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Peter and Pauline Curtis's 2007 Christmas Newsletter
It is once more time to put pen to paper and bore all our friends and relations with news they would far rather know nothing about. I usually try to find some theme to avoid it being just a list of activities. This year it has probably been one of anniversaries.
We have once again spent a lot of time traveling, starting with New Zealand in the Spring but for a shorter time than usual as we returned via Hong Kong where we spent 4 days then joined the QE2 back to the UK via many places we had not visited. We spent our time in New Zealand doing much the same things as usual, traveling in an old van, and camping or using cabins depending on how we felt. Each visit is a mixture of going back to favourite places and enjoying new and different experiences. The highlights of New Zealand are the Art Deco Festival in Napier for Pauline and the Sailing for Peter followed closely by Taranaki (Mount Egmont) where we stay at Mountain House and do some walking in the amazing 'Goblin Forests' and the Whanganui River with it's steam paddlewheelers. Once more we had a chance to fly in the vintage Catalina out of Napier.
The return on the QE2 was part of her
Silver Anniversary World Cruise and took us to places we had never visited starting with Vietnam. In Thailand we had a chance to visit the Viharn Sien Chinese Pavilion and see a stunning collection of exhibits of Chinese art and antiquities including a small number of the famous Terracotta statues of soldiers found in Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb in Xian province. They were a special gift of the Chinese Government to Thailand. In addition two sets of bronze chariots were given, that were found in the same tomb. Unlike the exhibits now on display in the UK it was almost empty and security was virtually non existent.
We had three stops in India, at Cochin Goa and Mumbai, and enjoyed it much more than last time. >Highlights included being rowed across the river and back in Cochin to visit the Chines Dipping Nets as the ferries had finished. The following morning a river trip was put on specially for us - we were alone on a huge trip boat with crew, guide, postcard seller etc all for a few tens of dollars. Mumbai as Bombay as been renamed had highlights of a visit to a home where we were all sat down and were offered tea or coffee and another feast of savoury snacks and home made cakes, followed by Sari tying lessons for the ladies.
It was our first visit to the Seychelles, an archipelago of over a hundred islands spread over a million square kilometers of ocean. Some are granite and some coral. It is advertised as an island paradise and from what we saw of Mahé, the largest island, it is not much of an exaggeration. It has miles of fine white sand and is almost on the equator with a long dry summer. We had visited Mauritius before and did our own thing.
Round the Cape the QE2 had a chance to show her mettle and we had the privilege on being on-board during an exceptionally high speed run, they are rare as she uses a lot of fuel when wound up and her service cruising speed is 27.5 knots which uses five of her nine engines. We woke up to find white water coming up to almost alongside our porthole and we are two decks above the water line when at rest - she was obviously running close to flat out to pull down the stern that much in the water. The GPS on the bride is relayed via the TV channel into the rooms and I have a picture of the screen showing 32.3 knots as she was surfing down one of the swells and the average looked to be about 31.5 knots. This is well above the speed of any other large passenger boat in existence including the Queen Mary 2 and only one ship built for passenger service has ever bettered that speed and it is unlikely any will in the future. The ride was very smooth despite quite rough seas outside. We went down the gym and one could feel some movement but in the restaurants the flowers were still on the tables. An incredible performance for a 40 year old ship.
The propulsion system is diesel-electric
with 9 diesels generators available to provide the power for two huge electric motors running at a consistent speed into the two variable pitch propellers. Normally one is used for auxiliary power and one is a spare or under routine maintenance. It is likely she was using 8 engines however to achieve that speed. We have only once been on-board during such a high speed run, in that case due to a medical emergency when we had to turn back towards Lisbon to chopper off a heart attack victim. This time we know there was an unusual bunkering forced into the schedule on our way into Cape Town which could be the cause or it could just be we have run short of caviar.
Town had unusually clear conditions and we went up on Table mountain and hiked all over the top with some superb views. The old Liner Run back to Southampton took us to Namibia, Los Palmas and Madeira.
Pennine Extremes: We were hardly home before we were heading North. We have gradually been working our way round the canal system on our narrowboat Corinna and this year is her twentieth birthday. We have now been to the extremities of the connected system, Ripon to the Northeast, the Lancaster Canal to the Northwest, the Fens to the East, the River Avon to the West, and the River Wey to the South. This trip brings us close to completing our explorations of the major canals in the UK linked system. It adds the vertical dimension as well some of the canals with the greatest extremes in the system. The Pennines were a major barrier and ultimately three canals were built to cross them. Ten years ago we crossed the Pennines on the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Since then the restoration has been completed of the other two Pennine crossings which take more direct routes and their summits are the highest of narrow and broad canals in the UK. Standedge tunnel at the summit of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is also the highest, longest and deepest tunnel on the system.
They were both major feats of engineering in their time and they were built through some extraordinarily difficult and remote countryside. They traverse some of the most beautiful countryside of any canals these days as well as needing some of the hardest work hence the title 'Pennine Extremes' we have given to the write up and video of trip. We traveled with friends Dugald, Lesley and Malcolm for the core part of the trip. The weather was also extreme and we only just ran ahead of closures due to flooding on many parts. We were finally caught in dramatic flooding whilst only a few days from home on the summit of the Oxford canal for three weeks before returning after nearly three and a half months away.
We were then back on the QE2 again. We have spent more time on the QE2 than ever before and the news that she will leave the Cunard fleet and go to Dubai is sad. She is now 40 years old but still the fastest cruise liner in existence as we discovered earlier. We were privileged to be on her for the QE2's 40th Anniversary Cruise round the UK, visiting places embedded in her and Cunard's history. It was very poignant as she was greeted everywhere by huge crowds and Union Jacks were the norm rather than the exception. We were led in by fireboats with water cannons and fireworks when we departed. Brass bands played and the Red Arrows gave a display on The Day. Pauline and the QE2 actually share the same birthday, 20 September. The Anniversary trip was only 8 days so we joined her a fortnight earlier for a cruise round the Mediterranean which included Dubrovnik and Malta. When we heard the news that she was being retired to Dubai we added an extra short cruise to the Christmas markets where we will sample the Queens Grill to see how the other half live before she leaves the fleet. Next year we are also going on her to Iceland and Longyearbyern in Spitsbergen.
This year has not just been about travel. The real highlight is that Pauline's first book 'Quiet Quadrangles and Ivory Towers' has finally been approved and published and she now has boxes of books all over the house. A proportion of the proceeds goes back to St Hilda's College and Pete encourages you to help clear the house, if you want to have a preliminary look then it is available on the web along with her 'Diary of an Author'. It has been a educational and interesting journey in every way and Pete has been dragged in to produce Bar Codes for the ISBN numbers etc. In self protection he is thinking of taking one of the spare 9 ISBN numbers and writing a book on home winemaking - his web site page attracts a considerable number of visitors and emails but we must get rid of some books first.
Meanwhile Pauline's second book covering her period in the DTI 'Working with Conservative Ministers' is going through the approval process. It is over 10 years since she retired from the DTI and she has always joked that she has wanted to write her version of Yes, Minister. It is however a lot more serious than that. As time has gone on she has realised that many of the lessons of the past have been lost and that knowledge in many cases has become even more ephemeral in the Internet age. Schemes and projects she and others have worked on are being reinvented under different names or sometimes even the same names without account of their successes and failures. The people move on or retire, documents are automatically destroyed after ten years and even the libraries which held information are dismantled. In the internet age recent information is easy to find but can you trust it and will it be there and in the same form in six months or six days? On the other hand books offer continuity, copyright libraries are forced to hold them and publishing has never been easier or cheaper.
The searches back looking for information for Pauline's book has made us realise how ephemeral much of today's information is. It has also made us realise that we have a vast number of pictures and, in particular, video tapes we are risking losing completely as the tapes are of limited life and the the technology no longer available. The final straw was when we found our only Video8 tape deck had given up. Pete has spent many weeks transferring 115 tapes, each 90 minutes long onto the computer using an old video camera before it too gave up. Now they are on a hard drive they can be transferred to DVD as required. It has been fascinating to realise how many details we have forgotten in only 17 years since the first tapes were made. It has also made us upgrade some of our technology so we have some backups before it is too late for the more recent Digital Recordings.
We have had to upgrade our computers and Pete is becoming even more convinced that Bill Gates has held up the progress of computing and thus that of mankind in general by at least two years. Over the last twelve years since we left the rat race the power of processors and the amounts of memory and hard drive space required has increased at least 50 fold yet we are more open to hacking, cracking and organised crime than ever before and our productivity is little better. All the machines are doing is running increasing levels of security software to protect us from the bad core software. Pete continues his shift to Ubuntu Linux where few of the issues arise.
Whilst Pauline was researching for her book she found an album of pre-war pictures taken by her father whilst serving in Malta. Pauline's father had joined the Royal Artillery in 1931, and in 1934 he had been posted to Malta where he served for 13 months. During his visit he took a number of small black and white photographs, which he kept in an album. After his death and subsequent to our visit in 2006 we realised that these pictures would be of interest to historians in Malta, with particular relevance to the War Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Aviation Museum. As well as a few tourist pictures which we recognised to be of the towns of Valletta, Mosta, Mdina, Sliema and Mellieha, there were pictures of the celebrations for the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary in May 1935, of the processions of crucifixes on Good Friday, of his mates in the Army, and pictures of ships and aircraft. We knew that some of the pictures were unusual and interesting and wanted to donate the album to a good home. Contact was made by email with a consultant at Heritage Malta, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, and we arranged to meet as we passed through Malta on the QE2.
Only a few days before we left home that we realised that the pictures of aircraft would also interest the Aviation Museum, and because they were a separate group they needed to be contacted separately. Photographs can't be in two places, and to keep the album intact was important. Now she has a set of ISBN numbers and is therefore a publisher Pauline also wanted to have the option of using her father's memoirs as the basis for a short book, and so we wanted to be able to use the pictures ourselves. We rapidly bought a better scanner and scanned the pictures and burned a CD, so we did an extra one for the Aviation Museum. It was interesting to sit with Ray Polidano and listen as he looked at the pictures in turn and talked about Malta and the old ships and aircraft. Now retired, Ray was not a pilot but his career had been in banking with the HSBC before he started on the initial restoration of the Spitfire in his garage at home which eventually led to the formation of the Aviation Museum. The discussion was very useful and we hope to keep in touch with him.
Almost as soon as we got back we were preserving more old pictures, this time from Pauline's elderly Aunt May who died a few days ago at the age of 95 and they have filled in many bits of Pauline's history. Pauline's mother Ethel is now 93 and still as fit as a fiddle and living by herself at her home in the Midlands. Last year we discovered her mowing the lawn with a hand mower when the electric mower broke - mark you Pete's great aunt Elsie ended up in a wheel chair for her last 5 years after falling out of an apple tree whilst picking at the age of 95. Ethel has thankfully now allowed a gardener to come in and help.
We had one final indulgence on the QE2. We have always booked into the most basic cabins and restaurants in the past as we preferred to have as long as possible on board but we had always wondered about what one got the Queens Grill Restaurant and the matching suites. When there was a silly offer on a short Christmas Markets Cruise we though we should take the chance to indulge once before she left the fleet. We were not disappointed. The suite was huge and very comfortable and the food and service was even better than usual, as you would expect for what all the guides say is best available at sea and equivalent to 5 star restaurants ashore. The usual wide choice had an impressive A la Carte Menu added. Can one tire of Fois Gras, whole ducks flambeed at the table, Chateauxbriand steaks or Dover Soles so expertly served we never found a single bone. To that was added the promise of cooking anything you desired - we had often watched Lamb Wellington being prepared during cooking demonstrations so we asked for one and it was exquisite. We can now at least understand why people are prepared to pay so many times as much as we usually do. We met up with the new Queen Victoria in Rotterdam, she looks very fine but there will never be another true liner like the QE2 capable of crossing the Atlantic in the worst of weather in under five days - the Queen Victoria will need 7 days.
What of our other activities? Pauline still does some Water Colour Painting and did one for the cover of her book. Pete still makes enough Homemade Wine to keep us stocked up and to give to our friends. Pete still looks after the computer systems and web sites for an increasing number of friends and small businesses. We still try to Keep Fit and did some serious tramping in New Zealand round Mt Egmont, and walked the cliff paths in Guernsey. We use the Gym on the QE2 every day before breakfast and Pete uses his cross trainer every other day at home - he can still get in his wedding suit and he has had to buy a lot of extra clothes to fit so he has to keep it up. Pauline has gone back to making her own clothes and wore the latest creations both on QE2 and at the Oxford and Cambridge Club Christmas dinner that we always try to get to in London each year.
Regrets? None at leaving the Rat Race - this years regret is that we have not seen as many of our friends as we would like and that will be our priority next year.