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An English Christmas

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Due to our initial Business Visas only allowing us to stay in Russia for 90 days out of any 180 day period, we had to depart Russia by December 22nd, otherwise we would be overstaying.  Unfortunately this visa would also mean that we would have to stay out of Russia for another 90 days before returning, which wouldn't work for Angela's job, although would have been a nice prospect, travelling around Europe on full pay while waiting to be able to return....   As with doing anything in Russia there were a number of complications that needed to be taken into consideration, such as not being able to apply for a new Work Visa in any European country unless we had proof that we could stay there longer than 90 days, which would have also required a Work visa for that country.  So after days of research and contacting every source that we thought may know the answers to where we could apply for a Work Visa without returning to New Zealand we discovered that the only other place we could do it was in the United Kingdom as being Kiwis we are granted a 6 month visa on entry.

So after initially looking forward to catching up with my brother, Karl, in Finland for Christmas, we were left with no option but a trip to England for Christmas instead.  Tickets were booked, accommodation sorted and we were on our way.

It was refreshing to be back in a country where you can understand the language again, and can have a conversation with a stranger, although the London Tube system could learn a lot from the Moscow Metro.   Over 5 days in London we experienced more difficulties getting onto the Tube, delays, stoppages, and generally getting lost on the way to the right platform than we had in 3 months in Moscow, even given that all signage in the Underground is in English.   The trains are a lot smaller so consequently you are jammed in even more than the Metro on a bad day, which wouldn't be so bad if you knew that the train was going to go straight from station A to station B, but is seems that isn't the case here, with stops for signal failures, testing of brakes and other random stops in the middle of nowhere, give me the Metro any day.   If that wasn't enough the zonal pricing system adds to the queuing times while people sort out what tickets they require as opposed to the Metro system of 1 ride = 1 ticket regardless of how far you travel.

Jim finally sees Big Ben
Anyway, we arrived in London on the Saturday night surviving the Transaero flight from Moscow, which was like flying in the 1970's with the level of in-flight services, negotiated our way through customs and to the Heathrow Underground terminal and made our way to our hotel in Kings Cross.   On Sunday we booked a ticket on The Big Bus Tour, a hop-on, hop-off double decker bus tour of the essential sights of London, so got to see many of the famous buildings and places one comes to associate with London, although unfortunately some were only in passing.   Seeing the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in the flesh almost brought tears to my eyes as this has been one of those buildings on my list of architectural marvels I have wanted to see for a lifetime, unfortunately this time though i could only view it from the bus, next time though I will make a proper visit.   We did get off the bus and spend a little time taking in the sights of Big Ben, The London Eye and Buckingham Palace.   The afternoon was spent at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, another place that has fascinated me since my Nana gave us a book from here on her return from an English trip in 1975.  Being one of the most popular tourist attractions in London it was rather crowded, but we had a ball here posing with all the stars and the models are so realistic that at one stage I stopped to wait while a lady took a photo of the Star Trek guy (can't remember his name now...), and was getting so pissed off with all the people getting in front of her and taking their own photos, that I was about to say something to them, then took another look at her and realised that she was a wax model also.   After finishing the rounds here, we jumped off the bus again in Regent Street so we could visit Hamley's Toy Store to do some Christmas shopping for the kids since we didn't have much for them yet.  Wow what an amazing place, firstly Regent Street was so busy you couldn't walk without being bustled by someone and the store itself was 5 stories of absolute mayhem, you it was pretty much shoulder to shoulder for all 5 stories.  Anyway we managed to get the kids sorted for Christmas without them seeing too much of what was being purchased and hopped on out of there.   Next we took a "leisurely" stroll down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus to catch Underground back to hotel.

Molly is in there somewhere
The next day, we caught the bus again and headed straight for the offices of Visit Russia to lodge our work visa applications, as luckily they were in Notting Hill on the bus route.   This allowed us to have a look around the Notting Hill and Kensington areas, before hopping on the bus again and jumping off at Hyde Park, to visit the Winter Wonderland.   Again this was another mind blowing experience, it is a HUGE fairground experience with all the bells and whistles, including a German beer hall.   The rides included a huge array of roller coasters, as well as side shows, food stalls, bumper cars and even a zip line carrying people across the top of the fairground.   This is nothing like your typical New Zealand A & P show experience and even puts the side shows to such NZ institutions as the Canterbury A & P Show to shame.   After a bit of a look around Molly decided she would like a ride, so in she jumps, in what looked like a reasonably safe ride which went around and around and up and down a bit, well for the first minute or so this was the case but after that the dry ice came out, the lights started flashing and the thing took off at what seemed a million miles an hour, the cars by this time were on their sides and moving up and down as well.  We stood their hoping like hell that she would be OK, eventually the ride stopped and everyone started dispersing but no sign of Moo, after a while she staggers out from the other side of the ride with a dazed smile on her face, obviously having enjoyed it but being shit scared in the process.   It didn't deter her from later jumping on a Chair-O-Plane style ride which took her up about 40m-50m above the ground and swung her round, so she could see out over the whole fairground which she thoroughly enjoyed.   Jim had a ride on the bumper cars, the classic style ones with the pole up the back to the power supply on the ceiling, he laughed and squealed with absolute delight as he crashed us into anyone who got in our way, at times spinning the car around completely for a head on with the car following us.   If you are ever in London around Christmas time this is a must see and well worth a visit and really made our Christmas.   Being from the Southern Hemisphere Christmas is always something that rushes up on us and often we miss the real Christmas feeling, which we have been lucky enough to enjoy this Christmas.

Christmas Lunch
Christmas Day was spent opening presents with the kids in our hotel room, before heading off to a local pub for a traditional Christmas Roast lunch with Yorkshire Pudding and all the trimmings.   While we didn't get to spend the day with our extended family like we normally would it was a special day with just the four of us.   Boxing day was spent with a mixture of checking out the sales at Harrods and the likes, which again was absolutely nuts, you couldn't move so we did a quick circuit of there and got on our way.

Canterbury Cathedral
The next day we picked up a rental car and headed on down to Ashford in Kent to catch up with some friends and spend a few days looking around this part of the countryside.   We managed to fit in a visit to Dover, but unfortunately the castle was closed, and Canterbury, but the Cathedral was also closed and got to finish off some necessary shopping we hadn't been able to do in Russia.   New Years Eve saw us head on up to Mirfield in Yorkshire to catch up with some other friends after picking up our Visas in London on the way through.

York Minster
Mirfield saw us stay with our friends in their new house, with their 4 kids so was good for Molly and Jimmy to have some playmates their own ages and who spoke English naturally for a few days, in fact they got on so well that one one day Jim stayed and played with the kids instead of doing the sightseeing rounds with the rest of us.   While here we visited York to check out the Minster, and Jorvik (the Viking Museum), as well as Pately Bridge to visit the oldest sweet shop in England, only to find it too closed, and Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived and wrote their books.   These were such amazing places, so steeped in history and still in much the same state as they must have been hundred's of years ago.  While I was aware of the history of England, I was unaware that so much of it is still so old, having thought that over the years buildings would have been replaced with newer, bigger ones, roads would have been sealed, etc, but no, Yorkshire was like stepping back in time.   On our way out of Yorkshire we detoured through Holmfirth, which is the town where "Last of the Summer Wine" was filmed, visited the museum, stood on Nora Battie's Steps and had a coffee and scones at Sid's Cafe where a lot of scenes for the series were shot.   From here it was back on down to London for our final night, then on home the next day.

Clifford's Tower, York Castle

Pately Bridge - England's Oldest Sweet Shop
Sid's Cafe (Last of the Summer Wine), Holmfirth

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