After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Wellington - October & November 2012

Looking back over October and November has been quite a feat so I shall endeavour not to bore you all rigid with long descriptions! First up, my birthday. A very indulgent weekend, beginning with an after work meal at La Boca Loca in Miramar. Due to Weta workshop being in Miramar there are some very good eateries around, and we had had our eye on this Mexican joint for a while. We were blown away by the fresh flavours and also enjoyed some proper Tequila, which completely changed our minds about it only being something you consume a the end of a very boozy night. The night after we went to see 'An Angel at My Table', part of the 'Festival of Madness on Film', a slightly dated but nonetheless classic Kiwi film based on the autobiography of Janet Frame. Janet Frame is a celebrated Kiwi author who won her first literary award the day before she had been due to have a lobotomy to deal with her ongoing mental health issues. Right up my street! My birthday present from Liam (who was working that day) was an afternoon spent at 'Craft Beer College' tasting beers on a 'course' entitled Pathway to Hoppiness. Needless to say it was a very merry afternoon tasting all kinds of hoppy beers from around the world. We rounded off the weekend with fish and chips from Martin Bosleys, a Wellington institution of beautiful food, toning itself down of a Sunday arvo so plebs like us can afford to eat there, watching the sunset over the harbour. Gorgeous.

I jumped at the chance of seeing the National Theatre Live at the cinema again, and this time it was Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Having read the book I was intrigued as to whether they would be able to pull it off, but it was another mind-blowing production! We also watched Looper, The Angel's Share, and Argo, all of which I would recommend, particularly Argo for it's edge-of-your-seat depiction of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. At the theatre we watched Tigers of Wrath, a commentary on growing up and selling out which depicted a group of socialist students visiting communist China in the 70s. I attended a play reading of Mike and Virginia by Kathryn Burnnet and Nick Ward, a satirical romantic comedy, which was deservedly well attended. I also went along to Janet and John by Ken Duncum, based on the friendship on Janet Frame (the subject of the previously mentioned film 'An Angel at My Table') and John Money, a sexologist made famous by his royal stuffing up of the John/Joan case. The playwright gave a brief introduction and for some reason told us the ending, which seemed unnecessary, and I'm not entirely sure you would have 'got it' had you had no prior knowledge of who Janet and John were. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were part of the studio audience at the filming of Fix TV (Episode 3), which was very entertaining. It was a fun experience to see the workings of a studio television show, and it is hosted by our favourite local muso Adam Page.

Onto the most important bit, the beer! We managed to get to a few beery events; The ones to write home about were the Pacific Beer Expo (lots of yummy beers from Australia, NZ and America) and the Emersons Annual Beer Options (basically a fun pub quiz, where beer was the subject as well as the beverage in your hand). Eventually Liam will hopefully write about these events on his other blog. We also a couple of events at one of our favourite bars in town, the Malthouse for the Old World IPA Challenge and Epic tap takeover. The Old World IPA challenge showcased English style IPAs rather than the hop-tastic modern American style favoured in New Zealand. Honestly, it seemed a little hit and miss to us, some a bit too sweet (as is the Kiwi way with a lot of things) and some chilled and carbonated to an inch of their lives, which doesn't always work with subtler beers.

I was obviously in learning mode and attended classes in Maori, ukelele, cheese-making, and zombie biology(!).  The Maori class was quite interesting but not particularly to my learning style (think 'bloke with a guitar', but I'm definitely more of a visual learner), and the ukelele class made me realise I'm terrible at strumming. I learned to make ricotta, paneer, cream cheese and feta at a lovely community class. I've already showed off my ricotta and cream cheese making skills at home and Santa even got me some little bits and pieces of equipment needed for the others, so hopefully we'll be off to a very cheesy new year! The zombie biology class was quirky and interesting, with the basic premise being that zombies do exist (and they had exhibits on hand tied up who were at times pretty scary!). They examined what might cause zombification, such as disease, genetic mutations, poison etc, and showed real life examples of others species which act like zombies when afflicted by parasites. Cool stuff!

We spent a night away in Martinborough, a wine region north of Wellington celebrated for it's peppery Pinot Noirs. We hired a car for a couple of days and enjoyed the hair-raising drive over the Rimutaka Mountain range, which makes Snake Pass between Manchester and Sheffield look like child's play.  Martinborough itself is very small and relaxed but has some nice delis and cafes and a nice atmosphere about the place. After enjoying coffee and cake in a cute cafe featuring some comedy letters from their chicken suppliers on the wall (endorsing their commitment to serving hygienically prepared fried chicken), we took in a few of the wineries. We had intended on walking but the changeable weather had put us off. We were glad it had as it appeared most of the wineries were actually shut, so it would have been a frustrating walk! We had tasters from Schubert Wines and Te Kairanga Wines, which were both very nice and we were served by very knowedgable and friendly hosts. The former was tiny but very pricey, so it was interesting to try the kind of wines we wouldn't normally buy. Afterwards we had a proper sit-down drink at Margrain Vineyard, overlooking the vines and the twee dutch-style houses in the distance. We stayed in a teeny cabin on a campsite and greatly enjoyed the feeling of 'getting away' that we've found difficult to do from Wellington thus far (on account of not having a car and there not actually being all that much anywhere near Wellington that you can get to on public transport).

Halloween saw us getting frocked up as a Geisha and Jesus (I'll let you guess who was what) for our friend Sarah's party, where we drank 'til the small hours before walking home and getting odd looks from workmen (it took a while for us to realise I still had my geisha makeup on!). Guy Fawkes night saw an impressive firework display on the water front, which we watched while eating homemade treacle toffee and marvelling at the spectacular fireworks, all the while watching the planes come in to land as normal just around the bay, must have been an amazing view from up there!

November, of course, was the premiere of The Hobbit. Finishing work early to head down to the two block long red carpet down Courtenay Place was very exciting, and we managed to catch a glimpse of Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood and a whole host of other people we didn't recognise make their entrance. We had managed to bag spots out of the front of previously mentioned bar The Malthouse, and stood sipping pints of Yeastie Boys 'Golden Perch', a specially brewed golden ale (the beers namesake is apparently what the dwarves drink in the books), perfect for the spectacularly sunny afternoon. We are looking forward to watching the film itself, despite hearing from a colleague who was at premiere that the new high frame 3D version was extremely visually overwhelming and nausea inducing!

I also went to see a friend's work at the Massey University Exposure Exhibition. She has just finished a Textile Design degree and was displaying her final pieces. She had produced 3 dance outfits, all designed to make different sounds as the wearer moved their body. Very cool stuff indeed, check out her website here. The rest of the time was spent doing the usual; meeting up with friends, Liam getting out and about on his bike, book club, yoga and choir. We hiked to the south coast through the town belt (only a couple of hours from where we live) and were rewarded with some pretty sweet views over the city and out to sea, and finally paid a visit to the pretty seaside suburb of Island Bay.

In other news, we have moved into a new house. It's a teeny studio in the downstairs of a hillside house, overlooking the woodland of the town belt and, if you crane your neck and squint through the trees, the south coast. We are chuffed to bits with it and have settled in nicely, and even befriended the cat that lives upstairs.

Work-wise, I have transferred to a night position at a different house (same company) which I am thrilled about as it means I have way more free-time in the day, and no more early starts! I have also (finally!) applied for the Clinical Psychology PHD course I am hoping to do next year, so that's a weight of my mind. And Christmas, of course, was fabulous, but you'll have to wait for the next installment to read about it ;-)

Well, check us out, publishing not too long after the event!  Hope you have enjoyed getting (almost) bang up-to-date with our goings on!

Love to you all, we misssss yoooooooou xx

Wellington - August & September 2012

August and September marked the end of what felt like a long winter for us. We had seen out the end of an English winter, only to fly out at the beginning of spring in Europe to greet the end of autumn in New Zealand.  Although winter here was very mild compared to home (don't think it ever got close to zero, and only occasional early-morning frost), not having Christmas to break it up meant it seemed to drag on a bit (in hindsight this could have more to do with the random nature of the weather here - pretty hard to define seasons as its so changeable!).  However, the end of September brought a string of glorious days and made us very excited for the spring and summer months ahead (although while editing this on a windy, foggy "summer" evening, maybe our hopes of wall-to-wall sunshine may have been little naive!)

One of the best things about being a Support Worker is that I get to play tourist at places that we probably wouldn't have gotten around to.  I took (a more adequate verb might be 'dragged') the guys along to the Colonial Cottage Museum. It is apparently Wellington's oldest standing cottage, built by William Wallis in 1858.  It still has the original furniture, including an 1875 three-wheeled pram, designed to avoid the road tax that all 4 wheeled vehicles had to pay. Walking through the front door really felt like stepping back in time.  We also visited Wellington Zoo; cute, hilly, green and not far from the town centre. The highlight was undoubtedly a baby chimpanzee doing roly-polies round the enclosure. We managed two visits to Carter Observatory, a dinky observatory with fascinating planetarium shows. One of my clients became very heated about alien existence and tried to persuade the observatory attendant that they should go to parliament to tell John Key what they had found. Liam and I revisited the Museum of City and Sea to check out a temporary knitting exhibition and I contributed to what Liam described as 'the longest and crappiest scarf in the world'.  We attended the Academy of Fine Arts 'World Press Exhibition', an amazing round up of the years best press photography, which is something each year that I mean to catch and never seem to get round to.  'Athfield Architects' at the City Gallery featured the designs and models of Ian Athfield, a celebrated Wellingtonian architect with a very distinctive style featuring lots of levels, curves and pipes, so we can now happily spot his designs all across the city, albeit many of them not exactly being our style!

August is festival time in Wellington, and we had a fab time throughout the Wellington on a Plate festival, and volunteering at Beervana, you can read Liam's related blog post about these here.  As part of the New Zealand International Film Festival we went to see 'Our Newspaper', a documentary about a small Russian village who got so sick of the state run daily newspaper that they started to publish their own.  Beautiful shots of remote snowy Ulyanovsk, and it's at times hilariously frank elderly residents, meant that we were yearning once more to head back to Russia!  

Music-wise, we checked out The Troubles as recommended by a friend from work, who turned out to be very entertaining, and musically very accomplished, playing all kinds of jazzy and Eastern European influenced styles. On the evening of our wedding anniversary we went to watch Wellington Sea Shanty Society, a comedy duo doing both familiar and unfamiliar sea shanties. We enjoyed drinking beer and rum and harmonising to 'What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor'. Of course the musical highlight of the month was Wellington Community Choir's (possible biased statement - I am in said choir) concert at the Wellington Opera House!  We had a couple of very enjoyable informal concerts and it was lovely to be accompanied by a professional pianist, double bass and mandolin as well as our usual ukulele group.  I dragged Liam and a couple of friends along, who all thoroughly enjoyed it, or at least, they claimed they did ;-)

My friend Helen from book club hosted a cheese and wine night. Inspired by a cheese and beer tasting at Beervana we took along a Tuatara Hefe wheat beer paired with a lovely goat chevre. I had popped by Regional (our local offie, or bottle shop/liquor store as they might say here) to pick up some beers that afternoon and they were hosting an Emerson's tasting of their new I.P.A, Bird Dog.  The brewer assured me that the right cheese for Bird Dog was a vintage Cheddar, which was the 2nd beer and cheese match we took to the party. Hopefully we did our bit for the cheese and beer enlightenment movement (way more versatile and varied than wine!) We had an awesome night meeting new people and playing Cranium, before bidding an early goodbye as I had work at 7:45 then next morning and the clocks were going forward that night. Way to go daylight savings!

A now regular monthly Saturday afternoon treat for me is attending play readings at Circa Theatre. For $5 there is a performed play reading for which the actors have only had the script for a couple of days.  I'm not entirely sure of the purpose of the readings; whether they are the initially rehearsals for plays that are definitely going to be shown or whether they are simply 'testing the waters' as to whether they would work at Circa.  Whichever way, they are an absolute bargain and a great way of seeing a bit of new theatre.  It seemed bizarre to me that I must have brought the average audience age down at both readings by around 20 years, where are all the theatrical young people of Wellington?!  I saw 'Rogues and Vagabonds' by Elspeth Sandys and 'Jerusalem' by Jez Butterworth Apparently Circa couldn't possibly produce 'Jerusalem, as it's scale would make it economically impossible, so this was simply a teaser of what Wellingtonians are missing out on compared to the West End or Broadway. We also enjoyed going to see two 'proper' performances as it were, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion, and 'Clybourne Park' by Bruce Norris. 'The Year of Magical Thinking' was an adaptation of Joan's memoir discussing the year she lost her husband and only child within a couple of months of each other.  It was quite a powerful one woman show.  However, the narrator actually managed to gain little sympathy for herself, and we felt she wasn't particularly likeable.  Given the subject matter, quite a feat!  'Clybourne Park', on the other hand, was a commentary on history repeating itself, with Act One being set in 1959 and Act Two in present day, both set in the same house in a US African-American neighbourhood.  Hilariously funny and despairingly depressing at the same time, a very apt play for so many issues at the moment.  We also finally got round to seeing 'Moonrise Kingdom' at the cinema, a Wes Anderson movie, a cute film about a young boy and girl on an island just off New England in to 1960's, who fall in love and run away together. Not schmaltzy, not too cutesy, just a brave and uplifting film about the difficulties of adolescence and dysfunctional families.

Yet again I must assure you that we didn't spend all our time indoors! After enjoying our day trip to Zealandia so much (discussed in the last post), we took a night tour of the sanctuary.  It took around 2.5 hours and we were lucky enough to visit on a dry, clear night. We were issued with red torches that wouldn't put off the wildlife and headed for a tour around the sanctuary. The highlights were a path strewn either side with millions of glow worms, walking through the forest at sunset and listening to the evening bird calls, and getting to see... a Kiwi!  Our guide had told us they were creatures of habit and that at 21:20 the previous night one had been spotted in a particular location.  So at 21:15 we headed for that particular spot and 5 minutes later, lo and behold, a bumbling ball of fur comes hopping along the path!  It was a seriously cute bird and we were able to watch it searching for grubs for around 10 minutes.  Apparently most New Zealanders have never seen a Kiwi in the wild so we felt very honoured.  

We took advantage of some sunny days to do more exploration of the Town Belt, the wooded hill right behind our house that stretches from one coast to the other.  We found a cool rope swing and enjoyed some magnificent views of the city.  We also took the ferry over to Matiu/Somes Island, slap-bang in the middle of the harbour. Matiu/Somes is a scientific and historic reserve, a mammalian-predator free island, with very few visitors on the day we visited.  At various times over the last century it has been used as an animal and human quarantine station, a prison for enemy nationals in the second world war, and has impressive anti aircraft gun emplacement - which have never actually been used. We enjoyed hiking around, spotting various birds, insects and skinks, and picnicked overlooking Wellington. The quarantine station is open to the public to wander around, it feels very creepy and retro and could do well as the set for an 70s zombie movie.  We then hopped back on the ferry to Days Bay for a well earned coffee and a wander along the coastline.  

In other news, we attended a Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) inspired Sour Beer Tasting Session at Regional, which Liam will (might) write more about in a dedicated beer blog.  I have been going to Bikram Yoga which, after initially feeling like I was going to faint / throw up (not helped by the stench of sweaty feet emitting from the studio carpet), I am now really enjoying! 

That's all from me for now folks!  Happy spring!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Wellington - June & July 2012

View over Evans Bay from Mt Victoria
We came to the inevitable conclusion that if we wanted to get 'proper' jobs and be able to save a bit of money rather than living day-to-day, a move to the city was in order.  So with heavy hearts we bid a fond farewell to Akaroa and headed back into Christchurch for an overnight stop before our trip up to the North Island.  We stayed at Jailhouse Hostel, a large and quirky hostel converted from, you guessed it, an old jail.  A little cold, a little odd, but pretty cool all the same.  We then caught the fabulous Coastal Pacific train first thing in the morning, enjoying an on-board breakfast and watching the countryside roll by from the open viewing carriage at the back of the train.  We just had time for a coffee in the blazing sunshine on the lovely foreshore of Picton before catching the ferry to across the Cook Strait.  The trip took around 4 hours and started with the ferry sailing through the Tory Channel of the Marlborough and Queen Charlotte Sounds, framed by lush rolling hills.  We used the BlueBridge ferry service (a few dollars cheaper than the more touristy Inter-Islander service) and were treated to a birds eye view of cattle being transported on the lower deck, quite an eye opener and made us (again!) vow to only eat small quantities of locally sourced meat.  By the time we reached Wellington harbour it was dark and drizzly, a bit of a damp 'Welcome to the North Island!' to say the least.

The first few weeks consisted mainly of job interviews, flitting between various hostels, and looking for somewhere longer-term to stay.  Happily, we managed to get jobs within a week or two of arriving; I got a job as a Community Support Worker with adults with severe and enduring mental health problems, and after a few induction shifts at some of the other houses was settled into working at a house in Maupuia, a house up on a hillside with great views over the water.  Liam secured a an out-of-hours position at the Open Polytechnic on the IT Helpdesk.

For the first few weeks we moved between WorldWide, Base and Wellywood backpackers' hostels, making the most of various deals and trying and find a hostel that suited us (ie. wasn't full of 18 year old gap yahs).  Luckily within a few weeks we found a room in a house-share in Mt Victoria.  The guy who lived in one of the rooms was moving out for 4 months to start off his new career in the Police, at a training college further north.  A rather lovely villa-style house, hammock in the garden, large kitchen, fully-furnished room, 10 minutes walk from the centre of town, views over the city from the balcony and friendly flatmates; of course we decided immediately that we wanted it!  We got moved in at the beginning of July (and when I say we, I mean Liam hiked our backpacks up the hill, I was very conveniently at work!) and stuck out the winter in this lovely spot.

In terms of our free time, we enjoyed wandering around the very accessible city centre and exploring our new home town.  Wellington apparently has more food and drink outlets per capita than New York, so needless to say we sampled lots of beer, coffee and culinary delights.  We checked out the colossal giant squid at Te Papa - New Zealand's brilliant National Museum, learned about the city's Maritime history at the Museum of City and Sea, and the Cable Car Museum.  The cable car transports you from the city centre up to the top of the Botanical Gardens in Kelburn, and is a fun yet practical way of getting up the very steep hill.  The Museum also featured a video about Wellington residents who own their own personal cable car in order to access their houses as the landscape is just so damn hilly.  We checked out a few galleries, the highlight probably being an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  'All Woman' was a photograph exhibition of Kiwi Women, from the famous to the unknown, the extraordinary to the plain ordinary, and included a good chunk of fascinating information about each woman featured.

Living in the city means we are treated to lots of live music and theatre, two things we most keenly miss when not available.  It seemed rude to be in Wellington and turn down the opportunity of seeing Flight of the Conchords live, and so had a hilarious evening watching them perform to a 'home crowd'.  A few days before we had seen Jemaine at one of our favourite eateries, and had then nearly hyperventilated when our flatmate informed us he lives diagonally opposite to us (cue plenty of spying from the balcony - and disappointingly only seeing him once).  Wellington seems to be resident to a lot of extremely talented musicians; including Adam Page, an Australian baritone saxophonist who we enjoyed seeing perform at one of our favourite bars in Wellington, Hashigo Zake, as well as perform as part of the Richter City Rebels, a New Orleans style 'second line' band.  They certainly knew how to get the party started, and further inflamed our desire to experience New Orleans (after recently watching the brilliant TV series, Treme)  A further musical highlight of the winter months was a trip to Bodega to check out Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.  They are eight brothers from Chicago, all playing various brass instruments along with drummer.  They play a bombastic mix of jazz and hip-hop, building up layers of groovy brass with occasional vocals.  A fantastic live band, and a brilliant mix of sheer musicianship and rocking party band.  

My first theatrical experience was at Circa Theatre as I went along to see All My Sons one night while Liam was working.  I have always been a huge Miller fan (predictable I know, but the man was a genius), and this production was fabulous, with strong actors and a beautiful set.  Despite being one of the main theatres in Wellington, Circa is still small enough to feel pretty intimate, making the ending seem even more shocking.  We also went to see a production at Bats Theatre called Standstill, by Anders Falsti-Jenson, featuring three actors playing a variety of characters whilst walking on treadmills for an hour.  A clever and quirky commentary on the rat race that is life.  Another time at Bats theatre but this time in the tiny bar area, we also had the pleasure of seeing a few scenes of Puppet Fiction.  Seriously... scenes from Pulp Fiction performed by puppets!  Snortingly hilarious, and well suited to the informal atmosphere.  July also gave us our first experience of National Theatre Live, which my parents had been imploring us to go to for probably over a year.  Anyway, odd timings and astronomical pricing had meant we never quite got round to it in Australia, so we were really excited to have booked tickets to see replays of both Frankenstein and One Man Two Guvnors.  They were both absolutely astounding, fantastic pieces of theatre.  Frankenstein especially was perhaps one of the best things I have ever seen, and I don't make claims like that lightly.  The two productions was flawless and so well executed.  And of course there is something quite incredible about being able to watch a British theatre production on the other side of the planet.  If you haven't caught any yet, you have to!  We also found out that cinemas over here are lovely; comfy, quirky, individual and often independent; quite a different experience to the vast majority of cinemas back home.  

Believe it or not we didn't spend all of our time indoors, and did manage a trip out to Zealandia.  Zealandia is a 225 hectare valley a stone's throw away from the city centre (in fact, just about walkable from the city centre, although the cable car is a far more pleasant way to make your way up the hill to Kelburn) where they are dedicated to recreating the landscape as it would have been before the first human settlers arrived 700 years ago.  Before the arrival of humans, the land was completely devoid of mammalian life (apart from bats), and was a thriving paradise for numerous unique species of birds and reptiles.  In order to attempt to recreate this environment, a huge Jurrasic Park style fence (well not quite, it's not electrified) has been erected surrounding the entire area, and the park has been (as far as possible) purged of mammals, with ongoing efforts to catch the ones that do get in.  Bags are checked on the way in for small rodents, cats, possums, monkeys(!) and other sneaky stowaways.  The day that we visited was fairly drizzly but if anything this added to the atmosphere; it is a fairly large site so it often feels pretty isolated while wandering round the native bushland, listening to the bird song and keeping an eye out for Weta and Kaka.  The landscape has been so vastly altered by the arrival of humans that the project is being carried out on an impressively epic scale and time-frame; they aim to have achieved their goal of a pre-human habitat in 500 years time!  Many native birds were actually on the verge of extinction and Zealandia has played a vital part in the halt of their decline, and it has had the knock-on effect of re-introducing some rare birdlife to the wider Wellington area. A very interesting place indeed!

We quickly settled into life in Wellington, and enjoyed watching the Olympic coverage with our sporty flatmates and had a ping-pong table erected for the occasion.  One of my colleagues hosted an International Food Night (in reflection of the cultural diversity of the employees; Chilean, Polish, Indian, Irish, American, French, Chinese, Indonesian, Samoan and of course Kiwi and British!) which was great fun.  We took along Cornish Pasties (pronounced 'PAY-sties' here weirdly enough, as in "you're looking a bit pasty!") and a Bakewell Tart which went down a treat.  My favourite dish of the night was an Indian curry made with semolina.  Sounds gross but was honestly very tasty!  There was also some good Sushi and South American cheese pastries.  I joined Wellington Community Choir and a book club.  Our first book to review was The Kite Runner, handy seeing as I'd read it before, and it was a great opportunity for meeting new people.

As you can see, we've been keeping ourselves busy, and are getting ourselves into a routine as well as still enjoying exploring and experiencing our temporary home town.  The clocks have now gone forward and summer is finally showing it's face on occasion. Hopefully we'll get a bit more up-to-date on the blog in the comings weeks!


Saturday, 6 October 2012

Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula - May & June 2012

As we're still way behind on the blog I figured I'd give you all a quick update on where we actually are now and what we're doing! We arrived in Wellington almosts 4 months ago (cripes!) and quite quickly found work in our usual fields. We are living on Mount Victoria overlooking the city, and both enjoy quite picturesque commutes; Liam getting the train around the harbour to the Hutt Valley and Charlotte walking across Evans Bay each day. We are loving everything about Wellington, the accessibility (we have had no need for a car), soaking up culture at various galleries, theatres and music venues and discovering a really thriving and experimental beer scene. We arrived in winter so we are excited that the weather is now picking up, even a 15 degree day here feels pretty hot (thanks to the hole in the ozone layer down here). The wind took a bit of getting used to but otherwise the winter was more like a cold (well, 10 degrees in the day) version of an English summer with lots of rain but regular sunny days. We're looking forward to exploring to getting out and about and exploring the wider Wellington area before hitting the road again in the new year! Now, back to the advertised programming...

Stony Bay Peak

We'd had a recommendation that Akaroa in the Banks Peninsula was a good place to chill for a couple of days, especially since the earthquakes levelled Christchurch.  At this point we were needing to get some work if possible or at least to work for accommodation, and chatted about various possibilities whilst on the bus over to Akaroa.  Our first view of the Banks Peninsula and over to Akaroa was absolutely stunning and complemented by a gloriously sunny day.  We checked into Chez La Mer hostel and found it very welcoming and homely.  We then noticed that they were advertising for a cleaner and a night manager. Kerching!  So within three days of being in the country, we'd managed to bag ourselves some work for accommodation, not bad going!  Charlotte took the cleaning job (2 hours in the morning 6 days a week, stripping and making beds, and general cleaning), and Liam took the night manager job (evening manager would be more appropriate as there were no staff on duty past 9) This basically consisted of checking in late arrivals, keeping the fire fuelled-up (the most important job!) and handing out wi-fi tokens. He was soon 'promoted' to weekend manager, so everything worked out nicely.

Our fellow workers at the hostel when we arrived were a veritable United Nations; Sara (American), Colette (Scottish), Kirsty (Scottish), and Shah (Dutch). They were all chilled out and friendly, and we were later joined by Krista (Canadian), Amanda (Welsh), Urara (Japanese) and Joyce (Taiwanese).  We also had the company of Sampson the dog, a super-sweet 7 month old Labrador, even Charlotte had a soft spot for him.  The hostel owner's dog was often around too, a Bernese Mountain Dog charmingly named Pongo, who Sampson loved to torment.  We learnt some valuable dog owning lessons, such as "dogs can't eat pine cones", and "biting each others faces is just playing".

Charlotte also bagged a part-time bar job at the Grand Hotel.  It's probably fair to say that the 'Grand' title hasn't been applicable for a good while and it was definitely a very local pub full of true Kiwis drinking beer in tiny glasses from a jug, playing fruit machines (under the guise of charitable donations - apparently most school sports clubs get their funding from gambling proceeds!), watching the rugby and betting on the racing.  The shifts were short and sweet and the bar never got too busy, so it was a pretty easy-going job.  There was a kitchen porter who appeared to be struck dumb every time Charlotte spoke to him, as well as a one-armed kitchen hand (ex one-armed welder). Some of the more interesting locals consisted of a possum hunter, tradies/builders who drank double vodkas with Bacardi Breezers and volunteer fire-fighters.  The latter meant the pub almost emptied a couple of evenings when the fire sirens went off along the wharf, one time because someone's chimney had caught fire.  The landlord carefully crafted his 'grumpy old sod' persona but was actually a really nice bloke once he got to know you.

Our free time in Akaroa was aimed at cheap living so we took advantage of the amazing scenery and did a lot of hiking.  There were some great trails leading up from the town so whenever it was a fine afternoon we would set off after the cleaning shift and make the most of the weather.  Liam perfected his 'house-husband' routine by cooking and baking whilst Charlotte was at work, including some memorably giant cinnamon and raisin bagels.  Krista and Charlotte went up to Tree Crop Farm one afternoon for a nosey.  It is a sprawling farm property with a few random quirky huts to stay in, which weren't being used as the owner wasn't paying tax!  So (code-word style) we had to ring up and ask if we could look at the 'library' to be able to go up and have a look around.  Quite bizarre!  Each of the luxurious places to stay were wooden with cozy stoves and opulent decor.  Krista and Charlotte agreed on their favourite, a sleep-out complete with outdoor shower and an outdoor bath over a fire.  There was also a tree house with an amazing balcony overlooking the woodland.  Check out the photos, it was a rather fabulous place.

One week we had the opportunity to head over to Okain's Bay, about 18km over the hillside.  The owners of Double Dutch hostel very kindly offered to come and pick us up, and Sara from Chez La Mer very kindly offered us a lift back, so we were able to grab a blissful two nights away.  Okain's Bay is basically a tiny village with an old shop, garage, museum and school.  We walked down the estuary from the hostel to the sea and had a quick paddle - very quick, as it was ridiculously cold - and enjoyed a hike up the 'Big Hill' for views over to the Kaikoura Mountains (and mobile phone signal!).  The hostel was gorgeous and for well over 24 hours we actually had it to ourselves so it was basically like staying in a self-catered house for cheap as chips.  It was purpose built, very modern and comfortable.  A few glasses of wine, some yummy food, a few games of Slam and a game of Scrabble later, it definitely started to feel like we were on holiday. The picture was completed by breakfast the next morning consisting of Liam's home made bread rolls with boiled eggs from the on-site hens!

Back in Akaroa we enjoyed a boat trip out of the harbour and learnt about the history of the area.  We saw lots of wildlife including Hector dolphins (tiny!) and seals.  It was an absolutely stunning day and hard to believe that June 1st (in a couple of days time) would officially mark the start of winter.  Further history was absorbed in the Akaroa Museum, a pretty comprehensive and interesting little place. We watched a short film about the Maori legends of the area and the original settlers, wandered around some preserved old municipal buildings and looked at lots of photographs of the first European settlers.  It also presented some information on the Treaty Of Waitangi (which the Maori chiefs signed to accept Queen Victoria as a monarch in 1840), and showed the differences between the English version of the text and the Maori version translated back into English. To this day the treaty is disputed and a long legal process is under-way to reinstate some of the land.

As our last week in Akaroa drew to a close it felt quite odd to be moving on after feeling quite at home here.  Charlotte attended a knitting circle for International Knitting Day at the local library with Krista, and got to have a go on her spinning wheel (harder than it looks, but good fun!).  We had a good covering of snow one day and the cleaners got to finish their shift early to go and frolic - fun times!

An honourable mention goes to a few great NZ beers we enjoyed while in the Banks Peninsula.  The pub Charlotte worked at had the usual Kiwi suspects on tap; Steinlager, Tui, Speights, Mangatainoka Dark, Summit, DB Draught and Export Gold.  The Mangatainoka Dark was Charlotte's choice of after work freebie drink, a pretty decent easy-drinking dark lager. They also sold an impressive array of bottles too.  Having been under-whelmed by Monteith's (Lion Breweries 'craft' brand) offerings, we were pleasantly surprised by Monteith's Single Source Lager (even though it was out-of-date and thus being sold off cheap), pretty strong and robust. There is a great article debunking the branding nonsense here - but the beer itself was decent enough.  We also enjoyed Moa Five Hop and Emerson's 1812 Hoppy Pale Ale (the landlord's favourite), both tasty, hoppy and well-balanced ales.  On Bekah's birthday (as a nod to her and the original Wright World of Beer Blog she set up for us - which has now changed as Liam has a dedicated spin-off beer blog!) we tried a Three Boys Oyster Stout.  Oh boy, what a great beer.  Rich, dark, velvety, it certainly packed a punch.  Beautiful!

Christchurch & Akaroa

Monday, 17 September 2012

Touch-down in Christchurch, New Zealand - May 2012

Charlotte at Lyttelton Harbour
After a gruelling weekend of punk rock fun at Groezrock, we flew from Amsterdam on 2nd May.  There was a tense moment when the check-in desk clerk wasn't convinced that we'd be granted entry into NZ with a one-way ticket (we had checked already that we could), but after calling the embassy we were cleared to board. The flight took 12 or so hours to Singapore, where we had a 15 hour lay-over.  We hadn't managed to get much sleep in either in Amsterdam or on the plane so were utterly jiggered by this point, and not up for an exhausted trudge around the city.  Luckily we were able to crash in a hotel room at the airport for a while, and then in a public 'snooze lounge' when our time was up in the room (it was bookable for slots of 8 hours).  But if there is any airport that is tolerable to be stuck in for a while it is Singapore Airport. Decent cafes and some amazing butterfly gardens, a surprisingly pleasant place to wander around!  We eventually boarded our flight to Christchurch which was another 12 or so hours.

We arrived in New Zealand on a bright and cool morning, and proceeded through customs without a hitch. We had already booked ourselves into a hostel and organised a lift from the airport, and a jolly lady picked us up and took us there.  This was around 10am and we were told that we could leave our bags but couldn't check in for a few more hours.  Despite being exhausted and not having showered since the hotel in Singapore we decided that a trip into the city for a mooch and coffee would be better than passing out on the couch at the hostel.

I think at this point it's fair to say we were pretty naive about the impact from last year's earthquakes and what the city itself would be like.  The centre of the city, including the cathedral, is in a fenced off 'red zone' that is completed barricaded off.  At intervals along the fence there are flowers and tributes to people who lost their lives in the quakes.  The city has lost it's central hub and as such it was hard to get a feel for what it was like before, and even outside the red-zone many public buildings are still inaccessible due to the damage.  It was very sad walking around and seeing just how many buildings, homes and businesses had been affected.  And the realisation that, gosh, it is going to take years if not decades to rebuild.  Pretty sobering.  However, there were a couple of little gems that we discovered.  We visited Re:START, which is a mini retail centre created entirely out of shipping crates.  They were painted in bright colours and were really very aesthetically pleasing, as well as being a lovely little hub to spend some time in.  We grabbed a much needed coffee (the best coffee we'd had since leaving Perth! Sorry Europe, but they just do coffee better down-under!) and sat out on the deck in the sun.  There was a live band entertaining people and successfully drowning out the noise of the construction work.  It seemed like a pretty ingenious way for the city to have created a temporary central hub.  We also enjoyed a lovely couple of hours wandering the beautiful botanical gardens, admiring all the autumnal colours falling from the trees. Eventually the time came for us to be able to check-in to our rooms and we slept for a long, long time before waking up annoyingly early (classic jet-lag management mistake!).

Feeling like we'd 'done' as much of Christchurch centre as is reasonably possible at the moment, we spent the rest of the weekend around the coastal suburbs.  We had a good explore of Lyttelton, Christchurch's port town.  Although only a small town, it seemed to have a pretty lively community and a little more alternative than you may expect from a port town.  We had fun doing a spot of shopping and wandering up the steep streets.  There was a lot of quake damage there too, and we stumbled upon a shipping crate turned bar called the Port Hole, set up after last years quakes, and enjoyed some hand-pulled real ale from local brewery Cassels & Sons.

We also visited Sumner, Christchurch's beach-front suburb.  Happily there was a street festival complete with live music, yummy food and funky market stalls going on.  We enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, eating veggie pakoras and drinking Matsons 'Quake Lager' which had been brewed to raise money for the earthquake appeal.  We had a wander down to the seafront and had a bit of hike up the hillside, occasionally halted by blocked off paths due to the earthquake, but made it over to Taylor's Mistake, a little bay over the hillside.  Fabulous!

All in all, it's hard to recommend Christchurch as a place to head right now, as the quake damage is just too great.  However, the outlying suburbs, despite having some damage, are well worth a visit.  It was a very strange place to have started our New Zealand trip but after a few days we moved on after being recommended to head to the nearby Banks Peninsula. We had only planned to stay a few days and do some walking, but we ended up staying a little while longer... 5 weeks to be exact!

Christchurch & Akaroa

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Belgium & Groezrock - April 2012

Free beer in Leuven's Old Market
Scroll to the bottom of this post or click here to listen to my Groezrock highlights Spotify playlist.

So the time had come again for us to say our goodbyes, and even after a 6 week extension of our original plans, in the end it felt like it'd gone in a flash. It was sad to say our goodbyes, and this time it felt a little like we were jumping into the void, as we wouldn't be doing any travelling along the way and would need to hit the ground running in New Zealand with paid work, or at the very least free accommodation.

We were due to fly from Amsterdam, and had decided to head back to our adopted homeland of Belgium (the second visit of the year so far) for a few days of punk rock and beer before we flew. We were headed for Groezrock Festival, our fourth visit to this punk rock mecca.

First, we spent the night in Brussels after taking the Eurostar. We ended up delayed by over an hour while leaving Euston due to an electrical fault, no big deal but we would much rather have spent the time in the Euston Tap! Eurostar hold themselves to very high standards, and a few days later we received an email offering us a free journey each in compensation for the delay. Very impressive and we will in all likelihood be using it to make our way to Groezrock next year! We arrived after dark in Brussels so all we ended up doing was grabbing some tasty Morrocan food at a nearby cafe and a few beers in the hostel to celebrate the beginning of this new chapter.

The following day, we took in some of the sights of Brussels which we hadn't seen previously. The highlight was definitely the Atomium, an amazing building based on the molecular structure of an atom, built for the 1958 World's Fair. Nine steel speres are connecting by lifts and escalators, and it was an interesting insight into a world on the bring of so many technical discoveries we now take for granted. High up on the to-do list was obviously something beer related, a visit to Cantillon Brewery. Read all about it on Liam's spin-off blog here!

After the brewery tour we dived into a particularly dodgy kebab shop to avoid a sudden heavy downpour, and it appeared to be the only place in Brussels that they didn't sell chips. Charlotte braved a kebab and we sat watching Turkish gameshows on the TV until the rain died down, trying to ignore the staring locals giving us funny looks.

All the while the two Marks and Joe had been flying over to join us, and we headed to the train station to meet them before getting on the heading straight for Leuven. We rued the fact that we had all forgotten to bring some 'train beers' but on arrival in Leuven it became apparently that there would be no shortage of the stuff.

Leuven is a student city and also the home to Stella Artois, now owned by AB InBev. They have 25% of the global beer market share and their worldwide headquarters are based here, as is the main Stella plant. The combination of these two factors make it a very beery place indeed. The market square is dubbed 'the longest bar in Europe' as it is a rectangular shape and is home to almost 50 bars and restaurants. We checked out a few places, had some awesome pasta and of course some tasty Belgian beers. We also drank Stella (zing!). Fuller hilariously ended up receiving a tonic instead of a De Koninck... I guess you had to be there. The night ended in a rock club which seemingly served as a pre-Groezrock party, and we skanked the night away to Rancid and what was to become the soundtrack of the weekend, Timebomb.

We stayed the night in the very pleasant, modern yet small Leuven City Hostel. Unfortunately the following day was the start of the Zythos Beer Festival, but alas Groezrock beckoned. But not before a few hangover-curing beers on the square while waiting for the rest of the gang to show up; Nik, Jimmy, Twibs and Kiera. The combination of lovely weather and free beer from a promotional horse and cart meant we set off to Groezrock a few hours later than intended, and got a few funny looks from commuters while passing around our wholly impractical train beer; 75cl champagne bottles of La Chouffe, giving us the air of high-class hobos along with our camping gear. One day we'll get the hang of train beers guys!

The next few hours were hell, and it was probably a good job we'd had a few beers to subdue the rising frustration. The train and bus trip were straight-forward enough, not too crowded, and gave us a false impression that the festival was well organised and that getting in wouldn't be too painful. To get into the campsite we first had to exchange our camping tickets for wristbands. There were two kiosks doling out these wristbands, and when you bear in mind that the festival welcomes 30,000 people at least half of whom are camping, it doesn't take a genius to realise that this was going to be a long evening. After eventually getting the coveted wristbands, and despairing over the continental European method of queuing (i.e. a complete free-for-all) we finally got to the campsite and had to deal with 'The Rope'. For the uninitiated The Rope is a uniquely Beligan way of organising festival campsites, which to be fair is efficient in ensuring every last patch of ground is filled up but makes pitching a tent, especially a whole bunch of tents together, rather stressful. Basically there is a long line of people manning The Rope and every few minutes they take a step back to reveal a new patch of ground for people to scramble over. By this point it was also pitch-black and we'd been drinking for most of the day so to say it was a shambolic affair would be an understatement! But we eventually got settled in, cracked a few celebratory beers, briefly checked out the party marquee before crashing out early to rest up for the first day of the festival.

Day 1 came around and after rounding up Fuller we headed to see Mikey Erg on the Acoustic stage and bumped into some old friends we met the first year at Groezrock, Suzy and Sim. We then caught a couple of songs by the Copyrights before heading to what was one of the most anticipated sets of the day for a few of us, The Menzingers. They had a massive crowd for a lunchtime slot, they didn't disappoint and totally blew us away. A mix of shouty, fast songs and well-crafted slower songs with haunting vocals, On The Impossible Past has to be one of my favourite albums of the year. Ava House was definitely the highlight of their set for me, a slow-burning drum-heavy song. In the afternoon we watched Belvedere (reunion of the day, never thought I'd get to see Fast Forward Eats The Tape live) and Off With Their Heads (packed out third stage, never seen so many crowdsurfers!). After this it gets a little hazy but looking back at the line-up I shall assume that we saw Bouncing Souls, Yellowcard and possibly Face to Face, before getting down the pit for Lagwagon. I feel it would have been rude not to as they played the opening riff of May 16! Rancid headlined the night, a great end to the day and so many sing-a-longs. But honestly by that point it was past 1am and I was showing my age and was almost alseep on feet, maybe I can no longer hack all day festival shenanigans!
After such an epic first day, the second day's line-up was surprisingly even better. Make Do and Mend blew away the cobwebs at midday, another band I had been excited to see for the first time. MXPX was a blast from the past, and there was a bit of a 'passing of the torch' moment to the next generation as they got the singer from The Swellers up on stage to play bass. Motion City Soundtrack pulled out all the stops and were a lot more high-energy than the show we had seen them at recently, maybe on account of quite a different crowd (Manchester: mostly teenage girls, Groezrock: rowdy punkers) and they fired through a greatest hits set which we sadly had to leave early from to catch Cobra Skulls. A short, sharp set from them (when they left the stage they still had 10 minutes left!) saw them play songs from all 3 albums, despite the fact that only one original band member remains (admittedly they are only a 3-piece band). This gave us all the more time to get a good spot for Hot Water Music, it was happy moment to see them back playing together again, seamlessly moving between new and old material. Alkaline Trio were enjoyable as always and The Bronx brought the house down as only they know how. Next up something a bit more mellow, Dave Haus on the acoustic stage. Part of the recent wave of former punk band singers turned folky acoustic, he brought a bucket-load of passion and good cheer to the evening. The sun was shining and we enjoyed a few beers out in the sun before catching The Swellers on the tiny Macbeth stage. This was a perfect moment; sun shining, Swellers rocking and Jagermeister stall next to the stage. Then back to Acoustic stage for Chuck Ragan, playing his heart out as only he can. Refused were the headliners for the night, and much anticipated ones at that. They broke up after releasing arguably the most influential hardcore album of a generation 14 years ago, and every year there are always rumours/wishful thinking that they would get back together and play Groezrock. It was almost as if time had stood still, and they blazed through the set as if the last decade hadn't happened. New Noise brought the house down and the whole set was a brilliant end to the weekend. A dream come true for the entire crowd.

And with that the weekend was over, the usual depressing trudge out of a festival began and we made our way to Antwerp for one final night, before the rest went home and we headed to New Zealand. Needless to say we were all feeling rather delicate and sleep-deprived, so we didn't get up to much. Moules Frites were a must in the evening so we headed to a restaurant, proceeded to wait too long for a table, but eventually the food came and was good, although I'm not sure many of us felt much like eating! We had another morning together and wandered down by the river and around the old town. Antwerp is still one of my favourite cities, it's a perfect mix of historical and modern, accessible, by the river, multi-cultural and of course the icing on the cake: great beer. After waving the guys off Charlotte and I had a rather nice lunch in De Foyer, above a theatre in a beautiful dome-roofed room. We had some lovely roast vegetable tarts, and I took the opportunity to have one last European beer, I can't resist Pilsner Urquell on draft. Beats Jupiler any day!

After that we were back at the hostel, printing off our boarding tickets and heading to the station to catch the train to Amsterdam. We spent a night in a hotel there, but as we arrived late in the afternoon we didn't get chance to do any exploring (other than getting lost in a distinctly dodgy suburb looking for the hotel). So all we can really confirm is that it is very easy to procure drugs in Amsterdam (not that we were looking!), despite it being broad daylight we were offered some within minutes of getting off the train!

The following morning we had an epic hotel breakfast and then headed to the airport, bound for Singapore!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Back in Blighty - March & April 2012

Lovely weekend walking and cycling in the Lakes

After a while of our plans being up in the air, we finally got a few things organised. Air Asia refunded our flight back to Perth so we were free to consider our options.

In the meantime, we still had the Eurostar booked to Paris (where we were originally intended to fly from) and had already organised to go away for a few days with my parents. On our way down we stopped for a couple of days in London to catch up with some friends.

The first night we spent with Kirsty and Gavin in Acton. Kirsty and Charlotte lived together in first and second year at university. We had an awesome meal at a local Japanese restaurant, and it was the first time we had eaten proper sushi and sashimi. Who knew raw fish could taste so good! Also had some rather excellent deep fried pork and tempura prawns and vegetables; from what I can gather the Japanese only entertain two methods of cooking; deep fried or not at all! Back at the flat we played with their super cute rag doll kittens and were introduced to the delights of Take Me Out on the TV. This is starting to sound sarcastic, but we genuinely had a great night! The next day we visited the Lucien Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Whatever your opinion on his style, it's incredible to be able to to see an artist's lifework spanning over seventy years. It was a hugely enjoyable exhibition, despite the crowds. Next stop, the Fowles! We hadn't seen Beckah and Mark since Isaac was born, awesome to see them again and of course the little man himself. We were treated to a delicious home cooked meal and it was fab to have a proper catch up with them. And Isaac was a delight! It feels very strange that when we left he wasn't even born, and now he's a proper little boy. After wandering around Highgate Cemetery and paying tribute to Karl Marx's grave (!) we met up with my parents. Pints of ale all round at The Tap before heading to St Pancras for the Eurostar. After a slightly raucous journey (England were playing France the next day), Mum and Dad headed to their hotel and we were very kindly picked up by Marina, where we stayed again with her and parents.

The first day we spent at the Musee D'Orsee, a beautifully designed museum in an old railway station. A complete assortment of bits and pieces, from sculpture to paintings to puppet theatres, and featuring a fabulous clock (the original station clock) that you can look through and out over the city. We stopped for a cheeky vino and wandered the backstreets a little more, before eating some traditional french grub at a bistro that evening. The next day we decided to head up the Eifel Tower. We walked up so avoided the queue, and enjoyed the spectacular views. Later that afternoon we took a boat trip down the river, nice to get a different perspective on things and always lovely to take to the water on a sunny day. That evening we went with Marina and her mum to Marina's favourite creperie in St Germaine, which we can safely testify is also our favourite creperie. Yum! After spending a lovely few days together, we bid Mum and Dad farewell as they were back off on the Eurostar the next day.

We had another couple of days before we flew back. After a quick stop at Le Visenet market, we headed into the city to check out the Ay Wei Wei photography exhibition at the Jeu de Paume. The photographs were a good mixture of documenting where he'd been and what he'd done, as well as the progress of various art works he had been doing. There was a photograph of a building which he'd been asked by the Chinese authorities to design, basically as a rouse to keep an eye on him for a while. As soon as the building was completed it was bulldozed, completely, in one day. Ridiculous, and such a waste of time, but clearly the Chinese authorities way of asserting their power. We then grabbed a possibly the best sandwich ever (basically a gourmet cheese and ham baguette!) and enjoyed wandering down the canal. Hard to pinpoint, but just seemed to have a really good vibe about it, even if it is a seedy area in places. We were hoping to have a nosey around the cemetery but it was closed by the time we got there, so we settled for (surprise surprise) a beer instead. It had been awesome as always to see Marina and were very grateful for her superb hospitality.

On our last day in Paris before catching a flight back we visited the Catacombs. Created at the end of the 18th century as various cemeteries were closed, it is a network of tunnels and caves that runs for over 300 km under the streets of Paris. It's so huge that in the past illegal raves have been held down there with the authorities being none the wiser until after the event. It houses over 6 million skeletons, only a small section of it is open to members of the public. The walls of the corridors are created from stacks upon stacks of bones, all laid in different patterns. It was absolutely fascinating and very eerie, possibly making it one of our top tips of things to do in Paris. For the second day in a row time got away for us, and we didn't make it to the cemetery to see Jim Morrison's grave as intended!

While we were home we caught some great local bands. First up was Matt (singer in my old band, the 'Commies) doing a solo gig at none other than the Top Lock in Wheelton, a short stroll from my parents house. Great to see Matt again and he played a very impressive and accomplished set, he's got a great set of lungs on him and even my parents enjoyed it. His cover of a Chuck Ragan song was a special bonus. Matt couldn't keep himself away from Wheelton and played in the Red Lion a few weeks later (although technically he was in the Heapey half of the pub, the parish boundary splits the pub in two!), along with Seamus who we had got to know a little over the weeks we were home. Playing to a packed pub on a Saturday night, there was a great atmosphere and great sets from both of them. We drank until the small hours with Seamus and the Top Lock's managers, a great night all in all. We also got to check out Failsafe, Matt's band, at their hometown album release show in Preston, a great set in a great little venue (Mad Ferret, I have great memories of playing upstairs in Strettles) with a great atmosphere, couldn't have asked for better!

Whilst we were home Motion City Soundtrack decided they had one free date left in their European tour schedule, and got their fans to vote for which city outside of London to play a show. Manchester won by a mile and we made the trip from Sheffield with Emily and Alex to meet up with Adam and Suze for some dinner before checking out the show. Adam and Suze hadn't been able to get tickets and we'd been told there wouldn't be many on the door but in the end they managed to get some. Motion City were awesome as usual, although have upped their game a lot since their earlier, more raucous days.

I had the pleasure of staying with Mr Mark Fell in the Lake District a couple of times while we were back home. He's working at YHA Ambleside, and as such he's been a great excuse to get out to the Lakes, without the high accommodation costs this would normally involve!

The first time I visited on my own in March, as Charlotte was hard at it writing up a piece of research for a psychologist she worked with in Perth. I decided to challenge myself and take my bike, as it was about time I started doing some proper cycling, rather than just commuting or occasional day trips. To be fair the trip only ended up being 3 hours from Oxenholme to Ambleside, including a refreshing pint at Hawkshead Brewery! I took a detour out of Kendal up a very long and steep hill, only to realise I was going the wrong way, all the while the weather was really hotting up (this was the start of the March heatwave). Eventually I got on the right track and had an enjoyable ride down country roads through picturesque villages, and a nice easy descent through Windemere into Ambleside. The YHA there is in a fantastic setting, right on Lake Windermere, so we spent the late afternoon enjoying the sun by the lake, pint in hand.

We had planned to go back to the Hawkshead Brewery as there was a beer festival on, so after a 3 mile walk to Windermere and a missed train, we finally arrived around 8pm. We devoured excellent gourmet hot dogs for sustenance and got our taste buds fired up for some excellent beer from Hawkshead and other notable breweries including Fyne Ales, Summer Wine, Marble and Magic Rock. The cask strength offerings from Hawkshead knocked us for six (in both taste and strength, being 6% strength), and a good time was had by all. Some colleagues of Mark's were driving, so thankfully we were driven straight back to the hostel and into bed before our big walk the next day.

We stirred around mid-morning, rather more hungover than we had intended, fuelled up on bacon and egg butties and mint cake for the walk before heading off in the wrong direction. This meant a detour up a fairly steep hill, in the midday sun, hungover and moments after eating a greasy sandwich. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling tip-top by this point and had a momentary crisis of confidence in whether I could actually complete the walk. I decided to go for it and push on, and despite a water shortage we eventually made it to Patterdale, dehydrated and sunburnt. After a litre of water or two we headed out for nourishment at a local pub, before checking out a couple more pubs (there's a theme developing here) and hitting the hay ready to do it all over again.

This time well-rested and feeling much more bright and breezy than the previous morning, we got an early start so we didn't suffer the sun too much. We walked back to Ambleside before I cycled back to Oxenholme to catch the train. The sun was blazing and the 4 mile hill out of Ambleside was testing, but it was enjoyable nonetheless and I had well and truly got a taste for long(ish - well not really) distance cycling. Sunburnt but happy I met Charlotte in the Top Lock on the way home and we even ate our dinner outside at my folks, not bad for the end of winter! A few more unseasonably warm days came our way and we enjoyed walks on the canal and the novelty of sitting outside pubs before the more seasonal British weather returned.

The second time in Ambleside Charlotte came along too, and we again cycled from Oxenholme to Ambleside. Our venture from Ambleside this time was to Elterwater, with a detour up a couple of hills near Elterwater. It was a great walk and we were very lucky to have such good weather again. We cracked a bottle of McChouffe at the top of the hill, played the La Chouffe theme tune on our phones and had a little dance. Always nice to have a bit of Mr Fell in our lives! The walk was rather longer than we had intended, so after 8 hours of solid walking we were truly knackered, but enjoyed a pub meal with a satisfied feeling that we had earned it.

We spent a lovely Mothers Day between both families. First up was the Parkers and Gran Woodhams and a belly-busting carvery at The Boatyard. After lashings of roast meats, veg and gravy washed down with a pint of ale it was time to be whisked away to Gran Mitchell's in Brighouse with my family. We spent the afternoon at Shibden Park and I finally got to see my Grandad's memorial bench in its lovely new spot down by the lake. More food was on offer on our return to the house and we enjoyed some cake while saying our goodbyes.

We had an action-packed Easter weekend, first up a trip to Go Ape for Alex (my sister's fiancee)'s birthday. We balanced ourselves high in the trees with surprisingly little supervision, tackling obstacle courses, whizzing down zip wires and taking a leap of faith on the tarzan swing. We had never done this kind of thing before, and despite being a bit of a wuss with heights I made it through. Time for a well earned pint before some good old March evening grilling. After a long wait the char-grilled chicken legs were eventually served up, and delicious they were too if I say so myself. That evening we zig-zagged between drinks for Alex's birthday and a gig at Chorley Little Theatre. Having not been to many seated gigs in our time, it actually really suited the style of music of Then Thickens (check them out!) and it was fantastic to catch up with old Chorley friends. Easter Sunday was spent near Cartmel at Charlotte's aunties, for a beautiful meal and a catch up with the aunties.

We managed to find time to check out the Black Bull near Feniscowles with Sophie and Ste, and had a fun evening sampling the brews and catching up with them for the first time since the wedding. Always nice to find a new pub to go to, and with some pretty impressive views over Blackburn and a good crowd in despite not serving food, the Black Bull seems to be doing very well for itself. It's part of the Three Bees Brewery, who do a good range of tasty real ales, something we'd missed being over in Oz! We also managed to squeeze in a visit to Charlotte's uncle, aunt and cousins, and caught up with them over a cuppa.

Next up we headed over to Sheffield for another few nights stay at Chez Emily. Mum and Dad kindly drove us over and we checked out the new (ish) Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield on the way. It's a fantastic little gallery and hopefully will put Wakefield on the map and revive the place a little. It's an interesting building (prison-like from the outside, but very open from the inside) housing some pretty cool art. Still feeling arty we also again checked out the Sheffield Graves Art Gallery. In the past it's been a little hit or miss, but this time was a hit, and there were some funky Andy Warhol photographs. We also enjoyed a curry in Commonside with some of Emily and Alex's friends and out friend Mark Williams, followed by some top Thornbirdge beers in the newly done up Hallamshire House. Having always been a bit of an old man's pub, it's great to see that Thornbridge have breathed a bit of fresh air in there, and as always a pleasure to hang out with our friends and drink some tasty local beer.

While we were in Sheffield, Charlotte visited her friend Collette in Mansfield. Collette and her husband Ian had recently had a baby and it was lovely to meet baby Buddy and have a good catch up with them over tea and cake. Buddy is pretty damn cute and looked the bees knees in his bear outfit that he wore to drop Charlotte off at the bus station. Charlotte and her mum had embarked on a knitting project beforehand (in an attempt to get Charlotte to move past scarves!) and had created a hat, mittens and booties for him which were very well received!

A beer-fuelled evening was spent in Nottingham with Joe, where we test-drove the new Brewdog bar (with 10% shareholders discount of course, although this wasn't much consolation when I realised I had put 15 quid worth of Scotch eggs on the credit card!). We had intended to at least do one cultural thing while in Nottingham but the gallery we were aiming for was closed. We had no option but to head for the pub; first off Lock & Quays for some refreshing cask ales before heading to the main event, Brewdog Nottingham. Enthusiastic staff poured us some of the good stuff, and we had a great time sampling the different brews and playing pop-up-pirate. If that isn't a recipe for a good night out I don't know what is. The beer was soaked up with some tasty Italian fare across the road before we had to call it a night and catch our trains (not before Joe had got us lost even with directions on his iPhone and we had to get a taxi to make sure we didn't miss our train!).

On our final weekend at home was spent in Stockport watching the mighty County play and seeing my auntie and cousin for a pub lunch. It was a pretty uneventful match but still enjoyable and I resolved to go to more games once we're back in UK for good. It was great to see Jane and Lisa and catch up with them after far too long!

By this time we had decided that New Zealand had our names written on it, flights had been booked, and our time at home was quickly coming to an end. We spent a very lovely evening out with Charlotte's parents at the Clog and Billycock eating excellent high-class pub grub and toasting the future. Our last evening was spent hiking up Great Hill with my mum, dad and sister on a nice afternoon, before a fish and chip supper and some last minute packing.

After almost three months cocooned in an easy life looked after by our parents and friends, with no responsibilities or worries, the prospect of flying to the other side of the world was a daunting one. We would need to hit the ground running and find work pretty quick given that we had effectively spent 3 months travelling in the UK, and that doesn't come cheap. To take the edge off this notion we had a trip planned to Groezrock festival in Belgium, this time a music festival but of course beer would still play a starring role. Stay tuned!