By James Chow

Protected: Casinos and Cinemas

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hanging out in a pub with friends and the usual clubbing nights. But on the other nights when you just don’t feel like setting your liver on alcohol overdrive, London has limited things to offer.

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Compared to Malaysia, there are no mamak stalls or pasar malams, very few karaoke outlets or night fairs, and hardly any midnight movies here.

But on the bright side, there are strip clubs, lots of great casual pubs, and casinos! Back in Bristol, my friends and I usually visit casinos after some light drinking, which have led to many irrational bets.

Last night Claire and I went to Aspers Casino in Westfield Stratford City out of utter boredom. We made sure we were completely sober before entering.

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It was pretty large and did not require membership! The casinos that I had been to in Bristol all required ‘membership’ – free of charge, yes, but you’d need to fill in a form, bring identification, snap a photo, and carry a card with you.

But here, just flash any ID proving you’re over 18 and you’re in! But then many of the London casinos, especially those in tourist areas, also do not require membership – with good reason. I remember entering the Hippodrome Casino beside the Leicester Square tube station and saw tables and tables of (mainly Chinese) tourists gambling their fortunes away.

But last night, I was not (technically) a tourist, not from China, nor was I with a lot of money. Haha! Nyah-Nyah

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In fact, I am probably a member of the ‘undesired’ group of casino customers. Being a student, calculating, stingy and worst of all… rational. I have strict upper and lower limits (I will walk away when I’ve gained 50% of my capital, or have spent more than a certain predefined time at the table), specific capital limits (I always spend up to a maximum of 20x the minimum bet as capital, and never top-up when it’s gone), and gaming rules (it’s all about betting against a known probability, and if I’m playing Blackjack, I never sway from the Basic Strategy).

No I don’t do card counting.

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This strategy is not too bad, you know. I daresay about half of the time I can get away with a 50% profit, 2 out of 10 times I get away with minimal losses (about 10% which I call ‘entertainment charge’), and the remaining times I lose all my capital, but nothing more.

I sat down at a Blackjack table with a rarely low minimum bet (£3) and started playing with a bankroll of £50. I love the casinos here because they usually offer tables with low minimum bets (usually £5 and sometimes as low as £3). Good for poor people like me. Angel Remember the casino in the Baltic cruise a few months ago? There was a table with a record low minimum bet of 20 Swedish crowns! That is roughly equivalent to just £1.87 per hand.

Of course, our very own dear Genting casinos sometimes offer RM25 Blackjack tables, which is indeed around £5, but if you adjust it by our country’s purchasing power, RM25 in Malaysia is worth way more than £5 in the UK!

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My luck fluctuated throughout the one-hour game.  At one point my chips hit £70, excitingly close to the £75 upper limit reaching which I would walk away, before tumbling down to £8 following a series of ridiculously pathetic hands.

Since £8 can’t be divided by £3’s, I divided the amount into two ‘last’ hands and bet £4. I was dealt a six and a four. I threw my remaining £4 in and double and got a queen.

Now with £16 in my stack I felt an unexpected sense of annoyance. It was getting late and I had expected to just finish it all and leave. So I threw in a £6 and was dealt two eights. I split and was given an ace and a miserable six. I decided to stand on the fourteen because the dealer had a fifteen. I held my breath and the dealer, as anticipated, drew a jack.

Yay £28!

I was tempted to walk away but I had hit neither my upper nor lower limits and £22 was a little high to be considered ‘entertainment charge’. So I raised my bet to £8 and was dealt a three and a six. I was like screw this and doubled. The old man sitting next to me smiled and said ‘nice one’ when I was dealt a nice round ten. Hah! But it really didn’t matter because the dealer got bust. The dealer shuffled the decks and I counted my chips – £44. I didn’t think my lucky streak would go on and a 10% entertainment charge was acceptable so I thanked the dealer, stood up and cashed my chips.

£6 for an hour of entertainment. Not bad. Smile

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So tonight was Claire’s birthday and we went for a movie at the Odeon’s flagship cinema in Leicester Square.

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This place was pretty expensive for a cinema (£36 for two tickets) but then it was a single-screen cinema, meaning the entire complex with all its 1,683 seats showed only one movie, on one screen. It is the largest of its kind in the UK.

I had walked pass the imposing cinema building for a while now and had always wanted to check it out. I’d heard that lots of UK movie premieres take place here and it even had a special room reserved for a visiting queen!

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Haha but of course, once you’re settled in your seat and got over the impressiveness of the whole place with its circle and stalls there just like a theatre, the movie experience becomes quite ordinary. Especially after the lights are dimmed.

I’d say that while casinos in the UK are great, the cinema-going experience in Malaysia is still better than that here. It’s incredible how there’s like five cinemas in five malls along the LDP alone! And yeah it’s waayyyy cheaper to watch a movie in Malaysia without compromising comfort and quality. Smile

Now having said this, I miss my country very much.

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By James Chow

Protected: Passed My Driving Theory Test!

Just passed it like a boss!

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I’ve received my provisional driving license for some months now but then I was super busy with my dissertation in the last few months. Now having moved to London and officially done with my dissertation, I thought it was time I started working towards a full license!

So last week I finally mustered the courage to register for a driving theory test. I was very lucky to have found a test slot this week because test centres in London have very long waiting periods – some even months!

What’s more, the test centre that I got was in Southwark, whose tube station was conveniently on the Jubilee Line.

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The bad thing is, of course, that I had less than a week to study for the test.

With six days to go, I was still all cocky like dude relax I’ve got two degrees in engineering and finance so I’m used to studying and have passed a driving test before. I’ll just start studying tomorrow.

With three days to go I was like OMG where and how do I find the material to study? I’ll check that tomorrow.

With two days to go I found an app that allowed me to study and try out sample questions. I promised myself I would do half of the questions before going to sleep. But at night we went out to party and did none.

With 24 hours to go I totally panicked and was like screw the reading material and the Highway Code I’ll just straight into the hundreds of sample questions in the app…

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… and then I realised:

– I had no idea if 60mph was fast or slow. I was so used to kilometres.

– I had no idea what would happen if you drove or braked on snow. We had potholes in Malaysia, not snow.

– I had no idea what pelican crossings or toucan crossings were. I might have seen them on the roads but they might as well be named Mahatma Gandhi crossing or something.

– I had no idea what I was supposed to be aware of when overtaking a rider on horseback.

– Most importantly, having totally neglected the Highway Code, I had no idea what the national speed limit was, or what was the legal minimum depth of tread for car tyres in the UK.

Plus, I hadn’t prepared at all for the hazard perception test, which tests your ability to recognise and react quickly to dangerous road conditions.

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We didn’t have this in Malaysia, at least not seven years ago. So this is completely new for me. And the best part: if you fail the hazard perception test, you fail the entire test! Angry smile

I realised how unprepared I was 12 hours to the test. SHIT.

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But then I am an engineering graduate.

We used to memorise like thirty formulas and six chapters of utterly meaningless text and mathematical derivations in under 4 hours. This is child’s play.Hot smile

LOL.

So this morning after just 4 hours’ sleep, I was sitting in the tube heading towards London Bridge station with my iPad in my hand – still frantically doing some 200 questions that I hadn’t finished.

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I arrived with time to spare for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. The app allowed me to single out the questions that I had done wrong and redo them. So I did them all while finishing my coffee.

I walked into the test centre, registered myself, left my stuff in the locker, and OWNED both the theory and hazard perception tests. Smile

Seriously. This app is so good I would recommend it to anyone who’s going to take the driving theory test. It’s called iTheory UK and you can get it free on the Appstore! I seriously don’t understand why some people need weeks to prepare for the test and have to attend classes and stuff lor.  Smile Just do ALL the questions in the app and you already have a very good chance of passing!

Haha I am still so excited I am probably just gonna hang out in the city centre for the rest of the afternoon. Can’t sit home with all this energy.

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By James Chow

Protected: My Trip to Isle of Wight, England – Top Places to Visit (P.2)

Note: This is part two of my six-part south-to-north Britain trip. For part one please click here.

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Of course the Isle of Wight is mostly about beaches and the sea, which I have already talked about in the last entry.

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But equally fascinating was the natural rock formations of Alum Bay and the magnificent village of Godshill! We spent two separate days on these two places and they will be the focus of this entry.

Now, Alum Bay is itself famous for two things: the multi-coloured sand cliffs and The Needles rock formation. The unusualness of the two look amazingly man-made but are 100% natural!

It was a sunny but ultra windy day. We arrived at the Alum Bay ‘Needles Park’, an amusement park situated on top of the cliff. There were the usual amusement park rides but the most iconic of which was the chairlift!

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Taking the chairlift allows visitors to take in the stunning scenery while dangling their feet from the clifftop down to the pebble beach below, accessing the incredible multi-coloured sand.

Did I mention that it was a windy day? The wind was in fact so strong that the chairlift was closed due to safety concerns. But I don’t blame them – even the poor trees along the cliff were nearly uprooted!

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Being denied our chairlift access to the beach below, we were adamant not to just stay there and play mini-golf in the park! Fortunately, there was still another way down to the beach via a narrow footpath through the Alum Bay Chine.

The path was very steep and narrow in the beginning, but as we got nearer to the bottom the road gradually evened out. The wind was absolutely terrifying and there is no way that you could tell from any of the pictures. But really that was some of the strongest winds that I have experienced and we had to bend down just to get ahead and not be swept off our feet!

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We could also see the famous ‘Needles’ far away off the edge of another cliff! That’s where we were going next after the checking out the coloured sand.

There was a pier on the beach which was unused at that time. The waves were rough and the area was completely deserted.

But we did manage to get a very close look of the coloured sand cliffs! They were mainly of hues of maroon, yellow and brown, but small quantities of almost any other colour could also be found among them! 

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In the past, you could dig into the sand cliffs and harvest coloured sand to create some form of art of your own as souvenir, as it has been the tradition for visitors to the Isle of Wight since the Victorian era. However, the practice has been disallowed in the recent years to preserve the geological significance of the site.

Nowadays, what you could do is purchase coloured sand legally harvested from natural cliff falls in The Needles Park on the clifftop, and fill them up in various glass vials and containers by yourself. All this in the name of conservation… or commerce? Maybe both. Smile

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On the beach, we wondered for a while if we should spend some time here and swim in the sea.

But the combination of the rough waves and incredibly strong wind convinced us that we would either freeze to death or be swept out into the sea to drown. So we kept our clothes on and just hung around the area enjoying the the feeling of our hair dancing on their tips to the wind.

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From the beach, there were two ways to get to The Needles which was visible but still quite a distance away.

Many people would choose to take the Needles Tour bus which takes you from the Park all the way to the site of The Needles. But we chose to spend the afternoon hiking up the cliff and traversing along the bay on foot!

There was a footpath tracing the edge of the cliff leading towards the Needles on the side of the bay. It was a rather long walk but we decided that the bus route was simply not as awesome as this!

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When we finally got to the top of the other cliff, we found that the coloured sand cliffs looked very different on this side of the bay!

The colours were more vibrant and the different hues were much more apparent, probably due to the fact that the sun’s position had changed and there were no shadows!  

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The view was incredible. It was one of those walks that kinda put me into a trance. Walking precariously along the edge of the cliff with the sea roaring below and having my eye set on the almost endless footpath heading up the hill, I was in awe with this place!

Occasionally, the footpath intersected with the bus route but they quickly parted ways.

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We also took many breaks along the way to just sit on the grass, have a sandwich, and just enjoy the sunlight.

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The marvellous nature coupled with the strong wind made for some great views. Smile

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And every now and then we looked back to see how far we had gone.

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Finally, as the sun began to give way to heavy clouds, we reached the edge of the plateau and the Needles was within sight!

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Right in front of the Needles was the Needles Battery installation, used by the British Coastguard to fire defensive artillery back in the 19th century. It was eventually decommissioned in the 20th century. The battery area is now open to public but charged an admission fee which we thought wasn’t really worth it.

Furthermore, the shape of the Needles made it best (and most famously) viewed from the side. We hiked a little further up to a former rocket testing site where we found a great lookout point with a full view of the Needles and the white chalk cliff all in one frame!

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The Needles refer to the three columns of chalk that rise out of the sea in a line. A lighthouse was built at the furthest point of the row in 1859 to prevent ships from colliding with this most usually natural chalk formation.

But the name ‘Needles’ was actually born of a fourth column (in the gap between the first and second columns below) which was much taller and slimmer than the other three and looked almost exactly like a needle. That column unfortunately collapsed in 1764 but the name had stuck.

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Facing the sea, the wind had grown even stronger and we could hardly open our eyes. The sky was also darkening and the waves were much rougher here out of the protection of the bay.

The resulting view was much more ominous that what we had seen walking here from the beach. My hair was also almost standing up straight from the violent wind, as if pulling me backwards into safety.

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The rocket testing site was also quite interesting to explore. With nothing left but a  couple of small abandoned bunkers, there was a sign stating that an underground test chamber exhibition was under restoration and would be open to public in the future.

It was still nonetheless intriguing that this was the test site of several of Britain’s most powerful ICBM rockets during the cold war!

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In the evening, we took a coach back to Shanklin where our hotel was. After taking a nice hot shower and changing into fresh clothes, we headed to the Shanklin beach which was just five minutes’ walk away before getting dinner. We had been to so many beaches around the island but had not checked out our very own right down the street!

The sun was setting, people were heading home for dinner, and it was getting a little cold. But the sky was beautiful with a gentle purplish tone and after a full day of walking it was very relaxing to just sit by the beach and rest.

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There was a miniature gold course right in front of the beach. I could imagine that this beach would be quite crowded on a summer afternoon.

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The wind had died down and only a gentle breeze was left. The beach was utterly deserted but it was good for us! We strolled a bit along the esplanade and simply rested most of the time.

It felt like it had been a long time since we had to go to classes and the stress of the dissertation submission felt so far away, although it had only been a week since we were scrambling to meet the deadline.

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On the other side of the beach, though, there was a group of surfers practicing well into the night. We stood on the esplanade watching, until the growling of our stomachs signalled that it was time to head back and have some steamy hot dinner! 

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On the next day, we went to Godshill, which was a tiny village in the middle of the island. We had not heard of the village nor had we seen it in any tourism material – this place was found totally by accident!

We were travelling on the bus from Alum Bay back to Shanklin when we passed by this village that was so beautiful and different that we were like “OMG we have GOT to come back here and check it out tomorrow!”

When we first arrived in Godshill it was wet and cloudy. Like this:

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The sky was gloomy and the footpaths were wet. So we thought we’d first check out the ‘Model Village’ exhibition, which was a miniature version of Godshill itself and Shaklin’s old village!

Before we got a decent weather to check out the village itself, at least we could look at a mini version of it, as a guide!

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After purchasing our tickets and stepping through the entrance, we were immediately transported to a very different world… like that in Gulliver’s Travels.

We arrived in a beautiful village, with intricately trimmed trees and immensely lovely little buildings and… everything!

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This park was supposedly designed strictly according to the buildings and landmarks in the Godshill and Shanklin villages. Apparently each and every one of them really exists!

We, the visitors, on the other hand were giants lumbering along their tranquil little village, checking out the magnificent detail of their wooden windows and straw roofs!

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I am an avid miniature house collector myself and this was like heaven. It was difficult to imagine how much time the designers had spent just to carve out the houses and maintain the beautiful landscape that surrounds them!

Walking around really made me want to just shrink myself and live in one of the many cute little cottages lying around.

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The weather was gloomy and there was still the occasional shower when we would run and hide under the nearest cover.

But soon the grey clouds slowly gave in to clear blue sky, and the long awaited sunshine was upon us!

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More visitors started to come in as the morning went on and the weather improved. Poor mini villagers – more and more giants came trampling into their backyards!

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I think besides the elaborately designed cottages and buildings, what was truly amazing was the landscape.

The terrain was carefully designed to include hills, valleys and gorges. And the trees were all miniature-looking counterparts of large trees that you could find outside! I think the landscape artist did an incredible job and I’m sure it is not easy to maintain their shapes and sizes as well. Everything was just so pleasing to the eye.

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Now I also noticed that the ‘village’ was a fully functioning one – complete with cottages, farms, orchards, cafes, and even a cathedral!

… And people! There were miniature people everywhere too! Just check out the congregation in front of the cathedral:

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There was also proper infrastructure! Mini roads, buses, carriageways… and a train station complete with an actual, operational steam train slowly chugging along its tracks!

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There was also an airfield with miniature plans on the ground and in the air! (suspended by transparent strings of course)

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The Shanklin Chine is a famous, beautiful chine located very close to our hotel but we didn’t have the time to visit. At least we could see it here on a miniature level!

Yup, that’s real water running through the stream!

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The Model Village of Godshill was so complete that it had a model of the Model Village itself. For example, there was a model of the cathedral in the model village in the model village of Godshill! Open-mouthed smile 

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Of course, entertainment was not lacking in the village! There was a full football field complete with spectators and, if you look closely, a pitch invader flashing her boobs in the centre!

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This is England. So there must be a cricket match in front of a manor house:

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And a small brass band playing in a pavilion to the enjoyment of its audience in the middle of a garden on this sunny day! Oh how I envy these little guys.

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The place was so fascinating in that the details of the villagers’ lives were vividly depicted and shown. Here’s a pigsty in front of a random cottage in the village. You wouldn’t even see it if you weren’t looking closely.

The mother sow is nursing her little piglets. Cute! Smile

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The level of detail was so high that it made me very interested in looking for individuals hidden among the trees and imagine what was going on in their lives, what they were thinking / talking about etc.

Like this lady picking (giant) apples beneath a real apple tree, having a conversation with two random people. Were they neighbours coming over to borrow some flour?

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And imagine their terror when a Godzilla human appeared next to this huge mansion, growling and threatening to tear down the entire building and gobble up its inhabitants:

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It was really fascinating but by lunchtime, we decided that we had to leave because the sun was shining brightly and, for all we know, it could last only an hour.

We needed to check out the real Godshill! So we exited the model village and returned to the real village, where the buildings were ultra-high definition and the people actually moved!

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The weather was perfect. And this was the PERFECT quintessential English village.

Seriously. I have not seen a more English village. Every building seemed to have popped right out of an Enid Blyton fairytale.

I’ll not let my words contaminate the beauty of the place. Just scroll through the photos and you’ll see. Smile

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We spent the entire afternoon wandering around the village, hiking up hills, having afternoon tea, checking out shops (we even found a small cottage selling only homemade Teddy bears!), and exploring narrow paths leading to nowhere.

The place really blew us away. And to know that the entire place (other than the model village) was not a purpose-built tourist attraction made us appreciate everything even more!

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Before leaving the Isle of Wight, I made an intriguing observation:

This island had a lot of old… I mean senior, citizens. Like A LOT.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really loved them! Everyone that we met were really charming and incredibly friendly. But it did make me wonder… where was the younger generation?

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I guess the tranquil, comfortable environment of the Isle of Wight makes it very suitable for retirement, and perhaps people move here when they get old (heck, given the beauty I surely would!) 

And the lack of commercial buildings (like office towers) and multinational businesses probably meant that young people would move out of the island once the go to collage, and never come back until when they’re much older.

Maybe that why the island’s town centres had a lot of, we found, funeral care services.

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We left the Isle of Wight by ferry and disembarked in Portsmouth.

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It was a beautiful harbour city, but I don’t think I’ll write an entry dedicated to it. After all, we only spent an afternoon in it.

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We mainly spent our time shopping in an outlet centre near the harbour, walking around the city centre, and having an early dinner.

We also checked out the beach. But we just came back from the Isle of Wight! So no excitement for beaches here.

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There was also an old-fashioned amusement park along the promenade. If it were open I think we would have paid it a visit, but unfortunately it was closed.

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It was a small, beautiful city and I would love to take a more thorough look around but we couldn’t spend much time in Portsmouth. After all, it wasn’t in our epic South-to-North England trip itinerary! We had to move on!

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Our next stop was to head back to Bristol and London and stay for a night each before moving further north to the Lake District – our next destination!

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