London 2012

We timed our gap year to end at the start of the Olympics – we wanted to be back in London to enjoy the fun. We landed at Heathrow on the day of the Opening Ceremony. Our plane had been made to wait for about half an hour, so we’d been circling over London and we could see the stadium. What a sight for sore eyes!

I think everyone was slightly apprehensive about the Opening Ceremony, after Beijing’s was so impressive. But even before it properly kicked off, I knew it was going to be wonderful. Some not-very-famous guy in an old t-shirt playing some not-very-famous but great songs, everyone looking relaxed and happy, and people just milling around. There was no milling in Beijing.

Loved the steel Olympic rings, loved Mr Bean, loved Bond and the Queen, loved Tim Berners-Lee helping two teenagers get it on, loved that there were actual NHS patients and staff dancing up a storm (would have been good to see Daniel Radcliffe et al making a personal appearance to defeat Voldemort since they are recognisable worldwide like Bean and Bond), loved Dizzee, loved the Arctic Monkeys, loved the youngsters lighting the flame.  When the theme was youth and inspiring the next generation, why they had to wheel on Paul McCartney I don’t know.  My vote would have been for Florence belting out You’ve Got the Love.  But my favourite bit was still the start; it reminded me of Glastonbury and set the tone for the whole Opening Ceremony and the whole Olympics.

For the first time, the Paralympics has got nearly as much coverage as the Olympics and their opening ceremony was also a show-stopper.  Once the production team had written “Stephen Hawking” and “Orbital” on a flipchart, then they were always going to be onto a winner. Then someone came up with portraying the Higgs Boson through the medium of the umbrella and the whole thing moved to a new level of brilliance.

So we were off to a good start – now to watch as much sport as was humanly possible. This goal was helped by the fact that, having just returned from travelling I am unemployed and therefore it was my privilege, right and duty to be sat on my sofa for twelve hours a day watching sport. Events I’d never watched before and knew nothing about, events where there was no British interest, events where it was just qualifying and there were no medals to be decided – I watched them all and was utterly absorbed by the most unlikely things. Russia v China in the women’s team archery, Sweden v Hungary in the handball – I was on the edge of my seat shouting at the telly for both.

Sometimes I had to prise myself off the sofa to go and watch some live events.

The women’s road race as it passed by my friend Alastair’s house in Leatherhead. I think you can see the eventual winner in third place here.

Para-dressage at Greenwich Park. It was just the qualifying rounds, so no medals won when we were there, but we did see Natasha Baker, who went on to win gold. The dressage horses are so highly-strung that there are special measures in place to help keep them calm. The best one of these is that they are allowed to have another horse standing just outside the arena as moral support. This is called “the Friendly Horse” and I presume it has a particularly mellow vibe. The equestrian venue at Greenwich Park was one of the many venues that I thought really showcased London and made the park and the view across the river look gorgeous. If I had still been on my travels I would have been so homesick watching it on TV from another country.

We lined the route for the men’s marathon. The highlight wasn’t the athletes, but watching three of our friends from parkrun in volunteer mode at one of the water stations.

Goalball in the Copperbox in the Olympic Park. Teams of three blind athletes roll a ball with a bell in to try to score into big goals. The crowd had to be dead silent, which we weren’t very good at. One goal was disallowed because the crowd’s collective intake of breath was too loud for the keepers to hear the bell. Anyone who thinks that the Paralympic Games is the last bastion of sportsmanlike behaviour would have been sorely disappointed watching Turkey running down the clock with three minutes left to go.

Canoeing and kayaking at Eton Dorney – the best seats we had in the whole games, right at the front on the finish line.

Wheelchair basketball at the O2 – in my opinion there are several sports where the Paralympic version is more entertaining than the Olympic and this is the case with basketball. I’ve never had a high opinion of regular basketball as a spectator sport, but wheelchair basketball is much more exciting.

Swimming in the beautiful (will be even more so once they take the wings off) aquatic centre. We were off to a cracking start, with Oliver Hynd taking the gold medal in the men’s 200m medley, and lots of British interest in an evening full of finals. There was a world record or paralympic record virtually every race.

Of course, I had to get some taekwondo tickets and although I was slightly disappointed not to get the evening when Sarah Stevenson and Aaron Cook (as I thought it would be when I applied for the tickets) were fighting, instead we got a little-known teenager called Jade Jones.

Wheelchair rugby aka Murderball in the basketball arena – exciting enough although I don’t like the fact that (a) they have rolling substitutions, which I don’t approve of in any sport and (b) they have “time-outs” to use even though the quarter is only eight minutes long, they use the time-outs whenever they get a bit stuck i.e. if the other team has done a really good job marking them.

So many great moments, but picking a favourite is actually quite easy. I was lucky enough to get tickets for Super Saturday aka the greatest night for British sport ever. The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible. By the time we arrived for the evening session, we already knew that Jessica Ennis was pretty much nailed on for a gold medal in the heptathlon. The fact that she won the 800m and did it in style gave everyone something to scream our heads off for. Meanwhile, the long jump final was going on, with two Brits participating, so we kept looking backward and forward between that and the action on the track. By the time Mo Farah started his 10,000m race, Greg Rutherford was in first place, but with more jumps still to come. As the 10,000m race was coming to a climax, so was the long jump. We didn’t know where to look. A gold medal for Greg Rutherford and we could give our full attention to Mo. With 600m to go he moved into the lead, accompanied by a surge of noise from the crowd. Everyone was screaming at him to hold on and when he crossed the line we were all jumping up and down, kissing each other – it was lunacy. We watched Jessica Ennis receive her gold medal, sang God Save the Queen even though we were losing our voices from all the screaming and went home in a glorious daze, still not quite believing what we’d just seeen.

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Blackheath SE3 v Blackheath NSW

Since Mr Beet and I are erstwhile residents of Blackheath (South East London) we just had to visit the town of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains to see how the two compare.

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Blackheath NSW has three estate agents on its short high street. Plus ca change…

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The Big Blackheath Breakfast at the Victory Cafe is pretty tasty, although not as tasty as a bacon and egg sandwich with tomato relish from Hand Made Foods.

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And instead of the heath, the residents of Blackheath NSW enjoy the views from Govett’s Leap as their local beauty spot.  I think the Australian Blackheath may just edge it here, although I didn’t see any donkeys. 

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Stuff I will miss…

Stuff I will miss about my little patch of South East London:

  • Living next door to a fantastic steak restaurant.
  • Having an awesome fireworks display held on my doorstep every November, and a great vantage point for the New Year’s Eve fireworks.
  • Greenwich Park, in particular the daffodils in spring and witnessing its stealthy progression into Olympic equestrian venue.
  • Sausage rolls from Hand Made Food.
  • Street lights straight out of Harry Potter.
  • Doing a lap of the farmers’ market on Sundays.
  • Parkruns in Avery Hill Park.
  • Cake with ice cream from Royal Teas (and the mind-boggling fact that this vegetarian cafe has somehow managed to become die-hard carnivore Mr Beet’s favourite place).
  • Living within 3 minutes walk of all the basic amenities: train station, post office, supermarket, dry cleaners, gelateria.
  • Old school Christmas lights that stay up well into the new year.

London – U iz doin it rong

We’ve been planning our next holiday and to do our research we’ve been reading people’s travel blogs.  I always like to read their blogs about London because it’s interesting to hear their impressions of somewhere I know.  But they are all doing it wrong.  Here are my top tips to people visiting London.

1.  Why are you obsessed with “Mind the Gap”?  I never realised it before but (mainly antipodean) travellers think it’s hilarious and one of the iconic things about London.  I don’t get it.

2.  The whole point about London is that it’s international.  Go to a traditional British pub one night by all means.  But go to a Japanese restaurant or a Brazilian bar as well.  You’re visiting London now, not London in the 1950s.

3.  Remember that the UK is part of the EU.  It is therefore not hilariously incongruous that your hotel receptionist is Portuguese or your waiter is Polish.

4.  The following are strictly for tourists and best avoided; Piccadilly Circus (sorry Jo), Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeons, the Trocadero, Harrods*.  I’ll let you feed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square at a pinch,  if you check out the fourth plinth and pop into the National Gallery while you’re there.

*If you must go to a big posh shop, then Selfridges is much better.

5.  The following tourist things are worth doing; the London Eye and an open top bus tour.  Most of time you’ll be travelling by tube, so these both offer a good chance to see the layout of the city and how it all fits together.  Walking along the South Bank is also a good way to see lots of cool stuff – Tower Bridge, City Hall, HMS Belfast, the Golden Hinde, Southwark Cathedral, the Globe, Tate Modern, Royal Festival Hall, London Eye and a good view of Big Ben over the river.  If you only have half a day or less in London between flights – spend it here.

6. London is expensive, but there’s also lots to do for free.  Museums in London are generally free and generally brilliant.  Because they are free you don’t have to spend the whole day there to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.  Pop into any one that you happen to be passing and have a nose around for 15 minutes.  My favourite ones that are worth making a special effort to go to are Tate Modern, the Wallace Collection and the Natural History Museum.

7.  London has great parks.  My favourite view of London is from the bridge at St James Park with Buckingham Palace to one side and Whitehall and the Eye to the other.  Hyde Park and Regents Park are also central and each has a different character.  Further out are Richmond, Hampstead Heath and Greenwich.

8.  Go to the theatre.  The Globe theatre is a fantastically interesting building in its own right and to see Shakespeare performed there is a unique experience.  But if Shakespeare’s not your thing then grab Time Out and find a play that interests you.  If you’re not sure then the National Theatre or the Old Vic in particular usually have reliably high quality productions.  The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is another great building so if opera or ballet is your thing then try that (I’m presuming that if opera and/or ballet is your thing then having lots of cash is also your thing).  Or there’s lots of musicals if that’s your bag, but of course these are generally international productions that you could see in any big city.

9. If you want to sample “London” food then my top recommendation would be a curry from Brick Lane.  Fish and chips and bangers and mash are all very well, but don’t spend your whole time eating this stuff, like I said above, London is international so eat noodles, pizza, dim sum, etc.  If you’re the sort of person who likes to eat the weirdest thing they can find: dog, shark, snake etc, then the London equivalent is jellied eels.  Very few Londoners actually still eat these, but they are a traditional London thing and they are disgusting, so fill your boots.

10. Don’t salute the Union Jack and think you are being British.  I can’t think of anything less British.  We don’t give a crap about our flag.  We’re not American.

11. If you come from somewhere where a building from the 1950s is considered historic then check out the Tower of London, the Observatory at Greenwich and the Royal Palaces.  If that’s whetted your appetite then check out other National Trust and English Heritage places.

12.  Good places to visit on the outskirts of London (so you feel like you’re getting out of the big city, but still easy to get to on the train) are Kew Gardens, Windsor, Downe House and Leeds Castle.

13.  People seem to like to spectate at a local sporting event.  London is obviously big enough that virtually any sport you can think of is catered for, but the popular ones are football, cricket and rugby.  Tennis is popular for two weeks every summer when Wimbledon is on.  If money is no object, get a ticket to a venue (there’s loads of great stadia in London – Wembley, the Oval, Lords, Twickenham, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, Selhurst Park, Wimbledon), otherwise lots of pubs have sport on TV and this is also a traditional experience.  If you’re going to watch the footie, then Arsenal play the most attractive game if they’re on good form.  Cricket takes all day and is incomprehensible to the casual observer, so I’d only recommend it for those who are already familiar.

14. People also like to go to markets when travelling.  In London we have Borough (food), Portobello Road (antiques, clothes) and Greenwich (food, clothes and bits and pieces).  I’m not a fan of Covent Garden myself.

15. No native Londoner has ever been to an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse.

16. If you want to pose in an old school phone box, be prepared to face a wall full of pornography.

17. Under no circumstances buy anything with a Union Jack, I Heart London or a picture of Princess Diana on it.

18. It has been known to rain in London.  Bring an umbrella / raincoat with you.  Plastic poncho is not a good look.

19. Try to understand the difference between England and the UK.  If you say England when you mean the whole of the UK then God help you if there’s a Scottish person within earshot.

20. If you go on the tube at rush hour, it will be busy.  I repeat, it will be busy.  Remember that your fellow travellers are probably commuters who do this every day, so they don’t really want to hear your complaints about how squashed you are.  If you’re that precious, then pay for a taxi.

I’m off to New York in two weeks, where no doubt I will do all the equivalent cheesy tourist stuff.  Picture of me in Times Square with I Heart NY baseball cap to follow.