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How to spend a 7 hour+ layover in Beijing!

How to spend a 7 hour+ layover in Beijing!

Every now and again everything just goes right, do you ever have days like that? I’m not sure where the knowledge originated, but at some point during the planning of this festive tour I discovered that if you have more than a few hours to kill between flights in Beijing they offer a free tourist visa for up to 72 hours. Now if we’d discovered this prior to finalising the flights no doubt we’d have extended our stay, but as it was there were just over 7 hours between landing and take off, which with a bit of luck is just enough time to take a very special trip.

With a slightly anxious German in tow we trekked through the international terminal to E11 (signposted by a4 print outs with no arrows or directions on…helpful Asia!) and the blissfully short visa queue. We’d been warned this could take 2 hours on a bad day, so seeing only 20 people ahead of us was the first good sign. However even with a security guard sending people with too little time, or who just wanted a cigarette out of the line we still took almost an hour to receive our new Chinese stamps! Love a passport stamp!!

From here you join the regular immigration queue, which had been blissfully empty when we arrived but now took another hour of our time. And this was with short lines!! Phew! But within the two hour limit we had set ourselves to make this happen…we had made it, hellloooo China!

In typical travelling Katy fashion the next step was essentially winging it…Sven had tried booking ahead of time and been told our plan wasn’t possible within our time frame, so had resigned himself to a long stay at the airport. I am not so easily swayed, and also have more experience of the hoards of tour guides usually waiting at airports to make these kinds of moments happen. Sure enough as we turned away from the currency exchange booth there was a happy smiling face behind us holding a ticket with my goal on it…”we need to be back at the airport by 5″ we told him “is it possible?” “5?” He says “yes, we can be back by 5…” price negotiated Sven and I began racing through the airport after our new friend…it was happening, we were going to the Great Wall of China!!!!

There’s always a slight moment of panic when you’ve essentially followed a complete stranger holding a battered ticket out of the airport and got into his car…even when it’s a very nice car with swish seats and tinted windows. Or maybe the windows made it worse…it’s 50:50, but Jimmy soon put our minds at ease with his sunny temperament, easy laugh and stories of tourists past. He zipped through traffic talking us through points of interest like the new high speed bullet train being built alongside the highway. This seemed to consist of HUGE chunks of concrete ready to slot together like a giant child’s train set. The size is hard to describe, even with photos. It wouldn’t be our last master feat of engineering of the day!

The highway soon led to smaller roads and villages, where we saw locals walking across frozen rivers and huge rock faces covered with meter thick ice and jagged icicles like a waterfall had frozen over.

This was my first trip to China, and Sven’s first trip to Asia, so we were both glued to the windows with open eyes pointing out all the new and notable sights…art installations depicting gigantic fruit baskets (at least 10m tall) sprung out of the middle of fields, locals drove around in tiny bubble cars which made smart cars look like limousines, or mopeds with fur wind breakers at the front which also went over the handle bars to act like a pair of mittens! Genius!

I wasn’t fast enough to take a photo, so here’s one from someone else which sort of shows what I mean.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere we drove by the handily located Beijing Tourist Information centre…Then before you know it we were there, paying security an extra fee to let Jimmy drive us all the way to the gate rather than waiting for the tourist bus as we were on a tight schedule. I think his friendly disposition did us a lot of favours here, as they were happy to help him out and wave us through. Gotta love a system!

The wall sits atop the ridge of mountains towering way above the car parks and ticket booth. It hadn’t occurred to me that you may not be able to walk directly to it from a handily located car park, but Jimmy was way ahead of us, and after a quick stop at the entrance booth handed us our tickets for the ski lift ascent and toboggan decent…now doesn’t that sounds fun! Waving him goodbye we were on our own and soon sitting high above the trees watching the wall coming closer into view ahead, and snaking away behind.

It seemed never ending! What a majestic accomplishment in such barren and harsh conditions. It’s hard to accurately describe the remoteness of the place, let alone the true scale of the mountains which stretched as far as the eye can see; and to think this was only a tiny portion of this 6000km+ world wonder. An impressive architectural feat indeed!

The first iteration of the wall was built in 221BC, by the Qin dynasty, constructing the defence system using local materials. So here in the mountains we see stone and rock, but in more desert type surroundings huge mounds of earth and sand would have had to suffice. The wall is interspersed by garrisons, barracks and watch towers marking its primary use as a defence against invaders from the north (very game of thrones!) however it had many other functions too. Goods would be transported along its top linking the 5 major Chinese provinces in the north with Beijing, a major strategic city. This was also the original immigration office, with boarder control officials stationed along it as well as customs officers for the Silk Road. The barracks were hardly cosy though, with windows open to the elements I didn’t much envy those who had to defend it back in the day.

We were so lucky to have had this place almost entirely to ourselves for a time, and even when people arrived there were only two other small groups who were for the most part going in the other direction.

I could have stayed here for hours, and walked for miles. I now more than understand why most tours encourage you to leave at least 2.5 hours to explore and walk along the winding stones from watch tower to watch tower. I am very intrigued by the cycling tours which go along it though…how do they cope with these?!

Alas we only had just over an hour, and time was moving too quickly. We turned around to make our way to the next part of the adventure…our toboggan decent! Four minutes of high octane exhilaration, I didn’t even mind not having gloves!!

Beijing treated us to a magnificent orange sunset worthy of the Sahara as we returned to the airport through rush hour traffic reliving our a balmy adventure! What an amazing way to spend time between flights, airport layovers will never be the same again.

Planning a trip to Beijing? Or just have a few hours at the airport? I highly recommend contacting Jimmy for a fun and friendly tour guide who’ll help you work to whatever schedule you have. He also would have taken us to Tianannmen Square, the forbidden city, summer palace and silk markets etc if we’d have had time. Next time Jimmy!!

Melbourne to Adelaide in a Jucy Camper: day 4 – Say G’day to Sheila, Bruce!

Melbourne to Adelaide in a Jucy Camper: day 4 – Say G’day to Sheila, Bruce!

I loved waking up surrounded by trees, bringing back memories of my time at Camp Blue Bay on Long Island. Sven was also more his merry self in the morning having survived the Blair Witch Project Down Under. We opened the camper door to a scene from an Australian Disney princesses world, with kangaroos, cockatoos and various other brightly coloured birds scampering about. Wonderful.

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There’s a balance between seeing amazing things, and enjoying a restful adventure. This morning we invested some time in the latter, reading kindles and enjoying the peaceful surroundings, meaning it was later than usual by the time Cheapy’s tyres hit the road once more. The weather turned decidedly British as our trio skirted the outskirts of Portland resulting in a very soggy hour at Cape Bridgewater, home to The Petrified Forest and Blowhole Lookout, famed for blue whales and their calves. Unfortunately it was too wet to take the camera out, but here are some pictures from the wonderful world of google.

And one of the view from the car for comparison…

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I had also read about seals here, but this turned out to be an 11km round walk from where we were, and as I was fast discovering my raincoat was showerproof rather than drench proof this did not seem to be the day for it. Soggily returning to the car we set off to the next destination…which was where? The Great Ocean Road was technically over and other than a vague aim to be in Adelaide sometime between 12 and 5 tomorrow we now had no fixed route or destination. How exciting!

Having been advised the next stretch of Coast stayed mainly between sand dunes without the spectacular views of the GOR we elected to follow the northern route through the farms and vineyards of South Australia. One of my favourite games on this drive so far has been “spot the mailbox”. The locals along this route will seemingly use almost anything for the task, from rusting gas canisters to giant milk cartons. There has been the occasional American looking one, or those decorated to look like cows with great dangly legs of rope, but my favourites look like this

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Such a cluster is found at the end of an access road to multiple farms. The likelihood is each farm will be miles from the others, down its own individual lane, so to make the Postys life easier they keep all the boxes together on the main road. Just look at that collection! What do you think the second from the left started life as?

Continuing on down roads like this which seemed to stretch and wind through miles of nothingness, sometimes not seeing another car for 10-15 minutes at a stretch

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These were the last few miles of Victoria, as we were inching our way towards South Australia, the next state on the coast. Approaching the boarder there are huge signs for quarantine bins, as importing fruit, vegetables, soil and grape vines from one state to the other is prohibited. The plan had been to stop for lunch somewhere idyllically beautiful, however quickly realising we had a van full of bananas, apples and juicy tomatoes we pulled up in the quarantine area and had a picnic.

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Along the road so far the clock in the car had solidly been around 30 minutes out, however not long after crossing the boarder into SA it had righted itself. Assuming Sven had fixed it I didn’t think too much of it, but actually it turns out SA is in a different time zone, 30 minutes behind Victoria! Who knew?!

The landscapes on this road trip have been so varied, from rugged coast to miles of flat farmland and now huge forests darkened the road as giant pines stretched tall either side of us. Forestry is another industry here, so rather than the haphazard woodlands of home these trees stand in uniform lines stretching as far as you can see. It was mesmerising. At the next logger truck stop I pulled off the main road to get a closer look and some pictures of these tree alleys stretching into the distance. Following the log truck pathway however the lines seemed to disappear, as the diagonals were running parallel to the main road whereas the track I had chosen was perpendicularly. Chucking a uwe (ah Australia) then taking a left took us alongside the trees, but closer than the main road so we could stop and explore. After about 20 meters however I got a ‘bad feeling’ the road was a sort of mud/sand track, and I was worried our little camper did not have the wheels to cope with it. Slowly stopping I put Cheapy into reverse to get us back on the main road…but she didn’t move. Switching back into drive I tried forwards…nothing. We were stuck.

I’ve never been stuck before without an adult present, however having seen a fair few vehicles in a similar situation the basics of what to do were at least lodged in the far reaches of my brain. Step 1: dig the wheels out, step 2: put something under the wheels they can grip on to, step 3: create a ramp of sorts with wood or similar if the incline is too step, step 4: keep the wheels straight, step 5: accelerate slowly. We tried all these things, but after half an hour and several attempts to free her Cheapy was looking very sorry for itself, with the back left wheel buried so deep the underside of the car was close to touching the ground. Sven had realised we were on a tree root, causing the wheel to struggle to get a grip. Being the legend that he is he had a pen knife handy and was able to saw the root out from underneath us. It was all too hectic for detailed photography, but the rolling tyres had sanded a deep groove in the otherwise round root. Amazing.

Stuck

The realisation that we were in over our heads sunk in, and leaving Sven to keep digging I headed back to the main road to flag help. The first car I waved at stopped, which I had not expected. Stuart, his wife and their teenage son Ben are South African, but they’ve lived all over the world exploring new countries. They were also road-tripping, and happy to help. Phew!

Stuart has a background off roading in 4×4’s and had seen cars in more dire straits than ours. ‘You’ve done a good job (getting stuck)’ he said, before whipping our team into shape, calmly giving directions and making us of items we hadn’t considered like the sturdy cardboard box we’d been transporting food in. With three sets of muscles pushing from the front and this expert advice we tried twice more, still nothing. Lots of scratching heads, some more digging, more advice. “Keep the wheel dead straight, light on the pedal until I give you the nod, then floor it. If you move try and right hand down all the way to avoid the front tire going in that canyon you’ve created and starting this all over again”…this all sounded easier said than done, but I tried to give my most confident nod.

Like runners on an Olympic track the guys locked their feet into the sand and braced their hands on the bonnet. “Try to go forward hard for a second, then quick shift and back” says the boss. Three…two…one… the engine roared “Reverse!! Reverse!!’…automatics are not meant for quick gear changes but we got there, I slammed my foot on the pedal, everyone heaved from the front and with a final lurch then a rumble we were moving. Oh the elation! Moments later Cheapy had reversed all the way back to the safety of the gravel path. Covered in mud, but free!

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Drama over and with a serious appetite we were keen to get to Nelson, which appeared from the map to be quite a good sized town. Upon arrival though we were greeted by emus (that was fabulous!) kangaroos, car dealerships and not much in the way of sustenance.

Beachside Kanga

The first big town of SA was Mount Gambia which offered a multitude of prospective lunch spots, free parking and welcoming public facilities at which to wash the grime of our previous adventure from hands, arms and legs. Freshened and very ready for lunch we followed our noses to a local Mexican, where Sven was soon very interested by a 1kg burrito challenge.

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In case you’re wondering what that would look like, here’s Sven’s burrito compared to my standard sized one.

That's a lot of burrito

The reigning champ completed this mammoth task in just 3.40, having elected for every possible filling and a spicy sauce. Sven was torn between the challenge and actually enjoying his well deserved lunch. I think he managed a very respectful time. Added bonus, for the first time this trip he declared himself full!

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Mount Gambia is home to the lakes which turn from grey to spectacular blue every November. Something told me this ‘spectacular blue’ was rather reliant on the sky not doing an impression of an E.L.James book, but with burritos to burn and adventurous hearts we set off into the biting wind. All this weather would be FINE if I had packed any form of suitable clothing, but ho hum.

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Having deviated from the plan to stick to the coast and spend tonight in Robe we needed a new destination. Heartened by his woodland adventures and other escapades of the day Sven suggested a secondary free campsite by a lake a few hours away. If last nights camp site was Blair Witch, this one was The Road as low cloud obscured the horizon giving the impression there was nothing for miles around.

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Eventually we pulled in alongside three other campers by the lake. It was very basic, with a single toilet unit to one side and not much else. Even out here though there was a bottle of hand soap and toilet roll. Not too shabby! A guy from one of the other campers strolled over to introduce himself as Rowdy, a SA local here to fish for a type of lake lobster with his brother and brothers wife. After chatting to Rowdy for a few minutes the others came to join him and we were introduced to Bruce and Sheila. I kid you not!

Bruce and Sheila!

Has a more Australian thing ever happened?

With intentions of playing games and writing blogs by the Lake at sunset we made up the camper bed early and settled in for the night. However after the adventures of the day it turns out it was more than possible to fall asleep at 6.30 and wake up in the morning. Oops!

Let the last day with the camper begin…

Temples temples temples – warning, epic blog, you may want to get a cuppa.

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I woke up this morning to blue skies and an empty dorm as everyone had gone to watch the spectacular sunrise at Angkor Wat. The one day I lay in…Oops! Pai and the gang picked me up at 7.30 and I was introduced to our guide for the day; Narin. If you’re going to Siem Reap I really recommend booking a guide, and I particularly recommend Narin (http://www.angkorbesttourguide.com/) for stories, vip routes, history and amazing photo spots. We saw, learned and shot things we would never have known about if it weren’t for him; which, in addition to his excellent company and cheeky humour makes him well worth the $35.

I wanted to start the day with Ta Prohm, to take in the temple before the crowds arrived and disturbed the peaceful ambiance. We managed around 10 minutes before the first tour bus arrived. Luckily Narin knew enough secret spots (VIP route!) and was friendly with all the guards so, even though there were people there, we still felt as though we had the place to ourselves much of the time. Ta Prohm, or the Tomb Raider temple, was the one I was most looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. Majestic 400 year old trees have taken root in the walls, with gigantic roots slithering down the ancient stones like serpents in search of water. The canopies tower hundreds of feet above, offering little shade.  

 There’s a huge conservation project going on here at the moment, as the Indian government try to bring the temple back to some resemblance of its former glory, without disturbing the trees which attract so many tourists and movie companies each each. Quite the task! If you go there see if you can find the dinosaur carving tucked away in the corner of one courtyard. If you’re with Narin he’ll point it out. Along with a temple which only echoes if you have your back to the wall. The idea is that you beat your chest to rid yourself of bad energy. The hollow sound suggests you are free from bad karma, and ready to exit to be filled with good luck. Pretty cool! I could talk about Ta Prohm all day, and could have stayed for hours, but our stomachs were rumbling and so with lots to see we waved goodbye and headed back to Pai and the car.

Having not had breakfast, Narin provided some snacks for us. We asked for ice cream and to our surprise he came back with delicious fresh pineapple and what looked like a short mini milk each. Dad, Joy and I all took our first lick…’I recognise this flavour’ says dad, ‘no like’ from Joy…’it’s onion!’ says I. Onion ice cream…one for the experience books!
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The next stop was the victory gate, used by the King to enter Angkor Thom, a great city back in its day. From here we returned to the terrace of the elephants which looked far more impressive under blue skies. Narin showed us the story depicted in the carvings, how elephants were used for hunting and fighting as well as prestigious transportation. The terrace was once a viewing platform for the king, and would have been covered in wooden awnings with many beautiful silks and materials. From here the king and royal dignitaries would watch events at the stadium, which is now just a car park around which stand 12 towers. The towers represent the 12 months of the year and also the Kings 12 daughters who would watch the events from inside.image

The next temple on the list was Bayon, the last state temple to be built by king Jayavarman Vll, with some 216 faces depicting the king who built it. As with many other temples the Buddhas had been destroyed by Hindi rulars, leaving Hindi symbols in their place. Here you feel as though you are constantly being watched as face after smiling face beams down at you. We had a lot of fun with photos here, as you can stand nose to nose with the king, and even pucker up if you like! Bayon also has a great many carvings, all depicting stories of grand marches, naval battles and every day life in the temple. This was one of my favourites; can you see the dog biting the soldiers bum? imageThe further into the centre of the temple you go, the more the carvings change from life to religion as they pay homage to the gods. It is the upper levels also which host the 49 towers, each one with 4 smiling faces. Can you imagine how long this must have taken to build and decorate? And how many men were involved? Amazing!

We had saved the best till last, and arrived at Angkor Wat mid afternoon when most tour groups were enjoying lunch in the shade. The sheer scale and magnificence of this temple is hard to depict in words. Narin spent time with us outside the grand moat (one of the only temple moats to still contain water) showing us the tour we were about to take on a map before we entered. This was so that we would not lose our bearings once inside the ginormous walls. This is the largest religious monument in the world, one of the seven wonders and, at the moment, the top rated global activity on trip advisor, and we were going in!
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There are five gates on the west side of Angkor Wat, the central one for the king, one to the left and right for dignitaries and one either end for elephants (no steps). We went to the right to see the statue of Vishnu which used to stand in the central temple until replaced by standing and reclining Buddhas. Travelling with Narin you don’t only get an insight into the history of the buildings you’re seeing, but also the plant and wildlife around. His keen eyes picked up grasshoppers, shy grass and we also got to taste Palm fruits fresh from the tree.  

 Here we finally heard the story of the churning of the ocean into milk, where demons tried to produce the nectar of life and gain immortality. The gods and demons formed an alliance to create the milk and share it, but the gods were never intending to share and give their enemies everlasting life. A mountain was chosen as the churning rod, and a great snake Naga (so much respect for JK Rowling) became the rope which was wrapped around. The gods took the tail and the demons the head and together they turned the mountain. The churning of the ocean killed all the fish and wildlife in the water, but once it was done Vishnu threw his great disc and beheaded all the demons before they could take the milk.  

 I’m not sure I’ve done the best job of explaining this, but if you come to Cambodia you’ll see this story depicted over every bridge, at the entrance to every temple and in many other places in between, so it’s worth reading up on! We also learned the reason behind the holes in the walls, as they used to house gem stones to make the temple more holy, unfortunately thieves got their hands on them many years before. They’d have had to brave the bats though, which apparently used to sit calf deep on the floors of the corridors and produced an acid so potent it has worn away the sandstone! Rather them than me!!!

Our final stop was to climb the 65m temple in the centre of Angkor Wat. This is the tallest structure in Siem Reap, and no building is allowed to rise higher. An 82 year old local woman with no teeth or hair made the gigantic climb, putting many younger than her to shame! The views from the top were stunning, and as the number of people there at any one time is limited to around 140 you get a chance to appreciate it without battling for space.

  
At 5pm the bell tolled for closing time, and Narin led us to the east gate to avoid the hoards exiting from the front, yet another route we would have missed without him. The east gate is home to kings landing, an entrance with no steps as the king would always arrive by elephant! Damned good way to travel.

I’m not sure this blog has done justice to how incredible this day was; I learned, saw and felt so much. We had the perfect blend of history, fun and moments to just stop and take it all in. There’s a reason Narin’s website is called best tour guide! I’m sure the blue skies also did a lot to help my mood, but think it would be hard to be anything but smiley in such an amazing place.
Tomorrow I’m off to Battambang for the next adventure! I’m sure there’s much more to see and do in Siem Reap, but for a the main sights I’d say 3 days was just about right.

Blogthon Day 14 – Remember, is a place from long ago.

I have recently moved back to the town I grew up in. After years away at uni and living in different cities it feels very strange to come back to this place I once knew so well. While I was away I rarely visited home, even when I was home for the summer I seemed to spend most of my time in the nearby cities or at the beach rather than in town or the places I spent time as a kid. So much has changed. There’s a shopping centre now, a multi-story car park where the market used to be, a tesco extra and many other little bits and bobs which weren’t here when I left 6 years ago.

On Tuesday I decided to go for a run. There’s a lane right outside my house which I used to walk/cycle down a lot, especially when we had dogs. The start of the path is where I would wait for the school bus. I had a cat named Percy who wasn’t the most affectionate of animals, she hated being picked up and rarely sat on anyones knee, but every morning she would wait for the bus with me here. When she died her brother, Bertie (I was in to Thomas the Tank when I was 3, which happened to be when we got the cats!) came out and waited for the bus with me for a week.

As I set off down the familiar path I was mainly concentrating on getting my pace and breathing right. It’s been a while since I went running and I didn’t want to get a stitch or resort to walking. I rounded the corner, reached the top of the hill and chucked to myself as I remembered the first time I managed to cycle all the way up that hill without stopping. It was before I had a bike with gears, got a lot easier after that!

At the bottom of the hill you could still see the shortcut we used to take over the grass. There’s a turning space for a car down there but I never remember seeing any cars. This is where the first difference struck me. These days the lane must be a more popular place as the council have put a bin by the turning space. It might only be a small thing, but having gone down here pretty much every day as a kid it looked alien.

You can see the hill in the background, tis not even that steep!

As I rounded the corner the first houses came into view, and it was at this point I decided on todays blogging theme. In fact, it was this…

Once upon a bike ride my nephew skidded and fell into that pile of chippings. It was much bigger then, or I was smaller, but it was definitely that pile, right there! Now it has been at least 10 years since we rode down that lane together yet the chippings are still there. It made me so nostaligic to think of how everything can be so different yet exactly the same all at once. I wondered if Katy and Fiona would be like me if asked to visit somewhere they hadn’t been for a while. It didn’t need to be anywhere ‘special’, just somewhere revisited. To me, as a kid, this was just ‘the lane’. Either I would take the dogs to the college (where the lane met the main road which meant leads for the dogs, and what’s the fun of a walk with leads?! So we’d head back) and back, or Josh and I would cycle to McDonalds or Wyvale to look at the fish and pets. Once I cycled down to get us  happy meal each (it’s about  mile away) only to return to find Josh only had 10 chips in his! All that effort for 10 chips!! Another time we discovered I was old enough to buy fish, how exciting!! Not so much when we got them outside and remembered we’d come on our bikes…how would we get them home? They went over the handle bars and we peddled very slowly! When I had friends over we would walk to the school (the opposite way from Maccy D’s) and paddle in the river (the same one I mentioned  few days ago) or sometimes my dad and I would go for super long bike rides, up and over the hills I took the sunset snaps (see my flickr page over there —>). Going for that run and running down the lane made me realise how much time I spent there, how many hours of my childhood started on that little path,  whether it was waiting for the bus or going fishing with my brother, it all started right outside my door.

I went for another walk down there, with my camera this time, and realised I could have walked for hours getting lost in memories. Past the house where Bo used to live, a gentle giant of a dog who Josh was terrified of (to be fair he was bigger than Josh by about a foot!), the gate was open that day and the windows boarded up meaning that lovely family don’t live there anymore…I could turn left at the bottom and go back to the pond, or right and see if the garden centre still sells pets. Am going to do it one day, when I have a day to waste. Am already looking forward to it 🙂

This hill used to seem so steep, you would peddle so fast on the downward slope to help you get up the otherside. It seems so small now!

This post is part of the Twitter Blogathon.