In January 2000 Simon went to New York with his partner Gill to celebrate his 30th birthday with an engagement ring in his pocket. Fortunately she said yes, so there’s to be another wedding in the family in June 2001, followed by a honeymoon in de Bahamas, man.
Christine had suffered from increasing internal discomfort since late 1999, and an operation was scheduled for April to remove various redundant bits. She who is often reduced to paroxysms of terror at the thought of a dentist was incredibly brave when the time came. Thankfully the operation was a total success; after the operation, festooned in enough tubing to make a major fluid logic system, her first thought was to check that Peter had done his homework! She was only in hospital for three nights since I was at home and anxious to aspire to my nurse and head cook & bottle washer role. However the discomfort before the operation and the recuperative period afterwards meant that many of our normal activities such as skiing and caravanning were postponed for some time. But a demand for a "proper holiday" was not an unreasonable request (see "Umbria" below).
(Or how to shake the Shark?). With the first flush of DIY jobs abating Ian got fed up with being dusted, bought a set of golf clubs from the stall in Chelmsford market and joined the Ancient Marconi Geriatric Golf Group. This gets him out of the house twice a week but now Christine has to hide in case he comes back having failed to get the enormous white ball in the stupid little hole and needs someone to beat. Just occasionally, very occasionally, it’s the other way round and the tiny white ball plops easily into the enormous hole, in which case it’s declared to be an Official Great Day.
My beloved 1969 Triumph Bonneville that I’d owned ever since Jubilee Year, almost 23 years, was making me feel guilty; it had been sitting dusty and unused for some months. So I faced the truth; I had no longer any reason to use it, the run to work had gone and I belonged to no appropriate club. The annual MOT, tax and insurance were just a waste of time and money. It needed some new bits. It had to go. So I put it in the classic bike press and Motor Cycle News. On the day MCN came out I had a call at 07:30 from a chap who bought it on the spot an hour later with a big roll of notes. Then followed literally hundreds of calls; there is clearly a big demand for old British bikes and I had obviously under priced it!
Alan Tichmarsh has a lot to answer for! Our concrete slab patio had suffered from being used by inconsiderate tenants to chop logs, so it needed replacing. Since grooved timber decking is the current "Ground Force" vogue, the Beast made many trips from Danbury Fencing, laden with pressure-treated decking, and so many screws were used that a bulk order was placed with an internet firm (The Alta Vista search engine comes up with some exciting hits when asked to find "screws"!). The redundant slabs were salvaged for extending the garden path so that I don’t get into trouble for getting mud on my garden slippers. So far bra-less Charlie Dimmock hasn’t been round to check the erection.
Peter worked hard and conscientiously on his GCSE exams. The results hung over him all summer but were an "A" grade (in French), a "B" (in Business Studies), seven miscellaneous "C"s and a solitary "D" (in Maths, of course). Clearly he’s cut out for a career in French Business, as long as no one expects him to do sums. Maybe Aérospatiale might have an opening?
Our Holiday 2000 was a first experience of wholly-Internet, non-package, separate booking. The flights were booked with Ryanair, airport car parking with BAA, the accommodation with Timeaway and the hire car with Avis. Ryanair's no-fuss ticket-less advance booking service was slick and cheap, the aircraft (B737/200) were clean with a seat pitch adequate for my large frame and a lot better than most charter services; the flight to Pisa was over very quickly; our only gripe being a two-hour delay in the return flight due to a late takeoff of the feeder flight from Stansted. The latter being less than an hour from home was very convenient and the Pink Elephant (yes, really!) car parking was efficient if pricey (£80 for a fortnight).
Avis gave us a new model Fiat Punto 1.2 buzz-box with which I was very impressed, although the pink blob in the front left seat had problems operating a manual gear lever with the unaccustomed right hand!
The best bit, however, was our fairytale castle - an eleventh century, fortified abbey complete with castellations, chapel and campanile. "Sensitively restored" with all mod cons, it had a wealth of interesting structural detail (including shamelessly exposed beams) and a number of slightly inebriate occupants. The abbey was set on an olive-tree-encrusted hill near the village of Sant' Arcangelo in Umbria and we had a spacious top-floor flat, with a view over Lake Trasimeno to die for. Peter thought it was "really cool" which is praise indeed from a sophisticated 16-year old. It was, in fact, a little cooler than the valley floor, which was pleasant in temperatures which rarely fell much below 30 degrees Celsius during the day. So we spent days "veg-ing out" by the mostly-deserted pool, breathing in the heady perfume of sun-baked olive trees, camomile and wild marigolds, alternating with day trips out to the sights of Umbria.
Some evening meals were cooked by yours truly, using the marvellous local veggies and lashings of delicious local extra-virgin olive oil (good old Richard Branson!), whereas others were spent in the restaurants of Castiglione del Lago, the nearest local town. Armed with our "Rough Guide to Umbria" we visited the nearest city of Perugia, the Umbrian hill towns of Gubbio, Assisi, Todi and Orvieto, and made an incursion to southern Tuscany to Siena. The latter was particularly atmospheric due to the practice races for the July 2nd Palio, but everywhere there were tremendous tempera, fantastic frescos, boonswoggling basilicas and terracotta tiling with marvellous medieval stonework in the pinky local stone. Perugia is a working regional capital with a busting thoroughfare, the Corso Vanucci, lined with palazzi and ending at the Duomo. Assisi is also lively but with pilgrims and tourists, most making a bee-line for the two-tier, pink-stoned Basilica di San Francesco which juts out like a prow into the Vale of Spoleto. Gubbio and Todi both made up for their lack of bustle with some peaceful medieval corners, whereas Orvieto siphoned tourists off the Autostrada del Sole with the incredible polychrome facade of its Duomo.
Back at Pisa we gave our Punto (which really had Tried Hard) back to Avis and reluctantly returned to face rain and Essex temperatures less than half those of Umbria. Ho, hum, Ireland in the caravan next week, we thought. Pity St Patrick couldn't have banished rain along with the snakes!
We couldn’t have been more wrong about the rain and Ireland. Our Irish weather was warm and wonderful, only a morning of rain spoiling an almost perfect run of sunshine. Apart from a "senior moment", when someone who should know better turned off the M25 at the M40 and not the M4, getting there was straightforward, apart from the same senior person leaving his credit cards behind and another, younger, and considerably more attractive, person leaving the caravan steps in a motorway service area. We stayed a couple of days near Tenby before catching the Irish Ferry from Pembroke to Rosslare. The site at Redcross was halfway between Rosslare and Dublin, in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains and overlooking the narrow coastal plain between the mountains and the Irish Sea. Redcross has a few houses, two competing general stores, an evil shebeen and a large caravan park. The shebeen probably was, in fact, licensed, but the decoration was a cross between a 1920’s corner garage and a tractor shed. What it lacked in cleanliness it gained in ambience, when the Guinness was flowing and the singing and dancing started.
We had trips to the ports of Wicklow and Arklow, and to the beauty spots of Clara, Laragh and Glendalough. A round trip through the Wicklow Mountains took in the old military road, Sally Gap, Wicklow Gap and Blessington Lake. The roads had grass growing in the centre, so that almost qualified as "off-road" to please the ‘Cruiser. An essential visit was to Avoca, which is the real name of the fictional Ballykissangel, as seen on TV. As a "soap hater" it meant as much to me as seeing Ramsay Street in Australia – totally underwhelming.
A pleasant walk to the Motte Stone, a large glacial boulder atop a local mountain, was spoiled by the litter left by a local gypsy encampment.
More pub trips were made to Jack White’s Pub and the Meeting of the Waters pub at the confluence of the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers, where there was a ceilidh. Carrying on with the boozy theme, a coach trip to Dublin enabled the process that turns Liffy Water into Guinness to be examined and some more of the latter to be consumed. Another trip to Waterford enabled a visit to the crystal works and the purchase of a fine pair of champagne flutes. The return trip was a reversed version of the outward, marked only by a thankfully short stay at one of those dreadful commercial sites filled with static holiday homes; its only virtue was a pleasant walk along the sands to Tenby.
Scarcely had we got back when Christine, clearly not yet sated by caravanning, had a few days grandson-bonding at White Beach, Kessingland, near Lowestoft with daughter-in-law Alison and little Ryan. The outward trip was noted by yet another exploding caravan tyre; fortunately this time no damage was done to the 'van.
The annual general meeting of the Elddis Caravan Club was just what you might expect; a load of old farts pontificating about caravans. Fortunately the meeting itself took only a short time and even managed to introduce some younger elements into the committee. The rest of the time was spent enjoying the setting at Kingham School in the Evenlode Valley of rural Oxfordshire, and doing a little walking, including a walk through Adlestrop, of "soldier poet" Edward Thomas fame.
Peter started his autumn term at Colchester Institute, initially doing AS levels in French, Business Studies, Media and Communications. Perhaps he’ll become one of them movie magnets, like Slasher Distel? He seems to enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere of a non-school establishment.
Readers on which this chronicle has been regularly inflicted will have been bored previously by the gory details of my cataract operation in Australia. Suffice it to say that the other eye, which had managed to last unclouded for a further five years, eventually started to cause problems with nighttime driving. So I had the other yellowing bit of cataractous gristle in my left eye replaced by a nice, clear soft acrylic lens, which, so far, seems to be performing well. I had to wait 6 weeks to see the specialist but then got into hospital (Highgate Private Hospital in London) in an incredible two weeks. Although a private hospital it was an NHS job so I had the required extra bit of pain and discomfort than the private job I had in Melbourne, but it seems to have worked OK. Christine bravely drove me back from darkest North London, despite rain-lashed motorways and a blind navigator.
It meant some time confined to barracks and a longer time for which golf was banned. An advantage was that hoovering was also banned.
My only problem now is that I no longer have an excuse not to drive when we go out to dinner!
Christine, my eye drops and I took a Ryanair cheapie to Carcassonne for the official Wedding Anniversary Celebrations. I'd wanted to explore the mediaeval city ever since we shot past on the autoroute on the way from Spain to the Lot & Garronne. With Peter now 16 and "Responsible" we were able to sneak off on our own and be people not parents. The old city didn't disappoint us; our hotel was old and quietly pleasant. We had some lovely food in some quaint little restaurants and did quite a lot of walking, including a pleasant 1.7 Km walk around the city in the space between the double row of ramparts. The new old city outside the walls, however, was grubby and uninspiring, remarkable only for the wonderful view of mediaeval Carcassonne from the old bridge across the river Aude.
Our old Elddis Typhoon was starting to show the signs of age; we were fed up with making the bed every night and were hankering after the newer gizmos such as blown-air heating and window blinds/flyscreens. So we went to Earl's Court to find a replacement, checked out the Elddis Aurora and placed an order. The new van was delivered at the end of November so we spent the first couple of days in December on a Caravan Club site at Fakenham Racecourse, playing with all the new thingies and figuring out what all the knobs and switches were for.
Looking back it was a funny old year, with many of our normal activities affected by health glitches, but we seem to be back to normal now, and ready for the celebrations when the third millennium starts at midnight on December 31st 2000.