Wednesday, February 18, 2015

England Trip 2014 (yes, I know it was months ago!)

When looking at my blog entries for Goodwood for the umpteenth time, I realized that I never actually wrote about the rest of the trip to England from this past summer. So here is the story of the rest of the trip!

After an uneventful flight to London, we made our way to the neighbourhood of our Airbnb host, Kushal. His apartment was in a Bayswater, a neighbourhood to the north west of central London. We did not want to spend the money to rent a whole apartment to ourselves, so we decided to rent a room in an apartment where the owner was present. We were not disappointed, as the owner was extremely pleasant and helpful. The apartment was quiet and clean and we often had the place to ourselves. When we first arrived, we were exhausted and all three of us had a long nap, so that we would be able to stay up late enough to counter the effects of jet lag. Over the next three days, we explored the parks and neighbourhoods of London, on foot, by bus and by Underground. Jules was with us the whole time and usually in a good mood. We had bought a folding stroller which tilted back so that he could nap comfortably in it and, thankfully, he did manage to sleep in it every afternoon. We also tried to integrate a few stops at parks and playgrounds for him. Still, we managed to see most of the major attractions. We even went to a kids’ event at the National Gallery, which we all enjoyed. We usually managed to find affordable restaurants (relatively speaking) that were really quite good.
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Alex and Jules enjoying one of London's many parks
Obligatory photo in the City
Modern buildings and a lot of pipes!
Jules was mostly awake as we toured London
Medieval building in the City 
Jules quite enjoyed the double-decker buses
We visited the City and ate at a “Prêt-à-Manger” restaurant, part of what seems like an extremely successful franchise.

On our fourth day, after a stroll though Covent Gardens, we met up with my friend Roberto, who would be joining us for the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the second part of the trip. We ate at an inexpensive (but quite decent) Italian restaurant together and agreed to meet at the car rental office the next morning.

When Rob and I picked up the rental car (a Fiat 500L), he told me that it would take a while to get used to driving on the wrong side. He was right. I made my way back to the apartment to pick up Alex and Jules without incident, but on my way out of the city, I it a curb with the front wheel of the car. Thankfully, there was no damage. We drove to the Portsmouth area where we would be staying in a small apartment in Southsea. The parking situation was not ideal, as we had to look for parking on small and narrow side streets, but it all worked out. The apartment itself was nothing special, and happened to be across the street from a pretty loud bar. Still, we were close to a supermarket and cooked many of our meals at the small apartment. Really, we had just been looking for a place to crash not too far from Chichester, where the Festival of Speed would be held.


Alex, Jules and Rob near the coast in Southsea
We had bought 4-day passes to the Festival and it was immensely enjoyable. A detailed account of our time at the festival can be found HERE

One evening after the Festival, Rob proposed that we head to Brighton. I said “Ok, but you drive”, and he accepted. Even though we were only in the town for a couple of hours, we had a good impression of the place and a nice meal together. We got home a bit late, but it was worth it.

The morning after the Festival, we dropped Rob off at the train station and began the next part of our journey. Our plan was to stay in the historic city of Bath and use our rental car to explore the surrounding areas, including the Cotswolds. On the way from Southsea to Bath, we stopped in Salisbury, where we had lunch in a green space near the cathedral. It was a lovely stop.
  
When we arrived in Bath, we were greeted by our hosts Robin and Carol. They had rented us the small flat above their house, and it was a perfect spot for us: it was about a 15-minute walk into the city centre, but the walk took us along a lovely canal, and there was a Tesco’s Express store 5 minutes away. The flat did not have a bath tub for Jules, but we used the kitchen sink to give him his baths, which we all found quite funny.

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A bath, in a sink, in Bath
The town of Bath is lovely. It is filled with classical architecture and some of its buildings go back to Roman times. It is a beautiful city and almost any point of interest can be reached on foot in a reasonable amount of time. Every day we would take in some of the sites and attractions.  We accidentally hiked up to the university, and ended up having a nice quiet lunch by a small lake on the campus, complete with ducks.


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Bath had its own covered bridge
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This was the view as we walked along the canal
Animated pissing, Jules was intrigued
J. and I waited outside as Alex talked with university staff
Typical (and beautiful) Bath architecture
On one of our days in the Bath area, we decided to explore the Cotswolds following a circuit known as the “Romantic Road”. Although there seem to be many versions, this is the one we followed:


We started out at Stow-on-the-Wold, where we had a quiet lunch, and made our way around the circuit at a leisurely pace, enjoying the countryside, stopping at a playground, and spotting sheep. It was a lovely day, although not entirely stress-free for a driver who is used to wider roads and left-hand-drive.

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There are some very old buildings in the Cotswolds
There was also an automotive museum, complete with a Mini-shaped hedge
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J. and me
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This barn was hundreds of years old

... as was this house
My inexperience with British driving led to an embarrassing mishap when I drove into our hosts’ garage door, mistaking first gear in our Fiat with reverse. Our hosts were very understanding about the whole thing and our insurance paid for the repair to their garage door. Oops. Our Fiat had a few scratches on its nose, but was still fully drivable, and we continued our exploration of the area.

Our day in Oxford was slightly marred by rain, but we still got around quite a bit and probably went into a couple of buildings that we would have bypassed in better weather, like the museum of modern art. We were not actually able to visit any of the “colleges”, due to most of them being closed to visitors during our short time in the city.

Modern art in Oxford
On another day, we visited Castle Combe and Lacock, two of the more quaint towns in the area. The towns themselves are small, and we could easily visit several in one day. Castle Combe has a nice little auto racing track, and we stopped by. There was a track day in progress, so I was pretty happy to walk around the paddock with J. as Alex napped in the Fiat. I posted about this short visit to the track HERE

On our final full day of the trip, we visited Bristol. The town was not very active, as it was the weekend, but we still had a nice time, picnicking in a park and visiting a historic house (Alex loves these types of visits).


Jules tries out a lever of unknown purpose in a historc house in Bristol
On our final evening in Bath, we headed uphill and walked a short section of the Skyline walk, a beautiful path that runs in the hills high above the city. We had walked short sections of the path on previous days, as it was only a few minutes away from our apartment. Unfortunately, it was not practical to hike any kind of long distance with the gear we had. I would recommend a stroll along this path to anyone, as it is really lovely.

Alex and Jules on the Skyline walk

Idyllic British countryside views
It's a cemetery, but Jules still enjoyed himself

Fantastic views if you don't mind a few hills
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A kindly stranger took this photo of us on the Skyline walk
We were up early on the final morning to drive to the airport and drop off our Fiat before settling in for the long flight home. The trip was a memorable and enjoyable one, but I was glad to be home in my own bed!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spending a lot of time indoors...

It is still very cold, even though we are in February now. Pretty much every morning, the temperature is dropping below -15. As a result of this (added to the fact that Oscar is only 2 months old), we are spending a lot of time indoors. Luckily, we have Netflix...

Oscar is now able to be awake without crying, at least for a few minutes at a time, which is nice. Jules is generally in a good mood, but not always! 

Oscar: awake and not crying!
Jules after his swimming lesson

I have come across some pretty dicey driving conditions, where even front-wheel-drive cars have been unable to manage. The BMW handles all this pretty well, although I am sometimes jealous of the hordes of people driving SUV's in Montreal (there seem to be more and more of them!).

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Winter driving means winter parking...
Last Sunday, in the space of a couple of minutes, I saw a couple of cars that must be a handful when driven in winter: an Aston Martin V8 Vantage (convertible) and an Honda S2000. The M3 must feel like a Subaru compared to these cars...

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Sleeper at the supermarket... Tesla P85D... 0-60 in 3.2 seconds!
Although it's a long way off, I can't help but obsess over what car I should buy as my next project car. One thing is for sure: when I first get back into automotive events, I will not be participating in wheel-to-wheel racing, as it simply costs too much in time and money. Rather, I expect to ease back into things, spending time instructing and lapping at local tracks (so I can be home for the boys' bedtime or dinner). As a result, I will not need a full-on race car. This means I can pick something a bit less hard-core, something that can also be an enjoyable weekend car. As a result, I am eliminating any 2-seaters, like the Miata (which I love), so that the family can join me on such rides. 

There are three main contenders so far:

1) 1985-1989 BMW 635Csi. 

Since I was a teenager, I have been impressed by these big BMW coupes. They are not sports cars, yet they have a fantastic racing heritage. The challenge would be to transform this grand tourer into a sports car with the right modifications (weight reduction, suspension and wheels/tires to start). The long-term goal would be to convert the car to vintage racing specifications.

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Pros: 
This is really the car I would like to end up with
No depreciation, possible increase in value
Racing heritage
Reliable engine and transmission
I like the idea of having two BMW's
Rear-wheel-drive
The car is a real head-turner and now rare

Cons:
The cars are old, so might need a lot of work
I'm not sure how the car will do on track with inexpensive modifications
Not a sports car
Limited availability of performance parts

2) 2004- Mazda RX8

I have always liked these cars, but do not love them, like I love M3's or Miata's or Evo's. Still, you can really get a lot of car for about 6 000 $. Also, the car really is a sports car, even though it has four doors. I am confident I could keep on top of the maintenance of the rotary engine, but I would have to know for sure that the previous owner did as well...

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Pros:
This car would be fun to drive and comfortable on track even without modifications
The cars are not old and many were never winter driven
Rear-wheel-drive
Racing heritage
Can't really depreciate any more
Quite uncommon 
I could drive it for a couple of years, then maybe get a more serious project car

Cons:
If the car was not properly maintained, the engine might have issues
I am not in love with the look of the car (although some lowering springs and new wheels might help)

3) 2006-2011 Honda Civic Si

These cars are pretty much sports cars right out of the box as well: 197 hp (easily tuneable for more) and a limited-slip differential are stock. It's a Civic, so I would be confident about reliability and my ability to be quick on track behind the wheel.

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Pros:
Honda reliability
Wide availability of tuning parts
The K20 engine is a beauty
I could drive it for a couple of years, then maybe get a more serious project car, as these are easy to sell

Cons:
I am not in love with the look of the car
It's front-wheel drive, so less of an interesting challenge for me
The used ones I see will surely have been winter driven
Not much of a head-turner, not especially rare

It is really hard to figure out which would be the best choice for me... but I have plenty of time to figure it out. In fact, figuring it out is, in and of itself, a fun way to spend these cold winter nights.