London Cycle tour: London’s evolution

It wasn’t planned that way, but it has just been a weekend of several hundred years of London’s history leading up to its social smorgasbord present. This was also planned to be a TripAdvisor review of Tally Ho! Bicycle tours, a fine two-wheeled tour of historical sites in Westminster.

Evolution not revolution or creation

That the UK (or London) has evolved rather than being created or subject to design through revolution is a long-taught part of High School social sciences and this three and a half hour tour by on the quintessentially-British Pashley bikes contains food for thought with around a dozen stops around historical Westminster sites in three and a half hours of easy-going cycling. Our guide was Harry, London born and bred and while studying Economics and Government a source of real knowledge.

Tucked up between the back of the MI5 building and the Palace of Westminster, St Johns Smith Square is a peaceful, architectural gem of an address, demonstrating a lot of these qualities. The centrepiece was around St John, once a church now a classical music venue. The almost cubical design with four turrets was said to take its design from Queen Anne’s upturned footstool, which she kicked over and suggested was emulated in an argument with the architect Thomas Archer. It’s now surrounded by listed houses selling for anything between seven and twelve million pounds.

That the wide, sedan-chair-width main doors and gutter-access servant’s doors are now accessed by the same people represents social progress of sorts, though probably not as much as you’d expect. The recent cancellation of London’s Garden Bridge is some reminder that architectural sycophancy is still around in some sort of form.

Some progress

Smith Square almost entirely merges onto Westminster School gardens, site of an actual reversal of equality. There is something monastic and gothic about this Square entirely penned in away from the bustle of Victoria in a scene that could have been passed direct from the 1800s, especially with the distant sound of a choir practising.

Westminster School was originally set up for the orphaned destitute of the parish around Westminster in Dean’s Yard, but several hundred years of evolution has seen the market better utilise it as a public school with yearly fees of over GBP 20,000 for an education adjacent to the UK seat of Government. Nice intentions you feel, but subtly corrupted by the market benefits of the location over the years.

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Whether this conservatism is directly down to the church’s closed-shop attitudes is hard to judge, but another anecdote here gleefully passed on by Harry was the debate about women becoming bishops, which took place relatively recently in the tellingly historic looking, but actually 20th Century Church House. Though mercifully approved, a noteworthy argument against was that women would struggle with the emotional demands of the bishop’s role and may faint.

Pluralistic present

After stops at Horse Guards Parade, Lambeth Palace, Covent Garden and The Embankment, Street Art is the final stop under Waterloo Station, quite a nice ending and one where everyone is free to spray out some creativity. Intention or design I’m not too sure, but this jigsaw riot of clashing colour does point to a more positive, egalitarian and liberal present and future in London.

A riot of colour, smells of various types of incense and bashing of instruments were funnily enough the theme of Shri Kanagathurkkai Amman Temple (SKAT) festival in Ealing, literally a hundred meters from my front door on 13 August. Though I’d seen the elephant shrine in storage it was a lot more invigorating to see it used in the spirit it was intended. Though I missed it, and my friends Malcolm and Anita imbibed, the local park was distributing free food in the spirit of togetherness.

Similar to the graffiti, you feel new influences are where the good stuff and the hope currently is in London, the contemporary curve on over a couple of hundred years of evolution.

Hong Kong 7s: Getting tickets

Demand for the best rugby tournament in Asia means getting hold of tickets for the Hong Kong 7s is a challenge. I identify the easiest, most difficult and most frustrating ways to do this, influencing a wider schedule for a trip.

By and large, Hong Kong residents only are eligible in a ballot for cost price tickets, with an allocation packaged up with tours of various types. Of course, there is a reselling market as well through a number of channels, I’ve used all of these for trips to the 2008 and 2012 tournaments, while I’ve always kept an eye on the logistics for tournaments following this later visit.

Hotel packages

Sports specialist tour operators from Europe and globally organise a range of packages to cover flights, hotels and tours sold in combination with a match tickets for all three days of the tournament. This is probably the easiest way to do it, but the most expensive by a distance. UK-based Gullivers Travel, though, have recently started offering hotel and ticket only packages. This comes out at around GBP 750 per person for a very basic hotel on Hong Kong island and ticket. The pro rata cost of this, however, is equivalent to paying GBP 400/night for a small three star twin room for two.

From the very limited experience I’ve had with these touring companies, it’s a cosseted experience with an older crowd. But that was no protection of Champagne cork scrap I cowered from on a Eurostar carriage on a similar trip to Paris.

Flight packages

Cathay Pacific are main sponsors of the event and historically have offered a slightly overpriced tournament ticket if you buy a flight with them to Hong Kong from a global range of locations. I’m always well disposed to Cathay after getting upgraded with a bunch of English teachers when our dozy school failed to confirm reservations for us – it’s a discerning brand.

In 2016, however, this wasn’t available from anywhere in Europe but was from places like Dubai, China and Singapore. Depending on circumstances, it could be worth getting a cheap positioning flight to these locations, then picking up a package from there. This is better for later decisions as these packages only become available around the new year. Cathay’s site has placeholder text at the time of writing.

Independent logistics and free style tickets

From experience there is a massive resale market with varying levels of officialty. Viagogo is the official resale market and as a result is expense. Once tickets go on sale to the HK public this becomes quite an active pool and offers the benefit of being able to pick out individual days if you aren’t doing the whole tournament.

More independently, there is lots of activity on Asia XPat with less incentive for profit, I’ve benefitted from this before though it offers less guarantees. In 2012 I can recall running up and down flights of stairs with a horse’s head costume attempting to buy a ticket off a couple before their babysitter knocked off for the night.

Finally, just picking up a ticket off the streets leading to the stadium can lead to rich pickings as well. I picked up a ticket for one day of the tournament here for HKD 700 (street value estimate is 1000/day) from a mortally hungover scouser, limp hot dog costume at his side. Main tactic in the haggle was he needed to throw up before I could get more notes out of my pocket. As much as the supporter scene changes in rugby, dare I say sobers out,  I can’t see a situation of a hangover-free crowd anytime soon.

Watching rugby in Georgia: U20s Championship finals day

World Rugby’s tournaments have a festival feel with the final day actually comprising six games from two stadiums in Tbilisi. Clogger and I walked an hour to the Meskhi stadium from downtown to see things from a Georgian fans point of view. The hurried purchase of home nation shirts, scavaging the few remaining bottles of water available and elbowing our way past nut and seed vendors set the early fan experience.

Georgia V Ireland

Are props born and not made? The other way around? Georgian props appear to be churned off the production line as fully formed, 35 year old knarled and bearded spherical scrummagers. Ireland had enough technical skill and ability to close out the ninth place final, but if Georgia are going to follow Argentina’s path into top tier international game a solid set piece, ferocious rucking and phase play geared to get their props careering into centres will force some teams into submission while building a case.

Without an aggressive crowd not quite warmed up and with an earful of sound whiteboard drills, Ireland started better. It’s clear tier one nations have an advantage in more developed skills with Ireland able to secure a constant stream of possession. The clear sense of purpose of their international structure saw a neat wrap arounds and slick passing seen in their full international team for a well worked try by fullback Alan Tynan on twenty minutes.

A crowd fired on mainly by sunshine and ubiquitous sunflower seeds in a baked concrete bowl of a stadium was never likely to help Ireland. A fierce five meter defensive scrum, leaving tractor marks in the turf, flicked a switch to phase after phase of pick and goes and passes to heavy forwards running at backs mixed with kicks though the middle and commitment to dive on loose balls. Like South Africa and France, a lot of rugby seems to be played through scrum half in Georgia and Gela Aprasidze’s probing set up a prop special try and a penalty going into half time.

Fresh from a half time drilling, two quick tries from Irish close quarter play should have wrapped things up. Crank up the engine room in Georgia though, and belief flows. A fierce din enveloping the bowl with a crowd scenting blood willed Aprasidze over the line from beyond half way with a defence in retreat fearing more physical punishment. It’s probably one for the future to address, but a series of scrums Georgia attempted to milk for a penalty went the other way, consolidating a six point victory for Ireland. It sent a message that game management trumps emotional and physical blood and thunder.

France V South Africa

The full international between these sides on Saturday represented a play-off for which full international side has deteriorated the most over the last few years, evidently France after a 37-15 South Africa win. These under twenties, therefore, represented a sighter for their respective futures.

On first half performances, it appeared a movement away from the current, maligned, French bulk game and more flair, at least in patches, with faster and lighter forwards making ground and offloading attempted as default. This yielded the first try after 27 minutes with nuggety hooker Mauvaka recipient of a swiftly moved line out maul. Symptomatic of French sides playing away though, they slipped off their game plan and a typically direct South African pack started to assert themselves.

Looking for something more substantial at half time, we got involved in the hot dog and cured pork stand and waited there for about half an hour while orders were shouted across in Georgian. Hunger got the best of me and it seems risking burnt nipples leaning over the hot plate to mime an order is the only way to get things done. Bottled water is the only non-insane drink to be attempting in mid-afternoon sun, virtuous, but it doesn’t quite wash out the taste of rendered pork fat.

South African grew into this game with a more linked up performance than the French had followed in the first half. The best solution to racial quotas in South African sport is surely one where the squad is picked on merit, matching the demographic of wider society. This one certainly went some way to doing this with an athletic back division representative of the rainbow nation bolted onto traditional heft up front. As French cohesiveness evaporated, fly half Libbok punished through both long range kicking as well as having the luxury of time running the game ball in hand – though typical suffocating forward play put France out of this one.

Full time 37-15 to South Africa, same result as the full international, but heading in totally different directions.

England v New Zealand

This is a Gold Silver game across all formats in World Rugby in 2017, but even that rating masks vast differences between born rugby natives from New Zealand and a well organised and talented English team that has skills and physicality still to develop.

Any real sort of drinking on days like this in Tbilisi can only safely be attempted following 1800 and beer seemed appropriate for the final. Queue time for a Natakhtari lager was long, but only through chronically low supply than high demand. At GEL 3, less than a British Pound, boozing is definitely cost effective though alcohol isn’t the scene it is in established rugby countries and local supporters create the cauldron atmosphere on water alone. If I had my time again, I would have taken in wine and avoided queuing in the concrete bowels of the stadium and missing the haka.

While New Zealand stormed into the final swatting teams aside, England needed to hang on in games, a pattern fully evident in the first half. The All Blacks’ domination of number one ranking in full internationals is though strong core skills across all players with forwards passing and drawing men and backs swatting tacklers aside. The Baby Black wing Faingaanuka in particular demonstrated the full spectrum of tactics to rule the left wing. Despite it all, the fundamentals of scrummaging highlighted the gulf in class and all action hooker Asafo Aumua took the first of his three tries as well as showing off a hooking masterclass in the tight.

England had won two previous games against Australia and South Africa chasing the game with quick taps, fast hands and industry through the middle, the only way they were going to get back into this one, though fatally undermined though knock ons and execution errors created through work rate and physicality in defence. Number eight Zach Mercer and Fly half Max Malins had shone in earlier games, though neither could impose themselves here in a 64-17 defeat.

How many of each team were missing in Tbilisi was a slightly taboo, almost unspoken sub-narrative of this game. New Zealand had Reiko Ioane and Jordie Barrett eligible, but required for a full test series against the British Lions back home. England had five players with Eddie Jones on England’s two test series in Argentina, albeit a tour itself of a development theme. England’s past performance in this tournament suggests otherwise, though on this game and from the team’s graduates, New Zealand’s new intake is ready to go at full international, England have a bit to go yet.

More from Georgia

Culture in Georgia: Day trip to Gori and Uplistsikhe

If there is still some ambiguity about whether Georgia is now in Europe or Asia, there is certainty about its former role in the USSR as birthplace of big beast dictator, Joseph Stalin. His home town of Gori is reachable quite easily by public transport and combines nicely with former pagan worship site, Uplistsikhe, an expanse of caves and sacrifice pits over a flowing sandstone hill.

Getting there and away

It actually wasn’t the easiest to find information on trains, such is the proliferation of advice about set tours combined with hired drivers, but at one hour west of Tbilisi, a train works well. It’s fractionally bureaucratic, with passports needed, but a train out from Tbilisi at 0900, returning at either 1556 or 1915 costs GEL 14 / GBP 2.80. Soviet built trains clank along and are more or less reliable, though bring your own coffee. Uplistsikhe needs a cab, easy to pick up in the centre of Gori on the assumption that the driver will get you there, wait an hour, then drive you back for GEL 30 / GBP 10. Just a shame our’s tested his English by stating he was an Arsenal fan.

Dictator fill

Stalin avenue gives way to Stalin square with his cottage of birth and museum at the epicentre of town. If Russians and post-Soviets are clear on strong leaders but divided on Stalin, in Gori it’s only a one man town. The museum is reverential of his legacy and focuses a mainly photographical display on his achievements industrialising the USSR from 1924 to 1953 and reaching out to the world through a room of gifts presented to him from overseas including pipes, swords and shaving kits.

Perhaps the highlights of the museum are the semi-mausoleum with a gold statue of his head in it. This contains the story of how he once shared a tomb with Lenin in Red Square before public opinion turned against him. Also of note was his personal train carriage and a gift shop with t shirts, water bottles and mugs with his mug on them, all in a worshipful sense. I don’t think I could carry the water bottle off in gym in even an ironic way, and definitely not at GBP 13. I have two boxes of matches instead.

Changing religion

Christianity is definitely one facet of society that tilts Georgia firmly towards Europe, especially with next door Azerbaijan being Islamic. Uplistsikhe was first a pagan worship site dug into a massively exposed rock in the countryside, though clearly a residence as well given the size of it. It works pretty well on a child’s level as well with kids excitedly running and jumping all over a the inclines up to an Orthodox Church on the peak. Consensus is this was an attempt to cover up the instances of goat sacrifice.

If this subterfuge ever worked is unclear, though it is perfectly crystal that religion is a big part of Georgia now. I’ve seen multiple people cross themselves before walking past churches, and sites themselves all have people selling candles, or in some cases icons, outside. Stalin’s more paranoid spells as dictator saw religion cracked down on as a form of intellectual challenge. I’m unable to judge if this is a break from the past with evidence of a plural society thriving, or if this is another barrier to overcome.

More from Georgia

Watching rugby in Georgia: Food and alcohol

A food scene promising to blend middle eastern with Russian with European influences and some almost alarming wine choices, including orange, and a red product that ferments in clay pots were part of the reason I was so keen to do this trip to Georgia. I’m posting daily over this weekend to cover all the essential components of a rugby junket taking in finals day of the Under 20s Rugby Championship.

Food

Looking a lot like Shanghainese soup dumplings, Xialongbao, the Georgian Khinkali is promoted as the essential Caucasian snack and was available from pretty much every other cafe or restaurant. I’d not had them before, but my colleague and friend Gigi had, and provided warnings that they weren’t available with booze and would probably presented in a lukewarm puddle of water.

A typical Tbilisi dwelling seems to be an America-style 1920s veranda/balcony wooden construction so it was off the top floor of a beer hall of this design we took in 20 dumplings, admittedly small size, in a puddle of lukewarm water. The stuffing is pot luck, but a cumin and coriander lamb was the highlight, washed down with an apparently essential Georgian beer and Russian staple sour cream. Lunchtime amusement came from a Georgian family eating a huge slab of pork and drinking a bottle of vodka, while cars got towed away and pensioners ducked across six lanes of motorway-speed traffic outside.

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Of course if you’re taking in some rugby a heavy meat diet is required for sustenance and it does seem to be a staple. Most restaurants with Georgian cuisine do Shashlik, the Georgian equivalent of the pork kebab I’d spent most of Greece eating, with servings coming with paprika, onions and pomegranate seeds. This was trumped all out by a Georgian meat special at Organrique, however, with grilled meat for, two providing a course of four different meats on a board, and nothing else. Oppressive.

Booze and toxic alternatives

Within the last couple of years, Georgian orange wine has cropped up a number of establishments including Tom Kerridge’s pub, the Hand and Flowers and a wine bar in Acton, Vindinista. Made with white grapes the way of a red, it’s an initially startling taste that goes well with cheese and otherwise non-red meat, it’s the colour of a dessert wine, but taste wise is the opposite. Still searching for this, however, with the half the shops that don’t sell dumplings selling wine, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Georgian local beer, page or black, and red wine have sustained us so far. Beer is scandalously cheap and seeming sold with the intention of drinking on the street. The slightly preferable lager seems to come out at GBP 1.60 for a two litre bottle, perfect for train beers and sneaking into a stadium. Clogged gets stuck in. Dry red wine seems most palatable, Saparevi is the local grape which comes out somewhere like a less fruity Malbec. The Shashliks combine well. It can be had for a few GBPs a bottle and 90 Georgian Laris for a litre with your meat board.

Without doubt the most startling drink so far was not, I suspect, alcoholic but a heavily mineralated sparkling water, Borjomi. Opening this bottle instantly rendered our table heavily contaminated with a sulphurous whiff, identifying us as farters while it set away neutralising the wine and cake on the table. It had startling amounts of Hydro Carbon Trioxide (If my secondary school chemistry is correct) and had me rushing for the toilet several times that evening. Rugby tours need this, somehow.

More from Georgia

Watching rugby in Georgia: Getting there

Suggestions that the Six Nations could be expanded to include Georgia meant I have recently devoted serious attention to getting to Tbilisi for a game. The Under 20s Rugby Championship, hosted in Tbilisi and Kutaisi this year, provided perfect opportunity with several days hosting multiple games to plan around. I’m posting daily for this trip to cover the logistics of a junket taking in finals day, with England contesting the final itself.

Training it

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Assuming a start point in the UK, for those well endowed with funds and time the Orient Express and a Turkish sleeper train, changing in Istanbul, could get you here. Georgia lies just to the east of Turkey, geographically in Asia, though self-determination alone sees it regarded as the most eastern point in Europe. Either way, a continental journey probably isn’t a great way to kick off a weekend of emotional rugby-related trauma. The only really realistic route, therefore is:

Flying

I’m writing this on the final leg of the journey to best illustrate the horror of the journey from Western Europe. I could only find one direct flight from London (Luton to be precise) on WhizAir to Kutaisi, though this was never really practical. Most journeys are indirect with Lufthansa, Aegean, Turkish Airlines, LOT and Air Baltic going via Munich, Athens, Istanbul, Warsaw and Riga respectively. All arrive in the middle of the night, courtesy of three hours time difference and around six hours flying. It can be done for under £300. I just spent eight days of idyllic quality time in Greece with my wife Becky, meaning the Aegean option was one flight.

This idyll was brought crashing down by missing my slot at the Plato Museum, hysterical children, dithery old women losing their walking sticks and losing my cash card up to the 0030 flight arriving at 0400. Airports are depressing places empty and illuminated at night, creating weary annoyance that was only partially mitigated by slugging out of a bottle of Metaxa number seven, evening medicinal, from a bag on the flight. I’m hoping my long time rugby tour accomplice, and the only other person stupid enough to attempt this trip, Clogger, is waiting at the airport with Ginger Ale to mix and sufficient cash to make it to the hotel.

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Athens: Child versus adult

It’s been 25 years, more or less, to my last land-based trip to Greece and a whole new world of olive eating, alcohol drinking, Cyrillic reading opportunities have presented themselves. I outline five points of difference to this first two days in Athens of a beach holiday to what I remember from the early 1990s through adult and child eyes.

Drink

I can remember drinking a non-too-diverse range of bottled water, sprite and lemon tea as a child with memories of a choice of Dutch import Heineken and Amstel as the sole beer choice. A smell was enough to remind of the horror of pine-and-olive-enhanced Greek wine offering of Retsina. This has definitely moved on come 2017 with local beers Alfa and Mykonos a definite step up from the imports. Greek wine, I have since discovered, is a bit of a hidden gem. Syrah grapes are indigenous as well as Greek St George’s variety, which makes a dry, oaky red a favourite over the whites.

Food

I’ve come close to a 100% pork only diet in many countries with Souvalaki proving the pig staple in Greece for multiple childhood summer breaks. I’m happy to report no loss of standards here with Greco Project just off Syntagma Square providing any number of mini skewers with olive oil and oregano seasoning, padded out with Greek Salad and Pitta. Comfortable chairs too, 1990s Taverna were always kitted out with narrow rickety rope padded chairs that cut off the circulation to the backside (subsequent edit: still very much present outside of metropolitan Athens, cannot handle even a half of an adult rear end)

I can remember lumps of shark, huge prawns and sea bass being ubiquitous in the late 80s and early nineties though I’m coming to the conclusion the UK has a comparative advantage on seafood over The Mediterranean, hence haven’t got too involved in the seafood this time around. I’m eying up a lump of lamb next. Food-based entertainment in 2017 has paled into insignificance following my old man’s attempt to break up a dog fight by squeezing lemon juice in their eyes, a manoeuvre that led to an ape shit dog smashing up a table of confused-looking Germans.

Sightseeing

Having seen this second time around a little context is probably required to get the most out of sightseeing. A typical ten year old probably isn’t that aware of the historical significance of Ancient Greece and has to take sites at face value: usually a bunch of rocks. Having since learnt Cyrillic and undertaken a politics degree with significant Philosophical learnings, it’s all a bit more interesting and a Plato museum, the various sackings of the Acropolis and a museum of the Acropolis site all make sense as an adult.

I actually had a direct comparison of Acropolis viewing from a height. In 1990 I can remember sitting on one of the adjacent hills to take in commentary and a light show of the monument, most memorably of it being set on fire by the Persians. In 2017 we took in Dinner in the Sky to be hoisted some fifty meters in the air on a dinning table for 20 people. Toilet worries aside, this provides a great view of the city, both historic and, with a few gas holders and a converted industrial estate, contemporary. Given the circumstances of serving, it was an excellent dinner for two hours with perhaps the best wine deal I’ve seem for a while to offset a selfie orgy. Good spot by Becky for something I was initially sceptical of.

 

Temperature

Being the sole blond haired and fair skinned person on my family I can remember getting a bit of a rough deal with the then unheard of highs of a non-humid early thirties climate. Altitude training in the swampy high thirties in Asia means I’d say this is now comfortable for an adult and in retrospect not too excessive for children either. What was odd this weekend was a biblical shower after a humid morning that swept tree branches down the street and saw centimetre-wide pieces of hail clatter onto tin roofs. Man-made climate change in a polluted big city or freak event? I’m not too sure but it does seem to be the case these flash weird weather events are city based affairs.

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Services

The old lament ran that the Greeks invented the first flushing toilet around the birth of Christ, but with little development since. An output of this was I can always recall childhood toilets that couldn’t deal with paper, therefore having a stinking bucket of refuse present for solitary times. Not great for a hot day or a dicky stomach. I have no idea how my Dad managed to deal with an epic whisky hangover in one of these set ups. Luckily, that does seem to have been solved now, with some decent toilet technology in evidence in most locations.

Not being able to fully converse in the local language while getting a hair cut left me with a David Beckham fluffy curtains effort in 2002 Japan, so it was with some trepidation I tracked down Sir Barbers, just off Symtagma square. I’m happy to report EUR 15 here gets some reading material (and inspiration for the Plato museum), a cool retro decoration and an espresso with dessert. It also gets sincere English spoken to get a Brad Pitt haircut. Thanks for the reassurance here, Sir Barbers! No too long hair for patchy sun tan for me.