Posted in Family, Travel

Just When We Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into La Piscine (Swimming Pool)…

French style swimming costume for men
Un slip de bain, 1925 style – not modelled by my husband (photo: public domain)

(A post about our Easter 2013 trip by camper van to Luxembourg)

Two summers ago, when touring France in our camper van, my husband discovered for himself (because he wouldn’t listen to my advice) that, for some reason we couldn’t fathom, swimming trunks are not permitted in French swimming pools. “Les shorts sont interdit“. Instead, for men, a slip de bain – the tight-fitting, lycra style of swimwear – is compulsory. (The full story of that episode is in my earlier blog post, Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip.)

This year, he felt it would be safe to return to la piscine without fear of such ritual humiliation. Naturally, he’d forgotten to pack his French slip de bain, so in the pleasing Belgian town of Mons we hit C&A to acquire a new swimming costume for him. Thus armed, we advance on the municipal swimming pool of a small town we’re passing en route to Luxembourg. Swimming is not just a sport on our camper van trips – it’s a welcome supplement to the limited washing facilities available in our small motorhome.

Taking The Plunge, Belgian Style

By chance, we arrive a few minutes before the pool is due to open for its only public swimming session of the day. We approach the receptionist and ask confidently for our tickets.

“Deux adultes et un enfant, s’il vous plait.”

The woman behind the desk looks distrustful.

Vous avez un slip de bain?” she asks my husband warily. “Pas de shorts! Pas de shorts!

She wags her finger in admonition. She’s clearly encountered British customers before.

My husband and I exchange knowing looks. Really, how could she doubt us?

“Encore vingt minutes!” 

She points at the clock, speaking loudly to make sure we understand. It’s not just we British who do this with foreigners.

“Mais oui, madame! Ca va!”

British Olympic champion runner Mo Farah executes the Mobot
The Mobot (photo: Daily Telegraph)

Clearly still not satisfied, she asks another question. This time we do not understand. She responds to our blank looks with a mime. She raises both arms upwards and outwards, as if showing off her upper arm muscles, like a bodybuilder. We are perplexed. Is the inviting us to while away the time till the pool opens by joining a weightlifting class? We shake our heads blankly. She repeats the action, raising her arms higher till her hands nearly meet above her head. Is this meant to be a tribute to the 2012 London Olympics, via the renowned Mobot pose of champion runner Mo Farah?

Suddenly her words crystallise into sense for me.

“Avez vous des bonnets? Les bonnets sont obligatoire.”

Our new French swimming caps
“Les bonnets sont obligatoire, Madame”

Bonnets are compulsory, it seems. Bonnets? Really? Is she having a laugh? She points to the vending machine behind us. Bonnet, I realise, is French for swimming cap. We can get them from the vending machine for 3.50 Euros apiece – more than it’s just cost us to buy our swimming tickets. Foiled again!

We while away the rest of the 20 minutes before the pool opens by deciphering the instructions on the front of the machine, sorting out our small change and acquiring trois bonnets.

Like So Many Smurfs

“Why do we have to wear bonnets, Mummy?” my daughter quizzes me as I wrestle her long, thick plaits into the embrace of blue polyester.

“Probably to stop hair clogging the pool filter,” I improvise.

Entering the pool, we find an unnerving array of polyester-headed people already in the water, their bonnets all in discreet, dark colours, except an eye-catching scarlet and white striped  one of a man who, I am sure, is entirely bald. He ploughs his way up and down the pool, beaming, clearly enjoying this opportunity to feel he numbers among the hirsute.

There is something disconcerting about so many swimming-capped people in one place. It is depersonalising. It takes us a while to spot my husband who is already in the water. The only bare  heads in the hall are those of the lifeguard and a male aquaerobics instructor who is prancing up and down on the poolside leading eight semi-submerged, serious, polyester-hatted ladies through their exercise routine. If you saw his movements out of context, you’d swear he was just pretending to dance like a girl.

Once our swim is over, it comes as a tremendous relief to discard my blue bonnet and wash my hair in the poolside shower. I feel like I’m shampooing my personality back in. I haven’t worn a swimming cap since primary school and I hate it with a passion. But at least I don’t have to wear a slip de bain.

  • If you enjoyed this post, you might like the full story of our initial slip de bain incident here: Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip(It’s a good thing my husband doesn’t read my blog.)
  • In case you missed it, the post about the first stop on our 2013 Luxembourg tour is here: A Holiday from Books.
Posted in Family, Travel

A Day At The Beach On The Isle Of Skye

On the beach at Glenbrittle, Skye
The ambitious new sand palace begins to take shape

I’m concentrating on turning out the perfect sandcastle from Laura’s small pink bucket when I feel a sudden, unaccountable cold sensation at the back of my skirt.

Only when I realise that it’s also a very wet sensation do I swivel round to check the advancing line of the tide. In best pantomime tradition, it’s behind me. It’s taken me by complete surprise, as if playing an oceanic version of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

Building a river as the tide comes in at Glenbrittle beach, Skye
Building a river

Our planned sand palace for Laura’s toy dog, Candyfloss, is fast segueing into a water park. But are we downhearted? No, we are turncoats. We immediately set to work making a river, digging a trench from the water’s edge to the rocks a few yards further up beach. We are the antidote to King Canute.

“Come on, sea!” Laura coaxes. “You can do it!”

On this broad, shallow beach on Skye, we’re on to a winner. Our labours are soon rewarded. Laura is disproportionately joyful; I do not reveal how startled I am by how quickly the tide has encroached.

It is a sobering reminder of man’s powerlessness against the forces of nature. Against the almost primeval setting of the vast, bleak landscapes of the Cuillin hills, it’s not hard to feel small and insignificant – but it’s also exhilarating.

Laura beachcombing at Glenbrittle,Skye
“Anyone seen Sponge Bob about?”

What’s more, it’s a useful educational experience for Laura. I’m hoping an hour or two on the beach will counteract the hours misspent watching her favourite television programme, Sponge Bob Square Pants, set at the bottom of the ocean and defying all laws of nature. In Bikini Bottom, life carries on much as on dry land – only sillier. Repeated exposure colours your perception of reality.

Even I find myself pleased to spot a starfish (as in Sponge Bob’s best friend, Patrick Star) when we take a glass-bottomed boat ride a couple of days before. On the kelp beds beneath the Skye Bridge, there  are numerous sea urchins – beautiful, fragile, spiny domes in ethereal shades of mauve, pink and flesh. “So why are there no sea urchins in Sponge Bob?” I wonder, before I can stop myself.

Paddling in the warm shallows at Glenbrittle, I scoop up a tiny crab in one of Laura’s plastic spades. What’s the first thing I think of? Mr Crabs, the miserly fast-food entrepreneur who is Sponge Bob’s employer. I really need to get out more.

Finally, Queen Anticanute’s work is done.

Laura's river is a success
We did it!

“I’ve made a rock pool!” she rejoices, waving her spade.

Promptly abandoning her post to let the tide demolish her sandcastles, she skips off to romp through the shallows with the energy and enthusiasm of a puppy, kicking and jumping about until she’s dappled with saltwater splashes.

Picking up her abandoned turquoise fleece to save it from the encroaching tide, I take shadowy snapshots against the westerly sun, vicariously enjoying her childlike pleasure in the sea.

Little girl in a big sea at Glenbrittle, Skye
Little girl in a big sea

She’s not really dressed for a dip, but in budding rock-chick style is wearing scarlet pedal-pushers beneath her new black “Stonehenge Rocks!” t-shirt. Her thick dark blonde hair has been dragged into a plait down her back to guard against the tangling effect of today’s strong winds, currently buffeting her daddy along the top of the Cuillin hills behind us. I wonder how long it will be before she’s a rock-chick in earnest, jaunting off to Glastonbury with her boyfriend. But for now I capture these moments in my camera in hope of freezing the passage of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I espy four young German boys clambering over the black rocks that line the bay. I hope they have an eye on the tide and will not be cut off from a safe return.

Time and tide, my friends, time and tide.

Looking out to sea at Glenbrittle beach, Skye

Posted in Travel

All Aboard for A Trip Back In Time

H G Wells' Time Machine“Can we travel back in time, Mummy?” asks my daughter Laura (9) as we set off for the next tourist attraction on our agenda.

We’re part way through a two-week visit from the 16 year old daughter of my old schoolfriend, an American who I met at school in Germany (yes, it’s complicated) . It’s her first trip to England and we’re trying to give her an accurate snapshot of British life and culture.

So far this has included:

– a very large quantity of rain

– seeing a live recording of “With Great Pleasure”, a BBC Radio 4 programme with the wonderful but anarchic performance poet John Hegley (what other Radio 4 programme would conclude with inviting the audience up on stage to dance to Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”? Spot on for my agenda, Mr Hegley, so thanks for that!)

– the usual suspects for this neck of the woods: Stonehenge, Castle Combe, Tintern Abbey, the Roman Baths, etc etc

Launch of the SS Great Britain, the revolution...

Today’s destination is the SS Great Britain, lovingly and expensively restored to replicate mint condition. Brunel’s groundbreaking ship is now in dry dock in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the very dock from which it was launched in 1843. It was rescued from the Falklands in 1970, where it was languishing after a long and varied career and refusing to sink, and returned to base. Movingly, its homeward journey included passing for the first time ever beneath one of Brunel’s many other masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – something it had never done before, as the bridge was not complete when the SS Great Britain first (and last) sailed out of Bristol.

English: Clifton Suspension Bridge. Looking so...

As we enter the museum shed – the overture to boarding the ship itself – I spot a sign that echoes Laura’s request. “Travel Back In Time!” it invites us. Cleverly, the museum is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that we first see evidence of the ship’s return to Bristol, then pass back through its previous incarnations during the Second World War, on the Australian Gold Rush run, and on trips around Cape Horn to the Pacific coast of America.

Laura in Victorian dressBy the time we’ve passed down to the far end of the museum, we’re thinking like Victorians. We willingly don the dressing-up clothes provided to complete our transformation before we board. We pose before a backdrop that suggests we’ve just alighted in Australia. I almost believe that we’re about to visit my  Auntie Mary who lives there. Finally, we board the ship, to listen to an audio guide that uses as its script diaries and letters from real-life passengers.    We truly have travelled back in time and now see the ship and the prospect of ocean-going voyages through accurate contemporary records.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Can we travel back in time, Laura? Yes, I think we can and we just did.  I take my (stovepipe) hat off not only to the engineering genius that was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also to the very clever historians and archivists who made time travel possible for us.

Now, where did I put my crinoline?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like another one that pays tribute to a Victorian Scottish engineer: Signally Challenged in Scotland

Posted in Travel

What Size is Your Jersey?

This exaggerated-colour image of Jersey was ta...
Satellite view of Jersey (Image via Wikipedia)

Collecting our hire car at the airport, I wonder whether fuel will be cheaper on this island, renowned for its lenient taxation.  I don’t have the chance to find out.

“The tank’s half full but don’t bother replenishing it before you return the car,” says the chirpy young man at the Hertz desk.

“But we’re here for five days – will that be enough?”

He smiles kindly, as one might at a child who’s just asked a sweetly naive question.

“Jersey is a small island, you know.  Half a tank will last you more than twice five days.”

I accept his advice.  I’m never one to rush to the petrol pump, the red zone on my fuel gauge being a familiar friend of mine – as is the area just below the letter “E” for “Empty”.  This approach always makes for a more interesting journey.

Prior to our trip, I’ve read in the guide book that the roads in Jersey are very narrow.  This does not worry me.  Where I live in rural Gloucestershire, there are plenty of single-track roads.  Provided you make a mental note of the passing places as you drive, the worst that can happen is that you have to reverse more often than you’d choose.

What I hadn’t expected was the island’s low speed limit.  It’s just 40mph at its fastest, 30 or less in built-up areas and down to 15 in “Green Lanes” (whatever they are).  As most of the roads are barely the width of our hired Ford Ka, I’m not sure how the road network can accommodate the cars of affluent residents.  (I spot more Rolls Royces in our five days on the island than I’ve seen in Gloucestershire all year.) The few roads that are multi-laned are always packed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving traffic.

But it doesn’t matter that every journey is slow, because the distance to be travelled is tiny. Looking at the map, you assume a trip to the other side of the island will be a pleasant day out, so it comes as a shock when you arrive at your destination in less than half an hour.

We are staying in St Helier on the south coast. The drive to the zoo, near the north coast, takes about five minutes.  So although we are forced to drive slowly, it still feels as if we’re driving at great speed because we reach our destinations so quickly.  Sometimes it’s not even possible to map read as fast as we travel. I feel like I’m queen of the island, I’m mistress of the entire Jersey road network.

The low speed limit also makes the island seem bigger than it really is.  If we applied normal British speed restrictions, it would seem even tinier.  Any small state despot should follow suit: it will make him feel much more important.

If we were using at a road map that included the European mainland visible from Jersey’s east coast, we’d soon gain a true sense  of perspective.  But as the only land mass on our tourist map is the island itself, it’s easy to forget  how small it is – especially when the brochures are constantly boasting that we’re on the largest Channel Island.

I’m reminded of the long-suffering Miss Hardy, who had the misfortune to be my Geography teacher before the subject became cool.  The environmental movement must be a gift to Geography teachers everywhere, making the subject  relevant to pupils’ every day lives. I still struggle to find a practical use for my intimate knowledge of the jute production cycle. No wonder we got bored enough to play pranks, one by one hiding under the desks whenever her back was turned until the classroom seemed empty.

Despite our bad behaviour, Miss Hardy’s face would light up whenever she talked about a year she’d spent on an exchange in  an Australian school.  She told us once “I said to my hosts ‘You are so lucky to live on an island!’ and they said to me ‘But you do!'”  What a delightfully colonial mistake to make.  And if a Geography teacher can get confused about scale, I’ll not be too harsh on myself for my own misconception of Jersey.

I’m less sympathetic to the couple in front of me at the admissions desk to Jersey Museum.

“The island’s so much bigger than we thought it would be,” the woman was saying in a plaintive voice.  “In one episode of Bergerac, we saw John Nettles  on the north west coast, and the next minute he was in St Helier.  It took us half an hour to make the same journey!”

The lady behind the desk gave a wry smile.  I don’t think it was the first time she’d fielded this complaint.

“That’s just the editing,” she said patiently.  “It’s what television people do.”

Good old Bergerac, he must really have boosted tourism to the island – no wonder the museum attendant rushed to his defence. But I don’t think I’d choose him as my tour guide.