The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Tag: Adventure

My last academic trip to Bergen, Norway

PhDs are a journey and like all great journeys, they’re punctuated by moments, stages and turns. It felt surreal and a very long journey to on the eve of heading off to Norway for my final international and what was to be my last official conference as a PhD student. In my university at least, PhD students are expected to present their work at faculty and university level but to prove yourself you need to present on the world stage. You’re expected to present at both national and international conferences during your term as a PhD student. I’ve been fortunate to present at 4 national and 3 internationals both in the UK, Croatia (which can be read here My visit to Split, Croatia) and finally, here in Bergen, Norway.

What made the final conference trip special was not only was it in a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but for the first time, I’d be presenting twice. Alongside my PhD and my many hobbies, I work as an Editor for the International Journal for Students as Partners. It’s been a fantastic project I’ve been involved in from its inception, and while I still feel like I shouldn’t be there (good old imposter syndrome again), it’s very much been one of those amazing opportunities that I couldn’t turn down. It was most definitely when the opportunity arose to say yes and to learn how to do it later! To be an editor as a student and at this age is unbelievable and so rewarding, despite the amount of voluntary time it takes up in what is a busy schedule. I’m fortunate to not only work on a fantastic and vital journal with world-leading experts in SaP literature but to work with them on the editorial board. Despite the 9pm meetings with colleagues in the UK, Canada, USA and Australia and with the new addition of Hong Kong and Malaysia, it’s been a rewarding and challenging experience. Ruth, my longtime mentor (I’ve gone from being her student to her RA to finally my colleague at IJSaP, we share co-editor responsibilities for all Case Studies the journal receives) was presenting at the ISSoTL 18 conference about the journal alongside her work. What made it special was other colleagues on the board would be presenting too and after years talking to them via a computer screen in our meetings, I’d finally get to meet them all in person!

“The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.”

It’s felt like a long journey from my first ever international conference in Amsterdam when I was an RA for Ruth. Way back then the world of conferences and most certainly at International level was a whole new and confusing world. However, Ruth has been and continues to be an excellent mentor, she guided me through that first international and even allowed me to present solo in that. Throwing you in the deep end was the best way to learn. Therefore, I felt proud and thankful that (a.) I arrive in Bergen comfortable at International Conferences with a few under my belt and (b.) The ability to present what was most likely my last academic conference with my mentor, where it all started. It had a nice full circle feel about it.

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Great opening at #issotl18 so far!

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Bergen in Norway was a place that always looked so beautiful, charming and at times, rugged. Nestled in the Fjords with it’s delicately painted shop fronts I was so excited to finally go and a fitting place it was for my final jaunt as a PhD student. With my laptop, camera and the all-important USB stick with my presentation on, I was off to the airport. I flew with a new airline this time (SAS) and on a brand new aircraft type for me, the Airbus A320 NEO (Avgeek win!). Getting to Bergen isn’t that easy! I had to fly from Manchester to Oslo, wait for two hours and then fly onwards to Bergen.

What actually happened, however, was a technical fault with the NEO meant that after a severe delay sitting on the plane, what was meant to be 2 hours turned into a 15-minute dash across Oslo airport including passport control, another security check and then a 2-mile run to catch my flight to Bergen! However, the landing in Oslo was terrific, as was the landing in Bergen! There is something special about flying after sunset across the frozen north, I was tired but filled with excitement for the next few days ahead.

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It's a bit cold here.

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After what felt like a very long day, I arrived in the cold rainy airport of Bergen, Norway, in the dark. After 40 minute tram ride I arrived into the city for the first time, the clatter of my Case behind me. My hotel was near the central train station of Bergen, and through the drizzle and low cloud, I could just about make out one of the three giant mountains that flank this small city. The glow of the street lights that crisscrossed up the mountain disappeared into the darkened sky. Cool, really cool, I thought. My hotel was a typical Scandinavian style, small but well equipped even if it did take me 5 minutes to work out how to turn the lights on! I was on the 8th floor with a giant wall to floor ceilings which made the room feel bigger than it actually was but good luck finding a big hotel room in this part of the world! After a shower, I was off to sleep.

The next morning I awoke to an amazing buffet breakfast and joys to me, free coffee! Nordic countries know how to make super strong coffee, which is just to my taste. The conference weirdly didn’t start until the welcoming ceremony in the evening, so it gave me a full day to go and get a feel for this city, a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. Within moments of walking through this city, I fell in love with it, it had that rustic charm that I found so endearing on my time on the maritime coast of Canada.

This place reminded me so much of St. John’s that all the memories came flooding back, it was just as cold as that place too! I loved the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured wooden shops and houses. In this part of the world, the sun rose late and set early, so I was out way before sunrise, but as the sun rose as I explored the city, I had a big travellers grin on my face!

As followers of my travels will know, I always go and climb the biggest thing there is in any new place I visit. What’s bigger than a mountain top? After a pleasant walk around the city, I put on my hiking boots and set up on the climb to the top of the mountain. After a fantastic walk through streets which turned into gravel tracks lined by dense Norwegian spruce forests, which then cleared away to reveal the city and the Fjords below. Simply stunning and well worth the effort of getting up here, a just reward indeed! I scoped the top of the mountain off for photo opportunities with my camera, and I went for a hike through the forests. I love hiking, especially alone in new places as it has that relaxed adventure vibe that I love. Plus, it’s a new challenge to get the best shots out of this stunning scenery in front of me. I came across dense forests and little lakes with tiny waterfalls. I loved it!

Waterfalls and rain Walkway to the mountain through the forest

However, I couldn’t spend too long as it was down the mountain on a train, which was cool! See the video!

Before it was back to the hotel to shower and change for the opening night of the conference, after all, that’s why I was here! I was presenting as part of the IJSaP team the next day and my PhD work on the final day of the conference in three days. So I devised a plan that evening and the following day I’d spend at the conference. The Friday, I’d go explore more and take a cruise around the Fjords (how could you not when you’re here!) then the Saturday was another conference day before I had a final free day to explore. I won’t talk too much about the conference but wow, what a conference to finish on! A genuinely supportive and enjoyable event to have been a part of. I loved meeting loads of new people, I loved presenting my own work and as part of a team, and it was great to finally meet my fellow colleagues! It truly was a super ending to my time as a PhD student on my final ever international conference.

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Time for a Fjord cruise!

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Away from the conference, however, I skipped a few sessions (don’t judge) to go and explore more of this beautiful city and the surrounding fjords. In between, my two days of presenting, I took a day off from the conference to go and explore the Fjords (I wasn’t the only conference attendee to do so either that day!). I looked online the night before due to the first day with no rain forecast since I got here, for around £60 a cruise would take you out for three hours into the beautiful fjords, I couldn’t turn down such an offer!

My mind casts back to when I sailed out of the river Mersey in torrential April showers with the Battle of the Atlantic fleet, all 26 warships heading out into the wild Irish Sea was a fond memory, but, a distinctly cold one. I’d never been so cold, until this cruise! Walking to the harbour, there was a crunch of ice underfoot as the rising sun glinted off the frost on the ground. I thought I’d get to the boat 30 minutes before departure, but It seems everyone else had the same idea, so I was already far back in the queue. Annoying too as I really wanted to get on the top deck. I was aware of the potential for, but how could you sit inside a boat when you were surrounded by all this beauty! Living in a Norwegian Fjord

Morning in the Fjords

I watched as our ship pulled alongside and before long everyone was boarded and I found a really nice little spot on the top deck. As we trundled out of the city and past the giant ice breaker resupply vessels, it was decidedly calm as we crossed the harbour wall and out into the fjords. Well, that illusion was shattered as the captain opened the throttles, and as the waves and speeds increased, so did the biting icy wind. I had thermals on but I might as well been wearing a t-shirt that’s what it felt like! The pain of the cold and particularly my fingers curled around my camera soon disappeared as I got lost in the beauty of it all. Morning fog hung in the valleys of fjords and the island like a fluffy blanket, the sun now lost behind a thick grey layer of cloud. I couldn’t stop myself from taking hundreds of pictures as I slowly watched the bridges and the fjords loom out of the mist, to then watching the mist swirl and form different shapes and then finally, the sun broke through clearing the mist from the water to reveal stunning peaks and troughs, snow-capped mountains and cascading waterfalls.

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😍

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This has to be the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I get it now, I really get why people put up with the cold to go cruising around the Fjords. As an avid World War 2 follower with history, I was brought to the thoughts of what it was like for both allied and axis ships patrolling such waters in horrific weather and especially the Bismark and Tirpitz who would hide out in the Fjords. Such idyllic location for such a war to be fort, the juxtaposition of the best of mother nature and the very worst of humankind. After three hours and well over 500 pictures, we arrived back on dry land. I could barely move, and my muscles ached from the constant battering of -25c wind chill. I exited the boat and walked straight across the harbour to a coffee shop. The heat inside wrapped around my chilled bones like a much-needed hug. Weirdly, in Norway, everyone’s English accent is well, weird. I’ve heard South African vibes, I’ve heard American and in front of me serving my long Americano was a quintessentially British woman. “Ah, you’re from Liverpool?” I guess my accent was a give-a-way for that. “Yeah, where in the UK are you from?”…”Oh I’m not, I’m from Oslo, I go to university here”. That messed with my head!

“I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out.”

As you know, I am a fond coffee lover, and I’ve sampled many coffee shops all over North America and Europe. There is something about coffee shops, their vibes, the music, the constant chatter and often that cosy feeling. This little coffee shop that looked out into the small busy cobbled streets of Bergen with the harbour glistening behind me was much like the fjords, perfection. I spent two hours drinking coffee, wrapping my hands around that lovely hot bean juice as each sip thawed me out. I chatted to the locals and tourists and flicked through my pictures. What a fantastic morning! Back in the hotel, I got the hottest shower I could cope with and got in bed to edit my photographs.

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Coffee views!

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After a sleep and some food, I headed back out into the city to climb that mountain again. Despite still feeling a little frostbitten, I was so amazed by the photo opportunities in this city that I just had to get back out there for a sunset and some star photography. I think whatever you do in life you have to go watch a sunrise or a sunset from the peak of a mountain for you to truly appreciate natures beauty. As always on my trips, I’m often fortunate for mother nature to gift me such epic and truly wonderful sunsets.

After the sun had set and the thermometer dropped well below freezing I ended up hiking through the forest in the pitch black to find a nice spot for some star photography. I felt completely safe here but its possibly not the best idea to hike through a mountain forest with no map or torch, in the pitch black. Not my best idea, but sometimes you have to risk it for a great shot. Of which after stumbling upon a little lake, I was so glad I didn’t turn back. However, out of nowhere, the fog from this morning rolled back in, and I could barely see my own feet.

Nighttime on the lake

Star spangled forests

I used my phone camera to light the way, and suddenly I heard footsteps behind me! I was ready to use my tripod as a weapon, but what it turned out as it passed me in a blur was a local, obviously very used to the weather fell running at night! What a crazy Mofo and I certainly nearly had a heart attack! As soon as it came, the fog went again and the summit cleared to the twinkling lights of Bergen. I sat on an ice-cold slab of concrete with no one else around gazing at the stars and the views of the city far below. I reflected on what a fantastic final conference it had been and how far I had come. My journey as a PhD student was ending, but as I sit looking down upon high, it had been one hell of a journey!

Full album of pictures can be found here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmmmE7Rj

Geneva with Laura

Those of you who had read my last blog My visit to Split, Croatia might be asking the question of how do you go to a conference in Split, Croatia, and end up in Geneva? Good question. To answer it is in part logistics and well any other excuse to go travelling. I’m fortunate as a funded PhD student to get £1500 per year for expenses to use for conferences, travel and anything PhD related. As beautiful as Split is, it’s an awkward place to get to, that also makes it expensive to get to. Flights from my part of the world are few and far between, i.e. once a week! But annoyingly that meant that while I could get to Split the day before the conference, it meant I couldn’t go back until three days afterwards at the cost of £500 return, not to mention how much an extra three days in the apartment may have costed me!

While I could afford that, I knew I had applied for my second international conference in Bergen, Norway in October so if I was accepted, I needed the £300 plus for the registration fee. So I hedged my bets that I’d get accepted and therefore needed to keep the money left of my expenses for the year (they run August to August) for that conference. So I got creative. The flight out to Split was £110 one way. I went on FlightRadar24 and had a look for departures from Split on the Saturday after the conference to see what destinations they flew to and using my extensive avgeekary I know pretty much all of the destinations served from Liverpool and Manchester. So my plan was to find somewhere I could fly to from Split and then after a few days get home again. That’s when I saw Geneva on the departure board. Much like Croatia, Switzerland and specifically Geneva, was on my 12 holidays in 12 months plan but I never got around to it, so it felt like a perfect excuse to go! The flight from Split was £60 and the return to Liverpool £80, bargain! As I book so many hotels every year I’m a genius member on Booking.com, so I get 15% off most hotels, I found a brilliant 4* hotel in Geneva for less than £200, and before I knew it that was my plan post-conference!

Those of you who follow my blogs know that 90% of my travels are solo affairs and I’ve written many times about how much I love that. However, they can get lonely at times, and as much as blogs and pictures try to convey the experiences it’s never really the same, and sometimes you can create special memories by sharing it with other people on the trip. While out on one of our many cycling rides, I told Laura about my plan and that all she needed to do was get her bum on a seat to Geneva and everything else was paid for. Yay! I had a travel buddy and even better that we decided to go hire some bikes to cycle the beautiful Lake Geneva.

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Time to head to Switzerland

Usually, as I waited for the local bus to the airport from Split, I’d be sad to leave such a fantastic place, but the thought of another couple of days away was exciting. I thought Split was hot, but Geneva and central Europe were in the grips of one of the most blistering heatwaves in recent times and so was in the high 30’s and the day we had planned to go cycling it was expected to hit 38c! As much as I loved Split, one thing let it down, and that was the airport. My god, that airport is shambolic. It’s such a shame too! It’s too small to handle the summer traffic, and for 2.5 hours I had to stand in the departure lounge due to a lack of seats, and there was only one tiny booth selling food and drink. I have never been in such a chaotic airport departure lounge. I watched Laura’s flight from Liverpool take off on my app, and before long, I was up in the air myself heading to Geneva.

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Lack of seats meant chaos trying to walk through the tiny terminal

As much as the landing into Split was epic, flying over Mont Blanc and the Alps on approach to Geneva was really awesome! The views on the flight flying over Venice, North Italy and then the Alps certainly made up for the cramped wait in Split. With clear blue skies and a gentle landing, it wasn’t long before I was in the arrivals hall waiting for my bag and I exchanged what leftover Croatian money I had into Swiss Franc which is probably the most Monopoly-ish money I’ve ever had! The great thing about Geneva is their exceptional system of providing free travel passes to visitors to get you from the airport to anywhere in the city (including trains, trams, buses and ferries… all for free!) all you had to do was press a button in the arrivals, and the only stipulation was you had to use it within an hour of getting it.

Laura’s plane had arrived about 45 minutes ahead of mine, so it was a comedy of WhatsApp calls trying to find each other in the arrivals, but we eventually did! For me, it felt like two spies meeting in a neutral location to swap stories, but that’s probably just the author in me! Laura had become one of my best friends in the short time I’d known her and is still one of my favourite humans, so I was really looking forward to exploring this new city with her.

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Meeting up in arrivals!

We navigated the train and ended up in the city where a wall of heat hit me. While Split was hot, there was a constant sea breeze which made it pleasant. In between the heat of the buildings of the city of Geneva, the heat was oppressive, which didn’t help to lug a giant suitcase through the streets. With thanks to Google Maps, we ended up at the hotel, and there was another brilliant perk of Geneva. Any guest staying in a hotel within the city boundaries is given free travel passes for their entire stay to use again on trains, trams, buses and ferries (such a fantastic idea to increase tourism!).

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The chair

After quickly freshening up we headed out to explore this place but not before going on a wild goose chase to find a supermarket! Wow. I mean that was a trek and a half to find this supermarket! After loading me up like a human packhorse, we headed to our closest landmark from the hotel, the UN building and the chair. I’ve visited the other UN building in New York, so it was really cool to see and get pictures with the main UN building! The chair is also iconic, and I didn’t know its three legs is a symbol of a reminder of landmines hence the one leg blown off, kind of neat in a weird way. After plenty of pictures outside the UN, we walked through their botanical gardens, which were sublime! Sitting on the grass felt surreal chilling like we usually do but miles away from home in another country like you do on an average Saturday!

 

 

 

 

Walking along the lake with the views of the city in the distance was so cool and walking through their park (and the customary picture with the WTO building. Geography bucket list tick!) it made us both think what giant city parks should be like. Sefton Park is okay, but it wasn’t a patch on this place. Music, parties, the smoke and smells of numerous BBQs drifted across our path. There was a wedding, there were family picnics, and people were jumping in the lake. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the buzz and vibe of this place were already fantastic. You know what too? People were drinking responsibly, cleaning up after themselves and everyone was out enjoying the hot Saturday afternoon sunshine with no agro! If only our British culture weren’t so opposite! I can only imagine the scene in Sefton Park if this was to happen there.

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Lac Leman

After a long walk along the lake and as the sunset over Geneva, we went and got some food (that classic Swiss dish of McDonald’s) and headed back to the room for the night. The next day was really what we’d come for, a cycle around Lake Geneva!

For £20 you could hire road bikes for the day and what a bargain that was! I had been lugging my cycling gear around with me since Split, so it felt really good to finally use it! I’ve only ever cycled abroad once, and that was around Valencia, and we all know how badly that ended with a flat tire and a 45c 10-mile walk back to the city centre! I hoped that this journey would be a little less troublesome. Switzerland is also known as a fantastic place to cycle, and I was so excited to clip in and head out on the open road for our less than usual Sunday ride! By the time we arrived in Geneva, it had become our thing to spend Sundays together cycling, chilling, cooking food, so it felt like a typical Sunday for us, except here we were in Geneva!

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Ready for our epic cycle!

The bikes we hired were fantastic road bikes “we’ve just got them in” in a thick French accent the guy tells us, cool. What wasn’t so cool was nearly having an argument with the arsey French guy about SPD vs Look cleats. While I respect that he owns the bike shop, he really ought to have known the difference, and while I would love to say his arrogant attitude was because English wasn’t his second language, I just think he was typically French!

My biggest concern cycling here was about being on the wrong side of the road but that never actually became a problem (except at roundabouts where you had to really use your brain). After heading out of the city (thankfully the roads early on a Sunday morning were lovely and quiet) we started to steadily climb out of the city, passing through these stunning Swiss villages. Glass free smooth roads paved our way as we cycled past vineyards, farms and cute houses. Before long, we reached the brow of a steady hill, and we both just had to stop and take in the scene in front of us. To our right the Lake had appeared below us, fields of giant sunflowers lead down to the lake, the morning sun shimmering off the blue water and right there, across the lake was the tall Alps rising in the morning mist to meet the sun. Just a stunning view that I will remember for a very long time.

 

 

 

 

We pushed on North following the Lake until we came across a small town called Rolle’ and we decided to stop for a coffee. We found this quaint little waterfront cafe, lined by manicured flowers with a view of the Lake and Alps. We parked our bikes up and using GCSE French and with the help of Google Translate managed to order two black coffees. Those of you who know us both will know how much we love coffee and I think I’m safe in saying that not only was that the most scenic coffee I have ever had, I feel like we both could have spent all day drinking coffee and looking out at the view. We cycled around a little castle and just admired the view. It was a perfect morning. This village was perfect!

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What struck me the most about cycling here was how effortless it was here. Cars gave you room, the pavements were incredibly smooth, it was a dream. Since that trip cycling in the UK is far harder and a lot more painful! We carried on as we tried to reach halfway around the lake until the dreaded fear of the hired bike became a reality. You read horror stories of bikes snapping in half or cassettes exploding on plenty of cycling abroad blog sites. By now it was in the mid 30’s and well into the afternoon, the heat once you stopped was crazy! While the mechanical on Laura’s bike wasn’t as dramatic as some of the stories of hire bikes, it was no less annoying. As they were new bikes, they hadn’t adjusted the limit screws or indexed the gears correctly. So anytime she tried to put any power down up a hill the gears would jump and skip, not only is that annoying but it can be pretty dangerous! The most annoying thing as we decided that it was better to call it quits and cycle the just under 30 miles back in one gear, was that it was a simple fix if you had the right tools. All it needed was a small screwdriver. I’ve adjusted my gears and indexed them many times on my own bike, so it was frustrating to be defeated by a simple mechanical.

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Zwift like Swiss villages we passed on our cycle

But, It’s cycling abroad, while I stayed in one gear to sympathise, at least this time I wasn’t walking back! Maybe next time I go cycling 3rd-time lucky mechanicals will stay away. On our trip back, it was no less beautiful, but I did become concerned very quickly about the heat. By now, it was 38c, and we had no water left at all. I was under no doubt that the sweat had probably washed away any of my sunblock. It’s a Sunday and nowhere is open and no water fountains to be seen. Laura suggested that we should stop at a Café or restaurant and just ask them to fill them up with water. Me being me was like they’ll never do that! Turns out as usual with her, I was wrong, and she was right. If it weren’t for her, I’d have been that pigheaded person who would have died on the bike through dehydration because I didn’t want to ask for water in French!

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LakeGeneva by bike

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Other than the mechanical, we arrived back after 50+ miles and 2400 feet of climbing! An epic ride, even more so when factoring in nearly 40c heat! It felt so good to get a shower after that’s for sure. As tired as we were, there is a euphoria of completing an epic ride like that and no doubt memories we’ll take away from it for a long time. For me, I feel it will take an exceptional ride to top that!

 

 

 

 

We didn’t stop there though, we got changed, got some food, then headed out for a sunset view around the town and the see the Jet ‘Eau at sunset. By the next morning, we checked out and headed back around the city, exploring and picking up some souvenirs for friends and family. By late afternoon we were flying back to Liverpool, and that brought a close to a fantastic few days away and for me, a brilliant just under 2 weeks away. Geneva is a city that I highly recommend you visit. Not only is it beautiful, clean, friendly and impressive, it also has a vibe about it that isn’t touristy. By that I mean, Prague last year with Laura and Katie was a fantastic and beautiful city, but you knew it was a tourist destination. Geneva, however, just felt like an ordinary city with people going about their daily lives and was very Swiss! If you get the chance to hire a bike head out to Rolle and enjoy a coffee with stunning vistas it will be worth it I assure you! Due to work commitments and moving different places in the country that was to be our last weekend together for a very long time, so it was sad to part ways at the bus stop at LJLA but what a tremendous mini-break away with one of my favourite people!

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North Atlantic Adventure: Prince Edward Island

I’m half way through my two week adventure as i head to the wonderful Island of Prince Edward Island. A great part of my trip with fantastic weather, sunsets, views and friendly people!

Charlottetown not Charlotte’s town as I was calling it for most of my trip is a place for some unknown reason I’ve always wanted to visit. Not just the town but the island itself, the island that is known as P.E.I (Prince Edward Island). I’d love to say it was down to an advert where I was captivated by the deep red cliff and sands of the Island, the abundance of sea wild life and the stories of the many lighthouses dotted around the place. I’d love to say it was due to the famous book Anne of Greengables for which this island is most famed for but no neither of them. While I’d seen adverts, my curiosity and desire to visit this place was almost innate, a draw to this island for no particular reason. It certainly wasn’t the book, I only heard about it when I was doing my research for what tours to take while on the island and despite visiting her house on this trip, I’m still very unclear what it is about the book that has captured the hearts and minds of so many!

Today was a pretty long travelling day as I head south from St. John’s. Awaiting me was a 2 and a half hours flight to Halifax before waiting for an hour to catch a 30 minute flight on a teeny tiny plane across the Gulf and into the Island that is Prince Edward Island. More on that flight later!  The short taxi ride to the airport the skies continued to be grey and the thermometer hovered between 2 and 3 degrees above freezing. Before I left the hotel I checked the weather in Charlottetown, a lovely 25c! That weather was to stay for the rest of the week and was going to be in the 28’s in Toronto. Lovely! As a Brit we rarely get anything above 17c after the first week in September and after spending the past two days in -5 wind chill I was certainly looking forward to blue skies and warm sunshine.

The flight from St. John’s to Halifax was just as beautiful as my flight over, passing over tiny islands and plenty azure blue water. After a quick club sandwich in the airport café I went down and waited for my flight. I was super excited about this short hop over the Gulf for one reason….a reeeeaallly small plane! Jets are great and all but there is a thrill about getting a plane that only holds ten people and it’s so small there is no door to the cockpit so you can see right out of the front! That’s a very rare thing in today’s high security aviation world. Getting up close to the plane, the co-pilot greeted you at the door and this is an experience you just don’t get in the UK anymore and I couldn’t wait for those engines to spool up.

The flight was boarded up quickly and I watched as the propellers began to turn and the vibrations messaged my seat. It was quite the sight to see the pilots working through their checklists just before take-off. The noise on take-off was quite simply, deafening! I’ve been on many loud planes before, heck I’ve been hanging out of the back of a C-130 Hercules over the Bristol Chanel in my RAF cadet days and I thought that was loud but it was nothing compared to the ear splitting pitch of a Beech 1900D on take-off. If you ever do happen to find yourself on one of these tiny planes bring ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones, your ears will thank you for it! That to me though just added to the excitement of it all, real old school flying but I know it won’t be for everybody. Flying so low and slow across to the Island was a real treat and I greatly enjoyed what felt like a mini private flight.

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Like flying over the amazon!

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Upon landing I thought they had landed at a local flying club rather than an airport but no this was P.E.I’s airport. Again, tiny. Advantages of that is I was waiting for a taxi with my bag 4 minutes after getting off the plane. As the airport is so small there was only taxi and the next was not going to arrive for another 10 minutes but “more were on the way” I was assured by a woman who I’m pretty sure offloaded my bags and was checking people in! Behind me in the queue where two Canadian businessmen with their brief cases talking about if they’d make the start of their conference in time, I turned to them and offered them to take the next cab rather than me as I was in no particular rush at all. They declined politely and instead asked where I was heading and if I was visiting judging by my accent. I explained about my travels and he welcomes me to his Island and says jump in the cab with us and I’ll make sure the driver drops you off at your hotel first, you’re a guest to Canada I’ve got it. What a lovely gesture! Turns out they’re JCB type truck owners and there is a big conference at one of the hotels on the island in Charlottetown where I was heading. He was one of the biggest sellers on the island and it was really cool chatting to both of them! They both had family in Missagura where my family live and they had family from England so it was nice swapping stories for the 20 minute drive into the town. I shook their hand and thanked them as I departed the cab and walked into my very grand hotel which was apt considering it was called the Holman Grand. It was fancy! Check-in was a breeze and I headed up to my very comfy and lovely room which had a super view!

I dropped my bags off into the room, grabbed a shower then headed out for something to eat and grab somethings for the room and for tomorrow’s tour. As always I just head out aimlessly to explore a new location. I wanted to head towards their waterfront as I had read there was a nice boardwalk that went around this part of the Island, so off I went. It was late afternoon by time I had arrived the warmth felt so lovely after such a cold few days! Every street I turned onto I felt I had to take a picture of. Yet again this was a place like no other, a common theme on this trip. This place had captured my heart instantly. From the amazingly presented quaint old wooden houses, to the bright flowers to the old gas lamps to the friendliness of the people I was blown away. Everyone said hello. Everyone. Young or old it didn’t matter. It had that small village feel to it despite it being a town, quite possibly the prettiest town I’ve ever been in that’s for sure.

After a few pictures and walk along the waterfront I ended up on the main high street which was oddly full of red bricked buildings, something I really did not expect to see. I shouldn’t have been so surprised with this being the oldest part of Canada, in fact this place is exactly where Canada as a nation was born! Lights hung across the street, flowers and manicured vines went up the side of buildings, bunting fluttered in the wind. Simply stunning. I wandered into an Irish bar called the Old Dubliner which to be fair to them actually looked and had the vibe of an Irish pub. After a whiskey or two and a steak I was suitably refuelled. If you find yourself in Charlottetown which I hope you do, I fully recommend it! I stopped off at a convenience store before I headed back to my room. I was going to relax and have a quiet evening after all the travel but I noticed some clouds around and they were beginning to change colour. I had a great feeling about the weather and had that photographers feeling that this sunset would be good. I slipped my shoes back on, packed my camera gear and headed towards Victoria Park that hugged the water via a boardwalk just outside of the city. It was only a short walk and I was ultimately captivated by it all. It was so incredibly peaceful and Mother Nature gave me one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever had the pleasure to have seen. The birds chirped, owls hooted, the waves lapped the shore. A moment in time I’d love to replay constantly. Ultimate at peace with the world, yourself and everything!

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P.E.I Sunset

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I had my tripod set up and people kept saying hello, chatting about the sunset and two people came next to me to ask about camera settings. All locals, all incredibly friendly. I cannot express enough how warm everyone was I have never and I don’t think ever will visit such an incredibly friendly city as here. The walk back to the hotel as night fell was surreal. Walking through leafy gas lamp lit streets as the moon rose above the city. I stopped on the corner of a street and just paused for a second. I had fallen in love with this place and I felt like I had come home. I had no idea why I’d always wanted to visit this place but here I was thousands of miles away from home in a place that had captured me like no place other. I was home. It felt like a part of me needed to come here and here I was. I’ve heard stories of people saying they’ve found their place in the world or reciting stories of places that they’ve left a part of themselves in. I’ve loved many places I’ve visited but I always thought that was people being melodramatic. Now I understood. If I was to ever move to Canada, it would certainly be this place and I have missed it every day since I left!

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Nice sunny day on P.E.I

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After a great sleep and breakfast the next morning I headed out onto a pre-booked tour. It was me, a guy from Australia, a mum and daughter from Oxford and two old American couples. One of which was so incredibly loud and for some reason the guy decided to befriend me. He was this giant of a man called Bob Johnson from Chicago. He was so loud! I got talking to him while we waited for the bus to arrive and he loved Victorian England history and visited “CornWaaaall” where his wife’s family lives every other year. He decided to refer to me as “Hey England” for the entire 6 hour tour. I didn’t mind, he was funny and cool and his wife was just as mental. I would say mental but realistically they were just American. The tour took me to a little shop in the middle of the Island that made a variety of Jams and Chutneys. They had so many and I was well full after trying so many samples! After a short drive we headed up North to the area of Cavendish where the famous red cliffs and sands are before visiting and having an hour around Anne of Greengables house.

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Anne’s House

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Lovely setting and this was the reason everyone was on the tour. For me it meant nothing so I just explored the forest instead! After there we stopped at a few fishing ports and learnt about the Lobster quotas and listened to a local fisherman explain how they catch them before heading back to the city. The tour guide Roddy MacLaine was a fantastic tour guide. So much so I asked if he did private tours and he did. I gave him some cash and he said he’d take me on a tour of the Island tomorrow! That evening I went and tried out some Fish and Chips which was very good but not as good as St. John’s before taking some fantastic sunset pictures again in the evening.

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P.E.I sunsets are unbelievable!

My final day on the Island was a private 8 hour tour of the Island. Roddy was a really cool old Islander who had so many stories and was such a joy to spend time with him. Such a personalised tour was very special. We visited one of the longest bridges in the world the confederation bridge that spanned the gulf between the island and the mainland. I suppose a when in Rome moment did occur on this tour. He knew all the store people well and he explained that many of the tourists literally come to this store to get their picture taken as Anne from Anne of Greengables. After a mini protest I thought fuck it and proceeded to dress up as Anne. Why the hell not! No regrets. I think I suited it to be honest.

My personal highlight however was ending up in a small town called Victoria on the coast which had a lighthouse dominating the view. Roddy knew the owner of the lighthouse, a guy who made candles for a living who shipped these fantastic pieces of art all over the world! He opened the lighthouse up for me and gave me a tour. What an experience! You just simply would not get this kind of experience anywhere else! I really enjoyed my time on this tour and of the Island. Not one place was not beautiful, not one place you would not wish you had more time to explore in.

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Private Lighthouse

This didn’t feel like Canada at all, it was very unique and a place I highly recommend you come visit. I can honestly see why this is seen as one of Canada’s jewels in the crown and why so many people sing its praises. It’s a mystical magical island of red sands, dripping in history and surrounded by friendship and warmth from the locals. It was unlike anywhere I have ever visited and I wish I could go back. It was a real highlight of the trip!

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Real treat to be invited into his home workshop

I was sad to leave this warm beautiful Island as I took one last stroll as the sun began to set on my time here and it gave me one last unbelievably stunning sunset. I sat on the rocks and watched the birds roost as the moon rose and the waves lapped on the shore. I had found paradise and I long to return.

Tomorrow I start my final leg of this epic journey as I head to Toronto, one of my favourite cities and I finally get to meet up again with my beloved Canadian Cousins for my first Canadian Thanksgiving. The thought of that softened the sadness of leaving this place.

Flight Videos for you avgeeks

St. John’s Departure: 

Halifax Arrival: 

Halifax Departure: 

Charlottetown Arrival: 

 

 

North Atlantic Adventure: Halifax, Canada

I Travel from Iceland to the Maritime city of Halifax, Nova Scotia to explore this rich  historic naval city and the wonders of the Nova Scotia coast to Peggy’s Cove.

The peace and quiet of the Icelandic countryside felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Keflavik airport, in fact I’d go as far as saying organised chaos. Keflavik was never designed for this many passengers, as far as major international airports go…this is very much on the smaller size. Tourism has boomed in Iceland in recent years (it’s hard to see why it took so long!) and due to the connecting flights with Icelandair, Keflavik has swollen with passenger numbers. Throughout the day there is a constant pulse of passengers. From about 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. all of Icelandair and WoWair flights arrive across the Atlantic from North America flooding the terminal with thousands of passengers in those short hours. Those planes then carry on to Europe and then return before 3pm swelling the terminal again before leaving back across the Atlantic to North America between 4 and 6pm. It’s almost like a lung expanding and contracting as the day goes on. The issue is plain to see, while security was quick to go through well relatively. Travelling with all your camera equipment is a bloody hassle having to unpack it and then repack it after the x-ray machines, it never goes back in the way you packed it beforehand. What the issue is, is a distinct lack of seats. My flight was one of the very last to leave Iceland that day to head across the Atlantic to Halifax, Canada. That meant that by time I got to the departure lounge everyone else was waiting for their flights to North America which were about to board. Despite the cacophony of sound it was still exciting. Even if I did have to walk around for ages to find a seat.

Funky Icelandic Departure Lounge

Funky Icelandic Departure Lounge

You can’t go to your gate in Keflavik until it is called and if your flight is to the UK or North America which are both outside the Schengen free movement agreement you have to go through to the D-Gates. To get there you have to leave the Schengen area and go through passport control. I found myself a seat in what is a pretty nice terminal building despite how busy it is. I bought two sandwiches, some water and some Haribo gummy bears remember you get no food on this flight and its 4 and a bit hours long. After a wait my gate appeared and I headed quickly through passport control and I’m grateful to still be a part of the EU which allows me to use my chipped passport to go through the self-service control points. The queue for the non EU passport control was so big that I’m thankful that I’m getting my Irish Passport to travel on as to keep that privilege of quick access to EU countries. I watched a flight board from my gate and before long it was my turn, a quick bus ride to the plane, one last look at Iceland before I boarded my 757 to Halifax.

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Next stop Canada!

I couldn’t wait to arrive in Canada again. The Cliffe family have a lot of history with Canada and my bike is adorned with the Canadian flag next to my name. I fell in love with this country a long time ago and I’ve visited many places in Canada, all except the Maritimes which I was to tick off on this trip. Last year’s trip to Toronto and then Edmonton was such a great trip to go back to Canada after far too many years away. Canada and the family ties are really what my love for Canada is all about. Halifax, my first stop was fitting as during WW2 as Great Uncle Wal an engineer in the Merchant Navy would crisscross the Atlantic and in Montreal is where he met his wife. It’s really down to them two that the Cliffe family have both a UK and a Canadian split. Barb and Betsy, their daughters always kept in contact with my Dad and kept that bond across the pond close. As Barb has had kids and obviously my mum and dad had me and my sister I feel it’s great that the new generation keep as close a bond as possible. It felt like meeting them all again for the first time and in some cases it really was the first time I’d met Becky and Sarah and Bob and Robin when I went to Toronto last year. They could not have made their English cousin feel any more welcome! I was super excited to see them all at the end of the trip in Toronto again! They’re all awesome! I also love Canada, I love the way of life, the people and the scenery. It’s no secret. Part of this trip was to really look at could I move here and live here once the PhD is done. Halifax is a city that has a close tie to Liverpool and the UK and it seemed like a great first port of call for my adventure of the Maritimes!

My take-off from Iceland to Halifax

On long haul you never quite know who you’re going to be sat next to, of course I always book the window seat! It always pays to talk to your fellow neighbours on flights, last time flying back from Canada doing just that got me an upgrade to first class! I was fortunate enough to have two older ladies sitting next to me who I had a nice chat with across the Atlantic about their home city of Halifax which broke up the journey for a bit.

Taking off and waving goodbye to Iceland I headed out across the Atlantic, next stop Canada! I watched Death at a Funeral (the British original not the awful American remake) that brought back some memories of when I first watched that film! That life as a 17 year old seemed so long ago! I glanced away from the movie to see that we were flying over Greenland. Simply stunning place and I’m jealous my supervisor does research on the glaciers there, I keep dropping hints for me to take my UAV on research with him there but he’s yet to take my hints! Using the Wi-fi I live streamed our crossing over Greenland where icepacks gave way to Glaciers that fed into the sea. I thought it was pretty neat that I could live stream such an epic view! Again hurray for inflight Wi-Fi.

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Greenland from 38,000 feet

Before long the sun had caught up to us and after filling in the Customs Declaration landing card for Canada I took photographs of yet another truly stunning sunset that I would take on this trip. Everyone knows Sunrise and particularly Sunset are my favourite times of day. Specifically the civil twilight phase when it’s not quite dark but not quite light and the colours are so intense. Being so high up that moment lasts far longer than down on Earth and I savoured the view as my sleeping playlist played on my headphones. Perfect.

Evolution of a sunset from FL380

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After an hour in darkness I had arrived in Halifax, it felt so good to be back in Canada again! Icelandair were flawless yet again. The dreaded Jetlag did start to kick in but that was more about tiredness. After only a few hours’ sleep the night before chasing the Northern Lights and now being awake for 19 hours with still 2 hours to go before I would get to my hotel, I was starting to feel pretty tired. Going through boarder control was easy. The guy asked a few questions, saw that I was in Canada last year visiting family, he welcomed me back and with that stamp I was officially back in Canada again! Wahoo! I waited 45 minutes for my bag which was annoying as it meant I missed my pre-booked bus to the hotel. Halifax airport is a 45 minute drive away from the city itself so with this being 10pm at night in Canada the only way is via a taxi or a cheaper pre-booked bus. As I always plan for delays I had booked the last bus out at 11pm just in case there was a delay.

While waiting for said bus along with a few passengers the man at the ticket office comes out and asks “Does anybody speak French?” Odd question and I didn’t raise my hand. Whatever his issue was I doubt my C in GCSE French was going to be much good. I can count to 10, order a Cheese and Ham baguette and tell them about my weekends going to the bibliothèque but I don’t think that would help much. A woman however bravely said “I do…a little but I mean a little”. The guy produces an old French woman almost out of nowhere, not sure if he could summon her from thin air but she appeared and starts rattling off French and this poor Canadian good Samaritan was trying her best to understand. The older woman was getting irate with this poor girl only understanding parts of it “I think her flight is tomorrow and…something about her daughter…I think!”

That’s it. I couldn’t sit by and let three people struggle nor could my tired brain bare the sound of constant French. This old woman obviously had an issue and not a word of English in her understanding so I thought I would help out, although I kept my poor French to myself. “Sorry to interrupt, I couldn’t help but overhear…I have a translation app, it’s not word for word but it’ll help” I offer to the three of them. They agree and with Google Translation app working pretty well…well the odd word threw me “My daughter is with a chicken”. Maybe she was with a chicken I don’t know but google translated it as such. The bottom of the story was her flight was delayed so she missed her connection to the French Island of Saint-Pierre to visit her daughter and the next flight was tomorrow morning so she needed a hotel to stay in but all the airport hotels were full. The Canadian lady and myself searched online to find suitable and relatively cheap hotels. We left some numbers with the ticket guy as before long we had to board the bus. The Canadian lady stayed behind a little longer to use her broken French to make sure she knew what she had to do. While driving through the dead of night the Canadian lady phones her partner about the events “You’ll never believe what’s just happened. I haven’t used French for ages and I had to use it to help some old woman. Me and some nice British guy helped her”. I’m not sure if she knew I was on the bus or not but being described as a nice British guy is a nice way to start your trip in Canada. The bus dropped her off at the main train station after a 45 minute motorway trip, she catches my eye and thanks me again for helping out. “Not a problem my dear” I reply. “Thanks again, I love your accent”. I wouldn’t get tired of women saying that to me over here on this trip!

I was the last one on the minibus and I finally arrived at my hotel at 12 a.m. and I had been awake for 23 hours. I was shattered. The check-in was quick, the hotel and room was huge, I got a shower and then it was straight to bed. What a way to start a new location. The hotel in question was the 4 star Hampton Inn by Hilton in Halifax Downtown and cost me £232 for two nights.

By time morning came I was already up at 6.30 a.m. with my body still 4 hours ahead on Icelandic time. After a shower I went down for breakfast, packed my gear and off I went to explore the city of Halifax on foot. I only had a day here so I had planned to walk around the city in the morning and then I had booked to go on a tour to Peggy’s cove, the most photographed lighthouse in the world in the afternoon. The air was cool and crisp but at least it was sunny. I took a walk down to the waterfront which fun fact for you is the second largest ice-free harbour in the world, only Sydney is larger.

I was tired and needed coffee so headed to Tim Hortons Canada’s favourite coffee house. In my last blog I wrote about the whole drip/filter vs Espresso. Don’t get me wrong it’s nice but it’s not a patch on European coffee. I bought myself a cup of Dark roast which is a new blend by Tim Hortons which is their strongest blend and tries to somewhat emulate an espresso. Nowhere near but it was good enough and I loved the cups!

Tim Hortons 150th Cup

Good old Tims with some cute 150th birthday cups!

I walked along the waterfront where it was peaceful and quiet, I watched a warship head out, a cruise ship arrive, I sat on a hammock and finished my coffee while the hum of traffic and the city skyscrapers loomed behind me. Again and not for the first time on this trip the city had a lovely vibe about it. Even walking through the concrete canyon of downtown Halifax felt laid back and chilled, despite its very steep hills at times. As usual I found myself walking up the highest point of the city Citadel hill to which Fort George stood. With this being Canada’s 150th birthday pretty much all of these attractions were free. I walked inside and wow what a place for free! From old guards, to one of the best military museums I have ever had the pleasure to walk through including a live cannon salute. One thing I had noticed is British Union flags all over the place along with the Scottish flag and a lot of people walking around in kilts. Halifax has such a close tie to Scotland (it sits within the province of Nova Scotia which translates to New Scotland) and the UK and actually a very strong link to Liverpool. This part of the world was the first for UK and Irish settlers to colonise and that history it seems lives strong in this part of the world. It didn’t feel like Canada at all, it felt like an extended part of the UK. It was lovely!

After walking around there and enjoying the views, I headed back into the city for my tour to Peggy’s cove. It was a five hour tour for what worked out as about £25. Bargain. I got on a giant Greyhound style bus and our tour guide was a very funny and full of puns old guy who loved his job. While boarding the bus he asked everyone’s name and where they came from. “Hi, Tony and Liverpool, England”….”Ah you know John then?” … “As in the Beatle who’s been dead for years? Yeah really well…good mates”. He laughed and so did the others behind me “Oh you Brits and your wit” he remarks with a laugh. I wasn’t trying to be witty I was being sarcastic as I was fed up of people asking if I knew the Beatles personally or the Queen! The drive out of the city for 50 minutes to Peggy’s cove was truly stunning and it did make me wish I could hire a car to explore more of it. There are so many lakes and rivers and forests in this part of the world, I’m sure he said there are 2000 fresh water lakes here alone! Cities are great but to me it’s always about the countryside and the wilderness. I passed so many lakes and tiny fishing ports that would have been so good to explore.

We arrived at Peggy’s cove. Just stunning. A typical Nova Scotia village. I was in love. I walked along the sea rocks, snapped away at the Lighthouse (I think going early morning would be best if you want to visit it without the hordes of tourists though) and I just sat, listening to the waves crash on the rocks by my feet, the blue waters meeting the blue sky. Amazing place to visit and I can see why this location is so highly photographed. You really should go!

Peggy's Cove Nova Scotia

Peggy’s Cove

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Peggy's Cove Lighthouse

Most photographed lighthouse in the world! My one to add to the collection of images!

The 50 minute drive back went a different way and was full of again, jaw-dropping scenery and full of funny stories and information from our tour guide. By time I got back to Halifax it was close to 4 p.m. There are a lot of Irish bars and pubs and on TripAdvisor this was the best in town so I popped in for a Bushmills Whiskey (my second favourite Irish dram after Tulamore) and tried their Fish and Chips. Seafood is huge on this coast and I thought I’d try Fish and Chips in every location to see who wins the battle of the best one. Even their best was not a patch on good old British chip shop Fish and Chips but this one wasn’t bad. It came second on my top 3 list this trip!

I walked back up the hill to watch the sunset, walked another 4 miles around the city at night before calling it quits to come back to my hotel just before 8pm. I was short on sleep, I had walked 13 miles around the city and the delights of Peggy’s cove so before I knew it I was out like a light. Tomorrow I would catch a 2hr 30 minute flight up to the frozen north of St. John’s for three nights.

End Notes:

I would have liked in hindsight to stay an extra day in Halifax. Halifax is a wonderful city and while it’s small it has a rich history, especially a maritime one. There were so many museums I would have loved to have visited, especially the Pier 11 immigration one and the transport musuem but just didn’t have the time. Halifax waterfront is one of the best waterfronts I have ever seen in a city and that’s coming from someone who lives in Liverpool! They have really developed this amazing board walk around the waterfront and the trail is superb. I think Liverpool could certainly take a leaf out of their books! The city itself however is pretty generic high rise concrete canyon North American city. The city itself certainly lacked the quirky charms of my next two locations St. John’s and Charlottetown but it was nice to see a lot of brickwork highrise rather than the steal ones. What it lacked in character certainly made up for in its surroundings. A drive in this place outside of the city is breath taking and that drive and walk around Peggy’s cove is an absolute bucket list must! Stunning scenery and every picture is postcard or magazine worthy. I would definitely hire a car and explore around this place for an extra day or two if I had the time, however the tour for £25 was very good value for money! Peggy’s Cove is as beautiful in real life as it looks in pictures and I would love to get a sunset or a sunrise picture there.

I was glad I decided to make this my first stop back in Canada and my tour of the Atlantic coast. I had fully enjoyed my day in this city and I was super excited to head north to St. John’s, a place I’d wanted to visit for ages!

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North Atlantic Adventure: Iceland – Part One

Foreword

Welcome to a series of travel blogs from what was truly an epic two week solo adventure that took me to Iceland where I walked under waterfalls and the Northern Lights, Halifax to scramble over sea rocks on the Atlantic coast, walk up mountains in -5 in St. Johns, fall in love in Prince Edward Island and my first Canadian thanksgiving with family in Toronto. This trip was the final trip on my 2017 travels and it surpassed my expectations in every single way. I came back from this trip so tired but so full of life and energy and memories that will stay with me for a life time. I took over 3000 pictures on this trip and that was from my main camera alone, there were another 1000 on my phone along with plenty of videos. In no way can I truly capture the essence of the trip and the pictures will never do the experience justice but I will try my best to convey it as best as I can in these blogs. Along the way I’ll tell you where I stayed, the cost of the hotels and tours and my recommendations just in case you end up over that side of the world one day. So sit back and relax and I hope you enjoy my indulgence in nostalgic memories and photographs from my trip. This blog starts with Day one…off to Iceland, the land of fire and ice

The land of fire and ice

Iceland to me has always been this mystical Island way out in the heart of the rugged North Atlantic, nestled just below the Arctic Circle. Built on thousands of years of volcanic activity and at the heart of the meeting place of the North American and European plates, as a geographer, there is no more a special place to visit. You see it in text books and you see it in videos and it’s always been on my list to visit. As a geographer, it’s one of those must see countries. It has it all from active volcanoes, to glaciers, to human impacts, it’s as if Mother Nature herself wanted a perfect case study of how our earth works. Of course however Iceland is expensive! Such beauty comes at a cost. As 2017 was my year of travel I had toyed and even priced up a solo trip to Iceland but decided it was just too expensive when I looked way back in January of this year. As much as I wanted to go, the price that it was I could have done a few mini city breaks instead. That frustrated me but I reasoned that I will get there one day. One of my best friends Han from my undergrad days has been a few times and sang its praises constantly, something my family have also done when they went last March to visit. Instead I went ahead and booked those other European breaks for this year and that was that…until.

Luckily when booking this epic solo North Atlantic adventure the option to fly via Iceland to Canada with Icelandair came up while organising this trip. What a perfect excuse to visit! Icelandair offer a new stop over ticket which is both a convenient and excellent idea for visiting Iceland. As Iceland is situated pretty much half way between mainland Europe and North America, Icelandair has built their business around transfer passengers using their base in Keflavik as a perfect and smooth system (which it really is! It was a breeze changing planes here on my way back from Canada). Of course it’s all well and good having passengers connect through to further destinations for cheaper prices but Iceland loses out on that tourism. So a shrewd move by Icelandair and their government introduced the stop-over ticket. One plane ticket from the UK to Canada with up to 7 days stop-over in Iceland to enjoy the delights of this wonderful country at no extra charge. As I was going to spend most of my time in Canada and to save money I elected to have a 2 day stop over, giving me an afternoon, a full day and a morning in Iceland. Sufficient for a taster and a hopefully great start to my holiday.

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Standard worn passport pre-travel picture

I was looking forward to my two week adventure and I knew this was going to be the last trip in what was already a fantastic year of travel thus far and even the £8 water and barely edible wrap from Manchester airport wasn’t going to dampen that spirit. As a seasoned traveller it still amazes me how stressed people get in airports and their ultimate fight to find a seat in the departure lounge. Granted I get stressed going through security, always do and always will but once I’m through I can relax. The clever traveller goes to find a gate to sit at rather than the departure lounge which always lack enough seats because it forces you to walk around and look in the shops. I looked out of the window and saw the tail of my aircraft and headed down to the gate, trusting my knowledge that this would be the gate even before it appeared on the board.

It was completely quiet and peaceful until the gate appeared on the monitors and the hordes of travellers filled up the seats. Icelandair use Boeing 757’s. The last time I was on 757 was the very first time I ever went to Canada when I was like 4/5 years old on Canada 3000. For an Avgeek the 757 is a classic aircraft affectionately known as the ‘Pencil plane’. It’s old and out of production but still a work horse of the skies, plus without the risk of sounding too nerdy I still don’t think the aviation industry has yet produced a jet engine that sounds as good as the 757 Rolls Royce RB211’s. Anyway…

The flight was full and we took off and headed north, up out over Scotland, not that I saw anything mind you, nothing but solid cloud below but it felt really good to finally be on my way for this two week adventure. I’d waited a long time for it! Icelandair were very good, excellent leg room and seat width and pitch in economy (I’d be super lucky on my flight back to try out their business class seats!). You don’t get any food on-board in economy (unless you pay beforehand) but for a 2hr 30min flight I survived just fine. You do get free drinks however from the very pretty stewardesses. I must say I used to think Aer Lingus had the hottest flight attendants but out of the four Icelandair flights I took on this trip, every flight was manned by absolute 10’s and worldies. So many blondes! Not to objectify women but they were so fit that it would be unfair not to comment on it. Of course they were exceptionally professional and great at their job, super friendly and efficient. Good job guys! After chatting to some people and tracking my own flight on flightradar on my phone (thank you onboard wifi! That costs around £4 and was pretty quick, quick enough to live stream leaving UK airspace and for WhatsApp and FlightRadar) after 2 hours we started our descent into the land of fire and ice.

The clouds broke up long enough for me to get a glimpse of the coastline and Reykjavik in the distance for a whole minute before we descended into thick cloud and rain. Typical Icelandic weather greeting. The approach into Keflavik airport and looking out of the window I knew how sparse and other world like this place was but it’s not until you fly over it does it all really sink in.

By touchdown I was itching to get out of the plane and explore and I was super excited! I was finally here! Leaving the plane however to get the bus to the terminal was a bit of shock to the system. Leaving the UK it was relatively warm at around 14 degrees. There is nothing like a blast of 4 degrees of a strong Atlantic wind and rain to wake you up and make you feel refreshed from the flight! From landing, to passport control, to collecting my bag and being on the Flybus to my hotel took a grand total of 15 minutes! If that’s not efficiency then I don’t know what is! Something I wish other airports *cough cough* Manchester was like. I was liking this experience already. The Flybus is a great system too and I recommend you use it if you do come to Iceland. It costs about £40 return but it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get to Reykjavik. The airport is a good 45 minute drive away and I don’t know how much a taxi costs but I guarantee it’s a lot more than that! You pre-book your ticket, get on the bus, the driver asks which hotel you’re going to and gives you a coloured card. The bus takes you all the way into the city centre bus depot where different smaller buses with your coloured card in the window wait to take you to the hotel. Again, super-efficient. The drive from the airport to the city was stunning and I was actually speechless at the views as we drove along the rugged black sand coast with volcanoes at the side of the road to the depot. Free wi-fi onboard was useful and despite the annoying loud American woman who was sitting behind me on facetime to her friend, “Oh my gaaaawd LISA! IT’S SO FREAKIN’ COLD” (the country had Ice in its name lady for Christ sake) the 45 minute ride to the city was a great introduction to the country. Luckily my red ticket meant I had to stay on this bus through to the hotel. By this time the rain had stopped and small patches of blue sky had started to form but I was glad to stay inside the heated bus for a little longer. My hat and gloves were still nestled in my suitcase! Doh!

Not long after we left the depot I arrived at my hotel the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g189970-d10046045-Reviews-Eyja_Guldsmeden_Hotel-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html

Now I could have stayed in the city for cheaper but fellow travel companions will know that I really value my comfort from hotels. I much prefer 4 and 5 star hotels! So much so that I am a Genius member on Booking.com which gives me access to such hotels for a price of a 3 star because I’ve booked so many hotels with them this year! The hotel for two nights costs me around £320 but it is Iceland prices and I couldn’t fault this hotel. Very Icelandic, very eco-friendly and very snazzy! I even got a free upgrade! My luck with upgrades continues in life it seems. I had booked the cheaper single room but they upgraded me to the top floor double which was far bigger (Iceland hotels are notoriously compact but this was a good sized Icelandic room!), massive TV, awesome shower and one of the most comfiest four poster beds I have ever slept in.

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After a quick freshen up and charge of my phone I headed out to explore the city. Even leaving the doors of the hotel was a treat. The doors sliding away to reveal the sea and the looming fjord, what a sight! I got an instant good vibe about the city as I walked through it, I love the different colours of the buildings, there is hardly any high rise which adds to its appeal, artistic graffiti gave different buildings different character and ah yeah, just what a lovely city!

For tea I headed to the Hard Rock Café. As you know that’s a travel tradition of mine and after buying my t-shirt I headed up to the restaurant. You can never go wrong with a Hard Rock Café and this one didn’t disappoint either, although this was the first time I’ve had had a waitress come and sit down opposite me and chat while taking my order and eating! Maybe she felt sorry for the solo traveller? Who knows! Lovely young girl, she’s moving to the Manchester Hard Rock café and should actually be there and settled in by now! When I asked her why she would go there rather than stay she mentioned about how there’s nothing to do here for young people and wanted to work in the UK before…yep that dreaded word Brexit stops her. I begged to differ and even if that were true if I had a choice to live in Iceland or Manchester, it certainly wouldn’t be the shithole that is the latter I can assure you of that!

By time I left the Hard Rock the sun was beginning to set as I walked around the harbour. It was very quiet, most of the work traffic had gone home and only the odd tourist could be seen. North Atlantic seabirds squawked as they headed to their nests as the small aircraft came in waves into the city’s small airport. I was jealous, what an approach over the bay into that airport, I hope to experience that one day.

I watched the sun turn the sky into a purple hue as I strolled around the harbour, the looming mountain and fjord across the water fading slowly into the darkness. I just sat on a stone wall and watched the sunset with nobody around me, breathing in that crisp clear air. As night time fell the city grew quieter, the lights of the Harper building (their opera house) shone on the still water. There was not much point hanging around to try and catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights as my tour that evening had been cancelled due to cloud and low solar activity which was a miniscule 2 on the KP index. They had rearranged for tomorrow so knowing I had a full 9 hour tour ahead tomorrow I walked back to the hotel, stopping off in a shop to pick up some snacks and water for tomorrow’s adventure. After a long hot geothermal shower I snuggled up inside this huge bed and before I knew it day one was done! Tomorrow the adventure really began!

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An Icelandic Purple sunset

Prague Trip Report: Day 3 – Bye bye money, a sausage and a castle.

I slept right through tonight, a combination of exhaustion and my brain realising that no real threats existed in the apartment. I guess they could kill me at any time but I was hedging my bets that they wouldn’t do that…at least not tonight anyway! I did have a weird dream about being stranded by the both of them on this giant escalator however. Their dream selves were not very kind! At some point in that dream Laura was speaking Chinese. I was confused as to if I was dreaming or I was awake. She was incredibly loud and why she was speaking Chinese I have no idea, so I assumed I was still dreaming. I have a little chuckle to myself about the dream and the appearance of the Chinese speaking Laura while I was in the shower. While getting changed I could hear the both of them talking and Laura laughing. After I exit the bathroom I tell them both about my dream and how they left me on a huge escalator (to which they both agreed they’d totally do that in real life too. MEAN!) And then I explain how Laura appeared to be speaking Chinese really loudly in what I thought was a dream. Turns out Laura was actually sleep talking but in English much to Katie’s amusement after being terrified anyway. Why my brain translated it to Chinese I’ll never know!

Today we planned on going to the castle and then going for a walking tour. On our way to the castle we crossed over another fancy bridge (Yey! Bridges!) And had our obligatory morning selfie. One thing we learnt is that Czech drivers love to speed over bridges!

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Got to love a bridge selfie!

Looming up after the bridge was a ton of steps that snaked up a hill to a weird pendulum thing but offered just the best view of the city. It was amazing! The view of the city and the bridges was stunning, all surrounded by a stunning park and gardens. What a hidden gem! To top it off a Czech Military Hind helicopter (very rare to see so happy Avgeek) graced the city with its presence! You couldn’t ask for anything more.

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Such a beautiful view!

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Good to look at and i guess the view isn’t bad either.

We spent ages trying to find the entrance to the castle which is far harder than you actually would expect! The streets around there were so beautiful though that it almost felt like I was walking in some sort of Alex Rider novel! Especially as these amazing old houses had some armed guards outside. This certainly was the rich area of Prague! Eventually we found our way to the castle and made our way inside.

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The Castle!

After finally going through security which was more of a brief half arsed look through the bag and the guard asking me if I was carrying any knives in there, to which I replied no. This was sufficient enough for him to stop the search and wave us through. Thank god all terrorists are truthful people hey!

We were greeted by a large impressive court yard with these fancy buildings all towering around us. To the left was a long snaking queue towards the information office which had tickets underneath the sign. We had no other choice but to join the back of the queue and wait. We were in the queue for no longer than two minutes until to the right of us was a smaller building with a door that also said information and tickets. Me and Katie kept our place in the queue while Laura went into the building to scope it out to see if we could buy tickets from there. After some trouble with opening a push door by pulling it, she disappeared inside. She was gone for five minutes with no word from her and by this point we were pretty close to the entrance to the original building. I tried to phone her and Whatsapp her but I got no response. We decided that Katie would now hold our place in this line while I went on a rescue mission. After entering the building there she was just about to pay for her ticket. “I tried whatsapping you!” she shouts. Fair enough I notice my data hadn’t even connected. Doh! I wave Katie over and we join a very short queue. Why every other moron was standing in a big ass snaking line in the sun is beyond me! There were many different ticket options, you could walk around the palace and the cathedral for free but you couldn’t go in anything unless you paid. Ticket prices for admission were very reasonable and with an International Student card you could get almost half price tickets! Well, that’s if you were a student aged 18-26. I used my card and got my discount. Katie however despite being a full time student and having an international student card, just misses out on the 26 upper limit. The woman on the counter was very cold in pointing out that she was not 26 and would have to pay the full amount. Proper ageist!!

Me and Laura both felt guilty that we had got discounted prices but Katie had not. She may take the piss out of us “young ones” not being able to go a day without a nap but at least we got in for cheap ;)! In all seriousness though we did feel guilty and we both offered to pay the difference to her ticket. She politely declined the offer as we walked back out into the blazing sun of the courtyard. If it’s one thing I hate and that’s injustice and something being unfair, so I offered again. My offer was to hand her 50 Koruna which works out at around £1.50. She refused again to which I state “Well, you either take it or throw it away I don’t care. I’m offering, stop being stubborn, take it!”

“I will throw it away if you give it to me Tony!” she exclaims.

Meh. I slipped the 50 coin into her pocket. I thought I was doing a nice thing and she’d just accept the offer. Big mistake! I learnt very quickly that Katie is not the type of person to make idle threats! I watch, mouth half open as she places her hand into her pocket, and weighs the weight of the coin in her hand before with a smile, launching it across the court yard. I watch as my coin skims off the cobbles and through some tourist’s legs! I was too in shock to say anything. By this point Laura was laughing and in just as much shock that she actually threw it. Both of them however burst into a massive fit of laughter when a European gentlemen in broken English taps me on my shoulder and says “You’ve just dropped 50 Koruna there”. That was the icing on the cake for them two as they had tears coming down their face from laughter. Now I’m not sure how Europeans drop money but I doubt its launching them across a fucking courtyard! Now I had no choice but to trundle through the courtyard, pick up my coin and reluctantly put it back in my pocket.

“I cannot believe you actually just did that!” I say with a laugh as I walk back to them both, I did find it very funny! I’ve known plenty of independent women before but Jesus ha-ha “Fuck me Katie you mad woman!”

“I did warn you Tony! I told you I would, bitch!”

More laughter ensued.

Katie 1 – Tony 0

I guess while I’m here I should fast forward you to another story on the last morning of the holiday. Katie was getting far too much enjoyment out of empting the water bottles and standing on them to crush them before putting them into our little bin. I was watching on in amusement from my sprawled out position on the bed. I had bought a big 7Up bottle on the second day of the trip and had barely touched it. It sat there waiting nervously at the sink as it watched its fellow bottles be crushed. “Tony, are you going to drink this or are you going to empty it and bin it?” she enquires. After a short contemplation “Meh, probably not! You can go ahead and empty it and bin it if you’d like?” I reply with a smile and wink for good measure. Katie folds her arms with a smile on her face “Tony…It’s yours, you can do it yourself!” (Edit I’m 100% sure Katie swore at me here but she recalls differently haha)

Like a scolded child I get up off my bed, empty the bottle, crush it and then place it in the bin. Doing what I was told. “See! Wasn’t so hard was it!” she quipped, her words dripping in sarcasm and laughter. “I hate you” I countered with a laugh back. For a strong independent man, I’m seriously whipped by that woman that I fear my chauvinistic ways are officially dead hahaha! I would later go on to recite that story to my parents once I got back to the UK to which both of them clapped and exclaimed “Well done Katie!” So that’s now Katie 2 Tony 0. Sigh. A worthy adversary! I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll hear of it ha-ha.

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When she’s not throwing away my money she can be nice!

Back to day three and we follow the path my poor coin had taken only moments before. After walking through an archway we were greeted by the giant Cathedral that dwarfed everything. One of my other travel quirks besides the Hard Rock Café T-Shirts is I often try to climb the highest thing in the city to get a good view and I’ll visit their Cathedral. Often those two things go hand in hand. Usually for a small price you can walk up many Cathedrals and they offer excellent views of the city. As a photographer, I love the light in Cathedrals and the Architecture and grandeur of it all. Despite being raised Catholic and spending my High School years in a school run by Nuns, I’m very much not religious in that sense at least. So visiting Cathedrals has no draw to me other than their stunning architecture and design. There is a weird feeling about Cathedrals though. They all feel the same and it’s a hard one to describe. I guess they’re designed to make you feel like there is a presence there or a higher being watching. I do get that feeling every time I go in one. Kinda’ creeps me out! The Cathedral was stunning if not a little busy! We did try out the whispering arch ways but that didn’t work. We must have looked like right weirdos (which we are anyway I guess!) talking into archways!

After the Cathedral we were quite peckish and in a smaller courtyard with a fountain there was a Czech food vendor. I am quite partial to a bit of sausage…oh wait no. That didn’t come out right. I guess I always try to eat different sausa…actually no way can I write this without immature people (myself included) laughing or thinking of anything other than the innocence of eating a food product. What I’m trying to say is I love trying different types of sausages (stop it! You’re old enough!) and I was glad to try some proper German Bratwurst when I was in Berlin. Here, they were selling some Czech Paprika sausage, which I had to try. Especially for what was only around £3. Oh wow. It was so so good! My fellow sausage connoisseur Katie 😉 agreed that it was a far nicer, milder and sweeter Chorizo. Well done Czech people. You know how to make a sausage!

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Nice Sausage

Now suitably stuffed we went to the Basilica, the golden lane which was a y’olde type street. That was pretty cool especially the row of Knights armour throughout the years and the torture chamber was pretty grim! Katie made a valid point that we’re the only species who takes pleasure in creating different types of ways to kill each other. Other animals just club each other to death whereas we like to put spikes in chairs for fun.  Grim.

After that we plonked ourselves down on the floor in the courtyard with our backs against the fountain. It was so lovely to have the sun and blue skies feeling on your skin. It was lovely to just sit there and watch the milling about of fellow tourists. Now I don’t mind the sun or the heat. I’ve been in 45 degree heat before and numerous days in the desert at 38c. Summer is my favourite season…as long as I’m doing something in the sun. I can cope. If I’m just sitting there baking then after 20 minutes I can begin to hear my skin sizzle as I start to bake in my own body. For them two, they only have to look at the sun and turn brown. So. Jealous! Any burns for them in the day by time we were getting ready for bed they had already turned brown. *Sobs*.  For me I have plenty of Irish blood and therefore I only have to look at the sun and burn to a crisp. Something they both found hilarious at my expense. While not once did they apply any sun cream throughout the entire holiday, I lathered myself in factor 30 constantly and still burnt! You’d think Irish heritage working on farms all day that we’d have better skin but then I remembered Ireland never gets any sun, so that makes sense! However by day 5 I did go from a brilliant white to an off white so hey, that’s a tan for me!

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After 30 minutes and drinking that horrific water which now was as hot as a cup of tea, I asked politely if we could move before the very real possibility of me spontaneously combusting occurred! So on that water. While I love all types of water, I do have a tendency to drink fizzy water. I honestly don’t mind still or sparkling but for them two, sparkling water is probably on par with drinking death. They both despised it! So yesterday I mention about the whole water system in Europe. Blue Top should be still. Blue was not still to their horror. I still think it was still water but there were a few different bubbles in there. It had a horrific metallic weird taste to it. The name on the bottle was Magnesia and with a water drop logo had Mg on it. Now, they’re adamant that Magnesia was the name of the brand and that it tasted weird because it was fizzy. I drink fizzy and still all the time and fizzy water does not taste like that! I personally think for some odd reason the water had extra magnesium in it. Giving it that fizz feel but horrific metallic taste. We may never know. All you need to know was it was fucking disgusting and we only drank it because that’s all we had until we could restock later that day!

We decided that we should cancel our walking tour and to reschedule that for tomorrow. Good call guys! That gave us extra time to have a look around the place and visit the Castle. Castles in Prague are not like the Castles we’re used to but damn it was fancy! The architecture here is just stunning. It was starting to get to late afternoon by time we left the grounds of the Castle to be greeted by stunning views of the city. Which means more selfies…obviously!

Walking down the Castle steps is one of the must do things in Prague and we duly obliged as we went about our way to find the world’s narrowest street. We made a pit stop to an Italian Gelato café and once again, excellent call by the ladies! I had a mango sorbet and the girls had these really cute different flavours that were made into a little flower cones. So many flavours! Once again, curse you lactose intolerance! Grrrrr.

We found the world’s narrowest street, now I’m not sure what constitutes an alley way to a street but I guess as this narrow street down steps and between buildings led to a restaurant that counts. It’s so narrow that it has a traffic light system! That was really cool to go see and walk down.

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The worlds narrowest street!

After squeezing through the narrowest street in the world we headed back over Charles Bridge and back to the apartment. After a refresh it was back out for tea. This time, inspired by our Czech lunch we wanted to have some traditional Czech food for tea. We found a decent enough place that was underground. It gave me the feel of some Soviet Union bar/nightclub vibe. Very cool! Czech food isn’t particularly refined or looks very good! It’s Eastern European hearty food, good for those cold winter months. The number one Czech dish is Beef Goulash over there and since day one I wanted to try it. It may not look great but it tasted really good! Like the insides of a really nice beef and ale pie but instead of pastry you got bread dumplings! Katie had another Czech dish although they’ve clearly taken inspiration from their Austrian neighbours with the Chicken Schnitzel. Whereas Laura had the only real Czech vegetarian dish which is fried cheese! If that was a year ago, I know that’s all I would have eaten here!

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Czech’s number one dish.

After a good meal and an awkward selfie with the woman on the opposite table trying to avoid getting in it! We went out for another night time walk of Prague. It felt so good for everything to still feel so hot even though the sun had long set. The girls had a traditional Czech dessert which is a Trdlo. It’s basically a donut texture in a cone and Katie had hers filled with ice cream, whereas Laura went for Nutella. If I could, I think I’d have joined Laura with the Nutella choice! I did try a bit and none of us could quite place the flavour. It deffo wasn’t donut that’s for sure!

We spent hours getting lost in the city at night, just walking, taking pictures, chatting. Getting lost and just walking with no real destination is such a fun thing to do with people like these two! After a few hours we ended back up at the apartment to conclude another brilliant day in Prague. With only one full day left in Prague it was time for bed. I really don’t want to go home!

Prague Trip Report: Day 2 – Plenty of walking, facing the fear of heights and a portaloo from hell.

By time the alarm went off at 8 a.m. I think I managed between an hour and two hours’ sleep. It’s always the way, the first night in a new bed and location I never sleep well at all. There is probably some psychological reason for that, probably some sort of survival instinct which doesn’t allow you to drift off into a deep sleep in a new environment. I’ve always been like that and that puzzles me. For someone who sleeps through fire alarms and has no problem falling asleep on trains, in office chairs or public places, you would think I’d have no issues in new beds. I just guess that’s one of my many quirks! The bed was comfy enough, although I do prefer a slightly softer mattress to the one I had and I could have done with a second pillow. I sleep with only one at home but it’s so big it’s the size of two regular ones together. That and a combination of sharing a room with two people i wouldn’t usually share with was enough to keep me staring at the ceiling for most of the night. At around 2 in the morning my bladder decided it was time to have a wee. I spent half an hour weighing up if I could hold on until the morning as I didn’t fancy navigating the apartment in pitch black. In the end I gave up and knew I had to go on a night time mission to have the quietest wee in the world as to not wake my fellow bunkers. I faced a dilemma. I have a photographic memory so that means most of the time I can pretty much remember to the inch where obstacles are, however I hadn’t had time before we went to bed to commit the route to memory. The apartment was pitch black with very little ambient light to see. I didn’t want to use the torch on my phone as putting that on it might as well be daylight and I’m sure neither of them wanted to wake up to a midnight sun! In the end I decided the best course of action was to put my phone on the dimmest setting and use the tiny bit of ambient light to walk to the bathroom. The easiest option would have been to walk through the girl’s bedroom as no doors existed in this apartment, except thankfully the bathroom! As I reckoned ten steps from my bed, through their bedroom, a left turn, another four steps and I knew the bathroom would be there. However I thought it would be a bit weird if I did that and if they happened to wake up while I was walking passed their beds in just my boxers the conversation might be a bit weird ha-ha. Instead I decided to walk the long way around the kitchen. I’m blind enough as it is in daylight and at night it’s more of luck to not bump into anything rather than skill. I walked as slow and as carefully as I could as to not disturb them both. Tiny steps and strained eyes got me to the bathroom, for which my bladder was grateful for. Expert precision weeing in the dark was complete and content with myself as not hearing that I had woke anyone up I saunter back towards my bed. BANG! A sharp pain rockets up my toe and was met by a similar pain in my nose as my glasses and face clattered into something solid. “FUCK SAKE!” I mutter far too loudly. One out of pain and two all my hard work of being stealthy to go the loo had been shattered in a moment. Who the fuck puts a fucking cupboard just outside of the bathroom!? I nurse my wounds as I trundle back to my bed. I could hear no snoring and no one laughed so I assumed I may have got away with it. I plugged my phone back in and tried in vain to sleep, but my toe was throbbing!

By time it got to 5 a.m. I could see the deep black of night turn to a purple colour through the skylight above my head, I gave up trying to sleep. My body is pretty used to the whole first night thing so I didn’t actually feel too tired. When the alarm did go off I wasn’t the only one who barely slept that night. I think we may have got about three hours sleep between us all! Turns out both of them were awake and to their amusement watched me face plant into a cupboard at night and both of them very kindly held back their laughter when it did happen. Instead they saved that laughter for the morning for me, making me very red faced indeed! But i’m well used to these two taking the piss out of me anyway!

For the last hour before the alarm I decided to listen to some music. For a few months now I’ve been enjoying the musical delights of my Bose QC35’s. Sadly I had no room for them in my bag so had to make do with the crappy headphones that came with my Samsung phone. I didn’t realise that even on a moderate volume they leak more noise than a boombox. Something neither Katie nor Laura appreciated much, especially when they were trying to at least attempt to sleep! That was noted and I never used them again for the rest of the trip. That was totally okay as that’s what you do when you’re sharing close quarters with people. You’re still getting used to peoples routines and you need to adapt and compromise so that everyone is happy. Despite listening to a lot of music every day it’s certainly not life or death so I was happy to shelve my crap headphones anyway! Besides in Katie’s dream she dreamt that she was shouting at me because an Asian man was behind me in the apartment and apparently I was very blasé about it all. Subconsciously I think she was angry with me haha! She did apologise in the dream and in person so I guess we were even!

Any lingering tiredness I did have was washed away by the shower. I’m not sure who designed the height of the shower but I had to bend my knees so that I could wash my hair which was interesting! Today was always going to be a late start as we had to wait for Aldo the guy who ran the apartments to come between 9 and 10 a.m. to do some registration paperwork and so that I could pay him. After my shower, the girls got ready and we had some burnt but tasty waffles for breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a toaster smoke as much as that one without catching fire! A stubborn bit of food was stuck to the element which made a nice smoke effect in the apartment! It did add a cool dry ice 80’s rock music video vibe. Thankfully we had three big open skylight windows to deal with the smoke.

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Breakfast time!

Sometime after 9 Aldo knocked. Thankfully the smoke had gone and only the slight odour of burnt sweet waffles hung in the air. When I opened the door I was greeted by Cisco Ramone’s doppelganger from the Flash. I mean scarily alike! I guess if Star Labs ever falls through that it’s good to know his dopple is running apartments! Nice enough chap who took the payment and paperwork and explained some places to visit on his map. I committed the map to memory which is just as well because I forgot the map and it stayed on my bedside table for the rest of the trip by accident! There was a safe in the room and whoever used it last didn’t reset it so we couldn’t access it, it needed a key to be reset. It took him five minutes to root through his bag and his millions of keys. In the end, typical, that the only key he didn’t have was the one for the safe. He apologised and said he’d come back later with it. No big deal but it just meant we had to carry all our money and passports with us for the day ahead.

The day ahead we decided would be that we’d just go walking today and have no real plan. I’m glad we settled on that as that’s the first day thing I always do in a new city. Walking in new cities is the only way to see everything, get lost and discover new things. Before that though we needed water and food for the day. Oddly enough in Prague there was a lot of British brand shops. There were a few Costa Coffee’s, an M&S and more Tesco’s than probably in the entirety of Merseyside. They were everywhere! We got plenty of water for the day from this supermarket called BILLA, as I’m glad I’m not the only one who drinks a lot of water! Unlike some weird human Cacti, yes Laura I’m looking at you! Our water consumption habits actually became quite a talking point on this holiday. The things you learn about each other hey! I was still hungry and decided to take a punt on this pretzel type bun which I thought had poppy seeds on it. After our shop and our way back to the apartment to drop the water off did the full realisation of how much we were ripped off last night dawned on us. Water, breakfast and crisps came to about £3 compared to one bottle and crisps at about £8 last night! So top travel tip always shop in proper supermarkets abroad and not rip off merchants aka Twenty4Seven! Bastards!

In Europe a simple task of buying water is a bit of a minefield. Certainly something we would learn to our detriment the next day. I knew that in Europe they have three water systems. Blue bottle tops are still water, Green is a mildly sparkling one and Red is drop a Mentos into a coke bottle kind of fizz. I made that mistake in Amsterdam last summer buying a red top and I nearly died from the explosion of water from opening it!

Back in the apartment we ate our breakfast that we picked up. Sure enough my “it kind of’ looks like a Pretzel” certainly tasted like a pretzel however…they were definitely not poppy seeds. I have no fucking idea what they were or what I ate but they were not poppy seeds! They looked like tiny black croissants and had a weird sweet taste to them. I’m still undecided whether I liked it or not, it had the weird can’t put your finger on it kind of taste which kept making you want to eat more so you could decide! I never did reach a conclusion. One water I did pick up was some mint water. For those who know me, know that I am addicted to anything mint. Yet, this was horrifically bad! Imagine pouring toothpaste into water and then drinking it. To my horror that disgusting water didn’t even top tomorrows one!

Eventually we headed out for our first full day and had our first Selfie of the day. For the first proper time we could get a real feel for the city in daylight. It is such a beautiful city. I always thought Amsterdam was the prettiest city I’d ever visited but Prague makes it look incredibly plain in comparison. The mix of architecture, different vibrant colours and cobbled streets are just stunning! Our first stop was Prague’s most famous landmark, the Astronomical clock. It was a real shame it was shrouded in scaffolding, what a time to do work at the peak of tourist season! At 11 a.m. we all gathered around for the show of the clock. Well wow. Wow as in pretty disappointing. I expected so much more. Turns out it’s voted one of the most disappointing attractions in the world so good to know I wasn’t the only one but I am certainly glad to say I got to see it!

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The Astronomical Clock

We walked for miles and miles in the city, taking pictures, getting lost, chatting and having a laugh. It felt so good to be in a beautiful city, with the sun on your back with two of the best people. It felt so good and that feeling never left me until I said goodbye to them both at Liverpool airport!

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A different selfie this time!

I wanted to see Charles bridge which is one of those bridges that Prague is famous for. I obviously mentioned it a few times as I was accused of being obsessed with bridges. So anytime we spotted a bridge I would make reference to it and take a picture of it. Who doesn’t love a bit of structural engineering and a bit of Bridge Porn? Charles Bridge was massive and busy but had some great views and even better buskers! The bridge spanned over the river into the other part of Prague. We stepped off the bridge and wandered around until we found a nice park and a view to have some of our lunch which consisted of better Paprika crisps and some Bruschetta bites.

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Charles Bridge!

The heat of the day was certainly building by time we finished our lunch and after walking past possibly one of the oddest statues, we stopped to discuss what to do next. I read somewhere about a really good view point towards the castle which was a mile and a bit behind us on this side of the river. We headed that way until the tower of Petrin loomed up in the distance perched high on a mountain. Okay, technically it was a hill…but a really big fuck off steep hill. It’s still a mountain to me! I had seen pictures from the top of the tower and it gave amazing views of the city. We decided to head that way instead of the castle and it was a good decision to do so. There was a long queue for the tram that took people up the 1000 foot climb to the top of the hill. A) No way were we going to pay that and B) We’re all fit and young individuals who are on holiday to walk and explore. So we were all in agreement to walk to the top. We set out with all the bravado and gusto as the pavement turned into dirt tracks and the dirt tracks turned into nothing but dried mud and stupidly steep gradients. The inner geographer was loving the hike through the forest and the views behind of the city as we got higher and higher were amazing but my chest, with a 10kg bag pack full of water and camera gear felt like it was going to implode. Eventually we made it to the top and walked into a spectacular garden and much needed benches for a rest. I knew I’d walk a lot this holiday, I just didn’t expect to climb a mini mount Everest. That garden and bench was so peaceful that I feel we all could have stayed there all day as the sun beat down on us. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sun, the warm wind and the distant chatter of people as they walked through the gardens.

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The gardens of Petrin.

After a while we decided to move on as it really was a possibility that if we didn’t move, we may still be sitting in that spot now! By this point I really needed a wee (drink a lot of water and it’s got to eventually go somewhere!) and by time we got to the tower my bladder was in emergency mode. Like a shining mirage a set of portaloos appeared by a busker who was singing Imagine by John Lennon…very very badly. Sadly I couldn’t imagine the horror I was about to witness. In I went in a rush and then the scene in front of me unfolded. You know in those movies were the character realises something and then the whole background zooms in as the camera shows their face contorts into horror? That’s what happened. I honestly don’t think I have ever been in a toilet as filthy as that. I actually felt like I was contracting a million diseases just standing there. There was shit everywhere. In my head I had Gordon Ramsey going “Look at the fucking mess in here! Wow.” There was even mould growing on the door so fuck knows the last time this toilet was cleaned? 1000 BC maybe? NASA wants to look for signs of life on the hostile environment of Mars. Fuck that guys. Alien life forms are living in that toilet! Right under your noses. Just make sure you manage to cover the nose up first!

After exiting and feeling like multiple showers in Dettol wouldn’t be enough to clean myself and purge the horror from my memory, I had to make do with dowsing my hands in Anti-Bac hand gel which I never go anywhere without. Katie exited the other one and judging by her face and the hands reaching for my gel, it was good to show we both had a shared PTSD whenever we now see a portaloo!

From one horror of shit to the next feeling of not wanting to shit myself due to the horror of heights. I don’t do heights. I mean I can stand on glass floors and fly planes upside down without a bother. Yet I can’t step on the second step of a step ladder without having legs the consistency of Jelly. So, naturally the idea of walking up a spiral staircase on the outside of a mini Eiffel tower on top of a 1000 foot hill was a great idea. In fact going up I was amazed at how unphased I was by it all. On one of the highest bits I even had the courage to stand on a ledge and look down. With nothing but my knees below the safety barrier. Much to poor Katie’s heart rate haha. Who is this Tony and where did he come from!?

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Neither of us like heights but totally nailed it! Go us!

The views were stunning and I recommend visiting the Petrin Tower. We all made it to the very top and oh boy was that high! That’s when suddenly any bravado or courage I had dissipated rapidly. I didn’t notice it at first until Laura mentioned that the entire building was swaying in the wind. Fuck that right off and get me down ASAP! That was not a pleasant feeling at all. I may have got up that building fine but going down the outside, looking down with the wind at your back trying to push you, urgh, all aboard the nope train. My legs felt like lead and jelly at the same time and took a whole 30 minutes to recover once we eventually got to the bottom! Fortune favours the brave…just. However I am glad for the experience. Amazing views and certainly a story to tell.

After that dice with heights we headed back to the apartment which was a 3 mile walk from where we were, stopping off in a supermarket to get more water and some snacks for the evening. Turns out in Prague beer is in fact cheaper than water. A bottle of Budweiser worked out as 26p! 26!!!

After a refresh, a change of clothes and a nap (I didn’t even hear Katie get into the shower!) and some chilling we headed out for our evening in Prague. Whenever I go to any new city, I always buy a hard rock café T-shirt from that city if they have one. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid and I never really know why I started that collection but it continues to grow! Prague had a Hard Rock so I wanted to go visit the shop to buy one. I guess somewhere the translation was lost as I always visit a Hard Rock for the shirt but I don’t always eat there. They thought I did both, which was fine because Hard Rock café food is the best food going! Laura had never visited a Hard Rock café and Katie only once many years ago. So we booked a table, I got my shirt and we enjoyed a fabulous meal and drinks for prices way way cheaper than any Hard Rock I’ve ever been in. Full meal and drinks for £13 whereas Katie for a full meal, big cocktail including a kick ass glass to take home, only came to around £18! It’s unbelievably cheap here! Once again Hard Rock never disappoints!

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After an hour or so there we headed out for a night-time walk around the city. Prague by night as just as beautiful as Prague by day. In fact it often felt busier at night! The bridge was still alive with people at 10pm, the buskers were still playing and the soft glow of the street lamps just made the whole experience a real amazing one. God I love this city!

After sampling the delights of Prague at night we headed back to the apartment for more snacks, cards and more laughs. A truly brilliant first full days adventure. Eventually the lack of sleep over the 48 hours, the travelling and walking over 13 miles that day caught up with me and I was ready for bed. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

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The end to a fantastic first full day in Prague!

I did sleep…until a Chinese Laura appeared in the dead of night in the apartment…

Prague Trip Report: Day 1 – Arrivals day

I wake up with that familiar feeling before a new adventure, a feeling I’ve grown accustomed to this year. It’s that feeling of excitement and anticipation that comes with travelling. Luckily, for the first and only time this year, that my flight out to Prague was at 4pm in the afternoon rather than the usual crack of dawn starts. That allowed me the beauty of feeling that pre travel feeling for a bit longer. Usually that feeling fades by time I get into the shower and tiredness from a 3 or 4 a.m start replaces it!

One of the great things about an afternoon flight is the luxury of leaving the packing until the morning. It’s usually the last thing I do before I go to bed. For someone who plans a lot of things in life, you would think I’d be super organised with packing but no…definitely not me! More last minute the better, it’s part of the fun of travelling! I guess I have it easy as a guy anyway, especially travelling to a central European country in the height of summer. All I need is enough boxers and socks to cover me for the five days away, five different t-shirts, two shorts (with a preference for jean shorts as they have more pickpocket proof pockets, gotta’ keep that in mind travelling!), one smart shirt for the evening meals and I always wear jeans and a jumper for travelling in. Sorted. As a guy at least I don’t have to worry about strappy or long tops or different types or shoes etc to wear, unlike my two travel companions for this trip! All of that means my packing which I’ve got down to a fine art by now, took me less than ten minutes. I could get five days’ worth of stuff, toiletries and camera gear all in my trusty expedition day bag. Usually if I had a case with me I’d take more, especially my walking shoes. I elected to take the gamble and leave them at home. Last time I left my walking boots at home for a city break I came back with Plantar Fasciitis in my foot from walking so much in less than ideal shoes. My walking boots are size 11, they’re massive and they’re heavy. Great for the stuff I do but not so great for hot city walking and plus they were still covered in sand and sea water from my trip to Crosby with Katie, so they would probably begin to smell after a few days of heavy use in Prague! Both Laura and Katie certainly don’t deserve to be subjected to that!!

I bought myself a pair of Sketcher walking trainers. I know, I know, I can hear you groan at me for buying sketchers. However, for the price, lightness and comfort of them they proved a great alternative to my walking boots. Despite sleeping in and watching TV, the morning dragged on for what seemed like forever. Even getting my DNA results back didn’t pass the time as much as I hoped (disappointingly 98.9% British and Irish!). Time always drags for travelling, I think time does actually slow down as soon as you’re about to leave somewhere.

Finally 12.30 arrived on the clock and we pulled out of the drive way to head over to Katie’s house to pick her and Laura up to go to the airport. My Dad very kindly offered to take us to the airport (and that’s why he’s just the best Dad ever!) saving us a taxi or at least a train and bus ride. I was really excited at this point as we headed towards South Liverpool. I honestly couldn’t wait to get away with both of two people that I really appreciate in my life and just absolutely love spending time with. Every day is a laugh and I had a feeling that this trip was going to be really special and above all a really fun trip! As we got closer to the house I gazed out of the window at the endless grey clouds and couldn’t wait to go to Prague were sun was forecast for five days with a bit of heat thrown in too!

After picking both of them up and admiring Laura’s excellent parking skills, under 20 minutes later we said goodbyes to my Dad and we were walking across into the terminal. I’ve mentioned it before in my travel blogs how that first step into an airport still gives me that buzz. There is an energy about the place that’s always fascinated me even as a kid. A sense of adventure awaits amidst the chatter and sound of wheeled cases. Despite having checked my bag a billion times and knowing I have absolutely nothing out of the ordinary on me, I still get really nervous and on edge going through security. Every single aspect of flying I am totally relaxed with…except this part. As soon as I am through I can relax and know the holiday has started, until then I just can’t. It makes no sense and I agree it’s illogical and weird! Maybe as Katie said it’s just because I’m Scouse. She has a point! I think it’s in the blood like a survival skill to be naturally cautious around police and security personnel haha! I do have a valid reason to be sceptical travelling through Liverpool airport though. We have a long and at least relatively recent, turbulent history together. For a time I felt like I was public enemy number one due to my Undergraduate dissertation research findings which cost them quite a bit of money back in the day. Ooops! That much that I actively avoided travelling from there for two years until management moved on. Three times I’ve flown out of there this year and three times the metal detectors haven’t gone off but I’ve got a thorough pat down anyway. Now I’m not saying there is a link but three times I’m starting to question the “random search” algorithm! This patdown was particularly intimate. I mean holy shit, he really went to town on those legs and up around the crotch area. Which was of course to great amusement to both of them two! Looks like I took one for the team in the search area as both of them breezed through security without any issues at all! I guess one thing we found out, if you’re a girl and you’re travelling with straighteners don’t take my advice and take them out because they can be left in your bag. So I guess I learnt something new and shock horror, I was wrong for once!

Now that we were though security I could relax and look forward to the holiday. After coffees for them and tea for me to wash down the pain of paying close to £8 for a meal deal (WHSmith in airports are nothing but daylight robbery!) we headed for our gate. Me and Laura had priority boarding and I did feel guilty having to leave Katie to stand in the long ass queue by herself and even more so when she was outside of the first 90 and had to check her bag in. Luckily there is no charge for that in Liverpool, unlike the hassle on the return leg with bags! Argh! Plus don’t get me started on the utter waste that priority boarding is, I really should have learnt my lesson from Berlin!

I knew we’d have a flight delay as my FlightRadar app told me so and the distinct lack of our aircraft outside the window only seeked to confirm it. I knew we were going to be standing for ages. Just under 40 minutes we were standing up for until we eventually boarded the plane. I’ve mentioned it before how I’m really not a fan of the interior of Ryanair aircraft. The sea of plastic yellow and dark blue actually makes me feel nauseous. I still question how the interior design team ever signed off on that scheme and thought it looked good. Add to that the plastic headrest and the fact the plane was one of the oldest in the fleet at 12 years old. My tray table moved more laterally than it did vertically when stowed! Welcome to RyanScare.

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Our Flying 12 year old Tubaware box.

I had the window seat, I learnt my lesson from my trip to Amsterdam with Emma earlier in the year that you should never say “I’ll play you for it” because you’ll lose. Once bitten, twice shy. So that window seat was staying mine! Laura had the middle seat and Katie the aisle. After a pre-departure selfie which would be the first of very many on this trip, we were strapped in, doors shut and on our way for our much needed holiday!

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Pre flight selfie!

Or well we thought…

We were held at the holding point just before the runway for a good five minutes. Usually that’s due to waiting for a plane to land. After five minutes we taxied onto the runway but I noted it as odd that a plane hadn’t landed. I tried to think in my head what that delay was for. I reasoned that it was probably a slot issue, especially as we were already late. I explain to Laura what would be happening next, how the pilots would throttle those CFM engines to 25% wait for them to stabilize before going to full thrust and then leaving the ground at 140-160 mph. Sure enough those engines got to 25% and stayed at 25%. In my head I was like “Come on guys. Thrust!” Suddenly the engines went to idle and the brakes were applied and we taxied off the runway. Fuck I thought. Big problem.

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Squawk 7700

As this wasn’t a based aircraft if there was a technical fault there was no way we were going to be leaving today. I guess that five minute delay was them trying to rectify a fault which must have been unsuccessful. As we taxied back to stand a fire engine pulled up next to the aircraft, I really had a sinking bad feeling about it. An issue serious enough to abort a take-off is usually going to be a lengthy one to fix. However as soon as we pulled onto stand the Captain made an announcement that there was a medical emergency on-board. Gutted for them but relieved that it wasn’t a fault with the aircraft! Of all my years flying and with hundreds of flights that was my first ever RTO! Thank god it wasn’t just before V1 or after departure. It felt like a late call but the crew made the right decision. As the old aviation saying goes “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were up there, than be up there wishing you were on the ground”. It turns out a woman was ill and was complaining of chest pains. It took a while for the Fire service who are trained in first aid to attend to her before she was offloaded with her partner. I really did feel sorry for them, especially as her Husband apologised to us all and went “we were really looking forward to this trip”. His apology felt misplaced among the few passengers who offered up a comforting awww. It’s not really her fault and I guess him saying that probably didn’t make her feel much better! I hope they eventually got to go away and that she makes a full recovery.

After a delay we taxied onto the runway for our second attempted take off. This time it was successful and we were finally on our way to Prague! Nothing like a bit of drama to kick off a holiday right? We were in the air for less than a minute before the tears of laughter started. In my attempt to explain the principles of air particles and lift on the wing surface I accidently used a hand gesture that’s much more appropriate for the bedroom than an aircraft full of passengers. I didn’t actually realise what I was doing by simulating the perpendicular force of lift up against a wing surface with two fingers until I was told to “never do that gesture in public ever again!”. When I realised what I had done that provided plenty of laughs for all three of us and became a recurring joke throughout the rest of the flight and holiday!

The rest of the 1 hour 45 minute flight was uneventful. We chatted, listened to music, read some books and before we knew it we were descending into a Prague sunset. As always I try to film the landings of new airports. Both so I can look back on them and upload them to Youtube so my fellow Avgeeks can view them. Of course they both find that hilarious and took the absolute piss out of me for the entire video down, although I did nail our landing time! I’m not even mad because it was fucking funny :P. I can probably never upload that video to Youtube ha-ha! Good job I love them both!

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Sunset Arrivals

From landing to going through passport control to waiting for the bags took less than 15 minutes! Probably the quickest entry to any country! We were all starving and it would be at least a 45 minute bus then metro ride to the apartment. So we decided to have our first Czech meal which was the very traditional dish of…McDonalds!

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Tasted so good and much cheaper than in the UK

For 300 Czech Koruna you can get a 72 hour pass on all transport and we just made it in time for the 119 bus. By this point it was pitch black outside and after the short bus ride it was onto Prague’s Merseyrail. Which were clean, on-time and their stations are really cool! They really reminded me of a Darlek!

Entering the city of Prague I didn’t realise how central our apartment really was, right in the centre of Wenceslas Square. I’m so grateful for my free European data as I used Google Maps to navigate the streets to our apartment. Instantly I knew I’d like this place. The vibe was really cool and there was a concert going on in the centre of the square. Even though it was just after 10pm it felt entirely different to the feeling of being in Liverpool at 10pm I can tell you that! We found our apartment which was tucked away inside a courtyard off the main street and we punched in our access code, climbed what would become a brutal four flights of stairs each day into B402. Our home for the next four nights. It was small but sufficient and for what was basically £25 a night there was certainly no complaints from us!

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Looking forward to spending the next few days with these guys

After a quick unpack we headed out to find some water and snacks. We came across a 24 hour shop which we didn’t realise how much we got ripped off until we went back to the apartment! More on that tomorrow!

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Entering our apartment for the first time!

We played some cards and ate weird tasting paprika crisps to unwind and Katie taught us a new card game which was affectionately called Shithead. After a few games of that and many laughs it was already into the early hours of the morning and bed was beckoning. However sleep never really arrived…

 

August Blog: Summer on campus, Crime Scene Toilets, DIY SOS and the three Amigo’s go on an adventure ;)

Hey guys, its blogging time again! See I am trying to be more regular with these blogs like I promised so here is this month’s blog, almost exactly a month since my last one which you can find here A perfect weekend: A wedding and Friendships.

So it’s the summer time here, well I use the term summer lightly. It’s been a pretty awful August weather wise. I know this because I’ve been trying to fly my drone all August for PhD work and out of the 24 days so far only 2 have been within the aircraft limits to fly! Just 2! Either it’s been torrential rain or when the sun has occasionally graced us with its presence, the winds have been too strong. No wonder people don’t holiday in this country anymore! It can be pretty annoying seeing the rest of Europe basking in one of the hottest summers on record while we’re experiencing one of the coldest. I didn’t think Brexit included weather but I guess I was wrong.

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Summer time in University is a pretty weird place to be. The whole place feels empty because well…it is. Your supervisors are off on ‘fieldwork’ not ‘holidays’ for like two months, although in the case of my Professor that’s just a normal working month (and good for him! I wish I’m in the position to jet off to these exotic places every week for fieldwork one day!), every other staff member is ‘working’ from home and the only people you see on campus are admin staff, cleaners, the café people and fellow PGR students. I haven’t actually minded the peace and quiet this summer, it certainly has felt different this year at LJMU than it ever did at Chester. Chester in the summer felt like when you would go back to school in the night to help out, for say an open evening. It felt weird, empty, as if you just shouldn’t be there. We’re kept out of the city centre and way out in the sticks on a hill in Aigburth here at Marsh, so it’s always been a quieter campus away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. I like that and that’s certainly not a complaint. The view from the office window and that walk across campus looking out onto the Mersey with the Welsh hills in the background is lovely. Certainly beats the hockey pitch and canal view I had in my old Chester office. So with no students about it’s been very peaceful! Well that was until the foreign exchange devils, sorry kids. Damn autocorrect! Came for two weeks. I should be thankful it was only two weeks at Marsh. In Chester those annoying fuckers were there for the entire summer making our lives a misery. That constant jibber jabber and why they have to scream all the time is beyond me. I get that its extra money for Universities to host these kids but dear lord some of us have to actually work and do things without hearing noisy bastards, who by the evidence of the boys toilets, which while spotless first thing in the morning, would descend into a murder scene. By time I’d go for a wee in the afternoon I half expected to step under a police cordon tape and see some CSI guys working away, while two detectives looked on in the distance while a police chief tells them they have 48 hours to solve the case. Language barrier is one thing but I can’t see not knowing that your wee goes in the toilet and not around the seat is not a universal thing and obviously to flush is something that hasn’t translated. If that wasn’t bad enough they would blast out the Verves – Bitter sweet symphony at the end of the every class. EVERY CLASS! The irony wasn’t lost on me either to that song name as I wept with PTSD every time it played.

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As soon as the violin kicks in for the billionth time.

Apart from those annoying kids the PhD has progressed over the summer and is ticking along. I finally managed to get my first model done. Which was super exciting! It’s been frustrating to be held down by red tape and procedure documents while the rest of the office have really got stuck into data collection. I know my PhD is vastly different to theirs and as a more procedural PhD my data collection was never going to be the same as theirs but its still been frustrating none the less. Data collection is the part where you actually feel like a proper researcher because it’s finally your own work. Writing procedures, literature reviews and methodologies are someone else’s words that you’re using. Anyone can do that with enough patience and coffee. When you go out and collect data and start analysing that’s your work and your voice and that’s the key driver and passion in research. It is for me anyway. Instead I’ve been writing a 22,000 word operations manual. An Ops Manual basically governs absolutely everything I will do with the aircraft for the PhD. So everything from Aviation Law to aircraft specifications which have to go into as much detail as (how do you plug the charger in) to writing down as many possible risks that can occur. You’ve all read a manual at some point right? Actually no. Who does? But people like me still have to write them. Then, you send it off to get checked and they tell you to change every “will do” to “must/should do” in a 22,000 word document, that’s after you wrote the first 22,000 words and they tell you there is a new template so you have to re-write those 22,000 words. Its soul destroying. That document was the most boring and frustrating thing I’ve ever had the displeasure of writing.

The worst part of it all was I then had to condense those 22,000 words into a methodology which is what I’ve been doing for the past three weeks. While using UAVs in fieldwork may sound fun, the sad reality is 90% of it is writing about flying than actually flying the aircraft! I really cannot wait to start proper data collection in the autumn so I can escape my desk!!

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Going on fieldwork like…

Away from the frustrations of the PhD writing, it’s been a frustrating month health and bike wise. I’ve had a persistent back pain niggle (I’m getting old and have to accept that ha-ha) that has been such a twat since I wrote about it in my last blog. That kept me off the bike for a few weeks and then the bike decided to break on me. I was debating on an upgrade for a while and took the plunge, a nice £450 plunge for a new groupset. So that took another week in the bike shop to get fixed. Then when I pick it up it gets a puncture on the way home and I have to walk 5 miles back and then two rides later I get another puncture! So that was an entire month off the bike and only two rides since getting it back. Annoying. But the bike looks Pro and feels a lot faster and lighter. Which is the opposite to me, a lot slower and fatter!

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Look at the 105 upgrade! Pro bike!

Apart from those frustrations though it’s been a very funny month, as always lately! As always that’s down to those special people I spend nearly every day with. I’m trying my best to not use the term PhD friends here. I got a stern talking to in the office for referring to them as PhD friends as that sounds like that’s all they are to me and they weren’t too happy about that! That couldn’t be further from the truth as they’re not only friends but very good friends at that both inside and outside of the office. PhD friends is just their identifier. Same goes for my “Uni” friends, “Maricourt” friends, “Chester” friends, “Legacy” friends and “other” categories. But anyway I’ve done enough grovelling 😛

While last month was highlighted by the epic trip to Formby woods, this month had a few new adventures in store. The first was certainly a new one for me, helping Vic to paint her house while an actual TV crew filmed it. Vic has been one of the very lucky people to buy one of those £1 houses in Liverpool and its either Chanel 4 or 5 who are documenting the transformation. So me, Laura and Katie along with a few of Vics friends all rolled up our sleeves and got stuck into painting. It’s certainly my first Paint Party! I don’t really do DIY. I’m more of a write the manual on how to do DIY than to actually do it. Which is pretty evident by my masking taping skills. I look forward to every tradesman taking the piss out of that when that comes on TV. As if trying to not fuck up your mates house wasn’t enough pressure, having a camera crew film you, while asking you questions, while you’re shaking like a shitting dog because you’re standing on a step ladder and you’re scared of heights was certainly interesting, to say the least. I’m really excited for Vic because it’s such a brilliant project to be involved in and the house looks amazing so far! How often do you get to effectively design your own home from scratch! Really cool project, with a really cool spin on it from a really cool chick. I can’t wait to see the finished project and I can’t wait to see if I’m on the documentary for 5 seconds, hopefully editing out numerous mentions of the PhD and my god awful masking skills!

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#nailedit

However I am used to painting, I painted my room and I’m used to painting aircraft models as a kid albeit that was on a much smaller scale. Me, Laura and Katie were assigned one room and boy did we smash it! Seriously if the PhD ever falls though I’m pretty sure we can make it in the painting and decorating business! It was a hell of a lot of fun which I’m sure the paint fumes added to. Of course me and Katie are big kids, so while Laura was the sensible one, me and Katie had a paint war. In the end we called it a draw or more importantly Laura told us to “grow up”. Rematch is deffo on the cards one day you! A worthy adversary ;). I’m still unsure on what was the most effective weapon for a paint war. I had the brush which was great for the dabs to the face, whereas her roller technique covered more area but was less agile. It’s a tough one to call!

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“We weren’t fighting…honest”

Speaking of Katie I had my first shopping experience with her this month. Worst. Female. Shopper. Ever. ;). I do joke. Certainly a contrast to my shopping trip with Laura though to which we went into M&S about 5 times before buying the shoes we saw the first time we entered. Thankfully I’d happily go shopping with either again. I’ve been shopping with some women before were throwing yourself down an escalator is a much more appealing prospect. Thankfully that thought never crossed my mind with either of them! It’s good to know that my B in GCSE textiles and numerous girl shopping trips growing up hasn’t failed my eye for picking out excellent women’s fashion. That and watching numerous next top models and say yes to the dress episodes. I’m not even ashamed. If you’re going to be a bag carrier, you might as well be an informed one. Straight Gok Wan at your service (n.b.  I actually just mean Gok Wan because I think he’s a very clever man and isn’t actually gay, think about it and tell me I’m wrong.)

The tour of Merseyside continued this month for Katie as I took her to one of my three favourite spots in Merseyside. Formby Pinewoods had already been ticked off, the next was Crosby beach. It’s a go to spot on the bike and for walks for me and you can’t live in Liverpool and not get a selfie with the Iron Men. It’s written into scouse law. So it was an honour to complete Katie’s honorary Scouser initiation. That was a really fun day and I still think I have sand in places that shouldn’t haha.

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New rendition of I am the Walrus by the Beetles 😉

It’s been well over a month since I did any travelling. The last being at the end of June in the Isle of Man for the British road race championships. It has been nice to have a month off travelling but now I can’t wait to go on this next Tony Travels adventure with the girls. Don’t forget to follow the usual hashtag of #TonyTravels when I’m away. I set out at the start of the year to go away every month of 2017. While that failed straight away as I didn’t go anywhere in January #fail, I managed to get away to somewhere every month since until July anyway. I’m about to embark on my next adventure to Prague. Then it’s Iceland in September followed by the North Atlantic coast of Canada in October. These next three trips will probably and sadly be my last of the year, so I don’t think I’ll be away for 11 of the 12 months but 8 of the 12 isn’t bad at all! That’s for a few reasons I guess. I’ve tried to arrange plans to go away for a Christmas market but schedules and locations clashed and cost which sadly made those final two trips a nonstarter. Sadly too by time the new academic year kicks in the PhD is really going to ramp up in terms of work load. While my supervisors wouldn’t mind me taking a few days off a month, I really wouldn’t want the extra pressure of trying to catch up on work. Especially as that will be my data collection phase. Finally, it’s time to be an adult. We’ve had serious discussions about moving in together and I couldn’t really afford to rent a house and still go off travelling! But that’s okay, I think it will be nice to start a new adventure at home.

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For now though, it’s ready for my travels again. This time I’m actually flying the furthest East I’ve ever been, to central Europe to the beautiful city of Prague with Laura and Katie. I’m really excited but I am a little well nervous isn’t the word but apprehensive probably is. I travel a lot on my own. There is a very deep innate joy in that, for instance I cannot wait to be walking in the wildness of Iceland or the red beaches of the North Atlantic Canadian coast alone. There is just a great sense of freedom and exploration with self-travel. However, that’s not to say I dislike travelling with people, far from it! It’s an amazing thing to do to share in these new adventures with people you care about. It’s just as good as solo travel, it’s just different that’s all. This year I’ve had a few travel partners, Emma, Shaun and Luke and the stag do crew. Where my apprehension lies is for example I’ve known Emma for far too many years now and we’ve been away on trips before to London etc. She knows all my quirks and likewise I know her and we’ve built up enough tolerance to each other to that spending a few days together in Amsterdam we didn’t feel the need to kill each other. I mean only once did that ever sort of happen and that was in London trying to find fucking platform 9 and ¾! I’ve never wanted to kill my sister from another Mr before or since, except for that day haha.

I’ve known Laura for just under a year now and Katie only five months. Which is crazy because it feels like I’ve known these two crazy cats for just as long as Emma or Shaun. I get on incredibly well with both of them, I mean it’s kinda’ scary how much we all do get on and are on each other’s wavelength. I dread to think how different the PhD and just life in general would be if we never met or never got on as well as we do. Plus it’s great that we’re still getting to know each other a little bit more each and every day. I know enough about them after spending most of my time with them that I don’t really see anything that would cause me to be annoyed on the trip to Prague. We’re very compatible. I’m more worried about them hating me or trying to kill me in Prague rather than me to them! I haven’t picked up on any such vibes…yet… so I’m pretty sure we’ll be okay. We all stayed over the other night, had some food and watched some tv and that was after a week together. So we didn’t kill each other that night, in fact it was a really funny night, so I guess we passed that test, so Prague should be a breeze! Although they weren’t best pleased with my 5.45 a.m. alarm call. Ooops. That will be firmly off in Prague!

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I’m really excited to spend five days away with them both. There has not been a day in each other’s company were we haven’t laughed our heads off. I know this trip is going to be one hell of a funny one and I cannot wait! It seems weird that it was only a few months ago me and Laura were sitting in Coopers Coffee which is actually starting to become this groups Central Perks! Where over the biggest full English I mentioned about my trying to get away every month idea and Laura mentioned how she wants to go to Prague. Prague has been on my list for ages, especially seeing the pics and the stories than Han and Dan had from there. We both agreed to go and two days later it was booked! We opened it up to the group and Katie gladly joined us. Its seemed ages away this trip and now its here and eeeek I really cannot wait! Beautiful city with two of the best peeps, it’s going to be a blast. Certainly blog worthy I suspect!

On a soppier note to end this month’s blog. They’ve both graduated into my inner circle. Which is a special place as a whole five people reside there. I have friends, good friends, close friends and then the inner circle of trust friends. Despite my blogs and social media being very open and honest, I am still a very private person. There is a lot of things I keep to myself and we all have personas that we display to different people. I am fortunate that the persona I give off is very close to the real Tony. However barriers exist to protect myself because trust is earnt and I place a massive emphasis on loyalty and trust. That usually takes a year maybe even two for me to fully develop enough confidence in someone that I can be me with. For me to completely trust them 100%. That comes from their interactions with not only me but how they interact and deal with others. But for these guys our friendship has progressed so much, so quickly and they’re such awesome people that I have enough to know that they’re special people in my life and I’m grateful for it.

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So it’s time to sign off for this month, pack my bags and go spend what will hopefully be five very fun days away! Be sure to check back in for a trip report blog soon!

Until next time!

Toe

Long time no blog! Leaving one home and finding another

Long time no blog

Hey guys! Long-time no blog right? It’s been a busy few months and certainly a hell of a lot has happened since my last blog which was my Canada part 2 blog. You can read both day one and two here Canada Trip Blog 1: The long trip west Canada Travels: Blog 2 – Airport escort and Toronto Islands. Now that I’ve finished for Christmas I promise I’ll finish that blog series off. I don’t want to rush them or do them half arsed because I want to do that trip justice! So expect a fair few blogs coming at the end of 2016, especially the standard year review blogs that I’ve done for the past few years. 2016 may have been a bad year for many and certainly if you’re a celebrity who was over 60 but for me it’s been a truly interesting and on the whole, a very positive year. I have some great moments to share from my 2016 review so watch this space.

“I loved the place, loved the people and loved the job”

So to fill you guys in on why its been such a void space of blogs in the past few months, I might as well begin with arriving back from Canada in May.

Those of you who follow my blogs and on social media know that April was a bit of a topsy turvy kind of month. I was excited, I needed in fact, that solo adventure away to Canada at the end of the month, but the news that my job post wasn’t going to be renewed due to budget cuts was a real downer. I’d worked as a student and staff in Chester for six years, I loved the place, loved the people and loved the job. So I was pretty bummed that it was going to be over. In the run up to going away to Canada I was in constant negotiations, in the end my terms weren’t met by senior management and it became a “thanks but no thanks” for what they offered me. Which was one day a week and half PhD fees paid for, which would have meant I’d actually lose money. As much as I loved Chester and working there, that’s pitiful for someone at Masters level and working as a Research Assistant on three high profile research projects. So, I made the decision to seek new pastures, which was both exciting and terrifying. I might aswell jumped off a cliff and hoped that half way down I’d sprout a pair of wings. It was a huge gamble.

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Me making that decision like…

During negotiations I really wanted to stay because I absolutely hate change, at least sudden change and I loved the place. Why move from a place of comfort for six years? However that’s when people like me have issues. We imbed ourselves in new places, give it our all, make new friends, build a team around us, and make improvements. We’re comfortable until we achieve everything we can achieve in a place and then you want to move on to do bigger and better things, there is always something new to achieve, another mountain to climb. I’m incredibly hard on myself as a person. There is always something to improve, always something to achieve. Rarely am I satisfied with an achievement if there is another one to get.

It was good that my contract was coming to an end because I’d achieved all I possible could there and I was starting to stagnate in my development. Got my BSc and went to parliament and BCUR with my research, successfully got my MSc, worked on three distinct and challenging research projects as lead research assistant, helped the department win Gold at the NUS green awards and even won the title of University of Chester’s 2016 outstanding academic support staff winner! There was literally nothing else to achieve. That award though I must add a caveat to as its one of my proudest moments this year, it was truly special. That was an award voted for by students, to be nominated was amazing, to win it was truly heart-warming. It’s great to know students felt so grateful for my help this year to recognise me for the award. There are hundreds of very special and dedicated staff who help students out every day, I was honoured to be the one to win. I’ll go into more depth in the 2016 review but I always said I’d give back to students as much as I could just like my old supervisor did for me. So thanks once again!

Just before I left for Canada a PhD came up which was almost written for me. It is funny how life and the universe has a habit of putting you in places that you didn’t think you’d be, but where you need to be. Life has a funny way of closing but opening doors if you work hard and build a door so that if opportunity comes along, it has a place to knock. If it wasn’t for Sara pushing me to apply for it and making me make that final step to seek new, greener grass I doubt I’d be where I am today, I might not have opened that door, so thanks works mum! I went ahead and applied, came back from Canada with a completely new outlook on things, totally relaxed, nailed the interview and got the post. Seriously it’s as over the moon as I have been in so long. It was like absolutely everything was riding on that interview. It’s one of those moments I know I’ll look back on as a major pivot point in my life, if it didn’t go my way, things would have been so much more different than they are now. That wait before going into that interview was the most pressure I’ve ever felt. Just imagine right now if you had an interview in five minutes and you knew the outcome of it would affect your life massively. Then imagine the self-doubt telling you, you’ve got one shot and not to fuck it up. Thankfully, I have a great, if not scary knack of being completely calm and emotionless in high pressured situations. I was probably the calmest I’ve been all year in that interview. I came out really happy and in the mind-set of if I don’t get it, then there isn’t anything I couldn’t have done any better. For instance, while practicing my presentation to the board which was meant to be 10 minutes, it was varying between 8 minutes to 12 minutes. On the day, 9 minutes 59 seconds! Boom.

They wanted me to start right away but I wanted to see out the remaining few months of my contract at Chester. Senior management was a clusterfuck but my department have been nothing but pure gold. The head of department tried absolutely everything to keep me and was so open to negotiations but they were having none of it. The whole team were a family, a vastly under resourced but amazing and dedicated family. I was so excited to start the PhD and that new adventure and challenge I craved but so gutted to say goodbye to Chester and team GID. Six years is a long time to be in once place.

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Team GID!

2010 I arrived there as a person I barely recognise looking back now. Six years has changed an awful lot within me for the better. Looking back on it now, it was kind of fitting how full circle it all felt when I finished my final day in the office. Back in 2010, I couldn’t wait to start University. I’d long since outgrown school, again achieved everything there was to achieve, even getting headboy and going to parliament to win the first ever national school speakers award. Never truly fitted in. Fed up of small minded people who didn’t see the bigger picture outside of school, more than fed up of bitching, backstabbing and immaturity at Maricourt. It wasn’t the case of big fish in a small pond, it was more the case of a normal fish being suffocated by toxic algae. So I started Uni as a young boy who desperately wanted to spread his wings and find himself and yearned for that new adventure. Boy, what an adventure it was. People who never went to Uni will never understand it. I’m not talking about the course content here but the journey you go through. Add to that love and heartbreak which you all know so well about from my blogs! Six years later i left as a man, who had his adventure, found himself and was ready for a new exciting adventure. Chester will always be a big part of me and I still keep in touch with old friends from Uni and still go out with my old work mates and that will always continue.

I signed off my job in a big way, presenting at the International Conference of Higher Education in Amsterdam. What a way to end the Chester story! Amsterdam is worthy of its own blog for the stuff that went on but such an awesome place and experience. All expenses paid trip to Amsterdam is one way to sign off! I loved it so much that me and Emma are going back next March. I cannot wait!

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Can’t wait to go back

I had a few weeks off over summer before starting my PhD in September and it was my first proper break for two years. It was amazing to wake up without an alarm, no four hour commute each day, cycle when I wanted to, plenty of walks and photography. The odd glimmer of romance faded as quickly as my Costa club cards could amass and as usual the fishing line was cast and while some catch a big fish, some catch a boot, I caught thin air! From that Amsterdam conference I was offered the position of Co-editor on a new International Journal of Students as Partners. That’s a really interesting and challenging volunteer work I do. To be an editor at my age and stage in my career is unheard of. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. That keeps me busy!  Ah, such a happy and relaxing time. By time it came to start the PhD, I was fully relaxed, recharged and motivated.

I wouldn’t say I had cold feet but I was very apprehensive in the week running up to my first day. The size of what I was about to take on suddenly became very, very real. Also complete shock that I was actually going to be paid for once to do my own research on a really interesting topic and not for someone else! It almost felt like I was expecting an email one day to say waheeey, this is all one big sick joke. Thankfully it is real! I was nervous about the challenge. I had no doubt in my ability to do a PhD, this is a person who has far too much misplaced self confidence/ arrogance in himself to let that bother me. It was more the getting to know a new unfamiliar place, putting your mark down there and building a foundation to work from. It was the people I’d meet to. Would they like me? Would I like them? I’d just left a tight knit family of work colleagues. Would I find that bond again? I’m here for at least three years. The first step on this three year journey was about to begin and I really was stepping into the unknown.

“It’s only been a short few months but already it feels like a family”

The first month was a really weird one. I’d gone from spending every day around people, staff, students, noise to sitting in an office alone. I started on the 1st of September and the new PhD students weren’t starting till the end of the month. I’d leave my house and wouldn’t utter a single word until I arrived back home 7 hours later. They say PhD’s are one of the loneliest things you can ever do, I just didn’t think they meant that literal. On the plus side because I had worked as a Research Assistant doing anything and everything in the department that I was so used to working at a fast and efficient pace. The word count rocketed up, especially with no distractions from an empty office. My supervisors were blown away with how much work I had done, I think its normal because that’s what I was paid to do in Chester! It was only in October and November that this new office, this new life path felt like home and felt like I was in the right place, doing the right thing. Those of you who know me well, will know that as much as I am self centred and egotistical narcissist, I love to surround myself with a core group of good, honest and different people. I work best in a good working machine. I like to think of my inner circle of most trusted friends are testament to that statement.

This brings me onto the new team. You also know I often joke that my life is a TV series on a parallel universe with the random things that happen to me. Like all good series you’ll have your favourite characters. If my life was a series then the Chester series had just finished, we’d have the summer break and now the LJMU chapter of my life was about to begin. People started to fill up the office, we started to get to know each other and while that process is still on going and will continue to develop, it already feels like home. If an audience was watching and was gutted that the old characters of Chester where no longer season regulars, they’d be more than happy with these guys! It’s only been a short few months but already it feels like a family. As much as friends and family take an interest in your PhD, they honestly haven’t got a bloody clue what you go through. Trying to explain why completing an RD9R form is worse than standing on multiple upturned plugs to them, you just get a “its only a form” or a “oh right” as they think you’re a drama queen. Say RD9R to a EHC LJMU PhD student and it might promote rage or tears or both. These guys are all starting at the same time as me, we’re all aboard HMS Wingit sailing through the choppy seas of the PhD Ocean. They’re there for you with advice any day and hour of the week. We’re all in this together and they just get it. They’re a cracking bunch of people and I look forward to the years ahead with them.

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“Wisdom leads to the stars” A logo i made for our new office. Team EHC.

So, there we have it, a busy few months and certainly big changes have occurred but all for the better. I’ve already started to achieve here, I’ve done so much work already that I’ve been fast tracked to the PhD direct route, which means I can finish in two years if I wanted, rather than the required minimum of three years. Meaning I get to skip the MpHil and transfer Viva. I’ve also passed my 3I’s programme which means I’m now an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I always feel like I should own a cloak or something with that title, or a monocle. It means I get to add AFHEA after my name now.  I get to buy my drone next year, I’ll be a fully qualified UAV pilot by this time next year and the exciting data collection part of my PhD will begin. It’s going to be another challenging year for sure but hopefully another rewarding one. I finished the other day for Christmas, so I’m going to sit back for a few weeks, recharge and get some time to catch up with my blogs. I’ll try my hardest to keep them regular but PhD, you never know!

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Merry Cliffemas

Until next time.

Toe