In the absence of any reasonably-priced direct flights to the UK, Amy and I opted to go to Amsterdam and avoid taking a slightly-more-environmentally-damaging-per-passenger-kilometre short-haul flight by making our way through Europe overland. We touched down in the evening, and discovered almost immediately that our hostel (despite excellent reviews) was situated in the middle of the main red light district. We rubbed shoulders with the loutish punters as little as possible, and took the first convenient train to Hoek van Holland the following morning. We were expecting a fairly rough crossing to Harwich, but were mercifully becalmed and arrived in London none the worse for wear.
With the best part of the day to spend in the region of either our hostel or Victoria Station, we took a short walk through Hyde Park and paid a visit to the incomparable Natural History Museum. Sadly the Darwin Centre tours weren’t running, so we couldn’t see the giant squid but did manage to test our knowledge of other areas of interest and attend both a puppet show (Christmas-themed) and lunchtime lecture (about the red and blue crabs of Christmas Island, including some live specimens). We then made our way to Victoria by an unintentionally circuitous route (having been given three different sets of directions), but arrived just in time to refuel and board the bus north to Wakefield. After a year away, little had changed and I suspect the fields and houses will be much the same the next time I go home, and probably for the next few decades after that.
With only a few days until Christmas and shopping still to do (Korea slightly lacking in the ethical/tasteful gift department), Amy and I absorbed the local delights of Halifax and Huddersfield and finished all our wrapping with plenty of time to spare. Amy quickly made herself an indispensable part of the household by baking hundreds of cookies, and we home-and-hearth-ed it up by decorating the tree, persuading Boris (the cat) that we were a legitimate addition to his territory and feeding old apples to Bert, a Shetland pony that had appeared in the field opposite. When not coming over hopefully when people appeared, he spent most of his time hobnobbing with the horse in the field behind and sending up small clouds of dust from his coat.
The traditional Christmas Eve service at the local churches in my area (and possibly all over the UK) is called the Christingle – it’s the usual Nativity and carols, but participants are given an orange (representing the world) wrapped with a red ribbon (the blood of Christ) with a candle (Jesus, a.k.a. the Light of the World) and four cocktail sticks with sweets and raisins (the four seasons and the fruits of the Earth) stuck in it. The address was on the significance of the aluminium foil (Christians). This was followed by a nativity production, put on (and almost certainly part-written) by the local primary school children and full of Yorkshire dialect and entertaining modern-day references.
Christmas day was one of the larger family gatherings in recent years, as it was the first time I’d been home in December since leaving to travel over two years ago. As expected, we were overloaded with gifts and everyone remarked how (dumb?) lucky I’d been to meet Amy. We spent Boxing Day digesting, walking in the local valleys and trying some of the gifts out (i.e. my new lens, which I’d bought in Korea due to it being vastly cheaper and brought over without so much as opening the wrapping). Some thought was given to the practicalities of getting around ten kilograms of gifts back to Korea, but the final decision was put off (a mistake, as we later discovered that a single parcel would be astronomically expensive and it’s cheaper to send five packages, each weighing less than 2 kg).
As we were just next to the Peak District, we decided to see some of it and took the train over the Pennines to Greenfield, from where we could access the Dove Stone area with relative ease. There are three reservoirs, the oldest dating back to Victorian times, with miles of walking trails and lots of archaic machinery and unfathomable water-directing structures. We had planned on following a clough up to the moorland proper, but ice made the path too dangerous and we had to mingle with the crowds of low-level daytrippers for the majority of our walk. It was bright and blustery, and surely the King of Tonga would have been just as enthusiastic about the place had he visited in winter.
By a stroke of good fortune, P&P graduate and activist extraordinaire Matt was back in Huddersfield and so we went along to just-reopened Bar 1:22 to check out his latest project. Despite one of the worst possible locations in town, a small co-operative had succeeded in getting a decent live music, drinking and meeting venue together and was well on the way to making it a going concern. We quickly caught up with the activist network (as always, wonderfully factious, fractious and plagued by public apathy), checked off one of Amy’s goals for the trip (an English curry) and got members’ rates for the draught cider. We didn’t have time to stay for the open mic (being reliant on buses), but squeezed as much debate and reminiscence into the meeting as we could.
Our plans for New Year’s Eve had initially consisted of making our way up to Edinburgh for Hogmanay, but other engagements in England plus rough seas near Ireland (possibly preventing one of our friends from making it over) ruled it out. We also had an invitation to the festivities at 1:22, but the lack of public transport on New Year’s Day versus the cost of coming back late at night contributed significantly to us being at home with a good supply of cider and an excellent DVD (another Christmas present). Consultation with friends over the next few days revealed that this, or something like it, had been a popular activity all round.
In keeping with years of tradition, we drove over to my grandparents’ house in North Yorkshire for a visit on New Year’s Day. As usual, the garden was full of birds and I hit upon the excellent idea of going over to the local animal sanctuary to say hello – the notice was too short, however, and we walked out to the woods instead for an afternoon constitutional.
Back in London with only a couple of days to spare, we made a beeline for the National Gallery and stumbled upon a free tour explaining things about the paintings that you would normally need higher degrees in art history to know. We returned for the second tour of the day, quite captivated by the depth of history represented (e.g. Rembrandt couldn’t paint hands) and the entertaining style of the guide (e.g. entirely from sales of their second most popular postcard – possibly Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, but don’t quote me on that – they were able to buy a new work, Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape – valued at around £7 million).
While Amy went to immerse herself in the Renaissance Faces special exhibition, I took to the streets with the intention of walking down to the river in case there was anything interesting to photograph. Instead, I ran straight into a huge demonstration to do with the invasion of Gaza (plus the usual Socialist Worker/Respect flycatchers) and casually walked into the press photography areas to take a look at people throwing shoes at Downing Street. I suspect that this will become a regular feature of demonstrations from now on, and hope that Oxfam (or a similar organisation) are ready for extended pairing-and-donating operations. I suspect that I stood out a mile in the midst of full-frame bodies and L-series lenses, but stood my ground before allowing the press of people to sweep me back into Trafalgar Square. From there it was a few short steps back to the gallery, safe from a possible George Galloway appearance.
As my parents had insisted upon it, we walked down to the V&A the next day for lunch, stopping by the Serpentine Gallery on the way and arriving in time to have a look round. The sheer scale of the cast galleries was quite a surprise, as was the size of the permanent collection given the existence of the National Gallery and the British Museum just up the road. We ate lunch as instructed in the William Morris Room, tiled to perfection and a feast for most of the senses (the noise didn’t encourage lingering). A brief look at the National Portrait Gallery concluded our flying (but surely not final) visit to London, and England as well.