Posted in Self-publishing, Travel, Writing

A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

A report on my recent visit to St Bride’s Church in London
(unfortunately without a camera)

Photo of St Bride's spire
The famous “wedding cake” spire of St Bride’s Church, Fleet street (Photo by MykReeves at English Language Wikipedia)

I have a longstanding policy of whenever I’m going somewhere far from home on business, I try to squeeze in a touristy trip before or after the meeting. Continue reading “A Visit to St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street”

Posted in Travel

Plopsaland – It’s Nicer Than It Sounds!

The next instalment about our half-term trip to France, Belgium and Luxembourg, focusing on the delightfully-named Belgian theme park Plopsaland

Entrance to Mayaland, part of Plopsaland
Getting ready for a bee’s eye view

“Plopsaland – it’s not just about toilets!”

As we tour this amusement park near the Belgian seaside town of De Panne, I’m trying to devise a slogan that will do it justice, unlike its name, which sounds less than alluring to the English speaker’s ear.

Sign in Flemish with French translation
Putting Flemish first

Plopsaland is defiantly Belgian. Its directional signs are all in Flemish, with a less prominent French translation. There is not a word of English in sight – but why should there be? The polyglots of Disneyland have given us English an inflated idea of the importance of our native tongue.

Model of Maya
Meet Maya

It seems Plopsaland doesn’t especially welcome the French speaker either. When I ask an attendant a question in French, he looks at me blankly, saying “Je ne parle pas Français”. A Belgian who doesn’t speak French? I didn’t know such a person existed.

To be fair, the pleasant young man on reception spoke perfect English. He apologised that only one of the park’s many zones was open, as it receives few visitors in February. Each zone is dedicated to a different Belgian cartoon, of which Maya is the only one I know, from an encounter during my teenage years in Germany, where she was known as Die Biene Maya  (Maya The Bee). I can still sing the theme tune. (I may not know Flemish, but I do speak fluent cartoon.) Fortunately, today’s open zone is Mayaland.

Giant strawberries overhead in Plopsaland
From a bee’s eye view

The entrance to Plopsaland is similar to Disneyland’s, a vast paved forecourt curving around you as if offering a welcoming embrace. Beyond the main gates lies Flanders’ equivalent to Disneyland’s Main Street, composed of eerily deserted Flemish merchants’ houses.

On the far side of the square is a heavily disguised industrial metal storage shed. It’s like a an aircraft hangar on acid, decked from floor to rafters with giant plants and flowers, scaled up to make us feel as if we are the same size as bees. Mushrooms dwarf the entrance, and just inside vast dusky strawberries hang tantalisingly above our heads. The hall is filled with flowers that have overdosed on plant food.

Waterlily boats in Plopsaland
By the light of the silvery moon

Laura’s eyes light up. She has spotted nestling among the floral forest seven or eight classic theme park rides, each with an added a dose of bee-appeal, and fit for children from toddler to 10 (Laura’s age).

Gordon and I take it in turns to accompany her on the rides. At The Dancing Tree, we sit in a massive hollowed log which swings, rocks and revolves in an arc. Strapped into waterlily boats, we weave a graceful figure-of-eight beneath three-metre bulrushes against the backdrop of a cloudless  midnight sky.  Harnessed into sturdy plastic seats, we ascend the Redwood of dandelion stems, reaching the ceiling, before plummeting, spinning, back to the floor.

Giant slide at Plopsaland
Please don’t change lanes

On Plopsaland’s answer to Disney’s Flying Dumbos, we soar aloft in flower cups, each huge bloom accompanied by a plump, smiling bee the size of a small dog. Now and again, we haul ourselves from one side of Mayaland to the other by way of a wood raft which is attached to a rope traversing the stream that divides the hall.

I climb the giant slide with trepidation. I still bear a scar on my wrist from too close an encounter with a Welsh helter-skelter a few years ago. At least this time I don’t inadvertently change lanes, as I did on the giant slide at Horseworld, when I became unexpectedly airborne half way through a steep drop.

The Dancing Log ride
Gordon and Laura take a spin on the log
Laura and giant grasshopper
Laura meets the giant grasshopper

Providing much-needed respite for the adults is a pleasant café, offering mass-produced Flemish dishes, from erstersoepe to flammekuche. The servings are on a scale with the flowers, and Laura is confronted there by the biggest crepe she has ever seen. Perhaps park policy is to provide extra ballast on the rides – or to plunge all the grown-ups into a post-prandial snooze, allowing the children longer to play undisturbed. While we’re dining, a seven foot grasshopper strolls around shaking small hands.

The advantage of visiting in February is that there are no queues, allowing us to ride non-stop all afternoon.

Giant dandelion ride
Enough to give any gardener nightmares: the giant dandelion ride

Finally, towards closing time, we pop into the shop to scoop up thew inevitable souvenirs: plastic play figures of Maya and friends for Laura and, in the absence of branded t-shirts,  for Laura’s younger cousin a small plastic lunch box featuring the name of the gnome after which we’ve discovered the place is named: Plop. Knowing his sense of humour, we are certain it will give him hours of pleasure.

As the gates are locked behind us, we stroll slowly out of the complex, lingering to take photos and storing the concepts in our memory for future recall. Laura and I lag considerably behind Gordon so are surprised when we get back to the van to discover he is not yet there. Then the penny drops.

“I bet I know where he is,” I tell Laura.

As I march her back to the toilet block at the entrance, we see Gordon emerging from the Gents.

“I thought so,” I tell Laura. “He’d gone for a Plop.”

Plastic box with the Gnome Plop on the lid
We wonder what Laura’s cousin will keep in this box

Like to read my previous posts about our February trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands? Here you go! (Next instalment to follow soon)

Posted in Travel

The Unusual Souvenirs of Camper Van Travel

Our camper van outside Linlithgow Palace, Scotland
Outside our last stop in Scotland this summer: Linlithgow Palance

As regular readers may know, my family’s favourite mode of holiday transport is the camper van. For me, one of the many joys of camper van travel is that no matter where you go, your vehicle gradually turns into a mobile museum of everywhere you’ve ever been. I don’t mean we fill our van with souvenirs acquired in gift shops. I’m thinking more of everyday domestic items acquired from local shops in whichever country we’re passing through.

The Esperanto Kitchen

Take the kitchenette. The kitchen roll is French, printed with puzzling slogans about champignons, whereas the tea towel depicts the Outer Hebrides. Snacks are offered up on a French tray printed with macarons. A wooden Provençal tomato punnet is now filled with wrapped Welsh sweets. Having used the last of the Belgian soups that broadened our knowledge of Flemish words for vegetables, we’ve just restocked the soup shelf with tartan tins of “Granny’s Scotch Broth” in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Currently in the biscuit tin are handmade lavender shortbread, purchased at the Achiltibuie Piping School Café, which was quieter than expected because the Pipers were on a summer tour of France. Admittedly some of our supplies have more prosaic origins, i.e. Tesco, but at least they came from the Inverness branch.

Reading on the Road

Cover of the memoir of the founding of the Highland Folk Museum
The best book I read on holiday this summer

As I like to read books about the places we’re visiting, our on-board library bears price labels from distant bookstores. (If you’re ever in Inverness, seek out Leakey’s.) We also buy novels from shops raising money for charities that we’ve never heard of. Blythe Community Care was everywhere we went this summer.

This cosmopolitan mix may be taken simply to indicate a lack of advance planning – I admit that we did once set off on a month’s tour of France without a map or guidebook for that country – but for me the eclectic atmosphere is part of the fun.

Tropic of Tetbury

Preparing to head home after this summer’s adventures, it occurred to me that one man’s exotic is another man’s local. As we import our latest Scottish bounty to Gloucestershire, others will be heading away with treasures acquired in Tetbury. They’ll be dropping Hobbs House crumbs into the pages of the books acquired in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and remembering to tell their friends about cafés named just as eccentrically as our Highland find. Can there really be a Two Toads anywhere else?

And probably, just like me, as they walk back in through their own front door, they’ll be congratulating themselves that no matter how much they’ve enjoyed their holiday, there really is no place like home.

Picture of lavender shortbread from Achiltibuie Piping School Cafe
We left a trail of these crumbs all the way home

(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2013 edition.)

More tales of our Scottish summer holiday will follow shortly.

but here’s one for starters:

Beachcombing in Ullapool – A Story Behind Every Stone

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Why I’m Going Underground (And So Is My Book)

Map of the London Underground akak the Tube
Current London Underground (Tube) from Transport for London’s official website

Last weekend I came across a terrific new scheme to entertain bored commuters and tourists as they travel beneath the streets of London on the city’s famous Underground system, commonly known as the Tube.

It’s called Books on the Underground and does what you might expect from its name: it distributes books on the London Underground system for people to pick up and read for free. They may either dip into a book on their journey and leave it where they found it, or take the book home to read in full. The only proviso is that they release the book back onto the Tube afterwards. A branded sticker on the cover makes it clear that each book belongs to the scheme and acts as a reminder to return it.

Who Sends Books Underground?

Inceptio by Alison Morton at Stockwell tube station
Alison Morton’s alternate history novel transports readers from Stockwell to Roma Nova (Photo by Books on the Underground)

Anyone can donate a book, including its author. Many authors I know, through my book promotions consultancy Off The Shelf and the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), whose blog of self-publishing advice I edit, are climbing aboard the scheme. It’s a fun way for an author to gain visibility – literally – for their work.

I’m sending a copy of my own book underground this weekend. As Sell Your Books! has a narrow target market (it’s a self-help book of promotion advice for authors), I wasn’t sure the scheme would want it, but their lovely administrator Hollie assures me that they would. After all, authors travel by Underground too.

My Top 10 Books for Reading on the Tube

I began to wonder what other titles might be appropriate for Underground travellers. Here are the 10 titles I’d most like to find there:

  • Alice’s Adventures Underground (the original title for Alice in Wonderland, seen on old copies) by Lewis Carroll
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
  • Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • and finally, ending on a lighter note: Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

Action Stations

Lucienne Boyce's historival novel To The Fair Land on the Underground
Travelling To The Fair Land by Tube (Photo from Books on the Underground’s website)

As a former London commuter, I’m well acquainted with the Underground network. I can easily picture the books travelling through the different stations on familiar lines. So it struck me as especially magical if a passenger picked up a book at a particularly relevant Tube stop. I’m longing for someone boarding at Covent Garden to pick up my friend Lucienne Boyce’s fab historical novel, To The Fair Landwhich opens  with a vivid scene in the Covent Garden of 1789. What a great way to escape from 2013 London for the rest of their journey.

Here are another top 10 titles that I’d like to find at a particular station:

  • A Zoo in my Luggage by Gerald Durrell (Regent’s Park)
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Westminster)
  • 1984 by George Orwell (Westminster again)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle (Baker Street)
  • Peter Pan by J M Barrie (either of the Kensington stops)
  • Babar the King by Jean de Brunhoff (Elephant and Castle)
  • The Adventures of Paddington Bear by Michael Bond (no prizes for guessing that one’s station)
  • Heidi by Johanna Spyri (Swiss Cottage)
  • The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford (Wimbledon)
  • The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne (just about anywhere on the grubby old Northern Line)

I’m sure you can think of more books you’d love to find Underground. Please feel free to add them in a comment below – I’d love to hear your ideas. And if you’re travelling on the Underground and come across my book, please send me a photo!

London Underground map from 1908
We’re getting there – London Underground map from 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More Underground information:

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