Day 25. First full day in Europe

We froze all night. Between the cold and the trains, and my general light sleeping with one ear open for passers by, mad men or serial killers and/or of course the caretaker rattling on the door, I didn’t get much sleep at all.

After laying in bed for a little while, trying not to move and keep warm, finally I’d had enough and got up. I went outside to reception, but still it was not open, so we packed up and left. (A win for us, we avoided paying rent on our first night).

We still had no plan, and very little food. We actually didn’t even know where we were. We knew we wanted to head to Berlin, so we punched that into the GPS and just headed that way.

Along motor way couldn’t read the signs, or what we were missing. This was going to make our grand plan for Europe a challenge. The plan was, a few key destinations, then whatever we find along the way. If we couldn’t find anything along the way because we couldn’t read or understand the signs, it was going to be both quick and boring (and we have 6 weeks of this).

We found a town and tried to do some more shopping, but again we couldn’t understand any of the brands or packaging. We spent most of the day going in circles and hated it.

I was so frustrated with the lack of progress, I was ready to go back to London (or Australia). I was not having any fun at all.

We went to Burger King at a roadhouse for lunch (another brand we recognised), but were frustrated to learn they don’t offer wifi.

After lunch we managed to find a shopping complex and purchased extra blankets and a kettle (we didn’t even have a kettle), then continued to move along towards Berlin.

We decided not to wait until dark to find a campground today, so about 2pm, (and still a very long way to Berlin), we once again put campgrounds into the GPS, picked the closest and went in search of it.

We drove along winding roads and through towns and villages but again we couldn’t find the dam camping ground. We finally gave in, and picked a tourist information spot. We went in but the volunteer only spoke German. She gave us some directions that I didn’t understand, but I nodded and smiled, and we headed out.

I’d had enough. I was over it. We’d been in Germany two days. We hadn’t managed to do a shop, we had hardly any food, we couldn’t speak with anyone. I was cold, hungry and tired. As much as people were trying to help us, (be it shopping or the kind lady at the Tourist Info site), it was all too hard.

For me, the adventure was over.

On the way to the tourist information centre, we passed a Holiday Inn. So I ignored the instructions to the camp ground and headed straight for it. To rub salt into my wounds – I couldn’t find that either, so we just got back in the highway and continued towards Berlin.

Along the way I spotted a hotel from the highway, took the exit and went straight in. It was a Park Inn, operated by Raddison. When I asked at the counter first “English” and the girl announced “yes”, then “do you have rooms” and she again said “yes”, I was a happy man.

I’d have paid $1000 a night for a room by this stage, though thankfully two rooms including breakfast for the four of us were just over $100 euro’s.

I still had no plan. But at least now I did have a bed, a warm shower, a restaurant down stairs, and wifi.

Finally, things were starting to come together (not really, I just felt comfort in retreating to my English speaking, Western venue).

We had a swim, a shower and a feed, checked my emails and went to bed. Perhaps Germany was not that bad after all. Tomorrow I’ll work out what to do next.

Day 24 – Getting Started in Europe (Frankfurt, Germany)

Next to the Motorhome hire place, was a large store, kind of like a Harvey Norman, so we went in and picked out a TomTom, GPS navigator. This was a challenge in itself, as the assistant didn’t speak much English, and we had to try and communicate what we needing it for. With lots of pointing and gesturing, we managed to get one that would do the job.

When we got to the checkout, we learnt they didn’t take Mastercard or Visa.

In German, by a very emotionless and efficient check out operator, we were told they only take ICB Card (or something like that); next. No emotion – total efficiency. Ros and I were still at the head of the line and she was already serving the person behind us. We were just looking at each other trying to work out hat had just happened, and more importantly, what to do next.

Since we hadn’t been anywhere, we still didn’t have any cash.

We were standing around trying to work out what to do next and I don’t mind admitting, I was really starting to feel the pressure. Even Ros said she had never seen me that out of sorts. I think this was the first time it hit me, what we had actually committed too. We were now in a country where we didn’t speak the language, know the lay of the land or have a plan, and I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Beside the electronic store, was a “casino” or a shop full of poker machines. In a stroke of genius moment, I figured it would be just like the casinos and clubs at home, with an ATM in the foyer or somewhere. So I went in.

I was partly right. It did have an ATM, but you could only withdraw some sort of token, that you put into another machine, that changed it into coins for the poker machine. I tried to ask the girl at the counter if the tokens were tokens or Euro’s and she did her best to answer (in German of course), but still unsure I decided not to risk it, and left, still with no money, no GPS and no plan.

The guy from the hire place came over to the van, wondering why we were still there and if there was a problem. He even asked Ros if I was scared to drive the motorhome. When she told him what was happening, he gave us directions to town, where we found bank, got cash, went back to shop, purchased the GPS  and were now good to go. The question of course, was go where?

Playing around with the GPS we found under the points of interest, it had a camp ground option, so we selected the closest one and headed off.

At last, we were finally moving. (This was about 4 hours after actually arriving at the motorhome place).

Along the road, we tried to find a grocery store to do some shopping and buy food. But since we didn’t know or recognise any brands, we had no idea what we were looking for. At last we found a McDonalds, so we pulled in for dinner. Finally we felt we were making ground.

After dinner we drove by an Aldi (the first brand we recognised) and went in. Once inside, we couldn’t understand the brands or the options. We couldn’t even work out what animal the mince was from.

We did get some goods (coffee, cereal, biscuits) and then headed on to the camp ground.

By now it was well and truly dark. We followed the GPS directions to the letter, but when it told us we had arrived at our destination – there was no destination to be found. After about 30 minutes of looking, we gave up, selected the next camp ground in the GPS and drove another 30 minutes away.

This time we found it, but as it was late, reception was closed. As the motorhome is fully self contained, we just camped in the car park out the front.

We had just climbed into bed when a train went past, scaring the crap out of us all. We were parked right beside an active line. For most of the night, the trains continued to run. The ever efficient German Railway system.

Day 24 – Moving Day. London to Frankfurt

Today I had to say farewell to my Volvo, as we headed to the Airport and on to Germany. We had to go a little over 100 miles, all along the freeway, so we gave ourselves two hours to get there. We had heard about how bad the traffic can be, but thought this would be plenty of time.

Wrong!!

Along the way we hit traffic, came to a complete stop and managed to get to the airport late. Worried about missing the flight, we decided not to worry about refueling the car and just paying the exorbitant prices.

Processing through Heathrow (Terminal 5 at least) was seamless, and would rate as one of the best airport experiences I’ve had (and this is only partly because I received a full pat down).

We had a couple of hours before departure, so we grabbed some breakfast, and I dialed in to the wifi to do some work. A few emails and a few calls and all caught up again

Flight to Frankfurt (British Airways) was on time and did all the things it was supposed to do.

Arrived Germany and grabbed a cab to pick up the motorhome. Having had a run in with the first cab in England over paying, we checked with the attendant at the cab stand that we could use the credit card and after being assured it would be fine, we climbed on board.

As we got rolling the driver tried to enter the address in his GPS, but when it couldn’t find the location he passed me the local street directory and asked for help – It was in German.

I could feel myself smiling in the inside and the out, as I thought about how stupid this was. Somehow, between the two of us we managed to work it out, and found out way to the pickup point.

When we arrived at the pickup point, and went to pay the cabby, we learned he didn’t take credit card and we needed cash. Arrrrgggh!! I went inside and met the motorhome hire guy, who thankfully raided his petty cash tin for the $80 Euros to take care of the cabbie.

We watched a video on driving and operating the motorhome, completed the paperwork and had our tour and more training and then we were ready to to. Ready to go – Where????

We had no plan. Our entire Europe plan was “Make it up as we go”. We hadn’t even looked at a map. Sure we had a number of key locations we wanted to see, but we had no real plan. This was the first sign we were in trouble.

Day 23 – Cardiff (Wales)

We left home with the intention of heading East to Dover, and checking out the port, shipping lanes and tunnel.

But realising that this would have us go back past London (which we were returning to following Europe) we decided to do a left instead of a right, and headed to Cardiff and Wales instead.

Josh was appalled. Earlier in the week at Warwick Castle, they had mentioned on more than one occasion, visiting Wales was a fait worse then death (kinda like the rivalry between Qld and NSW), so he could see no reason why we would be motivated to go to Wales.

Along the way there were patches of Fog. I kept passing all these signs that said F09 and I couldn’t work out what it meant until Ros pointed out that it was actually F O G. She took great delight in that and for the next 100 miles, every time we seen a sign (about every 500m) she took the piss.

Along the way we had a long discussion about whether Wales was another Country or a State or something else. We were a little worried, because as we were originally heading to Dover, we hadn’t packed our passports. If Wales was another Country, we might get all that way, and not be allowed to cross the border.

Still we headed west. When we passed a road sign that said “Welcome to Wales” we figured whatever its position, it looked like we didn’t need passports to enter.

We drove around the city a little first visiting a Ruined Roman Fort (didn’t look all that interesting so we kept going), Cardiff Castle (couldn’t find a car park) and ended up at the Cardiff Bay for lunch.

There were a few things to see there, including the Port Masters office, but as hard as I tried, I just wasn’t all that into it, and neither was anyone else, so we decided to take a walk along the waterfront, watch the boats and buildings and take in the fresh air.

I don’t know if it was just the day, but the water in the bay was “black” and “dead”. It looked like a large pool of oil. It was very different to the bays back home.

Seeing the boats on the harbour, did renew my desire for a Winter boat though, so we started discussions about our next boat – what model, how big etc (for the record – currently it stands at a 37ft, Sunrunner).

Back in the car we decided we should return to Cardiff another day and check out the Castle and other parts in more detail.

Ah yeah, and for the record, Wales is another country.

Day 22 – Day Off

Fifth day in the Costwolds (a Saturday) we deemed a rest day. 3 weeks of traveling and touring and we were all buggered. We’d mostly keep up on our washing, but we were just over looking at stuff and being entertained.

So Josh and I went into town to grab some lunch and something for dinner (Chicken and bread rolls  for lunch, lasagna for tea), and headed back to the cottage.

Lunch, reading, a good kip, more reading, dinner, bed.

A well earned and appreciated rest day.

Day 21 – Cadbury Factory

The kids wanted to head over to the Cadbury factory for a tour. As much as I am a chocolate fan, I’ve spent most of my professional life in the food manufacturing industry, and I wasn’t all that motivated to go and see another factory with a line of flow wrap machines, but I went anyway.

To my absolute surprise, this turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip so far.

Whilst the tour did have a portion of “this is how chocolate is made”, a larger portion of it was about the history of chocolate, and the history of Cadbury including the founders.

What was remarkable, was that these leaders not only built an enduring business, they also built an enduring community.

To make better, more pure Chocolate, they decided to move the factory from the “dirty”, “polluted” city, to the country (about 10miles from town). There they built a factory, and a village to support it. They called the Village Bournville

Not only did they build houses, but also sport and recreational grounds, including swimming pools and athletics ovals. They even taught the staff to swim (during working hours) and had weekend picnics and sports carnivals.

The Cadbury’s were Quakers, and believed in clean and healthy living. They had a “guide” for residents that advised them to eat fruit (apples were considered the best) exercise and stay away from Alcohol.

In the company houses they planted fruit trees, and even had paid workers tend to the for the first 3 years, just so the would survive a flourish. Local kids were encouraged to run and play in the fields and it was largely reported the children in Bournville where taller and heavier then in the nearby town.

It got me to thinking about our large enterprises today. The Apples and Googles of the world. Whilst they companies offer wonderful workplaces and free lunches, they haven’t taken employee welfare to the same level as Captains of Industry in years gone by. (I also wondered if you could get away with advising your staff to stay off the boooze and eat healthy in this day and age.)

So the Cadbury tour turned out to be a great day, and a great experience. It was a lot of fun. I learnt a lot and have a new found respect for the Cadbury brand and family, and a bunch more questions about what it means to build an enduring legacy

Day 20 – Rest Day

For our third day in the Cotswolds, we decided to take it a bit easier.

We headed out in the car again towards Bishops Cleave, for no other reason than it sounded interesting. Once we arrived we realised there was actually not all that much there, so we headed on to Gloucester.

We stopped at Costa Coffee for what has now become our daily morning tea ritual, with Ros and the kids having hot chocolates (kids with cream and marshmallows, Ros without).

We decided to go and see a movie, but when we checked the movie we wanted to watch, didn’t actually release until tomorrow, so we gave it a miss. Ros bought herself a new watch (she left Australia without one) and I went next door to flight centre, to try and find something to do on our spare week, following Europe. We’re thinking of heading up to see the Northern Lights, but still not sure.

On the way in we went past a large Camping and Outdoor shop that did everything from hiking to cycling to snow, so we dropped by to check it out. It was like a Bunnings for outdoor activities, huge, with a massive rage, but once we got inside we realised there wasn’t all that much in there (or nothing we wanted anyway) so we left empty handed.

On the drive home I had a “Purple Cow” moment. As we drove along the lane ways and roads, through the perfect little English villages, I suddenly realised what only a few days earlier has been a novelty, had now become the norm. It was only a couple of days earlier I was travelling at half the designated speed limit, looking at every building, church, stream and house. Today, not only was I driving at the speed limit, I was mostly unaware of what was happening around me.

It reminded me of Seth Godins book, Purple Cow. In the book, Seth says if you seen a purple cow you’d stop and take notice, but if you seen fields of them, after a while they would just seem normal and you would start to ignore. Eventually taking notice again when you see a black and white one.

I couldn’t believe the difference, given how excited and interested I was only 72hrs earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I was still into it, just now the novelty had worn off.

We made it home mid afternoon, in time for a good kip – which was severely needed.

A non-touring day was just what the doctor ordered.

Day 19 – Warwick Castle

Day 2 Cotswalds – Warwick Castle

We headed into the town of Warwick to visit Warwick Castle. We were not really sure what we were going to see, but as usual, we were happy to just let the day play out, and take it as it came.

It turns out the Castle is now owned by Madame Tussauds the famous Waxed Figure company and has been largely restored, with Tussauds including scenes in the  castle rooms using their waxed figures.

Warwick Castle, the former home to the Earl of Warwick, had played a key role in English history, including at one point, holding the former King of England in one of its towers, which Josh and I accidentally found via an open door in one of the towers. Now an empty shell, it was still pretty cool, and a little exciting knowing we probably shouldn’t have been in there.

The castle is home to the worlds largest Trebuchet – a sort of catapult, which it fires twice a day. During the presentation, they explained to us that when you lay siege to a castle, you don’t necessarily want to use your weapons to break down the walls. Who wants a Castle with a big hole in its outer wall? No instead, you mostly want to terrorize the residents inside, by throwing fire balls over the wall to burn everything down, or dead animals, or the heads of your prisioners or human waste to spread disease. In some cases, they even launched things like baskets of snakes.

Enough of this, and eventually, the people in the castle just give up and open the gates.

Back to my plan to storm Buckingham Palace. A couple of these should help with the job.

We did a tour of the dungeon which was very well done, with actors and animations explaining things like the Kangaroo Court System. Ros was charged and found guilty of witchcraft – apparently she was dancing naked and conjuring up a man. The judge mentioned she was not a very good witch, because all she could manage was me.

The tour included the torture chamber, including tools to remove the tongue, and even something like a cigar cutter, doing a similar thing (cutting) to a particular part of the male anatomy. I cringe just writing about it. Ouch. I give up. I’ll tell you anything.

Warwick Castle had a bit of a reputation as a party castle and one of the former Countess’s “Daisy” had a bit of a reputation with the Men. Her loyal and loving husband stood beside her despite her having a child (her only child) with another man and she was even a known favorite of the future King Edward the VII.

The final act of the day was a second firing of the Trebuchet, in which they fired a fire ball – a flaming missile. That was pretty cool.

Once again, letting the universe take care of our agenda had turned out the be a winner. We had a great day, learned a little about English history and had a bunch of fun doing it.

Day 18 – Stonehenge and Bath

For our first full day in the Cotswolds, we decided to head to Stonehenge and check out the hanging rocks. Its was a miserable day, the sort you expect to find in England. This didn’t bother us, as we had been expecting this kind of weather anyway, so we just set out, determined to enjoy it.

More country roads/lanes, more little villages, more traffic parked in opposing directions.

Along the way to Stonehenge, we found Woodhenge, which was built around a similar time, and contained groups of pilings (originally in wood, now of concrete) arranged in 6 circles. According the the display, no one really knows what it is or was.

It would have been interesting except, it wasn’t. Nothing was left of the original structure, it was just some concrete. But the name got our attention, and we had our photo taken standing one one of the pylons just the same.

A little further up the road we found what we were looking for. Stonehenge is right beside the highway so we could see it well as we came over a hill and into the car park. We paid out entry price (everything here has an entry price, even 6000 year old rocks you can see from the road) and headed in.

They had these cool audio tours, a bit like an old mobile phone, which gave the story of Stonehenge (meaning Stone Hanging – Henge = Hanging). Some of the audio was on the physical appearance of the rocks, and the way they were carved and attached to each other. It was interesting to think about and see the remains of the 6000 year old craftsmanship.

Other parts were simply guesses as to how the rocks came about, why it came about and how it was used. They even had some of the more crazy stories, such as giants building it. These stories were entertaining, but they really were just stories.

The best part of the audio tour was as everyone had these to their ears, listening, which meant they weren’t speaking, which gave us a chance to soak up the significance of the Henge and take in the atmosphere.

It was pretty cool and pretty interesting.

It was also interesting at this point to consider how much things had changed with regard to how as a society, we now treat and view our historic landmarks. Whilst we were kept well back from the rocks themselves, it wasn’t all that long ago, that the blacksmith in town sold little chipping hammers, and encouraged you to visit the rocks and “chip a piece off” as a souvenir.

Following Stonehenge, we moved on to Bath where we visited a 2000 year old bath house, built by the romans. Built beside (and on top of) a hot spring, this too was incredible. The Romans managed to have hot running water and even steam houses, 2000 years ago. There was also a collection of memorabilia including coins, tool and even a coffin/casket.

The more I’m immersed in historical locations and consider the skills, tools and technology of the times, the more I wonder what went wrong, and what have we as a civilization been doing for the past 2000 years. Did we just forget stuff or what?

Whilst in Bath we managed to find another phone shop, and this time purchased a portable wifi hotspot, already connected. We even connected our phones (Ros, Mikeala and I) in the shop to make sure everything worked. You’ve never seen a happier family then the Ridleys, when we all had a good wifi connection. Our very own connection. For the first time since leaving Australia.

The smile couldn’t even be removed when we returned to the car and found we’d received a parking ticket.

Day 17 – Moving Day (London to the Cotswalds)

We checked out of the apartment and headed back to the airport. This time the cab driver was friendlier although he couldn’t understand how we could be heading to the airport without caring what terminal we were dropped at. He didn’t seem to understand we weren’t actually flying anywhere so it didn’t matter.

We found Europcar and picked up our ride – a Volvo, mmm I’m officially a Volvo driver for the next week, but its ok, its got a sunroof, so its cool.

After doing a couple of laps of the airport and trying to work out which way was out, we managed to get underway and head towards our next destination, Chipping Campden.

We left the highway (I think I missed a turn or something) and followed the winding country road through little villages. It was fun learning to drive in UK, on the winding lane ways, cars parked in the opposing direction to traffic, narrow roads and oncoming traffic. It was like driving in Cairo except, more polite and “English” and not nearly as busy. It was fun.

I was a right and proper tourist driving at about half the speed limit, looking at every tree, stream and church. There was just so much to see, and everything was so different to ANYTHING I’d seen or been in the middle of before.

We found ourselves in Oxford, (what I’ve now declared the city of bicycles) so we decided to try and find the University. After three laps of town and not being able to find a car park, we gave up and continued on our way. I now understand why everyone rides a bike!!

Passing through all these little villages (about every 4 or 5 miles) I noticed every one had a Pub on the highway, and being around lunch time decided to pull up at one for lunch. A good traditional English Pub Bangers and Mash.

After lunch we carried on to Chipping Campden and found our room/cottage, a converted grain shed. It was only 2 o’clock and we couldn’t check in for a couple of hours so we headed into a nearby town to get some groceries.

We knew the cottage wouldn’t have wifi, and as this was going to be our home for the next week, needed to do something about it. We enquired about a personal hotspot device, but the technology was beyond our local shop keeper (to be fair, it was just a small grocery store), so we headed to another, larger town nearby to pick up a sim card.

Sim card in hand, an a couple of hours successfully killed, we headed back to the cottage to check in.

After dinner we tried to fire up the wifi, but the card wouldn’t work in any of our iPhones or iPads. It seemed they hadn’t been fully unlocked. We needed to connect to the internet to complete the unlocking process, but couldn’t connect to the internet until we had unlocked them, so with a stalemate at hand, gave up and tried to light the fire instead.

Apparently city living has made me a bit soft, and we couldn’t get the fired started, so with no fire and no wifi, we called it a night and headed to bed.

Day done. Successfully transited London and arrived the Cotswalds.