supermarket told us that, during the previous winter, the town had experienced quite a severe period of cold weather. The power went off in the whole area at one stage and the temperature was down to minus 20 or 30 or something. The roof of the supermarket collapsed under the weight of 15 ‘feet’ of snow. We had a marvellous feeling as we walked down the central pedestrian mall through the town.

From Fort William we again altered the planned route. We headed north through some true ‘highland’ country to The Isle of Skye. We were at snow level through this stretch which was very remote and wild. This brought us out at a bay along the edge of which the road twisted and turned. The road was one lane and I don’t mean each way. It was truly one lane. About every half kilometre there was a slightly wider section with a sign indicating that this was where you could pass oncoming cars. Everybody (what few other people there were) were very polite with this passing ritual. Donna and I thought about the idea of having this arrangement in Saudi. What a joke! There is no way that they would understand the concept of  ‘giving way’ and then everybody gains. Survival of the fittest, strongest, most arrogant, you get the picture.

Eventually this windy, narrow road brought us to the bridge that crosses to the Isle of Skye. This is a toll bridge and it cost 4.50 pound to cross. I thought this was a bit steep but reasoned that it wasn’t so bad considering that the return journey would be toll-less. Wrong! It cost 4.50 pound on the way back too. Apparently there is a great hullabaloo about this with the locals, who are not exempt. They have a choice of 2 ways of getting on and off the island. They can use the bridge at 9 pound a go, or an old car ferry that has been operating since Adam was a boy. They don’t even get the opportunity of buying a season ticket or concession rates. Bit rich we felt.

The Isle of Skye is amazing to see. By now, because we were so far from any city of consequence, the prevalence of signs in the native language (which we still haven’t worked out what it is) was growing. There were tiny villages scattered around and we saw genuine houses and sheds with thatched roofs. The sheds were being used as sheds, but the houses were being used as tourist places. The weather was cold, windy and overcast, which added to the bleakness of the experience. There are virtually no trees on the island except those in people’s gardens. I was told later that this is because it is so far north and has an almost permanent wind whipping in off the north Atlantic. I suspect that whatever trees used to be there were stripped many hundreds of years ago to provide wood for fires and building and have never grown back.

We drove north for 20 or 30 kilometres to a village called Portree. This is straight out of a story book. It is on the edge of a small bay and is surrounded by hills. Walking through the streets and along the wharf was like walking through the set for an Errol Flynn movie. There were tiny shops along tiny streets. There were shops and guest houses along the street leading to the wharf, and they looked out over the bay. In front of them was a vista in which it was easy to expect a sailing ship to come around the headland under full sail and with the skull and cross bones flying. We took some photos, but there is no way they can reflect the atmosphere and the feeling of this magic little village. We stayed that night at a camping ground just outside of Portree and the weather was cold, wet and windy. The next morning, when I was talking to the fellow from the camping ground, I said that the weather had been a bit bleak the night before. He said ‘Aye. Bleak it was.’ I know it doesn’t sound much on paper, but the way that he said it told me that I was further from home than I had ever been before.

From the Isle of Skye, we had decided to head back to Inverness along a road further north of the one we had already been on. The day was the first rainy day that we had had since being in Great Britain. We drove back through the island and across the (golden) bridge to the village on the other side. From there we headed north again along the narrowest road that I have ever been on in my life. It was raining and cold and we had the water on one side and a cliff face on the other. It was interesting. We stopped for morning tea in a pine forest. The morning teas had become fairly standard when we were on the move, as the van had everything we needed.

We got to Inverness by lunch time and walked through the main centre. I bought a great jacket, made out of the greasy canvassy stuff. It is a shame that it will possibly be a couple of years before I get to use it properly. There were large areas of daffodils in full bloom on the banks of the river, with the castle that I mentioned earlier above them. You may be able to tell that I am running out of words to describe everything. Beautiful, historic, spellbound etc lose their meaning after a while.

That night we stayed at a camping ground 20 kilometres south of Inverness. As I was booking us in, I pulled some coins out of my pocket and one fell on the floor. The fellow said something about finding it and I said that it didn’t matter because it was only a brown one (one or two pence). He then said ‘I can tell that you are not Scottish. That might have been 2 pee!’ This became a catch cry for the kids.

The next day we continued to head south. Our journey now was heading for Wales, but we had a way to go. We were still using the minor roads as these offered a much better opportunity to see and do things as we went. We drove through an area that was a skiing resort and still had some snow, although nowhere near enough to ski. At one stage, the snow was at the same level as we were, but we weren’t able to reach it on foot. We stopped for lunch in a village that was 10 or 20 kilometres from Balmoral Castle. Donna caught a glimpse of it from the car window as we were driving along. There are castles everywhere in England, so you quickly lose the urge to stop and go in. A lot of the castles are opened up to the public, for a healthy sum of money as it happens. That night we stayed in a town in southern Scotland called Perth. This was an excellent camping ground. We were becoming expert in tracking down and finding the better camping grounds.

The next day we continued south, still using the minor roads. As we were due to meet friends of ours in Newport in Wales on a particular day, we had to keep moving now. Therefor, we travelled through Glasgow on the motorway without stopping. I have to be honest and say that what we saw of Glasgow didn’t entice us to come to a screaming halt. That night we stayed outside a town called Penrith. Penrith has a ruined fort almost in the heart of town, which has been very well preserved in its semi demolished state. It was interesting walking around and reading the stuff about it. Having dates like 1150 and 1275 presented to us was almost passe now as a lot of the historic places we stopped at referred to dates like that. The camping ground was in a small valley near a river and there were deer wandering around nearby. We didn’t actually see any, but I’m a sucker for a good story. We did, however, see squirrels in the camping ground at dusk. The kids were rapt.

Just near the camping ground was an historic spot that was apparently King Arthur’s Round Table. At least, that’s what the signs said. It was not, as most people think, a round table. It was actually a place that had been created which was a round meeting place for the locals, where presumably they would gather to discuss matters of common interest. There is a diagram which describes it and shows what it might have looked like. With a little bit of imagination it can be seen that this might have been the case.

Near to this was another historic sight called ‘Mayburgh Henge’ which is quite an amazing place. It is a huge area that was built from stones carried from the local creek, about half a mile away. It is thought that it was a gathering place of some sort, except in the middle of it are standing stones, similar to Easter Island. Only one of these remains, but there used to be 8. It is estimated that this place is 3 or 4 thousand years old.

The next day we travelled along the motorway, past Manchester and Birmingham, to a place called Malvern. It was at this time that we started to hear about the problems caused by the IRA bomb threats. As it so happens, one of the motorways we had been traveling on was mentioned, as was a large portion of the southern train system. It seemed that the closer the election got, the more trouble was coming from bomb threats. What annoyed me most was that they had threatened bombs at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. This could definitely have an affect on our plans, but that wasn’t for over a week yet.

After a night near Malvern, we travelled into Wales and to our friends from Riyadh. The countryside for 30 miles or so on the Wales side of Malvern is beautiful. It is very similar to The Dandenongs. Our friends were staying with her parents while they found a flat for her and the kids. He was returning to Saudi a week after us. It was good to spend some time with them in their natural environment. The Welsh accent is a funny one to get used to. Her parents were wonderful to have us for tea. We all went for a Cook’s tour of the surrounding countryside and it was beautiful. They live near Newport. We talked with them for a good part of the evening and it was most enjoyable. That night, we slept in the van parked out the back of their place, on the banks of a little creek. We could hear the sounds of the creek while we slept and consequently got a very good night’s sleep.

Before heading to Devon and Nick’s mum the next day, we spent the morning with Paul and Vicky wandering around Newport. Donna and Vicky talked non-stop. Vicky hopes that she and the kids will be able to be back in Riyadh within a few months, which we hope happens. This is the family that we took to the cave a week or so before we left Riyadh for England and we all get along well.

At lunch time, we set off for Devon, which is across the Seven Bridge from Newport. Less than an hour after crossing the bridge, we heard on the radio that there had been a bomb threat made on the bridge and the motorway leading to and from it. Of course, most of these threats were just that, threats. But a couple of them had been accompanied by real bombs. We are safer in Riyadh.

We drove to Nick’s mum’s place. Apart from the main highways, the roads in Devon are tiny small little windy roads that weave their way through the hedge rows. We eventually found Mary’s place and were greeted with a warm hello and a hot cup of tea. Nick had left her place only an hour previously, but was expected back because he had left his camera behind. Sure enough, half an hour later Nick turned up to get his camera and so we all had a cup of tea.

Mary’s place is beautiful, and has a view of the seaside. We drove down to the sea during the afternoon and had a walk along the shore. That night we talked and relaxed and had a most enjoyable time. The next day we went to Tintagel, which is supposedly a castle associated with King Arthur. Mary wasn’t too sure about the worth of visiting there but we had agreed that we would go to Tintagel on the first day and then go to Exmore the next. As it turned out, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Tintagel. It is an old, old castle or fort built on the top of the cliff, with the sea crashing on the cliffs below. Even though the buildings are in ruins, not surprising since most of them were built in the 11th century, the site has been exceptionally well preserved and looked after. There are many helpful signs telling about the history of the place. One of the things that I liked was the cave that was in the cliff underneath the main castle. It was supposedly Merlin’s cave.

We took many photos at Tintagel as it was a beautiful place. A short walk from the castle is a very old church that was surrounded by a cemetery. One of the gravestones had a date of 1064 or something on it. This was the oldest gravestone that we had seen. The church itself was beautiful.

The next day we drove to Exmore so as to have a walk across the Exmore Downs, which are actually up. Bit confusing. To get there, Mary took us to a small village on the seaside that had the narrowest streets we had seen. Many of the streets between the houses were so narrow that I could almost touch both houses by stretching out my arms. We seemed to drive forever along narrow windy roads. At one stage, I had to stop the van and roll back to the bottom of the hill to get a better go at it. The hill was too steep for the van the first time I tried to get up.

The walk that we had is one that Donna and Shauna will remember for a long time. The wind was blowing quite well and the weather was clear but cold. Also, we were in the highest place in Exmore and there weren’t any trees, so it was cold. We all rugged up well and Emma and Carly didn’t seem to mind the cold too much. But Shauna was not happy about it. We walked to the highest point and saw quite a few other people doing the same, including some teenagers who, according to Mary, were on an organized long walk where they had to find their way using a map and were staying out overnight. I didn’t envy them that as it would have been unbearably cold at night.

We said good-bye to Mary after having sandwiches for lunch, followed by a true Devonshire tea in a charming little restaurant. We headed towards Southampton. In this region, there were many fields that were bright yellow in colour. We had learned from our friends in Wales that this was mustard and it was tremendous to see. We were heading to an area called New Forest, assuming it to be some sort of wooded area. As it turns out, it was in a manner of speaking, but we had learned that the concept of a wooded area or bushland is quite different in England to what we are used to in Australia. Still, New Forest was very nice indeed. We stayed at the best camping ground that we had been to on our whole trip and which was called ‘Sandy Balls Camping Ground’ on ‘Gods Hill’, I kid you not. We have a photo to prove it. This was a great place and one of the few camping grounds I have ever been to anywhere which I could say that I would be prepared to spend a week at.

The following day was our last day of driving. We packed up and headed reluctantly towards London. We were reluctant only because it meant our holiday was getting closer to finishing. We got to Steve’s flat by midday, regardless of the various bomb threats which had closed down a whole new set of motorways and train lines. They had severely impacted Heathrow the night before and they were still trying to clear the backlog.

After unpacking the van and having lunch, it was time for me to strike out on my own and return the van. What a drama this ended up being. This time, not only did I not have Nick with me, but I was on my own, making the necessary map reading much more difficult. Also, and this was very silly of me indeed, because the van had run out of petrol within 1 mile of us picking it up, I was determined to get it back there with as little petrol in it as possible. What a mistake that was. The first trouble happened when I was on the M25, a giant ring road that travels around London. The van spluttered and then stopped. I managed to organize for some emergency petrol by using the emergency phones on the side of the motorway. Expensive but effective. For some reason, the half hour wait and gallon of petrol at twice the pump price didn’t deter me from trying to return the van with almost no petrol in it. The next step of the drama came when I was close to the place, but didn’t know which exit to take of the main road. I ended up totally lost. A quick phone call to the van place got me back on the road and heading in the general direction. But then I became hopelessly lost again. I was very close now and knew exactly where I had to go. By process of elimination (ie. going around the block a few times), I knew that the van place was directly underneath a huge intersection where 2 or 3 motorways cross. The problem was, how do I get down there? While trying to figure this out, I again ran out of petrol, this time in the middle of a very busy roundabout, just near a rather dicey looking part of town. Plus there were police everywhere, obviously looking for IRA meanies and with 3 weeks growth on my face, I didn’t exactly look clean cut.

Another frantic phone call to the van place, which had to be heading towards closing because it was now after 5 o’clock, received the news that I was very close now and they would send someone out to get me. Thank heavens. Twenty minutes later, a friendly young kiwi chap turned up with the jerry can. We had trouble starting the van but eventually got it going. Then I followed him along the incredibly complex route from that point to the van place. Was I relieved.

The following day, our last Tuesday, was spent in London. We had worked out a list of things to do. Amazingly, even though we were on holidays, that particular day wound up being one of hectic train hopping as we navigated the tube from one place to the next. We achieved quite a lot that day, including the discovery that our planned trip to Paris, scheduled for the next day, wasn’t going to happen. We went to Waterloo station to buy the tickets for the train trip. The fellow behind the counter informed us that, as we were Australian, we would need visas for the trip. Everything that we had read and found out from other people had told us that we didn’t, so we went off and phoned the French embassy. Sure enough, the rules must have been changed recently because, being Australians, we needed visas. I have since been told that the French have recently changed their rules and have made many previously visa exempt nationalities now visa requirers. Apparently they even require visas for transit passengers. Unbelievable!! Anyway, the Paris trip was off as we did not have time to organize the visas before the time we would have to leave to go to Paris.

We were disappointed that night, but put our minds to making the most of the situation. We decided on an extra day in London, giving Donna a better opportunity to visit the big shops, something that she had been wanting to do. That was decided for the Wednesday. For the Thursday, we decided to take the InterCity train to Bath, on the recommendation of Richard, our friend from Riyadh.

On Wednesday we went into London and visited the big shops, including Harrods. As some will know, shopping is not my forte, but it was a good day for Donna and the kids. I did enjoy seeing Harrods. The people there are very helpful. They had no qualms about recommending another shop for some specialized books that we were looking for. They also readily provided an e-mail address for us to be able to contact to get advice on the availability of some books. I was thoroughly impressed when I saw part of the department selling musical instruments. There were at least a dozen grand pianos sitting there in all their glory, just waiting for Liberace to come gliding in and tinkle a tune. I wasn’t impressed though when they wanted to charge me a pound to have a pee. When I got into the dunny, it was impressive with marble and brass everywhere, and more mirrors than you could possibly use. But a pound for a pee? We were exhausted that night.

The next day was fantastic. The Bath train left from Paddington station, and this is a huge place where the trains come in under a giant roof. Sitting there having a cup of tea before the train left, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like when they were steam trains. The InterCity trains are wonderful. They are very modern and travel at 200 kph but are as smooth as glass. From the comfort of the panoramic windows, we could watch the countryside roll by. Bath is a town that dates back to Roman times. There are Roman baths in the centre of town, hence the name. There is a river flowing through the town, past the beautiful garden. We had a marvellous day walking around the town and sitting in the park. We caught the train back to London later in the afternoon and arrived back at the apartment by tea time. It was a brilliant day and helped to compensate for missing out on going to Paris.

And so we come to our last day in England. This was a day that we would have preferred didn’t arrive because we had had such a good time. It also happened to be the second day of rain (light though it was) of our holiday. We rugged up and went into London. We visited Westminster Abbey which was a wonderful place. I was a little confused and I think Donna was as well because Westminster Something-Or-Other is where Charles and Di were married, but this did not look like it could have been the place. It was nowhere near the size that it had looked on TV, although it was certainly huge. we later came to the realization that there is a Westminster Abbey and a Westminster Cathedral. Problem solved.

Next we walked to Hyde Park and went for a walk. We had morning tea sitting beside The Serpentine underneath a huge Willow tree. After that, we continued walking through the park towards Speaker’s Corner and Marble Arch, then had lunch at KFC in Oxford St.

That afternoon, Richard came to the flat to say good-bye and helped us carry the suitcases down to the mini-cab. He was very friendly and helpful during our stay. The IRA were able to have an influence over our holiday right until the end. The trip to the airport was affected by hold-ups on the motorways due to bomb threats. The cab driver was able to avoid most of the delays by taking 13,000 little detours and byways. When we got to the airport, there was extra security. All of the approach roads had police inspecting all vehicles. It was a little bit scary to see everyone so serious about the threats. The police certainly did not look like they we taking any chances and were stopping about 1 car in 5. Once we got to the terminal and had our bags inside, the suitcases were immediately strapped up on a machine so they were impossible to open from that point on. The IRA had certainly achieved something.

The trip back was uneventful. We returned along the same route that we had used previously, which involves a 6 and a half hour flight from London to Bahrain. We went straight to the counter and did the transfer thing but unfortunately this time they didn’t consider that we needed a hotel room. That was a shame but to be expected. It was only a 5 hour stopover but was long and painful.

We finally arrived at Riyadh by 3 o’clock. When we went outside to get a cab to our apartment, we discovered that for some reason, the 50 or so cabs that are there weren’t. We had to wait almost half an hour before getting one, but we eventually did and were at the apartment a half hour later. The difference between driving in London and Riyadh is surprising. In London the streets are narrow and congested and the drivers are basically very courteous. In Riyadh, the streets are wide and straight and everyone drives at break neck speeds. We were cruising at 150 kph on the way to the apartment. None of the drivers are courteous in any way and it is this that makes driving in Riyadh a bit of a pain sometimes.

When we arrived at the apartment, there was what seemed to be a small welcoming committee for us. Everything was in order and our holiday was finished.

Next comes the week long camping trip in the south of KSA in October. Not long to go.