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Wednesday 11 January 2023

Happiness is a Place Called Harwich

It's time for another travel post. Once again we decided to grace the good citizens of Cardiff with the there-unknown Papillions, so this a repeat of the train-ferry-train expedition we did over the summer.

This being December, things were somewhat different. When we set off all of Europe was in the grip of an arctic blast : in Prague, then experiencing its third snowfall of the season, it was -13 C with a wind chill down to -18 C. All through the Czech Republic and large parts of Germany we saw plenty of snow on the ground.

The Netherlands was cold but devoid of snow, but had something even better for the dogs : a great big empty beach.

I shall skip over the ferry trip; the only differences from last time was that everything was now in darkness and the dogs weren't so freaked about about the whole thing. 

The major change occurred in Harwich. Because the UK government has all the astute competence and concern for worker's welfare as an inebriated sloth, we couldn't go straight to the train to Cardiff this time. At the last minute the railways had all gone on strike on the very days (in both directions) we were planning to travel. Fortunately the timing wasn't as awful as it could have been, with the net result being we stayed in a hotel in Harwich for one night on both ends of our trip and thereby avoided the strikes, though we didn't entirely escape the knock-on effects of the disruption.

Overall, this small cloud had quite a large silver lining. Harwich turns out to be a lovely little seaside town which is well worth a visit. The morning of our arrival gave us a pleasant sunrise stroll to our hotel.

From the hotel, we watched our ferry sail back for the day trip back to the continent, accompanied by a breakfast featuring some of the best bacon I've ever had.

After this auspicious beginning we left our bags in the hotel, wandered through Harwich and gave the dogs another beach trip. Even here there was frost or snow in places.

Apart from the beach we also visited Beacon Hill coastal battery*, a Victorian defence which was in use through WWII. It doesn't look like much from the beach - you can see a lookout tower and that's about it. But looks are deceiving. The site, which is free to enter, turns out to be quite extensive, and is maintained by a group of enthusiasts who could have walked out of a Big Book of Stereotypically Lovely English People**, if such a thing existed. It's littered with the remains of the mounts for 10-inch retractable guns and their extensive underground armouries, all of which have enough laminated info panels to keep the most dedicated military historians salivating for days. These people are seriously dedicated to their cause and practically bursting with an infectious***, enthusiastic desire to tell you all about it.

* They call it a hill fort, but since it has absolutely nothing to do with hill forts in the traditional sense, I'm not going to call it that.

** I would have made a donation just on their sheer loveliness, had I remembered to swap my money around, but unfortunately all I could manage was to buy a cool bullet keychain.

*** Not in the covid sense - they're still enforcing social distancing.

At this point I should say that it's not just the military enthusiasts : the people of Harwich are without exception exceptionally friendly, which seems weirdly incongruous given that they all have the accent from EastEnders. If that show was about some friendly fishermen instead of angry, miserable Londoners, the world would probably be a happier place.

This was all pretty tiring, so from there it was back for a relaxing spell in the hotel. Again I must sing praises : the hotel was delightful, the meals excellent (though very expensive).

The next day we hit a snag. Disruption from the strikes meant our planned trains were cancelled so we had to adjust. But this was no more than a snag, arriving a few hours later in Cardiff than planned. Inconvenient but not problematic.

Then of course Christmas and all its usual Christmassy things happened. Happy dogs with woodland walks galore.

Gilly has taken to burying her food under a fox. No, we don't know why.

At this point the dreaded lurgy struck : not covid according to the tests, but some regular, unpleasant flu or flu-like infestation. That rather put a downer on things after Christmas, but staying in for new year's eve was probably a wise decision : the only reason I was awake at midnight was because the fireworks woke the dogs up. 

By the day of the return the lurgy had at least slightly receded. So back on a (first class !) train to Harwich and a new, also very pleasant hotel. More strolling around. Another beach trip for the doggies, though with less clement conditions this time.

The seafront has what appears to be a Banksy, but to be honest I have absolutely no clue what the deal is with that. So far as I can tell his work is mediocre and boring. I'm at a loss as to why people go nuts for this, except in that it confirms my deeply profound and carefully-considered theory of psychology that people are stupid.

Sadly the weather took a turn for the worse, so we retreated back to the hotel for a bit and thence to the ferry terminal.

I suppose I should also say something about the strikes. I'm completely convinced that the NHS staff deserve to strike : working conditions are appalling and the government's monstrous inaction is rage-inducing to the point I might start breaking things, so I won't dwell on that. As to the train companies it's less clear to me what it is they're striking about. Some of their concerns seem... overblown ? On the other hand the rail network's response seems to have been borderline contemptuous, and Shirley's theory is that it may be more about respect than anything else. 

Rather tellingly, it seems the railways are making substantial payouts to shareholders which the average workers just aren't seeing. Perhaps that, more than the absolute value of pay, is at the root of it ? Certainly I don't think train drivers deserve to earn £58,000 per year, that's stupid, but then, the rail bosses definitely don't need >£100,000 per year either, which is even dumber. But the government's lack of handling of the situation is worse still. It's entirely possible that both sides may be partially in the wrong, but one side seems decidedly more wrong than the other, so far as I can tell.

Anyway, the grim conditions meant we didn't get to see Harwich's lighthouses, museum, or huge Napoleonic fort - that and the fact that these are open only sparingly in winter. But those are things for the next visit. Still, it's a lovely little place, far nicer than I was expecting. 

After another stopover in the Netherlands, a 13 hour train trip (with some more timetable jiggery-pokery because of railway incompetence - it's not just Britain that does things badly) saw us back in Prague. So now I guess there's nothing for it but to get back to work - that and read ALL THE BOOKS I hauled across Europe at a great physical cost to my puny arms. Meh. They suffer so my brain doesn't have to.