14 Sep 2014 UK/Europe
I was away from 7 August to 14 September. The UK comprised Somerset and London with a day trip to York and Europe comprised Austria and Germany. I was about to start on Germany when I inadvertantly deleted everything I wrote on Somerset and Austria which had taken me several days. No save window appeared. It seems that somehow I had over-ridden the entire document, of which my UK/Europe post was part. This has not happened to me before. I simply don’t have the will or the time to try and replicate what I wrote. Suffice to say that I had a most enjoyable stay with Clive in Somerset and with Herbert & Gil Distel in Katzelsdorf.
What had been a splendid Summer in England and Austria had vanished without trace in August so that my time in both countries involved successfully dodging the rain (it was felicitous how often rain coincided with meals, stopping once we had finished eating) and having to contend with unseasonal cold.
On my first afternoon in Somerset we went shopping in Taunton where I found yellow cotton dusters edged with red stitching, the first item on my shopping list, and a pair of brushed cotton pyjamas which were the second. My journey could not have got off to a better start. Cothay Manor, an architectural and horticultural gem, which we saw the next day, headed my to do list. We enjoyed a steam train ride on the West Somerset Railway, a Red Arrows display followed by a fish and chip lunch of high quality in the Driftwood Cafe, at Blue Anchor, a small seaside resort between Watchet and Minehead. We stopped at Greylake nature reserve on the Smerset Levels and learned about a project to enable the Common Crane to re-conolise the UK’s wetlands after an absence of nearly 400 years. The wall of the kitchen garden at Knightshayes Court was designed by William Burges. Kitchen garden walls are generally noted for their glorious mellowed bricks, not as architecture. I visited Wedmore, Axbridge and Dulverton for the first time (greatly appreciating their distinctive, contrasting, historic and scenic attributes) and strolled around the harbour of my beloved Watchet once more.
In Austria we visited Herbert and Gil’s daughter and son-in-law at their property at the foot of the Schneeberg, the highest mountain in the area. I enjoyed the aquatic life of the Distel’s garden pond, monitoring its changes, such as seeing one, two then three frogs sitting on water lily pads on different days. I watched Herbert’s latest video, a work in progress whose footage is due to be completed on 31.12.14. I also saw the Wiener Neustadt old town with its impressive market square and was surprised by the sight of Highland cattle grazing in a field on the way back from a walk to the post office. I treated Herbert and Gil to an excellent dinner at the best restaurant for miles around which was just up the road. The dessert, a kind of jam omelette and a local delicacy, was memorable. We visited Rust, on the shore of Lake Neusiedl and close to the Hungarian border, on my last full day. The weather was sunny and warm for a change. Rust is Austria’s smallest city and totally enchanting. One of its claims to fame are the White Storks which breed on top of chimneys in the city centre, emitting their unmistakable, staccato, bill-clattering call.
Christina met me at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. She spends quite a bit of time in Luxembourg project-managing a huge contract. My cousin Leila’s younger son Peter and his wife Gaby, who is German, have just sold up in the UK and are now living in Malsch near Heidelberg, a little over an hour by rail from Frankfurt. They invited me to lunch. It was good to be with them and their eldest daughter Jasmin. The weather was cool.
Next day Christina and I drove to Heidelberg. The castle is built on a typically colossal continental scale. We explored the town’s mediaeval core on either side of rain coinciding with lunch. On the way back we stopped at Auerbach Castle, an eye-catching ruin, dominating the country for miles around atop its hill. The train to Berlin was a lot faster than the one from Vienna, although both were German Rail ICEs (Inter-city Express). My hotel was opposite the Friederichstrasse station, a wonderful survival from the 1920s. Both my parents and my cousins were born in Berlin, which was the reason for this, my first visit. I had some addresses in connection with my father’s side of the family. The concierge provided all the transport links and three hours later I was back at the hotel having explored the street where my uncle and my cousins lived, admired the building where my uncle had his dental surgery, an outstanding example (1929) of modern architecture, and been to the street where my father lived before he fled Germany. The actual apartment no longer existed. Those 3 hours meant the world to me.
I was recommended the Yellow Bus Tour followed by a boat ride on the Spree. I got off the bus at Schloss Charlottenburg and studied the palace’s exterior before walking in the spacious grounds. The tour passed two buildings by the great Karl Friederich Schinkel which could not have been more different. One was a beautifully articulated red brick gothic revival church, the other, the Neues Schauspielhaus in his favoured Greek revival style. After a relaxing and entertaining boat ride, I made a point of taking a closer look at both on foot.
The Brandenburger Tor has all the late 18th century grace which the Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe lack. Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome is a Berlin must-see, which necessitated queuing for over 2 ½ hours for an entry pass. There was no possibility for me to leave the 2 hour Purple Bus Tour because of my Reichstag booking. The tour included two sections of the Berlin Wall and miles of the former, refreshingly green, eastern part of the city, notably some of the marxist boulevards and workers’ housing. The Reichstag dome is a work of genius and immensely enjoyable to be in. From the terrace around its base, Berlin looks as flat as Longreach in outback Queensland.
I was torn between retracing part of the purple tour on foot and using day 4 of my 5 day Austria/Germany rail pass. I chose the latter and caught the train from Berlin to Kiel via Hamburg. The day was sunny and decidedly warm. I took to Kiel before the train came to a halt in the terminus, a huge car ferry moored to the quay on the far side of the basin which graces the city centre, having caught my eye. No sooner had I left the station and crossed the road, I saw another ferry moored to the near side quay. In all, I had about two hours in Kiel. I crossed to the other side of the basin, saw various boats and ships come and go and had a thoroughly satisfying time.
The focus of my fortnight in London was, more than usually, to spend time in the loving embrace of family because my cousin Henry died early this year. It was hard being in London and not seeing him. The weather was unusually dry, though not necessarily warm and sunny. Family now includes Nicole’s sister Karen, her husband Gerard and their 11 month old son Dale who live in Barking. Accordingly that’s where I went the day after I arrived. Dale is adorable. I knew the soft toy Wombat I gave him was a hit as soon as he put its foot in his mouth. Nicole and Gerard prepared a sumptuous lunch. They are a lovely young couple.
I twice visited Leila in her care home, reporting on my time in Malsch and in Berlin, reminiscing about family and generally putting the world to rights. On the second visit she brought me up to date on her own trip to Malsch in early October, which she had announced at a family lunch in her brother’s house the previous Sunday. Sitting round the dining table for the first time in ages brought back a host of sweet memories. It was especially good to be with Molly, Henry’s widow, who always carries herself with diginity. She invited me to a high tea the following Wednesday and we spoke for longer than was possible in all the years I have known her. I also greatly valued the time I spent with Henry’s daughters Sue and Helen, who had done so much for their parents during their father’s protracted illness and thereafter for Molly.
As ever, I valued being with my friends, including John Pearce who happened to be in London and not in France where he mainly lives and works. We have a mutual admiration society going, I for his en plein air paintings of landscapes and gardens which are stunning meditations on nature, he for my videos of small events. As with my trip to Kiel, I was determined to use the last day of my England rail pass, opting to see the National Railway Museum in York. In one of the sheds, a man in his fifties lamented the fact that Britain no longer built railway engines or breakdown cranes. Only when I came to the Great Hall did it occur to me that what Britain does now possibly better than anyone else, is museums. No visit to York would have been complete without afternoon tea at Betty’s Tea Rooms, where I first went with my parents in the 1950s. I had taken the earliest opportunity to admire the façade of Kings Cross Station freed from decades of accumulated clutter.
The concert season at St Martin’s in the Fields was in full swing. I booked a concert featuring two Brandenburg Concerti and a Mozart divertimento. The musicians were wonderful, but too few to do the works justice. My last day in London coincided with the second day of the Late Turner exhibition in Tate Britain. I coveted some of his small water colours. The paintings of classical subjects left me cold. The stand-out work was Snow Storm – Steam Boat at a Harbour’s Mouth exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842. I cannot envisage a truer or better depiction of the sea whipped up by a storm.
Since November 2013, I have looked forward to the next occasion to have dinner at the Chinese restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Changi Airport. The meal I had on my return stop-over was even better than the one I enjoyed last November.