Category Archives: England

Taking to the skies with my son at the helm. Awesome.

May 24th, 2019

It’s my first time in a helicopter.  I’ve been in small aircraft before, as a passenger though and never even made it as a guest in the cockpit.  So how awesome to have my first helicopter flight with my son at the controls…

I suppose it should not really have come as a surprise.  Even as a child he was inseparable from Flight Simulator games, landing and crash-landing all kinds of jets and aeroplanes in far flung, exotic locations, albeit in the safety of our living room.  Growing up he joined the Air Cadets and found his wings gliding over the Oxfordshire countryside.  He dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force and cleaving the skies in the whirlwind of Typhoon and Tornedo fighter jets, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who served in the RAF during World War II.  Instead, whilst still at university, my son became hooked on skydiving, his hobby for the last 10 years with well over 1000 jumps and an instructor badge to his name… I suppose it takes only one small step and a lot of courage to move from being in charge of a plane to jumping from its bowels into the surrounding nothingness.  Still, destiny finally caught up with him and this March he gained his PPL: Private Pilot Licence… A helicopter pilot!! 

And as a parent, it is quite rewarding to be able to reap the benefits of his exploits.  A tandem skydive over Stonehenge and the Wiltshire countryside in August 2013, filmed by my son and photographed by one of his friends,

and just a couple of weeks ago, a bird’s eye view of the East Midlands, UK. 

One hazy and sunny morning in late May, my son and I set off to the helicopter centre.   As only the second person he has taken as a passenger on one of his solo trips – girlfriend of course taking priority – I feel quite privileged. The weather looks promising: not too windy, not too cloudy and definitely no rain on the horizon.  Perfect meteorological conditions as a matter of fact!  No choppy adventures in the chopper for me…

I have been given the broad outline of our flight plan and am happy to leave the minutiae up to my son. Finalising the flight plan actually takes quite some time, involves quite a bit of mathematics and calculator wizardry, and definitely some map-reading and geographically expertise… I sit back and marvel. Stumping up for many years of educating the brood has clearly paid off.

Wearing bright yellow high-viz jackets, we cross the tarmac to the dragonfly look-alike helicopter. It seems barely big enough to take the two of us up into the wild grey-cloud yonder…

And whilst I attend to the only task I have been entrusted with – holding the flight map – my son takes care of all the pre-flight checks. It is very reassuring to see that no corners are cut where safety is concerned… There is a lot of pressing buttons, pushing levers, swiping iPad screens, and eventually talking to the control tower in a language completely alien to the uninitiated. Anything involving sequences of numbers and letters would have me lost in an instance. Not so my son who clearly has a knack for retaining such random information…

And off we go… slowly hovering over the airfield before gaining some momentum and height whilst ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’ slowly unfolds beneath us: endless verdant pastures flecked with brown stubble fields; garlands of trees and clusters of woodland; rivers lazily meandering; sprawling towns; and ancient castles standing proud on hillocks overlooking the surrounding vales.

Belvoir Castle

Although much of Blake’s England has stood the test of time, other parts have succumbed to the inevitable tide of change… Rather than being enveloped by the Victorian smog and fumes of the ‘Satanic Mills’, we glide over sun-seeking solar farms and lines of powerful wind turbines. We watch Matchbox cars on tarmacked roads below us rather than farmers with their carts and horses on muddy tracks. Towns have kept on expanding. In the midst of a large woodland in Staffordshire, we spy Alton Towers, the UK’s largest theme park full of thrill-filled rides. And of course, the very fact that we are able to glory in it all from a bird’s eye perspective was nothing but a dream in Blake’s England.

Alton Towers

All in all, a two-hour long fantastic experience. Hopefully one that can be repeated in the future to scan different parts of England. Time will tell. Maybe by then I will have figured out how to reduce the reflections in the photographs… A cloudy day perhaps??

As UK winter morphs into spring… I practise patience!!!

December 2018 – May 2019

When I landed back in the UK at the end of November, winter hardly registered on my mind.  My UK visit was to be brief: a six-week interlude, a mere interruption of some well-laid travel plans… Alas, as plans go, they often need adapting to the changes in reality, and so it is that this six week break is turning into a six month break and beyond… 

Of course this doesn’t mean I am entirely at a standstill and not going anywhere.  Only, after a while the scenery along the motorways that link Southampton in the South, where my daughter lives, and Birmingham in the middle of the country, where my son lives, has become a tad monotonous.  The same hills, the same plains, the same tarmac…  In my stubbornness I continue to hike, or walk and complete daily one hour treks to the local shops, or the train station, or the local park or along the canals.  I no longer own a car and refuse to fork out on unnecessary buses or taxis as long as my legs and other essential body parts are willing to cooperate in my quest. Or, as long as I am not in danger of being doused by the persistent drizzle and unrelenting showers that are the hallmark of British weather…  Walking is my contribution – or lack thereof – to climate change!

At first it was passport woes that interfered with my return to the Far East.  Who would have thought that renewing a British passport would be such a long drawn out process??  Whereas a few years ago the Belgian Embassy employees in London hadn’t batted an eyelid over the discrepancy in surnames on my passports, their British counterparts were less forgiving…  I was given a stark choice: renounce my Belgian nationality (Who on earth would give up a European passport with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon???) or produce a brand-new Belgian passport in my new name as it appeared on my current and still valid British passport…  A name change that had been so flawlessly accepted by the British authorities at my naturalisation now proved a serious hiccup.

Although the British Passport Office returned my defunct and expired Belgian passport, they kept the valid British one firmly in their grip.  Still good for another two years, but so full of stamps that when I entered Malaysia in early November, the border control official had looked rather worried.  ‘No room in your passport,’ she argued until I pointed out that the Malaysian visa stamp was hardly going to cover more than a half page, of which I still had two left…  What was the problem?? Plenty of room for one last entry and exit stamp…

With no valid passport or other legal travel documents, I was stuck in the UK.  A process that should have taken two weeks at most, dragged on for almost two months.  Why women should consent to giving up their own name on marriage is beyond me..  A bureaucratic nightmare which I refused to buy into until about 10 years ago when I finally became British after passing the Britishness test with flying colours and sitting through the British Citizenship Ceremony…  Having moved to the UK in the 80s and married in the 80s, it took me until the late noughties to accept the British nationality along with my Belgian one.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be British and I definitely feel more British than Belgian..  In the end, my concession to name changing at marriage (22 years after the event…) was annexing my husband’s (now ex-husband..) short English name to the end of my maiden name: an addendum or a kind of afterthought.  Aren’t hyphenated, double-barrelled surnames the latest rage anyway??   

Several weeks later, in early January, with my Foreign Office authenticated Deed Poll* in hand, I made it to the Belgian Embassy, along with numerous other dual nationals who suddenly discovered the value of a Belgian passport…  Brexit was still ticking down, 29th March had not yet come and gone…  Finally, by the end of January, I had completed the mission: two brand new passports.  Ready for Europe after Brexit and beyond…

1st February 2019, the one and only day of snow during my UK stay.

One silver lining of my rather protracted UK visit was being in the country when my tenants moved out and new ones moved in.  Being in a rush to get going, I had allowed myself a mere week for the turnaround: just one major issue and a few minor issues in the house to deal with.  It was 31st January and an escape to the Far East at the end of the next month still looked a distinct possibility… What could possibly go wrong?

The weather. Hard to believe that with last winter’s (February 2018) ‘Beast of the East’ – and the resulting deluge of snow that paralysed the country – still on everybody’s mind, the workmen who were scheduled to start a two-day repair on an inside wall should decide to follow their Sat Nav’s advice instead of using common sense…  On the one and only day this winter that heavy snowfall made travel tricky, they decided to trundle along the smaller, hilly roads across the Cotswolds..  No surprise they got stuck just a few miles from my house!!  Sandwiched between masses of snow in front of them and the snowplough on their heels, they were well and truly snookered on a hill crest and had to wait to be rescued.  Another well-laid plan scuppered… Luckily, the setback was not insurmountable, but it piled on the pressure on those already very tense few days between tenants..

Whilst February marched on, other issues reared up their ugly head. In my ‘wisdom’, I was persuaded by my GP to make use of the free National Health Service, rather than giving in to my gut feeling and make a quick escape back to Vietnam, where private health clinics offer the same good quality care at a fraction of the cost of private clinics in the UK… When a hospital appointment that was supposed to happen within two weeks failed to materialise, my telephone enquiry about its progress was hardly encouraging. The stern and toneless voice at the other end declared, ‘Well, at the moment we are seeing people who have been referred to the clinic in August… Your GP letter is from January… ‘ Basically, don’t hold your breath, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.

I discussed the issue over lunch with ‘Red Porsche Andy’. ‘Well,’ his reasonable advice sounded, ‘if you want to get things moving on the NHS, there’s no surer way than ending up as an emergency in A&E (accident and emergency)’ ‘ How about a little panic attack?? Might just do the trick…,’ he suggested.

In the end, after the stress of getting the house ready for new tenants in record time, I had no need to pretend and wholly justifiably called the NHS 111 number. Not 999, the emergency number, but the next best thing. I felt sure I would be able to make it to the hospital on my own steam, but there are certain key words that ring alarm bells with the 111 service… Ambulance was on its way. A gross overreaction, I thought, but at least someone was taking notice. After 16 hours in A&E, an ECG, several blood tests and an X-ray later, I was discharged as dawn was breaking. Urgent appointments for diagnostic tests to follow in the post…

At least the weather didn’t disappoint. After an abysmal start, February turned out almost spring-like. Plenty of blue skies in Southampton,

Sudeley Castle and the Cotswolds offering a great hiking reprieve,

and the smooth mirror canals of Birmingham reflecting “winter-scapes” in all their glory.

Onwards to March… Hospital letters started arriving. Somewhere in between the early hours of my hospital discharge and the doctor’s recommendations landing on the desk of the appointments clerk, the word ‘urgent’ had taken on a different meaning. With no immediate escape from the UK in sight and the first signs of Spring in the air, I relentlessly carried on stomping the by now familiar grounds of Southampton and Birmingham…

Still, with a five week break between hospital visits on the horizon, April got off on a pleasant start. A quick 10-day getaway to Spain and the birth of grandchild Number 1 later, there was cautious optimism in the air whilst the English countryside streaked yellow, the woodlands sprouted blue and the leaves on the trees unfurled in verdant extravaganza. Maybe, just maybe the end of April appointment would signal a turning point and I would be on my way… or at least in a position to fix a date for my return to the Far East…

Nope… At the onset of May, the NHS is keeping me stubbornly within its grasp. More tests, more appointments, no quick exit route ahead… I have decided I might as well plan for the long haul and aim for a return to warmer shores nearer the end of the summer… Surely, an English summer isn’t all that bad…

Southsea, May 6th 2019

*In the UK, a surname can by changed by Deed Poll, an official document that shows the transition from the old name to the new one.  As my Deed Poll was required by a foreign embassy (Belgian Embassy in this case) I also needed to have the document authenticated by the British Foreign Office.  Not only time consuming, but also adding cost…

England’s Green and Pleasant Land…



The lighthouse, Berwick Upon Tweed, near the Scottish border

Did I like Kerala, one of the older students at the school enquired towards the end of my stay in India.   Surely, there was no other place in the world as green and beautiful as Kerala??   ‘It is after all God’s Own Country,’  she added.

It is impossible to argue with the greenness of Kerala,  but although the state indeed has some spectacular scenic areas, would God allow its countrymen to spoil such splendour by piling up rubbish along the roadsides??  So let’s not forget the true origin of the famous adage: it was thought up by the creative director of an Indian ad agency to promote tourism for Kerala… so rather subjective to say the least.  He clearly never set eyes on William Blake’s green and pleasant land!

But how can I blame the children of the school for thinking that only Kerala boasts green countryside as it never occurred to me to show them photographs of  England!!  So, in the past few weeks I have been documenting my travels in the country so that at least I can put the record straight and allow my future students a glimpse of what the world looks like beyond the boundaries of their geography books.

During my 10 week stay I covered the length of England, touching the sea in Bournemouth, lingering in the rejuvenated city of Birmingham and being caught in a January snowstorm courtesy of Storm Henry near the Scottish border.   Okay, as I was here in the winter months, the countryside was only a muted green speckled with the yellows and browns of sun-starved grass, with bare branches stretching out against darkened skies,  and early splashes of colour overshadowed by the ghostly skeletons of last summer’s flora.   Then there were the towns, a marriage of history and innovation, and unintended additions of local artists… And every so often the sun would peep out to dazzle land- and sea-scapes with an intensity to rival Kerala’s.

Seaside in the South: Bournemouth:


Walking in the New Forest with the family, South-East England.  And watching the wild ponies:

DSCN0195 (2)


Lickey Hill Walk in the Midlands on Boxing Day:


Suburban Birmingham, in all its glory…  maybe not all the pictures are suitable for use at school!!:


Birmingham: a city in transition as modern architecture fuses with history:


And after a four hour train journey from London’s King’s Cross I enjoyed the spectacular views of Berwick upon Tweed, immortalised by Lowry, its ancient and fortified walls bearing witness to the incursions of the Scots. The Scottish border a mere 5 km away… What about the Saturday morning blizzards?  A mere trifle to contend with for weathered walkers such as Liz and me…