Christmas 2011 was one we won't forget in a hurry as it ended up on Christmas night with water pouring through the kitchen ceiling in Tessa and Joel's newly refurbished kitchen. It poured out of the holes where the light fittings were fixed so the cascade of water was accompanied by the pop and fizz of the spotlights in the fittings. Luckily, my guess as to where the water stop cock might be turned out to be right and water soon stopped flowing. We went to bed leaving Tessa in the kitchen mopping up in her Christmas dress and walking boots. We managed to locate the problem next morning and were all able to depart for our Boxing Day visits with the hot water back on apart from the shower. Amazingly, it all dried up without a mark on the kitchen ceiling.
We then endured a few more weeks of miserable cold dank weather before setting off for New Zealand for another visit, this time to just the North Island. On our last visit, we didn't venture anywhere north of Auckland so we had plenty of scope for new places to go to. Even when we ventured south of Auckland again, we only revisited Rotorua, which was on our way back to Auckland for the flight home. We stayed in some lovely homestays with great hosts and again found lots of really good places to eat. We managed to pop in to see our ex neighbours who had moved out to NZ in August 2011. They were just about to move into their permanent location - a beautiful bungalow with a garden full of avocado trees - a bit of hazard actually - being hit on the head by a 1lb avocado would be no joke!
We managed to get all the way down to New Plymouth and Mount Taranaki. It was stunning. We arranged a visit to White Island during our stay in Rotorua. Unfortunately, we had to go on a specific day which turned out to be a bit wet, but it made the trip even more of an adventure. Being on the island was like being at the gates of Dante's inferno, with bubbling mud pools and roaring vents coated with yellow sulphur. We had to wear masks at times to protect our lungs from the gasses. As we left the island, the rain was washing off the land into the sea, creating some spectacularly colourful fan formations.
Another highlight of the trip was a walk in the rainforest at night on which we managed to see a Kiwi in the wild (I saw two) but we still haven't seen any penguins.
By the time we returned to the UK, the days were getting a bit longer and warmer. In fact we had a lovely spring, with not very much rain and lots of sunshine. So much so that hosepipe bans were introduced in many parts of the country, including London. I went out immediately to buy an additional water butt, at which point the dry weather ended and the rains arrived. We have had one of the wettest and most miserable summer and autumn on record with more than double the average rain from April to September. The rains have continued into winter and at the moment, there are floods in many parts of the country. Our walking group schedule has suffered – in autumn we only did one of the nine planned walks because it was either raining or the paths were too muddy to attempt. We have a few standby walks where the ground reliably dry, so we have had to do those.
We missed a particularly bad week of rain in September thanks to some friends who invited us to visit them at their place in France down near Rocamadour. We travelled by train down to Brive on the Eurostar and TGV and picked up a hire car for the week, which worked really well. Travelling by rail is such a pleasure compared to the hassle of airports, especially as we have Ebbsfleet station just 30 mins away by car. Sandy impressed everyone with her culinary skills and our hosts quickly handed over the oven gloves to the obvious expert. She also gave a masterclass in cracker making on one of the evenings when we needed to light the living room fire. On the last day, we went down to the local cafe for lunch. This turned out to be a six course affair, no menu - it was plat du jour or nothing but it was all excellent and plenty of wine with it. We insisted on paying the bill which turned out to be 54 euros for all four of us.
The Olympics were the big event of the summer here in London. Despite many predictions of transport chaos from well informed sources and failed presidential contender Mitt Romney (cheek!), plus dire warnings of terrorist attacks which resulted in the siting of ground to air missiles on Blackheath, it all went very smoothly. The awful weather took a couple of weeks off and we had something a bit like summer, though not hot by any means, which was good for the athletes. People were encouraged to avoid travelling to central London if they could and the effect was amazing. It became eerily quiet. We were driving around locally wondering where everybody was, and the shopkeepers in the West End had a miserable time as the millions of visitors never came their way, as they were hoping.
We didn't go to any live events, partly due to limited interest and partly due to the bizarre ticket purchasing process. We joined a party on Blackheath to watch the opening ceremony on a big screen, but the sound wasn't brilliant. I had to see the recording back home to be convinced that it really was Liz taking part. Joe and Eugenie were much more diligent in their quest for tickets and managed somehow to get 4 tickets for the men's100m final. They kindly offered to take us along but we knew how hard Tessa and Joel had tried to get tickets and had only managed to get some for hockey and soccer, which was in Cardiff, so they went in our stead. We enjoyed the occasion though because Tessa, Joel and Maria came to stay for a week while it was on, so we had lots of time with Maria though we were a bit limited on what we could do because she was suffering from an ear infection. Joe had a try for some tickets which were released late on and ended up with two more tickets for an evening which included the men's 5000m (Mo Farah's 2nd gold medal) final and the men's 200m relay final, so he and Eugenie saw Usain Bolt twice.
The awful summer weather resulted in a few disappointments in the garden as crops sulked in the ground refusing to grow because of the lack of sun. My onions, beetroot and squash were tiny and the chard didn't produce as much as usual, but beans were OK and some of the later plantings, like kale have done well. Kale and celeriac will feature in our Christmas meals. I completed a couple of walls in the spring when it was dry and I've laid the foundation for one more, to be completed next spring. Trees and shrubs have enjoyed the extra rain though and we enjoyed some spectacular autumn colour. I was thrilled in spring when I went out to the pond one morning and saw our first ever batch of frogspawn. Unfortunately the pond is home to newts (favourite food – tadpoles) and water boatmen (ditto). So all the spawn reached the tadpole stage but no little frogs were ever seen. I have already made plans to have a little nursery next year to keep the tadpoles safe until they are big enough to survive.
Maria continues to thrive and is now into her second school year. She enjoys school and is doing really well. She came to stay with us for a few days during the autumn half term which was lovely. We miss having them just down the road and the journey to Reading around the M25 is hardly ever completed without some form of disruption. We always have our map book with us so that Sandy can navigate us round the back roads. Having experienced a Tom Tom navigator when we were in France, which made stupid suggestions, I won't be changing my navigator any time soon.
It is now just a week away from Christmas but all appears to be under control. We only have Joe and Eugenie for Christmas Day but we will be having a bigger family gathering on Boxing Day including Tessa, Joel and Maria. It will be the last time we have Alex and Tamara over at Christmas as their long (long) planned move to Mexico looks finally to be taking shape. Wait for next year's exciting instalment!
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